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Generated: May 15, 2022 3:04 AM
Post last updated: May 15, 2022 3:03 AM
to pick you up off the ground
vanda nosseo in velgarth shortly after the Cataclysm
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From the orbit of its moon, the planet looks almost normal. Green and brown continents, jewel-blue oceans, swirling clouds. 

 

It's only up closer, above the larger of the two continents, that the devastation is evident. Whatever happened here, it left two enormous craters, each hundreds of miles across. One appears to be slowly filling with water; the other is an arid plain, where nothing grows but grass. The two craters are close to a thousand miles apart, sprawled on an approximately north-south line, inside an even bigger ellipse of ruin. Vast areas are blackened, deforested by forest fires that must have run wild for hundreds of miles. Some patches appear to have been slagged down to the glassy bedrock. Much of the terrain still has plant life, but it can't be called intact; the colors are wrong, too many purples and sinister oranges, not at all like the healthy green on the other continent. 

There are odd - circles? - that seem to not match their surroundings. Circles of flat grass in the middle of hilly scrubland. Circles of tall trees that neatly cut off rivers or pop up in the middle of lakes. The circles are in a pattern. To a clever eye, it's noticeably the pattern of amplitude-peaks that you get from the wave interference of two waves emanating from point sources some distance apart, and the origins match the location of the craters. 

There are signs of civilization. On the far western coast, separated by the spine of a long mountain range running north-south, there appears to be some kind of island-based empire, with fleets of merchant ships bustling up and down the whole coastline. The far southern edge of the continent is also mostly intact, though at a closer glance everywhere shows the signs of recent earthquakes, buildings collapsed and not yet repaired. 

The area east of the destruction lacked a protective mountain range and is correspondingly worse-hit. And also, judging by the patchy brown-yellow and the lakes noticeably retreating inward from their former banks, suffering a major widespread drought that must have lasted many years. But there are a few areas of green, arranged in a way that looks like farming at work. 

Northeast, backed up against the northern, icebound mountain range, is an area several hundred miles across which for some reason inexplicably has an enormous magical force-field around it??? 

There are people living in the southern crater, the one that's not on its way to becoming a lake. They have horses and herds of livestock and tents. No buildings.

There are also people living in much smaller and fainter magical-force-field-bubbles, nestled near the periphery of - but still within - the worst-hit areas. 

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Oh yikes. They should have been faster - no, hitting planets with inadequate personnel is a disaster too, if not one with such a weirdly mathematical effect on the landscape - well. They can drop teams pronto, some of them on random farms for lack of a better population center, some in what civilization-esque things remain to be visited.

Nelen and his team descend to their assigned spot.

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They're headed to the area in the east.

Closer up, there are clear signs of previous civilization - cities, aqueducts, bridges - nearly all of it in ruins. For some reason, the bigger cities, and large-scale construction in general, seem to have fared particularly badly in whatever disaster befell this world. Even this far east, well beyond the area marked by forest fires, twisted local plantlife, and weird circles of land that don't belong, the cities are often half slagged to glass. The trees, at least those near riverbanks and thus less affected by the drought, are intact, and there are plenty of farmhouses and cottages still standing, so the earthquakes can't have been too bad - but the bridges have all collapsed, more or less violently. It's as though whatever happened, it selectively took out anything too advanced. 

There are signs of rebuilding. Here's a new city, sort of, set on the bank of a river about five miles upstream from the ruins of a bigger city. There are buildings, mostly earthen blocks with roofs of thatch or sod, some log cabins or wattle-and-daub, but surprisingly well-constructed given the primitive materials. Most of the still-green cultivated fields radiate outward from it, in spokes with an uneven radius between ten and fifty miles, connected by 'roads' of trampled-down earth or, rarely, gravel. It's unclear how water is being supplied to those fields, there's no sign of irrigation infrastructure, but clearly they're doing it somehow. 

The people in the fields, and in the city, which looks to have a population of several thousand judging by the number of buildings, look ragged and underfed but not starving. 

Probably that larger building roughly in the middle is the city hall? 

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They teleport into the street before the probable city hall and assess their reception! (Tarwë watches to see if any of his cells are reacting as though to radiation damage.)

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(There is no sign of radiation damage to his cells.) 

The people who see them appear look startled and alarmed! A very young woman selling tea from a cart, with a toddler strapped to her back and a bigger toddler on her hip, yelps and flees behind the nearest building. Everyone whose house has a door is frantically summoning their children inside and then slamming the doors shut, except for the younger and more able-bodied men - and a few women - who are circling up in front of the town hall, hands on their weapons.

One particularly fit-looking young man instead sprints off past the town hall, to find the nearest Mindspeaker and have them alert the mages, who are all outside of the city doing a weather-working. (It's still not a great idea to do even the simplest of magics within the city proper, where children might be nearby when a spell backfires.) 

The age distribution here is...odd. There are people under twenty, and a disproportionate-seeming number of kids under ten, and everyone else looks at least forty or fifty - and like the middle years of their life really sucked.

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"We mean you no harm!" says Nelen, raising his voice slightly. "We are peaceful visitors!"

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Yeah right. 

Glances are exchanged, and finally someone steps forward, visibly nervous but also indignant. "You can't Gate here! There are children!" Not that he actually saw their Gate, but maybe they were very fast at it, and how else could someone appear suddenly like that? 

- maybe they don't know? They look foreign. Maybe they're from the other side of the world? Lionstar k'Leshya says that theres another continent, across the sea, that the Cataclysm might not have touched - and before the war, especially brave and skilled ship captains could make the journey, if they were lucky. Though no ship captain will risk it now, not while magic doesn't work - it's not just big magics that were affected, delicate magics like scrying for navigation still don't work at all - and there's no way to evacuate your crew by Gate if the ship goes down within your strongest mage's range of the shore. 

"Magic isn't safe here," he says. Fidgets. "Just, you look like maybe you didn't know. Are you from somewhere far away?" 

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"Yes, we're from other stars, far away. What is dangerous about magic?" Nelen asks, concerned.

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Shrug. "There was a war between two mages. They sort of broke magic. Lionstar says it'll get better in a few centuries. The older folk say it's better now than it was? You can do magic again but you shouldn't do it in a city where there are children nearby because sometimes it explodes." 

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"Our magic is not the same kind you have here. Do you know if there's a good way to find out if it's dangerous for us?"

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He is not at all sure that he should trust these weird strangers, even though they seem to probably not be bloodpath mage-bandits? "Dunno. You can ask Lionstar when he gets back, he knows everything. Someone went to get him." 

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"Great, thank you. We can wait for Lionstar." They will stand around awaiting him.

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They're going to be waiting a while, because Lionstar took the other mages a candlemark's ride from the city. 

After a few minutes, the locals start relaxing enough to open doors or unshutter windows and look curiously at the strangers. The very young woman with the kids emerges and even tentatively asks if they would like tea, though she looks kind of terrified while she does this. 

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"We're fine," says Nelen. "Do you have a guess how far out Lionstar is?"

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The young woman has no idea! 

"Maybe five miles?" says the young man who was speaking to them before. "I dunno, he might gallop his horse back if he thinks it's urgent. Is it urgent?" 

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"Not as such, but some of us are passively slightly magic," Nelen explains. "Nothing seems to be happening yet as a result of that or the teleport, but if he's very far away it might make sense for Cassiel to fly out looking for him, or for us to leave you a way to contact us nonmagically and teleport away again, to limit the risk."

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"Oh." He relaxes slightly. "If you're a mage but you're not doing magic I don't think it's dangerous to other people? It might be dangerous to you, some people are more sensitive, but you'd have to be very sensitive - we have some mages who can't safely do magic again without collapsing but they're fine otherwise." 

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"In addition to being able to do magic, we have some magic items, Zanro has a non-reductionist soul, and Cassiel is passively indestructible."

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He looks so puzzled about all of this! 

"Sorry, I have no idea. If it's more like Mindspeech it's probably safe. I could go find Colden and he could Mindspeak Lionstar to ask? I think that would be safer than flying, or Gating again." (He is still assuming that 'teleport' is some kind of weird foreign term for Gates, what else could it be, and also that nonmagical methods of contact are limited to carrier pigeons, which seems worse.) 

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"My flying isn't more magical than my existing," says Cassiel, "I just do it with my wings."

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"Oh." Another very puzzled look, then the young man shakes himself a little. "That probably won't explode then. Lionstar went down the river that way." He points. It's the directed headed away from the ruins of the city. 

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Cassiel gets some space to take off and flies into the air.

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This earns shrieks and giggles of delight from the children, quickly shushed by their parents. 

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There's a man riding a horse just under five miles away, following a path that winds along the riverbank. The horse looks well taken care of, definitely better-fed than the man, who's even more gaunt and haggard than the average townsperson. 

Lionstar k'Leshya - a stolen name, but he kept it, it's not like he can use his original name here - sees the winged, flying person approached, and jerks the horse's reins, halting. He casts out his mage-sight. Pushes as much power into his shields as he dares. 

Waits. Colden did claim that the strangers came in peace, after all. 

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Cassiel spots him and lands. "Hi! I'm looking for Lionstar k'Leshya?"

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"You are speaking to him." Lionstar dismounts from his horse, moving with the easy grace of someone who has spent a substantial fraction of his life in the saddle. (He doesn't even like riding, especially, but with all means of magical transport unreliable, it's the best way to get around.) "Where are you from and what brings you here? - Also what species are you."

Gryphons are the only flying created-species he's aware of. Maybe a mage on the other continent created a humanoid flying race? 

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"I'm an angel," she says. "My party and I are visiting from Vanda Nossëo, based around another star very far from here. We were told that it's dangerous to use magic on this planet, and we're trying to figure out if it applies to our magic, and if it does, whether our existing items, enchantments, and species features are more or less dangerous than teleporting away from the planet and recalling the parties sent to other parts of your world, and then putting together a less magic-dependent team."

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That was not what he was expecting! Lionstar is so suspicious. Inconveniently, he doesn't have Mindspeech in this body, and thus has no way of directly trying to verify their story... 

- though why would they lie about something like that - 

 

If they really are from another world around another star, and have different kinds of magic, and they really are coming in peace, then - this is good news. Maybe the best possible news. 

Still, he suddenly feels very tired. "If your magic works differently from ours then it might be safe," he says dully. "I would be able to judge by looking at it, I think." 

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"Would you like me to try a little bit right now for you to check?"

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He checks the surroundings. Some flammable trees and grass, but the river is right there. He doesn't really have enough in his reserves to handle fire-extinguishing with magic - magic burns calories that he doesn't have to spare - but he has a bucket. 

"All right." 

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"I'm already passively indestructible because I'm an angel, and I've been enchanted with a magic called Allspeak which lets me talk to whoever I meet," says Cassiel. "Can you tell if those are safe before I try an active magic use?"

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Oh. Well, that explains how an alien - Lionstar has no idea what an 'angel' is but it might not be anything from this planet - could communicate with him while sounding like a native Kaled'a'in speaker.

He takes a step closer and plays his mage-sight over the 'angel'. First off, does anything even show up as passively magical to him? 

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Yup! She is herself pervasively magical all throughout and she's got an extra something on her.

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The flavor and structure of the magic is incredibly strange; her pervasive magicalness is almost impossible to parse with his mage-sight, aside from noticing that it's very much there. He could believe that it means passive indestructibility; he could also buy that it means something completely different, that might be less in her interest to tell him. The something-extra, which he's guessing is the language translation, is slightly less alien, but only very slightly. 

(This would be utterly fascinating, if curiosity and awe were the sorts of emotions that Lionstar had any energy left for. He doesn't. Hasn't in decades.) 

It does seem like evidence that they're really from another world around another star? Lionstar isn't sure what to make of that. Most importantly, neither aspect appears to be interacting whatsoever with the surrounding ambient magic. 

"Your passive magic appears safe to me," he says quietly. "You might not want to test it in the Pelagirs - the most damaged lands, I imagine they are very obvious - until you understand the interactions better." 

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"Okay. Shall I try something active now? I can change things into other things."

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Lionstar shields himself a little more, and steps back. "All right. I advise you to try something very low-powered, if that is a meaningful term for you." 

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"I can do small, and brief..." She picks a blade of grass and turns it purple in her hand.

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It does look magical - quite powerfully magical, in fact - but confined to a very small area, and indeed very brief. And just as hard to make sense of as her passive aura of magicalness. 

It's not interacting with the surrounding ambient magic. Not even to pull in energy. In fact, as far as Lionstar can tell she isn't pulling the energy from herself either, it's just - not there, and then suddenly there. 

"It appears that is not dangerous here either." And he would ask questions, how does it work, but he wants to see what the alien stranger has to say first. 

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"Oh good. If none of my magic is dangerous it seems likely that other kinds of otherworldly magic aren't either, at least as long as they don't seem to be. Do you want me to go get everyone else and have them teleport here, or should they stay where they are and wait for you?"

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He considers this. 

"The teleporting seems more like our kind of magic? But if you arrived that way, and nothing exploded, then probably nothing will explode this time either." And then he can have the conversation with the aliens without putting any of the townspeople in danger. And without having to ride back as fast as he can, putting his horse at risk on the uneven path and inevitably reaching the city even more tired than before. 

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"All right. Is it all right if I non-magically take a picture of this place so that the teleporting member of our party can come here?"

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What. If it's non-magical it'll be safe, almost certainly, but - what. The sentence isn't even quite parsing. "How does that work?" 

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"I can show you if you'd like?"

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"All right." Lionstar watches. From a safe distance. 

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Cassiel takes out her chiplocked computer, and shows how its projections forms a picture of the surroundings, and then how she can capture a single moment and keep it like that.

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That's kind of incredible and Lionstar is mostly just failing at working through the implications of it. "That appears to be safe." 

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"Great. I'll be back with the rest of my landing party soon." She takes off again.

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Well, if he goes anywhere they might not be able to find him again, so he's...just going to tether his horse to a tree within range of some only-half-grass to graze, and sit down by the riverbank to look out at the horizon. No dust storms, that's something; it's one of the most common ways for weather-magic to go wrong. 

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Corben Mindspeaks him a minute or so later. :Lionstar. Are you safe? The stranger with wings went to find you -: 

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Corben is a powerful enough Mindspeaker to 'hear' Lionstar's response even though he lacks the Gift. 

:I know. I am unharmed. They - I believe they really are from another world. Their magic is strange and does not seem to interact with ours. It might be safe here, which - would change everything, if they wish to help. If they do not wish to help I am not sure what I can do to stop them:

Pause.

:I asked them to meet me here to speak. You should hide the children while they are busy. Just in case: Though of course, powerful aliens who can take perfect images of their surroundings without using magic might be able to do so at a distance as well. :Take them out of the city to Father Gishet's cellar: 

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Corben sounds tense but mostly curious. :All right. You...take care of yourself out there: 

 

They didn't speak of it, but he can guess what Lionstar is planning to do, alone out there, if he realizes the powerful magical aliens are hostile. And why he wants to do it well outside of the city limits. If it comes to that, he's not sure the city has a change of surviving without Lionstar, but - their chances are better than they were a decade ago. It's something. 

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Lionstar isn't actually thinking about Final Strike ranges at all. The 'angel' claimed to be indestructible, so it's not like it would even help. He wants to hear what they have to say. If he doesn't like it, he'll have to do his best to persuade them otherwise with words, not force. 

 

 

 

 

Which is really what he should have done in the first place, before any of this happened. He very very badly doesn't want to solve any more problems via enormous explosions. 

He waits. 

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Once Cassiel lands and shows Nelen her photograph, they all appear, right there where she took the picture.

"Hello!" says Nelen. "I'm Nelen Utopia and these are Cassiel Jones, Tanaka Natsuko, Tarwë, and Zanro. We're a diplomatic envoy team from Vanda Nossëo, based around a star very far from yours."

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He stands up and bows to them, not sure if this is the appropriate deference. "Lionstar, formerly of Clan k'Leshya, now leader of - I suppose we do not really have a name, yet. The city in the east. As far as I know the only city. You - came here to open diplomatic relations with the countries here?" 

And he almost laughs, and in a deeper part of himself wants to cry, because of the awful bitter irony of them arriving thirty years too late. 

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"Yes," says Nelen, voice trembling a little. "I'm sorry, I wish we'd been sooner."

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"So do I. Can you–" And he has to stop and remember to breathe and center and ground. "If you have the power to travel between the stars, then - do you also see what is happening elsewhere on this continent? How many other places survived?" 

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"Yes, teams like ours are landing everywhere else we can find a population center."

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Nod. "And you wish to - trade with us? Request to settle here? I am not– I have never really considered what goals a civilization from another star would have if they were traveling to new worlds. ...Also it is very confusing how some of you look human. Does that happen often?" 

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"I'm a human," says Natsuko.

"I used to be," says Cassiel.

"Both humans and human-resembling species are surprisingly common," says Nelen. "Anyway, we hope to establish free movement and trade and flow of information between you and the rest of the multiverse."

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A pang of grief, and something like loneliness. Lionstar isn't even sure why he feels that way. 

"I suspect nearly all the remaining nations or settlements on this continent would be incredibly grateful. I...am not sure that we have all that much to offer in return." 

And it hurts, to know that if he hadn't made one terrible mistake, the delegation would be landing on a flourishing magical civilization. Urtho would have been so delighted to meet aliens - 

"...I know some of the magic that was lost in the Cataclysm. It - does not work well here, the ambient magic is still too disrupted, but I am sure it would work on the other continent. I - could teach it to your people, if you would be willing to trade that for food." 

It would probably be a disadvantageous trade from his perspective - they could use that knowledge over and over, whereas food can only be eaten once - and also he should probably be a lot more suspicious, but he's too tired to manage it.

And even a terrible bargain would be worth it, right now - they just need to get through another decade, until weather-magic works reliably again - at which point they still won't have the power for it, usable nodes and ley-lines are likely to take centuries to stabilize and accumulate useful quantities of mage-energy, but they do have alternatives, awful alternatives but better than children starving - and maybe in ten years they'll have more of value to trade, so they don't have to -

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"Vanda Nossëo is incredibly rich and mostly geared towards humanitarianism. But even if we were being selfish, your world has unique types of magic and your independent cultural output is of interest," says Nelen.

Cassiel picks up a rock off the ground and turns it into a huge sphere of some glowing fluffy stuff and pulls off a chunk and turns it into a sandwich full of roast beef. "Do you eat wheat around here? I can change it if you might be allergic to wheat," she says. "Or you can just have Nelen tap you if you react to it, he's got the good healing spell." She offers the sandwich to Lionstar.

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Well. Lionstar is definitely suspicious of that claim. Tantara was rich, and would have claimed to care about humanitarian aims...

It doesn't matter. As long as they're in fact here for trade and not conquest, it would be hard to imagine a bargain he wouldn't accept. 

"Our people would be delighted to open relationships with your people," he says, tiredly, and really he should have a thousand questions about the entire rest of the multiverse which apparently exists, about humans who can become indestructible 'angels', who can turn things into other things using magic that apparently isn't disturbed at all by the local conditions - 

He's even more doubtful at the wisdom of eating food that they just made with magic and handed to him, apparently not even asking for anything in exchange? Maybe it's drugged, or magical mind-controlling food.

(Also they power the morning's working with blood-magic, courtesy of a man who'd made a habit of breaking into remote farmhouses at night to steal all their food and scant valuables (Lionstar doesn't understand why anyone would even want gold and jewelry, right now, you can't eat or burn it) and rape the women, at least a dozen of them before they tracked him down and caught him. He agreed to let his death be used this way, and granted a funeral and a place in the city graveyard and on the List Of Names in the city hall, rather than an ignominious unmarked grave. The city voted on this law, and there's no realistic alternative where the man would have lived except the alternative where the alien visitors arrived four candlemarks earlier and it was the practice in Predain as well. Lionstar doesn't have any particular emotions about it anymore, but he never feels much like eating afterward.) 

He should eat anyway, on the premise that he can't see why it would be especially in the visitors' favor to poison or drug or mind-control him, and he needs to be able to think

"We have wheat. Thank you," he says after a noticeably long hesitation, and starts eating without enthusiasm. 

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"I can make things on request, but sometimes hungry people are overwhelmed by infinite options," says Cassiel. She heads over to the horse and gives it a carrot by the same procedure.

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The mare is so happy! Cassiel is instantly her best friend and will receive delighted whuffling and some horse-slobber. 

Once he's had a couple of bites, Lionstar is suddenly ravenous, and has to exert considerable willpower not to stuff the entire sandwich into his face at once and then probably make himself ill. Nobody is exactly starving, anymore, and families don't worry about getting their little ones through the winter alive, but they aren't eating a lot of meat. 

"We should," he swallows his bite of sandwich, "we should go back to the city. If - does it cost you more energy to make more things - we do have some books to trade." 

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"We'd love to see your books," says Nelen.

"It doesn't cost me any energy at all," says Cassiel. "I'm not terribly fast at it, if you had a million people you'd want a demon not an angel -"

"Sometimes," Nelen cuts in, "the translation magic renders 'demon' as something that sounds hostile, which the ones we mean aren't -"

"- but you're a pretty small village so I'll be fine for food purposes," Cassiel finishes.

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It's a good thing this. clarification was added because Lionstar is giving them a very alarmed look! 

"...Oh. So not an Abyssal demon. I - suppose I would have been very surprised if another world had those, and definitely if you worked with them willingly." 

And he's torn for a few seconds on whether to ask if they can use the teleport magic on him as well, because on the one hand he's suspicious, but on the other hand nobody is going to eat the food they offer unless Lionstar is there to reassure them. He's not the only one who's learned to be deeply wary of strangers. Especially powerful strangers.

But it's rapidly becoming obvious that the alien visitors are powerful enough to do whatever they want, and the fact that they're choosing to magically create food out of rocks is - evidence of something - it's hard to think about but it seems like an overdetermined correct decision to accept that offer. 

"- Does the teleport work for other people? I - would rather not wait a candlemark while I ride back and I am sure Shashi would rather avoid the exertion." He pats the mare's neck. 

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"Yes, I can teleport all of us including the horse if you'd like," Nelen nods.

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"Thank you." 

And they can teleport back to the 'city' center - it's really not much of a city yet - where Lionstar attempts to reassure a crowd of tense, worried townspeople that the alien visitors claim to be from an absurdly rich civilization that wants to help other worlds, and it's really a moot point whether they're telling the truth about that overall, because here they are offering food. 

He's going to wait until it definitely looks like the aliens are friendly and doing exactly what they said they would do, and also nobody has keeled over after eating their food, before having Corben bring the children back. In the meantime he can send someone to retrieve their precious chest of books, many of them "saved from before the Mage Wars." 

(They weren't saved from before the mage wars. But Lionstar is operating incognito with no good explanation for how or why he knows as much as he does - even if what he remembers is so vastly less than what the world lost - so he wrote up as much as he could, with the half-remembered names of scholars he's pretty sure really existed, and it's not hard to make books look older than they are.) 

There are books about magic - Gates, permanent Gates, construction spells, wards and shielding and communication, weather-magic, combat magic, nearly none of it usable right now. There isn't anything on the history of Tantara, because for whatever reason, magic he had learned himself is mostly in procedural memory which seems to have transferred surprisingly well from Lionstar's first life, and the actual geopolitical events...aren't. 

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Tarwë pages patiently through the books, taking pictures of each page, while Cassiel turns a series of rocks into giant cloudfluff feedstock she turns into loaves and tiny parcels of ham and chicken breasts and chocolate puddings and onigiri.

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Most of the generation born after the Cataclysm have never tasted refined sugar, let alone chocolate! They're so impressed about it. 

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Lionstar sits down with his people - they are his people, now, many of them were Urtho's people once but he almost feels more responsible for them rather than less as a result. He eats and drinks, and thinks about a plaque of names on the wall of the city hall, and how he really doesn't want to explain that to the powerful aliens just yet. Not until he knows that they're going to help the rest of the city no matter what. 

He tells Corben to go fetch the children. 

Eventually he asks, diffidently, if they have a way to get more information on how the rest of the continent is doing. 

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"Do you want to see pictures?" Nelen asks.

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"Oh, can you do that?" ...Stupid question. Of course they can do that. Lionstar is...kind of scared, actually, which might be a sensible response but it's not clear there's any sensible way to act on it. "Yes. Please." 

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Nelen produces his own computer - it looks like a different kind than the others, and he has to actually interact with it physically to make it do things - and shows him a satellite photo of the continent.

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He looks at it. 

He doesn't cry, because this wouldn't help with anything, but he wants to. 

 

 

"Do you....actually know what happened here?" he says dully. "We - have no way of knowing all the details - but we can give you an approximate accounting." 

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"We don't know. I'm sorry. We didn't know this planet existed until the circles had already been there for a while."

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"It sounds as though it is a very big universe - multiverse? - and you cannot explore all of it at once. You would have needed to be here thirty years ago, for it to matter." He looks down at his hands. "There was a war between two countries. Each of them had one of the most powerful mages in the known world involved. It - escalated out of control. One of the countries was winning, so the mage from the other - destroyed his own fortress, the best academy of mage-craft in the world, one assumes to protect his secrets from falling into the enemy's hands. And he had - created a powerful weapon. Likely no one but him knew it existed until he sent it to be used against the other mage. Probably he did not realize exactly how destructive it would be." 

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"We see that kind of thing sometimes," nods Nelen, solemn. "Ah - do you happen to know, people often do know one way or the other, if your people have anything like 'souls' or an afterlife or reincarnation?"

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"People have souls." Is he going to say why he's so sure of this, no, no he is not. 

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Nelen winces, but only a little. "Okay, that's good to know. Do you know what happens to the souls when people die?"

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"We are not sure what normally happens." Not technically a lie. "We think they continue to exist. Somewhere. Maybe some of them are reincarnated, but the people who claimed this said it happened with infants so they would not really remember. Maybe the gods have them." 

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"Is there a good way to contact the gods?" Nelen asks.

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"Not that I know of." That part is entirely honest. 

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"Okay. Uh - is this a good time to explain something that is not urgent but might be saddening?"

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Lionstar has no idea where this is going and he almost certainly isn't going to like it but he's still too tired to feel any particular way about it. "Yes." 

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"Some people have immaterial souls, like Zanro, or afterlives that don't seem to strictly depend on any separable 'soul' component, like Cassiel. Some people, like me or Natsuko, are purely material, at least under all our add-on powers. Tarwë's soul is a physical object, but it has some special properties that make him a different case from me or Natsuko. Some people reincarnate.

We have resurrection that works for some, but not all, cases. If we can find the souls, we can give them bodies - if Zanro died for some reason right here and now, we'd call for help and get him a new body and his soul could move right in. If I died for some reason right here and now, they'd call for help and someone would make me a new body and then do some separate magic to wake it up.

The situation where we can't do that is - when there are souls and we can't get them. I'm sorry."

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"Oh." 

 

 

"I -" 

 

 

 

"You should find someone who thinks they might know a way to talk to the gods." 

And of course five seconds after he says that he remembers that it's not their problem, and there's no reason to ask or expect the people of another world to do something very costly and hard for Velgarth. But he doesn't try to take it back. 

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"Yes. We'll probably be putting a lot of effort into that for the foreseeable future and I wanted to - contextualize that. We'll try not to let it interfere with helping the living."

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Lionstar doesn't know what to say to that at all, for a long moment. He's - reflexively suspicious, of course, but he doesn't actually have a story for why they would lie about prioritizing bringing back Velgarth's dead. 

"I understand." 

He probably should be asking more questions about Vanda Nossëo, but nothing is coming together in his head yet, so he sits in awkward silence. 

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Nelen occupies himself taking some photos of people who agree to have themselves or their houses photographed and compiling a report.

Natsuko would like to know if there's a good place she can set up a small base of operations for their outfit here - they'll be operating it as a little shop, and maybe take some of their downtime in it.

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The family that lives next to the town hall is happy to give up their house! They can find a place to stay with neighbors. 

The house is reasonably spacious, though with a low ceiling, and the floor of hard-packed dirt is swept and has some rugs woven of reeds, and the walls are sturdy. It's a single room inside, with a hearth at one end and the 'bedroom' at the other. The family will move their bedrolls out now to make space. 

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- no, Natsuko doesn't want their house, she wants an empty space where she can create a new house for this purpose by magic.

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She can do what???? 

 

There isn't actually a lot of empty space in the city center, the buildings are packed close together - makes it easier to shovel out paths or in the worst case carve out tunnels between them when they get a really bad winter blizzard - but they can have the spot where Kushti and his wife were going to build a house once the mages had enough mage-energy available to help with the construction.

(Which, in practice, meant whenever the town next got terrorized by bandits or one of the nomadic roaming tribes from further east, which usually results in at least some of them being captured alive. They do not say this part out loud.)  

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Natsuko goes to the offered spot and mutters to herself, sketching imaginary lines in the air, and -

- there appears a house. It's trying to roughly match the materials and colors of its neighbors but it's much nicer.

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The adults are still wary, but most of the children under ten have been entirely won over by chocolate pudding, and they run up and cluster around the house to stare at it in amazement and ask if it's okay for them to touch the walls and look inside and wonder aloud how you do that and whether Lionstar could do that if he had more magic power and where the people from another star are getting all the power to do that. 

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Natsuko will let the kids poke the house and go inside! It's pretty bare in there - no separate furniture, though there is a window seat and a counter and some built in shelves. It's nicer inside where it doesn't have to blend in.

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Can she make more houses? Can she make other things like clothes or chairs or dolls or beds? Does she get tired from making things? Does she have to be making something that she's seen before or can she make anything? 

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She can make more houses but not too many in a row before getting a mana refill. She doesn't know spells for those things but someone might invent them one day. She doesn't really feel tired when she's out of mana. She doesn't have to copy a house she's seen before.

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What's mana? Where does it come from? Does she have to kill people to get it? 

(The five-year-old girl who asked this last question is quickly shushed by her older brother and looks embarrassed, but how was SHE supposed to know that they're not the same kind of magic people as the grownup mages here?) 

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...she does not kill people to get it. She can get it by resting in a universe adjacent to the one her magic came from, or get some from a Maia, of whom there are lots all of whom have infinite mana and some are willing to be mana fountains for staff wizards.

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What does it mean for universes to be adjacent to other universes or not? They're not sure what a 'universe' is actually. What's a Maia? Also what's a wizard? These kids are full of sugar and also energy and they have so many questions! 

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A universe is all the stuff you can get to by moving through space - walking or flying or whatever. Universes are huge! A crowded one might have millions of kinds of people in it! And there are more places you can't get to by moving through space, no matter how far you go. Those are other universes, and you need another way, usually magic, to get between them. So far all ways of getting from one universe to another will only let you reach some of them from each universe. You can think of those as "next to" each other. So it takes more teleporting to get between "far apart" universes than "neighboring" ones - though it's always possible someone will find a shortcut.

Maiar are a kind of magical being that come from a kind of repeated world called "Ardas".

A wizard is somebody who's studied the kind of magic she knows.

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Can anyone learn to be a wizard? Or is it like being a mage where you have to be born that way? 

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Lionstar is still turning things over in his head, but he overhears snippets of this conversation, and sidles up closer to listen in. 

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"You don't have to be born with it, but you have to be smart to learn the spells. But there are magic items that make you smarter in the right way - it's sort of like being good at math and sort of like being good at reading sheet music - so if you want to do one of the higher-demand things people can do with wizardry, you can get someone to front you one of those items."

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One of the girls starts jumping up and down. "You should teach Ativa! He's really good at math! Lionstar is teaching him how to do gee-oh-metry so he can make better houses when he's grown up! Lionstar knows eeeeverything, you know." 

     "Geometry," the older boy who looks like her corrects. "I am good at math though." 

"What's a sheetmusic?" 

     "Can people learn how to do the kind of magic that makes food out of fluffy stuff?" 

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"Sheet music is music that's written down," says Natsuko, "so you can play or sing a song without having to hear it first. And, no, Cassiel got her magic by being from a particular universe and then dying, most people don't wind up in that afterlife with powers like hers even if they go to her universe before they die, but some people get powers sort of like hers 'wished on', there's a neighborhood where you can get a wish granted and some people use their wishes to give batches of people magical powers. The wish-granting only works in a certain universe neighborhood but the powers wished on work anywhere."

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At some point Lionstar should really step in and ask the more important questions, like 'can we have access to those other worlds' and 'what do we need to do to get in on the wish-granting'. It feels important to get right, though, and he doesn't have the heart to interrupt the children, who are happy and excited and, despite the bleak unrelenting slog of their entire lives, somehow not at all weighed down by fear. 

(In some important sense, they have less to be afraid of. They're not one of the parties responsible for nearly destroying the world.) 

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"What kind of magic gets you between universes? Is that a power some people have? Is it one you can have the person who makes wishes make a wish to give you?"  

     "How do you get between stars??? They don't look that far but Lionstar says they're so so so so far!" 

"Are you from a place that's just very far away or a place that you need magic to get to?" 

     "What do other planets look like? Is the sky the same color?" 

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"There are several ways to get between universes! Nelen's teleport spell works that way, and I have a way to do it with wizard magic, too. People like Cassiel can be summoned to adjacent universes magically, and then if the person who summons them wants, they can send them back - if something weird happened to us and we got stuck, that's one thing they might try, to find out what went wrong, is pulling her back to her home. Stars are really really far but the teleport has no range limit at all. All of us are from places you need magic to get to, none of us have even been to your universe before today! Blue skies are common but not all planets have them. Would you like to see some pictures?"

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Yes!!!! The kids would like to see pictures!!!! 

 

One twelve-year-old girl very timorously asks if, since it would take too long for Cassiel to make food for everyone in the world, and probably other people are hungry too, maybe they could summon more of the people like Cassiel so that all the towns could have someone? If those people wouldn't mind? 

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"All the other towns we could find have groups of people too! They don't all have angels but they all have someone who can feed them," Cassiel says. "We're just one team and we're focusing on the people who are around here."

Natsuko can show so many pictures.

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"Oh." The girl looks thoughtful about this. The others crowd around to stare at pictures in awe and make appreciative noises. 

It's a while before she speaks again. "You're...really nice. I'm glad it's people like you who're finding other universes and other planets and not bad people." 

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They're all - almost all - such decent kids, despite their lives so far, and now they're going to have a future and that's probably the only thing that matters here. 

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"S'like Lionstar," she says earnestly. "He was with the people that tried to run away through a Gate west - that was when Gates worked - and they ended up sooooo far west and got lost, only it was good because the other side of the mountains didn't get bad weather. But Lionstar wanted to come back to help us and he had to sail halfway around the whole world to get here. But then he found us." 

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"That was very brave of him," says Natsuko.

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"Well, I think it's brave of you too! To just go to other places even though they might be scary or dangerous or have a lot of bad people."

Her face scrunches up a little. She's clearly choosing her words carefully. "What - do you do if you go to another world and people are doing bad things there?" 

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This conversation is quickly edging toward dangerous ground and yet the last thing that Lionstar wants to do is tell her to stop, even if he had a way to do that without making the visitors incredibly suspicious, which he doesn't. 

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"Well," says Natsuko, "it depends on the bad things. It tends to work... pretty badly... for one civilization to come in and conquer another civilization and go, 'hey, you have to stop doing things your way and start doing things our way' - even if their way is really awful! So we try, really really hard, to always just offer ways to do things that they'd like better, to get the things they care about."

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He’s so dubious of this. It would be…impressive, if it were true.

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“And that works?” the girl says, frowning in thought. “Could you give the bandits and the horse-riding-people who try to attack the city other things they’d like better. I think they mostly want food. And jewelry even though that seems silly. And raping people but maybe there’s a different thing people would rather do instead of that, if they could.”

She says this as though it’s a perfectly normal thing for a twelve-year-old to know, and talk about in front of six-year-olds.

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"- yes, it's much less common for people to attack cities for food and jewelry when they can easily just buy food and jewelry. Rape is a little trickier but there's usually something."

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The girl fidgets. “Um, but if you try that and they don’t stop doing bad things, would you kill then then?”

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Lionstar, still listening, is wishing possibly harder than he’s ever wished in this lifetime that he still had Thoughtsensing and could read this person’s mind. It - she sounds sincere but it seems impossible for that to mean something, for it to be a promise anyone should put weight on. 

Urtho always sounded sincere. He probably believed he meant it, right up until the end.

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"Not usually. There are a few very very powerful entities we don't have a good way to imprison humanely. Those sometimes get killed, though we hope that one day we'll be so rich and so powerful that even they can have somewhere to live harmlessly and all the people they hurt won't even have to worry. But for normal people we can put them somewhere comfortable and safe where they can't hurt anyone. Prisoners in Vanda Nossëo can choose which prison they live in, if the one they want has space and is qualified to hold them, and they have plenty to eat and stuff to read and people to talk to and opportunities to learn better things to do with their lives than commit crimes once their time is up."

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"Oh. That's good then." The girl stares at her feet. "S'just, one of the horse-riding-people is probably my dad and I don't want him to die even if he's a bad person." 

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"We will almost certainly not wind up having to kill your dad. If you want, maybe one day you can find out which one he is and see what he's like when he has more choices."

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Shrug. "I dunno what he looks like and my ma probably wouldn't remember either. Just, Lionstar says it's always bad when people - or other things that are like people - die. And–" 

A frown of intense concentration. 

"...And he says that when you don't have enough or know enough to save everyone then sometimes you need to do math about what saves the most people, but - that's not because it's okay, it's never okay, s'just - it's because we have to try to make the world where we can save everyone. 'Cause no one's going to do it if we don't. Only -" and she's clearly trying not to cry, now, "- only now you're here? And maybe you do know enough and have enough to save everyone." 

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This is one of the most agonizing conversations Lionstar has ever listened in on, and their alien visitors are going to have so many questions - some of them about Lionstar specifically which is terrifying - but what she's saying isn't false, and it feels as though it would be a betrayal of everything he's tried to teach these people who he claimed as his own, if he tells her to stop - 

 

- he's never had to tell any of his people that sometimes a thing is true and yet you aren't allowed to say it. That's...one of the few mercies of living so close to the edge. No space left for pretty lies. 

 

Lionstar is going to slip quietly away, and go pace the outskirts of his tiny city, because at least that way he won't be tempted to intervene. 

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"Lionstar's right," Natsuko says. "Anyway, if you do want to find your dad, we can do it without knowing what he looks like, but if you don't, that's also fine."

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"Wow! How do you do it if you don't know what he looks like?" 

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"Most kinds of people - and animals and plants - are made of little tiny blobs, called cells, and each one of those cells has even tinier little pieces in it called DNA, which tell it how to help make the whole thing - you, or a tree, or a fish. And you have different ones from a tree or a fish, but you also have different ones from other humans! Unless you have an identical twin. If you have an identical twin theirs are the same. And you get yours from your parents, some of both of theirs mixed up. We can check who matches you and how much, and figure out how they might be related. Although this would only happen if your dad agreed to let us check."

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This gets the attention of all the other kids who had been hanging back! 

"How do you know that? Do you have people with tinyblobSight?" 

     "How does the dee-enn-ayy tell the tiny blobs to do things? Is it like a book? Can tiny blobs even read?" 

"I had a twin when I was born but he died." (This little boy is rapidly shushed.) 

     "Do all the things made of tiny blobs have two parents or is it just people? 'Cause I don't know how trees could have parents -" 

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"There's probably someone who can just see the tiny blobs by looking, but mostly we use machines that can magnify a picture of something to see what it looks like when it's really little. The way the DNA tells the tiny blobs what to do is complicated - I can still tell you, but it might not make a lot of sense... I'm sorry about your twin... Some things made of tiny blobs have only one parent, or more than two, but trees often do have two. The pollen comes from one, and the flower comes from the other, and that together makes a seed."

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"Ohhhhhhh!" says one little boy, whose father runs the local apothecary and grows lots of herbs in their backyard, and who has therefore overheard many discussions over the nuances of gardening. "So - the pollen goes in the flower and then the flower makes some tiny baby trees out of the two kinds of tiny blobs, and puts them in seeds?" Widening eyes. "So that's what Lionstar meant!"

     "What about lizards?" a little girl asks. "They lay eggs! With shells! I dunno how the second kind of blobs could get in!" 

"Is that why my daddy sticks his wee-wee in my mommy? So he can put his tiny blobs where they make a baby with her tiny blobs?" says a little boy, who has grown up sharing a single-room house with his entire family and sees no reason not to talk about this in front of strangers. 

 

The twelve-year-old girl who was speaking before rolls her eyes at the younger kids being silly. "Wow. Could we buy one of those machines from you? I - all I have to trade is my spare dress and my ragdoll, but I'm good at cleaning and mending clothes and I can copy books in a fair hand?" 

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"If you guys join Vanda Nossëo you will get some money every so often just for being citizens," says Natsuko. "Then if you want a microscope you can buy one with your own money. Lizard eggs are soft before they get laid! They have to grow, and while they grow they're soft, and then they harden at the last minute. And - yes, that's how most humans make babies."

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"They're soft? Whooooooa! - Ooh I know where the lizard nest is, I'm gonna go see if the mommy lizards are laying eggs yet so I can see if they're soft!" (The little girl announcing this runs off immediately.)

     "How does it even work for the eggs to be soft when they're laid and then get hard after? Where does the hard come from?" 

"Are snakes like lizards? I saw two snakes all rolling in a ball once and I thought they were fighting so I should stop them but Lionstar said they were probably making babies and I shouldn't bother them -" 

     "What's 'money'?" (Asked by a boy who looks maybe four years old.) 

 

Yet again, the older girl interrupts. "What do you mean by 'join Vanda Nossëo'? Is it hard to do that? What do you need us to do?" 

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"Wow, kiddos, this is a lot of questions. How about questions about animals go to Tarwë and I'll take questions about Vanda Nossëo?" Natsuko laughs. "Tarwë's the really tall one. Vanda Nossëo is a bunch of people all clubbed up together to work on the project of making life better for everyone! You can join if everyone votes and most people in your group want to. Money is - hm - do you have games where you try to win pebbles or something? - well, anyway, most people use money to trade for stuff, and then the people they trade with can use their money to trade for more stuff. Money's not useful by itself, but it's useful when everyone knows you can use it to buy stuff, because it lets you avoid situations where people want something and don't have anything the other person wants."

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(Several of the children run over to the very tall alien to ask questions about plants!) 

 

The others look expectantly at Tsashi, the twelve-year-old girl, who is also acknowledged to be - well, not the smartest, maybe, Parshat is better at math and that's why he's the one Lionstar is teaching how to design houses to build, and someday bridges and towers - but among the kids, Tsashi is the wisest one, and the one who always listens to everything Lionstar has to say.

 

Tsashi nods along and, for a long moment, has no idea what to say. 

After a few moments, she straightens her shoulders. "How - did you end up even being able to club together like that? I– so Lionstar says it seems like it should be easy, to find other people who want to make life better for everyone, but actually it's really hard and - if you try you'll mostly find people who say the right words but don't mean it." 

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(Lionstar would probably object to this characterization, if he had any way of knowing it, which he doesn't, because he is now pacing around the perimeter of his tiny city.)

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"Yup. We're cheating," says Natsuko. "In all the worlds and all the people in them - some of them repeat. I'm from a world that repeats, and there's two more Natsukos from other versions of the same world, not on all the versions of that world but on some if you look in the right place there I am. And some people can repeat even in worlds that don't. So most of the people in charge of Vanda Nossëo and our closest allies are repeating people, who we can trust almost anywhere we find them. But also a lot of people want to help and just need to know how - that's people like me and my team, and we got lots of training and practice before we got a job like this one."

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....Tsashi is going to have to sit down and think about that for a minute.

(Lionstar always said it was okay to stop and think, if you thought you had all the information but couldn't put it together yet to figure out what was true - as long as no one was going to immediately die and no time-sensitive opportunities would be lost...) 

 

 

 

The other kids are happy to jump in, though! 

 

"What do you mean people repeat? Is it like having a twin except they're born on another planet?"

     "Another universe, silly, they already said that was the word for places you can't get except with magic -"

"Where are the other yous? Can we meet them?" 

     "Are there lots of copies of me too?" 

"- Probably not, you aren't interesting."

     "Hey!"

"....There might be lots of repeats of Lionstar? He's - I think he would've tried to do the thing you're doing if he could have..." 

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"The other mes are also named Tanaka Natsuko! We don't hang out often enough to have decided on nicknames to tell us apart. One of them works for Mîr, which is like Vanda Nossëo except it's structured a little differently and it's only in a specific world neighborhoods, and one lives in a world called Eclipse and that one has kids and she's staying home with them. There are copies of lots of people who aren't especially interesting - we're less likely to go looking for them, because it can be a little tricky to find them in worlds that aren't repeated, I don't even know if there are more of me on worlds that aren't Earths. There might be more of you, or of Lionstar, or your parents, or anybody else from here, but this world doesn't have any others like it at least so far so they'd be hard to find."

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This mostly gets puzzled or thoughtful or confused looks. 

Tsashi steps forward again. "...So - being a repeat of someone else who's in another world is one way you can trust someone? But - is there a different way? That you can check if a person is someone you should trust?"

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"Sure. My team all did a lot of training and passed a lot of tests to come here."

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...That doesn't answer Tsashi's actual question, which is 'do you have a way to trust Lionstar even though he's done bad things' -

 

- but asking that any more directly would involve telling the powerful aliens that Lionstar, the person who traveled halfway around the world to try to help her family, has done bad things. So she doesn't. She stares at her feet and tries not to make it too obvious that she's deliberately not-answering a question because it's about something upsetting. 

(It's kind of obvious.) 

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"Trust is complicated," says Natsuko after a silence. "There's usually some limit to what conditions you can trust people in, and what you can trust them to do. I'd trust my sister to take care of a dog but not to keep a secret. I'd trust my alts - those are the copies of me in other worlds - to keep a secret, but not to take care of a dog, I happen to be bad at that sort of thing."

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There's a longish pause. 

 

"Do you have dogs where you're from?" a boy of about nine asks eventually. "- My pa used to have a dog. But he got sick, and - we didn't have enough extra food for him anyway - and Lionstar said it'd be kinder to kill him rather than letting him die slowly. So now we don't have any dogs. But I like dogs a lot! If you know someone who has a dog that has puppies...."

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"Most places with humans have dogs! I think maybe all of them but I'm not positive," says Natsuko. "Once things are safer and stabler here you should go ahead and ask your parents if it would be a good idea for you to get a new dog."

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"Do you have cows too?" another kid asks? 

     "What about horses?" 

"I have a pet rat! My ma said rats are nasty but Lashi isn't nasty at all! I can go get him if you want to see -" 

     "- Are things going to be safer here? If that's really true then I want to make my pretend castle. Lionstar said I shouldn't before, because we weren't safe and the bandits would break it anyway, and it was more important to help my da make shoes but I hate shoes -"

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"We have cows and horses and rats! I don't actually know if we'll be able to fix the problem where your kind of magic isn't safe to use here any more, so it might be you'd all rather move somewhere else, but some people get along without much magic and in particular most people get along without the kind you have here, so if you want to stay right here we can get you set up comfortably. What are you going to build your castle out of?"

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"I wasn't gonna build it out of magic! Lionstar said the sort of magic you need to make buildings work if they wouldn't stand up otherwise is realllly hard and fiddly and it probably won't work right again for a hundred years -"

     "Which is so many!" his little sister jumps in. "I counted to a hundred once! Have you ever counted to a hundred? It's soooooooo many!" 

"- Shush, I was talking!" her brother interrupts. "I was gonna make my castle out of reeds and willow-branches with clay on top. Like how some of the houses here are made. Except I was gonna be smarter and ask Parshat 'cause he knows all the math of how you make big tall houses of stone that last a thousand years! ...I can't make my castle out of stone 'cause magic doesn't work right so you can't use it to dig quarries, and I'm too little to cut stone with an axe." (He has no idea whether an axe is what you would use to cut stone, but it seems plausible, and he tried to lift his pa's axe once and couldn't.) "Anyway I bet it doesn't matter, if you know the math you can just figure out how it'd work with willow-branches and clay instead of stone." 

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"Clay can last a thousand years, though I don't know if willow branches can," says Natsuko agreeably.

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"Do you know the math of how you making a building that lasts a thousand years?" a different girl asks, nudging the others aside. She looks about eight or nine years old. "Just - Lionstar said he couldn't save the books he found on it, and he's not sure he remembered all the math right, so he told us we should check it." 

     "With experiments!" another little boy adds. "Does your world do experiments? They're really cool!" 

"Obviously they do! Dunno how else you could make machines that look at tiny tiny blobs inside you -"

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"We do experiments! And I'm sure someone knows all that math, though not me personally."

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The kids continue to have so many questions! 

 

- Tsashi interrupts, stepping forward (and everyone else falls silent before she even says anything.) 

"I still don't what we'd need to do to join Vanda Nossëo? Do - all of us have to pass a test, or something? ...Just, I think I should go tell Lionstar what it is. Because it seems like the most important thing. Probably." 

And Lionstar ran away, (and Tsashi isn't blind, she absolutely noticed.) She knows it's because he's scared. She can even sort of guess why - some of it, at least, she knows that she doesn't know all of the why. But if there's some sort of test that they can pass, to join the aliens in their universe-spanning civilization, then it's not even slightly a question whether Lionstar would want to know about it. 

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"A group - usually a state, but under the circumstances it can just be this village, that's fine - all has to vote, and if enough of the people want to be part of Vanda Nossëo, they can," says Natsuko. "They have to agree that they're going to have and enforce rules against murder, rape, and torture, and that they'll let anyone who wants to leave go without any fuss. Everything else can vary depending on what a place needs."

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Well, obviously they'll agree to rules against rape and torture! Neither of those accomplishes anything!

The problem is whether using bandits' executions as fuel for the weather-magic that lets them have crops next year is allowed. Tsashi knows a lot about that. Parshat might be the one who's been learning how to make towers ten storeys high, for someday in the future when mages can cut and lift the stone for it, but she's the one who's sat with Lionstar late at night by candlelight and helped him copy tables of figures.

It's not complicated math that you need, for that, it's really just basic arithmetic, addition and subtraction and multiplication and division. Math that Tsashi mastered when she was six. Lionstar says that the hard part is looking at your tables of numbers and always remembering that they mean lives. The bandit they killed this morning could have been her father. (Almost certainly isn't, her father was a horse-tribe-person and they don't roam alone, but could have been.) The babies starving in winter could include her baby brother - 

 

She can do math. It's not complicated math. Their goal all along was to build a world where no one would have to go hungry, or be sick, or be raped by bandits. Where no one would have to die. And...she's pretty sure she knows what Lionstar, given a choice to have that world right now, would choose. It's worth it. 

Even if they decide he's a criminal and so he goes to some faraway prison and she never sees him again. He would think it was worth that cost. It's not a difficult choice.

Or it shouldn't be, at least. 

 

"....And if we all vote that we want to be part of Vanda Nossëo, then that's it?" she asks, her voice shaking even though it's not a hard choice. "Then we can - then anyone here can decide to go to another world, or learn other kinds of magic from you -?"

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"Yup!" says Natsuko.

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"I'm going to go tell Lionstar!" And she runs off. 

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Lionstar is still pacing the outskirts of the town. 

A few minutes ago, Corben came over to ask him what he thought of the alien visitors. Lionstar said he wasn't sure, yet, but Corben was authorized to try reading their minds. Passively, only, not the sort of probe that would attract attention. 

He's still waiting to hear back. 

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Corben is not sure how much range he has for passive scanning and so he's now sidling up to the new house, extending his Othersenses. Are there any unshielded minds there?

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Nelen, Natsuko, Zanro, and Cassiel are all totally opaque, like they aren't even there.

Tarwë isn't! Tarwë is explaining things about plants and animals to the kids. He's propped up his chiplock computer and is showing them pictures of things relevant to their questions.

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Corben was not authorized to do any kind of active probe and so he doesn't. 

:Lionstar? Most of them are shielded. Really good shields, better than yours. One of them isn't but he's just talking to the littles and showing them pictures on his - something? The thing that isn't magic but has pictures?: 

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Computer, Lionstar thinks loudly back. I am not sure how they work either. ...Wait a moment, I probably have other questions. 

And he tries to think, which isn't easy right now. 

 

 

 

- Mindspeak one of the children. Tsashi would probably do it best. Tell her to go to that person specifically, and -

And what, exactly?

 

- and ask what the people of other worlds, who have joined their polity, later said was difficult or confusing or not something they wanted. 

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A pause. 

 

:Sorry. Tsashi just asked a lot of questions and now she's looking for you. ...I told her where you are, hope that's all right: 

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He's so tired. 

:Of course that's all right. Tell Parshat to ask, then: 

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Parshat is shy and has been desperately wanting to ask the clever aliens with their amazing technology about - a lot of things, math and building but also so much more. 

...He isn't all that enthused to be asking about something boring instead but apparently Lionstar thinks it's important? 

He steps forward to interrupt the group of littler children clamoring to look at pictures on Tarwë's computer. "I wanna know about other worlds that joined Vanda Nossëo before! Were they happy about it after? Was there anything they weren't happy about?"

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"Some people are unhappy," says Tarwë. "We're very firmly against mind control, institutionally speaking, so it's pretty hard to please everybody. Often people experience a kind of - cultural shift, as they get more integrated, where their kids want to do things differently from the way their parents are used to. We have some measures to try to make sure cultural knowledge isn't just lost totally, but studying something isn't the same as never knowing anything else. Sometimes if Vanda Nossëo comes in during a war we wind up making people angry trying to cool it down and come up with a postwar compromise. There's one planet that we didn't handle well at all because it's a copy planet except in a few ways and that threw everybody off balance and then the king there did a bunch of propaganda about the visitors' mistakes. Things like that."

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The kids are all leaning in and listening sooooooo intently! And impressed with Parshat for asking such a good question, probably it shouldn't be surprising because they know he's clever but it's still impressive. 

"I don't think my parents would mind if I did things differently from them once I'm a grownup!" one little girl announces. "Lionstar said that's what we've been trying to do this whole time, is making it so when I'm grown up the world will be better and I can do even better things than my parents." 

     "What's cultural knowledge? Is it like all the things we don't know anymore 'cause the books got burned in the Cataclysm?"

"- not all the books! Lionstar saved some of them!"

     "What are wars like on other planets? Are they all as bad as the Mage Wars or are some of them less bad?"

"Or more bad! Maybe they could blow up the whole planet and kill everyone!" 

     "- Shut up, Tori, no one wants to hear that -"

"Okay but what does it mean for a whole entire planet to be a copy of a whole entire other planet except not exactly -"

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"Natsuko's from one that's like that. They're called Earths. There are lots of Earths in different worlds. Oddly, they all have different magic systems - or non-magic systems, in the case of a couple. And some other differences. But they have the same continents and mutually intelligible languages depending on when they are in the Earth timeline and the same species and lots of the same people. I'm from one that's sort of like that; I'm from an 'Arda', most of which are exactly alike except for timeline position till someone finds them, but mine's one of the different ones. There are more Natsukos from other Earths, but the other Ardas never had a Tarwë born on them, because one difference between my Arda and a regular one is that mine has more people and I'm one of the more people. Cultural knowledge is things like... if you asked Cassiel to make you a doll, she'd make it with magic. She doesn't know how to sew. It can be pretty weird for people to go over the course of a few years from a place where basically everyone knows how to sew to a place where only old people and a few hobbyists know how to sew."

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What is Corben picking up via Thoughtsensing while passively listening to this conversation? 

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Well.

The part about blowing up a whole planet and killing everyone got a memory about the time that happened (more or less) to his home planet.

They have a replacement now, but Tarwë hasn't been by. Maybe once his family's had a century or so to cool down.

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(Corben relays this to Lionstar.) 

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....It's pretty hard to get anything from it except for the part about the delegate's home planet apparently being entirely destroyed???

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This is the point at which Tsashi finds Lionstar and jogs up to him and - she's expecting to have to argue this very hard in order to get him to listen at all, he's very paranoid and she can't fault him for that when he was right so many other times, but she's pretty sure this time is actually different - 

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Lionstar, who has stopped pacing and sat down on a rock, stands up. "Are you coming to tell me about the conditions required for an alliance with the alien visitors?" 

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How does he always know things like that??? (It's not because he can read their minds, he doesn't have that Gift, Corben does which is why in an emergency she's supposed to think-scream very very loudly at Corben and not Lionstar even though he's obviously the one who could help.) 

 

 

 

"I think we should do an alliance with them. It doesn't seem like they want very much? ...I know you're going to say you don't trust them yet and we should wait and see. I guess you should probably have Corben read their minds too just to check. But - I'm pretty sure? I dunno if someone could look me in the eye and lie about wanting the things they said they want?"

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"I do not expect they are lying." He's not going to say out loud that he already asked Corben to read their minds, because if they can take pictures with their machines then maybe their machines can listen as well. "I do think people can be sincere about what they think they believe, and - be wrong." 

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"...I know." She's not stupid. (And Lionstar knows that, so what is he playing at?) "I - they're so rich! It's, it's cheap for them, to send people to our village. If it were hard they'd've only sent people to the Haighlei Empire and the other continent, where there's still big cities." 

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He's listening. "And your point is?" 

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She clasps her hands behind her back. Takes a deep breath. 

"My point is that - it's not expensive for them to come here? They're saying it's not - and I guess maybe they'd have reasons to say that anyway - but they're acting like it's not as well. And so I don't think we should be that suspicious, if the terms of alliance they're offering seem too easy." 

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This is a child he's helped raise from the cradle, and it's bizarre to hear her talking this way - parroting back his own words, except it's not 'parroting', it's earnest and real - 

 

"What are the terms they offered you?" 

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"Well, the one called Natsuko said that -" and Tsashi closes her eyes and concentrates, because Lionstar is going to want this verbatim, or as close to it as she can manage, he's always said that little things matter -

 

"She said that a group, which could be just be this village under the circumstances, all has to vote. If enough of the people want to be part of Vanda Nossëo, then they are. They have to agree that they're going to enforce rules against murder and rape and and torture. And that they'll let anyone who wants to leave do that. Then she said that everything else can vary depending on what a place needs."

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Nod. 

"And you think those are reasonable terms?" 

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"I think they're incredibly good terms! If they're true. Maybe they're not. But - they can make food out of stones. They could show us pictures of everywhere on the continent! And pictures of other worlds! They know the tiny blobs that people and animals and plants are made of, and the books - not books - the thing that tells them how to grow. ...If they wanted to conquer us they just would. So - I mean, maybe they do want to conquer us later, but they made us food first, so I think they want us to like them? So - in the world where they're bad, I dunno what we could even do. In the world where they're going to conquer us, that - still seems better than what we had before? And if they're telling the truth it's incredible." 

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How did she end up like this. 

(Lionstar knows exactly how she ended up like this.) 

"That is a compelling argument. Why have you not already begun gathering everyone for a vote?" 

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Tsashi stares down at her feet. "S'not my choice. You - they have a law–" 

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And Lionstar is (as far as he knows, at least) the only murderer in this tiny city. If he was going to make that trade, use someone's life-energies to bring rain, then he would bloody do it himself. 

 

 

 

"You already made the choice," he says, softly, gently. "It is more yours to make than mine." 

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"But I–" 

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"....Go to the others in the city. Tell them about the terms. You can choose a date to vote on it, if you want."

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"But -"

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"I need to go speak to the visitors myself, but - not on behalf of the city." 

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He looks so sad. And tired, and scared. She's seen all of that before, of course, but not like this. 

 

 

Tsashi nods, and runs off, planning the fastest route around the city that will cover everyone, accounting for the fact that probably a lot of them are lurking in the houses of whichever neighbors are closest to the visitors' new magical house. 

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Wow, are they calling for a vote already? Nelen can go get some ballots if they want?

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Lionstar deliberately picked a spot to sit down that was as far as possible from the magically-created house.

He starts walking. 

(His mind keeps wanting to plan an - apology? a defense? maybe just a clear and coherent explanation of why? But he can't even offer them that, not for the parts that matter most - he doesn't remember what he was thinking, in the days and weeks leading up the the near-destruction of their world -)

 

 

The first person he killed for blood-power in this city - well before it was a city at all, years before Tsashi was even conceived - was a volunteer. (He wasn't the first person whose life-energies Lionstar had used while in this body, this unearned second life, but the others were people he killed in self-defense, during the blur of exhausted nightmarish travel that he barely remembers.) 

His name was Fatir. He had children, and grandchildren. His eldest granddaughter was eight months pregnant. The rains had come too early that year and too hard, pointlessly washing fertile soil down into the river, and then after that they hadn't come at all. Using weather-magic at all back then was a wild gamble, but - Lionstar thought he could do it, probably, if he had the power. Which he didn't. And he could only give them seven in ten odds that it would even help. 

Fatir had survived the Cataclysm. He was still hale. Not fit enough to work the fields anymore, maybe, but he could have lived another decade. Certainly he had better chances of surviving the winter than his granddaughter's unborn child. 

....It was probably easier, after that, to get the village - that grew into a town and then an attempt at a city - to vote in favor of murdering bandits for the power bound to their life. 

 

 

This is an incredibly pointless topic to be thinking about. Lionstar reaches the new house, and looks around for whichever of the alien visitors seems least busy. 

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That would be Zanro, who is setting up the shop displays of goodies that Nelen fetched down (along with ballots). "Hullo there," he says to Lionstar.

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"Can we speak? In private?" If magic worked reliably he could put up a privacy-barrier, and even though at his skill level he could probably do that anyway, Lionstar is not really inclined to risk it. 

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"Tarwë can hear us, Elves've got very good ears..." Zanro looks thoughtfully at the contents of the shop, and then unpacks a box of its several sub-boxes, and puts the large box on his head, and gestures Lionstar over with the hand that isn't steadying the box.

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He...can step over so his head is also inside the large box? If that's the thing being requested here? 

"For what it is worth I am not specifically worried about Tarwë overhearing us, since I am sure you will tell him later anyway. I suppose it might be distracting for him." 

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"Well, if you just want to go in the back room and whisper, we can also do that," says Zanro. "But those doodads get shipped in sound-baffle boxes in case a bag breaks in transit, so if you want serious privacy without teleporting to our spaceship, this is what I have handy."

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"This is fine. I -" 

 

And he should really have planned something to say - something that's neither an impassioned defense of all his choices, which is stupid, or else a tragically sympathetic story of his most recent choices which is even more stupid

"I do not entirely trust your delegation yet, but I have already gathered that either you are telling the truth about your motives, or it does not matter, since you are clearly powerful enough to impose whatever you want on our people anyway. - I do think you are probably telling the truth, just, my reasoning is not dependent on it. Anyway. I think the city would wish to ally with Vanda Nossëo, if you will have them. I think at this point you ought not consider me as part of the city. I...want to tell you some things about my past, since you are powerful enough that I am sure you will discover it sooner or later anyway, but I do not wish for my own mistakes to be held against anyone else here. They were not involved." 

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"We don't do collective punishment," says Zanro. "Not even to the extent we do punishment, which isn't much. Why wouldn't you be construed as part of the city?"

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"Everyone else was either born here, or was part of the segment of Urtho's army that evacuated to the east and settled here decades ago. I–" 

This conversation feels like one of the hardest things he's ever done, which is ridiculous, it doesn't physically hurt and it doesn't involve killing anyone at all

"- I have claimed to them that I was among the group that evacuated to the west, whose Gate was flung off-course such that they ended up on the other side of the mountains. This...is true of the body I am currently in. But I am not the original inhabitant of this body." 

- and he's trying to say the rest, but apparently it takes more than a few seconds to find the right words. 

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"- oh.

What... are you?" asks Zanro, blinking.

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"- Human, as far as I know."

That was not actually the question.

"I - I lived before the Cataclysm. My name was Ma'ar. I - was one of the mages who -

 

 

- who fought in the war." 

 

 

 

 

"I don't think I meant it to end this way."

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"Is - possession? - a common thing here -"

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"I have never heard of anyone doing it except for me. I....did not really expect it to work. - I had several other methods that I thought were more likely to work and which would not have involved killing someone to steal their body but apparently none of those survived the Cataclysm." 

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"- okay. Uh. Do you want... to talk to our boss, or to talk to - Tarwë has what might either be a horrendously depressing or empathetic story and I don't know which - or - I guess another important question is if this is going to happen again, are you going to possess another person if you die? We could try to get you screened for indestructibility but a fast-track plain immortality would be quicker -"

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He had not really thought that he had any expectations for how this conversation would go, but somehow this is still not what he expected! At all! 

 

"Probably it would work a second time if it worked the first time? I have been trying to– ...I have not been able to confirm that yet. But - yes, I think I would land in another of my descendants' bodies if I died." He was honestly very halfhearted about his attempts to have more descendants while traveling here, he really wasn't in the mood for it, but apparently some of his original body's descendants made it as far as the Haighlei Empire so he's not exactly worried about that. 

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"- specifically descendants, huh. Okay. Can you in point of fact un-do it if we get you an immortality ring?"

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"I could take apart the spell for it– I would say easily, it would have been easy before, I have - not actually attempted any extraplanar mage-work since the Cataclysm and I am not sure it would be safer on the other continent. But - probably I could undo it." 

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"Okay. So that seems like a - pretty straightforward case of, you killed a guy, under scarcity conditions we can fix, and you don't plan to do it again?"

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"....I have killed a very large number of people. I suspect I caused or contributed to causing the Cataclysm that almost destroyed the entire world, and - killed tens of millions of people. Probably. ...I have killed more people since then but - less than that." It would be pretty hard. There might not even be ten million survivors left on this entire goddamned continent. 

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"- okay. Well. Normally we consider, uh, our presence here to be a good occasion for blanket amnesty unless there is a clear sign of ongoing danger."

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"I have no intention of killing anyone else! Since you are giving us food now and I - am operating on the assumption that you will continue to do that and so it does not matter if the harvest makes it this year." 

This continues to really not go the way he was expecting. 

"....To be clear I really do not think you should just believe me about that." 

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"I mean, yes, the version of this conversation where we don't have a box on our heads involves lawyers and truth magic probably, but taking it as a stipulation."

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Oh, so they do have some kind of truth magic. Good. Lionstar has no idea what 'lawyers' are but that's - probably also good? 

 

 

He wants to ask them to bring Urtho back. But he already knows that they're not sure they can, not unless they manage to talk to the gods - which he's not optimistic about - and also he is not especially in a position to make any requests right now. 

"Anyway that is why I do not want my actions to reflect on the others in this city. They have no idea about my past and - they did vote on the law for executing criminals and using it for blood-power but I did all of the executions myself and I think it should be considered my responsibility." 

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"It's... not even slightly unusual for preindustrial societies to have the death penalty," says Zanro. "You're going to stop, now, right?"

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"- I was sort of assuming you would not allow me to keep doing it now that I have told you!" Which was...maybe half of the reason he wanted to. "If you feed everyone - and have a non-death-penalty solution to the criminals problem - then I have no incentive to, and I very much hope I will not be in that position ever again." 

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"I mean, occasionally we do actually have to keep letting a preindustrial society keep having the death penalty for a while for one reason or another, but like, you were doing it to feed people? That's not even a complicated amnesty that I'll be seeing op-eds about for a month."

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"- We were not only doing it for mage-energy, I - thought that would be bad incentives. We just - we really do not have the resources to imprison anyone here. We - I realize this is not much of a choice but they had a choice, if they - wanted their death to be used for that. I think about eight in ten people have? ....There is a list of names. On the wall in the town hall. Although about a quarter of the names were volunteers from the city and not criminals."

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"I think that possibly you want to be talking to a grief counselor and not a junior envoy who signed up to travel the worlds. I mean, you can keep explaining to me if you want but I do not know how to help you if saying that you will be pretty definitely amnestied isn't it."

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He has even less idea how to respond to that. He's....very tired. 

"If you are going to help everyone on this entire planet then I am not sure there is anything else I could possibly want. So - I suppose that is everything I wanted to say. You should talk to Tsashi about the city deciding whether or not to join your polity." 

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"It's - irregular for the effective second-in-command of a city to be a preadolescent. Is that actually what's going on or did you have another reason to suggest her?"

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"I think she is the one best placed to - make sense of your world and what you are offering? Also in practice she is the one currently running around the entire city trying to arrange for everyone to vote on whether or not to join you. There are adults I would delegate to if it were - anything else - but the adults here are not very willing to put their trust in strangers. Reasonably, given their life experience." 

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"Might make it hard for a vote to come up yes."

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"I suppose we will see how far they trust Tsashi." Lionstar isn't actually sure how it will go. But - it seems like people have better options, now, and so it shouldn't be up to him.

"You will feed them anyway, right? Even if they vote no this time?" 

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"Yeah. That's what this little store is for." Zanro pulls the box off their heads and resumes setting up. "Everything sells for an anecdote about your life, or a story or a song. We fill it up with food and trinkets and doodads." He opens a box of fruit and starts setting it out on a display.

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They seem like good people. He should touch base with Corben later anyway, make sure, but - it's enough to go on for now. Especially given their definite lack of any other options. 

 

Well. He has a lot of anecdotes about his life that he could sell for food, if the others run out of anecdotes and stories and songs. 

"Thank you," he says quietly, "I will leave you to it, then." And he slips away, as discreetly as he can manage. 

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The Vanda Nossëans are not gonna chase him.

Cassiel finds Tsashi and offers her a stack of ballots to hand out. "Looking for these?"

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Tsashi has been tearing around the town, trying to gather everyone in the city hall. She slows to a halt when she sees Cassiel. Frowns at the weird papers. "...What are those?" 

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"These are ballots. They mark whether people want to stay or go. We can also do a show of hands, but these are typical." They've been done up in the local language.

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"Oh! That's clever." Tsashi accepts the stack of ballots. Peers curiously at them. "Seems complicated though. A lot of the grownups don't know how to read or write very well. Can they just do a show of hands or should someone who can read and write do theirs for them? ...Oh and do you know where Lionstar went, he said he was going to talk to you but now I can't find him." 

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"Show of hands is fine. He went to talk to Zanro in the shop."

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"Okay. I'll go put these down and then try to find him." 

She leaves Prashat in charge of the ballots and of making a list of people's questions as they arrive for the meeting, and then she runs off to the shop where Zanro is setting up. "Where's Lionstar? I thought he was here." 

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"You just missed him," Zanro says, putting out a display of shoes.

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Tsashi is so confused. The conversation she just had with Lionstar was weird. She would have expected him to be happy about the delegation arriving. And scared, of course, but not - whatever it was she was noticing. She's not even sure what to call it. 

"Are you allowed to tell me what he wanted to talk about with you?" she asks. 

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"Sorry, he wanted it to be a private conversation. What's on your mind?" Zanro inquires.

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She fiddles with the hem of her tunic. "Something's wrong and he doesn't want to tell me what - he's being weird, and I– it doesn't make sense but I'm scared he wants to leave. Or something. And I don't know why, it'd make sense if he were scared but I don't think that's why." 

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"Well, if he does want to leave, then we have to let him. That's the rule that makes having so few other rules work - that if you don't want to stay somewhere, you can go somewhere else, that's different," says Zanro.

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They're probably going to think it's ridiculous of her, if she says that she doesn't want to live in a place that Lionstar chose to leave. She's not even sure if that's true. And maybe she's misreading the situation entirely, and Lionstar isn't planning to leave at all, since it doesn't make any sense that he would. All she's really sure of is that something is wrong, and - whatever it is, it's something that the aliens can't fix. Something that's worse now that they're here.

Which seems really important to understand, actually, before she tries to explain to all the older folk what it would mean to vote on joining Vanda Nossëo. 

"Thank you," she says, as politely as she can manage, and heads out to look for Lionstar. 

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He's not terribly hard to find; he isn't trying to hide. He's in the room where he sleeps, which is one of the underground basements; it's safer to put shielding on the walls, if it's underground.

He's sitting cross-legged on his sleeping mat, in front of an open chest that Tsashi has never seen before. 

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She doesn't say anything at first, just heads over and settles herself on the other end of the mat, politely not looking at the contents of the chest. If she's never seen it before, presumably it's private and he has a good reason for that. 

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Lionstar doesn't say anything immediately. He's looking at something written on a faded, creased sheet of foolscap. The chest is mostly full of notes, in a cipher that Tsashi couldn't read even if she were looking. 

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Eventually, once it seems clear that he's neither going to tell her to go away nor going to start explaining of his own accord, Tsashi clears her throat. 

"I know something is wrong. I know you think it's - not the kind of wrong where it'd be a bad idea for us to accept help from them? But even if you're not going to tell anyone else can you please tell me?" 

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He looks over at her. Doesn't say anything immediately. 

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She scoots closer. 

"Thought you were scared. At first. I thought maybe because you've killed people and if we're joining Vanda Nossëo then we have to follow their laws. But I'd've thought they'd understand, that things were different before."

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"They are very forgiving." 

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She nods, satisfied. "So that is what you talked about. You - seem less scared. So it'll be okay? They weren't angry?" 

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"They were not angry." But his eyes are a very, very long way away. 

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"Then I don't understand what's wrong! You're sad. Is it - do you think it's a bad thing, that they've come here–"

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"No!" He says it in almost a shout, hands tightening around the papers that he's been looking at without seeing, before he lowers them to his lap. "...No. It is - I think they are telling the truth, about their aims and what they care about. I would put nine in ten odds on it. And even if they are not -" 

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"- Even then it's really really likely it's still better."

Her own hands are twisting around the hem of her tunic again. "Seven people," she says quietly. It's the number of outlaws who died to bring them rain, this spring and summer, and if they'd known that the harvest wasn't going to matter after all, it wouldn't have been worth it. 

But they didn't know, she doesn't see how they could possibly have. 

"I think they're sad too," she says quietly. "That they didn't get here faster. But I don't think it means you did the math wrong." 

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But he did get the math wrong. On a scale so much larger than seven lives that were pretty much forfeit anyway. And he doesn't even remember it clearly enough to untangle how or why. 

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Tsashi picks at the dirt under her thumbnail. "I sort of feel like you'd rather they were angry. But I think I'm missing something, 'cause I'm not angry, and I - if you'd wanted me to be you'd have taught me different things before. And," she swallows, "and one of the things you always said is that if you're gonna try to do the math right, you have to know all the pieces. And if you're confused then you don't know all the pieces or you're not putting them together right. So - can you please tell me what I don't know or what I'm not putting together right?" 

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What did he do to deserve this and Lionstar isn't even sure if he means that thought in a proud or frustrated way. It's hard to feel anything, right now. 

"It's - not the things that you think," he says, and even this much is for some reason incredibly hard. 

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"I figured that out! I'm not stupid." She shifts a little closer to him. "It's - something really bad. And you were scared that the aliens would be angry but they weren't. I - guess I don't know that means it can't have been that bad, just - that you won't do it again now that they're here. Which isn't surprising, if it was horrible, I know you, you only do awful things if the math comes out that it's worth it. And probably it won't ever be again." 

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Lionstar is looking straight ahead as though staring at something outside of the world. 

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Okay, what did she manage to say wrong this time? It would be so much easier to figure out what's wrong and what he needs from her to fix it if he would talk to her

"Lionstar, I won't think worse of you. Whatever it is." 

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He still isn't looking at her. "You should." 

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...The room feels oddly sharp and yet far away at the same time. 

"Okay, I guess if it's important information, then I'll - think about it and figure out if it means I should expect you to do different things in the future from what I thought. But I don't think it will. I think you're - the sort of person who will come here and start trying to help people you don't even know and do that for twenty years. You're the person who'll teach us how to do magic that doesn't even work yet, and design houses we won't be able to build for fifty or a hundred years. I - I want to understand you, no one else is like you, but - I think I already know the parts that matter." 

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She really, really doesn't. 

"The Cataclysm was my fault." 

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"That's–" 

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He gives her a look. Not angry, not warning, just very, very tired. 

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"I don't see how that's possible but none of us knew weather magic was possible either until you taught us so can you please explain." 

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Lionstar clearly very badly owes her an explanation and, somewhat to his own surprise, he wants to tell her. He...is having trouble determining whether he can. He was able to explain it once, but not very well and mostly by sort of not thinking about it while he said the words, and he owes Tsashi better than that. 

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"I'm sort of getting the sense that this is hard for you to talk about."

Which isn't something she's noticed with Lionstar, but her mother doesn't like to talk about what happened with her father, and lots of the adults who lived through the Cataclysm don't ever talk about it, and...on reflection there are a lot of topics that Lionstar has carefully steered away from. 

"I guess it'd make sense that it's upsetting. You - I think you do need to tell me but you can take your time." 

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Lionstar takes a deep breath. Then another.

 

It's...actually going to take him a couple of minutes to manage this, apparently. 

"I - was born before the Cataclysm."

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Well, yes, she already knew that part! It's why he knows all the magic. The children have speculated that maybe he studied at Urtho's Tower, though he must have been very young at the time. But if he did, does he - think that something he did caused the war...? 

 

Tsashi waits expectantly, not interrupting. 

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"- My body did not survive the Cataclysm. I had a precaution set up beforehand." 

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"Ohhhhhh." Her eyes widen. Of course he did, because he's brilliant. "And you - you were one of the mages. Who fought." 

(It's not a question and she does not, actually, need his nod to confirm.) 

It's almost impossible to believe and yet it makes perfect sense, somehow, the piece she had never realized was missing falling into place, and suddenly the rest makes sense. 

 

 

"....You were Urtho?" Wonder, awe. 

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He flinches. 

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Tsashi ducks her head, feeling kind of stupid. Of course it would hurt, to hear that name again. "I'm sorry–"

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"I was not Urtho. I was Ma'ar." 

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- Tsashi recoils, involuntarily. 

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And this is why nothing is all right, actually, and it never will be. Not for him. Whether or not the wealthy aliens arriving to fix everything are angry with him is so far beyond the point. 

Maybe Tsashi understands why, now. Which is good. Horror is the appropriate response. 

 

 

 

Lionstar doesn't say anything. 

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"I - I, Lionstar–" 

She shouldn't, Tsashi knows she shouldn't leave, that it's one of the worst things she could do to him right now - and it's true what she said before, that she already knows all of the things about him that matter, and ten seconds ago she thought it made sense of everything and so why is this different - 

- and she's not angry, that's not it at all, but it suddenly feels like she can't breathe and she can't think

She manages to gasp out something that is hopefully comprehensible as 'I'm sorry' and she scrambles up and stumbles over to the ladder and manages to make it out of the cellar before she bursts into tears, and runs out of the building and down the narrow 'street' and past Zanro's shop, sobbing too hard to see where she's going, and she trips and falls and sits in the dust. Tries to cry quietly because the last thing she needs right now is for the entire town to hear her. 

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Tarwë hears her.

He extricates himself from his conversation, and he goes and sits next to her on the ground.

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It's utterly pointless and unhelpful to be angry with the visitors from Vanda Nossëo - even moreso than being angry with Lionstar, which she isn't - and yet. 

Tsashi manages to glare at the ground instead of at Tarwë.

"Can you," she gulps, swallows, "can someone go - Lionstar - he shouldn't be alone - thinks I'm angry with him...

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"Where is he?"

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She attempts, not entirely coherently but with lots of gestures, to indicate which building he's in the basement of. 

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"I can drop by, but if he doesn't answer the door there's not much else I can do," says Tarwë. And he gets up and brushes dust off himself and goes looking for where to knock.

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The door to the house and the trapdoor that usually separates the basement are both wide open, courtesy of Tsashi's frantic flight. He's probably down there? 

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Yeah no Tarwë is not going to just walk into his house. Knock knock?

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The basement is reasonably sound-isolated even with the trapdoor open, and it takes Lionstar a few moments to recognize what the odd thumping sound must be. (Knocking on doors is not, per se, an established tradition here; people yell or they just walk in.) 

Probably one of the visitors, then. Is there a problem already? He sighs and hauls himself to his feet and crosses the basement to where he'll have a better chance of being heard. "What do you need?" 

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"I don't, but Tsashi suggested it might not be good for you to be alone."

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"Oh." It is very obvious that Lionstar has no idea what to do with this. "I - is she all right?" 

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"Emotional, but not obviously traumatized. I don't have a lot of practice with humans yet."

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Lionstar nods, shakily. "I - told her something about my past that I - could not keep secret anymore. It upset her. ...I told Zanro because it seemed relevant to Vanda Nossëo's decisionmaking here. She ought maybe speak with him." His voice is very flat. 

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"He's still in the shop. I think she knows where to find him if she wants. But I can suggest it to her."

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"Thank you. I - she might be worried that I do not want her to talk to him behind my back? But it would be easier than explaining." 

He wants to apologize and he wants to say that he doesn't think he would ever have done this deliberately, but he doesn't know that, he can't know what he was thinking at the time, and the people to whom he most deeply owes his apologies...aren't here anymore. 

 

 

Tarwë is still there

"I suppose I would rather not be alone," he says stiffly, because apparently he isn't willing to just lie about that, "but I do not see why that should be your problem." 

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"Well, if you want me to leave, I will, but if you don't, I can sit here and listen, or if you don't feel like chatting I could sing."

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Lionstar is trying to think through all the things he needs to do before he can reasonably stop doing things for a while, but it's not working very well. 

He wants several thousand things. Whether Tarwë stays or goes and whether he sings or listens isn't an input toward any of them, which makes it very hard to tell if he has a preference. 

"You can sing if you want." Maybe that will be the right amount of distracting to get him to stop thinking about pointless tragedies he can't undo, and instead think about the future.

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Tsashi, after a couple of minutes of sniffling and trying very hard to calm down, does of her own accord go seek out Zanro at the shop. 

"Lionstar told me the thing he told you." She fidgets. "I mean, probably it was the same thing?" If there are MULTIPLE THINGS of that magnitude then she might explode. 

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"Did he?" says Zanro. "I take it it was a big shock."

(Tarwë's singing is beautiful, and sad. Allspeak lets you speak other languages, it doesn't oblige you to; he sings in incomprehensible Quenya, grieving for the dead.)

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Tsashi is going to talk to the alien CALMLY and with COMPOSURE and not like her world was just turned upside down and sideways. 

She shrugs. "Yeah. I guess. I– it makes sense of some things but it's also confusing? He - said he was one of the mages who fought in the war that caused the Cataclysm, and I thought he meant he was Urtho. But he was - the other one. I don't know why! I don't get why anyone would fight Urtho, he was the best mage in the entire world, he had a school and taught thousands of people. I...guess I didn't really think about it before? I was sort of thinking of it like Ma'ar - wasn't the sort of person who did things for reasons. But everyone does things for reasons. Lionstar does things for good reasons that make sense and so I think Ma'ar must've too and I don't know what the reasons are that I'm missing! Maybe Urtho was really horrible somehow. - It would also be really upsetting if it turns out Urtho was horrible somehow, my grandparents were in his army..."

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"Bet you my grandparents were in a worse army," says Zanro wryly. "Even for a war that's ongoing, it's really hard to tell what's going on and be sure why everyone doing things is doing them. After the fact? With no records? Rebuilding everything from scratch? It's remarkable you know their names. But I don't have any more context than you, I'm afraid."

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She is not going to ask him about the army his grandparents were in right now even though she's suddenly very curious. 

"I guess I would have to ask Lionstar. If I want to know more. But I think he doesn't want to talk about it, and," she scuffs at the dirt with her foot, "and I told him before he said anything that I didn't think anything he could say would matter that much to - to who I expect him to be, 'cause I already know that, from what he's done for the last twenty years helping us. ...Only now I dunno why he helped us, instead of whoever survived from his country's army." 

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"Might be they were hard to find?" says Zanro.

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"I guess maybe you could help find them, now you're here."

She picks at her nail again. "I don't want him to leave, but I think I don't want him to stay either if he's just going to be this sad. I didn't understand before why it seemed like he was more sad once you got here, but - he'd have wanted you to stop the war. If you'd gotten here in time. And then none of this..." Vague gesture around her. She doesn't feel like that sentence needs finishing. "I want to - help - but I guess maybe even Vanda Nossëo can't fix that." 

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"This isn't one of the universes time travel works in and even if it were thirty years would be a bit much," sighs Zanro.

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"There are universes where time travel works????" Tsashi interjects, suddenly completely distracted. "Whoa! How?" 

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"Some things only work in a certain universe, or in universes adjacent to a certain universe," says Zanro. "Where I live when I'm at home, the Empress of Mîr can go back in time, but she doesn't do it unless she's really got to, like the time a monster was planning to eat her entire home planet and she had to re-live the same month dozens of times. Turns out time travel is ethically complicated."

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"There was a monster that could eat planets?" Tsashi's eyes are practically bugging out of her head now. "I guess that'd be even worse than the Cataclysm!" 

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"It's bigger. But dead is dead, however much company you have."

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...Nod. It's oddly...not reassuring or comforting, exactly, but calming in some way, to hear about awful things happening elsewhere in a very big multiverse. Because their world isn't uniquely a disaster, maybe? She wonders if Lionstar would feel the same way about it. 

"Are there...other things that've happened on other planets that - couldn't be fixed, even once you got there?" 

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"Even if we can kinda fix something - roll it all back so it looks like nothing ever happened - people remember."

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Tsashi ducks her head. 

"....I guess? But - I bet a lot of why remembering hurts is because the people who died are still dead and the countries that got destroyed are still gone. Most of the grownups who survived the Mage Wars don't like remembering it, and - I guess Lionstar probably doesn't like remembering when he was Ma'ar. But if all the bad things that happened were fixed then - I think probably the remembering part wouldn't be so bad?"

She clears her throat. "....I might be wrong about that. Lionstar says I should expect to be wrong about a lot of things even when I'm being logical, because I'm twelve and so there's a lot of information about the world and about people that I haven't learned yet." 

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"Yeah. I think you might be wrong about that. It'd help, for sure, but I think it'd still bother people, thinking about it."

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"Lionstar gave me advice about - if you did something that felt bad, but you thought through everything first and did the math and you still think you got the math right, you can sort of decide to stop feeling bad because the feeling-bad isn't doing anything, isn't changing what you'll decide...?"

Her small hands twist together.

"I - helped do the math. About whether or not it was worth it to kill someone who'd done bad things to a lot of people, instead of just exiling them, which only works some of the time anyway because sometimes they come back and hurt more people and so it's even worse - but the other option was executing them for blood-power and we had all these tables of figuring about how much of a difference it'd make for the rain and the crops and Lionstar taught me how to do, he called it 'uncertainty estimates', because weather-magic works again now but it's still not reliable so we don't know how well it'll work..." 

She's definitely rambling now. "- Anyway. I don't feel bad about it, because we couldn't've known you'd come and so there's no way we could've put that in the math - it's sad but it doesn't mean we made a mistake?"

Shrug. ".....But I guess Lionstar isn't doing that. For some reason. He's just being really sad. I want to help but I think I don't really understand why he isn't doing the thing that he taught me to do." 

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"...I don't think most people can control whether they feel bad about stuff like that. Maybe he can't do it every time."

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Tsashi is giving him such a dubious look. "I think he would've died if he couldn't do it every time? I think he even said that to me once."

She picks at her thumbnail again. "....I asked him really late at night after he'd been fighting off bandits all day. 'Cause sometimes he doesn't want to tell me true things until I'm older. But I might not've gotten to be older if I didn't know. I...guess that's one of the things that's maybe going to be different now that you're here? But...a lot of kids don't make it, here. Or didn't, before." 

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Zanro nods solemnly.

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He's very nice. It's still kind of confusing, but - maybe it shouldn't be. It's not like it's costing him anything, to nod and look sympathetic instead of telling her that she's being stupid. And maybe it's nicer for him too, for her to think that he's nice, even though he doesn't owe her anything. 

 

"...I feel like maybe I'm not going to be - very good at understanding why Lionstar's sad and listening to him, because I don't really understand? But I still want to at least try to help. Do you have advice?" 

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"Hmm. Do you need to be in such a hurry about it? Maybe he just needs to sleep and have a bit to process things."

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Tsashi stares at him for a moment. 

"...I dunno? He - did sort of ask me to be in charge of getting the city to vote on whether to join Vanda Nossëo, and people are already having a lot of questions and I feel like I don't know what to tell them until I've talked to him properly. But I think maybe we can't do a proper vote until we've had time to tell all the farmers and have them send their votes in, so I guess that's not a rush either?" 

It feels VERY URGENT that Lionstar is sad but....he's sad about things that have been true for years and years, he just - somehow wasn't showing it before. Tsashi is still confused about that but probably figuring out her confusion isn't actually urgent. 

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"What questions? I might be able to answer some of them unless they're all about Lionstar."

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"I don't think they're about Lionstar! Nobody else even knows to ask questions about Lionstar, they just– they're gonna expect him to be there and telling us what questions are important and whether the answers you're giving us are good enough. He said I should do that and I - probably can? I know I'm only twelve but I think it's mostly not very complicated. But I'm not going to do all that as well as he would, and - I don't know what to tell people if they ask me why he's not there." 

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"Well, I suppose you could say that. 'I don't know what to tell you'."

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"...I guess? I'm worried that'll just make people not trust me, if I don't sound like I know what I'm doing, and then they'll be scared and - think the thing they're scared of is Vanda Nossëo." 

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"Well, hopefully we'll be able to reassure them on any points that spook them. I don't have a magic answer for this one, kiddo, some of the higher-ups are very aggressive about enforcing a no mind control policy."

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Tsashi makes a face. "I don't want you to mind control anyone? Lionstar said - well, he said it doesn't matter anyway right now because compulsions are finicky magic and they're probably not gonna work reliably for another century - he taught our mages anyway but he said that it's counterproductive to try to put compulsions on your allies. Because if you want to be allies with someone then you shouldn't make them stupider." 

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"You and him have had some remarkably interesting conversations."

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"...Yeah. He's the most interesting person I know. And usually he doesn't want to say what he's actually thinking, but I figured out ages ago that if you catch him when he's really tired and ask clever questions then he'll answer them." 

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"Well. Maybe this time he's tired and you should let him have a break. Sometimes people kind of - freak out once there's less pressure on. You show up somewhere that's on fire, you put out the fire, people who were calmly handling a bucket brigade break down sobbing, that kind of thing."

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"....Huh. Really?" 

Tsashi is not going to say out loud that it sounds sort of stupid to do that, but she's thinking it. Surely the hardest part is when things are on fire (literally or metaphorically), so if you can hold it together then, why wouldn't you be able to do that later once things are less bad?

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"Yup. Like they're saving up panicking for later, when it's safe. And it seems like maybe Lionstar's spent a really long time never quite safe enough, like he's got very high standards for things not being on fire. I'm just guessing, though."

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"....Yeah. I guess. 'Cause he wants everyone everywhere to have enough food and be okay. He -" and now her breath is catching and her throat is tight, and it's sort of embarrassing because she just said that it would be silly to be more sad once things were better, "- he drew a map for me once. Of the whole continent - he said it was from memory and it probably wasn't very accurate but I didn't know he meant he remembered it from before the Cataclysm... He said there were people all over and they all mattered, just as much as my mother and my little brothers and sisters..." 

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"Trillions of them," says Zanro. "Though even us who take jobs on the enough food and being okay front try to balance that with having families. We have very generous vacation policies and stuff."

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Tsashi nods, but in a rote sort of way. (She doesn't really get why he's suddenly bringing up "vacation policies" whatever that even means.) 

"I...guess Lionstar's been putting out fires for way longer than I've been helping him. So he's probably way more tired than me....?" 

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"I would be."

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"So - is your advice that I should just leave him alone until he wants to talk to me again?" 

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"Basically. It's not very exciting advice, and you can ignore me if you want, but it's what I've got."

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Tsashi nods. She doesn't look happy about it. 

"I'm still worried about him but I guess I already told Tarwë to go see if he was all right? And I want to go try to say comforting things but I don't think I'm any good at that and it might make it worse because I'm little and he'd just want to comfort me. ...And I think he was probably even more sad right after the Cataclysm, and he - didn't stop doing things. He made it all the way here from the ocean and it took him years and years. If he can do that then probably I shouldn't worry about him now."

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"I think he'll be all right."

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She nods, jerkily. 

"- I'm not scared of your people anymore. I - at the start we didn't know if you were telling the truth about what Vanda Nossëo is doing. And - I talked to Lionstar and he agreed - we thought it didn't matter, even if you were lying and you just wanted to conquer us but say nice words about it, that was - still so much better than it would've been if you hadn't come. But I don't think you were lying, now. I'm not sure but I - it'd be hard to say all the right things if you didn't feel them."

Pause.

"...Lionstar would probably say I should be more careful about trusting people but he's busy being sad. And I think he wouldn't be doing that if - if he didn't trust your people to be caring about what we care about. So - that's information as well." 

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"Yeah. We're a little unbelievable. We could - go slower, we could set up a fake nomad band, tromp it through the area for a while till we had a plausible trail, trade totally mundane things and give you a good deal but not a ridiculous one, adopt stray kids, maybe do some magic in the background to fix the weather that could look like luck. But it'd be lying. And even if we didn't care about that it'd be worse. I never heard anybody say 'why did you give me that really confusing weeklong adjustment period, I would rather you didn't let on about the healing till after my baby died' or anything like that."

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"...I think it'd be worse. If you'd done that. Because - because more people would die before you fixed things, if you went slower, and– and I don't know the right words to say this, but I think Lionstar would think that something important was destroyed if you'd had to lie at the start. I - I don't really understand everything about how he thinks but - I think he'd say that - lately around here, at least - people dying is less bad than people lying."

Pause. 

"...That sounds like it might be a bad way to think about things? So maybe I'm not guessing right what he'd think." 

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"Well, this way we don't have to go slow or lie. They're very insistent on the not lying thing," Zanro says.

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"- Huh. I think Lionstar would like that. If he believes you about it, which I'm not sure he would? I, um - who's insistent on not lying?"

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"Vanda Nossëo policymakers, the ones who set the curriculum for envoy training."

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Nod. "Why do they think lying is bad? ...Assuming they told you why."

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"Well, for one thing a lot of people aren't very good at it. There's lots of us - lots of teams, several people on each team - and coordinating a lie is hard. It means we wouldn't be operating in good faith, if we're trying to put one over on you guys. And also, like, the truth is really good? It kind of sounds too good to be true, so we'd just be making it... worse... if we made something up. Maybe it'd get some short term advantage if we told everybody 'ah yes we already believe your religion and agree that you were in the right in all those conflicts you're having and that your taboos make perfect sense' but it wouldn't be of a piece with the rest of our shtick at all."