Mirrored from Sythyry.
After lentil stew was thoroughly devoured, a single question remained — single, but burningly, devastatingly important.
“What recreations are available on this world-boat, to pass the time between here and Ixange?” I asked.
“Well, the number of recreations just doubled when you woke up,” said Hditr.
“We could have talked more to Vong,” noted Eric.
Hditr shook her head. “I am not talking to Vong any more. I’ve been digging exclamation points out of my ears since this trip started anyhow. And insults, too.”
“So what have you been doing?” I asked.
“Eric here refuses to play cards or finger-fonger me. Some stupid excuse about being intangible, makes the embarrassed baldie. So we’ve just been talking,” said Hditr.
I clambered onto the table, pointed one head at Hditr and one at Eric, and tucked my left head under my wing for a fractional nap. “I’ll help with that! Where do you come from, Eric?”
He waves his hands about helplessly, passing them through the table. “I talked with Captain I-can’t-pronounce-it about that. It’s not one of the Sixty Worlds. It might be one of the Ninety, according to the Captain. There are over a hundred of them that haven’t been explored very well.”
I waggled my right-head ears. “That doesn’t math right.”
“That’s what I said too,” said Eric. “But the numbers of worlds aren’t exact. The Thirty Worlds are twenty-eight in number. The Sixty Worlds are those plus eighteen more. Then the Ninety Worlds are those plus a couple hundred.”
“The couple hundred are the Lotsmore?” I asked. “That’s what the badgers called Yirien when they showed up there.”
Hditr nodded. “Exactly. The eighteen more are Marsep’s Discovery, because, um, Marsep discovered eleven of them. We badgers aren’t big on getting precise terminology stuck up our whoffynasties, if you know what I mean and I hope you do ’cause I am not about to explain. Drullguur is one of those. Your yummy, yummy Yirien is a Lotsmore. Ixange is a Lotsmore too. I don’t know a lot about it, except that it’s the home of Idol of «Nudibranch» and has a very famous bridge or two. I do want to do measurements a lot more carefully when you get that sigil. We got some confusing results from «Cuisine». No big blop of blue-boiled blame to you. We were kinda busy not dying from falling into a boiling ocean there.”
“I’m not getting «Nudibranch»,” I said.
“What?? Whyever not??” Hditr seemed personally offended.
I huffed, and waggled my ears. “I’ve only got space for six or maybe eight on my wings, even if I sorcery them to shreds. I could get another four or maybe six small ones on my ears, if I don’t mind being deaf and unable to make important gestures and having those domains weakly ’cause the sigils are small. I suppose I could spare a leg or two. That’s sixteen at most. There are eighty-something domains.”
Hditr shook her head. “A hundred and two and counting, and that’s even if you count stupid ones like «Zucchini» and «Umbrella» and «Gazebo» and … most of them are pretty stupid really. But «Nudibranch»! «Nudibranch» is not stupid! I will think of why in a minute, after I learn what a nudibranch is!”
I ignored her. “Even if I want to totally ruin my body to be the best sigil sorcerer ever — which I do not! — I’m going to have to be choosy. And I can’t think of any good reason to choose «Nudibranch».”
Hditr whuffled and snortled. “There’s an excellent reason around here. I shall think of it in a thickilling thecond!”
I curled my ears rather selfconsciously, while I still had them. (I don’t plan to get rid of them!) “They are not nearly as cute as snail cream puffs. I am not sure what else I will pick. Perhaps «Tea» and «Steam» as my next two.”
“You must really like tea,” said Hditr.
“It’s nice, but I’m trying to be practical here,” I said.
Eric smiled. “What, running the world’s — multiverse’s — best tea ceremony ever?”
I snorted. “Claiming territory! Holding territory! I don’t know about you, but my species gets awfully territorial when we grow up. Especially females, which is what I’m kind of leaning towards.”
“How does tea help with territory?” asked Hditr.
“Wait, you get to choose which sex you are?” asked Eric.
I answered them both at once and nibbled lentil soup with my spare head, and they complained about it, so I did it again, one at a time. “I get to pick. Once. It’s a special sort of skin-shedding, and if I do it above water I turn male over the next year, and if I do it under water I turn female. I’m not physically ready for it yet — maybe a year or two — and I’m not really looking forward to it. Females get bigger territories so I’ll probably go for that. But they’re more tightly stuck to their territories, especially if there are eggs. I like rambling, but I don’t think I get to do it after I pick, either way.” Talking about this always makes me sad.
Eric and Hditr nodded, said a few friendly but clueless things (“Well, we’ll be glad to ramble ’round the rumple with you while you can”), and did not understand.
So I switched topic. “And the other answer is, most of the places I’m likely to get territory are swampy. If I get one and plant it with aromatic herbs, I’ll be able to boil any puddle with «Cuisine» and «Tea», and then have clouds of «Tea» «Steam» to use as weapons, allies, traps.”
Hditr grinned. “Oho! «Tea» and «Steam» and «Cuisine» do make sense together.” She said to Eric, “Domain magic is not really all that strong. You’ve seen Tllith do some pretty nice things, but I expect that’s close to her-or-maybe-his limit. I don’t think any domain mage can toss fireballs and lightning bolts the way you were talking about from your games. But a spell that comes from two domains is much stronger than one from one, and Tllith might get threesies even.”
“So no huge spectacular magic?” said Eric. “If I’ve got to give up on technology, I want to see lighning bolt wands and invocations of massive ugly demons. I’ll be upset if there’s nothing impressive around.”
“I wouldn’t say there’s a nippering nothing impressive. There’s spectacular natural magic — floating cities, waterfalls of fire, cloth tornadoes, stuff like that. There are powerful wizards. The Wizard of Trom turned Dovercramp from a badger like me into a living catapult which set rocks on fire, so they landed as splashes of boiling lava, when Um-Dulci-Dhenk tried to conquer Trom. That was pretty big magic I guess. No domain mage could do that.”
I nodded two heads. “I couldn’t do anything like that. But could the Wizard of Trom do that on Yirien?”
Hditr laughed. “The Wizard of Trom couldn’t do a thumbweight thing outside of Trom. The edge of the city wall was the edge of his power. I hear it’s worse nowadays. He’s got this formal garden next to his manse in Trom, and now that’s the only place he can actually work magic any-the-more.”
“That’s why I want domain magic. It works anywhere,” I said.
“Well, to be perfectly and pricklily precise, I want to be perfectly and punctiliously precise about how well it works anywhere,” said Hditr.
“But you want territory, so you’re not going to be living just anywhere, you’re going to be living in some tea-flavored swamp on Yirien? Why don’t you want to be a wizard?” asked Eric.
“You can’t just decide to become a wizard,” said Hditr. “A few people are born that way, or strobble into it somehow. Being a priest is almost as hard. You can study and pray and train all you like, but if you can’t interest a god, you’re just a bookworm with a bad bitchitude. Domain magic is the one people can just go and pick up — and that’s for people who think it’s a good trade to lose an arm or leg for the power to extract honey-catsup that’s been stirred into stew.”
“Was it hard for you to get priest magic?” I asked.
“Me? Nah. Second month in seminary, we went on a tour of the nearby gods, and Hythace put a necklace of lightning around my neck at first sight.”
Eric and I stared at her. He said, “I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.”
“I don’t either,” I said. “That never happens on Yirien.”
“Hythace, she’s my patron goddess, right? She’s this big black mountain with a perpetual thunderstorm around her top. Pretty talkative for a goddess, even. ‘Course she can’t talk to nobody but clicky-brained clergy. Anyways, she put her mark on me right away. Still got it.” Hditr loosened her tunic. The fur around her neck had been burned to silver.
“Why can’t talk to anyone but clergy?” asked Eric.
“Well, she writes stuff in lighting in her thunderstorm. Gone in an instant. But her clergy can cast memory spells. We use ‘em to remember what she wrote.”
Eric tried and failed to rub his eyes. “She sounds very different than the god I met.”
Hditr shrugged. “Eh, gods. They’re all different. They’re all crazy, too.”
“Isn’t that a little bit blasphemous?” asked Eric.
“If an anti-bishop can’t blaspheme her own goddess, who can?” asked Hditr, apparently seriously.
“I still don’t get what’s an anti-bishop,” said Eric.
“A bishop is a priest in charge of a whole district. Administration, rituals, public dignity, lots of underlings, order, pomp, circumstance, professionalism. Also protecting the honor of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, ensuring revenue, concealing clerical misdeeds, all that stuff. You can’t see me doing most of that, can you? I’ve got as much pomp as a pimp in a pump, and I’m the one performing those clerical misdeeds what need covering up. Wound up in bed with the bishop’s wife of Snorth, I did.”
Eric said, “You said husband, last time.”
“Oh, I slept all slorts of slippery sluttery spouses, I did, and caste be curste” said Hditr. “Anyhow, nobody could imagine some unpolished barmaid’s daughter in charge of a district, least of all me. But neither could they shove me in a corner and ignore me, not after Hythace marked on me and kept calling me over to chat.”
“What did you chat about?” I asked. The gods of Yirien are few in number, and grimly silent.
“Whatever I wanted. Which was sometimes who I was boinking at the time — not her favorite topic, what with her being a ‘her’ only by convention and all — and sometimes was how magic varies from place to place. That, it turned out, is what she was interested in too. So she picked someone who could move around and didn’t mind pissing everyone off with questions to find out. And here I am.”
“What have you found out?”
“I have found out that I have as much of a clue as a clabbered clam, and I gotta investigate everything a whole lot more.” Hditr got herself a chalice of the world-ship’s nasty coffee, lapped at it, and made a face. «Cuisine» and I made it taste good, and she grinned at us.