Smoke did not linger over their platter of various-textured sugars. They were almost surprised there weren't kitchen ants in the commissary, with all these sweets to lure them.
But a quick check revealed signs of carpenter ants in the commissary, and none of kitchen ants.
Smoke did a quick round of the wards on the outsides of the buildings in the complex: they all looked much the same as the ones at the House of Chambers. Adequate, undamaged braided wards. They went to the roof of the House of Chambers to check on their gatherer.
Their gatherer reported incursions, one of rats and a different one for fleas, through two different spots on the outside of the existing wards.
Smoke would have found this report of normal, predictable problems much more heartening if the gatherer-analysis spell they'd left on it had not reported that there were problems with the gatherer.
The analysis spell couldn't tell Smoke what had caused the problems, only that it was reporting false positives on penetrations. Meaning attacks that had been repelled might show as successful. That bias would be particularly pronounced for ones connected to rats or fleas.
It was conceivable that Smoke had made a mistake in setting up the gatherer, or that some accident had caused the gatherer to have issues with its data. But Smoke found both the timing and the problem suspicious.
Smoke re-adjusted the gatherer, then went to the sites of the reports. They couldn't find any signs of bodies. Flea corpses, they could've overlooked. Rats, not so much. They went inside to find maintenance to ask if any rat corpses had been cleaned up overnight. But once inside, they realized it was only a few minutes until their meeting with Master Corydalis.
One of the guards escorted Smoke up four flights of stairs in the east wing of the House of Chambers, and down a marble hall. The building was beautifully crafted, the carved moldings and frescoed ceilings that depicted famous places from across the nation. Paintings and sculptures gifted by foreign dignitaries adorned the walls and stood on pedestals. It felt almost palatial.
Most of the doors in the hall were closed, though lights through frosted glass panes showed they were occupied. The office of the master of ceremonies had an open door to an antechamber occupied by a young kith man. The inner office door was closed.
Smoke introduced themselves to the kith, who assured them the master of ceremonies would be with them momentarily.
Behind the inner door, Smoke heard muffled voices, a deep bass rumble and a vibrant alto. The alto had begun with aggrieved, angry tones that mellowed as the conversation continued. Smoke debated asking the secretary where maintenance was and telling him they'd be right back.
Before they'd made up their mind to do so, the door opened. An elf woman with the kind of beauty elves were famed for stepped out: she moved with a fluid, natural grace, delicate features, full lips, skin warm brown and thick black hair woven into box braids and secured by golden clasps. She wore a flowing red overrobe over cream trousers.
Behind her was the largest humanlike-form draka Smoke had ever seen. He was so tall that he had to duck to keep his gold horns from scraping the door frame, and his shoulder broad enough that he seemed to fill it. He had gorgeous features and striking coloration: skin midnight-black, mane a burnished gold a few shades paler than his horns and eyes.
"Thank you so for your help, Master Corydalis." The elf had her head tilted back to watch him with fond eyes as he escorted her to the door.
"Of course, Representative Meadowlark. You know I am glad to be of service." He smiled as she stepped into the hall. After she left, his smile lapsed into a fleeting, pained expression, then he rallied and turned his smile upon Smoke.
It was a powerful smile.
"Good morning, honored. How may I be of assistance?"
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 11
How may he?
"I'm the new enchanter and actually can you tell me where maintenance is? I need to ask them a quick question and I'll be right back, sorry."
Tell Corydalis that the vermin problem is probably sabotage.
Tell him the wards are sloppy and Smoke will fix them.
"These are sloppy wards but they're not your only problem."
I am Professional. So Professional.
Trying not to stare.
So out of my depth and also league.
I would totally flirt if I only knew how.
As he carried Licorice to her building, they chatted idly for a minute or two. In a lull, Blackwood asked hesitantly, "Am I beling paranoid, or did I make a terrible mistake in asking them how they became an enchanter?"
"Terrible mistake," Licorice confirmed, bluntly. Blackwood winced, and the human leaned down in the harness to pat his shoulder consolingly. "It'll be all right. I think they forgave you."
They were very nice people, Smoke thought, waving as Licorice and Blackwood flew off. But I'm not getting into that whole sordid story with people I've only just met. Still, I could've handled that more gracefully.
With a sigh, they checked into their room at the hotel and prepared for bed.
The next morning, they rose early, with plenty of time to consider their approach.
Work to do!
Go to the Courthall commissary for breakfast and poke around investigating wards before meeting with Corydalis
Find an enchanter supply store in Hallston and try to get supplies to tackle ant problem
Write apprentices to make sure they bring the right supplies when they arrive in next few days, then meet Master Corydalis at Courthall
I did pretty well at exercising for much of the month. I took the last weekend off, for no particular reason except that I had a rental car and couldn't motivate myself to go use the exercise bike. And I missed a few days while on my staycation, because I got sick. Otherwise, I was exercising 6-7 days a week.
I was definitely sick for three or four days, and then had a couple of weeks of "my throat is still a little scratchy and I'm sneezing more than usual" sort of stuff, where I wasn't really sick but didn't feel exactly well. It started on the Tuesday of the Monday-Friday that I had off. So, on the one hand: I guess I was going to take that time off anyway so might as well have it scheduled? (My bank has just "Paid Time Off" in one big pool, instead of separate vacation and sick days. I have been there for twenty years and I get five weeks of PTO a year, so I'm not really hurting for paid time off, though.) On the other hand, it was not a very relaxing vacation.
I am still eating lots of junk food. The bank had a bake sale while I was on vacation, so at least I missed that. But we're having another one on Monday and my willpower is weak versus bake sale, so.
I beat my CampNano goal for Demon's Hunter! I lost most of my will to work on it by the time I hit goal last week, but I'm still poking away at it.
Also, I started the Poll RPG, which has been pretty fun and also kind of weird, especially the Twitter version. One thing I wanted to do with the story was write short installments, of no more than a few hundred words each, so there'd be frequent polls on what Smoke did next.
It turns out that it's harder for me to write a short installment that actually accomplishes anything than it is to write several hundred words. Especially if I'm trying to establish relationships between characters. Once the Twitter fork got to a character Smoke could flirt with, daily installments started running 20 or more tweets each again. I'm still trying to keep the daily updates for the Twitter version shorter than the Dreamwidth ones, but I decided not to angst over making it short.
I did make Google Doc files of the story-to-date for each version, because it wasn't a lot of effort and the Twitter one is already totally unnavigable. Tweet chains of 50 or so tweets work fine on the webpage, but hundreds of tweets in one chain don't work well in-browser, and they break some of the client programs. So. My plan now is to start a new thread each day and link to the doc in the opening tweet.
Demon's Hunter: 28,000 (CampNano goal was 25,000. Total )
Poll RPG Notes: 3,800
Poll RPG: 11,700
And a bunch more words for LJ posts and notes for Birthright and suchlike that I'm not going to bother parsing out.
The Business of Writing
I read another book for research purposes, and browsed about on the web for info, and made thousands of words of notes, and also fell into a pit of black despair.
I'm about 20% through on my first editing pass of Birthright. Most of the actual editing was done in the last seven days. Before that was research and despair. I will try to finish the first pass in May. I'm going to try getting more editing done from work by putting 10-page chunks of book into separate Google docs so they're small enough to edit on phone. This works for sections that just need some continuity clean-up or the like, but not on sections that need to be totally re-written, or when I need to rearrange the order of scenes.
Wish me luck.
Oh hey I drew some pictures this month! The Poll RPG game made me want to do pictures. So I drew a portrait of the protagonist and a picture of Blackwood and some sketches of Corydalis. I have yet to make a decent colored pic of Corydalis, and I still want to.
Anyway, that was a nice change of pace.
I did do my taxes in April!
I have poked at my credit card company and the rental car company a few times in an effort to get them to get each other the documents they need.
I crit-failed my planning roll for my vacation in April and didn't go anywhere. If we assume I was going to get sick that week anyway, that's probably just as well.
I am going to see Terry and Alinsa in Seattle next weekend, though! And assuming I don't mess up on buying tickets, I'll see my parents and brother in June, and hopefully my NC friends as well.
April was not been a good month for happiness. I was depressed and dragging for most of it. I'm glad it's over now.
Goals for May
Yay new month! Yay 4thewords.com is not running time-limited events that will make me feel like I need to write thousands of words every day to complete them!
4thewords.com backfired for me in April, because I was so determined to finish all the CampNano quests that I spent less time on editing than I would have otherwise. Also, I am to the point of "I don't really want to do any new writing any more, I'd rather just be editing."
Editing on my phone is still awful, but I'm going to make an effort to do it anyway. When I can make it work, I can get an extra 10-20 pages a day edited that way.
* Finish first-pass edits on Birthright
* Keep up with PollRPG for fun & to keep 4thewords streak
* Do some more art for PollRPG
* Other writing as desired
* Poke rental car & card benefits to get them to give each other the info and money they need. (Fixing this is not within my control, so it's just staying as a goal of 'poke them' until they actually do what they need to do.)
Blackwood exchanged a glance with Licorice, who gave an exaggerated shrug. The two headed after Smoke. "I apologize for my impertinent question, Smoke," Blackwood said. "I did not mean to presume."
Smoke turned and gave him a dazzling smile. "What? Oh, no, not at all." They touched his hand in reassurance. "I just know how early you had to rise this morning, and of course I have that meeting with Master Corydalis. And I've already made both of you work so hard today -- "
Licorice licked sauce from the corner of her mouth. "I've worked a lot harder, believe me."
The kith enby smiled at both of them. "You're very kind. But I should get checked in to my hotel." Smoke turned back to pay for the ticket, stifling a yawn.
Blackwood offered them a ride, which both accepted. Smoke's hotel was closest, so he dropped them off first. Licorice claimed a good-night hug from the enchanter. Blackwood felt too self-conscious to shift to humanlike form when he still had to drop Licorice off, and envied her that hug. "Good night, master enchanter," he said, subdued, long neck snaked to bring his draconic head level with them.
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 15
oh no sad dragon
"Didn't I tell you to call me Smoke?" *hug dragon neck*
Ask Blackwood to change shape for a proper hug.
Oblivious to sad dragon, wave g'night and leave
Must be professional, professionals are not huggy. Give Licorice stern look, go to bed.
[Yes, this is the outcome only one person voted for. Die roll came up with their number anyway. Sigh.]
"Of course we do!" Licorice motioned encouragingly with one hand. "C'mon, tell!"
"Please, Smoke." Blackwood felt self-conscious calling them by only their given name, but he liked the intimacy of it.
Smoke's ears canted further, their enby earrings chiming with the motion. "It's a great job; I hardly know where to start. There's this quality about channeling magic: it's both fussy and exacting, and very rewarding when you get it right. Like playing a delicate instrument, one that you have to tune after every song because it's so precise. But then you get it right and play and the notes are more than pitch-perfect: they're rich and full, and the song fills the room and it's amazing." They ducked their head and covered their face with one hand. "Ugh, that sounds ridiculous."
"Not at all," Licorice said. "It's just like the way you described enchantsight."
"What's enchantsight like?" Blackwood asked, fascinated and hoping to set them more at ease. Although their flustered demeanor was endearing, at odds with the brisk professional image he'd had of them from earlier in the day.
"Like seeing a different kind of light, colorful and tangible to the touch, that overlays the ordinary world. When you're crafting an enchantment, it's like sculpting with light. You pull it out of the Wall and position it just so."
"The Wall?" Blackwood asked.
"Sorry, enchanter jargon. The Wall is where magic comes from; it's a kind of barrier around the physical world that constrains material action. You manipulate the Wall to change the way things interact in the physical world; that's what makes magic. And it's the way you pull on it, the way you sculpt it, that gives enchanted items their power. If you sculpt it wrong, it makes a blobby mess and you just have to smooth it back into the Wall. But if you do it right, it's magic." Smoke laughed, self-consciously. "I guess that's obvious. But it feels like magic, too. You can feel it click into place, like puzzle pieces fitted together. You develop an instinct for it; you just know that this time, it'll do what you meant for it to do. I can't feel it the same way on enchantments once they're complete. I'm much more attuned with them while I'm casting. So examining an enchantment to see if it's working isn't the same connection. But there's still a beauty to it. The Wall itself is hard to see at all, just a faint haze, like an aura, around everything."
"Wow," Licorice said. "Now I'm sorry I slept through it."
Smoke ducked their head again. "I'm sure if you asked my apprentices, they'd have a different take on it." They smiled wryly. "It's not for everyone."
"How did you get an apprenticeship in the field?" Blackwood asked.
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 10
It's a great story!
It's a boring story
Enough about me, let's talk about you
Oh look at the time I better let you get some sleep
Licorice giggled. "You'd think so! But not so much. I knew a few people who worked around here and they found me an in. What about you, big guy?" She glanced expectantly to Blackwood.
Blackwood blinked at the descriptor; he wasn't large for a draka, only a few inches taller than Smoke. But then again, Licorice was short for a human. "Same, I suppose. My mother used to work with Master Corydalis, before he was master of ceremonies. She wrote to request a post for me. I started as a page and became one of the long-distance messengers after I proved my speed."
"Do you like it?" Licorice asked.
"I love it." Blackwood said, unabashed. He swallowed a strip of meat with brisk efficiency and continued, "I have been to cities all across the nation, from Crescent Bay to Glovesbrook to Candleton. If I'm to wait for a reply, then I spend a few days at leisure in some exotic locale at no expense to myself. And it gives me an excuse to spend all the time I want flying in dragon form."
"You need an excuse?"
He smiled wryly. "I need a budget for it! I need to eat a great deal more to feed the dragon than the man. If you don't have a job that requires the strength or flightspeed, it doesn't make much sense."
Licorice picked at her food more delicately now, savoring it instead of wolfing it down. "Huh. I never thought about that. It is kind of convenient to be smaller."
"And here I always thought more height would be useful." Smoke motioned with one hand above their head. "For reaching the top shelf. Only moreso."
"Different forms have different advantages," Blackwood said. "It's a privilege to be able to switch."
"Yeah," Licorice said, wistfully. "It is."
"You're not a shifter, are you?" Smoke asked.
The human widened her black eyes as if alarmed by the question, then shook her head. "Hah! No. Imagine me as a cat!" She curled the fingers of one hand and pawed the air. "Mew! Mew!"
Blackwood grinned at her antics. Smoke was a little puzzled by Licorice's initial expression. Human-feline and human-canine shifters were uncommon but not rare. There were prejudices against them in some other nations, but not in Lightshel. Not for the typical forms of shifters, anyway.
"What of you, master enchanter?" Blackwood asked them. "Do you enjoy your vocation?"
"Yes!" Licorice rested her chin in her hand and gazed with interest at Smoke. "What's it like when you didn't sleep through all your lessons?"
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 13
What about Smoke?
Talk about how much Smoke loves their work and why.
Talk about what why it's a satisfying job because it's so useful, if not highly-paid.
Get all adorably flustered that they're interested in you.
Answer briefly; get the conversation back to them. Ask Licorice if she's from some other country that doesn't like shifters.
Answer briefly; get the conversation back to them & business.
Answer briefly; get to know them better instead.
It was mouthwatering, if not as spicy as Smoke preferred. Most of the dishes were a little bland for their tastes. Hallston, the city where Courthall was located, didn't see as much trade as Smoke's native Crescent Bay. Maybe spices were scarcer here, or tastes simply different. Still, the food was well-prepared otherwise, and some dishes Smoke loved even without spice, like the thin-sliced steak grilled so briefly it was almost raw, hot and dripping with juices.
As they shared morsels from one another's plates, Smoke asked Licorice, "So is there a particular title with too many syllables that you covet? Or do you like your current work?"
Licorice washed down her latest mouthful with mulled cider and waggled brown fingers at Smoke. "It's all right. I like it when they trust me enough to give me tricky assignments. Like figuring out the problem with that hatch!" she said, with a touch of pride. "But it's not what I planned to be back when I was an apprentice."
"Mm? What field did you apprentice in?" Smoke asked.
"Enchanting," Licorice said, and then winced. "Not that I was any good at it! Please don't quiz me, master enchanter!" She cringed in mock fear.
Smoke grinned, though they were inwardly surprised. Licorice had asked what enchanter's sight was like earlier in the day, and that was something apprentices usually learned early. "Why did you leave?"
"Oh, um, turned out the master and I had an irreconcilable difference of opinion."
"On what?" Blackwood asked.
"On how much time it was acceptable to spend napping when one's master thought one was running errands." Licorice ducked her head sheepishly.
Smoke bit back a grin. "And how much napping did your master regard as acceptable?"
"None! Can you believe it?" Licorice sighed melodramatically. "So unreasonable." She licked dumpling sauce off her fingers.
"Is maintenance more, er, reasonable on this count?" Blackwood pricked his long ears. "I may have gone into the wrong field."
"I don't know." She frowned as if in thought. "I haven't really needed a nap during work shifts at Courthall. Maintenance must be less tiring than enchanting."
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 15
What shall Smoke contribute to the discussion?
Sympathize about the hard labor of enchanting, or at least of being an apprentice enchanter
Ask Licorice how she ended up at Courthall
Ask Blackwood about his ambitions
Ask both if they're natives to Hallston or from somewhere else
"You'll love this place, then. Would you like to ride? I was going to fly, it's a couple of miles from here."
Licorice bounced on her toes. "Yes please!"
After three hours of flight earlier in the day, some of the novelty has worn off, but Smoke was still perfectly willing. Blackwood shifts to his dragon form, and flies the two of them there. Licorice wrapped her arms about Smoke's waist as they straddled his back, and rested her cheek against Smoke's back. "You make the best friends, master enchanter!"
"You should call me Smoke," they answered. "'Master enchanter' is way too many syllables."
Licorice giggleed. "Some day I want a title with too many syllables in it. You'd think a janitor could be a high-muckity-muck, we do enough mucking-out-the-muck!"
"You were in an elevated position when we met," Smoke replied, teasing.
Blackwood flapped his great charcoal-grey wings to rise higher above the city. "And are again now!"
Licorice squeaked and clung tighter to Smoke. "Are you suggesting I shouldn't try to rise above my station?"
"I thought I was suggesting you already had, miss," Blackwood replied.
"Oh. Well, the view's great and all, but I guess I'll stick with just Licorice for now. No 'Miss' required."
The Quarry was busy, but the maitre'd recognized Blackwood, and ushered him and his party promptly to a table near the back. The service did not take orders: instead, they brought around plates of food on rolling, steaming carts. Some of the plates were small, and some large platters. The majority of them were meat dishes in a wide array of styles: grilled steaks, breaded and pan-fried cutlets, deep-fried chicken, lamb kebobs, ground meat mixed with sauce and grilled, nuggets of beef smothered in sweet sauce, and dozens more.
Blackwood took three platters for himself, filling his side of the table. "I have an account here," he explained at Licorice's stare. "One of the reasons I like the Quarry. A draka messenger eats a great deal."
"All those hours in dragon form?" Smoke guessed. When they'd stopped for lunch, he'd eaten in dragon shape, and a proportionate amount to his size.
The waiters encouraged the kith and human to try one or two of the small plates, and take more later as they came by. Licorice took two plates, one of batter-fried shrimp and another of sliced lamb cut fresh from a spit. She ate like a ravenous rat, although she could not match Blackwood's brisk efficiency in putting away food.
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 11
Topics of conversation?
Ask Blackwood what Master Corydalis wants to see Smoke about tomorrow
Tell Blackwood about the carpenter ants and see if he has any insights
Ask Licorice if she has ambitions beyond janitorial work.
Ask Blackwood about his interests
The kitchen staff nodded and went back to work. Licorice lingered, as if disappointed, or uncertain if that included her. "Thank you for your help, Licorice." Smoke clasped the woman's hand. Licorice beamed up at her, black eyes bright. "If you need anything from me to let your supervisor know what you were doing, I'll be happy to oblige. I didn't realize how late I'd kept you."
"Oh, she's usually understanding. I'll tell her to see you if she has questions. You're calling it a day?"
"Yes, I'm going to hunt down some dinner." Smoke glanced to her and smiled. "Would you like to join me?"
Licorice's expression took on an odd cast, either intrigued or alarmed: human features are hard to read, with no ears or whiskers for cues. Then she grinned. "Sure! As long as I'm ordering from the menu and not on it."
Smoke grinned back. "Deal. Um. Do you think Blackwood would like to come? I don't want to requisition him in his off hours ..."
But Licorice's face lit. "I have no idea! Let's find out." She slipped her arm through Smoke's and led them to the main hall. "He's adorable, isn't he? Those wings! He's like Master Corydalis only not terrifying."
Smoke laughed. "Is Master Corydalis so bad? Blackwood spoke well of him."
"Oh, I don't mean he's bad, or cruel, or anything. He's just ... " Licorice gestured with her hands, as if to sketch a colossal figure. "Enormous. And important. And the kind of person who could get you doing something before you realized you'd been asked. You know. Terrifying."
Smoke had no idea. Licorice asked the guards in the main hall about Blackwood, but they didn't know. Undeterred, Licorice rummaged through the deserted receptionist's station for clues. "Oh, look, there's a note for you." She handed the sealed envelope to Smoke.
It was from Blackwood, and contained hotel reservations for Smoke, and a packet of meal vouchers. It also said that Master Corydalis wanted to see Smoke in the morning, at their earliest convenience. He'd also left his directions in case Smoke needed anything else. He had an apartment at the Courthall, on the far side of the park. "Swank!" Licorice remarked.
Smoke had some misgivings about disturbing Blackwood at home. But surely he would have told them to talk to the duty officer or somesuch if Blackwood had been bothered by the idea.
As luck would have it, they met him outside his building. His face lit when he saw them. "Smoke! I hope everything's gone all right? Is there any way I might be of assistance?"
"Well ... you could recommend somewhere to eat? And perhaps keep us company?" Smoke asked. "If you wanted, not as an obligation. It seems I've some meal vouchers now, but I don't know what the commissary's like. Or how good it is."
"It's pretty nice," Licorice said.
Blackwood did not contradict her, but his ears had perked at the invitation and then dipped at the mention of the vouchers. "It would be my pleasure to join your party, Smoke. I was on my way to The Quarry, it's a meats-variety place. But I've no strong preference."
"I've never been there!" Licorice tilted her head, intrigued. "My favorite place near Courthall is The Big Cheese. They don't just have cheese, though. I promise!"
Where shall we dine?
The Big Cheese
The commissary (hey, don't knock "free")
That Thyme and Tied place I read about on Twitter that no one's mentioned in this version
"All right," Licorice said. "But if you want to go to where the fleas are, I'm changing into boots first. Ugh."
"The flea problem is bad enough that they're biting humans?"
"Yes. The House of Chambers isn't too bad, but the House of Diplomacy has the worst flea problem. No one even goes into the fourth-floor conference rooms any more. You'd think the fleas would starve, but no luck so far."
"It takes a long time to starve fleas out," Smoke said. "Their eggs won't hatch if there's nothing around to eat, so they'll just lie in wait for months until something comes along and causes enough vibrations to make them hatch. Assuming they're not living off of someone's pets. Or," they added, thoughtfully, "the rats. Hmm."
"Yay," Licorice said without enthusiasm. She led Smoke back upstairs. It was late enough now that the halls were empty. Night had fallen outside, but the halls of the House of Chambers were well-lit by glow-globes in sconces along the walls. They went into a kitchen on the first floor. It had a relatively small footprint for such a large building, clearly intended more for snacks and drinks than to prepare meals. A few staff were on hand, cleaning up or preparing dough to be preserved for baking the next day. The room smelled of cinnamon and warm apples, strongly enough to remind Smoke that they hadn't eaten since lunch and it was after supper time. Licorice waved to an aproned man sweeping up. "Hey, Teak!"
Teak, a trim kith man with a slight build, strong arms, and ginger stripes, looked up with a wary look. "We don't have any leftover cookies tonight, Licorice, you're too late."
"Aww." Licorice pouted briefly, in that adorable big-eyed, out-thrust-lip way that only humans could pout. "It's fine, Teak, I'm not here for cookies. This's the new enchanter, she wants to see about the ant problem. Are you still seeing them?"
"Not so much. We cleaned out all the cabinets and threw out some canisters that weren't sealing properly, and they seem to have lost interest.." Teak leaned the broom against a counter and beckoned them to the rear wall, where he opened the lower cabinet doors. "These cabinets here were the worst affected, don't know if there's anything to see now."
Smoke crouched down and peered into them. Their freshly-scrubbed condition was evident from the spotless surfaces. Even the canisters for different kinds of flour and sugar had been cleaned. There were no ants or ant trails. But at the back of the cabinets were a few little heaps of dust, near cracks that made the fur on Smoke's neck prickle. They scraped at one heap with a claw tip. It was powdered wood. "Teak, what size were these ants?"
"I dunno. Ant-sized?"
Smoke closed their eyes. "I mean, were they very small -- " she held her fingers perhaps an eighth of an inch apart " -- or bigger, like rice-grain-sized? Did they smell bad when you squished one?"
"Oh, they weren't that tiny. More rice-size, I guess. I don't remember them smelling after they were crushed."
Smoke rubbed at their face and stood. "Those are carpenter ants. They're not here to eat your food."
Teak brightened. "Really? That's good."
"That depends on your idea of 'good'. What they're eating is the building."
Teak and Licorice exchanged looks, while the other staff glanced at Smoke in alarm. "That sounds not so good," Licorice said. "What were they doing in the kitchen, then?"
"Not sure. Might've been drawn here for moisture. You haven't seen them in other rooms?"
"Some of the other kitchens and the dining halls," Teak said. "That's it as far as I know.
Smoke flicked their ears back; carpenter ants did need water as well as wood, but it was still a little strange that their signs would only be in eating areas. "All the same size?"
"Uh. I didn't pay that much attention. I thought ants were just, you know. Ants," Teak said, sheepishly.
"When did people first start seeing them?"
"I dunno. Couple weeks ago?" Teak turned to others in the kitchen, who nodded concurrence with this estimate.
It's hard to tell how bad this is, although Smoke's gatherer should give some information about that in the morning. It's not likely to get significantly worse in the next few days, however.
Pest control preference:
But let's not waste time. Try to find an enchanter supply store that's open now, so you can work on stopping the carpenter ants ASAP
Investigate the ant problem further: look at the other rooms where they've been seen
It's a big building. The ants aren't going to eat it tonight. It's late: invite Licorice to dinner by way of thanks for her help.
Invite Licorice to dinner, and find Blackwood to invite him too
Say good night to Licorice and see if Blackwood has eaten yet.
Licorice laughed. "I'll say!" She winked back at Smoke. "Good of you to keep us poor janitor-types in mind. What do your wards do, then?"
Smoke wondered if she was being facetious or if corpses were still an issue at Courthall. Normally vermin stopped trying to enter in any quantity with lethal wards as old as the Courthall ones. "I use a combination of deterrence and sterilization. If it's a small incursion, like a single nest of ants or a couple of mice, the wards only prevent them from entering the building. If the wards keep encountering a type of creature -- for example, termites keep exploring the edge of the ward -- then it infects the insect with a contagion spell, one that will sterilize that individual and pass itself along to any other insects of the species it encounters. The contagion can only replicate itself so many times, so it won't exterminate a species. But it provides some population control for the overall area without having to put any death-magic into the environment. It also does some good against the rare vermin that are unaffected by preventive or death wards, because the contagion will still stick to them and infect their fellows."
Licorice tilted her head. "Some vermin are immune to wards? Is that how they're getting through?"
"No -- or at least, that shouldn't be it. The gatherer should have noticed if something just walked by the wards. And immune vermin are extraordinarily rare in the three species that are a problem here. Immunity is more of a concern with cockroaches." They'd reached the cellars by now, and Smoke frowned, studying the wards down here. The braided wards covered floor and the top and bottom few inches of the walls, but not the entire wall. That was sufficient for most things the wards were designed to protect against, but Smoke always did a lattice over the entire wall in any underground areas when she was warding against vermin. Yes, in theory, crawling insects couldn't get down from a wall without crossing the top or bottom barrier, and fleas came in through entrances on people or pets, not through walls. In practice, things got shoved up against walls, and insects could crawl along shelves to find a safe path down. Someone must have already warned Courthall about that in this cellar, because the shelves, cabinets, and other furnishings were all set back at least six inches from the walls. Smoke crouched to examine the gap. "Did they rearrange the cellar after the infestation?"
"Mm? Oh, yeah. Couple months ago. I think the old enchanter said they couldn't stack things against the walls. Didn't help, though."
Ants almost always had their nests outside of buildings, so it should have helped if that was the problem. Still, in a building the size of Courthall. Smoke scrunched her whiskers, thinking.
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Clearly these wards are a hack job. Stop worrying about which of their flaws is causing the problem and start building your own.
Ask Licorice to show you where they're finding ants
Ask Licorice to show you one of the flea-infested areas
Ask Licorice to show you where rats have been seen
Thank Licorice and go explore on your own
The human put her hands behind her back, rubbing one hand up and down the other arm. She gave a nervous chuckle. "Sorry, I kinda overreacted there. I mean. Any issues we've had with the existing wards aren't your fault. So ... um, you said Blackwood flew you in? Where are you from?"
"Crescent Bay." Smoke peered with enchantsight at the wards that wrapped about the House of Chamber's foundation. The braid of it encircled the door and the first-floor windows as well.
"Oh wow. You came from there today and you're still willing to work now? You must be made of steel."
Smoke laughed. "I'm not, but Blackwood is. He flew there and back today! He's fast, though. Maybe three and a half hours?" They studied the braided ward, walking slowly along the perimeter with Licorice pacing them. To their surprise, the ward looked as solid as the gatherer had reported it was. They knelt to touch it, parsing out the strands of its components.
"Ouch. Now I see why you wanted to give him a break." She watched them work, head tilted curiously. "So what is enchanter's sight like, anyway?"
"Like translucent rainbows that you can feel, overlaying the ordinary world." Smoke picked out the exact threads for repelling ants, fleas, and rats, and all three looked solid. They were aggressive wards, designed to kill vermin -- not to repel, sterilize or redirect.
"It sounds beautiful."
"It is, actually. One of the best parts of being an enchanter." Smoke darted a smile to Licorice as they followed the ward around the foundation to see if the threads weakened anywhere. "What do you like about your job?"
"Um, well, you meet some pretty interesting people," Licorice said. "So, can you tell what's wrong with the wards?"
"Not yet. I'm wondering if they missed an entrance. Are there any tunnels that lead inside?"
"Yeah, a few from the cellars to other buildings. I'll show you." Licorice led them back inside. "So, how are wards supposed to stop vermin, when they work? Is it like an invisible wall to insects or what?"
"It depends on the enchanter. These ones are supposed to kill any of the creatures they forbid."
"... is that safe?" Licorice laughed. "I mean, for the creatures they aren't forbidding?"
"Generally," Smoke said. "It can catch insects that aren't specifically targetted but look kind of right. Like a ward against wasps might kill bees too. But it won't kill a human. Not even one wearing black and yellow stripes."
Licorice giggled. "Is that how you do your wards, too? By killing ... pests?"
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Pest control preference:
Yes. No one wants fleas or rats and killing them is the only way to be sure.
No. Deterence is better for the overall ecology: wards should just keep pests out of the compound, not eliminate them from the environment.
Depends. Unwanted insects like termites and fleas and ants are killed. Small mammals like rats and mice are repelled.
No, Smoke's wards do a combination of deterence and sterilization, to reduce the population at large more humanely.
They did have a job to do, and Smoke was perplexed by the old gatherer's results. One or two strands failing, and Smoke could see it not being precise enough to recognize the problem. But with three strands failing -- ants, fleas, and rats? -- it should show a problem. Smoke had already reviewed the gatherer's records of incursions that the wards had fought off in the last several weeks. It reported protecting the windows on the south side from damage from a windstorm, securing the roof against fallen tree limbs, keeping the carpet from being singed by a dropped candle, preventing flooding in a sub-cellar after heavy rains -- a litany of prevented disasters that went on for some time, which was what Smoke would expect. The last report involving rats was one trying to enter through a storm drain in a wine cellar. It was killed by the ward. There were no mentions of ant or flea incursions at all. That suggested catastrophic failure of those threads: if they'd just been inadequate, they'd report some repelled incursions, at least.
Yet the gatherer should have detected a catastrophic failure on two different strands, braided wards or not. Maybe the gatherer itself was what had failed.
Blackwood set them down on the House of Chambers. "Thank you again," they told him, offering a hand despite not being quite sure of the etiquette for parting with a dragon-sized draka.
The dragon placed one talon lightly against their palm. "It was my honor to be of service. Please, let me know if you need anything else."
"I will." Smoke hoped their ears didn't show a blush.
After Blackwood left, Licorice fidgeted while Smoke set up their own gatherer atop the House of Chambers. Smoke included some protections for their gatherer: specifically some extra detection spells to let them know if anyone interfered with it, and report if anyone else reviewed its information. After completion, it'd be a few hours before it would have harvested any new information for them.
So Smoke asked Licorice to show them to the foundation when that was done. They took a service stairwell from the roof to the ground floor. On the way down, Smoke asked, "Do you think someone sabotaged the seal on that hatch?"
"What?" Licorice blinked at them.
"You said there was some debris in it. What would get up there except what people left? It's the highest point in the complex."
"Oh! No, it was just a twig. Some bird dropped it, probably."
"Ah. May I see it?"
Licorice gave them a what's-wrong-with-you look. "No, I didn't keep it."
"Ah, of course not." Smoke chuckled. They reached the first floor, and Licorice led them out a service exit. "So, since the wards haven't been doing their job, what has maintenance been doing about the rat problem?"
Licorice whipped her head around, black eyes narrowed, as if Smoke's question had personally offended her. She seemed to realize the oddness of her reaction before she spoke, because she gave a tight forced laugh. "Let's just say I don't think rats are Courthall's biggest worry."
"So what is Courthall's biggest worry?"
"Does maintenance have a more pressing problem?"
"So you're just ignoring the rats?"
"Why did that question bother you?"
"I didn't mean to upset you. Is there something else you'd like to talk about?"
"I do not mind, truly, Smoke," Blackwood protested.
"Umm." Licorice blinked, taken aback. Say no, tell them you're busy, say no, say no.
"Please?" Their ears canted back and to the side, whiskers spread optimistically.
"I'm not exactly a tour guide, honored ... " Against her will, Licorice considered the idea. Hanging around the new enchanter would be one way to find out what they were planning to do with the wards, after all.
"But I'll bet you do know every possible entrance. Even the ones that no one ever uses and are supposed to be blocked off but, perhaps, haven't been?"
"I am pretty good at getting around," Licorice admitted. This is a terrible idea. Angels and demons, you idiot, do not let yourself be swayed by a beguiling smile from the tall gorgeous enby. Say no.
"Perfect! Thank you so much, Licorice. Would you mind flying us over to the House of Chambers, please, Blackwood? I want to set up a new gatherer where it won't conflict with this one." Smoke turned that irresistible smile on the draka, who of course agreed. Which is how Licorice found herself seated on a dragon's back with her arms around the enby kith's waist, clinging for dear life as they glided across the gap. Oh, this is such a bad idea.
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 13
What does Smoke do next?
The job at hand: evaluate the wards, figure out how to get and keep the vermin out
Put Licorice at ease with idle conversation. Ask her about her family or hobbies, share their own.
Ask Licorice about her view of Courthall, and what she thinks of both the staff and the politicians.
Ask Licorice about maintenance issues. Keep probing for holes in her story.
Blackwood shook his head. "No, I don't believe so."
"Yeah, I only started a few months ago. Courthall is huge.." Licorice gave them an engaging smile. "You would not believe how many hundreds of peons it takes to keep a bunch of high-ranking muckity-mucks from burning the whole place down. Wards or no wards."
Smoke half-smiled in answer. "I guess high-ranking muckity-mucks don't change no matter where you are."
"No, honored, they sure don't. Anyway, if that's all, I should get back to work ... " Licorice stooped towards the handle on the hatch.
"Mmm." Smoke tapped their foot lightly against the side of the hatch. It was ringed in dark grey rubber that showed signs of use but didn't look worn out. "So what was wrong with the hatch?"
"You said it was leaking?"
"Oh! Right. Nothing was wrong with it. A bit of debris got caught in it. In the hinge back here." She pointed. "Kept it from closing snugly. Just had to clear it out, good as new again." There was no clear indication of recent work, like the hinge being recently oiled or cleaned, but for the problem Licorice described, there probably wouldn't be.
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 13
Let Licorice get back to work
Ask to see the work order
"Before you go, would you let me know what maintenance has been doing to counter the rat problem?"
"Wait, I could use someone who knows all the maintenance access points and I've been making poor Blackwood run me around everywhere. Perhaps you could show me all the back ways?"
"I'm .... not sure. Maintenance, perhaps?" Blackwood folded his wings as he perched tidily on the slope of the globe. "I thought it must be the previous contractor at first, but now that you ask, Master Corydalis said their contract is terminated. Perhaps they needed to dismantle their gatherer?"
"No, it's still here." Smoke frowned, and tested the hinged hatch in the globe. It was latched from the inside. There wasn't any point to dismantling a gatherer after one was erected; it wasn't as if the components of the enchantment could be re-used for anything.
"I'll be right back." Blackwood shifted to drop to the observation platform that ringed the globe, then shifted to his humanlike shape and went inside.
Smoke studied the gatherer that was already in place. Just as the Blackwood had related, the gatherer's tendrils all showed that the compound was secure. The wards secured Courthall against all the normal axes of disaster: flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, and a long list of individual pests: mice, rats, termites, kitchen ants, fleas, rabbits, moles, carpenter ants, and more. Wards could not protect against sapient sabotage, but everything else was covered.
The wards, according to the gatherer, were braided, which made Smoke cringe inwardly. They disliked that style of warding. Braiding one's wards meant that every part of the ward: protection against each different kind of disaster -- was tied to every other kind of protection. Braided wards were very strong in some senses: they rarely failed due to insufficient power. Where a single-strand ward against earthquakes might crack under a sufficiently powerful earthquake, a braided ward was more likely to have the resilience to withstand. But braided wards were weak in exactly the way that might cause the problem Blackwood had reported: if one strand of the ward had been constructed badly, it was hard to parse out that it wasn't doing its job. The gatherer would tell you "this is a ward designed to do this long laundry list of things, and the ward is still here, so it's presumably doing all of these things". Braiding had been the most popular way of doing wards for a few decades, until individual strands started to fail and one couldn't easily parse out what had gone wrong. If all one knew how to make was braided wards, one couldn't fix a single strand on the ward: one had to take it out and replace the entire thing..
That wasn't a problem Smoke had: they could install individual wards against different types of vermin without needing to reinstall the other portions of the ward. That might explain why the government had wanted to hire them, specifically. Most enchanters specialized in either one or the other. Smoke had trained in both, even if they preferred not to craft single-strand wards.
While Smoke was still trying to sort that out, the hatch in the roof opened. A human woman with bright black eyes flashed a grin at Smoke.. "Hello, honored," she said, politely, as she climbed up. "I'm Licorice. I work in maintenance. My friend here said you had some questions for me?" Blackwood followed behind her, with a bemused tilt to his head as he stood to one side on the roof and watched them.
"Hello, Licorice." Smoke offered their hand. "I'm Smoke; I was hired today to repair the Courthall wards. I was just wondering if you'd been working on the gatherer here?"
"The what?" Licorice bowed over Smoke's hand, like a servant to a superior. She wore a uniform of green with gold buttons: the same colors as Blackwood's, but hers had an informal look rather than crisply tailored. Her glossy brown hair was braided into a long tail; there was something sleek and fit about her small frame, despite the baggy clothes. "No, honored. There were some complaints that the seal on the door up here leaked, so I was looking into that. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Is there anything she can do?
"No, thank you."
"Yes, would you let me know what maintenance has been doing to counter the rat problem?"
"Oh good, I could use someone who knows all the maintenance access points and I've been making poor Blackwood run me around everywhere. Perhaps you could show me all the back ways?"
Check the hatch to see if it looks like any work's been done on it recently
Ask Blackwood if he's met Licorice before.
Like most of my friends, the recent change to Livejournal's TOS convinced me LJ was no longer a secure Internet home. It's been sliding that way for years, obviously. Just as obviously, I'm slow to take the hint. Leaving LiveJournal for Dreamwidth at this point is not so much "abandoning a sinking ship" as "abandoning a ship that already sunk and is a rotting shark-infested hulk at the bottom of the ocean for a different sunken ship. But this one's not rotting or shark-infested!"
It could sail, I'm sure, if it just made it to the surface.
But while I have zero confidence in LJ at this point, and no intention of modifying my content to conform to Russian law, I'm not deleting my LJ. Because I'm an American citizen, LJ's actions against me if they decide I'm violating their ToS, are pretty much limited to "delete my account". I don't see any reason to do that for them. As Xyzzysqrl put it, "I'll not give them the satisfaction of walking."
Besides, any resources they waste deciding that my writings about bisexuality and polyamory are a problem are resources not being used against some much more vulnerable Russian citizen, so fine. Bring it on.
It was LJ's 18th birthday yesterday. It makes me nostalgic for happier times on LJ, when it was a growing open-source platform about the free exchange of ideas.
LJ did an infographic for the occasion, with a stats block for users. It feels strange to crosspost this, or to post it at all, but I will anyway. It's been a long time. Maybe it deserves a marker.
#mylivejournal #lj18 #happybirthday
But Blackwood smiled at their request and bowed. "It would be my honor, mas -- Smoke." One corner of his mouth curled higher, wry.
Smoke grinned back. "Not a lot of people around Courthall who aren't attached to their titles, I'm guessing."
"Not so many," he conceded. After asking the receptionist at the House of Chambers to have Courthall's master of ceremonies notified, he returned his attention to Smoke. "Where would you like to begin?"
"Somewhere central, with a good view. I want to set up a gatherer. Unless I need special authorization for that?" A gatherer would collect information on the nature of Courthall's warding spells and their efficacy in repelling attacks.
"You were authorized to perform all necessary ward-related enchantments before the offer of work was extended. Master Corydalis wanted to ensure there would be no delays. I'll show you where our original contractor has theirs set up, if you like?"
Smoke's curiosity about this Corydalis person grew, but they had a job to do. "Please."
Blackwood led them back out of the grand, echoing entrance hall to the House of Chambers. "It'll be fastest to fly up there." He shifted to dragon form and bore Smoke up. A colossal sculpture stood at the center of the Courthall park, some eighty feet tall at its highest. A large pedestal supported statues representing each of the Four Peoples of their nation: kith, draka, human, and elf. Together, the four held aloft a beacon. At night, Courthall lit the beacon, but at mid-afternoon, it was a pearlescent globe twenty feet in diameter, ringed by an observation platform. As Blackwood rose above its peak, Smoke noticed a figure -- human or elf, hard to tell at a distance -- knelt at the top. While Blackwood swooped over to it, the figure disappeared into it.
Blackwood landed atop the beacon. It had a flattened top a couple of feet across, hinged on one side: the person who'd just been here must have gone down through it. A squat gatherer enchantment curled there, visible to Smoke's enchantsight as a squid-like creature of semi-solid light, tendrils outstretched until they attenuated to imperceptible threads to cover the compound.
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 11
Go after the figure who disappeared inside and find out what they were doing
Ignore them: if they weren't supposed to be here Blackwood would say something
Intelligence gathering. In addition so reviewing the information from the gatherer spell already here, Smoke will:
Put up a gatherer of Smoke's own here
No point in redundancy: make one at the next highest point in the compound, on top of the House of Chambers
SPARE NO EXPENSE: put up three gatherers in different places around the compound, and trust that you can convince your employers this was necessary and not wasteful.
He had his ears tilted back to listen to them. "A little, perhaps. But it's no trouble at all to carry you, master enchanter." They felt the vibration of his speech almost better than they heard his words, warm with sincerity. "And everyone at Courthall is eager for your arrival and end to the pests. We prefer the remarks about 'vermin at Courthall' to be more metaphorical."
Smoke laughed. "Is Courthall as bad as that metaphor makes it sound?"
"No, no, not at all. The politicians are actually quite kind. Not nearly as divisive as you'd think."
"'Kind'?" Smoke tried to imagine it. The national government of Lightshel was a guided republic. Representatives elected by popular vote made the laws and confirmed all major bureaucratic appointments, under the guidance of the hereditary nobility. The nobility had no voting power, but they ran the committees and made most procedural decisions. Smoke supposed that perhaps the nobles could afford to be kind; their positions were secure. But the elections were always full of bitter rancor.
"Truly! The venom is only over matters of policy. In personal matters, they are respectful and generous." Blackwood related varous anecdotes in support of this contention. One was about Representative Willow, who'd been incapacitated by a brain injury that left her unable to comprehend speech properly. The other representatives had protected her seat until a telepath could be found to act as liaison and speak for her. Other stories were less serious: Representative Sky, an elf enby, was renowned for their over-the-top absurd pranks, like organizing a 25th anniversary party for Lady Flax, who had never been married and was only thirty-two at the time. "They provided her with a husband for the occasion, and an irate mistress for additional flavor."
"Oh dear. Was Lady Flax very upset?"
"Not at all! She was delighted. Started courting her faux-mistress afterwards, in fact."
Based on his conversation, Blackwood's favorite person in Courthall is the master of ceremonies, Corydalis.. Another draka, Corydalis managed the staff of Courthall and was ultimately responsible for all the day-to-day operations as well as social events.
The flight passed quickly -- closed to three hours and than four, in fact. Before Smoke knew it, Blackwood had landed in the beautifully landscaped park at the heart of Courthall. Tall government buildings surrounded them on all sides, from the General Chambers where lawmakers met in committee and full assembly, to the private offices in buildings flanking it on either side, to the museums and the famous Diplomatic House opposite. Blackwood helped Smoke down from his back, then shifted back to his humanlike form. He escorted them to the House of Chambers and procured a visitor's pass for them. "There, now you shan't be bothered while you inspect the grounds and our wards. I'll let Master Corydalis know you've arrived, master enchanter."
"Please, call me Smoke. I'm just here to serve the government as you do, good messenger." Smoke swiveled their ears, feeling unaccountably nervous.
Blackwood's ears flushed, and he bowed. "As you wish, m -- Smoke. Please, call me Blackwood. Would you like me to find you a guide?"
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Does Smoke want a guide?
Yes please, need guide. So many BIG BUILDINGS
Ask Blackwood to show them around himself: "You can find someone else to tell Master Corydalis I'm here, right?"
No, Smoke likes exploring on their own