It turns out that escaping Mallis was nowhere near as troublesome as I had feared. I needn’t have stayed so long. Then again, without my stay, my pockets would not have rattled with so much coinage, and so I’m not disappointed. It is good to feel flush.
I now have several golds in my pocket, interspersed amongst a host of silver and iron. Lots of sizes and weights, good for honest cash transactions. But I am no fool any longer. Most of my golds and all of my steels are stashed in private places – my underwear for example. Society may be the pinnacle of civilisation, but poverty is still a problem. And a poor man will go to extraordinary lengths.
After all, I’m now fleeing my home for that very reason. It would be a lie to say that this isn’t unnerving. It is. Very.
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.
The ship I have found seems honest. Perhaps ship is a bit much. It is a fat barge really, wide and long with a clear focus on storage. In fact, it’s not obvious it was intended for open water use, but two masts have been erected and hence it will sail. There are oars too, of course, but the oarsmen seem woefully light for the size of this bloated vessel. In fact, part of my fee for transit is to attend the oars when necessary, if only to reduce the cash fare, but I fear the work may be more than I anticipated. But my body is nothing if not hardened to the toil of oar work. My time with my merchant in the Blue was not wasted.
As I settle with my back against a barrel full of fresh water, I spy a pair of guards stomping along the quay. Damn the Father! They are scouring ships, making certain that none are harbouring debt-runners. The captain, a rotund merchant with the bronze skin of a Freeman, smiles as he sees my discomfort, and he flashes impossibly white teeth in my direction. But gold is the ultimate mistress, and I flash an extra coin in his direction. His face of glee quickly drops into a nod, a squint, and the wicked smirk of greed. Thank goodness for easy bribes.
He turns as the guards approach; they are bearing a rather bedraggled looking piece of paper. The merchant looks at the subject of the document as the guards peer menacingly. My cloak is long, and I hunker below the hood. For a moment the scene is lost to me as I cower and try to look innocent, but then I hear the merchant and I know the gold has won out.
“Never seen him.”
The guards seem to linger for a time, obviously not convinced, but the merchant is nothing if not competent at his trade – transferring things with the minimum of fuss.
“I have a ship to sail. So if you please, remove yourself from my path.”
But my father’s guards are not so easily diverted.
“What about him, over there, with the hood.” Damn.
“Him? He is barely more than a vagabond. He is an oar-arm, for the times the wind falls shy.”
“Why is he hiding his face.”
Dear Father. Please! I have never prayed to the native gods before, but now… It is all that’s left.
“Because he has an ugly face. Oi, you, drop that hood.”
I had such high expectations for this journey, and yet here I am, failing. My father will wring me for the debt I have put him in. And the purpose, the ‘short-shaping’; I have been thinking on this, and I am genuinely excited. I want to know! It seems impossible, and yet I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Something is being hidden, and it is more than my face. But I have failed already.
I drop my hood and stare right at the guard. I expect a grin to stretch across his victorious face.
But no. There is only stony authority and a slight narrowing of the eyes. Then he turns back to the merchant.
“We would search your ship.”
“Not on my time you won’t. Be gone.”
And then they were gone. They didn’t even offer me a second glance. They stared right at me, but didn’t even see me. How?
I stroked my face and recognised the soft beard. Ha! I’d grown a beard and unruly hair, and I am now unrecognisable. Ha ha! Ha ha ha! It turns out that the Father is in my corner after all. Perhaps he wants me to uncover this secret.
Within a tenth of a solar-degree, we are pushing off. The guards eye the boat speculatively, but there are many other vessels to pursue. I keep my hood up and my eyes down. Until, that is, I am near-kicked into service. Those muscles that had become so used on the short trip up the eastern coast shout angrily at the sudden demands upon them. It is clear within a solar-degree that I am not as tough as I thought I was.
But fortunately (thank the Father once more), the wind is with us, and the limbering barge waddles on its way. I am free to relax.
“I believe you owe me something?”
The man’s speed of demand is hardly surprising given his profession, but the two Freemen slaves at his back are unexpected. I hand over the fee plus a gold, and am not surprised to see him sneering at me.
“You can do better than that. I know that you’re a fugitive. Cough up, criminal.”
Charming. By the end of the negotiations, my purse was near empty. Fortunately this was what I expected, and so all my secret stashes were still intact. I had no doubt that I would be frisked for extra before my time was up, and I had a convenient gold strapped to my inner leg for that very reason. They would find that, take it, and ignore the rest of my winnings which were hidden in the better places. I was not worried. Yet.
Once the transactional formalities were complete, it was actually quite a pleasant voyage. The merchant-captain, who was called Lereb – emphasis on the ‘r’ which is meant to sound like you’re clearing your throat – was actually quite a charming chap. He was third-freedom in the Free State, which was near enough nobility. We had some pleasant discussions, and after a handful of days my charming tongue earned me a place at his table. As I said, it was a pleasant journey.
But I also had lots of time to myself, and this was extremely valuable. I was able to think on what I now know.
What was shaping. Or more specifically; short-shaping. It is such a ludicrous idea, and yet I’ve seen the Lady use it. Or so she claims. But what else could it be? And where did it come from?
Well, what it is is fairly simple, I think. It is the ability to take a moment of chance and turn it in your favour. It is the moment you knock a glass and it teeters on the angle before either settling back into place or falling to smash. It is the flip of a coin – which way will it land? It is the delicate footing, close to slipping but for the breath of fortune. These are the sorts of things that you can shape. But here is the question, and the very question that violates the concept itself. Where do you draw the boundary?
What about that dare-devil leap? You are on the verge of safety, and shape it so that it is so. But, at what point does shaping cease to be of use? Can it propel you further than humanly possible? Or what about the weather. Could one shape the wind to propel them the extra distance? That is a terrifying idea.
But more than that: have you ever been on the edge of a decision? Well, what if someone were able to tip your mind one way or the other. Wouldn’t that be terrifying?
And this is why the idea has been largely dismissed. It is nice to think on, but without obvious bounds, it suggests almost super-human capabilities. Admittedly I have seen a warrior of the Root in action, and they are close to super, but still. He couldn’t control the weather.
But even I know that to dismiss something because it is unbelievable is no logic at all. The world is full of the unbelievable, but there is a difference. In most cases, the unbelievable can be evidenced. For shaping, this is barely the case. No-one claims shaping is within their capabilities, with the singular exception of the Lady Mallahn – and even that was just to me. So if shaping does exist, then it must be well concealed. And that gives me an almighty headache of a problem.
Where do I find my evidence?
The most obvious place to look is within the mysterious Order of the Root. That is the target of the fanatics’ obsessions, and it is easy to see why. The Order of the Root turn out near invincible warriors, and it is easy to see how a power over chance could lead to a soldier wielding a significant advantage. I have seen Yan fight, and he moves with a speed and purpose that defies all logic. He is undefeatable in the karashi ring, and yet I know he is beatable. I have heard of Kato after all.
The stories of Kato are well-documented and equally ridiculed. The more popular ones follow thus: he overcame a knot of fifty enemy soldiers single-handed; he snuck into the very heart of of the most protected building in Society without even being seen; he can survive a fall from a cliff; he moves with the speed of a hummingbird; he is invisible at times, and a blurring duplicate at others. He is undefeated, and he is undefeatable. And that is just the faintest whiff of the stories.
Even with chance on his side, I’d have a hard time believing all that.
But alas – access to the Root will not be feasible. Indeed, access to any height of Society will be a challenge, especially when I am indebted to the highest of them all; a prince of Mahan. So I am stuck, and I am left with two options.
- Look to history; or
- Look to the higher families in regions outside of Mandaria.
Hence my plan. I will pose as a historian in my travels, and I will probe as far as my sharp tongue will take me. Whether it is far enough remains to be seen, but at least I can try. At least I can try.
I have arrived. I have arrived at the First Fist, the initial expansion isle of the Mandari. The horizon is full of land, and I am instantly astonished by its size. The mountains loom, and the green shores seem vast and embracing. How long will it take me to explore this isle?
At the centre is a brief break in the deep green of the forests. The town of First Foot (so named because it is the first point at which the ruling Hanto family grabbed this realm) is brown and wooden, only fleeting breaks of white stone to be seen. I get the distinct impression that I have travelled back in time, and this is concerning. Am I further from the miracle of shaping or nearer? I think I know which way my money flows with that wager.