What follows is a transcript of the meeting between myself and the Lady. I still tingle at the experience.
[Beagle]: Good afternoon, my Lady. It is an honour. I have heard so much about you, and yet I never imagined I’d have the privilege. You honour me.
[The Lady] On the contrary. It is only correct to dignify your eloquent letter with an audience.
But you must get hundreds of audience requests?
Oh, nonsense. Who would want to come and see this wisp of a woman. I am not lonely by choice.
Don’t be silly. And anyway, I have heard much about you too. I have been eager to make your acquaintance.
A plea to creative readers: as I look upon this, my eyes grow bored by the uniformity! I crave inspirational images, but alas, my hands fail me in that regard. I am not a ruddy artist. Are you? If you are inspired to articulate your (related!) imagination, then please, send it to me, and I will refresh this blot with its vibrancy.
You mean… Surely my family’s name has not touched your ears?
Oh no no no. But a half-dozen burly guards came searching.
Oh, I see. It’s like that, is it? I’d imagined… I’d hoped. [sigh]. You can send the guards in for me now.
Oh you dramatist! I told them I’d never heard of you, even though I had your letter in my hand. I have no love of Mahani bullies any more than you do. They are not welcome here. It’s just a shame that it’s not that simple, isn’t it?
Err, yes. Yes! Oh thank goodness. I am forever in your debt.
I rather think not, Beagle. I imagine it is another debt that follows you. Tell me. What did you do to earn their attention?
Ahh. Well, I entered into a minor bargain with a very well-considered Mahani bully. The odds were stacked in my favour, and the intention was to clear some other, ah, outstanding debts. But the bastard won! It was ridiculous – the way those coins dropped into place. I’d say there were barely three paths in a thousand to his victory, and he found one of them! The game was rigged – I swear it.
[Sigh]. Did you enter into a game of flip-coin with a Prince of Mahan?
Then there is your failing. A foolish move, I must say.
But the odds were so favourable! That outcome – it was frankly, ludicrous!
Yes. Yes it was. It was designed that way. Do you not listen to the old stories?
The ones about the touch of Dara. The ones about the father’s fortune.
But they are just children’s tales. The way I hear it, they were created to suggest a magical link between the Mandari founder and the Old God of this land. As a way of placating the locals, you understand?
Yes, I believe they were used that way once. But they were never created. They have simply always been. Those stories have always been.
But they’re mad.
Yes, they are. All the finest things in the world are mad. Have you ever considered where Dara came from? Have you ever wondered where the Mandari appeared from?
Well I’ve wondered, but not much further than the facts. The seven families were forged from dragon-flame, weren’t they? The seven families were gifted to Mandaria in order to free the land. The world, in fact! That is where Dara came from – he is our salvation. He is Rhanna’s breath made man. Or rather, he was.
And does that not seem mad? That he was forged of dragon-flame?
Well… I suppose it is rather fanciful, but then Rhanna is a god! Dara was just a man.
He was the breath of Rhanna – you said it yourself.
Yes, but… Are you trying to tell me that Dara could truly ‘shape’ things? [a nod.] And his descendants have that same talent? [another nod.] Forgive my disbelief, my Lady, but I am struggling.
It is to be expected. All knowledge of the shaping has been filtered from the public consciousness. As I understand it, it was originally for protection. But in the wisps of time, and under the weight of excess, it has been allowed to die. The line is breaking.
… What? You mean your line is breaking? Forgive my intrusion, but I am thoroughly confused by the direction of this conversation.
No no no. My line is one of the few taut threads. I can still reel my line all the way back to its genesis. No, it is the Mahani line which is breaking. Ever the strongest line, it has been allowed to wither. At least, what we see has withered. I’m a little surprised that the Prince was even able to pull that trick.
Hmm, this is entirely confounding. May I have a moment to summarise, my Lady? [a nod.] Are you trying to tell me that Dara’s lineage have a genuine power over the course of events – they can shape outcomes? [a firm nod.] But that this ‘skill’ has been allowed to die out. [a shallow nod]. Ho hum. Most interesting. And when you say that your line has stayed taut, what exactly do you mean? Forgive my terse observation, but your family is all but destroyed – you are the last.
So they say. But where it is not thick with braids, it is pure in material. Remember – my family was also forged from the breath of the Dragon.
What? Err, do you mean that you too have this, ah, skill?
Would you like a game of coin-flip?
[suffice to say, it was a good thing we weren’t gambling.] That is incredible! What else can you do? Can you make stuff move across the room? Can you magic flames into thin air?
No – of course not. The skill is incredibly tiring, and influence has just the shortest range. To determine the flip of a coin is one thing, but to trigger combustion is quite another.
That’s a shame. I had visions then…
I didn’t say impossible, but beyond my power. The beauty of anything is that it’s made of smaller pieces – you, me, this building – and if you can influence enough pieces, then you can tumble anything. But on my own, a coin flip is near the limit.
And what of the Prince?
Think on it – was it just coin-flip where he butchered the odds?
Hmm, yes, thinking about it. He is a competent card player certainly, but I had a fair share. Not enough, but a share.
Then I suspect his powers are no more than mine. The Mahani line was so much more than that, but as you see – it has tapered. My line is pure, but the Mahan lineage has been corrupted by greed. There is too much long whispering in their ear.
I’m sorry, Lady. Long?
Ignore me. I am twittering. What’s important is that you understand what you’ve got yourself into. Yes, the Prince rigged the game, but your defence will hold no weight. No-one will believe your story because no-one believes in short shaping. The concept has been pushed underground by those that want to keep it for themselves. And that means that you owe money. A lot of money.
Hum ho. Yes, that might be true. But I cannot pay that money. Certainly I have some travel spend to my name, but what I lost is a small fortune. I would have to go begging to my father – again – and that has never ended well.
Oh there is no need to go to your father. The Prince has already played that card himself. [gulp.] But unfortunately, the Prince’s rather hefty rate of interest now means that even your father is priced out.
So you see, those guards weren’t sent by the Prince, but by your father. He is in danger of being ousted from his perch, thrust penniless to the ground, and he is desperate to get you back so that you can deny all charges. He wants you to tell the truth.
Oh… Double oh… But if I tell the truth, he will be ousted anyway. The Prince has his right, and I am an idiot. I am an utter idiot. I have ruined my family. Haven’t I?
Oh, bloody helling bells with a sodding wench on top. Argh! I am such a fool – I always have been. Why could I not do anything productive with my life? Argh! [I wanted to leave.]
You still have a chance.
Of course I don’t. I have bankrupt my father, which means that I’m a dead man. My father always threatened to kill me unless I found proper work. I never imagined it would actually come to that.
Come now, it is not over. We can sort something out.
Of course I can’t. I couldn’t possibly hope to raise that sort of money… What do you mean ‘we’?
See – you’re smarter than you credit yourself. Now listen. I assume you now recognise that I have divulged a lot of information to you; information that could hardly be called secret, but is certainly … sensitive. [I nod.] Well, I want to rekindle that knowledge. I want Mandaria to come to terms with its true roots, and I want to overturn the forces that hide these facts. And you will be my conduit.
Wha-a-a-a-t… Why? Why choose me?
Because you are adventuring around the world – what better way to see the patterns of the past than in the shape of the realm that followed.
That seems a very poor reason.
Oh, and the fact that I have already sent my lawyers to get a proper credit agreement in place, and I will be paying the interest on your outstanding debt while you work on my behalf. I will therefore be your benefactor.
Oh… Thank you, I think. That is… I really don’t know what to… Bloody hell!
Quite. And before you head off, I have three things for you – and this is all. I will offer no more information beyond this. When you walk out that door, you are on your own. Do you understand?
I suppose so, yes.
Good. Then these are my three bits of advice. Firstly, shaping is everywhere – you just need to see it. [nod.] Second, tread carefully and be careful who you speak to. [reluctant nod.] And third: those guards who were looking for you are still about. You will need to evade them to leave the city. I suggest you leave soon.
Yes, my Lady.
Good. Now, what are you waiting for?
[That I was not expecting. My journey just got interesting. Really interesting.]