Thank you for waiting. I've finished that story I first mentioned in >>3319
that shows rather than tells a few of the operating principles I had in mind for the hypothetical EO-like's setting. (Picture unrelated.) Please do let me know your thoughts on it, Anons.
‘Look … if there are golden kagu down there in the Emerald Mire,’ – slivers of white had appeared beneath each of Yasu’s irises, two warning flashes stark against her mottled camouflage-paint – ‘and you insist I sweep ahead no further than a stone’s throw from Sten’s thundering racket—’
Leta had managed to keep her face arranged into an encouraging smile, in spite of Yasu’s nonsense. It wasn’t easy, but a commander’s job was to listen, so listen she would.
‘—then they’ll slip away long before I spot them! I’m a sweeper; how can you expect me to do my job if I’m hobbled?’
Leta sucked in a deep breath. ‘Well—’
‘What if we managed to net even one kagu beak, Commander
?’ Yasu’s voice turned silky. ‘Shall I do the sums for you, or did you bring your abacus?’
Leta held back swelling irritation. It was true that even a single filigreed beak would yield coin enough to keep them fed and warm for weeks, but that wasn’t the point. Her gift tempted her, like honey on her lips: sweet and easy to taste, if only she would let her tongue do as it pleased. They were in the great forest-Labyrinth, she was in command, they had a plan, and it was time for Yasu to get back into line – conversation: over. Yet its sweet ease might hook Leta, muffle her ears, slip over her eyes, paralyse the party. No, she was not that sort of leader: she cared.
‘This will be the deepest we’ve dived, with naught to forewarn us save rumour and exaggeration,’ she said. ‘We’ve already a job, remember? Breach the Mire, then explore and map its entrance. It won’t earn us as much as catching even a single golden kagu, true, but it will be enough.’
‘Enough for what, exactly? A mere survey won’t pay enough to get us ahead of anything!’
‘It will prove that we can handle ourselves,’ Leta said. ‘I only landed this by cashing in favours and fluffing our record. Nobody of substance will so much as look at us for months – if ever – should we fail. Reputation is our path into the depths, not … not haring off after birds! Do you want us to be common shallows-scrapers forever?’
‘That’s unfair, you know it’s the opposite of what I—’ Yasu’s eyes scrunched shut, and she pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘I—I don’t … by the Watchers, Leta! How can you be so—’
, Leta realised, is about to run away with both of us.
An argument, like any confrontation, was all about momentum. Time to change direction.
‘Before that, I’m curious: what has you convinced the Mire’s bursting with kagu, little squirrel?’ she purred.
Yasu’s tongue tripped, sputtered, and fell silent. Under her paint, Leta knew, blush would be blooming across her cheeks. Her favourite nickname – though she’d never admit it – had struck true.
‘I-In the Horn and Fleece yesterday,’ she said, ‘just before Sofi managed to convince the rest of you to help her polish off that half of Stevorian draakblud—’
‘An excellent drink and experiment both!’ said Sofi, their artificer, presently filling their canteens from the grassy clearing’s spring. ‘Now we know that our Eir here can fit—eek!’
A splash preceded the redhead’s squeal: Eir, their tired-eyed phylacter, had chosen cold spring water over words.
‘A-Anyway,’ Yasu continued, ‘w-while you were all getting sloshed, I happened to be—’
‘Eavesdropping?’ Leta raised an eyebrow.
‘—turning my attention to the right place at the right moment, yes,’ Yasu said. Her lips were pressed together tightly; Leta had not defused her anger, merely delayed it. ‘Someone
But hadn’t Yasu – sweet, agreeable Yasu – spent last night happily encamped on Sten’s lap? Yes, she had: ‘I can’t help that I happen to fit here!’ was what she’d said when Sofi accused her of hogging it.
Sofi capped the last of the canteens and stood. ‘Don’t pretend you didn’t eventually end up as in your cups as the rest of us, darling Yassie!’ she said. ‘Unless … no! You were sober when you …?’
Yasu had not been sober. Sten had ribbed her about how quickly the draakblud set her cheeks aflame, Eir had joined the teasing in her own way – something about body weights and quickening drink to water – then Sofi had laughed and filled Yasu’s cup anew, which Leta playfully stole and finished before their sweeper could lift it to her lips…
Yes, something was wrong. Sofi’s little jibe confirmed it – Yasu had indeed been with them the whole evening; they would have noticed if she suddenly sobered up and skulked off into the smoky dark.
‘Sober!’ Yasu spat. ‘I was sober enough then to know what I heard, and I’m sober enough now to know what I’m seeing.’
Yasu’s body tensed like a tripwire; suddenly she was on the balls of her feet. ‘We’re supposed to be mapping, are we? Mapping a mire where the trails shift whenever there’s more than a dram of rain?’
‘I don’t—that’s why we were hired, the old maps’re—’
‘Yeah? That so? Kagu aside, if we were really surveying then you’d want me sweeping wider, not stuck in the mud next to you!’
Leta took another deep breath. Dissent was natural and to be welcomed, she told herself. If she used her gift to make herself a petty tyrant, would there be a way back?
‘I’m always willing to accept that I’m wrong,’ she said. ‘Shall we go over the plan again?’
‘Not likely,’ – Yasu’s voice had dropped to a growl – ‘since we all know the real plan is to get rid of us.’
‘W-What?’ Leta found her mind and lungs empty.
Sofi and Eir quietly rose to their feet. Sofi’s face was as confounded as Leta felt. Eir’s red-pupilled stare was, as usual, unreadable.
Yasu’s pupils were two yawning voids; her hands twitched towards the tools strapped to her harness. ‘Oh yes. You think I haven’t seen the signs? You want Sten to yourself again!’
Sten, on patrol along the writhing riot of giant trunks that formed the Labyrinth, briefly glanced their way. But he didn’t turn; he kept watching the tree-line over the top of his great shield.
Very helpful, beloved husband,
Leta thought, then silently reprimanded herself. Sten was, as the party’s anchor, exactly where he needed to be.
The part of Leta that called orders in battle took control. Yasu had become dangerous: what was to be done? Back off? Placate her? Attack? But what if she fled? A lone girl in the Labyrinth, anchorless, was as good as swallowed. That would solve the present problem, of course. But that was monstrous; not an option; there was no time—
No, there was a way – petty tyrant-hood or no. Leta reached inside and roused the sleeper coiled around her windpipe; her throat stirred, stretched, came alive.
‘Little squirrel,’ – her voice was no longer entirely her own – ‘let’s not fight? Come here.’
The voice had lived in Leta since her first dive. She didn’t ‘speak’ with it, that wasn’t enough; it unfurled
: rich, layered, velveteen, wrapping ear and mind.
Yasu’s eyes unfocused; she took a single, uncertain step. Leta opened her arms and let the after-resonances do their work. After a moment, Yasu shuffled into Leta’s embrace.
Leta had only a brief window, but she needed to be sure. She pulled off a leather glove and, as though fussing a small animal, rubbed her fingertips into the shorter woman’s scalp. It burned hot to the touch.
A hand on Yasu’s shoulder, a quick shift of her own weight, and Leta had the shorter woman flipped around with her arms pinned. Yasu snapped stiff, as though woken from a dream, then melted herself into a thrash of slippery joints.
! I knew it! I fucking knew it!’
‘Eir?’ Leta barely managed to keep Yasu in her grasp; if she escaped now, there’d be nothing anyone could do.
Their phylacter padded over, bristling with belts and bandoleers. Her gloomy monotone was as dark as the fatigue ringing her eyes.
‘About time you put your foot down,’ she said. ‘Was afraid you’d resort to hand-feeding next.’
‘W-What?’ Leta had not expected that. Didn’t she understand what Leta was trying to avoid?
Eir’s red pupils were implacable. ‘We all have our jobs.’
Had Leta’s style of command not been appreciated for its restraint, but resented for its negligence? Had she not strengthened their bond – no party whose women abhorred each other would be able to survive the Labyrinth for long – but strained it?
Eir waited for Yasu to wear herself down, then darted in and pulled her neck-wrap away.
‘Help me!’ – Yasu squirmed in Leta’s grasp – ‘She’ll come for you next! We have to, we have to—’
Beneath the sweeper’s scarf, a small paper talisman was stuck to her neck. Leta insisted that everyone in their party wore one, although Yasu’s wrap usually hid hers from view for reasons of camouflage. In the middle of the paper strip, flanked by Eir’s spidery hand, lay a circle impregnated with a costly alchymical solution that was sensitive to temperature and sweat.
The circle on their sweeper’s strip was a fiery orange.
‘Eir, plea—hold still!—please make sure all’s well with our little squirrel,’ Leta said. ‘I’d dearly like this fuss to have been for nothing.’
‘Get this bitch off me! W-Why aren’t any of you helping? She’s going to kill us!’
‘Your talisman has tripped.’ Leta made sure her voice stayed slow, calm.
That seemed to get through; Yasu paused, panting. ‘Bullshit. Eir can see I’m fine. Can’t you, Eir?’
Eir made a small noise in her throat, placed one hand on the sweeper’s forehead and the other against her neck. ‘Heart’s normal, considering exertion,’ she murmured. ‘Won’t be able to see anything under her skin at this time of day, so nothing one way or the other there. But she’s burning, alright …’
‘I feel fine,’ Yasu said, ‘and we’re still high up! How could I be going under already? Are you … Gods above, are you in on this—’
‘Hold still.’ Eir deftly slipped her index and middle fingers down Yasu’s belly, into her short, skin-tight breeches.
Yasu sucked in a sharp breath; Eir’s fingers had found their target. A couple of muffled squelches later, they withdrew, soaked in the sweeper’s syrupy juices. They were in the Labyrinth, where they were always wet, even here in the shallows.
Eir stuck out her tongue, smeared her fingers across it, then peered into a small mirror sewn into her sleeve. A wash of daylight stars bloomed across the pink firmament of Eir’s tongue, hundreds of tiny blue lightning flashes glittering and sparkling. Purple flares erupted here and there. At another time, in another place, it might have been beautiful.
Eir’s tongue darted back into her mouth; she sucked her fingers clean and swallowed the tiny galaxy with practiced ease.
‘No,’ – Yasu was whimpering – ‘we’re not deep enough … Eir’s in on this! She has to be!’
Eir pulled a vial filled with viscous amber liquid – ‘brace, divers called it – from a brightly-marked pouch on Yasu’s harness. She threw back her head and decanted it into her mouth, then swished it around as if she were merely scraping her teeth before bed.
Sofi appeared beside Leta, holding a short coil of cord. Leta let the redhead work, careful not to give Yasu an opening.
‘Sofi? Y-You’re—you too?’ Yasu slumped, suddenly small and defeated. ‘P-Please, if you’re going to … just let me into the Mire alone, it’d be better than this …’
Eir waited until their sweeper’s arms were well-bound, then slipped a hand around the back of her neck and leaned in. Yasu’s well-drilled reflexes answered: her lips parted at the first brush from the phylacter’s soft kiss. Their mouths joined, muscle memory took over, and the shorter woman carefully drank every drop.
When Eir finally pulled away, the black-haired sweeper was panting, her body slack.
‘I—oh, by Nagra, I remember!’ she cried. ‘Back at the Giant’s Spine – I was covering our descent down the eastern scramble – I stepped on a patch of redglass growing under the ferns!’
Eir wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. ‘Did it burst?’
‘It must have,’ Leta said, ‘or Yasu wouldn’t be in this state.’
‘I’m sorry! I … I don’t know how I forgot, it’s—oh, the things I said!’
‘Easy, little squirrel,’ Leta said, ‘it’s not your fault. Redglass shouldn’t grow this high, and its fever hides itself from its victims; it was I who should have noticed earlier.’
Yasu had been redglassed. The fact, revealed, snaked like a noxious vine through the situation. So much for caring for her party. What good was such care, Leta wondered, if it stopped her from doing her job? First Eir’s remark, now this!
Eir had her hands back on Yasu’s forehead and neck. ‘She seems stable, but redglass is tricky – anchorless contact just shocks it into dormancy.’
‘Dormancy?’ Sofi said.
‘Not dead, just asleep,’ Eir said. ‘Asleep inside Yasu.’
Sofi pouted. ‘I know what the word means. I meant: what will happen to Yassie? Will it wake back up?’
‘Uncured, it might stay down or it might surge back. No way to tell. But if it does come back, it’ll come faster and stronger than before.’
Attacks of feverish paranoia were bad enough in the Labyrinth’s green shallows, but they would be a recipe for tragedy in the treacherous mire below.
‘But … we can’t afford to fail the survey! I’ll stay close,’ – Yasu leaned back into Leta – ‘so you can all keep close watch on me. If we kiss often then—’
Eir shook her head. ‘It’ll be the same infection when it comes back, so more of the same will help very little – even if it’s with Leta or Sofi, and even with the ‘brace helping things along.’
‘And through Sten?’ Leta said. A part of her marvelled at how straightforward it had become to suggest that Eir and Yasu make out with her husband; she found herself more concerned by the possibility of ambush!
Eir tapped her index finger against her lips. ‘Again, hard to tell. I’ve tasted Yasu’s response to the redglass so my body will already be adapting. But … even though I’m a phylacter, anything short of a full join is going to be a gamble. A kiss-join through our anchor might work – once – or it might not.’
‘Ooh!’ Sofi’s voice was suddenly a little too loud. ‘I vote for the full join!’
Sten’s head swivelled back towards them from the tree-line, inquiry carved into the curve of his brows. Not that Leta could blame him; that term was guaranteed to get any anchor’s attention. Many would by now have broken watch to see what the fuss was about, but not Sten: he kept to his post, reliable to a fault. She ignored Sofi’s outburst and pressed on.
‘So if we march down into the Mire now,’ – Leta thought aloud – ‘there’s a strong chance that our little squirrel here will be swallowed, yes?’
The possibility trickled down Leta’s neck like ice water; she imagined Yasu’s body damned to wander the accidental passages that ran through the Labyrinth’s tangle of roots, splitting and twisting like a behemoth’s veins. None could truly say they knew what happened in its uncharted depths, after all. There were rumours of a few divers who’d been rescued – struggling like rabid animals in their saviours’ grasp – before they’d managed to wander beyond help. Perhaps somewhere down there still lurked those who were swallowed up, or so Leta hoped. How else were she and Sten to redeem themselves?
Insisting on consent and consensus was, in some ways, much easier: with everyone responsible, there was no-one to blame.
Yasu lifted her chin. ‘The survey comes first. There might not be enough time if you cure me. I’m just a tool; tools don’t care when they break. My village will send another to carry on my work if I fall, so—’
Leta carefully unclenched her teeth.
‘How dare you?’ she said.
‘What? I—’ Yasu seemed genuinely taken aback.
A strange mist seemed to have blanketed the clearing. ‘How dare you try to gamble yourself for … for money!’
‘It’s not money, it’s the mission. Next to the hope of stopping the Labyrinth’s spread, I’m nothi—ow, Leta, you’re hurting—’
‘I—don’t—care!’ Leta realised she was shaking the smaller woman, clamping down on her upper arms. She relaxed her hands, took a shuddering breath, and tried to keep the quaver from her voice. ‘Money or mission: neither’s worth losing you! I won’t ask you to change how you were raised, but if you won’t care about yourself then at least think of us! How would we feel if you get yourself swallowed for the sake of … of a map
‘I,’ – Yasu hung her head – ‘I’m sorry.’
Yet, that dispassionate part of Leta whispered, Yasu had a point. Losing both money and face would send them straight back to schlepping the shallows. Could they – could Leta herself – afford that? She wasn’t here to end the Labyrinth’s creeping expansion; her aim, and Sten’s, was personal, and with every sunset their redemption retreated further into darkness.
Pressing on would bring them out ahead, yet the Labyrinth insisted upon terrible stakes: Yasu’s life, possibly her soul. Yasu herself had been trained to see this as a mere detail, her life as a piece to be sacrificed, but Leta had never been able to bring herself to see her companions that way.
Sofi couldn’t wait any longer. ‘If we want to stay here for, you know, a little while … I can set up the new repulsion posts. This is the perfect opportunity to test them!’
The posts in question were strapped to the side of Sofi’s pack: long spikes topped by reciprocating mechanisms. They’d provide reliable respite – especially welcome in the night-time Labyrinth’s swarming dark – as long as Sofi lavished them with care and fed them a steady diet of the expensive, tar-like goop that filled the canisters strapped below her pack .
Eir sighed. ‘Mention joining and suddenly Sofi’s all for a short halt.’
It was true; Leta sometimes found the redhead’s enthusiasm for her husband a little off-putting.
‘But will that leave enough, uh … black reagent for tonight?’ Eir said.
‘It’s not a reagent, Eirrie!’ Sofi said. ‘It’s a kind of oil from a northern lake-weed; you can tell by its smell!’
’I’m proud,’ Eir said, ‘to say that I cannot. The rest of us don’t sniff every foul ichor that you artificers use.’
‘You’re missing out! But as to how much we have, I, um …’
‘You’re not sure?’ Leta found herself surprised; Sofi could be an airhead, but she knew her job well.
‘The posts are new! I have to get to know them.’ Sofi’s brows furrowed defensively. ‘But it’ll be tight. Maybe if someone hadn’t insisted that our finances were too thin to take on a few extra drams—’
‘Don’t you start, too,’ Eir said. ‘I’ll have developed an accounting allergy by the time this is over.’
Yasu’s head hung a little lower.
There was one last option that any sensible party kept in mind: retreat. They could turn around and march back up, Yasu trussed between them if need be, into the town’s raucous embrace. If the redglass fever was like any of the Labyrinth’s other sicknesses, it would burn itself away as soon as they left the forest behind. Without needing to replace any repulsion oil, they could make a few shallow dives and scrape together enough to replenish their supplies. It would be a thin few days, but it would be safe.
Yet as soon as the guards spotted them returning ahead of schedule, word would reach their client far faster than Leta could. Some swift talk might keep the contract in their hands, but nobody would be impressed by divers who struggled to leave the shallows for a mere survey.
Time to get consensus, came the habitual thought. ‘Well, everyone—’
No. There was no consensus, and it was not the right time to reach one. Blindly following the same method every time was no way to serve her party. Leta cleared her throat and readied an order.