"Xander: You were checking out my neck! I saw that!
They're in a small clearing, surrounded by trees. How odd. Ruehan recognizes some of the trees as Fludar trees, which he's only seen on Vertak. Ace doesn't really believe in this so-called power of telling trees apart. There is a smallish footpath leading away from the clearing - they follow it, with Ace sneaking in the lead, and Ruehan following in a more normal walking demeanor. The path turns into a wider path through the trees, and five minutes later, they reach the treeline. There's a field, filled with farmers - Ace is appalled that they're just poking the dirt with sticks.
Ruehan speculates that they're Artak, which means that Ruehan can just tell them what to do. The pair approaches, and the farmers mutter nervously to themselves. Ruehan asks where this is (confusing them somewhat), and says they're travelling through. The farmers direct them to the lord - these are Lord Hakoris's lands. The farmers are less sure of the lords who own all the bordering land - they suggest asking at the keep. (The farmers speak a somewhat archaic dialect of Intergal).
"Are we beating feets or making nice?" - AceRuehan suggests a plan for being "incognito" - he can pick a disguise, which will not visually fool anyone, but it's considered gauche to try to look past it. ("Like a lock" - Ace) Ruehan briefs Ace on local culture. Any noble they meet will consider Ace an Artak - they're considered lesser, and the noble may order him around. ("Welcome to my life." -Ace). However, in this particular disguise, Ace will be Ruehan's Artak, so he's mostly only supposed to be ordered around by Ruehan.
"What?" - Ruehan
"Are we gussying up for a shindig, or fleeing a lynch mob?" - Ace
"How long has this lord system been in place?" -AceAce suggests that they settle on a code word that means "Take him out, he's annoying." Ruehan is a little dubious at that, as it seems likely that the Vertak social customs may annoy Ace. No, Ace meant for Ruehan. Ruehan is sure he'll be able to convey the information to Ace if it becomes necessary.
"Welcome to history, m'boy. Let's go find out how wrong you are."
They pass more fields on the way to the keep. How will people be armed, Ace wonders. Well, there's blasters and the like, of course. But at the high levels, it'll be the psi, not the blasters, that you have to worry about.
Ruehan rips one of his underlayered shirts into a domino mask. It's not very well-made, but it's still impeccable looking. This particular "archetype" disguise is Lord Dinar, who has an Artak sidekick. They reach the keep, with a marketplace outside. Browsing through the market, Ace acquires some pocket change, and Ruehan is offered some fruit "for your adventures." Ace asks a shopkeep for a calendar with local art, for his master. Not selling calendars himself, the shopkeep scoots off to find one, returning in a short time with a planting calendar - all the local art is the crest of House Hakoris. Ruehan notes that the year is the year he left Vertak, thanks the shopkeep and tosses him one of Ace's coins. The shopkeep is very grateful and offers Ruehan luck on his adventures.
Of the noble houses of Vertak, House Hakoris is one that has the most strained relations with Dalari (Ruehan's House). The Dalari lands are on the other side of the nearby city from these lands. It would be quite a long walk (though now that Ruehan is "Lord Dinar" there isn't the awkwardness of having a Dalari on Hakoris lands). And the lord could probably provide transportation into the city.
They reach the keep, and the big iron doors slide open. Ace's impression from casing the joint is that an aerial assault would be the way to go. The building is well-constructed and solid, built of concrete and metal (a modern castle rather than a medieval one). Ruehan tells the gate-guards that he asks a boon from Lord Sandall V'Hakoris. They are shown into a sitting room, and given damp cloths to wipe the dust of the road off. Lord Sandall conveys through his manservant that he regrets that he is quite busy, but can give a brief audience. Ruehan explains that they were just passing through on their adventures, and were hoping for assistance in getting back to the city. Ah, the Lord will be going to the city shortly for a meeting, perhaps he can assist.
They are shown in to see Lord Sandall. "Lord Dinar" explains that he is here to pay his respects, as they were travelling through the countryside and now turn towards the city. Lord Sandall tries to guess who Ruehan is, but doesn't recognize him. They fence briefly: is Ruehan wearied of his adventures in the outlands, then? Yes, he thinks it is time for more genteel adventures in the city. Ah, he is from the city, then? He does appreciate the city. Where will they be staying? Ruehan picks the Greenbriar, a sort of generic apolitical good inn. Will Lord Dinar and his servant partake of Lord Sandall's hospitality? Yes, they will, with gratitude.
Ruehan speculates that the meeting in the city is the meeting of Houses that will discuss Ruehan leaving. (Ruehan switches to mind link, to prevent eavesdropping). He wasn't at the meeting himself, so it could be safe, but he was in the city at least some of the time. "Never touch your duplicate" is one of those safety tips that Sophia warned them of back on Gateway. Ruehan figures he needs to talk to his father, without letting the current-time Ruehan know about it. Should he be disguised for real, in addition to the pretend disguise, so that people don't recognize him as him? And Ace is still disguised as Gabriel, come to think of it. They'll redisguise once they've gotten to the city, so as to not have Lord Sandall notice.
Lord Sandall will be leaving in the morning, but there is still the evening to go through. Ace wants to know if they carouse in this town. Ruehan thinks for a while. Some might. Mostly Artak. Ace heads out through the servant's entrance; the gate guards take his name, and want to know when he'll be back. A couple of hours. They make a note of that too, and tell him not to be late. Or early. The town around the keep isn't really very exciting; there are some people hanging out and talking. Ace hangs out, mostly listening, but eventually people notice him and ask who he is and who he's with. Damn, he can't remember the name Ruehan is using. Lord D something. He says he's with "the visiting lord." Ah, which House? No, he's travelling. Huh? Oh, travelling. The others figure it out - how is Lord Dinar these days? He's tired, Ace says. The others appreciate that Ace took the chance to head out while he was tired.
Ace tries to find out about the local mood - next week Lord Sandall will be gone, so they think things will be calmer when he's not in residence. Ace suggests that Lord Sandall will actually be leaving in the morning, and scores points for knowing more than the others. Everyone speculates a little about what the big meeting is about. Someone thinks it has to do with exploring the other side of the planet. No, no, it's just a missionary being sent, just one guy. They argue good-naturedly.
Back in the keep, a serving boy comes with more damp cloths, and to see if Lord Dinar needs anything before dinner (he looks vaguely nervous). No, he's okay for now. Ace does manage to keep track of time enough to be back without being late, and it's time for dinner.
The setup for dinner is much like a medieval court dinner - there is the high table, with the nobles, and then the lower tables, with the commoners sorted by rank. Ace is seated with the higher-ranking Artak, like the captain of the guard and the castellan. The Artak are all served tasty dinners; the high table with the Vertak doesn't get any food. Ace begins to wonder about this, and catches Ruehan's eye. Ruehan telepathically contacts him - Ace wonders if he shouldn't be eating? No, no, Ace should feel free.
Lord Sandall makes conversation: how have Lord Dinar's adventures been going? What wrongs has he righted? Ruehan tells a story of two herders arguing over which land to use to herd in, such that he had to chastise their overlord for not settling it for them. "I assume your chastisement was most to the point," Lord Sandall comments. As a counter, Lord Sandall tells a story which Lord Dinar may recall (which is code for "this was a different Lord Dinar), of when Lord Sandall encountered Lord Dinar long ago in his youth, and Lord Dinar told a story of visiting a different lord, where his servant stumbled into the lord, such that they had to fight a duel. But he did have to find another servant after that, of course.
Despite his fishing, Lord Sandall still can't figure out who Ruehan is. The Artak table finishes their food, and head to bed, declaring themselves pretty much all exhausted. Ace worries a little bit about drugs, but he feels okay. Lord Sandall says that he'll see Ruehan in the morning for the trip to the city - driving his own vehicle is one of his guilty pleasures. Really, Ruehan says, with a period rather than a question mark. That should be interesting. Ruehan and Ace are escorted back to their guest suite for the night.
Ace wants to hear stories of this place. What's the city like? Well, it's not like this is the only city on the planet. This is just the largest. It's like a lot of other outworlds - some tech, but it's not as built up as the inworlds. The Greenbriar tends to have a lot of minor house people, and anonymous nobles staying at it - it'll be good for their purposes. The city will have a lot more nobles than usual, which means tensions will be high, but not flaring, since everyone should be behaving themselves. It should be interesting.
Ace suggests that Ruehan leave a sealed note to be opened when he leaves the planet. That would take care of being sure to not change anything, but it does have some flaws as a method of convincing communication. Ruehan is pretty sure that will work - he can just look like himself, give it to a house server, and say "give this to my father after I leave." Why did they pick Ruehan, anyway, Ace wonders. He wanted to go - as simple as that. They do this every so often; the trip is basically an evaluation of what threat the outworlds pose. While he served in the court of Pierogi for three years, he travelled around and served elsewhere in the outworlds before that.
Before leaving, Ruehan requests a full bath, with scented oils and other accouterments. Ace just gets more wet towels. Then, it's time for the trip. Lord Sandall is dressed in a leather coat with goggles; he offers Ruehan goggles as well. Ace and the "driver" get to sit in the back, while Ruehan gets a place of honor in the front seat. Ruehan's raised eyebrows project that he thinks this is a terrible idea, but as "Lord Dinar" he's an adventurer, so he can't say anything against it. Lord Sandall isn't a bad driver, though he drives fast; he's clearly trying to get some sort of rise out of Ruehan.
After a few hours, they pull over for refueling and to allow the driver to tune the engine, while the nobles stretch their legs. Strolling around with Ruehan, Lord Sandall comments that Lord Dinar's companion is a bit brighter than one might expect. That is why he chose him, Ruehan answers. Lord Sandall is surprised - most would not want the danger of being shown up by one's accompaniment. Ruehan says he does not find it a danger. Again, he's clearly trying to score points by riling Ruehan, but Ruehan is better at the Game and doesn't get riled.
Ace comments to the driver - Lord Sandall should be the onewearing the domino mask. The driver is a little surprised by his Lord's behavior- he doesn't normally do this. Maybe Ace's lord has inspired him. Ace wonders if Lord Sandall is always so excitable. Well, it's easier to stay out of his sight than on his good side, that's for sure. Ruehan finally figures out that Lord Sandall is sure that Ruehan was planted on him for the ride to the city ("Oh, a Lord Dinar just coincidentally was travelling through just as I was going to the meeting of the Houses..."), and is trying to figure out why. Ruehan considers the idea of asking to stay with Lord Sandall instead of at the Greenbriar, just to irritate him.
The two nobles conversationally spar for the rest of the trip to the city. Great things must be afoot in the city. Indeed. Has Lord Dinar heard any of the items on the agenda? No, he's been out in the rural areas for some time. Ruehan makes a couple of comments to indicate a growing interest in politics, so it'll make sense if he comes and pesters Lord Sandall about it later. If you need anything, Lord Sandall indicates, he'll be there (an exclusive fancy hotel) tomorrow. Ace and Ruehan are dropped off at the Greenbriar, at which point the driver is permitted to drive.
At the inn, Ace insists on better disguises ("Let's put you into something that could fool a fly.") Ruehan gets to look more like Gabriel (with a nom-de-disguise of "Lord Gabril"), while Ace looks like Ace now. Then, they head off to the Dalari in-town house, after Ruehan writes a note to his father: "It is Important to get in touch with me in fifteen years, and increase relations with the human realm at that time." Maybe giving it to his dad in two weeks would be better than waiting a year. But two weeks is enough time that he can take it back if he needs to. Ruehan makes it a post-effective suggestion, just to be sure.
Once arrived at the Dalari house, blazoned with the sphere-and-starburst crest, Ace asks if he should go scout to see if Ruehan is there. No, that's probably not wise. However, if Ruehan is there with his father, Ace should say only that Lord Gabril needs to speak just to the Name.
"Your business, my lord?"A younger cousin of Ruehan's comes to speak with them. Ace is actively smote with her beauty. She apologizes and says that the Name is quite indisposed, would he care to discuss the nature of the business? Ace leaps in: "What's your name, lady?" Ruehan glares at him, and over the mind link tells him not to talk until it's relevant. She introduces herself as Davira V'Dalari.
"I am Lord Gabril, and I have something of importance to discuss with the Name."
"May I announce the lord's House?"
"That is also something that needs to be discussed privately with the Name."
She brings them into a formal sitting room, offering Ruehan the opportunity to ditch Ace, but he chooses not to do so. She's still sending waves of gorgeousness at Ace, who checks her out back. She states that she has been designated by the Name to speak on the matter (code for "I'm screening his visitors" rather than "I know what this in particular is about"). Ruehan says that the matter is of the utmost care - is the Heir about? She can arrange a meeting with the Heir later this afternoon. No, no, he doesn't want to talk to the Heir at all. Now Davira is confused.
Ace suggests: "Maybe you and I should go somewhere else to talk about this in private and we can straighten it out," and Davira is utterly shocked. Ruehan sends over the mind link: "I understand, but you wouldn't enjoy it as much as you think you would." Meanwhile, Davira conveys through a raised eyebrow to Ruehan: "I understand that this is my fault, but if he's not better controlled than that, you get what you deserve." Ruehan tries to convince Ace harder to really not blurt things out like that. He wouldn't enjoy it. Ace is still sure she's making a move on him.
Davira is sure the Name would be most pleased to speak with him after the conversation has happened, but the house needs some sort of understanding beforehand. Ruehan caves: "So, Davira. Here's the thing. This must be kept in confidence, but it is really I, Ruehan." (Ace takes advantage of her startlement to slip a card from the Greenbriar into her pocket.) Ruehan sets up a mind link with Davira, which is sufficient to convince her that it is him (and that he's more powerful than she had realized). She is sure that house security does not require this level of indirection. That's true, but it's not just internal security but other reasons. Davira arranges an audience with the Name, with no one else in attendance.
Which, Davira assumes, means no Ace, so she tries to divert him into the adjacent waiting room, but Ruehan says that he's important, at least for now. In they go.
Ruehan's father looks like he's about 65, with little resemblance to Ruehan. He looks at Ruehan and assures himself that it's really him, though he's much larger than he was, well, only a few days ago. The first thing Ruehan wants to know is where the Name believes he (Ruehan) is. This is most puzzling, but the Name says that he had not thought Ruehan would be in the city until tomorrow.
Ruehan comes clean: he is in fact Ruehan, but from fifteen years in the future. He's come back from the trip to the human worlds. The Name considers this: "Your mind is unmistakable, but how is this possible?" Ruehan doesn't know quite how it is possible, but he thinks he will be going back to the future. The most important thing for the moment is that nothing happens differently because of it. The current Ruehan should be told nothing, nor should anything change because of this Ruehan's presence.
The Name is a little surprised - with the recent political situation, he did not actually expect the trip to happen. But it is important that it does happen, Ruehan insists. The Name had been planning to have Ruehan come to the meeting to plead his case - but Ruehan remembers that he wasn't brought. Hmm. Clearly, young Ruehan should not be brought, so that time-hopping Ruehan can go instead.
The Name fills the two in on the political situation. The two Houses supporting the trip are Dalari (which is heavily invested) and Gantiris. The four opposed are Tonoli (the leader of the opposing faction), Hakoris, Rigun, and Qoran. Ace and Ruehan argue over their mind link as to whether it would be better to tell him things now about the Flames and the Deciders, or to leave a note. It'd be good ammunition for why there needs to be a mission, but it could change things as Ruehan remembers them. Ace is introduced as also from the future - he's a human, not an Artak. The Name is a little displeased at having brought a human to Vertak, but Ruehan explains that they were just sucked through space-time to here ("Good thing, too, because it's a hell of a hike." - Ace)
The two Dalari settle on Ruehan staying away from the rest of the family, except for during the meeting. The theory of just leaving a note about the Flames fails, though, because Ruehan wants to ask about them. The Name hasn't heard of them. Also, Ruehan emphasizes that Vertak will need to contact humans more directly in about fifteen years. That will be hard, the Name opines. Ruehan realizes that the existence of an alien space fleet bent on wiping out all life (and possibly especially psychic life) in the dust nebula may be politically relevant to advancing that goal, and the idea of leaving a note to be opened fifteen years from now is scrapped, and Ruehan briefs the Name about the Flames and the Deciders.
So Vertak is in danger. Ruehan thinks high psi worlds might be likely to be targetted before others (ah, then Vertak would be targetted first, the Name figures). But it could be the direction they're coming from, it's hard to tell. Do Ruehan and Ace have any evidence of this? Nothing they think they can leave behind. Ace gives the Name his neural disruptor to take a look at. The Name will arrange to summon specialists in history and psychic theory for "Lord Gabril" to consult.
Over the course of five days, the Names of the Houses meet in council during the afternoon, with aides and servants dashing about relaying messages and setting up private meetings so that they may play the Game during the rest of the time. Ace and Ruehan work during the meetings to find leads for ways they can influence the eventual vote (which is represented by a game of seven-card stud). Ruehan gets them rooms at a different inn from the Greenbriar, so they're not connected with the Lord Dinar that Lord Sandall met.
When Ace returns to their inn in the morning, Ruehan is waiting up for him.
"Are you done with that now?"Ruehan intercepts the original letter he left with the manservant, and writes up a fuller report on the Deciders and the Flames for his father.
"I'm staying away from that white stuff, it was tasty but..."
"Perhaps it would be better if we don't go out separately unless we're making one of our plans."
Ruehan and Ace argue over the mind link again.
"Did the Vertak always look like the Vertak look now?"Ruehan has to admit that the last question is moderately interesting, and asks the historian "Before the Artak came, what form did we take?" The writings he has cannot be certain, but it was different. It was a form they actively threw off when a better was available; he thinks there was a cultural decision to be "new". Is there anything known of where the Artak came from? Heretically, they came in a space ship - it's clearly obvious that the Artak are humans but nobody says that. Where is the ship? Surely disassembled long long ago.
"The Vertak are the mind, the Artak are the body."
"Does that mean you possess people?"
"Do you moosh and shift like playdoh?"
"Well, what did you look like before?"
That's about it for the historian, and it's time for the day's meeting. Ace complains that he still has a headache. Ruehan is unsympathetic and tells him it'll go away, just don't do it again. Do what? Go out with her. She caused the headache? Ruehan advises him to just not go out with people while Ace is here.
During the meeting, Ace gets a note, but he passes it to Ruehan to read ("If it's anything secret, they'll just read my mind.") Ruehan notes that it's from Davira: "Same time, same place. - Lady Dela." Ruehan recognizes Lady Dela as the "femme fatale" archetype who preys on innocent Artak - the sort who is often preying on Lord Dinar's Artak sidekick in the stories. Ruehan says that the note is something it would be better for Ace not to know - it would downplay their hand. Ace is curious, but Ruehan keeps the note tightly in his hand until Ace leaves for his next mission, and then destroys it.
"Why am I not armed? Wait, I am armed, why am I not shooting more people?"Ruehan offers to arm Ace against future situations, and adds a mind control against doing what Lady Dela says. Now Ace is able to notice the opposing one of "do everything Lady Dela says" and becomes even more furious. He diverts quickly, however, into asking about Vertak reproduction. Artak have Artak, Vertak have Vertak? Yes, that's a good analogy, but it's more complicated. Can Vertak have Artak bastards? No, but that's not a well-formed question. But then it's back to remembering that his brain has been eaten.
"Have you been eating our brains all unbeknownst to us?"The psychic specialist shows up to talk to Lord Gabril, halting the bitter recriminations. Ruehan explains the bitey shield that he encountered, which the specialist expects can be countered the way Ruehan already knows, that being protection against psychic damage. If it's based on mental discipline, there might be drugs that could turn it off. The other question, that of thinking your mind to death, is theoretically interesting. He'll have to think about how that could be done, or countered. Ideally, if he could actually see such a case, he could find out more. Ruehan asks about a de-brainwashing ritual; the specialist is a little dubious about giving House secrets to this unknown Lord Gabril, but a compromise is reached, and the specialist agrees to give it to the Name.