The flip-coin player never declared his bastard heritage, but that is okay. He gave me so much more.
Ander is right. The Hânto are hoarding the ‘short talent’ so far as it exists in Xeidan. To what purpose, no-one knows, but they are incredibly protective about it and gather it mercilessly. In fact, one story nugget went that a farmer was being rinsed by the constables for an apparently failed declaration, but when the farmer’s child was discovered to have just a smidge of talent, the affair was forgotten if the man gave up his child. He did, and he even got Godswill exemption for a year. That is unheard of.
It chills me that this greed-driven family have such power over fortune, but the reality is that all the High-Families are the same. In fact, the Hánto ae greed-riddled simply because they are inadequate. They are barren with talent.
So, from that, I come to two questions:
- What are they doing with this hoard?
- And how are they hoarding in the first place?
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.
I will consider the second question first.
From all I have heard, the talent is inherent and a part of the wielder. It is in the blood, and that is really rather the end of it. So, how do you hoard blood? Well, they must be hoarding people who have the blood. This then leads me to two possible conclusions:
- They are gathering a collection of people over which they wield power. Those people will harness the talent on their behalf.
- Or, and much more disturbing, they are trying to breed the talent into their blood lines.
But regardless of these options, we are still left with the original question. The Hánto are weak with the talent, and only others of the seven are strong. So where is this talent coming from at all?
My flip-coin friend suggested that the occurrence of shaping talent was more common than I imagined, but that the quality was diluted by mingling of blood lines. In fact, most people who had a bit of the talent didn’t even know it at all. Another thing he suggested was that the strength of the shaping talent was greatest when passed down male blood lines. I like to think of it like this.
Say I have a male specimen with talent score ten. Then say I have a female equivalent with talent score ten also. If these two get a bit tipsy on wine and end up accidentally mating, then there are two possible outcomes: a male child is born with an equal share from the mother and father, so ten; or a female is born with only the half of the mother’s share, so talent five. We see then that to maintain the talent, a strong male line is absolutely necessary.
Now interestingly, with this information, the sometimes bewilderingly protective nature of the seven over their bloodlines makes some more sense. They are protecting their talent. There is also an awful stigma attached to high-born bastards, and this makes more sense too. People like the flip-coin player are examples of talent leaking away, and that will be utterly disdained. It is too valuable a commodity to just pass off.
I also understand the Lady’s predicament a little better. She is the last in her family’s line, she is a woman, and her family commands one of the strongest lines of talent. This means that the talent will slowly leach away without cross-seven mingling, and everything I saw of her suggests this isn’t an option. She really is the end of a line.
But where are the Hánto harvesting their talent from? Well, the only thing I can conclude is that they are scraping the dregs from society and trying to somehow enhance this low-quality talent. Something crawls at the back of my mind – a horror from the past called distillation – but I do not wish to think on that. And anyway; I have a lead.
Now, the Hánto are most famous outside of Xeidan for their efforts to create a rival organisation to the Order of the Root, and these soldiers are called the greenwoods. Everything I have seen of the greenwoods is disappointing, and this may tie in with the low-quality shaping talent in that organisation. I think the greenwoods are worth investigation, and Ander seemed to agree.
This lead, too, may answer my first question: what would they use it for? I have said that I struggle to draw a boundary on fortune, but the toe-to-toe fighting arena seems a perfect place for tiny fragments of fortune to command the situation. Shaping is not just something to use to win at gambling. It is a skill that will let you kill a man.
I needed a strong drink after that revelation.
And this is where the truly priceless information came from my flip-coin contact. Apparently, the greenwoods do open ‘auditions’ for anyone who would try their hand. Presumably to gather such low-quality shaping talent, the net must be cast wide, and this was how they did it. Tomorrow, I will be applying to the greenwoods.
The Proving Field (a remarkably unfiltered plagiarism of the ‘Proving Grounds’ of the rootmen) is a walled enclosure at the western side of the Hánto complex at the centre of Hallan. The three peaked towers look down upon the Fields, and I swear that I could see white robed officials gazing down.
At the entrance to the Fields I was met by a bulky man in the pale green cloth uniform of the Order. The leather gloves he wore, his boots, his belt, and the mask about his mouth were all brown leather, and he did look somewhat tree-like. What was it with these military orders and their botanic obsessions? Presumably it all stemmed from the Order of the Root.
“What can I do for you?”
I stood on tiptoes. “I’m here to audition.”
He tipped his head. “You mean apply to the Order?”
I nodded and glanced into the compound. Green clothed warriors were everywhere, sparring with each other and looking rather impressive if truth be told. But the truth was they were nothing of a sort. Yan, the great duellist of recent years, could probably clear this courtyard in mere heartbeats. For the man they called Kato, he probably didn’t even need a heartbeat. Then again, Kato may be more legend than man.
“Aren’t you a bit old to be applying?”
I did my best scowl of disapproval. “How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t care. We normally try to catch people at their youngest.” He pointed to a line of children ranging from five to ten.
“You don’t think I can show you a thing or two?”
He shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he thumbed in the direction of the line. “Go on then, join the queue.”
I was stood behind a young boy who could be no older than six. I literally towered over him and almost forgot about him until his squeaky voice pierced my concentration.
“Oi, mister. Did you get lost? This ain’t the line for the toilet.”
I would love to say that I gave a witty retort, but it would be a lie. I was bested by a six-year-old.
Waiting my turn (most likely for embarrassment) gave me time to gauge what lay at the end of the line. As far as I could tell, it was some sort of clockwork mechanism. Most strange. It took a little while to get the measure of it, but eventually it clicked into place. That’s a great pun, and you’ll see why in a moment.
The device was basically a metallic arm on a pivot with the unpivoted end being secured in place by a cradle. The cradle was then linked to a clockwork box. On the inside of the clockwork box was a gear that turned, but although the gear had teeth in it, there was a very clear gash at one point. When the gear clicked round (there’s the pun) and this gash reached the top of the box, a mechanism was triggered that would release the cradle and the pivoted metal bar. Simple right?
Well, not quite, because there are actually two gears, both of slightly different sizes. They each have gashes in, and only when these two are aligned will the metal bar drop. When I explain the next bit, it will make more sense.
There was actually also a second cradle that only became obvious when I got around to the competitor’s side of the device (the queue moved slowly). This cradle held the end of a sword in place, a sword that the user of this device wields. And importantly, from the competitor’s side of the device, the gears are concealed by the box. Making sense?
Because herein lies the idea.
The metal bar could drop at any time, determined when the two gears align. The fact that there are two gears to align makes it much harder to second guess (and therefore game). At the same point the bar is released, the sword is released. The competitor then has to lift their sword to stop the bar from dropping. The competitor’s score is then calculated as the mathematical angle from near-vertical from which the bar has moved.
Ha! This was a game of reflexes, which is how most people see it, but with my knowledge of shaping, I can see beyond that. This is also a test of luck. They are testing people for luck.
“Yes!” My six-year-old companion completed his test and came up with a quite remarkable score of twenty-two degrees. Apparently the standard for onward testing is twenty-five, so he moved on. I stepped up.
I must admit that I had never held a sword before, and as the gear ticked around, my sweaty hands were becoming obstructive. I licked my lips, watching… Watching what? I wanted to watch the gears, but they were hidden. I wanted to watch the cradles, move when they moved, but they were designed to be difficult to read. There was only the bar and my concentration.
Clunk; click; whoosh. The bar dropped and I moved my sweaty hands into place.
“Yes!” I was absolutely convinced that it was a good result. It felt slick and concise, and I actually did a little jig at the sensation. Marvellous.
“Thirty-one. Sorry old-timer.”
“Ha!” My six-year old competitor mocked me.
“Let me try again.” To their credit, they did, but the result was the same. I am clearly not one for the twenty-five club.
I left the Fields feeling frustrated and enlightened. Now that I had seen it, I was sure that I understood the purpose of that device, and that left me tingling. The device was called the Drop and I had actually heard of it before. They have one at the Mandahoi Academy in Ahan too.