« Back
Generated: Jun 08, 2022 2:24 AM
Post last updated: May 21, 2022 7:40 PM
do you recall when the war was just a game?
Vanda Nosseo deals with Sesat
Permalink Mark Unread

In a world without magic of its own, there is a planet (1g, sea level atmospheric partial pressure of oxygen 160 millimeters of mercury, orbital period an awkward rounding error away from 365 days...) populated with something pretty close to the lineup of animals that show up on Earths and similar worlds. Including humans.

The humans have bronze and mostly don't have steel. The majority of them live in small states, often monarchies, usually with human rights records slightly better than that of nineteenth century Belgium. There are a couple of republics, and a number of people who aren't organized into states at all.

A couple of the states seem, by the troop movements, to be either on the brink of war or in the early stages of one. They both have writing - they share a language, in fact - and the one to the east has a statue in the capital with an engraved caption explaining how it commemorates the unification of Sesat. Both countries have large numbers of people with apparently deliberately inflicted scars; to the east, facial tattoos and scars from whips; to the west, they seem to go in for deliberately cutting tendons.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, good thing Vanda Nossëo is here.

Nelen Utopia (jobname selected as one of the more pronounceable foreign language renderings of the concept) has only been a municipal level integration director before; this is his first time heading up a state-level effort. He's nervous, but these people are reductionist and no-magic and anyway if people like him didn't agree to take on responsibilities everything would be going at Elf pace and that would be worse for almost everyone alive on this planet today.

He calls an all-hands aboard the giant Elf-spec lightleaper the planetary team has parked in orbit, goes over the plan and the contingencies and the emergency procedures, and takes his subteam of five down to the capital. There's him, Nelen Utopia - shorter than the locals, long vermilion hair with one streak of gold dyed in at the temple and kept back in a ponytail. There's an angel, Cassiel, ex-human but with quartz-pink feathers and a rose-gold halo. There's an orc, Zanro, a bit of a weirdo who is trying a stint as a VN ambassador for personal development reasons. There's an Earthling from Cube who took the wizardry course in Elendil, Natsuko. There's a Space Elf, Tarwë, who recently joined up as his youngest daughter's grown and moved away. (He has the augmented reality thing that makes Zanro look okay to him.)

Nelen makes them all confirm out loud that they're ready, and he teleports them down into the capital of his assigned state.

Permalink Mark Unread

The capital is... a solid effort for a dense preindustrial civilization with no magic and lots of distractions, mostly planned in advance to be relatively less difficult to keep clean-ish and parts of it designed with aesthetics in mind. It only smells a little. Within the walled city there are some statues, a small park, a medium-size palace, and some people who are shocked and afraid to see people teleporting in. Within a minute they're being quizzed by soldiers on who they are and what they're doing here.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hello!" says Nelen, shaking only a little bit. "We're peaceful ambassadors from a polity based around another star far away, Vanda Nossëo!"

Permalink Mark Unread

The soldiers relax very slightly.

"Well, then," says one of them, almost entirely succeeding at sounding like this is a normal and unremarkable occurrence, "Sesat welcomes you - someone send word to the Star-of-Stars while I handle this - Sesat welcomes you and would like to know what brings you all the way from your faraway star."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Vanda Nossëo's mission is to explore the inhabited worlds, establish trade and free movement and the flow of information between them, and improve the standard of living for all sapient beings," says Nelen.

Permalink Mark Unread

"That sounds like a worthwhile project that Sesat would be happy to help with under better circumstances. I don't speak for our Star-of-Stars but I expect His Beneficence would be delighted to host you for a while, and discuss what we can do for one another, and unfortunately I expect Sesat won't be able to commit resources to anything else until we've dealt with a situation on our border."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's okay, we come with our own resources and don't want to take any of yours," Nelen assures them. "Can you tell us more about the situation on the border?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"To my understanding - which may not be accurate but since you're asking me, sirs, and His Excellency hasn't sent anyone yet, I'll do my best - a serf ran away and tried to hide in the area around the border where people don't live, and people went looking, and all of them ended up over the border. Azan, our neighbor, construed it as an act of war and can't be talked down from that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm sorry to hear that. Vanda Nossëo membership comes with defensive support, if that's the sort of thing that might help."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I expect we can handle it on our own, but it's likely to delay us in working with you on your project if we have to. What can you tell me about Vanda Nossëo membership?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It has to be voted on - a strict majority of your population has to vote to join, with everyone entitled to a vote, we can automatically detect duplicates if that's a concern. You can negotiate for different joining bonuses, people have different needs, but defensive support comes standard."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I see. I - don't see, actually, I have several questions about that. First of all, what are the obligations of member states?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Member states have to allow emigration - you can restrict immigration, if you want, but letting people leave is required - and there are minimum laws against murder, rape, and torture. Uh, I should also mention that if anyone gets murdered, raped, or tortured as a result of our presence we claim a limited jurisdiction over that if your handling doesn't seem to cover the case. Sometimes Vanda Nossëo has broader standards of "everyone" than other cultures."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We already have laws against all three of those, and depending on the details of the case the perpetrators may be enslaved, which is our highest penalty."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Enslavement is covered by the emigration clause," says Nelen delicately. "And is not functionally possible for member states without very unusual circumstances."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, it wouldn't be up to me to decide what to do about that," but if they have to deal with two of Azan, one of which can teleport, that's going to really suck. "I admire that you came all the way from a star to ask us this, but I'm not confident our Star-of-Stars will want to seek membership."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's understandable. You should be aware that there are similar Vanda Nossëo teams visiting the other states on this planet."

Permalink Mark Unread

Oh for fuck's sake. Of fucking course there are. Well, in a couple of minutes, the Star-of-Stars will send someone to make it not his problem anymore, except insofar as there's going to be another war and his cousin's going to lose all her slaves and probably have to sell all the family land, so, maybe slightly still his problem.

"Of course. Most people do want to be on good terms with all their neighbors, not just one."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Is this a good place for us to wait for whoever you sent to fetch a representative for us to talk to?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We might as well get out of the street and take a seat in the park, don't worry about admission this time, I'll deal with that." He gestures for them to follow him through the park gate, a few feet away. "By the way, I'm very curious about the reasoning behind your, uh, goals here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ours as individuals or Vanda Nossëo's as an organization?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I meant the second but either's fine."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Vanda Nossëo is rich and has magic and technology that is phenomenally advanced. I'd bet you can't think of anything that Vanda Nossëo doesn't have in some form, although you might surprise me. What do you think Sesat would do if it suddenly got that way?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Accept immigrants from everywhere in the world until we ran out of space, then use our phenomenal wealth and the fact that everywhere else was getting less dense to see if there was any price at which our neighbors could be convinced to peacefully transfer sovereignty over some of their land, then accept more immigrants. Probably plant more flowers. Give some of it to the poor, maybe, if it wasn't their fault they got that way - is that what you're doing here?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sort of. But with a really broad concept of fault. It's not anyone's fault that they belong to a species that isn't innately good with money - some are - or that they had a childhood that didn't prepare them well for being productive adults, or that they have disabilities, even disabilities that look kind of like personality traits. Vanda Nossëo is kind of going: okay, let's skip trying to figure out whose fault any of this poverty is. Let's just get so rich we can fix it all."

Permalink Mark Unread

...Okay, don't tell the nice diplomats they're appalling.

"So you figure - some slave I heard about had kept a victim alive for almost a month, you figure that's - not a real personality trait because no real person could do that, it's, what, missing a personality like some people are missing fingers?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"- no, I - I'm not sure what I said sounded like that. Sometimes our translation magic has small problems, can you tell me what it sounded like I said in case it was one of those?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"You said 'disabilities that look like personality traits.'"

Permalink Mark Unread

"So, we were talking about why people might be poor. Some people are poor because they don't have a job, at least where I'm from, and sometimes it looks like someone is choosing not to get a job because they're lazy, but sometimes it turns out they have a disability that looks like being lazy, instead. That's the kind of thing I was thinking of."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh! I'm sorry, that makes much more sense - you mean like how some people are sickly and can't work very hard or very long hours?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Right. To be clear, Vanda Nossëo is also rich enough to provide for people who are actually lazy. That just wasn't what I was thinking of at the time."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, that'd be good. But - the reason I jumped to the conclusion I did was that you'd been telling me you object to torture and murder and rape but you don't want people who do them punished as harshly as we do...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Right. Uh, to be clear most places will not let murderers or torturers or rapists immigrate to them by default. The version of free migration we have for criminals is that they can move between prisons. But a Vanda Nossëo prison is going to be much preferable to enslavement for, I think most people."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Why is it a good thing that it's preferable?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Vanda Nossëo doesn't - on an institutional level, individual opinions vary - believe in punishment for punishment's sake. The prisons are secure, the people in them can't hurt anybody - beyond that it's considered a good thing, not a bad one, if they have access to the sorts of things that make one situation preferable to another."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Does Vanda Nossëo not believe in it being better for better people to have better things or does it just have so much wealth that after making rapists comfortable it's trivial to make everyone else many times more comfortable than that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The second thing. The rapists aren't uncomfortable, but they're not free - can't go most places, can't live at home with their loved ones, can't learn any sensitive kind of magic that might help them reoffend. It's better to be a Vanda Nossëo prisoner than a slave, but it's much better to be a free citizen."

Permalink Mark Unread

He nods. "You should lead with that, when you're trying to pitch our Star-of-Stars on it. That you want everything to be so good for everyone that the lowest of the low who are despised and outcast live comfortably. Otherwise - well, you scared me, for a moment I was wondering if you were aiming to steal most of my family's wealth."

Permalink Mark Unread

"One of the things states with slavery often negotiate for is having their slaves purchased rather than just taken! It's not something we can offer to non-members - it makes it more attractive to enslave extra people to sell them - but as a one-time thing we can do it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We wouldn't do that! There's no way you're going to affect how many people - or do you also care about the ones born into it, it's possible we'd have more of those, I guess."

The person who went to pass the information on to the Star-of-Stars comes and lurks near the park gate, not interrupting in case this ought to be allowed to finish.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, abolishing slavery includes all the slaves, not just the ones who are enslaved as a punishment for a crime," says Nelen.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Makes sense, I guess. Are there - " He glances at the gate. " - other common sticking points you'd rather air first with someone other than the Star-of-Stars?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"If there are categories of people who are likely to want to leave en masse given the chance to do so those might also be a sticking point. I'm from a group like that myself," says Nelen. "Sometimes people have religious issues with Vanda Nossëo, but I don't know you to be likely to."

Permalink Mark Unread

He makes a face. It is the face of a man deciding very quickly that his top priority is making this conversation someone else's problem.

"Right, well, if you pay everyone twenty times their current wealth I'm sure you'll be able to smooth it over somehow. That person will be taking you to the palace and can brief you on our etiquette on the way."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Great, thank you." Nelen and his teammates all nod to him and go meet the etiquette-and-escort person.

Permalink Mark Unread

Etiquette-and-escort person introduces herself as Elu and inquires after the visitors' names and titles.

Permalink Mark Unread

Tarwë blinks a touch at "Elu" but doesn't comment.

"My name is Nelen Utopia," says Nelen. "In formal work related contexts it'd be Ambassador Utopia."

"Cassiel Jones," says Cassiel, "or Envoy Jones if you prefer."

"Tanaka Natsuko," says Natsuko, "Tanaka-san."

"Zanro," says the orc, "Agent Zanro."

"Envoy Tarwë," says Tarwë.

Permalink Mark Unread

She repeats them perfectly.

"In general in Sesat the titles to know are 'sir' and 'ma'am' for, how do I put this, men and women who are worthy of someone's deference but not yours necessarily, 'my lord' you won't have much call to use if I've understood you correctly but people will use it for you, and the king's time is in great demand so it's expected to address our Star-of-Stars by a different title every time, unless His Excellency tells you not to, which he probably will. The idea is that if you're running out of ideas, you should speak more concisely or excuse yourself - this obviously doesn't apply if you're invited in for the sort of meeting that takes all afternoon, then repetition is fine. You - seem like you 'sir' and 'ma'am' people normally but they do that in Azan too and you otherwise sound a bit Azani so I thought it might be better to go over the rest just in case something was unfamiliar - all that make sense?"

Permalink Mark Unread

They look at each other a bit. "We're using translation magic," says Nelen after a short silence. "We can adjust it, if it's systematically doing something wrong - normally it adjusts to the hearer's strongest language, so it's actually very weird that we would sound Azani. That being understood we can remember to say 'sir' and 'ma'am' and to cycle through titles till told otherwise if we know what they are."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, just normal titles like Your Majesty or Your Grace or Your Wisdom or make something up along the same lines - not 'my lord', that'd be an insult if you said it to the Star-of-Stars - I think letting everyone know you're using magical translation will do a lot in itself to smooth over any mistakes. Are there things you expect - please don't hesitate to say obvious things as if I'm very stupid - things you expect from anyone treating you with courtesy and respect?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We don't stand much on formality of that kind," says Nelen. "But - well -"

"We've been trained," says Cassiel, "to tolerate people from cultures very different from ours, but someone aiming for courtesy might wish to avoid using slave labor around us."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I will let people know about that and see how far we can get on it - it'll be easy to have no slaves personally serve you during your stay but I don't believe we can get certainty about anyone's already-made clothing having no components made by slave labor..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"A good-faith effort to avoid making it obtrusive will be fine," Nelen assures him.

Permalink Mark Unread

They can manage to keep the slaves out of view, at least as long as the delegates are in known locations and not moving around much.

Elu shows them to the palace and passes on this information and announces them and their titles-they-don't-care-much-about to an emergency meeting of the Star-of-Stars and those officials that happened to be on hand and not busy with something more urgent or important than a teleporting diplomatic party.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hello!" Nelen says.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hello indeed," says Sesat's Star-of-Stars. "I have heard that you have come from the stars to speak with us about a project of mutual cooperation and prosperity, as well as, ah, freedom of movement. I extend to you an invitation to make yourselves comfortable - " he gestures at the council table his other officials are sitting at " - and speak with us at length about your mission here."

Permalink Mark Unread

They take seats! "We appreciate your hospitality, your grace," says Nelen brightly. "My understanding is that you're currently looking at a likely war brewing with your neighbor Azan, which is complicated because our counterparts are talking to them too; is there anything else going on here that might benefit more straightforwardly from a goodwill gesture from Vanda Nossëo? Disease outbreaks, famines, natural disasters, that kind of thing we can often solve as a goodwill gesture without making any demands of you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sesat has not seen famine or plague for several years now, but there are always those with minor ailments and I would not dream of forbidding any who come here in peace from offering them healing. Do you have a summary of what Vanda Nossëo might want to consider offering, or some examples of prior agreements with recently contacted polities?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Vanda Nossëo's powers that are limited or gatekept enough to prevent them from being freely distributed include immortality, resurrection, terraforming new planets to spec for people to move onto - these are all available on the free market but they're very expensive if you just buy them, it's more common to arrange a deal as part of membership that you get some number allotted per year. The planet I come from wanted planets, and lots of them -" He looks at the others.

"My species actually mostly wanted the prison system," says Cassiel, "we're really hard to keep contained within our own magic system and were tolerating a fair number of nuisances that couldn't meaningfully be stopped."

"My species isn't joined up with Vanda Nossëo at all," says Zanro, "we're folded in under an allied polity, Mîr, or at least most of us are, I joined up as an individual."

"My planet's mostly taking medical assistance, we have a really high cancer rate as a result of a war that occurred not long before contact," says Natsuko.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can see the appeal of many of those things. I'm curious about your polities' ends of the arrangements, as well; what did Vanda Nossëo want for these things?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Vanda Nossëo wanted to give all the people who lived there access to free migration and trade and communication with the rest of Vanda Nossëo, Partly because the more people who are participating, the wealthier and more robust the whole thing can be, and partly out of humanitarian motives," says Nelen.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ah, humanitarianism. Locally, at least, that concept was invented by one of my predecessors, and is how Sesat brought the wild folk of the countryside into the fold."

Well, the local concept in question is bribing people to move in and work for you, undermining your neighbors' economies by stealing their human capital, and is the incredibly fraught cause of the current war, but it's close enough for a smooth natural-sounding translation. Sesat can't very well win a humanitarian war over who owns which people, and it also can't win a conventional war. Unfortunately, it also isn't in a good position to gently suggest to Vanda Nossëo that they stop escalating what they offer people and save their own government and a lot of other governments a lot of expense in a tug-of-war that just ends with the common people richer and distributed the same way as before, because in fact if they can truly offer people immortality it probably won't end any way short of Sesat's utter annihilation.

And Azan's going to accept their help, because Azan's current king likes humanitarianism, prefers it even to the power and wealth it's supposed to be for.

The Star-of-Stars does not make a face like he's just bitten a lemon because, most importantly, he has better self-control than that, and secondarily, he's one of those people who like biting lemons.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm glad it's not a completely foreign concept, your... starriness," says Nelen politely.

Permalink Mark Unread

He snorts. "That's a new one, I like it. So - I was curious about Mîr, and its relationship to all of this."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There are three larger polities making up the broad category sometimes called 'the peal' for obscure pun reasons," says Zanro.

"If you want I can explain the pun, I speak the language," says Cassiel.

Zanro continues, "They're Vanda Nossëo, Mîr, and Elendil. All three are operated by some combination of Elves -" Tarwë raises a hand - "and a particular personality type that is frequently repeated throughout various universes, called 'Bells'. The distinctions between them are mostly bureaucratic, they exchange personnel and assistance all the time, all their leaders are personal friends, but Elendil is local to a particular universe which has many more inhabited planets than most of them, Mîr is local to a particular neighborhood of universes in which a particular magic system they depend on works well, and Vanda Nossëo is more of a catchall; there are also smaller setups that maintain strong relationships with those three but for one reason or another find it more expedient to keep their governing structure smaller. That said, if enough people on this planet preferred Mîr or Elendil to Vanda Nossëo for some reason and really wanted to belong to them instead, we can in fact just move your entire solar system, that's not very difficult."

Permalink Mark Unread

One of the officials in the meeting slightly less selected for ability to keep a straight face than the Star-of-Stars reacts visibly to that last incredibly threatening claim.

"What sort of personality is required to be a Bell?" asks the Star-of-Stars, pondering how to become one.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think Tarwë's the only one of us who's met one in person -" says Nelen.

"Well, sort of in person, sort of met," Tarwë says. "One of them helped my people with a war against an evil god. They're generally - brilliant, skilled at whatever high-leverage occupations made sense in their environments, ruthlessly altruistic and committed. For some reason they're all unusually clumsy, till they get magic help for it. Most of them have matching parents too, but Loki doesn't, or Kib, presumably because they're respectively adopted and from a world where humans don't conventionally reproduce. I hear they're sarcastic, though the one I met wasn't exactly cracking jokes at the time."

Permalink Mark Unread

...That is a scarily good description of Azan he, other than the brilliance, which, well, it's hard to say.

If they're going to maybe recognize the king of Azan as a good Bell candidate, he'll have to throw some of his own brilliant people in high-leverage occupations at them. People who can plausibly act ruthlessly altruistic and committed, and can be sarcastic to save their lives and their country.

"That sounds like a sort of person I might be able to find around here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- oh, you don't have one on this planet," says Nelen. "We check that sort of thing before we make contact - if you had a Bell, we would have noticed with magic, and we'd be talking to them about how to approach things here, instead of this more generic strategy."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...How do you check that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"There's a species called 'demons' - uh, our translation magic often translates that in a way that makes it sound like they're malicious, they're not especially, we can tweak the translation if it's inopportune here - related to Cassiel's species, 'angels'. Demons can conjure arbitrary material objects, and they can do it according to specific criteria, like a particular book title by a particular author. Or a particular 'template' - like 'Bells' - in a particular world."

Permalink Mark Unread

"So, what, all of our sarcastic altruists are magically confirmed to be stupid or uncommitted or not in high-leverage careers?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"- no, not at all. Bells have the traits listed," says Nelen, "but having those traits doesn't make someone a Bell. It's okay, you don't need any for anything in particular, it's just a shortcut to us having a local contact we can trust immediately to be both broadly values-aligned and have an eye on the right subjects."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Suppose I still take it as a set of criteria for people to introduce you to, since it sounds like you do want to meet locals who have those traits?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"If you have bright altruists who want to talk to us, of course we'd be happy to meet them, but we'll meet anyone who would like to see us. One thing we often do at this stage of a contact is we set up one or more little booths where we sell things from the wider multiverse, often in exchange for stories, true or not, from the locals."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You may do so, provided none of what you sell is meant to kidnap or ensorcel anyone or facilitate any kind of crime. No poisons, no - it should all be very commonsense and as humanitarians I do believe you wouldn't. Oh, and check in with city governance after this meeting about where you can put your booths that isn't spoken for, there'll be convenient places but I don't know where they all are off the top of my head."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Usually on planets like this it's things like rocks enchanted to be warm, or heal people near them, or advanced lights that last for decades," says Nelen. "Clothes, food, things that play music, translation enchantments like ours..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Those all sound like fine things to sell, and you may do so. In general merchants pay a fraction of their goods or of their proceeds in tax, but doctors and apothecaries don't. I'm inclined to treat magic healing as the same kind of thing as a doctor or an apothecary, but the rest of it as miscellaneous goods taxed at one part in twenty; I will entertain arguments otherwise."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- well, we'd be taking payment in stories, fictional ones or personal anecdotes. As an effort to make sure things are affordable and to get a snapshot of your culture in its current state. How would you normally handle taxing that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Barter of goods for services is generally taxed as a fraction of the goods in question; services for services is not but providers thereof are sometimes commanded to provide their services for the good of Sesat. - What I'd do with five percent of your magic items is give them to people to test and let the results of the tests be known in all of Sesat, by the way, if it grieves you to think of them unused in a treasury." And if instead that makes them more averse to paying, well, that would be good to know.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, so for every twenty healing rocks we gave out you'd want one? That sounds fine," says Nelen.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, quite. If we don't come to some broader agreement, do you plan to stay here and sell these items indefinitely?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Us personally, probably not, but the booths can be staffed indefinitely."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hmm. Are you also offering to teach our people to make these kinds of things?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Most of the magic you can enroll in classes for has a screening process, but individuals can enter Vanda Nossëo even if their home states don't sign up and look for classes to join. If you want a more targeted program aimed at specific interests and needs of the Sesati people you'd need to be a member state."

Permalink Mark Unread

"And - entering any of these classes requires that the student join Vanda Nossëo and leave their home behind?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not necessarily on a permanent basis but the class would not be located here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Would there be any problem if someone went abroad to take a class, then came here and taught the rest of the country?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Someone who intended to do that with one of the more sensitive kinds of magic probably wouldn't pass a screen."

Permalink Mark Unread

Ah, so the tactic they'll be using is to fatten Sesat up a bit, let the population grow beyond what the land can support, and then threaten to leave and let all their unrepairable magic items wear out and cause the greatest famine in history if Sesat doesn't acquiesce to whatever they feel like demanding next. That's even worse than he was expecting. Option one, he can bow now, hope to pass their screens - unlikely, everyone knows he wasn't an altruist yesterday - or, option two, he can stand up to them while leaving an opening for some actual altruist with a scrap of loyalty to Sesat to appear to side with them - or, option three, he can take the same actions as in option two and not end up with any support and simply die with honor.

"I'm afraid that training myself and my people in your magic is a necessary condition for a long-term peaceful trade agreement between us, let alone - " (becoming a vassal state, but if he doesn't say it he has an out to pretend he didn't notice, later, if he absolutely has to) " - seeking membership in Vanda Nossëo."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There are some kinds of magic that aren't transmissible in a way that we'd worry about," says Nelen. "For example, the empress of Mîr can add somewhat customized magical powers to people that they then can't teach to others who haven't had the same process done. I say somewhat customized because it's most efficient to do it in batches of a few hundred, so there are some popular standards and it's a little tricker to find people to go in together on anything more unusual. But many kinds of magic are extremely dangerous. The teleportation magic I have is mostly just used to move us around from place to place, but it does not have any discovered limit on the size of what I can bring along. Our most powerful healing spell is part of the same magic system, unfortunately, so the screen to get that one is the same."

Permalink Mark Unread

...There might not be a thing that it would mean, to lose valiantly in a fight with these people. It might be that no one in Sesat is worth anything, with these people around; it might be that all he can do is keep that from becoming common knowledge, maybe long enough to make it false or maybe not. It might be that he should fuck off to Vanda Nossëo by himself and become the world's most pampered slave.

"Magic we cannot pass on to our children will not suffice," since leaves them open to the exact same tactic, "but if you have a list of common batched-magic types oriented toward protection or food security I'd look at it, at least."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can get you one of those, yes. There are lots of things we can share that aren't magic at all. The technology level here isn't high, compared to many Vanda Nossëo planets when we first find them, let alone afterwards. Lights, for example, and heat - the enchanted rocks are easier to use, but they're not what most Vanda Nossëo citizens have in our homes. Better construction and farming techniques. My home planet had a little less land area than this one and we have comparable needs to humans in most ways, and by the time our constituent countries joined Vanda Nossëo there were over thirteen billion of us on it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Ah. And what would you like for that knowledge?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"One thing we're trying some places is dropping off magical automata that can give science and math lectures; if you'd like some of those it's free, we'd just want to be able to take data on how it goes. We'd also be happy to put in a 'bus stop', a site where large batches of people can teleport in and out between Sesat and other places in the multiverse, and then could find classes on those topics on their own. If you want a local popup school staffed with sapient teachers we can do that in exchange for some consideration - probably it would be most straightforward to send Vanda Nossëo some of the slaves, provided we could be sure that the slavetaking and slave-breeding rate wouldn't increase as a result, but we could work something else out, especially if there's a reason it might be particularly appealing for a teacher to live and work in Sesat."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think the automata sound promising; what sort of data would you be interested in?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, we'd just visit the automata occasionally and ask them how many people had been by and what they'd wanted to learn about."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think - not within a city, they're cramped and it'd be disruptive - I think you should find a suitable area an hour or two out from a city, and I think you should buy it yourselves, rather than me, because you're likely to be buying from someone who owns a farm that unfree labor works on, and by decreasing that person's land you'd be decreasing the use that person has for labor, so they likely wouldn't replace the slaves. But it wouldn't be a deal Sesatis in general could make arbitrarily many of, it'd be obviously a one-time thing - or two or three, if you want better coverage, but a small fixed number which you could announce in advance."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That sounds like a good plan, thank you, your illustriousness."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I know, that's why I suggested it. And about that 'bus stop' - can you tell me more about how that would work?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure. A bus is sort of like an ambulatory building, and it's there to make it clearer to people when they're successfully signed up for the next ride out, and to make it easier for the teleporter to get who's in their batch and no one else. It appears, same way we did, and whoever wants to gets on and sits down, and when everybody who wants to be aboard is aboard, it teleports to the next stop on the route. If you have preferences about who Sesati bus-riders should find it simplest to visit you can let us know, but by default I'd leave it up to the transportation department; at any rate after a few hops like that they'd be in a big transit hub and could get on a different line to go anywhere else within the service area, and then back again by the same process."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Are you at all interested in cooperating with - I am going to go ahead and assume that if I say this as 'are you at all interested in denying slaves service?' you'll say no, but are you at all interested in denying patricides, torturers, or even non-slaves who are in debt here?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"If you have safety concerns, or if it's really important to you that the departure of slaves from Sesat happen in some particular orderly way, we can work with you on that. But we normally don't require background checks for a bus ticket. If someone here were in debt to me, I think I'd want them to be able to travel the multiverse where they could make some money more easily and pay me back. As for people who've committed murders, the kind of person you have on this planet can be resurrected pretty easily. We don't condone murder, but a lot of murderers cut it out when they have more places to go and more things to do and the murder won't stick anyway."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you have infrastructure in place already that would help force someone who went away to seek their fortune in the stars to pay their debts back home?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"If they otherwise didn't seem inclined to do so? No, we don't have a way to force them - our financial instruments don't include the force of criminal law to require repayment - but they'd find that a lot of multiversal banks and such wouldn't deal with them till they'd discharged their outstanding debts or made some kind of repayment agreement. I think if they were having real trouble they could probably get some kind of debt relief organization to cover the amount, though, once we have a settled-out currency exchange rate with Sesat."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hmm. How much of a problem is it for people when multiversal banks refuse to do business with them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's inconvenient but if they aren't trying to do complicated financial transactions it's possible to operate with other means of payment for services."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Will you object if we put a perimeter around the bus stop and screen people for outstanding debts before they get to you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We wouldn't encourage it but we wouldn't interfere."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That would be fine. And for murderers - I think for uncomplicated murders, it's simple to reverse the crime and you may resurrect any of those we executed for murder after you resurrect their victims and ideally provide those victims with something to live on now that their own belongings will have passed to others; those who were enslaved solely for patricide or matricide, I suppose we could consider some kind of deal where they're given to you to do with as you will, including taking them out of Sesat, after you return their victims to life and give the victims and those who kept them contained some additional compensation for all the time elapsed, if that wouldn't fall afoul of your objections to buying them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think we could see our way clear to an arrangement where a murderer may be removed from Sesat on the condition that their victim is resurrected first, although resurrections are among the things that are still expensive - there's a lot of people who've died, in all the worlds - and it would mean you would have less leverage to negotiate for other things you might want in a bid for membership, including resurrections for people who did not happen specifically to be murdered by still-living slaves. We're rich, but not literally infinitely rich, and we can't let would-be member states hold out for everything they think we have to offer just to see if we hand it over."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I confess to having somewhat lost track of what you want to offer out of the goodness of your hearts, what you want to sell, and what you want from us; things haven't at all fallen into the categories I normally expect."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Of course," says Nelen. "The things we will offer you if you're willing to host them, regardless of your participation in any other scheme of ours, are bus stations, automata that deliver lessons in science and math, and booths selling the things we mentioned, among others. The things we want to sell are - well - the stuff that goes in the booths, though as aforementioned we'll take payment in anecdotes, and some services more labor-intensive or less subsidized than the above, like local schools. The things we want to sell as membership signup perks are things like resurrections, immortality, colony planets, anything we're really limited on our ability to hand out. The things we want from you are emigration rights for all the people within Sesat and help transitioning Sesat into a wealthier, better-educated, more humane place to live, smoothly and in a way that preserves what's special about it to its people."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think many of us would say that what's special about Sesat is how proud and stubborn its people are, and that, if faced with someone offering to train us to eat out of their hands in exchange for us bowing to their desires, we stand ready to walk away even from paradise - Mayor Zatar, General Tana, you're not random but you're here; what do you think?"

"Oh, I'd put that second to our ambition. Given the, ah, entire annual holiday about it," says Tana.

"It's just harder to have a holiday about stubbornness. I agree with His Glory, Sesat is proud above all," says the one who seemed threatened earlier.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I see," says Nelen. "Well, there are worse things to hang your patriotism on. Are there any things we have to offer that do interest you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, yes. I would like very much to make this work. I just couldn't face my people and tell them we all must appease foreign conquerors - but as you come here out of the goodness of your hearts, for peaceful trade and to spread prosperity to the corners of the earth, your task here is very simple: only do not appear to be something you are not. You come here asking us to give up our slaves, and you sound hostile; but you can't mean it like that, and I see you aren't tempted to want them yourselves, so speak to me instead of why you aren't tempted. You come here asking us to let our debtors run off and cheat us; but you don't worry about that yourself, so speak to me of why you don't, and perhaps then I won't either."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Of course," says Nelen, slightly relieved. "What we find is that slave labor is generally inferior in quality to free labor - a free employee you have to pay, but a slave you have to feed, and supervise, and worry about rebellions from, and the cost savings is pretty negligible when you price that in. That's even if you don't value the freedom of the slave directly, which we do. You're using slavery partially as an alternative to prisons, which makes more sense, but to the extent you're trying to save money on prisons we're happy to take on that expense ourselves and to the extent you're trying to deter crime - people still don't want to be prisoners in Vanda Nossëo, even if their living conditions look very cushy."

"There was that one time when some people just kind of kept having kids in that one prison," says Zanro.

"Right, but then someone terraformed a moon for them and they moved there and they didn't cost much in further supervisory labor," says Nelen, "and their sentences expired and the moon joined up in its own right - I'm not claiming that nothing weird ever happens, it's a big multiverse, but by and large people prefer to be free, and prefer to follow the law provided the law isn't terribly unjust in some way. As for the debt part - my team doesn't have a Dwarf, they're very good with finance and commerce, but I'll give it a shake. Whenever you loan someone money, you have to assume there is some risk they won't pay it back - they'll die, for example, or be kidnapped by bandits or have all their money or their tools stolen before they can pay you back, even if they intended all along as sincerely as you might want to make things square. The way loans work with us is that the risk of nonrepayment is just something the lender has to price in, regardless of why it might occur. They can guess the risk with each loan, and adjust the rates of interest they charge accordingly - do you have interest here -"

"In practice," says Cassiel, "Vanda Nossëo citizens get a payment periodically just for being citizens, and it's enough to live on and then some, and in most remotely normal situations a lender can get some of that money diverted to them until the loan's paid off."

"Yes, also that," says Nelen.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Aha. Let me see if I have this right. There's no need to interact with your debtor at all, because Vanda Nossëo will handle repayment; there may not even be a need for the debtor to remember to pay. Vanda Nossëo uses monetary payments to recognize the basic dignity of all those who have done nothing wrong; another effect of this is that there's no need to raise a hand against those that are worthless, because they can simply also be paid what they're worth. The rest is a purely practical question of keeping the ones that are dangerous away from people and - ah - how did you ensure that the people on that moon weren't themselves worthless?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"- we don't have a practice of considering people worthless," says Nelen, with somewhat more deliberate patience than he's manifested before.

"Prisoners actually get the universal payments too but usually some of it gets diverted to prison costs," says Tarwë. "So they have some incentive to pick prisons that are efficient instead of the ones that spend the most lavishly."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Hm. I find this startling enough to be suggestive of a deeper gulf in understanding than I imagined. If possible, Ambassador Utopia, Envoy Tarwë, I would like to table further discussion of justice and migration for now and ask you to instead find me a book on political philosophy to present to one of Sesat's philosophers. I can do likewise for you, and we can then return to the topic later; and right now, I would have you speak further with General Tana and Mayor Zatar about the implementation of your plans to provide education and sell enchanted things, both of which you have my permission to proceed with, and about anything else that occurs to any of you as immediately urgent."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That sounds like a good next step, your splendidness," says Nelen. "The specific magic we're using for translation will let us read and write, but the solution we have for translating books quickly is less good; we can have one of us on hand to consult the original as necessary, or we can offer your philosopher a copy of the same translation we use, or both, as you prefer. Where should Tarwë meet the philosopher? Should we continue the meeting with the general and mayor here or somewhere else?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"You may remain here - I'll have to send for a philosopher but Envoy Tarwë may have someone show him around my library now. I extend to you also my hospitality; you may have beds made for you here, for when you tire, or elsewhere in this city."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thank you, we might take you up on that," says Nelen cheerily. (Zanro smiles.) Tarwë gets up to be shown to the library.

Permalink Mark Unread

Tarwë can be introduced to a cheerful librarian who points out the political philosophy - a few old books titled Kings And Cities, If Gela Smiles, The Use of Kindness in the Retention of a Population, and Musings of Azan volumes one and two - and speculates that the most sensible philosopher for the Star-of-Stars to send for would be Feris, who lives in Leopard Hill and wrote these two books over here, On Minds and On Meaning.

Permalink Mark Unread

Sounds good. Tarwë can start reading the books in the meanwhile.

Permalink Mark Unread

The Use of Kindness in the Retention of a Population turns out to be mostly the invention of the concept of making people want to live in your country rather than having societies consisting entirely of a royal court and slaves. There are surprisingly relevant digressions into tax policy and farming techniques and how they contribute to the technical ability to have something that could very generously be called a middle class. A later scribe has added margin notes about how this relates to the very recent invention of an idea that best translates as body autonomy but is mostly weaker than and slightly skew to the Earth idea.

Feris of Leopard Hill's books go into a lot of detail about decisionmaking. When do people want to try to do something and when do they want to look like they're trying? What happens when people aren't clear on which they want to do? To what extent does it even matter? Feris metaphorically paints a picture of a society wherein people almost always want to look like they're trying and almost never care about any of the things they want to be seen trying to accomplish - want to be seen to be someone who gets revenge, when they don't care, when sometimes no one cares; or want not to be seen as backing down, when they don't care at all about any of someone's specific demands; or want to be seen as brave, when what they'd be risking themselves for isn't worth anything to them. Feris is interested in whether people can know all this about themselves, whether honor is about more than reputation, how anyone knows anything, whether all questions have true answers.

Tarwë is mostly left alone to read, but at one point when he's between books, the librarian comments that Azan's royal library is understaffed right now because they ran out of slaves and that's one reason they want to go to war.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you think it might be useful for my team and the team sent to Azan to talk about what we've found sooner than later?" inquires Tarwë.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't make the choices, I just chronicle them. What's it trade off against if you do?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sometimes people from states that have tense relationships with their neighbors prefer not to have the sense that we're talking behind their backs. We'll send reports to the same central coordinator, but usually we wouldn't meet directly unless our host states wanted that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, I don't see why that'd be a problem, but I already said I don't make the choices around here."

Permalink Mark Unread

Tarwë nods and sends Nelen a message to that effect. (This is invisible.) (Nelen's inquiry to the mayor and general is not.)

Permalink Mark Unread

The mayor admits he thought they were already going to do that, and the general says he thought the same but since they're asking permission and giving Sesat the chance to set conditions he'd like it to happen on the condition that Vanda Nossëo share with Sesat what they figure out about what Azan he is thinking, because Azan was until recently very isolationist and it's hard to do diplomacy with them and Sesat at this point genuinely does not know what the war is about.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can't actually agree to that condition without the coordinator's go-ahead, which would only come after the other team asks Azan he about it; it's possible Azan he has already asked that our counterparts keep something confidential," apologizes Nelen. "And we wouldn't know that until we talked to them."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Suppose you talk to them and tell us anything you can pass on - I'm not asking for the number of people in their army, here, I know that, I want to know what they want from us. Seems very unlikely that was meant to be a secret."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm happy to agree that anything we can tell you that wouldn't violate a security or a confidence we'll pass along."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Good. Talk with them, then. You'll like Azan's rhetoric better than ours but I don't think you'll like what's beneath it very well."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sometimes good rhetoric yields to good values, once there's more of everything to go around. But we don't count on it," says Nelen. "I'll mention in my report that we'd like to rendezvous up on the ship we have in orbit."

Permalink Mark Unread

Azan, meanwhile, has received its own delegation.

Azan stands out, to anyone comparing reports from the region, as having the unchallenged best human rights record of this century and general area. The idea of spreading their relatively merciful system more broadly is popular both with the people and with the government; for broadly humanitarian reasons, they were hoping to conquer Sesat and enslave and maim its entire defeated army to prevent them from taking up arms again. The team Vanda Nossëo sent them did not find it hard to convince Azan he to step aside and let them handle the humanitarian outreach instead; word of this has already reached the border and is still making its way to the Sesati capital.

The story Azan tells about the war is that Azan has absolutely open borders, a Sesati chose to immigrate, and when Sesati pursuers chased her across the border they thus crossed the border specifically to attack and kidnap an Azani citizen. But reading between the lines a bit, most of Azan is tired of the refugees they take in being in the shape Sesat leaves them in, tired of taking in scarred scared immigrants who won't talk about their pasts, and even angrier about the ones who don't make it across the border. Some of Azan's key decisionmakers are intensely aware that every day they don't conquer Sesat is a day people are tortured. In the complete absence of any record of any other polity even having concepts like the fundamental equality of humanity, there hasn't been any prior example to look to to learn what happens when one polity decides to conquer another to spread ideas like that.

They told Sesat it was about the immigrant. The correspondence about it was... confusing. They did not choose to make sure they had come to a mutual understanding before they attacked.

Azan's probably not going to be as thorny as Sesat. Its king insisted that they keep their magic healing easily avoidable - not gatekept at all, just avoidable - and needed the concept of voting on membership explained to him, sure. But the human sacrifice is all consensual and they're not very attached to the idea of staffing their library with blind former soldiers and so far they're mostly taking Vanda Nossëo's diplomatic overtures as an opportunity to get paid to stop doing things they didn't like doing anyway. Kind of a lot of things they didn't like doing anyway, but.

Permalink Mark Unread

Azan's diplomatic team are really not thrilled about the maiming (though they are thrilled to have arrived in time to prevent it!) There will be no trouble at all about making magic healing avoidable; they can have a few hundred medical alert bracelets sent in about it by tomorrow to be distributed to anyone who wants one.

Assuming none of this is sensitive information they okay the coordinator sending the Sesat team a copy of their report. Nelen reads it and then does his best to explain the story they're telling, at least to Vanda Nossëo, about whence the war.

Permalink Mark Unread

(Well, mostly prevent. They took one prisoner in the first battle - well, two, but one killed himself - but the vast majority of Sesat's army will be fine now.)

Tana frowns thoughtfully. "I'm curious if that's how you see us, too."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We have - more exposure to a wide variety of examples to learn from," says Nelen. "Almost everybody goes through a historical period where they have to learn by doing - and in particular have to learn ethics by doing atrocities, it's really common. You're doing what you can with what you have. But you do seem to be in the historical period with atrocities in it, if that's what you're wondering."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Which things are the atrocities and what do people learn about ethics that makes them stop?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Slavery, torture - Azan maiming prisoners counts too - on my own planet there's a caste system, since retrofitted to be less abusive and restrictive. Believe me, I understand that these things are solutions to problems that are very real and serious in a scarcity economy without good luck and good examples - if a lot of societies got through their development without having to resort to anything we'd call an atrocity it might be another story when we found one with slaves, but as it is Sesat doesn't stand out for the tech level. As I said, you're doing what you can with what you have. We're here to see if you can have more and then use that to develop into a state that doesn't maltreat people. - Tarwë says he likes your book about kindness in retention of a population. That's basically what we're doing, on a larger scale."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I've noticed," Tana says dryly. "So - worlds get richer and then decide they don't need slavery, and since they don't need it they don't bother to have it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's often the way it goes, yes. On my planet we had slavery for a while, but for species-specific psychological reasons the slaves were normally not allowed to have children, so once the practices that added new slaves slowed down and then stopped it didn't self-sustain. But that's not to our particular credit - there was an ongoing oppressive situation that Vanda Nossëo had to dismantle, it just wasn't specifically construing people as property. And we were much farther along the technology advancement sequence then than you are now."

Permalink Mark Unread

Tana pulls his mouth to the side and thinks about that.

"It doesn't sound like an improvement," says Zatar. "If - what's the worst kind of crime, to your people?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Putting someone in a hallucinatory torture simulation for millions of subjective years while also forcing them to have children who will be cannon fodder in the army of an evil god," says Nelen. "- it comes up surprisingly often."

Permalink Mark Unread

Zatar makes a face. And then another face. "Right, well, so. I haven't done that. And so I imagine if someone treated me and that creature equally, that'd be insulting. Not to say that the insult would be the worst part or that you should take it into account before you've stopped them, but afterward, what's a society for if not acknowledging that - hm - I suppose I don't really even know how I, personally, not being able to trap anyone in a that thing for millions of years, could get any worse than the worst we already do to slaves, and now I want to, and now I understand why you'd want to leave room at the bottom to get worse. But you see my point, right?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm not sure I do. - if it matters, we just kill that particular brand of evil god whenever we turn one up, that's our stated policy."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm sure I don't know enough yet to say what your policy should be. I just mean - I'm obviously better than them, so I should be treated better, otherwise it's insulting - and whenever someone is better than anyone else, it's better to treat them better, right, otherwise it's like saying they're equal, which is an insult to the one that's better."

Permalink Mark Unread

"A lot of people felt that way on my home planet too," says Nelen evenly.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. What changed your mind?'

Permalink Mark Unread

"Mine? Nothing. They thought they were better than people with red hair."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I see why you'd be soured on the idea, if they were that silly about it."

Permalink Mark Unread

Nelen smiles a little. "It's more complicated than I'm making it sound. They had a lot of reasons. Vanda Nossëo worked really hard to accommodate them and get them a setup they could live with when I'm sure it was enormously tempting to everyone involved to just throw up their hands and say they'd enforce laws against violence and to hell with their stupid taboos. But to everybody else, I'm told it really does look like - they think they're better than people with red hair. Anyway. I think we might differ in - how important a priority it seems to us to avoid insulting people just by being generous to other people around them. Not even more generous."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think if you want me to have an opinion about it that I bother to put weight on I should also talk to someone with a different hair color and if you don't - well, I've told you where you can put a new business, the only war-related decisionmaking I've been doing is making sure we can shelter enough people within the walls, and I'll be around if you think of anything else..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There's a purple on the shipboard team," says Nelen agreeably, "if you'd like to arrange a meeting. Can you give us advice on how to buy the land for our shop booths and prospective bus stations?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, I was just going to lend you space for a shop, rent-free for the time being because you don't even have any local currency and any rent I might want I can also collect by coming by to reminisce about my childhood. But normally when you need more land..." Zatar can explain how that works.

Permalink Mark Unread

Okay! Natsuko will go put up a shop in the lent space and Zanro will peel off to see about buying Charpitorium land and bus stop land.

Permalink Mark Unread

Meanwhile, Feris the philosopher travels faster than he ever has before, at a gallop the whole way and changing horses several times on the road. He comes running into the library in the palace and stops and says, "Uh, excuse me, I was told it's extremely urgent and a matter of national security for me to speak to a tall foreigner with braids..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hello," says the tall foreigner with braids. "I'm not sure it was quite that urgent. My party and I have come from Vanda Nossëo -" Standard "what the fuck is Vanda Nossëo" spiel.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, that does sound... very important. It's delightful to meet you. I am Feris, one of Sesat's soldiers and in better times one of its philosophers."

Permalink Mark Unread

"My name is Tarwë. Thank you for coming to meet me. It was suggested that some of the potential rough spots between Sesat and Vanda Nossëo come down to philosophical differences of opinion."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can help with that. What've you already identified as possible differences of opinion?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Vanda Nossëo operates in significant part on a principle similar to the one outlined here," Tarwë says, holding up the book on kindness's role in retaining a population, "but our particular implementation forbids slavery, and in general issues much gentler sentences for crimes."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That... is an odd claim to make, I think - if what you want to do is steal our slaves, why did you come here and speak to our government?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We're happy to buy them," says Tarwë, "as a one-time deal, assuming we can find a way to prevent more from being enslaved."

Permalink Mark Unread

" - Sir, I think you should back up and explain your goals here without reference to local schools of thought you've only just learned exist, and go as deep as you can, not goals at the level of 'I want to buy a sword' or even at the level of 'I don't want to be attacked' but at the level of 'I don't want to be injured'."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We want everyone to be free and safe and rich and happy," says Tarwë. "That extends to everyone, including slaves. We don't want to achieve this through conquest or theft. That would work in the short term, but it gets worse long-term results than coming to an agreement with the people who live in a state and own slaves. We're effectively hoping to bribe you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"And if everyone else here is free and safe and rich, they'll try to keep the slaves from also being those things, and they won't be happy if the slaves are happy, so you have a conundrum, and you're hoping for a stabler resolution than that some people greet you as saviors from the stars while everyone else plots revenge - would you say that's true?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's ideal, yes."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Can you tell me some stories about times you've done diplomacy this difficult before?" The thing he mostly wants to figure out from this is whether they want people safe and free and rich and happy, or want to go home with a few new happy citizens and say they tried. He can work with either, or at least he hopes he can, or at least he knows if he can't he'll disappoint the Star-of-Stars... but anyway he has to know which it is.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure - do you want things I was there for, or stuff they cover in our training?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Either."

Permalink Mark Unread

So Tarwë can tell him the story of Amenta, which he wasn't there for but Nelen was, as one of the natives being contacted, if he wants more details; they wound up putting some sixty-five million reds through a process that replaced all the matter of their body completely new, just so they wouldn't have to tell the other thirteen billion Amentans that their pollution taboo was too stupid to accommodate. It was very time-consuming and expensive and probably cost them some goodwill with some of the reds but it got them the Amentans on board, and now they form a big chunk of Vanda Nossëo personnel in various capacities, and they're happily raising more who'll grow up free and safe with all the opportunities of the multiverse at their feet.

Permalink Mark Unread

Oh, good. He can work with this.

"It's not precisely the same sort of thing, it's obviously more concrete and provable, but people here are generally concerned that slaves are - how do I put this - criminally inclined, honorless, lacking the traits that separate people from animals - and in addition to that there'll be individual people who will have been personally harmed, to whom it can be very important that all of society has taken the very strong stance that what happened to them was utterly beyond the bounds of civilized behavior - and in addition to that, there are additional practical problems you'll have to deal with, but, if you have the power to remake bodies and travel to the stars, perhaps what seems insoluble to me will be easy for you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If there's some serious chance that slaves lack personhood here that seems like it makes it all the more important to stop enslaving new people," says Tarwë. "Would it help to have someone with psychic powers by to check?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...You know, it might. I sort of expect the slaves to say 'oh but I would be uncomfortable with that' and the person with psychic powers to respect that," or pretend to respect it but at any rate not pass any information on, "or that if they do look it'll be inconclusive because sometimes people aren't being brave or honorable or thinking about what is more important to them than food and drink, so it'd be easy to say 'well, maybe they have those things sometimes and we just looked at the wrong time'..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We don't really consider bravery or honor or having any particular kind of priority in life to be a criterion of personhood," Tarwë says.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Then you're going to have much broader problems with Sesat than this."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Where else is it likely to come up?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"If our criteria for personhood are narrower than yours? I have no idea how many of those you call - something your magic translates as 'people' - aren't. And if you don't seek justice, if you don't seek to recognize and acknowledge any of those things that make some people better than others, in Sesat's eyes, then you likely sometimes promote the lesser over the greater, as Sesatis will see it, and you likely think we do too, and you likely think half the sacrifices we've made have been pointless - you likely think our Star-of-Stars makes bad choices and is cruel - you likely hope we'll come to see things your way, which is to say, that we'll abandon our own values - I don't see this going well unless I've badly misunderstood. I, of course, don't have psychic powers, so I may well have misunderstood you in some way. Do you think I have?"

...If the psychic powers are real and not just made up to tell Sesat a convenient story then there's no way Vanda Nossëo has the concept of everyone lying to each other and knowing they're being lied to and cooperating because it's convenient. Nelen in particular might, though, it sounded like that happened on Amenta...

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's not how I'd put it, but - no, there's not an obvious fundamental misunderstanding there. I'm sorry to disappoint you about how the broader multiverse tends to do ethical reasoning. My people had to make some adjustments too, for all that they tell you that Elves pop out of our worlds ready to join Vanda Nossëo on no notice."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hm. I think it might be more productive if I spoke to Ambassador Utopia privately, but I am also interested in hearing about the adjustments you made."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Elves are naturally immortal and naturally resurrectable by our god of the dead, and accordingly put little weight on life per se - everyone will be all right again in the long run - and a lot on childhood, of childhoods being unburdened and abundantly happy and supported by adults with nothing else to do but raise children. It would have been considered not unreasonable for, say, a family losing a grandfather to the one and only war in our history while the grandchild was any younger than fifty, to all jointly commit suicide so they could meet again some hundreds or thousands of years later none the worse for wear, when that weighed against the grandfather missing a childhood and the child growing up without the grandfather. So it was difficult for us to understand the casualness with which humans and many other species handle adoption, and divorce - we also don't divorce - and deciding, or not deciding, to have children - we also don't conceive by accident -

There's also a historical enmity between my species and Zanro's, and also we were a little thrown by so many people - including some Elves! - preferring romance with members of their same gender or non-monogamously or both, but for me the children thing was the big one."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...I admit, that sounds bizarre. And - how did you deal with that, then?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, it took me some time. I'm new at this job because my youngest wasn't a hundred yet," says Tarwë. "Her birthday was about a year ago. But mostly I met people. People who had had accidental children, or divorced, or who were accidental children, or who'd been raised by single or adoptive parents. Most of the time everyone agrees that it's better if children come into existence with parents who want to raise them, and Vanda Nossëo does make distributing contraception a top priority, but it didn't seem to be a life-defining tragedy, for most people like that I've met."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Did you think what you did before because you thought it would be, rather than because you care about it no matter what anyone involved thinks or feels about it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"For me it would absolutely be a life-defining tragedy if my wife divorced me or if I had a grandchild who I didn't get to watch grow up," says Tarwë. "But once some Elves found themselves counseling a newly created band of humans - adults, brought into existence that way - and might have accidentally driven them extinct if they hadn't had someone else present with more cosmopolitan perspectives to draw on, advising them to do as Elves would do - not marry till they were at least fifty, and then spend a decorous year not seeing each other during their engagement to make sure, and lying together only upon then being married - and obviously for humans this would have had the women all menopausal before they could have a baby, but better that than a child in an unready family..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I admit I'm a bit surprised you don't wish my ancestors had followed your rules and died out so you could take the land."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We don't need your land. Some people who work for Vanda Nossëo can make an entire new planet in a few weeks. It takes them even less time if they start with one that already has the rock and just needs plants and air on top."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...So you're all immortal, so your population does nothing but grow, and you have no need of foreign land - if you're not actually able to arrange the neat solution you prefer, will you leave?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well," says Tarwë, "we're still talking to all the other countries on the planet. And there was some interest in non-membership contact with Vanda Nossëo. And we'd take emigrants. But if everyone wanted us to leave, yes. We'd figure that, for whatever reason, we weren't the right people to help you. Maybe try again in fifty years."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think you should make that known. It's extremely important that everyone be clear that you're not here to conquer. I expect given everything you've told me about your species that you won't guess why, so I'll tell you: most of Sesat would sooner die than submit to conquerors."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's not an unreasonable thing to do, it makes conquest less appealing to anyone who has it on their minds," says Tarwë. "What do you think we can do to make it clear, besides just repeating it whenever it comes up? Do you think it would help if some people got to watch a planet being made?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think people will be concerned about, ah, the thing where you have strong preferences about our internal policies and would like to leverage your fabulous wealth and power to change them. It would be good if it were... clearer that you're trying to offer us something we want. Which I'm not yet convinced you aren't, I'd like myself and all my neighbors to be free and rich and safe and happy. It's only that the last people to say they wanted our people to be freer and richer and safer and happier want to cut off my hand and make me their slave on the theory that I'm less deserving of freedom than those who are slaves now, and the rhetoric they justify it with is about equality. And I'm not even saying that if it really came down to it, if someone really were genuinely offering something better than what we have to everyone else, that I'd necessarily fight that. Maybe I'd find it in myself to say, well, fine then, it's better for my people. But you haven't actually tried, so far as I'm aware, to convince me of that - and perhaps while I was on the road you were trying to convince someone else, but all I know of is that you offered material wealth, which will appeal to people in direct proportion to how much they are the sort of people to primarily care about their immediate comfort and ignore anything greater or more important than that. It looks aggressive; it looks like an attempt to win over the slaves and leave everyone else scrambling to take over their jobs. And I am holding out some hope, here, that you in fact have a better offer to make us than 'if you agree that there is no difference between people we'll make you rich' - maybe what you're trying not to say is that you're all so far beyond us that were you not the kind of people to look with compassion on slaves you wouldn't care about the rest of us, either, and if that's true I can help you figure out how to put it tactfully, or maybe it's something else, but - if you aren't thinking of any obvious things I haven't heard of I ought to speak with Ambassador Utopia because I have a feeling Amentan politics will have prepared him better for Sesati politics."

The longwindedness is maybe, slightly, a bit of a panic response.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, interesting. We definitely don't cut people's hands off or enslave them and I can see how it would really hurt our case that our nearest rhetorical neighbors do. From our perspective even the Star of Stars is - poor. Not in everything, presumably he can command a lot of labor, but poor in information and comfort and art and music and opportunity and novelty. The people who'd starve next time you had a few bad harvests in a row are poorer, certainly, but I don't know anyone who'd trade him, based strictly on lifestyle features.

At any rate, you can believe whatever you want. We aren't in the business of mind control or censorship, as far as Vanda Nossëo is concerned you can talk all day long about how inferior slaves and the sort of people you'd normally enslave are. We just want to protect the rights we think they, like everyone else, should have, and do that as gently as possible for everyone involved.

You're more than welcome to talk to Ambassador Utopia, of course."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, I think I ought to, I don't think you and I are successfully communicating."

Feris is, at this point, drawing on every mental trick he has ever used to keep from running away screaming from an actual battle. This conversation is going horribly. Also the psychics are probably real. The only bright side is that they almost certainly aren't psychically monitoring this conversation, which bespeaks a commitment to honesty that would be really reassuring if not for everything else about this situation.

Permalink Mark Unread

"He's in the meeting room still, as far as I know," says Tarwë.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can wait for him, uh, I don't know where we can talk more privately than this library, I don't live around here..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If you want a very private conversation I could ask him to take you to our ship in orbit?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Wow. Sure, why not, might as well see it, if he'll also take me back here. One question first, though. What is orbit?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Up in the sky, going around the planet, like a moon."

Permalink Mark Unread

He smiles. "I'd love to see that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay, I've sent him a message," says Tarwë, "asking him to come by earliest convenience."

Permalink Mark Unread

No one else particularly needs to keep monopolizing him right now.

Feris is visibly relieved to see him.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hello, I'm Nelen Utopia," says Nelen. "Tarwë says you'd like to come up on the ship and have a private conversation?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, thank you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Is anyone else coming along or just us?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Just us, unless Tarwë is."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm planning to read more books," says Tarwë.

"All right," says Nelen, "ready?" And upon being signaled with readiness:

they are on an observation deck of a ship. It looks like - a vast room made of white metal, furnished with lavish perfectly matching upholstery-clad couches and chairs and cut-glass tables, hung with resplendent stained-glass chandeliers, and supplemented with carpets - the fibers on the carpet are fine and soft and flawless, blue and green and white shapes fading into dark gold-speckled sections that look almost like the continents on

the planet below, visible out the window that looks down on, not Sesat, but a patch of land on the other side of the world, where it's currently night, and on this planet there are no gold speckles.

There are a few people on the deck; there's some oversized chairs, large enough to contain people such as the frost giant currently reclining in one sitting opposite her friend she's playing a board game with, who is another Elf like Tarwë; over there there's somebody with purple hair, watching text scroll by on a computer like Nelen's; over there there's an ice-white man with golden eyes, holding unnaturally still and moving from position to position unnaturally quickly; over there there's a human, watching the planet -

"This is the lounge," says Nelen, "but we try to teleport through either here or a cargo bay when feasible rather than have a lot of unremarked teleporting into and out of quarters - I can take you to my berth for privacy."

Permalink Mark Unread

Feris nods. It's - disorienting and he's going to be very glad he came, later, so he does try to take it all in. The only sense he can get out of it right now is the map, and that they've been here long enough to make one like that, and that they must be very informed.

He'll follow Nelen wherever.

Permalink Mark Unread

Nelen's quarters are up an elevator and along a hallway! His name is on the door but it's in Anitami so Feris can't read it. Inside there's an entire apartment, with a sitting room sufficient for inviting six people over to hang out, and adjoining dining room also with plenty of chairs for guests and a door that way with plumbing and one that way with a bed and one over there that appears to be his closet, containing more clothes in the style he's wearing. He's done it mostly in shades of red with gold, like his hair. It's got another window but this one doesn't show the planet, just stars, since it's pointing the wrong direction.

A hovering ebony orb, carved abstractly, drifts out of the bathroom, and bumps itself against the door Nelen closed behind him, and lets itself out into the hallway.

"Enchanted cleaning object," he explains. "There's no reason it has to look like that, but Elves like things to be unique and pretty so they'll pick up souvenirs whenever they find something nice and send it to be enchanted."

The door swings closed again and Nelen drops into an armchair.

Permalink Mark Unread

Feris gives up on trying to parse any of the social implications of any of this except that yes, in fact, the mysterious visitors from the stars are incredibly rich. It's... nice? He will almost certainly think it's nice later.

He takes a seat. "I heard about your planet. I am hoping, desperately at this point, that I am not wrong to guess that there were people  there, maybe a lot of them, who didn't particularly care one way or the other if they were clean, only whether they seemed like they cared enough about it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- oh, uh, probably some hyposensitives feel that way? That's a condition where someone has less sensitivity to cleanliness - most reds like me have it, but some of the other castes too."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well. But you at least understand the concept; Tarwë didn't seem able to notice it, although it might just have been the ordinary problem of trying to communicate with foreigners in subtext."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...it could have been either, honestly."

Permalink Mark Unread

"People who don't want to might end up pressured to die over this, and at the very least they're going to be pressured to make things harder for you, because they're supposed to believe it's right to treat some people better than others and wrong to bow, and you're going to end up taking their slaves without their buy-in, and that'll be unambiguously aggressive and wreck the pretense that you can't or at least definitely won't try to coerce us. I can't speak for everyone else, not for certain, but I think your fantastical bribery is enough that people will want what you're offering. I know I do. But as I tried to convey to Tarwë, we need an excuse to say we aren't just abandoning our principles because you have an impressive enough carrot and stick. We can say you have an intensely convincing argument for why you're right about what we ought to value, although I think that'll be difficult to pull off. We can say you're very sure your fantastical prisons can rehabilitate even slaves. We can wave a hand and claim we magically replaced their entire personalities, if we can be very sure they're not going to cause the statistically expected amount of problems. We can give people meaningless honors, bar slaves from things with functional equivalents, anything that sounds very unequal and people won't look too hard at..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- would it help to exile the slaves from Sesat? We can most likely do exiling them from Sesat, at least the ones who were enslaved as opposed to being born into it, I'd need to make a more complicated case for the latter. Meaningless honors are also doable. Complete with pretty medals or something if they like."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If you can manage to make exile sound bad at the same time as you offer people the opportunity to go visit all the glorious delights of the stars, I will be in awe. We, ah, also have a lower population than some of your worlds, and struggle to maintain it, I think you think of exile more readily than we do. What exactly are the concrete effects you want to justify, and how much actual flex is there in them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We do actually take exile pretty seriously, a lot of people strongly value being able to go back where they came from even if they don't want to live there all the time, but I acknowledge it might be a difficult balance to strike. The effects need to be - anyone in Sesat who wants to leave is able to, even if they're a slave - or a child, or a breadwinner, or a criminal whose only other options are prisons, anyone. That's the rule that we use to avoid needing to have a lot of complicated other rules - we don't have a specific rule against slavery, there's a species in Hazel that likes slavery, they just have to be allowed to leave. And Vanda Nossëo doesn't lie in official communications, which really ties our hands in asserting that we think the slaves are inferior. Other than that we can be fairly creative."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I did notice your commitment to honesty and I am sure I'll be grateful for it when it's not threatening the lives of everyone I've ever loved. Can we assert something that sounds like 'slaves are inferior' - for that matter, why can't you? It's straightforwardly true that if I pick a slave and a person the slave'll know less or be crueler or less able or less willing to act civilized. Even if I preferred that the slave be happy and free and safe and rich."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well," says Nelen, "it's... also true that the slave is unlikely to have a history of... slaveowning. I could maybe clear a weasel wording like 'these slaves do not show Sesat off at its best', but it would be really hard to take questions after that point."

Permalink Mark Unread

He laughs, and it's more a sudden release of tension than actual humor. "What about, without reference to us and our problems, 'these slaves are clearly beyond Sesat's ability to rehabilitate, we'd like to purchase them and try it ourselves and get an agreement to deliver future slaves to us immediately in exchange for something that makes Sesat too rich to care about their labor and some kind of consideration for the victims' and then, some other time, without reference to slaves and their good points, 'the people of Sesat are justly proud and have more than earned our respect and we would be overjoyed to welcome them into our starry community as our equals'?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Buying slaves as an ongoing thing has an incentive problem, in that - not consciously, usually, but most kinds of people are pretty susceptible to doing things that they have financial reason to find prudent. If there are any even slightly marginal cases, such that someone becomes enslaved instead of getting off with a fine or something, we can't afford to make an ongoing habit of paying for slaves."

Permalink Mark Unread

"As a one-time thing I think, economically, we absolutely need something to replace the labor. As an ongoing thing - a medal's the wrong genre of meaningless thing... there aren't marginal cases between slavery and fines, they'd be between slavery and execution. I don't know. I had a thought that slaves were probably cheap for you because you're astonishingly rich and if you paid in something you have more of than us and pegged the amount to last year's prices you'd never have to say you were going to stop paying but it'd stop meaning anything."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We can handle replacing the labor. Same way we'd do the math and science lessons." Nelen presses a button on his tablet. "Charp please," he tells his tablet, and it beeps in acknowledgement. A moment later his door opens and there enters a metal construct. "This is a Charp," Nelen explains. "They're nonsapient, but they can take verbal instructions and give verbal reports, they have perfect memories, and they're stronger than a human without needing to eat, sleep, breathe, use light to work by... They won't do the trick if people are currently using slaves for sex or, uh, massages or something, but you can put one to work on a farm or something."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I expect they'll probably do well enough. You're right that they won't cover everything but we'll be able to handle the rest of their practical use without anything you wouldn't do anyway. And - do you normally compensate victims of crimes, anywhere else in Vanda Nossëo?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Under standard circumstances, yes. I'm a little worried that we'd find a lot of nonstandard circumstances and quibble over those - I noticed an emphasis on patricide, which might or might not correspond to it being particularly common in Sesat for what we'd consider child abuse victims to turn on their parents?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Assuming, which we should not in fact assume, that I understand what you mean by 'child abuse', it's illegal and sometimes itself punishable by enslavement."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We don't have a single legal definition of child abuse because it's so terribly cultural and dependent on individual people's values and children themselves vary enormously, we just cover it all with the freedom of emigration, but I'm curious what you define it as."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, it sounds like you mean things like rape or torture, done to one's own children, but I don't think emigration would be at all good enough for it; so much can happen so quickly, for one thing, and for another no one's born old enough to go to the stars alone. So I think you mean something else - maybe something like any violation of a guardian and trustee's duties to a ward."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Rape and torture are separately illegal, yes, we just cover - emotional abuse and such with the emigration rule."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That sounds paradoxical, I don't think it translated usefully."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Emotional abuse? Uh, it covers things like - making someone doubt their sanity, belittling them, threatening them, withholding support and affection in whatever degree is healthy for the species, killing their pets, sabotaging their opportunities to do things the abuser disapproves of..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"So, generally behaving like an annoying boor, but to children in particular? Patricide is still illegal if your father is strict and rude to you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"In Vanda Nossëo too," Nelen agrees, "it would just tend to make a court less sympathetic to a petition for compensation."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...In Sesat you're understood to owe your father a great deal of respect if you're so lucky as to have one. Even if he's a boor. So much so that I can't imagine a court being sympathetic - patricide gets you enslaved by default, in general murder doesn't do that if there wasn't something worse about it, and I can tell that that's not straightforwardly what you do but harsher, but I don't know how not."

Permalink Mark Unread

"The usual understanding is that if you murder someone you know, you probably had some kind of reason - seldom to never a good reason for murder, but a reason - and murdering a stranger is likely to be a violent impulse. And if you murder, specifically, a parent or guardian, someone who had authority over you while you were vulnerable, the presumption is often that you may have had a very good reason, that it's easy to seriously damage people by mistreating them in their childhoods especially if they can't trivially walk away from the situation and that kind of damage is both the sort of thing that makes you a more murdery sort of person and that makes you have an understandable grudge against the abuser."

Permalink Mark Unread

" - It'd be a defense, in Sesat, if you could prove your supposed father was... but that's not the most interesting thing. What do you know, about how people being damaged in their childhoods works?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I haven't made a particular study of it but the broad understanding is that - kids are still learning how to be people, learning what kind of person they're supposed to be in their situation, and if the example they have is of a - boorish, as you put it, or violent, or cruel person, then that's a form of education whether it was intended as such or not, and they're less equipped to be peaceful productive citizens. I do want to be careful here to draw the distinction that someone having a background that might predispose them to any particular vice doesn't reduce their worth as a person or their rights under Vanda Nossëo, they can learn better and deserve the opportunity to - it's just one of the many reasons not to abuse people."

Permalink Mark Unread

"An argument I think you might want to make here is that children seeming to take after their parents is an illusion, and the appearance of children born to no free person being worthless is because that's what they're taught, not inherent to what they are."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- unfortunately children do also tend to take after their parents. That is, I'd expect a child born to Sesati slaves and adopted by some nice random people on, oh, Casentar, to grow up to be a fairly normal citizen of Casentar, but that's mostly because I think it's unlikely that you've filtered strongly enough for the traits that would make someone growing up on Casentar to be an incorrigible criminal, not because I don't think that might be possible in principle."

Permalink Mark Unread

Feris makes a face. "Sesat isn't filtering strongly enough because half the most important men in any town have kids without mothers - that, ah, that usually means with slaves, kids without fathers doesn't usually - sometimes it does, though - and it's not as if all of them get claimed and raised, either. But it's one of those things you can't bring up, because no individual person wants to admit their absent mother didn't just die giving birth, and there's no accurate recordkeeping about it, so - I don't even know that I'm right, that that's what it usually is. Maybe it's rare. But you see how, if you suggest you've noticed it's common, it'll unbalance something."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I admit it's - odd to me that you're having trouble maintaining your population and substantial amounts of the birth rate are driven by factors like that. That's unusual in human societies at your tech level, usually there's a tremendous amount of child mortality and plenty of adult mortality to boot but that aside people don't have this much systematic trouble forming and raising children in two-parent households outside some marginal sub-populations, as I understand it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Just going by the numbers there are a lot of serfs and free farmers and artisans who mostly don't have slaves and do have wives who can't afford enough silphium to really have much choice in the matter, and don't have anything better to do with themselves if they could. You won't've heard much about them because they're not very important as individuals and I don't imagine you'll've spoken to any."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, silphium being in heavy use could explain it. Anyway, if it will help to assert that I believe that a child of two slaves could grow up to be a normal productive citizen on Casentar and leave the notion that only environment affects personality implicit, I can do that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It might help. And - I don't know what you can possibly say that'd be honest, given..." Feris glances around at all of the incomprehensible grandeur. "...everything, but if there were a thing you could say that was honest and at all plausible and sounded like 'we're very glad Sesat freely chose to deal with us, because it would have been totally infeasible to force the issue and we're much better off with Sesat's alliance than we would have been otherwise' that would also matter. A lot."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- is 'infeasible' important compared to, say, 'illegal', or 'unconscionable' -"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes. Not that the other two aren't good news."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- totally infeasible to make it a member state by force?" suggests Nelen. "- though one time a country did have an internal coup specifically aimed at putting through a vote..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Really? It seems as if you could annex Sesat without much trouble, the only problems are that you don't want to and people'd kill themselves or throw themselves at you to make you kill them." And kill their families but he'd rather Vanda Nossëo not be tipped off to worry about that.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I mean, we could occupy the territory but what we'd have after that would be at most one of 'Sesat' or 'a member state'."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, by that logic, if there's anything you want that it'd be unconscionable to achieve by force, then it's infeasible to achieve your goals here without our willing cooperation."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's infeasible to achieve all of them, definitely."

Permalink Mark Unread

Meanwhile, the shops draw attention. A woman investigates one in Sesat's capital and asks if they have anything that makes spinning easier.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure," says Zanro, "but do you want spinning only easier, or do you just want thread, or even fabric?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Begging your pardon, sir, I am sure your fabric is finer than any I've ever made, and I may want it as well, if the price for both is two stories. How long must the stories be, and must they be true?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"You can tell me a fictional story!" says Zanro cheerily, pulling down a bolt of chambray and grabbing a spinning wheel out of the back room.

Permalink Mark Unread

"There was once a young woman who married a young man, and at their wedding she fainted, and she became deathly ill. Her husband feared she was dying, and did not touch her, only ordered his maidservants to take her to her room and let her rest and bring her anything she needed. Then he went to ask a wise old woman what was to be done, and she said, 'it is pointless even to try. Only wait and see.'

"The young man was not pleased. He had heard of a beast in a palace several days journey away who had studied healing, who knew all there was to know about the flesh of any creature. So the young man set off to find the beast. He crossed the distance in a great haste, and came to the palace, and begged to speak to its master.

"The beast let him in, and greeted him, and asked what brought him so urgently. 'My wife is deathly ill,' said the young man, 'and I must save her.'

"And the beast said, 'I will trade you. I have in my garden a certain tree, whose fruit is unlike that of any other tree in the world. You may take one fruit from it and bring it home to your wife for her to eat. In exchange, when you reach the gates of your home, whatever creature you see first - be it one of your sheep, or one of your goats, or anything else that lives and walks on the earth and has red blood - you must bring here and give to me to devour.'

"The man agreed, and took the fruit, and set off in haste to reach his wife in time.

"When he got there, he discovered she had recovered, and had waited by the gate to greet him.

"Is that story to your liking, sir?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It'll buy you a spinning wheel!" said Zanro, pushing it toward her. "Do you want me to show you how it works now?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I might. Will it cost me another story?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Nah, comes with the wheel, but if you want the fabric that will and I can demo while you tell it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Sure, I'd like that. Hm. For my next story... once, long ago, humans built a city. This was very long ago, and no one knew yet how to care about anything but whether they were hungry and whether they were tired. A god, Gela, had promised abundant harvests if they would make offerings, so they did, so Gela blessed the city and protected it. But the city was ugly, and the countryside had been beautiful before, and so another god, Laen, hated it and wanted to destroy it.

"So Gela and Laen appointed mortal champions to do battle, Gela a man of the city and Laen a savage wild man of the distant countryside.

"And Laen said, 'Gela, you fool, my champion is far stronger than yours. You can never win supporting those people.'

"Gela only smiled, and whispered secret instructions to his people. And the day came, and the battle was fought, and Laen's champion defeated Gela's. But when Laen looked at the city he meant to destroy, he saw that it had been decorated with flowers, and paintings of flowers, and things that made him no longer hate it. He had said he would destroy it, so he had to destroy it; but he told the people he was going to do that, and that they should take their things away first, and make their cities more beautiful than this one.

"So the people left, some to the south and some to the west, and began to build more cities, and made the buildings beautiful to look upon, and laid the streets out neatly, and planted flowers around them, and moved everything they valued from the old city into the new, until they had more cities, and greater, and were unafraid of anything that might happen to their first home, because it no longer held anything they needed. And thus did Laen destroy the first city of men."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Aw, my co-worker will like that one." He's demonstrated the spinning wheel's mechanism by now. A bolt of chambray and the wheel are now hers!

Permalink Mark Unread

Oh, good, she's pleased one of the fairies. She takes her chambray and her spinning wheel home and gets to work - they'll likely both be gone in the morning, that being how fairies work, but perhaps it'll be worth it if the evening's spinning goes well.

A couple of men come by the same shop next. One of them looks around to see what's for sale, while the other asks if there's anything that can be done for the couple of fingers he lost in an accident a few years ago.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yup! Let me call in a float healer - okay, two minute wait, you want to tell me a story while we wait?" says Zanro.

There's fruit and meat and spices, lamps and shoes and space heaters and wireless kettles and contraceptive rings and air filters, a sign saying you can get the same kind of translation enchantment the staff use...

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm no good at stories, but, um, what kind do you like?"

The other man meanwhile looks lingeringly at the shoes as he palms some spices.

Permalink Mark Unread

Zanro glances at him buuuut doesn't say anything about it.

"A personal anecdote or a song'll do!" he says. "Doesn't matter if it's good."

Permalink Mark Unread

He sings a catchy, repetitive, upbeat song about a historical battle and how heroic Sesat's army was.

Permalink Mark Unread

Zanro nods along. A moment after the song's over, a healer - short, incredibly beardy, lots of chunky metal accessories - appears. "You're the one needs healing?" he asks the man with missing fingers.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm the one that wants healing," he says.

Permalink Mark Unread

Boop!

"Hey," says Zanro to the healer, "before you go?"

"Yeah?"

"Can you pop that fellow over a foot to the left less what he's filched?"

"Ah, yeah, no problem."

Dwarf and thief both teleport a foot to the left. The spices, left behind, fall in their packets to the floor. Zanro scoops them up and puts them back.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I was going to pay for those! I know stories!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, cool," says Zanro, retrieving the spices he'd chosen and holding them as a batch. "Let's hear 'em."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Um. Well."

(The guy who was healed slips out, not taking anything else.)

"So one of them is about this, um, drop of water. One day it fell from heaven. And, um, it was very afraid, so it went slinking off downhill, and found other drops of water, and then it was less afraid, and they told it they could all travel together to meet a bunch of other drops of water, and then they all lived in a great country of just drops of water, and they ate fish and seaweed, and then one day the little drop of water was called back home to heaven, but by then it liked the ocean so much it was sad to leave.

"And, um, I know another story about... yesterday... when the sun rose. And then I saw that I had a knife needing its last pass or two of sharpening, so I sharpened it, and then I sent it to the person who wanted it, and then I got paid. And then I looked at my list of commissions I'm doing and thought about what I'd do next. And then, uh, my wife made lunch, and we had bread and butter and lentils and radishes, and, you know, I thought the lentils were very bland and the radishes weren't bland enough but somehow there wasn't a good way to make it even out. And then I started on another project. And then I got frustrated with it and went off and played ur and got a bit drunk and then I went home and spent some time with my wife and then we ate again and we'd run out of lentils but we had more bread and butter and some cheese and finished the radishes, good riddance. And. Uh. Hm."

He looks around, as if maybe he'll get an idea from something in the store. Just one more to go. "Anyway, for my next story, today I decided to buy some spices by telling you stories. Does that count as a story or an anecdote."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'll count it as an anecdote." Zanro counts out the three spice packets and hands them over. "I hope they make your next batch of lentils more interesting!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I hope so too."

In another town near the border with Iral, meanwhile, a pair of siblings walk into a magic shop. Not that they announce themselves as such, but they look even more closely related than most pairs of random people in Sesat.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hi!" chirps the purple-haired lady who's pulling dozens of vacuum-packed lambchops out of a bag that does not seem like it should be able to hold even like three of them. "What can I do for you two today?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hi! We were wondering how people go about becoming purple-haired starfarers with the ability to construct buildings by magic."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, I was born with purple hair, though I can sell you some dye if you're keen." She fills up the lamb chop bin and starts pulling out chicken. This turns her around enough to reveal that there is an equally purple baby sleeping slung to her back. "To learn magic, if you're in a hurry, you'll want a bus off the planet."

Permalink Mark Unread

"The hair was metonymy, though it's stunning. Will you tell me more about magic, and buses off the planet, and what those things would cost us?"

Her brother, meanwhile, looks at the goods for sale (and does not try to shoplift).

Permalink Mark Unread

"There's bus stops going up as they get the land for them bought. A big old thing like a long building with a lot of windows - sometimes just one big window - will pop into place, every five or ten minutes depending on how much people are taking the bus to and from here, and you can get into it and have a seat and it'll pop to Shiund Hub, in Edda, that's where all the buses from this planet are going. Then it depends where you want to go - you specifically want the popping buildings into place one?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"There are multiple types? I don't know what the types are."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You can take an aptitude test if you're not picky! They probably have an aptitude test center less than a mile from Shiund but I don't know exactly where, you can ask at an information booth. Anyway, bus tickets between this planet and Shiund are free for now, and if you want to go farther you can use these tokens," she picks up a bin of them and rattles it, "which you can buy for stories and songs same as anything else in the shop. One token'll get you anywhere in the map and home again."

Permalink Mark Unread

It doesn't... feel right, make narrative sense... it doesn't fit into a story where fairies sell goods that vanish within a day, if they sell promises to take you somewhere later. That's not the kind of thing that should vanish. But neither are the other goods, if the shop is going to stay, if the fairies are going to stay.

"You should get the meat," she tells her brother.

"You're sure?"

"I think so. How long are the bus tokens good for?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, forever, even after we stop selling the tokens the ones you have will work till you spend them. And when we stop selling them you buy tickets, and we don't phase that in till we expect most people can afford them and figure out how to buy them."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, get the meat, if they came from a story it's a story where they stay." And if they didn't come from a story the meat isn't going to vanish just because it would in some other story that isn't even this one. It could be poisoned. It would be slightly insane to imagine these people would need to poison the meat. "Can I get multiple tokens if my story is interesting enough?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure, why not."

Permalink Mark Unread

"This is a story that isn't true as far as I know, but I might be wrong. There was a young widow. She had been married for a year, and had no children, and she lived near a town but not within its walls. Her cousin had children, three of them, and the widow sometimes watched the children, and told them stories.

"One of those was the story of a brave hero who roamed far and wide, seeking out monsters and defeating them, and giving food to orphans. The hero's name was Tena, and he came from somewhere to the north - not Iral, farther than that - and didn't tell people what he had done, lest he never learn whether they treated strangers poorly.

"Eventually, the widow's cousin died, and she sold her husband's empty house and moved in with the children. Then one day a stranger calling himself Tena came traveling from the north and stayed with them. The children were extremely excited and said they knew all about him. The widow said nothing. She also knew something about him; she had watched him come in through town, heard how he spoke, been around him, even smelled how he smelled, and she knew well the signs that he was..." Why did she wedge herself into this, the stories contradict each other about what euphemisms go over well and which are insulting, and now she has to finish this sentence in front of a fairy. "...a traveler from farther than north, and no mere human. So she was kind to him, of course, but said nothing of where she thought he had come from, only told the children how to be polite to their guest.

"Then, a ravenous beast attacked. The children insisted Tena could and would and should defeat it and save the town. Tena, for his part, did not think so. He ran. He was afraid and he did not know these people or have any reason to love them; he would have fought if the beast had attacked his own people, of course; he was no coward. He simply did not care.

"Or so he thought.

"When he had stopped running, he found himself weeping with grief that he had never guessed he might feel. He began to pray to Laen for mercy, for something to have been different, for them not to have died. This wasn't such a stupid thing for him to do as it sounds like, because...

"Once, long before this, Laen boasted that there was nothing he could not destroy. All those who heard his challenge and understood it were welcome to try to bring before him a counterexample. Many men tried. They brought him the hardest stones they could find. Their greatest champions challenged him. They brought him to see a river and a mountain. And Laen crumbled their stones, cursed their champions with weakness or killed them outright, and so on. So it seemed Laen boasted truly. Until one day someone who might have been Tena's grandfather, or great-grandfather, or father, or mother, or could have been any of Tena's people, really, went to challenge Laen.

"And this person told Laen a story. It was a story greater than this one, and one I could not tell you, though some have tried to reconstruct it. It was a story about Laen himself, and it made him laugh, and it made him weep, and it woke in him anger and awe. And then it ended.

"'The moment has already passed,' said Laen. 'I don't see how you even imagined that your story could outlast a mountain.'

"And Tena's kinsman answered, 'you remember it.'

"'I could forget,' said Laen.

"And Tena's kinsman answered, 'I know all there is to know about you, and I could tell you every story you've ever lived. Will you destroy them all? Your recollection and mine and everyone else who has ever known you? Would you be nothing, just to prove me wrong? I'll start with the story of your boast, and then how will you remember you even want to forget?'

"And Laen admitted he was beaten. Which is why he's so much more willing to answer Tena and his kinsfolk's prayers than those of me and my kinsfolk. So Tena, in his grief and confusion, prayed to Laen. And then, when he had run too far to run any further, and wept too much to weep any more, and prayed the most desperate prayer he had ever prayed, he rested, and fell asleep."

Her voice grows quieter now, at least for a while. "He dreamed of the widow. He dreamed of his home. He dreamed that the widow had come to stay with him. In the dream, they were all attacked by a monster, and she told all the children around her to run, and stood to distract the monster.

"Tena woke, then, uneasy and ashamed, and went along on his way. He passed human towns but did not visit them. Eventually, he saw a palace, where there lived a beast, not so different from the beast he had run away from, but a beast capable of speech and intelligent thought. It invited Tena in, and offered him food, and saw that Tena's heart was very heavy, and asked what troubled him.

"'I am troubled because I wish I had protected the people who sheltered me,' said Tena. 'They believed I was a great hero who would do what they needed. They were wrong. I don't know what to do now. Laen has not answered my prayer.'

"And the beast said, 'I have a riddle for you, if you will keep a secret.' And Tena agreed to keep the secret, so the beast said: 'I am a beast and not a man, and so I bow to threats; yet rarely am I threatened, for I am strong; and none know this about me, save you, because you would not tell. No one else knows, because it has never come to pass that someone told me "stop or I will kill you" and I stopped. Neither has anyone gotten revenge on me, for no one I have ever hunted has had a friend who could avenge them. So tell me now: how did you save the people who sheltered you?'

"And Tena thought on this, and then he asked if the beast had weapons of any kind to trade him. And the beast said: 'you could try the maze in my courtyard, and see what you find there.'

"And Tena, whose people are wise in these things, said: 'and if I do that, will I be pleased with the results?'

"And the beast said, 'yes, because you asked, I have already placed a bow and a quiver of arrows in the maze.'

"And Tena asked more questions, then explored the maze, then left, and let it be known that the great hero Tena come out of the north had simply run to find his weapons and would avenge any who had been slain while he was gone.

"The beast Tena had spoken to had the power of understanding, but the one that had attacked the town had not, and all its people were dead. Tena avenged them, and went forth, the hero they had spoken of."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ooh, I like that one," says the shopkeeper. She hands over two tokens.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, now I'm tempted to find out if I can get three at once. Probably not without thinking it over first. So, these are for traveling the stars, only I don't know the etiquette in the stars and I don't want to offend anyone."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, what is it you want to do up there?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Learn magic and find out what other things I want to do and maybe do more than that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, you'll probably want an information booth or something, and the information booth people are used to confused travelers. To leave a nice big margin around what'll offend people, don't touch people with yourself or objects, and if you need to ask directions or something try to find someone who isn't busy, and if a door is locked that means you shouldn't go through it, and if there's a queue and you want what they're queuing for, go to the end of it and wait."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think I can do that. May I ask why you're collecting stories, by the way?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"When Vanda Nossëo shows up in a new place, things start changing, really really quickly. In a culture without a really high literacy rate and tendency to write everything down, that can make it quickly really hard to get undistorted information on what the culture's like before we show up. So on low tech places like this one we trade stuff for stories, and then our historians are happier about the situation. It also helps people feel like it's a trade and not charity, some people hate getting charity, and also seems to help with people thinking we're booby trapping the stuff. Plus it gets people talking more and that helps them get used to us more than if we just had, like, a shelf you could take stuff off of."

Permalink Mark Unread

"We have a really high literacy rate. Even one of our housekeeper's kids can take notes on which houses they clean when."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, that's unusual for this tech level. But it doesn't hurt to have more copies of stories, even if they're all also written down somewhere. Historians love that kind of thing."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think most of the stories about Laen have been written down but I was putting that one together on the fly out of pieces I'd heard before. I bet someone's written down a story about the beast in the palace before at some point. I don't know, maybe not."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'll add that as an annotation!" She taps her computer, which she wears strapped to her arm.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I ought to head out. It was good meeting you."

She leaves. Her brother doesn't.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Can I help you with anything?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I expect you can! I was wondering what the, uh, minimum story you'd accept is, because I can't follow that and I'm not going to try."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If you just want to tell me about what you had for breakfast I can take that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I ate food today, it's true. And I thought about how stupid the war is. And I noticed that the sky was a nice color. - What about you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Closed up shop on a place called Beach and came to man this booth here! It doesn't have a super good safety rating, since we're new here and don't have great stats on how likely locals are to attack us, but I figured it would be fine. How come you think the war's stupid?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do I get more stuff if I answer? I can also tip you off about when people are likely to get violent."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That'd be useful, my husband would be real annoyed if we had to clear out the savings account to get a resurrection for the baby."

Permalink Mark Unread

"No one is going to get offended by the baby unless you do something on the scale of going out and finding someone else's baby and killing it slowly. Or - this is a lot of terrible things that you probably won't do, but I want to list them exhaustively so you can know there's nothing else on the list - if you did something sexual to a child, or committed rape, or kidnapped a bunch of young women and tortured them, or maybe even if it were a bunch of young men, under the circumstances. Or if you went to war and pretended to surrender and then that was a trick and you killed the people you pretended to surrender to. Or otherwise attacked them. Or if you killed your father or your mother. Or I guess if someone conquered Vanda Nossëo and you stood aside and let it happen, but I don't think Sesat would concern ourselves with the baby in that case, I think everyone would have other things to worry about. And even in those cases, your husband could come take the baby and we'd hand it over, if he didn't drag his heels about it or start off saying he wasn't going to. - Obviously that's only the subset of ways you could offend people that would be bad enough for something to happen to your child because of it, but if you don't do any of that, they're safe. I mean, other than diseases and accidents and... I was trying to reassure you but I'm not sure listing awful things that could hurt your baby is as good a strategy for that as I was thinking it might be when I started on it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm not mostly worried someone'll attack him, but if someone stabbed me and I fell over I could land on him," she explains.

Permalink Mark Unread

"You are unlikely to get stabbed because you're a woman and it's not really the done thing to get women involved in violence, and you're not a serf or something - if you were a serf and you insulted me I'd hit you, but you're not, not that you should insult me but I'd have to respond to it differently - I guess if you said 'I only look like a human woman but actually where I come from lots of people who look like human women are in the army, and I also think you're trash and I deserve to own you' then I would attack you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"My species doesn't really have gender," she says. "But I'd get fired if I said something like that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay, well, if you're not really a woman as I understand women and you don't want to get into a fight, then you shouldn't mortally insult anyone, or challenge anyone to a duel, or... work for Azan or something?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah nah they don't have us float between booths in different polities on the same planet. If they decided to get rid of this one I'd wind up on another planet entirely probably."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. You never did tell me if I'd get more stuff for telling you why the war is stupid."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can count it as a story."

Permalink Mark Unread

But will she.

"Because it always is. There are so many things I'd rather be doing than dealing with the fact that people can't just agree that Sesat has the land and the people that it has and leave us alone. It never improves anything. And Azan is - ruthless and terrible, but I don't think they're cruel to their own people, and I want us to be able to leave them alone about it without that causing more problems."

Permalink Mark Unread

She nods sympathetically. "Did you want tokens or something else?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I was thinking I'd get some meat, if you could explain how to open it and stuff, and, I don't know, what else do you recommend?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"A knife'll do it, or grabbing it on either side of one of these notches and pulling hard. If you cook your food, or heat or light your house, with fire you might want a heater or one of these kettle-things you can cook stuff in or a lamp, or if you plan to keep using fire for that you might want an air filter, get some of the smoke out of your face."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Are the heaters and kettle-things safer if there are kids or senile people around?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Safer than a fire, by a lot, except insofar as they might not already know to keep their hands off, but they do heat up. You can hang the heater from a ceiling and that works fine."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I might want both but I also want the meat and I'm not sure what else I should say..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"How many siblings do you have and what are your relationships like? What was your favorite toy as a kid? What do you usually do to earn money and how do you feel about that?" she suggests.

Permalink Mark Unread

"How about instead I give you more advice on not getting punched. Asking about families and close friends is incredibly forward. People might tell you about their relationships with each other, and it's not that hard to figure some of them out if you live in the same town long enough, but don't pry, prying is very rude. And I didn't play with toys much, as a kid, I'd spend a lot of my free time counting flower petals and leaves and stuff."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. Okay. What kinds of questions would go over better when people can't think of anything to say, here?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm not sure, maybe ask about their favorite game or their favorite song or what they think of sky's night."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sky's night?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's a holiday where people hang out on the roof and watch the stars and have a big meal and sometimes invite strangers to celebrate with them - it's for celebrating whatever you didn't get a chance to during the year, and thinking about what you want to achieve."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, that sounds nice! As long as there's enough roof to sit on for everybody."

Permalink Mark Unread

"The roof is the most common thing that everyone thinks of but you're not banned from celebrating in a courtyard or a field. But I have personally never had too little roof to celebrate on and I don't know anyone else who's ever mentioned that either."

Permalink Mark Unread

Nod nod. "What kind of meat do you want?" she asks.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I was thinking maybe the lamb but I don't know, what do you recommend?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Lamb's good! My favorite's the chicken, though, it's sort of like a kind of poultry from my home planet except I never liked that one and I like humanbiospheretypical chicken and now i can make all those recipes and they're good." She fills up a nice little net bag for him. "I'm allowed to give you quite a lot of this, the meat handouts are subsidized by all the animal lovers who don't want any animals to be eaten and are hoping to displace some butchery."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You are trying to prevent animals from being eaten by giving me meat."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, this meat wasn't animals. They grow it in vats. Or possibly have demons conjure it, I'm not actually sure about this batch but if it's important I can check the box."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Will it nourish me like meat would?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah, exactly like! There's nothing different about it apart from it never having been an animal or they'd have a much harder time convincing people to switch."

Permalink Mark Unread

"And they want people to switch. Why's that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Because they care about the animals? And don't want animals to be brought up by people who don't care about them and then killed."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Ah." He bets he knows what they think of slavery. He kind of wants to ask but isn't sure if it's a good idea. He hesitates and looks around some more to cover for thinking through whether he should say anything.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Since these are made without animal involvement and vacuum-sealed, they will keep without needing to be kept cold or anything for up to a year - frankly they keep longer than that, but they're specifically rated for a year - and are safe to eat raw, but I recommend cooking them anyway," she says, handing him the bag.

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's convenient. And I don't eat the... vacuum seal? Right?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Right, that you just get rid of."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Pleasure doing business with you."

Elsewhere someone restrains and manhandles a person with facial tattoos who was trying to get into one of the magic shops.

Permalink Mark Unread

The proprietor - this one just looks like a human, though he's not ethnically unremarkable for the area - steps out. "Is something wrong? I haven't barred that fellow from my shop."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Apologies, sir, it's not a fellow," says a bystander who is not too busy engaging in a physical altercation with the fellow to answer.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I haven't barred that entity from my shop," replies the proprietor.

Permalink Mark Unread

"'s busy," the person trying to drag them away grunts.

"Our apologies, sir, it was our understanding that you had asked that slaves be kept away from you," says the bystander.

Permalink Mark Unread

"If somebody said that it was because they don't want to watch slaves being treated like slaves," says the shopkeeper. "So if you want to be polite, you'll lay off him. I have not barred that entity from my shop."

Permalink Mark Unread

The person doing the manhandling freezes, unsure if it's a good idea to be impolite to the fair folk. The slave takes advantage of the opportunity to slip free and run for the shop.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Welcome!" says the proprietor, waving him in.

Permalink Mark Unread

"If I stay in your shop, are you going to protect me?" the slave asks.

Someone else in the shop gives them a dirty look but doesn't say anything yet.

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's not really meant for long term guests but I certainly won't tolerate anyone attacking you in here," says the proprietor.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Great! What's for dinner?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Gotta tell me a story first," he remarks, amused. "It doesn't have to be a good one. What you had for dinner yesterday'll do."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I didn't!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"You know what, I'm going to go ahead and count that," says the proprietory, and he unseals a hunk of salmon. "You want this raw? I bet you're in a hurry."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Maybe you'll sell me something to cook it with if I tell you Elu who works at the palace has one kid with her husband and one with her tailor."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yup." Here is one of the little cookers. He drops the salmon in and demonstrates how to close it up and turn it on.

Permalink Mark Unread

Awesome. She'll sit there and babysit the incredibly tempting magical thing while it cooks her food that she really kind of wants to eat right now. This is kind of hard. She takes her mind off it by telling the shopkeep more gossip about other people's close relationships.

Permalink Mark Unread

That will net her spices for the salmon and a pair of shoes and a nice sweater and a ring that will prevent her from having babies!

Permalink Mark Unread

"Anyone who'd have sex with me would also take the ring off me, you know. I don't suppose I could get it in a tattoo or something that wouldn't come off?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hrm," he says. "Let's see what I've got." He digs around. "Under the skin good enough?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sounds good. Hey, speaking of tattoos, can I stop having these ones?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't have that on hand. If you can get on a bus, for sure." He gets a birth control implant inserter loaded up. "What kind of bits am I rendering barren, here?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The attractive and popular kind - I'm a woman, I guess."

Permalink Mark Unread

He adjusts the inserter, runs down a checklist to make sure he's done it all correctly, and says, "It'll sting. Where d'you want it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Does it matter? I don't know, maybe somewhere people won't notice."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Armpit?" he suggests.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure." She raises an arm. "What about makeup, do you sell really good makeup?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Implant goes in the armpit. It stings for a sec and then there's a weird buzzing feeling and it stops stinging; it doesn't bleed. "I don't think I have any makeup, no. This is for the tats?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, yeah."

Permalink Mark Unread

"So the thing is we're trying to convince Sesat to let Vanda Nossëo buy you all up and free you, but before we can do that, we gotta convince them to stop making more people slaves. Elsewise they could, like, make money by saying 'that guy killed his dad' when his dad actually choked on a chicken bone or something, and make money that way. But they think it'll be loads harder to convince them about that if we just kind of let you escape on purpose all the time. ...who owns you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Me, seeing as I'm where I want me and not where anyone else does."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...huh. Who's going to be mad if I whisk you away? Anyone specific or just, like, the government?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Wanna whisk me away and find out?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I mean, I'm tempted, but I can't actually teleport, myself, I get picked up at the end of my shift. I don't wanna fuck over a hundred slaves who just didn't happen to come in."

Permalink Mark Unread

"They mostly deserve it. Mostly everyone deserves it, or maybe that's just Sesat."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"You gonna believe me if I say no? Because my answer's no but even I don't believe me about it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, what'd you do?"

Permalink Mark Unread

She kind of goggles at him. "So how many goodies do I get if I draw all the slave marks for you and tell you what they mean?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"One per," he says evenly.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Gimme a thing to draw on?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Yeah, he can find a pen and paper.

Permalink Mark Unread

Unfamiliar and weird but she can figure it out. "So this one just means slave," she says of one of the ones she has, "so if you see it by itself it means born to it or taken in war. This one is, what's it called, uhhhhhh... perfidy. I think I drew it right but I don't see it a lot. This one's patricide," and it's her other one, "and this one's for the rest of your family, so, matricide, or anyone else if it was really bad." And a couple more, which she remembers and can explain.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Quite a rap sheet," he remarks when she's gone through them all, piling more goodies on her pile. The salmon's done; the lid of the cooker can double as a plate and he digs up a fork for her.

Permalink Mark Unread

Food! She has nothing to say that's so urgent she'd interrupt dinner for it. She can resume conversation afterward if he wants.

Permalink Mark Unread

Poor lady. At least he can feed her.

Permalink Mark Unread

"So have you got more high-minded philosophy about it than 'Sesat is full of awful people so probably they're all awful at telling who's even worse than the rest'?" she asks after she's eaten.

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's a remarkably Sesati way of putting it, honestly," he remarks. "Look, what's your name? I'm Artorian."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you not know slaves don't have names or do you just not give a fuck what Sesat has to say about what I get to call myself? Anyway, I'm Fere."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's the second one," he says, smiling a little. "Nice to meet you, Fere."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thanks. You too."

Another free person walks into the shop. He looks straight at Fere. "Come here," he says sharply, advancing on her.

Permalink Mark Unread

Artorian glares at the newcomer but doesn't say anything.

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere throws the cooker at him; he ducks.

Permalink Mark Unread

The shop is filled, suddenly, with frenetically beautiful music, and everything is gluey dreamlike with slowness and the cooker drifts through the air like a Mylar balloon. Artorian collects it and sets it down; he doesn't seem impeded, though both his guests are. "Either of you want to rethink that interaction?" he asks.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not really," says Fere.

"Thank you for your help and I'm sorry it troubled you," says the man. "I came here to retrieve it and prevent that sort of thing."

Permalink Mark Unread

"She didn't trouble me at all. We were having a nice chat and she was patronizing my shop," says Artorian. "No need to help me."

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere smirks and makes a rude gesture, or at least begins the unpleasantly slow process of making a rude gesture.

"I'm glad to hear that," says the man, "but I'm afraid I can't let it keep skipping out on work."

Permalink Mark Unread

"She belong to you?" inquires Artorian.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not personally."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Then why can't you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I work for its owner, off and on."

Permalink Mark Unread

"How about you go get them. For all I know you could be a random thief," Artorian says.

Permalink Mark Unread

He leaves.

Permalink Mark Unread

Artorian turns off the music, turns to Fere. "I can't actually keep doing this forever," he says. "If we start whisking slaves off we lose all the - good faith negotiating position. You can't even just camp out in the store. But - I want you to know it won't last forever. Even if Sesat blocks us at every turn and you never manage to make it out of the country? We've got resurrection. If you grow old and die here you will wake up free.

You can run if you want to give them a hard time. I'm not going to kick you out, but I can't keep your owner off you when they show up."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm not going to grow old, you idiot." Or maybe Fere's the idiot. Should've never imagined anyone else was going to help, and now her death is just going to be slower because she trusted a stupid garbled rumor about them wanting to help, when instead they want to "negotiate" in "good faith" with this shithole of a country, because no one actually cares.

She would kind of like, on some level, to be able to punch him for luring her here, which is stupid considering that first of all she should've known better and second of all it's not like she's punched all of Sesat yet.

She swallows hard and decides Artorian can go at the end of the list of people she needs revenge on.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm really sorry," says Artorian, not quite meeting her eyes. "If you die here of anything, you will wake up free."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I would appreciate the thing where you think that's a lie worth telling but the 'if' is really over the fucking top. If you really mean to do that, wait at least a month, they probably won't be done any faster if they can help it. - Sell me a weapon."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't have any in st- I have a pair of scissors, actually, are they for you or them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Which answer gets me scissors," Fere deadpans.

Permalink Mark Unread

"First one. If you can answer it with the truth magic running."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I would rather die fast than slow even if you're lying about coming back."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You going to stab anyone but you with these? I can get away with it if you're not, pretty sure."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Probably not," since she's hopelessly outmatched and unlikely to succeed at any particular thing she might try in a fight.

Permalink Mark Unread

He hands her the scissors.

Permalink Mark Unread

She considers running. It'd be one more thing to try, and she could try to get to someone she wants to get back at more than the garden variety asshole who's after her now, or she could make for Azan. Unless Azan wouldn't help either, or unless Vanda Nossëo has made them stop helping.

But for all that she's bad at being polite to the fair folk she does know she's dealing with them. He did say "if you die here" specifically. It'd be just like them to declare that they totally meant it, that if she'd just trusted them instead of trying to protect herself they really would have made good on their promise...

She would like to challenge them on that but they're still at the end of her list.

"You planning on doing the music thing again?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Which one?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The one that got in the way of the fight earlier."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If a fight breaks out."

Permalink Mark Unread

These people are just so stupidly against revenge. It's terrible. She'll have to either step outside and leave open the possibility of sanctimonious exact-wordsing, which is much worse than just going back on their word, or go ahead and kill herself before anyone gets here. Maybe if she does... she's already passed their truth magic about not wanting revenge that badly. She has options.

"Save my stuff for me, if I'm really coming back," she says casually, and...

...and...

...wow, this does not take the same kind of courage as she has. Why is this difficult.

Permalink Mark Unread

Artorian nods, eyes a little teary, and collects her stuff into a bag like he really expects to see her later that day.

Permalink Mark Unread

She doesn't believe it, she would not say that she believes it and she wouldn't be lying to say it. But on some level seeing that helps.

She reminds herself how badly she's failed at so many different things, how she should have known better than to come here, how much everyone else hates her, until she's angry enough at herself that it stops being hard.

Permalink Mark Unread

When her owner comes by Artorian informs them that she got ahold of his scissors and, regrettably, took her own life.

On another planet someone who has just gotten an email from her husband sighs and puts Fere in the resurrection queue at heinous expense and goes and sits by her bedside waiting for the person in happiness-headphones to dance past and wake her.

Permalink Mark Unread

AAaaaaaaaa what the fuck. Fere absolutely planned for this and was totally told it would happen and yet, somehow, her reaction is to think what the fuck and stifle a scream.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hey," says Artorian's wife. "I'm Artorian's wife. You must have made an impression, because that was most of our savings! I mean, we weren't saving for anything in particular, you don't have to feel bad about it, but we can't do that again for a while. Welcome to Zovis."

Permalink Mark Unread

Artorian tentatively drops off her list of people to screw over at the first opportunity.

"...Thanks. Um. Hi. That was extremely cool and I'm definitely going to be excited about it soon. How do I help you make back your savings."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, don't worry about that, you just stabbed yourself to get out of slavery in some hellhole, you should be decompressing and spending your UBI on delivery margaritas on the beach, honey. Do you want help getting an apartment and stuff?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I need to know what a margarita is, where the nearest beach is, how apartments work, and what the plan is for Sesat. And most importantly whether I have tattoos on my face."

Permalink Mark Unread

Artorian's wife pulls a mirror out of her pocket. "Not a one, hon. Margarita's a drink, apartments are a place to live, Sesat is - I assume getting the standard spiel, I don't know what they'll do with it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

She's transfixed by the mirror and her hand hovers as if she's unsure whether to touch it.

"I don't know what the standard spiel is."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's, join Vanda Nossëo and get basically whatever you want except continuing to suck? I don't know, I don't work for them, I run a luau restaurant."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Can you... tell Artorian, or someone, that if they need to ask questions, I can answer?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"About Sesat? Yeah, sure hon." She pulls out her computer and composes a message.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Also I probably do need help getting an apartment and stuff but I'm wondering if I can visit Azan."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Where's that? - is it on your planet? I think you can't casually visit your planet till it's more settled down. Maybe somebody from Azan would come here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't care about someone from Azan coming here, they can just say what they want about what Azan's like and it doesn't have to be true. They have open borders and if they find out you're keeping people from going there they'll try to conquer you and enslave your army, by the way."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...well, that won't work at all. I don't know, maybe you can go, I just know I'm not supposed to visit Artorian at work yet. I can show you how to read the bus maps if you want."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can read already." Badly. Very badly.

Permalink Mark Unread

"That'll help! We can get you an Allspeak on the way out. And then get you some clothes that aren't that resurrection gown thing, and an apartment, and an explanation of the bus system. Am I forgetting anything?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Um... I totally have clothes, I have a sweater and shoes from Artorian's store, and some other stuff that'll have blood on it and Sesat might maybe not agree with me that I own that stuff so it's just the sweater and shoes. Also if my tattoos are gone my thing for not having kids might be gone too and I want it before I go anywhere even near Sesat."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, you can have more clothes, then, Artorian isn't coming home till this weekend, but we can get you a thing for not having kids on the way out too." The chamber full of beds where the resurrections take place is gradually emptying out into a vestibule where, as promised, they can get a new contraceptive implant and an Allspeak-wand bop on the head for Fere.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure, if clothes sell for a song I'll take lots."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's not literally a song, that's just leading-edge shops like Artorian's, but it'll fit in your UBI nicely." They can also get Fere an ID bracelet in the vestibule, which will allow her to pay for things, and then they're off.

The city of Zovis is not the most overwhelming one in Vanda Nossëo by a long shot; it's still a city, with tall towers and a trolley network that takes people place to place within the city, but it's got lots of trees and outdoor café seating and the building Fere was just resurrected in is by far the biggest one. Artorian's wife introduces herself as Keoni and shows Fere to a clothing shop; it doesn't appear to be staffed at all except in specifically the bra department, but has lots of clothes on the racks, and they can swap the resurrection robe for something Fere likes. Little mechanical things scurry around putting displaced clothes back on their racks. A floating bit of art glass drifts about the store. There are big mirrors and curtained changing rooms.

Permalink Mark Unread

At first it's too overwhelming to be beautiful and then it's so beautiful it's overwhelming and Fere gets quieter and quieter until she's ducked into a changing room to have the breakdown she's been putting off all day. Her plan going into the clothing shop is to get something sturdy for work and something nice and obviously fancy but the thick denim pants she finds are dyed almost perfectly evenly a very deep blue and one of the cheap shirts is black with a delicate-looking red design and there must be a way to look fancier than that but Fere's too uncultured to figure it out, once everything is made this neatly and dyed this richly it just looks the same to her. Maybe if she looked longer and had more patience for puzzling out the numbers on price tags she could figure it out herself but instead she resorts to asking Keoni.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think jeans and an Aloha shirt are a fine choice, good for basically any situation," says Keoni. "Let's get you a couple, so you don't have to put the resurrection robe on to do laundry -" She pulls down a few more patterns of shirt, another shade of jeans, holds Fere's foot to a measuring object and grabs her some sandals and a pair of loafers, pulls a pack of underpants off the shelf. "There's a bra lady over there if you want to get fitted, but probably you can get away without, not like me, ha!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Should I want to get fitted? And is there some kind of taboo on letting people know you were resurrected or something?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"No, there's not, but if you wear it for a month I'd expect you to get tired of people going 'welcome back' - you were dead for like an hour - my grandmother tie-dyed hers, it's a statement, you could do that - anyway, do you want to wear a bra or nah, you could go either way."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I dunno, which way makes people more confused about whether I'm a man or a woman and is it bad if I confuse them?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess if you got the right kind you could make people more confused and if you got a... right kind for a different kinda right... you could make them less? Confuse anybody you want, it's a big multiverse, Dwarves don't even have genders, they run around with gigantic beards going by 'he' while they're fully about to give birth."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...I kind of want to do the opposite of that. Run around with both genders, no beard, and not have any more kids. Totally want people to call me 'sir', though. Or 'ma'am', that's fine too."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sounds fun! I think I'll swap your sandals with that in mind but you have an otherwise pretty androgynous style here."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. How's the sandal gender thing go?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, the style just looks girly to me. I think 'cause of how strappy they are." She picks out a new kind.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, at least Fere's been tipped off that footwear of all things is the thing to look at to figure out fashion gender. She comes to some vaguely sensible decision about bras and would like to figure out how to get an apartment so she can crash first and figure out if she can get to Azan tomorrow.

Permalink Mark Unread

There is an apartment building across the street from Keoni's luau restaurant that Keoni thinks is probably affordable on basic and it'll mean Keoni's convenient if Fere needs something else! Upon investigation Keoni confirms that it fits within basic but it's on the higher end of that and it would mean that Fere would need to hold down her clothes shopping and other splurges down to a somewhat below average level. But it does have a pool!

Permalink Mark Unread

"If I go there, can I still go to Azan and back, and can I still eat if I do - I'm not precious about bugs but I really want my food to be fresh. Also I don't know how to swim."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...yeah. I don't think you are going to have the least bit of trouble keeping your splurges down to a somewhat below average level, hon. You can buy bus passes and fresh food and swimming lessons, you just can't also buy a prestidigitator and a servantcat that same month."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't even know what those things are."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There you go then, don't buy anything where you don't know what it is and you're golden."

Permalink Mark Unread

Then she'll go ahead and get the apartment with the pool.

Permalink Mark Unread

Keoni will teach her to use an elevator and show her where her own house is (it's on top of the luau restaurant's kitchen) in case she needs anything and then go back to her own premises and drone-deliver a basket of sweet bread rolls and shoyu chicken to Fere's new balcony.

Permalink Mark Unread

...She wants a drone now. But that is probably a splurge and not very affordable. She eats the chicken, decides to save the rolls for later on the theory that bread keeps a few days at least and she wants to be able to eat tomorrow, and manages (to her own surprise) to actually do that.

By the next day Azan's got a bus stop and Fere can visit it and wander around.

Azan's capital is... different from Sesat's. The people there with Sesati slave tattoos (of whom there are substantially fewer than in Sesat) aren't obviously being treated like slaves. One of them is cleaning a street, and gets in the way of an Azani who mumbles "excuse me, sir" and then "thanks" without any detectable sarcasm. At first it seems like she happens not to be crossing paths with anyone very important. But then someone steps out of the palace in workman's clothes alongside one of the diplomats, passing on details of Azan he's decisions and asking strategic questions about Vanda Nossëo.

So it's true, she thinks, what they said about Azan in the more optimistic tales. It's hard to know if the people there are happier than the ones in Sesat - Fere didn't get to see them before everything changed, after all - but it's true they talk to each other like equals and it's true they don't give a damn if Sesat calls someone a slave. At least, true for someone who was born to it; she doesn't happen to see anyone else like her.

...Actually, she doesn't know that she doesn't. She's in ostentatiously foreign clothes with her face healed - not with her face healed. With a whole new face. Maybe if she's lucky Artorian'll tell her what happened to her old one. At any rate in her whole new body of Vanda Nossëan make and her whole new clothes and her bracelet, she could pass for one of the fair folk. Is, maybe, passing for one of them. (...Artorian and Keoni could be human, and just rich beyond comprehension. How would she know?)

She reverses directions in her mind, that she heard whispered a hundred times, that she passed on in case they were true. Go this way for this long, turn like so if you see this landmark... but that'll get her home (...?) from the Azani border. It won't get her to the border.

She wonders if she can get a map from one of the shops. Then she wonders if they'd be able to tell she was local, if she walked in.

She steps into a shop to test this.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hi!" says the lady behind the counter. "What can I get you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Have you got a local map? I got kinda lost."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sorry, no, not one with streets on it and stuff. I can show you a satellite photo but that won't help. Where are you trying to get to?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Trying to remember which parts of Azan are where and which way Sesat was and which ways are just ocean. A satellite photo would be cool." What is a satellite photo? If she sees one she'll learn.

Permalink Mark Unread

Satellite photo!

Permalink Mark Unread

It's like a map without borders. It's like a map that does not care what people say belongs to one country or another. "See? Satellite photos are cool. Where're we?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We're here!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thanks! I can probably make do with that. By the way, how's it going?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Going pretty good! You thinking about signing on? This is one of the jobs you can qualify for even if you don't have much background, they'll train you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh, I didn't know that, that sounds like fun."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You get to meet interesting people! And Azan's looking like an easy sell on membership so that'll streamline things."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. Even with all the, uh..." Fere gestures vaguely.

Permalink Mark Unread

"The maiming and slavery and stuff? Yeah, turns out the king's not attached!"

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere nods and looks around at the merchandise a bit to see if it's the same as in Sesat and lingers to hear someone else tell a story. The shops are busier today, or maybe there are fewer of them in Azan or something.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's mostly the same with slightly different emphases due to responses to local demand.

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere has the sense that if she were really smart she'd be able to get more from this than just that Vanda Nossëo seems basically honest and really rich and important.

She does vaguely remember where the Azani peninsula and the river are relative to Sesat, though, and how to figure out directions from the sun, and heads in the right direction.

And heads in the right direction.

And heads in the right direction, probably.

The Azani countryside is different but also kind of not. There are farmers, and some of them yell at each other, and the more practice Fere gets at reading power dynamics in Azan the more sure she is that there are people who are more and less important - but not by half so much as in Sesat. She sees a young couple kiss in public, and someone unloading a wagon of imported goods - there's what looks light a fight brewing, a weaver's afraid for her job when she hears how cheap fabric is, and it's settled when someone hands her a pound of beef and tells her as long as the shop's there she can tell stories for whatever she wants and if the shop disappears she'll have her job back.

No one really seems afraid of a stranger at the edge of earshot, and that does mean Azan's been happier all along.

It's a long walk. The farther Fere goes the sweatier and tireder she gets and it's nowhere near her limit but... the worse she looks, the more she looks like how she's looked when they've seen her before. She turns back. She goes back to the shop.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's still there! The shift has changed, though, a different human is manning the store now. "Welcome!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hey. Can I get stuff for stories here?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure can! What catches your fancy?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I would like enough food to eat for as long as the food will stay definitely fresh and not even be a little bit off, and I want to look different, and I want bus tokens. And advice about Vanda Nossëo."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Look different? I don't have - wigs or anything here, and if I knew illusion magic I'd probably have a non-retail job."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't know, maybe you could recommend me a store in another world that has things? Not wigs, though."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, sure," says the proprietor, beginning to stack up packages of trail mix and instant entrées next to some tokens. "If you get on the bus and go one stop you'll be at Station One in Edda and then you can go down from the swapspace levels to level eight and get on anything that says it hits Space Arda, most lines do in at least one direction from Edda, and in Space Arda you get on the local circuit - I think Anticlockwise Maple gets you there fastest, and you go to Ambaróna station, and there is the most exquisite department store I've ever seen and it's just full of Elves who will give you a makeover if you give them an inch. - they won't touch your hair but they'll give you a scarf for it if that'll do you, and they're dab hands with makeup. Do you have Vanda Nossëo money though?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Uh, some but I might need more? Do you have advice about getting more?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"If you wait a bit Azan's going to join up and then you'll get your basic! If you're in a terrible hurry you could try to find some Dwarves around Ambaróna and ask for a loan, I guess."

Permalink Mark Unread

"The basic is enough to cover makeovers?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I mean, I suppose that depends on what else you're spending it on, doesn't it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hmmm... does it cost more than the amount of food I'm getting today?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'll figure something out, thanks. Anyway, stories..."

Fere's not going to share gossip from Sesat here, or try to get away with single sentences. Or talk about things she's eaten in Sesat. Or say something that'd identify her as someone who's died since they made contact.

She tells bedtime stories she only half remembers, trying to edit them on the fly to sound more Azani but probably failing in some way - there's one about a boy who goes on an adventure despite being three inches tall and one about a boy who boasts impossible things...

...She runs out of bedtime stories too soon and adds, "I went to a clothing store in Vanda Nossëo where everything was really well made and I got this outfit there, if that counts?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure, why not! I wasn't sure if you'd gotten it on planet or not, could be somebody was stocking Hawaiian shirts, it wouldn't be the strangest thing I ever saw in an outreach shop."

Permalink Mark Unread

"What is the strangest thing?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Crazy straws. Apparently they really like crazy straws in this one corner of Achudiran. I never did find out what for."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's so weird. Hey, are there cheaper places for makeovers, even if they're not as good?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I mean, probably? I don't know how different you want to look."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I mostly want longer hair and to not look like some starving poor person." (Her last haircut was a halfassed attempt to nonconsensually shave her head with a knife.)

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ooh, okay, if you want your hair put back you need a demon or an angel and for that you can probably find a place in Revelation though I don't know a specific one, that's just where you're most likely to find demons and angels doing small scale stuff like that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Cool, thanks!"

She takes her stuff and heads back to the apartment, first, to set everything down and try the trail mix and take a look at Keoni's restaurant once she's eaten enough to trust herself not to make stupid choices.

Permalink Mark Unread

Keoni's restaurant has a live band playing, and dancers, mostly humans but one of the dancers has dove-gray hair and one of the musicians is something else slightly not-human that Fere hasn't met one of before. The food is mostly distributed by robots, and Keoni has a couple assistants in the open kitchen chirping "yes chef" at her while they operate huge appliances to make large batches of things. There's a sign that says "all you can eat" with separate prices for adults and kids under 12. Some of the patrons of the restaurant are a group of unaccompanied ten year olds splitting a huge bowl of poi.

Permalink Mark Unread

Wow, that's incredible. She stares transfixed at the dancers for a while, getting increasingly tempted to get dinner here, but if that doesn't draw attention after a while she'll just go have more trail mix and try to figure out how to get to Revelation.

Permalink Mark Unread

Keoni is very absorbed in making something with fish and does not really notice her.

If Fere makes her way back to where she was resurrected, there are signs for the bus station, and more signs inside the bus station, indicating that she can get from the local line to the planet's hub by getting on one of this kind of bus and then switching to one of that kind of bus and then getting off in Revelation.

Permalink Mark Unread

Ugh, signs. She is cool and smart for eventually puzzling them out.

She visits Revelation. She looks for an info place or something.

Permalink Mark Unread

The bus station in Revelation has info booths! The info booth person is a human but has a lot of piercings. "Hiya! What's up?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you know a place I can get my hair done?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ooh - done like you want more of it so you need magic?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yeah. And maybe braided or something while I'm there if it's not too expensive."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay, let's see. You willing to take another bus to get there?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay, take the Europe shuttle, platform 95A, and get off at Munich and then you want Wolkenschönheit Raphael," says the info booth lady.

Permalink Mark Unread

She repeats most of that back and needs a couple tries before she can remember all that but then she goes and finds Wolkenschönheit Raphael.

Permalink Mark Unread

Wolkenschönheit Raphael is not too far away from the bus stop in Munich; it's up in a skyscraper and she has to take an elevator but then she's there in a luxurious salon furnished with glowy fluffy cloud-looking stuff that is solid enough to walk or sit on but pleasantly yielding. "Welcome!" says an angel, coming up to her with a computer in hand. "Do you have an appointment or are you here for walk-in service?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The second thing. How much is it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Depends what you want! Do you want Raphael, or a different stylist? Do you want a short treatment, maybe just your hair, or a long one involving more features? Do you want to pick up some products to use at home to maintain the style?"

Permalink Mark Unread

So many choices! "Whichever stylist is cheapest and the rest of me is fine and I don't know how to use products."

Permalink Mark Unread

"All right, I'm free now and I can do something low-maintenance for you. What effect are you going for?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Longer and neater and healthy and maybe another color?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"How long?" the angel asks, gesturing her into a chair.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Something reasonable? Not so long I can't keep it neat. Not so it gets in my way. Just make it look like nobody's ever grabbed me and cut my hair off just to fuck with me."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Wow, you must have some stories there," says the angel. Fere's reflection in the mirror is softly lit; the angel stands behind her and unexists the ragged bits of hair on her scalp to start with a clean slate. "I'm seeing you in a dramatic auburn, wavy, past the shoulders, just the right length for a French twist or a chignon if you want it up - I can teach you to do those. I will do my best to give you a low maintenance texture but I do really recommend one of the serums over there," she points, "they're great for keeping your ends from splitting so you don't have to come back once a month to have your hair repaired..." While she talks she's rubbing something into Fere's bare head which appears to be bright blue. "This is a moisturizer but it will also help me mark my place so I don't miss any spots and leave you with a weird patchy look, it will be all gone when I'm done, I'll poof it as I go," the angel says. And then she sets to work. She has a gigantic roll of, apparently, hair, which she takes pieces off in sections and transforms from a generic straight dark blonde to a wavy auburn, and then connects bit by tingly bit to the follicles. "It'll grow in this way too, I'm on it, don't you worry - are you going to want me to do your eyebrows?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, please! I don't know anything about serums and I don't have a job..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, lots of people don't have jobs, and one bottle of the serum to try isn't going to be very pricey, if it were terribly expensive people would summon demons and copy it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay. You'd know better than I would."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's what I'm here for." Tingle tingle tingle as the hair goes on about a square centimeter at a time.

Permalink Mark Unread

At least it doesn't hurt. And soon she will not look plausibly Sesati and it would be tremendously rude to comment on her coincidental resemblance to some dead slave...

Permalink Mark Unread

The re-hairing process takes a while, but there's music playing overhead, and the angel keeps up a mostly one sided conversation and puts on videos for Fere to watch about how to do a French twist and a chignon. They will require a few hair objects but the angel, at the end of the re-hairing, produces some of them by magic and hands them over, complimentary. "There you go. Do you have a bracelet - great, here we go -" She taps her own bracelet against Fere's. "- hm, do you have it locked? Squeeze the buttons on both sides so I can do the transaction please -" And when this is done she collects her money.

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere finds herself smiling. It's uncomplicatedly nice and not totally overwhelming and the angel is so respectful. She's not sure what the angel would think if she explained everything. She doesn't, anyway.

"Thanks. I'll tell people about you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ooh, give them my name, it's Sofia, I get a bonus if people are booking with me specifically."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I will, Sofia, nice meeting you."

She heads back. She strategizes.

...The last time she found herself strategizing it turned out Artorian had a really cool and totally unbelievable plan. So. Maybe worth having a conversation with him or Keoni in private where they can be open about stuff.

She swings by the restaurant on the way home.

Permalink Mark Unread

There's a different band playing now, and different dancers. Keoni and her assistants are doing something with sweet potatoes and singing along to the music.

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere knows some ways to subtly tip slaves off that she wants to talk when they have time, without visibly interrupting anything anyone's doing.

But she has no idea what Keoni's doing and when it's safe to distract her and even if she did there's no reason Keoni would recognize any signal specifically designed to not be obvious.

She should go watch from the balcony and definitely not stay here where she'll be tempted to get more food that costs money instead of the food she already has that costs stories. That would for sure be the sensible course of action. Anyway she stays and investigates how she would go about ordering if hypothetically she were going to do that.

Permalink Mark Unread

Apparently people walk in and talk to the robots; the ones with bracelets like hers are using those to pay, the others are presumably doing something else. Drones depart the area periodically but it's not obvious from the balcony how to summon one.

Permalink Mark Unread

She should hang out on the balcony and watch. That is definitely the thing she should do.

The thing she does is talk to a robot.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Welcome to Keoni's Neverending Luau!" says the robot. "How many will be joining you today?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...I don't... know? I can't think of anyone who would come here and want to eat with me? I have no idea if any of your other customers would decide I was great company?"

Permalink Mark Unread

The robot doesn't seem to understand this. "You can sit wherever you'd like, since there is not a special event today!" it says.

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere freezes up and neither sits somewhere nor leaves.

Permalink Mark Unread

 

"The bathroom is just past those potted plants," says the robot, pointing, and then it greets someone else.

Permalink Mark Unread

She takes a while to unfreeze, and then she flees to the balcony to watch and see if she can tell when Keoni's done at work.

Permalink Mark Unread

Yup, Keoni closes the restaurant and heads out of it into her home after it's been dark a couple hours. (Fere can see the proceedings by the torches and other light sources that are abundant in the restaurant.)

Permalink Mark Unread

Can Fere intercept her on her way out?

Permalink Mark Unread

If she's very quick, yes!

Permalink Mark Unread

She's pretty quick. Unlike interacting with robots, starting conversations about the strategic advisability of various acts of resistance against Sesat is not new, even if every single specific detail of the situation is bizarre.

Permalink Mark Unread

"- Hello?" says Keoni, utterly failing to recognize her.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, good, that's reaction I'm hoping to get back on my planet. It's Fere. I, um, wanted to know if there was a time when you'd have time to talk?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh! Wow, great hair. I can talk now, do you want to come in?" She pulls her door open.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thank you." She'll enter the door, then, and... have no idea how to be a polite guest but presumably going inside and not touching anything can't be too wrong.

Permalink Mark Unread

Keoni waves her into the sitting room; it has a conversation pit and a projector screen pulled down to cover a window, switching every few seconds between various high-resolution pictures of flowers. She jumps into the conversation pit and puts her feet up. "What's up?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"So uh. I don't know how much you heard about Sesat. I didn't kill myself to avoid slavery." She's braced for Keoni to turn less friendly at that.

Permalink Mark Unread

"You... didn't?" blinks Keoni.

Permalink Mark Unread

" - They already - did - I thought I could get revenge or finish what I was trying to do if I stuck around," she says in a rush as if it's an excuse she has to say to ward off some kind of attack, "that's why I didn't kill myself sooner. And then they were going to kill me, so Vanda Nossëo couldn't free me, and obviously they wouldn't be fast about it so I went for the store in case it'd be safe and then they were definitely going to take more than a week about it if they caught me, and I meant to go down fighting them but - I know I should've but Artorian was hinting really hard and clearly had a plan and, anyway, I'm wondering if there's more plan here that I shouldn't step on when I go deal with them."

Fere clearly expects that this makes any sense at all.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Go deal with... who? You were sentenced to a death that wasn't gonna be too clean, that's awful, but you're here now, they can't touch you, honey," says Keoni.

Permalink Mark Unread

"...I'm not just walking away from that - I'm not the only one, if that's what you're thinking...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, but - what are you thinking you'd do? If you kill somebody you'll get in trouble, and maybe you don't care about that, but if it's directly downstream of Vanda Nossëo being there, they'll just resurrect whoever you kill. They don't like it when they get people killed."

Permalink Mark Unread

"See, glad I asked. I could get people out, even if Vanda Nossëo gets mad at me for that they might not send them back?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think you could do that but you should wait. If Sesat joins, you won't have to, and if they refuse to join, you're not messing things up for everybody you can't get to."

Permalink Mark Unread

She nods, slowly. "How do I know if they've refused?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Read the news? You should get a computer, I didn't want to overwhelm you but you seem to have hit the ground running."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure, how do I get a computer?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Do you want the kind you control with your mind that you need a brain implant for or the kind you don't do that with?"

Permalink Mark Unread

Her hand goes involuntarily to her head. "Uh, is that... safe for humans?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yup! Not safe for every kinda person but fine for humans."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Okay. I'll get whichever kind you think I should."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I have the brain implant kind, it's so convenient. Do you want to go right now?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Sure!" The idea is absolutely terrifying but she did not get here by refusing to do things that are terrifying and she's not going to change her strategy now that it's finally started paying off.

Permalink Mark Unread

Keoni has a scooter with a passenger seat. Off they go, nyooooooom!

And presently they are in a little unmanned storefront and Keoni tells the computer operating the place that Fere wants a chiplock installation. When Fere has paid for this the door to the back room opens; she can sit there until the installer arrives.

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere focuses on breathing evenly and not looking afraid.

Permalink Mark Unread

A Dwarf who is also a demon appears, looks at her, and then vanishes. A computer, the cylinder kind she's seen people use before, falls into her lap.

Permalink Mark Unread

Well, that's completely unintuitive. Wasn't he going to do something to her head? Should she leave? She looks at the computer as if it is going to explain itself.

Permalink Mark Unread

"You done?" calls Keoni from the front.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess so," she says, getting up and heading out. "That was weird."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Was it? I don't think you're supposed to feel it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Which is weird! What else can people do to my head without me even noticing!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not that much? It's just that your brain doesn't have nerves so you can't feel it, and it's small enough it doesn't make anything else happen, either. If you pick it up and pull out that plastic bit there it'll run you through learning to use it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess." She doesn't really get it but she pulls out that plastic bit there.

Permalink Mark Unread

It comes free. The projector lights up. There is a simple picture and instructions: try to mentally move the circle into the square.

Permalink Mark Unread

She tries to mentally move the circle into the square. It's so weird.

Permalink Mark Unread

The circle goes, in fits and starts, and then it wants her to drag a shape around in a circle such that it draws the circle behind it, and then select everything in a grid of pictures that has vertical lines, and then direct a triangle through a maze, and a few more things like that.

Permalink Mark Unread

What does this even meaaaaaan. She might need Keoni's help to figure it out.

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's learning how you think, and then once it has a good idea of that, it'll be able to let you control stuff with your mind! And demons won't be able to get your private files, since they don't have a copy of your brain to use to control it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"How do I... select... the, uh, whatever this says... I can't take the pictures out of here and take them with me, right, and I don't have things to put them in charge of and if I did they'd still be pictures..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You concentrate on the one you have in mind and it'll light up a bit to mean you've gotten it selected."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. Thank you."

Fere figures it out from there, slowly and pausing sometimes to sound the instructions out.

Permalink Mark Unread

Then eventually she'll have the training complete and her computer will be fully keyed to her! It has a tutorial mode for things like browsing the internet and using peripherals if she likes.

Permalink Mark Unread

Oh, good, she needs tutorials. What is an internet.

Permalink Mark Unread

The tutorial is happy to explain while Keoni gives her a ride home.

Permalink Mark Unread

Conclusion: the internet is fucking awesome.

"Thank you," she says again, "and, uh, if you want, like, dinner or something, I have... stuff...?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, no, I'm full, honey, I spend all day snacking on whatever I'm cooking," laughs Keoni. "Don't worry about it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, right." Of course, why wouldn't anyone do that, if they weren't going to be punished for it. "Well, thank you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"No problem! Good night, sleep well!" And she waves and heads into her house.

Permalink Mark Unread

Meanwhile, in Sesat, there have been a few crucifixions of slaves not quite as lucky or as quick-thinking as Fere. The Star-of-Stars hasn't ordered it and it's not systematic, just something that's happened.

There have been more escape attempts than usual, for the obvious reason.

One of them makes it across the Azani border with their pursuers close behind.

Permalink Mark Unread

Azan does guard the border, albeit not against people who want to move in. Azan is competent to protect one person.

Rumor comes back to Sesat that the slave was actually making for Vanda Nossëo.

Sesat inquires of the ambassadors about that.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Azan hasn't had its vote yet. While Azani citizens, like Sesati ones, are welcome to move to Vanda Nossëo, you can't actually get there from here just by walking. I have no information you don't about whether our presence factored into the escape; it did sometimes happen before we showed up," Nelen says.

Permalink Mark Unread

It's not that they think slaves can walk to Vanda Nossëo, just that they think Azan might be passing off stolen Sesati property as Azani citizens. Sesat would like to hear about Vanda Nossëo's policies on people bringing in stolen goods.

Permalink Mark Unread

"So, Azan and Sesat have different laws, here. According to Sesati law, those folks are property. According to Azani law, they're Azani citizens if they want to be. We're not swiping all the slaves in Sesat, but if they're in Azan, heading for a bus stop in Azan, and Azan tells us they're citizens, we aren't going to impose Sesati law in Azan. If we were in the habit of imposing one country's law in another country we wouldn't pick Sesat's to export, at least not in this domain."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Is this what you do any time someone's livestock wanders over a border?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't think we've encountered any situations where one country keeps livestock and an adjacent country awards escaped livestock citizenship. If we did, yeah, that's probably what we'd do," says Nelen. "We weren't preventing slave escapes before we showed up and we aren't going to do it now. If Azan's more attractive now because they let slaves access their bus stops, that inconveniences you, of course, but it would inconvenience you similarly if Azan became more attractive for some other reason, like inventing new technology, or having a good harvest year. Maybe less in magnitude but that's still what's fundamentally happening here, Azan is becoming more attractive and we aren't helping you mitigate the consequences of that."

Permalink Mark Unread

And the Sesati, who was retired before this crisis and was the ambassador to Niazon before that, leans in and says, quiet and earnest, "That's not it at all - I understand where you're coming from here, I think. You're worried people are treated badly, and you want that to end, justice be damned, and it's an easy sell to tell your people 'we don't do that here and we don't send people back where they do do that' and ignore the specifics of each case because you see too many cases like that. Do I have that right?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...well, we've found weird corner cases before, but I really doubt the specifics of any cases here are going to move anyone to make an exception."

Permalink Mark Unread

"The case that brings me here to talk to you involves a slave who, before being a slave, committed several acts against an innocent person," which he describes explicitly and which are mostly the sorts of things that would grievously offend the sensibilities of lots of Vanda Nossëo's member states, "and praise the gods, its victim is recovering, and in a few more years she may be able to lead a normal life again - if there's anything like normal life to be lived in a few more years, I suppose. Or rather, was recovering, and would have been - I don't know that that's still possible, if the one that did that is still around, still loose, wandering the stars, lying in wait should she ever go traveling..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ambassador," says Nelen, "the person who mutilated and eventually beat to death my great-grandfather for refusing her sexual advances served no prison time and now runs a sweetshop in a bus station."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I can imagine, I suppose, that given the ability to resurrect the dead it might be kinder to bring them back and arm them and allow them the dignity of their own vengeance but my first response to this is still just horror."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I understand that it's hard to swallow. But it's not a public relations ploy, it's an actual principle that we actually have. Slavery is not a punishment for literally any crime or rap sheet full of them in Vanda Nossëo. That person can continue to run her sweetshop indefinitely. My great-grandfather never has to see her again, and is not going to go stab her."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If he's not going to stab her, why can he expect not to see her again?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"She isn't allowed on the planet where he lives, and he knows where she lives and works. If they by chance wind up in the same vacation resort, she has to leave."

Permalink Mark Unread

"How can we make that happen, then?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"You are welcome to exile the escaped slave from Sesat, although we aren't going to help with border control while you're not a member state, that requires too much outlay of personnel. We can stop them from bussing in directly though."

Permalink Mark Unread

"And forcing it to leave resorts, how would that come about?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The victim would file for a restraining order. Shouldn't be hard to get with a list of crimes like that, would you like me to ask over someone who can put that in?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"That might be a good idea - can you explain 'file a restraining order' to me in more detail first?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"A restraining order is sort of like a one-person law applied to whoever it's filed against, which means they can't come or stay near the filing party. Outside of where they live and work, and other designated areas if they have a predictable reason to be somewhere else, they bear the responsibility to leave if they and the filing party are in the same place - usually within a mile. And the designated areas are described to the filing party so they know where not to go. Keeping someone off an entire planet is rarer but my great-grandfather lives on a colony planet populated by people of our particular background, which has unusually thorough banning procedures for anyone who's understood to have aggressed against people of that background in particular. Having a restraining order against you prevents you from getting a license to teleport."

Permalink Mark Unread

...and if they do this to every slave, then none of them will have a license to teleport...

"I think I understand. What kind of evidence are they going to want to examine?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"For a restraining order you don't have to present much physical evidence, the victim and ideally at least one supplemental witness testifying under truth spell about the nature of the problem will do."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Then it sounds like I should ask her if she's interested and arrange a time for a meeting. Thank you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"You're welcome!" says Nelen.

Permalink Mark Unread

And he talks to people and schedules a meeting. The list of crimes shrinks slightly in the face of a truth spell, but remains impressively horrible.

Permalink Mark Unread

They do not comment on the shrinkage! That impressively horrible list is sufficient to get a restraining order.

Permalink Mark Unread

Great! Next they're going to organizedly round up everyone who is willing to testify under truth spell to having been victimized by a slave or having witnessed a slave doing something fucked up and try to bar Sesati slaves as a class from ever getting teleportation licenses!

Permalink Mark Unread

That will basically just work except that you can only get a restraining order against someone you are already trying to avoid and not, say, keeping as a slave, and also it won't work at all against anyone whose enslavement was hereditary or whose victim is currently dead or whose crime was in the estimate of Vanda Nossëo self-defense or otherwise not something you should be able to get a restraining order about.

Permalink Mark Unread

How does it work for...

...someone about whom a judge will testify to having reviewed the facts of the case and found them guilty partly on the basis of testimony from witnesses who aren't available now?

...the slave of a cousin of the person they wronged, because the victim gave the slave to their cousin specifically for this purpose?

...someone whose victim's spouse feels personally wronged albeit indirectly?

...a slave that is currently dead but maybe Vanda Nossëo will want to change that someday?

...someone born a slave who committed vandalism?

...someone born a slave who killed another slave in some kind of fight the details of which are unclear?

...someone born a slave who committed some unspecified act of theft?

Permalink Mark Unread

If the victim can't themselves confidently identify the slave as their attacker, no dice.

The victim, not their cousin, can get a restraining order, provided the cousin doesn't live near the victim.

Nope, victim only, no indirection.

You can get a restraining order against someone who is currently dead no problem.

Vandalism has to be threatening or also assault or something in order to get a restraining order about it.

If the details are unclear and the victim is dead, no restraining order.

No, unspecified theft is not something you can get a restraining order about.

Permalink Mark Unread

...What about unspecified kidnapping?

...Someone orders two slaves to hit each other, then attempts to graciously facilitate them getting restraining orders against each other.

Permalink Mark Unread

If the kidnapping victim is not on hand to get a restraining order third parties cannot get one on their behalf.

The person processing all these refuses to hear the case of the two slaves due to being uncertain that they're safe from reprisal depending on the content of the exchange.

Permalink Mark Unread

"So you're saying only free people can get restraining orders, and slaves can't?" the owner asks sweetly.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I've refused free people on the same basis, if I think they're getting an order under duress," says the processor flatly. "I will be happy to process these requests if and when the claimants request them without someone who considers themselves entitled to carry out retaliatory action waiting in the wings. As it is, it would be farcical, and it will continue to be farcical until they can get a restraining order against you."

Permalink Mark Unread

"If I testify to your truth spell that I've never hit either of them and don't plan to start," because she has other people to do physical labor for her, "is that good enough?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"No," says the processor. "You still legally own them. You can sell them, rape them, starve them, you have a lot of options without striking them. I'm not going to process this one."

Permalink Mark Unread

She accepts this with good grace. She takes her slaves away.

She orders them to tell her they're going to hit her and that the two of them can overpower her and that she should be afraid of them. She sells them to her sister-in-law. She testifies to what they said to her, and that she got rid of them.

Now can she have a restraining order?

Permalink Mark Unread

The processor wants to know the circumstances surrounding this shocking eventuality. She looks so bored and unimpressed.

Permalink Mark Unread

She was speaking with them at home after the processor previously said insulting things to her and undermined her authority. She did not provoke this behavior by engaging in violence toward them of any kind, neither did anyone else engage in violence toward them of any kind on her orders in the immediate leadup, neither did anyone have sex with them with or without their consent as far as she knows. Everything she said immediately prior to this was totally civil.

Permalink Mark Unread

Okay, but what did she say. Perhaps they were doing an improv bit.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Are you always this suspicious?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"No."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's unfair. Anyway, yes, I did want them to say something like that, so that you'd believe me, because they're subhuman and I have some worth, damn it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"The restraining order apparatus is not actually intended to validate your feelings on that matter, ma'am."

Permalink Mark Unread

Far away and safe in her own apartment, Fere curls up with some exciting foreign music (Bach is kind of cool), trail mix, and the latest news about Sesat.

Permalink Mark Unread
Sesat-specific news includes the rash of restraining orders! They interview the processor:

I'm always ready to grant an order to someone who's actually been victimized by another person, but after a few of these I began to feel that the actual intent behind it was to get some scrap of official endorsement of slavery, and I wish there were a better way than time to make it clear that they're just not actually ever going to get that. Some of the slaves did awful things, and I hope that, if half-accidentally, this helps the victims get closure, but I expect that once slaves leave Sesat in enough numbers and start being able to get their own restraining orders the free Sesati are going to really regret this and it'll set back relations.
Permalink Mark Unread

Fere reads each sentence a couple times to be sure of what it means and then hugs the computer, despite the computer not even slightly being designed for that, and doesn't know whether to laugh or cry or possibly both.

After a couple minutes she shakes herself and snaps out of it and googles whether there's some way to send this person a gift or a letter.

Permalink Mark Unread

The restraining order processor's name is listed and she has a personnel page on the Vanda Nossëo website with a picture and a little blurb about her (she's from Hazel's Haiti, moved to and attended college in Revelation's Vermont, started as a double-checker in a judge's office and eventually moved on to "housecall" restraining order processing). She has a work email and a work mail label listed.

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere gets an email address and sends an email. She has never actually written a letter before but it can't be that hard, right?

Thank you. Do you need anything? Like someone to answer questions about Sesat or anything. Thank you. I'm glad you came.

It takes her half an hour to write it and double-check it all. Not as hard as it could have been!

She googles restraining orders and contemplates whether she wants to hit back in this way right now. On the one hand, yes. On the  other hand, they don't know she's alive and she'd rather keep it that way.

Permalink Mark Unread
Sorry, who is this? I don't seem to have your email in my contacts and can't find it on a search.
Permalink Mark Unread

Oh I just made it so I could tell you thank you. You don't know me. I just left Sesat and read your interview.

Permalink Mark Unread
Oh! You're welcome! If you wanted to do an interview yourself I could give the journalist your email, would you like that?
Permalink Mark Unread

I don't want people in Sesat to know I'm still alive yet but maybe.

Permalink Mark Unread
My lips are sealed. I'm glad you liked the interview and I'm glad you're okay.
Permalink Mark Unread

Awesome. Okay. What next. ...She would kind of like a restraining order against kind of a lot of people but she doesn't want to be at all unclear about whether she's fucking with people, and this might be a reasonable way to eventually fuck with people, and she's kind of worried it will lose her the high ground with Vanda Nossëo. She hasn't had the high ground in anything with anyone for a long time and she's not sure how to use it but it's probably not worth throwing away before she's thought about that.

Instead she googles why Vanda Nossëo doesn't have slaves. It'll probably be even more dense reading but it's important.

Permalink Mark Unread

There is not actually a single canonical article on "why Vanda Nossëo doesn't have slaves". She gets results about orc slavery under Melkor, the luck-potion-aided disassembly of human chattel slavery as practiced in Hazel contrasted with its messier historical equivalents in Cube/Warp/Revelation/Wish/Aurum (and an aside about Eclipse, which is more off-kilter from the other Earths in historical eventualities like this than they are from each other), and an explanatory writeup of why there is not a specific law against slavery per se and instead just a law requiring freedom of emigration (house-elves, from Hazel, and also a couple random Warp species, and some weirdos from wherever, apparently like being slaves, and this condition has held up to all the bewildered investigations thrown at it); and an article about the coup on Atarale and the resulting enfranchisement of the birdpeople there who had been kept as slaves and their eggs eaten as delicacies; and similar such material.

Permalink Mark Unread

That's so much. Of course there'd be so much. How is she supposed to read all that.

She does not read all that. She does make some attempt to read about Melkor and Hazel.

Sesat... could look like Melkor, couldn't it, with the determination to hurt certain people as much as possible. And instead you could... just not hurt people? That's wrong, of course, justice is right and important. But if someone were wrong about that, and just wanted everyone to be as happy as possible all the time, and wanted to bribe everyone to abandon all their quarrels...

...well, they'd be wrong and unjust, exactly as unjust as Melkor, but they sure would have some fantastic bribes...

...and Fere would never let herself be bribed like that. Not knowingly, not once it was obvious.

But justice doesn't require that she go haring off without waiting for Vanda Nossëo to rescue everyone who might be in harm's way first.

So while she's waiting on that, she looks up more exotic foreign music and online games.

Permalink Mark Unread

There is a ton of music to be had, and everything she listens to brings up margin suggestions for ten more similar things she might like. Games are more aggressively advertised but lots of them are free and many don't require reading to play.

Permalink Mark Unread

She discovers that she likes Bob Dylan and then goes looking for something janglier and screamier.

Games are weird but sort of interesting and some of them are exciting and feel almost like being powerful and winning. She looks up from one to discover that it's suddenly almost midnight and goes wearily to bed, promising herself she'll never play another of these games again, or at least not as long as she still has things to do.

The next day she wakes with the sun already up for the first time in a long time, and starts looking for short-term work.

Permalink Mark Unread

There are many forms of work available! Some of them don't require any skills she doesn't have that can't be covered by on the job training, such as:

- medical research subject (includes all-cause-mortality resurrection insurance)
- hand-making artisanal doodads of various sorts that cater to people who don't like mass produced stuff
- dog walker
- consumer focus group member
- Yeerk host

And there are things that do require skills, but that she can find training for that will pay her to take it for a cut of her subsequent income:

- masseuse
- daycare worker
- shopkeeper for an envoy store, like Artorian
- housekeeper (no scrubbing required, the household has a prestidigitator, she'd be organizing and tidying and managing some household inventory)
- remote quality control on some robot work

Permalink Mark Unread

She'd like to work at an envoy store, but they'll probably ask if she's planning to eventually go torture someone for things they did before gracious and generous Vanda Nossëo came to save them, and she totally is.

She - she could take care of kids - she stops at that one and - she doesn't tear up, she tells herself she can't afford to fall apart and the jolt of terror and desperate need to move and do things distracts her. She paces while she reads the rest of the ads and doesn't look at that one again.

She can walk dogs. Dogs are nice. She likes dogs and has no particularly interesting history with them. What dogs need to be walked around here?

Permalink Mark Unread

There is a dog walking agency two trolley stops away from her and she can show up and get a route to walk on which she will collect dogs, and then she can wander wherever with them and drop them back off again in an order determined by how much exercise each dog needs.

Permalink Mark Unread

That's... actually the best job she's ever had, that's so awesome. Is she supposed to just walk with them or is she also supposed to take them someplace out of the way and throw things for them?

Permalink Mark Unread

If she wants to also throw things for the dogs some of the customers will pay extra for that and they can get her a route with those customers!

Permalink Mark Unread

Best job. She will throw things for dogs and take them for walks and tell them all that they're good dogs.

Permalink Mark Unread

They are all good dogs. They lick her. The agency is really happy to have her! Just goes to show that for any job you still need done post-scarcity someone's going to have a grand time doing it.

It doesn't pay much more than her basic but it is on top of the basic, so she has nearly twice as much income now.

Permalink Mark Unread

She absolutely does not mind being licked.

That is so much money. She counts it and tries to wrap her mind around how unfathomably much richer than the Star-of-Stars she is. During her kind of ridiculous amount of time off, she listens to metal and sometimes classical music and reads the news from Sesat and sometimes reads the local news too. She gets better at it. She runs out of the instant meals from the shop in Azan and goes to Keoni's restaurant again and doesn't freeze up this time and tries some kind of fish thing.

She has a nice big apartment all to herself. She's never slept alone before, never had so much space. She buys a prestidigitator. She names it. She considers whether she might like to buy a dog, too, but she's not so sure she would.

Permalink Mark Unread

Keoni is usually home alone but sometimes Artorian is on a work break and he's there! He's really glad Fere's doing so well and would like to hug her!

Permalink Mark Unread

She would like to hug him! She would also like to know if he brought her stuff back. She tells him she'd invite him and Keoni for dinner if it wouldn't insult Keoni.

Permalink Mark Unread

He has her stuff! Not the clothes she was wearing and not the original birth control implant because he didn't want to draw attention to wanting her stuff that much but everything else.

"Running a restaurant doesn't mean I can't go over to people's places for dinner!" says Keoni.

Permalink Mark Unread

Yeah she's not exactly missing her old clothes anyway.

"Well, then you guys can come over for dinner some time!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'll look forward to it!" says Artorian.

Permalink Mark Unread

And for the next few days instead of reading about Sesat and sadly imagining personality traits for her prestidigitator she spends her free time learning to cook. What can be cooked cheaply here (so she can practice), is not something Keoni does better every single day, is really popular, and will not be an insult to serve guests? Can the internet maybe suggest things that meet these criteria?

Permalink Mark Unread

Pizza! You can buy the dough and then you just have to roll it out and put some sauce and cheese and whatever else on it. If it doesn't come out round, the internet assures her this will just make it look "rustic". She will need these items to make it.

Permalink Mark Unread

She acquires these items and finds a chance to mention to Keoni that she's learning and ask about her and Artorian's favorite pizza toppings.

Permalink Mark Unread

Keoni likes chicken and corn, and Artorian likes pineapple and ham!

Permalink Mark Unread

Soon she invites them over for pizza with chicken and corn and pineapple and ham on it. It's slightly overloaded with toppings.

Permalink Mark Unread

This is fine! They will take slices of pizza and compliment her on it and remark that her prestidigitator chassis is cute.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thank you, I thought it had personality. How's the store going?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Nothing dramatic to top you," says Artorian, "mostly just taking people's grotesque stories - I had to sell this one man a kettle for his elaborate revenge fantasy about his ex-friend, we're supposed to err on the side of accepting borderline stuff -"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. I haven't heard any stories here so I've got no idea what a story you wouldn't call grotesque would be but it wouldn't shock me if it was something nobody in Sesat has ever thought of."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not much of a fiction person?" Keoni asks.

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Uh, I... I work alone with dogs, there's nobody I'd be trading stories with then?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, sure, but you could read after work. Or put on an audiobook while you walk the dogs," Keoni says.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, now I know audiobooks exist."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh no, I'm sorry," laughs Keoni. "There's too many things, and no way to know which ones are important for any specific person..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"There are a lot of things. D'you know, for a while I thought you were the fair folk."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not unreasonable! What changed your mind?" wonders Artorian.

Permalink Mark Unread

"The news said people from other worlds were human sometimes and some of the - things - can be done by humans, and so I realized not everyone here was the fair folk and there wasn't any specific reason to think you were when, I mean, now I've seen the fair folk with my own eyes and besides the fact that you dress like them and have the same sort of magic stuff there's no way I'd mistake you for them anymore."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- you've seen the fair folk? Who's the fair folk?" asks Keoni.

Permalink Mark Unread

"...The big tall pretty ones with complicated hair? Are they not the fair folk either?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"They're Elves. I'm not sure we have anything that maps precisely onto your fair folk stories," says Artorian.

"I don't dress like an Elf! An Elf wouldn't be caught dead in this dress!" laughs Keoni.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh. Okay. ...Why wouldn't they wear that dress?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It doesn't have any embroidery, and it isn't generally fancy," says Keoni. "It's just a dress. Elves wear, like, robes, layers of them, with beads and tiny stitches, and a ton of jewelry."

Permalink Mark Unread

So that's what's still fancy, when fabric is cheap and dye is cheap even in colors Fere's never seen before.

"Huh. For some reason I didn't think jewelry and beads would be harder than cloth."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I mean, they're not, even for things a machine can't make nothing can get much more expensive than summoning a demon in Revelation for it costs unless you specifically value it being handmade, but it's high-maintenance," says Keoni. "If I wore an Elf robe I'd lose half the beads catching them on things and get sick of the earrings knocking into my neck and keep dipping the sleeves in barbecue sauce, and that last thing a prestidigitator can fix but not the others!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh. Okay."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Elves just care a lot about being pretty," Keoni says. "And being in pretty places. There's a search filter on Revelation Bazaar for 'Elf approved' on things that they convinced some Elf to approve of, if you want your whole house to look ridiculously overdesigned. Or to clash, not everything Elves like is good together at the same time."

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere nods slowly. It almost all fits together... "I don't get how that works with giving people basic income, wouldn't it be easy enough to get elf-approved things and figure out which ones are good together and not do things that'd get barbecue sauce on you if you weren't working?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, sure, I have a friend who does that," says Artorian. "Lots of people spend a while not working and just coasting on basic. But if you do that long enough - how long's different for everybody - usually you get bored. Or you get really good at video games, some people do that and show no signs of intending to pick up a job. It's okay. We don't have to threaten people with poverty to get all the work done."

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere scrunches up her face. "I mean, obviously, but how do you tell which people are better or more important than you?"

Permalink Mark Unread

They blink at her. Artorian says, "well, some people have - more clearances than me, I suppose? And more impressive accomplishments? More, uh, magic powers so they can save worlds singlehandedly or whatever. I guess none of those people are playing video games all day, but I don't think that's very much on my video game playing cousin's mind when he picks up a copy of whatever's new in the Hollow Knight series, that this makes him worse than, uh, Loki or someone."

Permalink Mark Unread

Fere stares, open-mouthed.

"...Okay so does nobody here have to call anyone else 'my lord' or do what they say?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, probably some people do - I think Elves in particular still have kings and call them things like that -" says Artorian.

"Queen Lilioukalani's partisans call her Your Majesty?" says Keoni. "But that's like - she was illegally overthrown and then died, pre-contact, and she was brought back as the beloved queen people felt had been wrongly taken from them, and now they're observing the formalities as part of that, if she comes to my restaurant I don't have to call her that. And if she told me to - what would she even tell me to do - I don't know, stand on my head, if she told me to do that I could laugh at her and tell her to leave my restaurant and she'd have to do that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Why is it okay for you to tell her to leave and not okay for her to tell you to stand on your head?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Because it's my restaurant, and my head."

Permalink Mark Unread

"So anyone can tell anyone else to leave their restaurant and not tell anyone to stand on their head - I guess laws are different because you know them and they stay the same and they're the same for everyone? And, uh... does that mean you can't hit anyone, at all..."

Permalink Mark Unread

Keoni and Artorian look at each other and giggle. "Not if they don't want you to, hon," Keoni replies after they recover.

"There's some people authorized to bend the rules because rules're there when your judgment's not good enough and sometimes they're too restrictive for someone with amazing judgment," says Artorian. "But that's like, a Bell might teleport a planet to get it out of a dangerous place, that happened this one time, and normally you aren't supposed to teleport a planet without checking with the inhabitants but that was a special case. But even a Bell isn't going to refuse to leave somebody's restaurant if they're asked, or make people stand on their heads. - Bells are a kind of person there's a bunch of, they're in charge of a lotta stuff."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...Why is it okay for them to teleport a planet but not to stay in a restaurant?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"The planet was being attacked by evil spider monsters," Artorian replies. "There's no particular reason they'd need to be in a restaurant that wanted them gone."

Permalink Mark Unread

"So they're allowed because if you ask people afterward 'would you rather have gotten eaten by spiders?' they won't complain about it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's not far off? It's not how I'd put it but it's at least close," Artorian says.

Permalink Mark Unread

"How'd you put it?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"They'd have the right reasons to teleport the planet, and you can be sure of that because there's like, what, a round dozen Bells by now and they're all like that wherever they're from. If somebody did say 'I would rather have gotten eaten by spiders' they'd be like 'hm, why's that, let's figure this out for next time so I can make better choices with this information' and not like 'I will slap you down for lèse majesté'."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That... sounds okay. What if you teleported a planet away from spider monsters?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We can't teleport," says Keoni.

"Probably if we got a teleport and we teleported a planet away from spider monsters - well for one thing that can be hard to do right, you need the planet to keep moving smoothly and to bring its sun and any moons and I could be ignoring half a dozen things like that," says Artorian. "But if we were right I don't think we'd get in trouble? The rules are just to - make it clear that usually if you think that you're not going to be right."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think I get it. The law's just a guideline and the real rule is you do what the person in charge wants, the only difference is here everyone is slightly in charge?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"...hmm," says Keoni.

"Everyone's in charge of themselves," says Artorian.

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't get it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Nobody'll tell you to stand on your head because it's your head. If somebody else's head is at risk, somebody might have to make a call, and there's some people we generally expect to make the right calls, but your head, your decision."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think you'll get used to it," Artorian says encouragingly.

Permalink Mark Unread

She smiles.

Permalink Mark Unread

Meanwhile, in Sesat, someone who has gotten a restraining order against one of the escaped slaves walks into a shop and asks what the best place to go on vacation is.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, gosh, depends what kind of vacation you like! Hiking? That thing where - what's the thing mammals put on their faces - snorkeling? Architecture? Restaurants? Quaint locals? It's a big multiverse," says the birdperson he's talking to.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh, well, I think I might like to try all those things, but architecture sounds the most interesting - uh, but I also like restaurants," she says, belatedly considering that a slave who has just run away is probably going to prioritize food over art.

Permalink Mark Unread

"What kind of food do you like?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't think I know enough about Vanda Nossëo's cuisine yet to say!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Okay! Well, for architecture and food I'm going to recommend Patchwork. It's a planet in Hell, it's got lots of mini-polities on it that are mostly not themselves demons but the whole planet's administered by a demon oligarchy that care about making it safe for mortal visitors to swing through and there's enough demons there to make the food and architecture scenes really nifty."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, that sounds fun. How do I get there?"

Permalink Mark Unread

She can outline the bus route for him! It involves a few transfers but should get him there in about fifteen minutes all told even with that.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Thank you, and how do I pay for it? The vacation, I mean, not the bus token."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm not sure how long you're planning to stay or what your skills are!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, I, ah," appraise and train slaves, "do various things, and I'm literate and can paint a bit."

Permalink Mark Unread

"...I guess you could see if anyone wants your paintings? Or... this planet's still new and exciting enough that you can probably get an interview, if you want one..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, how would I arrange that?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't actually know. I can ask my work chat." She pulls out a computer and taps it, clacking her beak thoughtfully. "Okay, they say there's a mail label you can write for most of the major news publications, do you want to see the list?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Yes, please."

Permalink Mark Unread

She turns the list around. It has items like:

Zeitung Offenbarun
Venus Vindicator
Nossëo Standard
Patalon Picayune
Marlatia Daily News
Elendil Echo
Galaxy Bulletin
Sydney Curator
Shapto Update
Tide Round-The-Clock Commentator
International Dateline

And each is accompanied by a mail label, which the birdperson explains can be appended to a letter explaining her desire to be interviewed so they can get back to her. "You can tell them to leave a message for you at shop Sesat-20, that's this one!"

Permalink Mark Unread

That makes sense. She leaves and writes a couple of letters to the more promising-sounding news outlets, in case they'd like to interview a Sesati soldier's widow.

Permalink Mark Unread

Next time she checks in at shop Sesat-20 the birdperson has a message for her from the Galaxy Bulletin that they'd be happy to meet her, here is where their office is if she wants to come by, she should ask for Zenaka Brai, this is their standard rate for human interest interviews like this.

Permalink Mark Unread

In that case, she will tell the birdperson some stories (about the fair folk, now that it's increasingly obvious that those stories aren't true) for some bus tokens and go find the Galaxy Bulletin office and ask for Zenaka Brai.

Permalink Mark Unread

Zenaka Brai is green! She otherwise looks mostly like a human person, though, she's just green. "Hi there!" she says. "First of all, can I get your name?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Lenu."

Permalink Mark Unread

"That's the whole name, Lenu?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"You can call me Lenu of Purple Plains, but I don't have a title."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Lenu of Purple Plains, lovely. What do you do with your time, Lenu?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, now I try to think of stories and figure out the multiverse, but before that I did - job training and painting, and now and again some spinning - I try to keep busy."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Job training?" probes Zenaka.

Permalink Mark Unread

"Nothing that's still useful, but I can explain things about, for example, farming, etiquette, bronze casting..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Oh, what's Sesati etiquette like?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think more reserved than some places - it's a bit forward, in Sesat, to ask how many siblings someone has, or how they feel about them - and much more concerned with establishing common knowledge of things like whose time is more in demand, rather than maintaining plausible deniability about it as I think happens often in Vanda Nossëo's worlds. We have a lot of specific forms of address for conveying those kinds of things succinctly."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, there goes my next question," jokes Zenaka. "What sorts of skills make a person's time especially valuable in Sesat?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Until very recently soldiers were extremely important, although I expect we'll have fewer wars now. It'll be strange, I think, but I'm glad about that; they'll go on to be artists or landlords or philosophers and there'll be fewer widows someday."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I think you said you were a war widow, is that right?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I said that my husband was a soldier. There are too many things to die of. I suppose no one born this year will grow up to think that."

Permalink Mark Unread

"The hope is that even if Sesat doesn't manage to join Vanda Nossëo healing will continue to be made available! Do you think that's the biggest change Sesat is looking at right now?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's hard to say! That's a change bigger than any other I've seen before, but there are going to be a lot of those. Maybe in a hundred years the kids will laugh at me for not having guessed that the biggest change would be that we're all going to stop being made of flesh and turn into incorporeal spirits who live in trees and commune with the gods."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Ha! As far as I know we don't have any of those in the citizenry already, so it'd be a bit of a wildcard prediction if you made it now. Do most of the Sesati you know seem glad that Vanda Nossëo decided to contact their planet?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's all been very hectic and unpredictable, I would say there are people who are optimistic but fewer who are just... uncomplicatedly feeling happy now."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Hm, have there been unpleasant surprises?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Well, yes, for one thing we suddenly have a powerful new expansionist neighbor, and a lot of people's jobs are suddenly unnecessary, and there's new etiquette to learn."

Permalink Mark Unread

"An expansionist neighbor... hm, has Vanda Nossëo seemed threatening?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"At first. I'm not sure to what extent that was a miscommunication or testing the waters to find out how we'd take it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh! How do you normally find out about how talks with the envoys are going, do you have government connections?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Approximately, yes."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Now that you've hopped the bus, what are your plans?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I want to travel and have an interesting vacation in Vanda Nossëo. Travel's always been fraught and I hope I'll be able to do a lot more of it."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Fraught? How so?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"We haven't had good relations with Iral or Azan for a long time, and of course we haven't had teleportation or the ability to leave the planet."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Where'd the grievance come from?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"You know how it is. Everyone wants what other people have. If the soldiers don't die fighting they'll just die of something else."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I'm not sure I do know, can you give me some examples of things people were fighting over?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Land. Property. Insults, too, I suppose. People. Food, if anything's gone wrong with anyone's crops or vermin've been at the stores. There's a lot of - people who just want to keep their heads down and farm and kings arguing over who they pay their taxes to, because whichever country that is will have more of everything else, more art and more books and also more soldiers for next time there's a drought..."

Permalink Mark Unread

"So it sounds like Vanda Nossëo's presence can probably prevent a lot of wars even if nobody joins."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I hope so, yes."

Permalink Mark Unread

There are more questions about her daily life and about how she first learned that the envoys were there and if she's bought much from the shops.

Permalink Mark Unread

She's bought some things and her daily life involves working with these pigments and asking after innovations in these industries and eating bread and lentils and meat and seasonal vegetables. She avoids saying anything that makes the relevance of slavery obvious unless asked straight out. She first heard about the envoys because she was one of the people that various other people ran to tell immediately.

Permalink Mark Unread

Where does she see herself in five years? Does she hope Sesat joins Vanda Nossëo?

Permalink Mark Unread

"In five years I hope to be younger than I am today, traveling the worlds to see the architecture and paint things that catch my fancy. Not spinning anymore but I don't think I'll be throwing my spindle out and I hope we don't stop keeping sheep, if we have everything we need then we can afford to keep them around just in case. I don't know if I hope we join or not. I'm not sure our cultures are similar enough for that to work out, really."

Permalink Mark Unread

"Huh, Vanda Nossëo as a whole doesn't have a unified culture, can you say more about how you feel Sesat couldn't fit in?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Bear in mind that I don't know much about you yet and might be wrong but it seems like Sesati culture is more concerned with justice, courage, and personal uprightness, whereas from what I've seen most people in Vanda Nossëo appear, from what I can tell, take the attitude that they'd rather be rich than right and if they're rich enough then any time anyone has a quarrel with them they can pay them to go away."

Permalink Mark Unread

"- huh. You've met just people who've come to Sesat, and I guess me, right? Maybe you'll meet people you get along with better on vacation, where do you think you might go?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I might want to go to Patchwork but I haven't decided for sure yet. Know anywhere I shouldn't pass up?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Everyone likes different things but if you want to get lots of different things sampled in one trip Patchwork's a great choice, lots of little experimental communities."

Permalink Mark Unread

"I guess experiments are the kind of thing you can do, when you have a backup plan."

Permalink Mark Unread

"It's one of the luxuries being rich affords people, but I can certainly understand why it wouldn't have been a priority on your planet. Oh, did you know there's a poll out on what to call the planet in official documents? Obviously everyone can call it whatever they like in their own language but typically there's a standard form. You can vote on it if you want, what would you want the planet called?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"I don't know! A month ago I would've called it 'the world'. Is Courage taken?"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Not that I've heard!"

Permalink Mark Unread

"Maybe I'll vote for that."

Permalink Mark Unread

The interviewer doesn't have many more questions; she is paid for her time and told when to expect the article to appear and sent on her way.

Permalink Mark Unread

She will find some way to read the article when it has appeared. What do they have to say about her?

Permalink Mark Unread

The article ("She'd Like To Call It 'Courage'") includes what she said in response to what questions but apparently they also have a forensics demon they use for digging up further interesting information and have found that she did some slaving. The last paragraph is a snipe about how maybe one day there will be enough courage to spare that they can bravely admit that they were wrong about owning people.

Permalink Mark Unread

Forensics demons are creepy and annoying. If she were personally responsible for anything involving sensitive information she'd be screaming.

She passes this along to various people, because it's not a successful hatchet job in her context and mostly serves to make Vanda Nossëo look bad from any perspective she actually cares about.

Anyone can summon a demon, right? What can she find out about that, if she sells her clothes and buys an outfit that looks normal in Vanda Nossëo and tries to copy other people's mannerisms and goes and asks some random person where to find a library?

Permalink Mark Unread

Random person cheerfully directs her to a library! Anyone can indeed summon a demon but it is recommended that you do this at a dedicated facility with a preprinted circle for safety reasons. You have to do it in Revelation or Space Arda. She can actually get paid to do it if she picks a demon who'd like her language.

Permalink Mark Unread

...Is anyone going to stop her if she goes to the dedicated facility and arranges to give a demon Sesati in exchange for a hundred safe (...safer, anyway, none of this is really safe) circles for random demons and a marker?

Permalink Mark Unread

No, she can do that if she wants!

Permalink Mark Unread

And next she will find a relatively private space where it will presumably require other people to go out of their way to watch her, as opposed to the place where they're presumably