There was an airplane cruising over the Atlantic Ocean. For all intents and purposes, this airplane did not exist, though that fact is neither here nor there and is generally irrelevant to the point at hand. That point, though it is undecided as to whether it is at the right or left hand at this time, is the people on the plane, which is a far more important subject than the plane itself.
These people consisted of two groups, both very distinct. One group consisted of rather plain-looking people in button-down shirts and ties, blouses and skirts, or Kevlar vests. The other group consisted of several people with too many arms, two walking carpets, and all of them were wearing clothing that looked like the Catholic Church and the Ming Dynasty got drunk and decided “Hey, let’s try this parenting thing, it can’t be that hard”.
They are the focus. The plane will eventually be scrapped in 2024 due to unfortunate and classified circumstances, but once again, we are not talking about the plane.
Wisdom, Honor, Dignity. Those were the words of House Surten, passed down the ancient line since the dawn of the First Empire.
Sakarn Var Surten looked at his traveling companions, and found precious little of the three. The interior of the small aircraft they were assigned would have been small and uncomfortable for someone of his standing even if he didn’t have to share it with this miserable lot of invalids, buffoons and castouts, and the entire affair was beginning to make him quite cross.
“Snow! Where are you, boy?”
“I am here, Lordship.”
Sakarn nearly jumped out of his seat, but managed to hide his surprise with his usual courtier’s skill. Shifting Snow had a habit of appearing behind him silently and startling him, and Sakarn suspected the accursed servant was enjoying it.
“I do wish you would stop doing that, summerling.”
“I apologize, Lordship.”
“Nevermind your apologies, just get me a drink. I am utterly parched, and these northerners clearly know nothing of proper dining etiquette.“
“As you wish, Lordship.”
As the boy slowly wandered towards the drink tray, Sakarn reflected on how terribly difficult it was to find decent help and companionship. When he was the Grand Adviser in court, sitting on his seal-tusk chair at the Empress’ side, things were different. Oh, what wonders he had seen at the Argent Hall, as he drank nectar from crystal goblets and listened to the music of the heavens. He promised himself he would hear it again. He would bring honor to the Empress, and regain his own. He would make her forget his… indiscretion.
“Your drink, Lordship. I apologize for the Styrofoam cup, but Trighit had apparently appropriated all of the glassware for some experiment. Should I ask him for one?”
“You’ll ask for nothing. I won’t have anything to do with that Black Court simpleton. The drink, boy.”
The boy handed him the plain Styrofoam cup, which was filled with some kind of foul, mud colored beverage.
“What… what is that?”
“I believe it is called coffee, Lordship. It is made from a bean.”
“They would have a Mender drink beans!? By my honor, this is a sordid state of affairs indeed. I hope they at least served the Superior something appropriate of her standing? Surely, she would never accept such a treatment!"
“She seems to be enjoying the drink, Lordship. She recommends you add sugar to it.”
Sakarn sighed. It was difficult to look up to your betters when they worked so hard at degrading themselves.
"Yes, of course she does."
From drinking nectar with the Empress, to drinking beans with northerners, Black Court upstarts and provincial exiles. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
“Can you show me where you are from?” Alai LoCaen thrust a map of the world at the man, beaming with excitement.
“Um…Right…here. Dead center of Indiana.” He pointed to the blob that served as North America on the map, roughly where the Midwest should have been. Alai looked at his finger with a wide-eyed stare of amazement.
“Amazing! Byr Lasell’s exploration of that region in 2-1023 claimed the area was completely uninhabitable! Tell me, what is the primary export of your region?”
“Please explain: I do not know what corn is.”
“Well, it’s a vegetable, ‘s got a really tall stalk with these…we call them ears, but they don’t look like them…these big cob-things sticking out of it, and those have kernels on them, and you eat those.”
“Excellent, excellent, wonderful.” Alai scribbled a note down in her logbook: Corn – tall with ears: eat kernels. “Now then, what is your mother’s profession and caste?”
“She’s a pharmacist, uh…works with medicine.”
“And you are a soldier? Did you choose your father’s caste? Or is it a woman’s union?”
“Don’t really have castes…”
“Oh, right, right, I’m sorry, very sorry.” All of this was so exciting, so wonderfully strange, she could barely contain herself. The plane was strange, the food was strange, the inhabitants strange: Pale-skinned, like one minor caste she had seen in The Imperial Naturalist. No castes, multiple nations, esoteric secrecy. And all of this after only a few hours on the other side of the portal. “In that case, could you please explain the raising of children, their education, and how professions are determined?”
“No, wait, food. Tell me about food.”
"So you cover the swine-flesh tube with corn? Fascinating!"
"Err, I suppose that's one way to put it…"
Shifting Snow had to admire his cousin's ability to extract information, and out of a trained agent, no less. He never would have imagined wide-eyed enthusiasm could be so effective. Alai could have been a useful agent for the Frost, had she been born with a more useful disposition. We each had our talents, he supposed.
"Snow, this beverage is cold. Fetch me another."
Instinctively, Snow entered Rapid Assessment. The fifteen years he has spent since giving up his name to become a member of the Frost, the Empress personal information gathering force, had made it a second nature to him.
Objective: acquire drink
Operator: Sakarn Var Surten, former Grand Adviser and insufferable twit
Possible methods of completion: acquire individually, request assistance from aircrew
Additional opportunities: poison Grand Adviser (inadvisable, may cause the loss of a critical resource re mission: acquire covert information, personal satisfaction deemed a low priority)
Expected results: momentary termination of complaints, cover maintained.
"And a biscuit of some sorts. I can't imagine they have anything worthwhile on this flying bathtub, but we must endure."
Objective: painful liquidation of Sakarn Var Surten, insufferable twit
Possible methods of completion: strangulation, use of concealed weapon (blade), excessive physical force (hand to hand)
Additional opportunities: none
Expected results: failure in primary mission (acquire covert information), expulsion, eventual death, immense sense of self-satisfaction
Verdict: postpone verdict until completion of primary mission
Trighit sat hunched over in his seat, studying the tiny creatures scurrying over the assorted dishes he had placed on the tray in front of him. As they ran across, the plates and cups changed colors constantly, creating a sea of fluctuating rainbow. He chuckled as he wrote down the results in his notebook.
"To think they almost didn’t let me take them aboard," he murmured.
His gaze shifted to the passing flight attendant, who glared at him.
"Of course, it helped that they didn’t exactly know about them I suppose."
He shuddered, thinking of all the specimens in the lower cabin, alone and unprotected. It just tore him up when they took away the flasgows.
"Bah, 'danger to passengers.' What hogwash!"
He shook himself back to reality. This was no way to begin the journey! There were going to be dozens of subjects to study at the destination. Trighit refocused on the creatures in front of him as waves of color broke through the formerly transparent glass.
Best of all, he wouldn't be completely surrounded by the pompous upper castes, with their "Look at that cute Courtail, aww, look, he thinks he's smart!". Sure, he'd have to put up with Sakarn's belittling comments and arrogant attitude, but at least he wasn't the only one this time.
He grinned to himself, glancing in his superior's direction. He was quite out of his element here, wasn't he?
"Uhhh, Trighit? They're, um… doing a thing."
He turned to look back at his compatriot in the seat next to him.
"What?" he asked curiously.
Pokum pointed a fat finger at the tray in front of Trighit. The creatures had begun devouring the various glassware, as well as noticeably increasing in size. Trighit gasped in delight as he pulled out his notebook and ferociously jotted down notes and speculations about this change in behavior.
As the plane sped on, Trighit became more and more lost in his notes and fantasies about what creatures were waiting for him at the end of the ride.
Trighit was muttering again. He always muttered when he was doing science, or whatever he called it. In his opinion, what Trighit did always took all of the fun out of anything. It wasn't enough that flaquets made colors on glass, apparently. It needed analstisis, or something. Whatever it was, it was exceedingly boring. Pokum sighed, turned his gaze towards the window, and asked himself the same question he pondered over day after day.
Why do I do it?
Of course, he already knew the answer. Or answers, rather, as there were many of them, though none felt quite… complete. It might have been because deep down, he really did think all this science was cool. Or at least the things the animals did were cool. The note taking and repetitiveness could never be interesting to him.
Maybe it was because he had nothing better to do. Everyone else back at home was pretty depressing, with the most interesting conversations consisting of who had been harassed the worst that day, or how long people thought it would take for the Empress to actually do something to help them. At least Trighit was energetic and somewhat fun to be around.
But the answer that nearly always came up in his mind with finality was that he cared about the bugger. Trighit always had a… well, a bad reputation, to say the least. No one respected him and, in Pokum's opinion, no one ever would. None of the Black Court could understand him, and all of the upper castes laughed at him for trying to reach outside of his realm. Pokum was the only one that actively supported him.
Well, as active as one can be while trying not to be seen with him in public.
A loud crunching noise drew Pokum's attention back to the tray in front of Trighit's seat. The creatures had begun eating the dishes, and Trighit looked lost in thought, with closed eyes and whispers aimed at the ceiling. He poked his friend.
"Uhhh, Trighit? They're, um… doing a thing."
The scientist snapped back to attention, looking intensely at Pokum.
In response, he quickly pointed at the flaquets. Trighit squealed and rapidly began scribbling in his notebook again. Pokum sighed again. Any sliver of hope that the trip might make his friend more normal, or at least go smoothly was shattered when he tried to bring a dozen animals on the plane with them, then argued with the employee for an hour. They only managed to pry him away from the cages when someone brought Trighit some sort of book full of weird Earth animals. Pokum himself had only stopped the constant exclamations and speculations about the illustrated creatures when he pulled out the specimens he had snuck aboard in his coat for when he was sick of Trighit yelling in his ear.
He never had high hopes for the researcher's capacity for containing his excitement, but he at least dreamed it could last more than ten minutes. He groaned as he reclined in his seat and closed his eyes. It was gonna be a long trip.
Tyhjä shifted idly on his seat, throwing shadows onto the surrounding walls. He longed to be out of this pressurized tube, longed to see the sky again. Would there be more flying things where they landed, he wondered. Birds, perhaps. He liked birds. He glanced at his sister, seated across from him. “What do you hear, sister?”
Clear Evening glanced up from her notebook scribblings, startled. “Brother?”
“You tilt your head slightly when you’re listening,” Tyhjä stated simply.
Clear Evening blinked. She never realized this about herself, but then her brother knew her well, knew her mannerisms well. While she needed to write down her observations of the world, he simply remembered them.
“The sound of the plane, I suppose.” She looked back at her notebook. The exterior was identical to that of her brother’s notebook, the interior completely different. Her words were neatly and orderly arranged, sometimes verses were grouped in the corners—Tyhjä’s drawings were scattered all over the pages, without regard for time or place. How different they were, indeed.
Tyhjä sighed as he watched his sister drift back into her writing. He missed home. He really didn’t have much business being here, he really didn’t feel too comfortable in the presence of that Mender, and especially that Watcher. But his sister was here, and truth be told, he didn’t mind overmuch being able to see new things to sketch. Tyhjä looked at the notebook on his lap. Opening it, he flipped through his drawings, letting the well-worn feel of the pages comfort him somewhat.
A series of ice crystals growing, some crystalline, some jagged. A diagram of his hand. A distant landscape. A crystal vase. A rough sketch of the outside of the plane he and his sister now sat on.
Tyhjä looked out the window. Gold-rimmed clouds in shapes he’d rarely seen blanketed the sky around the plane, and though he still longed for home, he could not help but marvel at them.
Lucrezen Lhivaen Battackan Chlolassouvin sat with one set of hands folded in her lap, the second folded across her chest, and the last holding a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee, tiny in her slender, oversized fingers. A strange beverage, though that went without saying: everything was strange now, and that itself was strange. Lucrezen was not used to strange.
It was rather refreshing.
The plane for example. Sparse, simple, utilitarian, pedestrian. Nothing like the airships Lucrezen was familiar with, with their delicately sculpted interiors and illuminated scrollwork declaring the majesty of empresses past. Air travel was all about spectacle: you had conquered gravity. Trains were for actually getting somewhere fast.
She observed the others around her. Dregs of the Institute, each and every one of them: the unwanted, unliked, and unneeded. Did they realize it? Some, probably. The Black Courtsman scientist, the Mender, they knew, though she was sure the latter would refuse to admit it. The servant, possibly, along with the poet and artist. The assistant, no. The girl, not at all. They kept their distance from her, trying not to look, a lifetime of conditioning fighting against the novelty of a Watcher in the same room as them.
Lucrezen sipped her coffee, and thought of the last time things had been strange, when she had stepped off that train with the wind whipping dust in her face and the townsfolk staring with gaping jaws. This was another grand adventure. She rather liked that.
We, the Throne of Her Royal and Illuminated Highness, The Lady of Lands, Queen of Queens, Empress Utmai Cjen, Sixth of Her Name and Fourteenth of Her Line, do hereby approve the exchange of scholars between the Imperial Institute of Paranormal and Esoteric Study and the Foundation, so as to foster the sharing of knowledge and greater companionship between the Realm of the Empire and the Lands of the Uncharted North. So We approve the articles proposed and attached, and deliver Our blessing upon this venture.
We seal this in the Imperial Name, this Tenth of Radeyt, in this Year Four-Hundred and Eighty-Seven of the Third Imperial Age.
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