“Aylwyn, please compose yourself,” I murmured softly, suddenly acutely aware of our surroundings.
She stiffened a little, then stepped back, standing tall and looking poised–mostly. But also a little bit embarrassed. “Yes, of course,” she said, a little too loudly.
I looked over at the others. “The paladin and I have a few matters to discuss in private,” I said with as much dignity as I could muster. I walked with her to an adjacent room and shut the door.
“Gerald Wolf knows a spell to make a room proof against eavesdropping,” I said. “I don’t suppose you can do the same?”
She shook her head, then gestured to a door at the far side of the room. “No, but we can go elsewhere.”
We went through to another, smaller room, and left the door open; we would keep our voices down and be able to see anyone approaching. Not ideal, but it would have to do.
“What happened here, Aylwyn? You look like… I don’t even know. If you were human I’d say you look like you haven’t had a good night’s sleep since the day I left. What does it take to have that effect on a being of your constitution?”
She smiled weakly. “If this is your idea of flattery, it’s no wonder you’ve met with such limited success in your efforts to win my heart,” the angel commented.
Wow. OK, on one hand, she’s still capable of humor, so things can’t be that bad. On the other hand, she’s generally the least snarky person ever, so it could be very bad indeed! “Well, we have a saying back home: I have good news and bad news.”
She looked at me quizzically, so I continued. “The good news is, I know what’s causing you so much grief.”
Aylwyn gave a weary chuckle. “And the bad news is the knowledge itself? Tell me. How bad is it?”
So I told her. I gave her a brief overview of my travels since leaving Barley. She seemed a bit embarrassed when I told her about Wyntaf going off course and leading me to Ìludar–she apologized and explained that Wyntaf was trained to be sensitive to disruptions in the structure of the world and help her investigate them, as they could be evidence of warlock activity, which she had never mentioned to me or explained how to deal with it–but she caught on almost immediately when I came to the part about about the nymph and the curse.
“The puzzle box,” she said. “You gave it to me as a gift, which meant we both share in the curse.”
I nodded. “That has to be what happened. But she didn’t say anything about anyone else being cursed along with me, so I thought of what I had taken from the treasure: the lute.”
Aylwyn groaned softly. “Please do not tell me,” she said slowly, “that you took a priceless historical artifact and sacrificed it to the Spirits of Fate based on a mistaken premise!”
I sighed. “All right. I won’t tell you. You seem to have worked it out anyway without help from me.”
That earned me a rather dark glower. “Do I even dare ask where in this sordid tale you reached a point at which my horse was abused by a dragon?”
Now it was my turn to be embarrassed. “That was… well… Sarah. I happened to run into her soon after I retrieved the lute from where I had left it, and I couldn’t dissuade her from tagging along. And the next day, she woke up in a new, frighteningly powerful form.”
Aylwyn looked alarmed at that news. “She can become a half-dragon?”
I nodded. “And it’s easily the worst form I’ve seen her in so far. Worse even than half-demon. She had access to the power of a dragon’s will. I’m just glad it only lasted one day!”
“And does this have anything to do with how you traveled so far so quickly? The Treasury of Fate was well out of your way; even had you retained Wyntaf’s assistance, you should not have been able to return here so soon.”
“Yeah,” I said. “We flew pretty much the whole way in one day. Turns out she can make me fly along and the Twist does nothing.” That was fudging things a little, but it was getting too close to territory that I really didn’t want to discuss with anyone in general and Aylwyn in particular!
I did have to confess one thing, though, that I had sent the Blind Bandit here. I didn’t tell her anything about my ability to piggyback on Sarah’s transformations, but I gave her a brief explanation of our encounter with the bandit and his capture, and my sending him here to help her.
Her jaw tightened. “You sent that monster here?”
I held up my hands defensively. “He wasn’t a monster when he was with me. He was a coward who wouldn’t dare to anger you.”
She scoffed. “Someone once said to me, don’t try and use con tricks on a con man; you’re fighting on my home turf. That man is a formidable sorcerer, almost my equal in battle, and he had you so completely beguiled as to think he would assist me as you wished?”
I closed my eyes. “Yeah, I suppose he– wait. Almost your equal? What happened between you and him?”
“We fought in the streets, not three days ago, his magic against my strength and my sword. For several minutes we dueled, and he held his own for a time, but he was tiring faster than I. At the end, just as I had finally gotten the better of him, he fled. I caught ahold of him, but he tore free from his cloak and fled, using a gust of wind to blow it in my face. He got out of my sight before I could get free of it, and he hasn’t been heard from since.”
So that was why he wore that ridiculous cape? Woah. “I don’t suppose you got anything useful from the cape, to help track him down? I’d like to have some words with him…”
She shook her head. “I looked, but found nothing useful. However, he did leave something valuable in an inner pocket. So I have been keeping it under guard in the hopes that he will attempt to return for it.”
“What did he leave?”
“An ornate Wizard, from a chess set the likes of which I have never seen. Though, even if I knew the craftsman, I doubt it would be of much help in tracking down the bandit’s current whereabouts.”
That right there sent a chill down my spine. The Wizard played the role of Bishop over here, standing between the royalty and the knights. And if it was anything like what I suspected now… “Cast from precious metal, with gemstones for eyes, amazingly intricate and detailed?”
Aylwyn nodded. “You are familiar with the style?”
“Yes, except it’s not a style, it’s not a game piece, and you do know the craftsman, more or less. That’s a highly exclusive token of rank among dracora, created and personally distributed by Ryell herself!” I growled, low in my throat. “He played me for a fool!”
“How do you know this?”
“She wanted me to be her Knight. I turned her down. I know it’s more than just an offer she made to me, because I’ve met the other Knight. And apparently Kyle Rogers is one of her Wizards.” I looked at her. “The Wizard. Destroy it if you can. It’s attuned to Ryell.”
Aylwyn looked at me, worried. “When did this happen?”
“That’s not important. Really. What’s important right now is the box.”
“Speaking of boxes, how did you come to bear an Arbiter’s?”
So I quickly explained about all the crazy stuff that went down in Keliar, and how that led to me being sent here to take care of what we’d all thought was a much smaller problem than… all this. I didn’t ask her about the stuff Eleanor had said about Celestials; it would be kind of hypocritical of me after having just made her stay on topic and not get sidetracked. And anyway, I’d always have time to ask her later, after she had disposed of the box.
She seemed particularly aggravated to hear about Eleanor diverting her to here and away from her smuggling investigation in Trent. Apparently she had been on the verge of something important, involving enchanted weapons from Troll lands. (Yeah. You think trolls are scary? Imagine one with an enchanted sword or battle-axe!)
So, Ryell was directing her minions to destroy food supplies and aid weapons smugglers. This really wasn’t doing much to bolster Eleanor’s argument about her keeping the peace!
“So,” said Aylwyn, “you now believe that this horrendous luck I have experienced was a result of the puzzle box being cursed? But if you share in the curse, why have things gone so well for you lately? Was it not remarkably lucky that the fake princess appeared exactly in time for you and Sarah to apprehend her, to gain the confidence of the king, which gained you the one thing that would allow you to pass the knights’ barricades without incident–which the king did not know about at the time he bestowed it upon you–and then the first place you came just happened to be where you could find me? That looks nothing like bad luck to me; quite the opposite in fact!”
“It has to be the lute,” I said. “Something that valuable… imagine a scale, and slowly but steadily someone drops grains of sand onto the left pan, until it’s pushed far down. Then one day I put a big, heavy gold bar on the right pan. That’s going to radically alter the balance for a while, but the sand’s still falling.”
She furrowed her brow. “You think that the Fates use sand and scales to determine a person’s fortune?”
“Not at all. But that’s the thing about models: they don’t have to be anywhere near the literal truth to provide you with useful concepts and data. I think that what happened can be understood well enough by thinking about it in those terms.”
“Yes,” she said dryly, “‘useful’ is always preferable to ‘true’ with you.”
I rolled my eyes. Not this again. “The truth is a great thing, and I really do try to tell as much of it as I can, but when the truth about you is something no one would believe, something that they would call you a madman if you told them, it’s not always a luxury you can afford.”
“Did Gerald Wolf call you a madman? Did Patrick or Sarah?” She smirked slightly. “Did you call me a madwoman when I figured it out?”
“You’re exceptional cases and you know it,” I protested. “And all of them, except you, had the benefit of long-term exposure to the other two world travelers already. Patrick didn’t even learn the truth about me from me; he learned from April. Sarah believed me because her father did, and Gerald… I don’t even know. But you know most people don’t even believe the Drift exists; it’s just a fable to them.”
“Gerald believed you because you had earned his trust,” she pointed out, frowning. “And yet you still treat the truth as a luxury, even with those of us who know. Even with your researcher disciples, to whom you revealed some truth by necessity, you have not told them anything more than the merest portion that could possibly work to serve your ends!”
“Disciples?” I made a face. “You make me sound like some sort of great leader.”
Aylwyn looked amused. “Whose name have they taken upon themselves at the academy? Whose words have they carved above the lintel as a credo? Whether you see yourself as a leader or not, is this not the mark of followers?”
Holy crap. She was right! How in the world did I end up with disciples?!? (And in a persona that always wore a beard, no less!) That was a little bit disturbing…
Time to change the subject. “Anyway, how did all this mess happen since I left?”
She shook her head. “Please don’t change the subject,” she said. Figures. “Why do you withhold so much from so many? This shows a great lack of trust in those around you, when in fact you implicitly place a great deal of trust in the same people, that they will deal fairly with you in day-to-day matters, do you not?”
I shook my head. “Is it really that simple among angels? Because for us, it’s not at all. The human psyche is one big, muddled, inconsistent ball of emotions, drives, prejudices and half-baked ideas. We are perfectly capable of firmly, sincerely, ardently believing two contradictory things at the same time, just as long as we don’t associate the two, and if someone calls attention to the problem, the most natural reaction is not rational introspection; it’s anger towards that person and a process of rationalization because we don’t want to have to change.
“There’s this very strong herd instinct, to do what other people are doing for no other reason than because other people are doing it. Most of the time, it’s good; get a few people pointed in the right direction and the rest follow along, and you get civilization. I can trust people to act civilized towards me when I play by the same rules, because that’s what they do. The problem is when things go wrong.
“We’ve got a thousand people out there in open revolt. If you’d asked them a month ago, individually, if this was a good way to solve their problems, you’d have had a thousand people say no, of course not, it’s a stupid idea. And it is, but once a few people start, suddenly everyone’s doing it because everyone else is doing it because everyone else is doing it. And even more dangerous is the fear of the unknown. It’s said that a person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and I believe it! Tell them suddenly that there’s a person from another world going around, working behind the scenes to reshape their society, and you’d get chaos. Real chaos, not the piddly little disruptions that, as you put it, follow in my wake.”
Aylwyn listened to my rant impassively, then gave me a curious look. “If you don’t believe that what you do would be accepted if it were known, why do you continue to do it?”
That was actually an easy question. “Because I’ve seen what can happen, and they haven’t. Henry Ford, the man who found the way to make horseless carriages economical and available to the common man, once said, ‘If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’ To me, it’s not unknown, and it’s not an object of fear, but of longing.
“There are five fundamental technologies that form the very basis of civilization, that enabled man to rise from barbarians who can’t afford to focus on anything beyond survival and bare necessities, and build society and culture. With the wheel and metallurgy, we make tools. With agriculture, we can build permanent settlements and free up a substantial percentage of the populace to attend to tasks other than providing food. With writing, we ensure that important information is not easily lost or corrupted when someone who knows it dies, forgets, or mis-remembers. And then there’s fire, which is so fundamental as to be essentially synonymous with civilization itself. You with me so far?”
Aylwyn nodded. “That is rather accurate, if you narrowly define civilization as the human variety as practiced in this part of this world.”
I waved my hand. “Of course. Not trying to be narrow-minded; what I meant is that these things, each on their own and even more so together, have fundamentally reshaped the way people live their lives and interact with one another. Yes?”
“Your grasp of the obvious is as solid as ever.”
“Well, here’s the part that’s not so obvious: it can happen again. And it has, twice, on my world. A very small set of technologies reshapes everything, enabling new heights of civilization. We’re right on the cusp of the first one here. With electric power, inexpensive steel, and a device I gave the head of the academy the idea for, we can attain it. If only I knew the secret to industrial steel production!”
“What is this third device?” she asked, “and how do it, steel, and your experiments with the Force Electric raise society to a great new plateau?”
“The third device is a scribe machine.”
Aylwyn raised an eyebrow. “It takes dictation?” she asked skeptically.
“No. That’s actually possible, but we’d need the second great technological revolution before we can produce machines capable of that. But this does the other thing scribes do: it copies the written word.”
“And how is that revolutionary when scribes can already do that?”
“Because this machine can print more pages in half an hour than even the best scribes can do in an entire day.”
“It makes an imprint on pages?” she asked.
“Almost. If I rub ink on my finger, I can press it to a page and get an ink-print of the ridges in the skin. If I went ink, press, ink, press, ink, press, I could make thousands of fingerprints, each just like every other, in a very short time.”
She caught on quickly. “Your machine prepares an engraved template to take the ink,” she said, and I nodded. “But even for a master engraver, that would take a very long time for every single page. How does this revolutionize scribing with great speed?”
I grinned. “By using lots of very small engravings, representing one letter each, or at the most a single, very common word. Build those once, and it will take a long time, but then all that’s needed is to arrange them to make a page. This won’t take that much longer than a scribe writing it out. Then print off the pages and take the template apart, and rearrange the same letters to make the next page.”
She frowned. “That’s still a great deal of work to make a few copies of something.”
“That’s just it. Why do people only make a few copies of books?”
“There is no great demand for them. They are expensive and difficult to…” and then she got it. “And you think that by making it possible and economical to make books in massive quantities, this will stimulate a great deal of demand?”
“I know it will. Every time engineers back home have taken something of great utility and found a way to make it economical to produce at large scale, people have responded. If you build it, they will come, as we say back home. People want to better their lot in life. Give them easy access to knowledge, and many will choose to learn, and of that multitude, a few will take what they learn and build upon it, and publish new knowledge, and the cycle continues. This scribing machine is one of the most glorious inventions in the history of civilization!”
“And your other two concepts?” she asked, looking somewhere between ‘intrigued’ and ‘amused’.
“Smiths today make steel on demand. It’s rare and somewhat expensive. It makes good weaponry, and occasionally high-quality tools for a wealthy farmer or craftsman, but it’s just too expensive for most things. But imagine manufacturing steel by the ton. By the tens-of-tons. What would you do, if you were queen of a kingdom that had more steel than your entire military knew what to do with?”
She had to think about that. “Make it available to farmers and craftsmen to build better tools?”
“For starters. But the great forges are making more and more. Steel becomes cheaper than bronze, so you build tools from it. It becomes cheaper than silver or pewter, so you build nearly indestructible forks, knives and spoons from the incorruptible steel we discovered a few years ago. Steel becomes nearly as affordable as wood, so you build massive, strong buildings out of it, and even enormous ocean-going ships, enabling you to trade with other lands on a scale that’s almost inconceivable today.”
“Backed by an invincible steel navy, to wage wars of conquest on an inconceivable scale?” she asked.
I had to nod. “Yes, that’s happened too. I will endeavor to ensure that it does not happen here. We’ve made mistakes, but that’s the point. April and I know what the mistakes are, and we can avoid them! But you can scarcely imagine the good it does. My nation, America, is in many ways a nation of steel. One of the greatest cultural heroes of our mythology, the defender of truth, justice, and the American way… he’s called the Man of Steel.”
“More bardic legends?” Aylwyn scoffed a little. “And the electric power?”
“As fire is to civilization here, electricity is to civilization in America. We don’t light candles; we use electric lights. We don’t light hearth fires; we use electric heaters–or electric coolers to make hot days more bearable. We don’t light cooking fires; we use electric stoves and electric ovens, and so on. Taking fire out of the picture as much as possible makes it safer to live in cities by lowering the risk of out-of-control fires ravaging an entire population.”
“Your carriage ran on burning fuel,” she pointed out.
“It’s one of the last great holdouts of our technology. We’ve already developed models that run entirely on electric motors. They’re superior in almost every way, but extremely expensive. Some of the best minds of my day are working to make them economical.”
“…so that everyone will want one?” she asked.
“Precisely! And the electric motor itself… when you can produce a process that will continue to run, unattended, as long as it’s fed a steady supply of power, amazing things become possible. With a few motors to automate movement, and one to drive a timing belt to keep things synchronized, you can make a scribing machine print its own copies with no need for a man to work the machinery. With no arms tiring out, you’re producing more copies more quickly. More knowledge for everyone!
“Add a motor and a bit of gearwork to a threaded needle, and you have a sewing machine that can stitch with perfect mechanical precision. Fine garments for the masses!”
I took her hand and pressed her fingers to my throat. “Do you feel the vibrations as I speak? That is the very essence of sound. We have a way to send electric current over a wire, and modulate it with those same vibrations, which is used at the other end to drive a machine that reproduces the same vibrations and pushes them out into the air. With this, we can speak over long distances, or record the patterns and play them back later.”
She nodded, drawing her hand back slowly. “Your music.”
“Exactly. Music. Speeches. Personal messages. Any conceivable sound. Readings from a book. With this technology, even the blind can read! We call them ‘audio books.’
“Put motors on farm implements fashioned from good, strong steel, and you build machines that sow and harvest as fast as a battalion of farmers and draft horses, which means more land can be worked more efficiently. Famine is a thing of the past in America; one of our biggest health concerns, in fact, is too many people growing too fat due to the massive abundance of food. Even the poor grow fat, where I’m from!”
That last bit actually seemed to impress her, but it faded quickly enough. “And because of all this, because your Mr. Ford spoke of people wanting faster horses, you must lie and hold back the truth?”
I sighed as she took the air right out of my whole point. “Yes,” I said. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Again, just look outside. The herd instinct and the fear of the unknown, poor reactions to disruption… people crave order for a reason. It’s comforting. Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan,’ even if the plan is horrifying! If a thief is hanged for stealing, or a few dozen peasants go hungry in the winter, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan.’ But when they say that one little old folk hero was killed, then everyone loses their minds! Or at least that’s the rumor I’ve heard.”
She looked somber at that. “You’re right… at least a little bit. They believe Paul Twister is dead, at my hands, and everything I said only seemed to find some way to make the lies and mistakes that much worse.”
I nodded. “That’s the curse at work. You need to get the box back to its home.”
“I’m needed here,” Aylwyn protested.
“Not if you’re going to accidentally make things worse at every turn rather than better. There are other paladins around, a hundred or so knights, a few dozen of the best and brightest the Bard’s College has to offer, and a Royal Arbiter to coordinate things. I’ve called for reinforcements from both the Crown and the Circle of Magi, just in case.” I looked her straight in the eyes. “I’ve got this, Aylwyn. I need you to go and take care of the curse.”
She took a deep, slow breath, then sighed and looked away. “We still have a great deal to discuss when I return, Paul.”
I nodded. “I promise I’ll be here.” Then, after a moment’s pause, “…as long as you come back reasonably fast. Another two years before I see you again, and all bets are off.”
She actually smiled faintly at that. “I will,” was all she said. And then she turned and walked back out, and just like that, she was gone again.