“Erf!” Anaise yelled at me, scandalised. “Stop spying on the Gods!”
“I am not spying.” I shifted the tubes a bit, trying to get a better view. “I am testing the new equipment.”
Like hell I would not look. It was a freaking magical castle! Flying in the freaking skies! On its own freaking flying island to boot.
When I heard about a ‘Divine castle in the sky’, my first thought was of a spaceship. Either the one that brought humans to this planet, or a subsequent one that decided to do the religion play for some reason. Neither of these was the case here. Even compared to the flying Pillars of Samat, this thing screamed of magic. One had to be blind to miss the glowing glyphs, whether they were etched into the stone or floated freely in the air.
Even if it was a spaceship it was not a spaceship hailing from Sol or any other star system of the Human Collective. Striking similarities to Emanai architecture aside, the faint runic lines told me that this wasn’t some holographic projection designed to fool the ‘savage’ population below. Especially when that population could feel magic from a mile away. The builders of this structure knew of Flow and knew it well.
“What if they see you staring at them?” came another hiss.
I glanced at Anaise. “Look, you’ve told me yourself — the last time they made a personal visit you weren’t even born yet. The whole city is staring. By the way — do they have dragons?”
“Dragons?” She tilted her head. “Why dragons? Emanai doesn’t have any.”
“Just a thought. What kind of magical castle in the sky doesn’t have dragons?” I mumbled while making yet another adjustment to a lens.
I couldn’t drag my feet with the creation of a spyglass. Out of the three tools that I promised Aikerim, it was the one that needed my expertise the most. Sextants mostly relied on tiny mirrors that could be cut in large quantities from a larger one and a compass was just a round box with a needle inside.
Grinding the lenses into a specific shape was not something I could easily relay to either Wrena or Isra. It was something that I had to sit down and crunch some numbers first. While my knowledge was sufficient, it merely showed me the way — I still had to do all the necessary legwork myself.
Especially if I needed to have a good working prototype in days rather than years or decades.
I piled shortcuts upon shortcuts as I removed anything that relied too much on tools and precision I still did not have. I chose lenses that were curved only on one side so that I didn’t have the extra hassle of centring them during grinding. I relied heavily on geometry to design a hollow cylindrical cutter that could carve an entire curve in one go.
It was also a good visual lesson for the Kiymetl ladies, especially since Anaise did wonder why I was teaching her about planes cutting three-dimensional objects and the resulting surfaces such interactions would produce. A convex part of a lens could be seen as part of a larger sphere. And it behaved geometrically as one. As such, a plane that went from the top of a lens to its edge would produce a circular cut.
And, if one took that circle, created a ring of the same diameter, and applied it at a precise angle to a rotating piece of glass? It would carve out that lens shape instead. When one also relied on a few well-placed runes and the help of a meek wermage blacksmith, the entire process could be done in a matter of hours.
Nodding to myself, I secured the lens in place with glue, making sure that all my previous corrections would stay permanent. This was a part of my ‘dowry’ after all: one of the gifts to Kiymetl so that they could stomach one of their daughters marrying a murk. Despite it being said daughter’s choice to begin with.
But that was the expectation of their culture and I still didn’t have enough leverage to change or challenge that. The best course of action I had right now was to play ball. If only I knew all the rules of this ball game, however.
“Erf, I can hear your frustration from across the room,” Yeva suddenly spoke up. “You know you can’t expect wonders from such a simple design. Unless something else is bothering your heart.”
I sighed and put the spyglass down. I kept my eyes closed for a few minutes to relax and organise my fraying thoughts. I was once again jumping from one idea to the other without acknowledging the real issue at hand.
Opening my eyes, I took a glance around. We were on one of our estate terraces that not only provided a scenic view all around and a table with some light snacks but was also facing the Divine castle. Our entire sadaq was here too. Each one of them was affected by the recent ‘arrival’ in their own way. Anaise was visibly apprehensive, and so was Irje but she was also curious. Only Yeva was mostly indifferent.
The Flow gods weren’t revered by slave murks after all. We spoke of the Forest: its Creatures and the Fairies that dwelt within. Not of the masters of our masters.
“You are right, I am frustrated. Not by the spyglass — the slight blurring is expected since I am using simple lenses — but by the castle looming above us.” I kept the description light for the sake of Irje and Anaise, neither of whom had the nanite crash course in optics. Yet.
“Well, you don’t look like it,” Anaise huffed, crossing her arms.
I shook my head ruefully. “Honestly speaking — it is the sudden realisation of how much I do not know. Worst of all — how much I falsely assumed. All this time I was under the assumption that the gods you spoke of were simply part of your religion. You simply believed that they exist.”
“Well…” She pointed at the elephant in the sky.
“Exactly. You know they exist. Or, at least, know what you consider as ‘Gods’ to exist.”
“There are others who dare to claim the title?”
I shrugged. “Different people believe in different concepts of gods.”
“I know that,” Anaise huffed. “Obviously there are different Gods. We have our own while others have theirs. Ask Shahin Esca — they might have dragons in their castles.”
“Multiple Divine castles… great. I will leave that headache for some other time.” I groaned, “What I meant is different concepts. Like murk Fairies.”
“Fairies exist.” Yeva frowned.
Anaise rolled her eyes, “No one has seen your Fae. Gods are undeniable.”
“Fairies gave me Erf.” Yeva pushed aside the drawing of a sextant she was making for Wrena and crossed her arms. “I don’t remember your Gods doing anything great for murks.”
“Anything? They gave us this land! Safe from the Forest!”
“Girls,” Irje butted in, “we have more pressing issues right now than fighting amongst ourselves.”
“Thank you, Irje.” I nodded gratefully to her and quickly continued. “The existence of sacrifices is one of the reasons I’ve brought this up. Let me guess, Anaise: that is where human sacrifices end up going too, aren’t they?”
Anaise flinched and glanced away, making Irje and Yeva look at the castle with a new fear.
“I assumed as much.” I sighed. “Judging from your behaviour — that is not a place where one would return from. Willingly or not.”
“They take them at the Altar. None have ever returned,” Anaise spoke. “I should’ve told you this before, but I thought you knew.”
“I don’t blame you.” I couldn’t help but chuckle. “I thought I knew as well. On the other hand, I find myself itching to rearrange Albin’s face. ‘Don’t worry about Kiymetl’ my ass. How likely is it that he knew the Divine castle was coming?”
“He warned you about them? What did he say?!” Anaise lifted herself off the sofa to look at me. “Of course he knew about it — the Censor is his sister. He was probably the second person in Emanai to know about it.”
“He told me to make sure the gifts from Kiymetl would be ‘adequate’ to my feats…”
I picked up the spyglass and looked at the castle in the sky, trying to memorise the runes I could see. Because I finally recognised where I’d seen something similar. The Orbs. The Orb of Truth in Aikerim’s possession and the Sphere of Negation that Albin left to shield my shipwreck from magical scrying.
The Gifts of Gods. I now knew how literal Aikerim was when she said it.
“…because, otherwise, ‘someone’ would take me,” I murmured as I kept looking.
After carefully locking the door behind me, I walked into a secluded and dusty room. This was one of the storage buildings that I requested to be built for future projects and, as far as the general populace of the manor was concerned, it was empty.
This was the area where I stored the shuttle salvage. Bags of rusted metal and unrecognisable scraps of electronic equipment covered the malfunctioning lithoscanner. In turn, all of that was further covered by empty jars and frayed baskets. Things that were one step away from being called garbage.
Even the dust had a two-fold function: it provided the general look of disregard while notifying me of unusual traffic that would disturb it. There was no such thing as overkill even if overkill came in the form of obscurity. If it was an option, I would be carrying the lithoscanner with me at all times but, compared to the two batteries and another bio-printer seed, it was too bulky to store on or in me.
And too alien for the wandering eye to ignore.
Especially when Emanai security consisted of ‘put it in a very sturdy box and chain said box in place’. It worked for gold and other precious trinkets; Aikerim had a few of these throughout the manor and even we had one within our estate. Mostly so that I didn’t need to run to Domina every time I needed to purchase another cart of some material. Something that became a daily occurrence since we started getting iron ore.
I wasn’t here just to distract myself by trying to fix the lithoscanner. I had to prepare. Prepare for many different possible futures, including those where I was no longer around.
Yeva had my nanites and, with time, she would grow and develop a significant portion of my abilities. While Lif would be out of her reach, unless the tree-ship were to personally seek her out, Yeva would be able to grow a skinsuit. Her personal Harald seed was already growing too, which would allow her to communicate and issue commands to bio-printers.
Without me around, she would be the only bridge Emanai and my sadaq had to space technology.
I had high hopes that Irje and even Anaise would be able to receive nanites too. But this was not an option I could entertain right now. Despite my current plans, I still considered the odds of my survival to be much higher than them dying from nanite rejection. This was another of my contingencies, not an act of desperation.
Yet everyone still felt the pressure. Anaise was training Irje, while Yeva picked up a lot of my projects. Even Aikerim was up to something. She didn’t say much about the recent meeting with her family but one had to be blind not to notice the increase of visitors and change in their attitude.
Domina was trading favours. Favours that would likely benefit me and mine, no doubt. I didn’t see Tarhunna Wafiq around but I also didn’t see Amalric nor did we have additional troubles with Enoch Manor.
I couldn’t be the only one relaxing at this time. Nor would I be. That is why I was here. Fixing the lithoscanner. Testing the battery connectors so that Yeva could easily use them together, or install it into her suit in the future. With or without my help.
I pulled the battery out of my abdominal compartment and carefully connected it to the alarm brick. Expecting another string of loud beeps, I was quite surprised to hear a single chirp of a non-calibrated device.
“So you are working now, are you?” I grumbled, scratching my head. “Did it finally dawn on you that being broken meant staying in the garbage pile for longer?”
The metallic hunk said nothing beyond trying to tell me what it thought was the composition of the ground in front of me.
I grunted and pulled out connectors from my suit. The whole system was as basic as possible to avoid anything that could rust or deteriorate. That included complex programming and memory. Said memory was physically engraved in a chunk of diamond, large enough to ignore any atomic events and strong enough to resist physical ones.
There were no fancy displays nor advanced circuits that knew my schedule better than I did myself. There were few mechanical parts too. It was built as a brick and almost acted as one. This also meant that I would need to “teach” it how to properly interpret information once again.
An easy task if one compares it to fixing a broken lithoscanner on a planet without a single working voltmeter.
Unfortunately, my successes didn’t last long. I was tackling element recognition when the stupid brick decided to stop working again. The pleasant chirps of queries were quickly replaced by an angry blinking red — I had the presence of mind to kill the sound beforehand.
“Why. Don’t. You. Work. Dammit!” I shook it in frustration, frustrated by the arbitrary performance of a tool that by all accounts should either work or not. It felt like a hammer that would miss every third nail, no matter who wielded it.
The lithoscanner chirped as if laughing back at me.
I froze. Then, I slightly tilted it back to the barn entrance. Blinking started once again. A few more trials made me sure that whatever it was — it was directional. The lithoscanner was working as it should — something was tripping it. Something that was also present back at the shuttle.
Using the errors and variable detection range, I tried to triangulate it. It was close.
And it was moving. Toward me.
So it was small and mobile, like an artefact. Or it could walk on two feet. Like an Albin.
Using it as a radar, I walked toward the nearby window, trying to test my new hypothesis. Only to hide behind cover in haste when I spotted a Kiymetl werfox leisurely walking over. Thick red moustache, full tail and ears: wermage. A blank belt without markings — I couldn’t assign him to any Kiymetl Manors.
Quickly but without excessive movements I turned off the scanner and hid it under the rags. Giddiness about possible Flow detection was put aside for the moment — I had an interloper situation. Was he sent by Aikerim’s sister? Or her mother? Or did Albin decide to play a prank using his shape-shifting abilities? He was walking too boldly for an extended family member. Especially within the restricted estate.
I held my breath, looking outside through a tiny gap between boards. Was he simply passing by?
The werfox bent down and touched the slightly trampled grass, only to glance in my direction. I cursed in my head. He didn’t come here by accident or was sent by someone else — he was tracking me. At the worst possible time too — Viter was nowhere nearby, or anyone else for that matter.
Eventually, someone would notice that a secluded area had a visitor, but that might be too late for me to rely on.
The storage barn was too empty to hide in. And the small pile of pseudo-garbage was sticking out like a sore thumb. It was also too bright to hide in the nonexistent shadows. That meant the ceiling. Making sure I wasn’t seen through the windows, I climbed on the ceiling beam, right above the entrance. Skinsuit ready, battery inserted and active.
The door creaked as the werfox walked in. He looked around, stopped for a second on the pile in the corner, yet kept looking.
“Are you hiding from your sister again?” I spoke once I recognised that my position was pretty much busted.
The wermage twitched and the beam under me shattered under an invisible punch. I landed down with a shower of splinters, barely avoiding the stream of fire passing by. Only to feel the magic yanking me away.
Not me — my tunic.
And it applied the magical force for a split second, throwing me into a nearby wall like a projectile. Sending the Navigator into a free flight. The worst decision this mage could possibly take.
I twisted around mid-flight, letting my feet land square on the wooden surface. The wall groaned as my skinsuit absorbed the impact only to loudly creak as my legs launched me back at the incredulous mage.
Whatever spell he tried to cast was simply not fast enough. I collided with him head-on, knocking the air out of his lungs and sending both of us across the room. We rolled through the raised dust as I felt more and more strikes on my skinsuit, rapidly increasing in their brutality. I punched him in turn, but my fists did as little damage as his fire whip did to me.
I needed more leverage. Or a better weapon.
Grabbing him by his glowing khalat, I threw him into a wall. He didn’t have my skills at manoeuvring mid-flight and impacted the wall with his back.
I heard the loud creak to my side only for my own door to kick me aside. By the time I regained my balance, he managed to pull out an entire log from the wall. Without any available options, I braced myself, feeling the smoky smell of lint and grime as the log shattered on my shoulder.
“What are you?” the mage asked, pulling another piece of wood free. It warped in his hands, quickly gaining the shape of a sword. A grabbing gesture and the door jumped back to his side.
Fucking great. Now I was facing a magical knight in wooden armour. A treeplar.
“You invade my home, yet ask questions? I should be the one asking this.” I pulled a flask from my pouch.
Another beam cracked behind me. The burning smell told me that whatever was left from the front of the building was now on fire.
“Your home? Hah, that’s rich. What’s next? You going to fight me with a flask?”
“No.” I shook my head. “This one isn't designed for a fight. It is designed to kill. So—“
“Erf!” Anaise screamed from outside. The barn shook again as the front ceased to exist completely. “What is going on?”
“Anaise, you are right on time.” I nodded at the gawking interloper. “I guess I don’t need to use my poison with you around.”
“Poison?” she sputtered. “Why are you even fighting with my second father, to begin with?”
“Hey,” I raised my hands in a placating gesture, the flask long gone. “I am the one defending myself here!”
So this was Ramad Kiymetl Qasam. The second husband of Aikerim. And I already tried to bash his head open against the wall of a barn.