October 16, 2018 by Lyn Thorne-Alder
There is nothing in blood except everything
They met in their little hide-out after dinner. Enrie had vanished into the library for several hours; Taikie had vanished and he didn’t know where to. Saydrie, trying to hide from everyone who seemed to want to follow him around, had run some errands in town. Town, strangely, seemed to be the safest place right now.
He hadn’t been to town alone before; the shopkeepers glanced at his hair but then at his uniform and didn’t give him any trouble. His money spent like anyone else’s, after all – even if one shopkeeper did run it through a little device to check the aetheric residue.
He beat the girls to the hideout (he was dodging Udammadu and Piadro, separately, this time) and laid out several of his new purchases – a thick soft rug made out of long, soft fur from a far-northern breed of goat; two more lanterns with special reflectors that spread the light around more evenly; two mats and a bowl for the table.
Enrie gasped when she stepped in. “It looks like a proper home! Saydrie, you – where did you-?”
“I don’t spend my money on anything else.” He shrugged, feeling a little uncertain all of a sudden. “And I have a, um… a stipend. For being here. From my family. So I thought…”
“It’s lovely. I-” She bowed shallowly to him and then smiled. “If you were my kin, I would hug you. Would you object?”
“I would not object.” He didn’t know why she was being formal, but he held out an arm as he would have for a sister or a cousin. “I would like that.”
She stepped in closer to him and hugged him. Calenyen hugs, he learned quickly, were tight things with back-thumping. He found he didn’t really mind at all.
“This was lovely, Saydrie. Thank you. I – I only have books.” She set down her bag and unearthed a pile of library books and three very old scrolls. “The supervision of the Imperial Bureaucrats does mean that I have a little leeway with sections of the library that are likely supposed to be off-limits. And so I went looking for things that might be useful.” She sat down on one of the stools. “Tell me everything.”
“Well, shouldn’t we wait for…”
The door swung open with a thump. Taikie stumbled in, carrying a series of pipes and valves that might, in theory, be a Device or part of one. “Something about Bad Aether, right?” She carefully put all the pieces of device-or-whatever down in an uncarpted corner of the room. “Oh, this looks really nice. Enrie said you’d… smelled something?”
“I did.” He looked between the two of them. “I was down in the Alchemy building, and I came across a storeroom. But the stench in there was so thick, I thought I was going to, ah-”
“To retch,” Taikie offered helpfully.
“To retch.” The Calenyen word for it was very descriptive-sounding. “That. But it uh. So I thought someone was following me, so I took the back door out of there and the stink only got worse. But there was someone talking in the corner. They couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see them.”
He was back in that space, someone behind him, someone in front of him, and the smell making him want to curl up and die.
“-choice for a meeting place.”
“Quiet. Private. And the reagents here mask any number of things. Including sound, if you line them up in the right matter.”
“But this school, again?”
“You would be amazed at the amount that you can get away with in a place like this. But there is still information here that we need. No place but the Academies had the information we need.”
“And the package?”
“Safe. Irritating, but safe. Well-padded and well-wrapped. You have nothing to fear.”
“I think that I will be the judge of that.”
He had slipped back into the first room then deciding that whoever might be waiting for him was a safer risk then being caught by those two.
“And then I made it out into the hallway, and there was nobody there. So I went the fastest route possible.”
He hadn’t mentioned to either of them that he’s asked the gods’ guidance. He thought perhaps he’d better not. Calenyena could be rather strange about the three.
“I don’t know that it was Lirnilalie. She was right: something in the reagents there completely distorted their voices. It might have distorted their faces if I saw them. But what I know is that someone there stank.”
“Like goat manure?” Taikie looked like she wanted to be taking notes. “Or like the way that a slaughterhouse smells? Or a tannery?”
“Closest to a tannery, but it’s more like – nails on chalkboard? It’s a scent that no amount of perfume or airing out covers up.” He looked back and forth between the two of them. “You – Taikie – you understand humanic aether. You wanted to understand how it worked. I don’t think, I mean the words that people use at home for it are different. We don’t call it the aether. But it’s the connection to the Three that we all have within us. I know I don’t talk about it much. I know that it’s, weird? I don’t know. It’s a Bitrani thing. I–”
“Saydrie.” Enrie’s voice was gentle. “Saydrie, we believe you. You can smell bad aether. But what is bad aether? It can’t just be being a jerk, or there’d be a lot of people here who stank. It can’t even be being evil…. I mean, that’s slightly subjective, isn’t it?”
“Well-” he begins, and then shakes his head. “That’s been debated by scholars for centuries if not millennia. But bad aether. Bad aether is – it’s being wrong. Like a foot or a hand that didn’t come out right, except that it’s your soul.”
They shared an uncomfortable look, Taikie and Enrie and he wondered if he’d stepped in something. “But” Taikie started slowly, “a warped hand means you need help to do things or some mechanical assistance. And it can happen in an accident or a battle or at birth. What about… what are crutches for your soul? What does it mean that you can’t do?”
Saydrie had never thought about it in those terms. He closed his eyes and tried to remember everything that he’d been told. “It is – it’s a failure to connect with the Three and with the aether around you, I think. Or, no. To care. Like not caring if you cut your own hand off. Except for everything around you.”
“But Lirnilalie clearly cares about something,” Taikie argued. “I mean, she wouldn’t do all this plotting if she didn’t.”
“I don’t understand it very well,” Saydrie muttered. “Nobody does. I have my theories, however. I think that it’s something that goes wrong with their connection to the aether of the world. And they are just born – wrong. Evil.” He looked over at Enrie. “The sort of things that I would think were evil,” he allowed. “LIke Lirnilalie. But more intense than just being a jerk. Really, truly bad. And because it’s right in your aether, you can’t hide it. It stinks.”
“Which leads itself to the question,” Enrie mused, “if it shows up in the aether, if the Bitrani know all about humanic aether, why is it completely lost from the Calenyen records? Why are so many people certain that it doesn’t even exist?”
Saydrie coughed. “The easy answer is because Calenyena scholars don’t tend to listen to Bitrani ideas. We’re supposed to be hidebound and backwards and ignorant, and if it’s something that we know that Calenyena don’t, it must be superstition. But I honestly don’t think that it’s all about the anti-Bitrani sentiment.” Saydrie sighed. “I think there’s something more going on.”