– We have to lwèrma khlùpyo working upon some special projects for us – so the Duchesses were telling the children. – Perhaps the larginchzint will be able to repair this slave creature of yours, this pet of which you are grown so fond. Ah, but children do become so attached to their cossets, don’t they? –
Siêthiyal and Akhlísa looked to each other and shrugged, sometimes they were not entirely sure whether the Duchesses actually were addressing the children or each other, or perhaps the Duchesses had their own fey thoughts drifting in the winds. In a way it did not matter, so as the Children remained silent and obedient. The Duchesses came walking right out of the meditation halls, although Akhlísa lagged back for a moment and gazed back at the stained glass window being rebuilt, and giggling unto herself chanted – That must have been some entrance that Uncle Fhèrkifher made, or so I am told. I just wish I had gotten a chance to see it. –
– Vañu vañu, xhlipíreu! – Siêthiyal hissed, and she grasped her Sister’s hand and drew her aside.
The Duchesses were come to a wall all of flowing fronds with some slight mist growing all about the leaves, and they reached into the leaves and took out some tiny bells and shook them, the laughter of the bells arising and becoming part of the stern work of the technicians before the stained glass window. As the Duchesses rang, and the wall of leaves began to part, the children listened to the beating of the hammers and smelting of jade and crimson steel and precious sky iron and jaspar, the toil was almost a whistling tune they thought, the music of such a laconic people, and although the children could not quite fathom it, being born of the romantic race of warriors, they thought that unto the Qlùfhem and Thùlwu that craft itself must be like music and joy and bliss unto them, something which sustained the people and made them truly Aûm in a way that the aliens could not understand. For they were nothing else but a race of nomdic artists who had been driven into the Emperor’s War, tricked to fight the Qhíng, and now were caught up in the artifice of their tentacles.
As the walls of leaves were parting, Siêthiyal and Akhlísa were at first made away of the feeling of thick and hot mist upon their faces, and at once in the growing curtains of steam rustling about them, they were both beginning to sweat. The Duchesses were shaking a little, the flowing flounces of their gowns were sticking to them, their tendrils were drooping down lifeless, for neither of the Qlùfhem were fain of this sticky heat, they preferred a slightly colder clime such as they had once experienced in the higher reaches of the outer west. Siêthiyal and Akhlísa knew better than to complain, and in fact did not mind a bit of heat now and then, not the conflagration of the pyre, but a bit of heat within the halls was nice from time to time, as large and drafty and wonderous as the Aûm builded their vessels. Akhlísa began to wipe perspiration from her brow, but as she lifted up her white hand to do so, both of the Duchesses turned their eyestalks at her and glared.
– And what do you intend to do, oh Imperial Concubine? – asked the Duchesses in a single voice.
– Wha? – asked Akhlísa.
– What are you doing, aîqhokòkhti, oh seedling? –
– Ur … I’m wiping beads of sweat off of me. I’m getting stickified! –
– An Emperor’s Concubine does not sweat. Thuweîtha, perspiring, is a sign of low breeding. You are not permitted to sweat. –
– May I just wipe my face … –
– No. –
– But I’m sweating! –
– An Emperor’s Concubine does not sweat. –
– May I wipe my Sister’s brow then? – Siêthiyal hissed, pink and red tresses sticking to her face, but the Duchesses paid her no attention at all.
– What lies upon thy brow? – the Duchesses were asking.
– Tlhòfhti perspiration, khànxhu suinz? – asked Akhlísa.
– No, you do not sweat. –
– Éfhelìnye doesn’t sweat, but she’s not normal – Siêthiyal chanted, as she blew puffs of hair up unto some of her dangling tresses, she was almost playing a game with her recalcitrant hair.
– What lies upon thy brow? – the Duchesses asked Akhlísa again.
– Um … nothing? Water? Beads of water. –
– That’s a good answer, nothing or just water, but certainly not sweat. –
– May I wipe my face now? –
– Maybe if you stopped drawing attention to your many imperfections, your future Husband will not notice them – the Duchesses chanted. – You are supposed to be his labyrinth, not a foul slave. –
Siêthiyal found herself almost on the verging of saying angry words, of reminding these alien contessas that her Sister was most certainly not a slave, and that even if their Brother were not to become the new Emperor, Akhlísa was by all rights a daughter of the aristocratic class of warriors and should be afforded some respect. But Siêthiyal remained silent, she did not wish for anger to be drawn down against her Sister, nor did she want to jeopardize whatever chances she had left to save this good and faithful creature who had come to warn them of the dragon danger. The Duchesses spun around and were entering the steam, and beads of water were dripping upon their long and fluent gowns. For a time the maidens walked onwards and they could listen to the music of the hammers and instruments rising and falling, the khmùfhwan reverse engineeren and xìkhle glaziren working upon their art, and every few moments or so the ground would shimmer and become transparent and blue, and all of the steam walls shifted, and the maidens felt that lurch in their stomaches which they associated with living ships bouncing upwards upon spectral telekinesis, the temple balloon bouncing outwards and attempting to sneak away before the Dragons noticed them, but even that jittery transportation was growing less frequent, and the symptoms of it less distinct the deeper they came into the steam, and the song of the kỹ·sủ workers was also growing lost in the gathering heat and dampness.
Siêthiyal was chuckling a little as she saw the Duchesses wading through the waters, and their bioluminescent gowns were spreading outwards like bells, and little pistons and wires were appearing within the layers of them, and the Duchesses were struggling through the waters and were quite disturbed by the hot and sticky sensation. Siêthiyal didn’t mind in the last, in fact, even as she was clutching the silent Traîkhiim she began to kick at the water and whistled unto herself, and for a few moments nobody noticed the din she was making, unto Khosyaràsqa turned back and glinted at her, and Akhlísa came froward and wrapped her arms around one of Siêthiyal’s and tugged at her until she fell silent, and finally the mist became nothing but streams of hot water pouring out from great vats, and a slight walkway of stones was arising in the midst of it and leading off unto some great carbuncles in the center of the ship, and within them lay rooms and steam was pouring outwards, and there came the sound of huge and shuddering machines thundering all the while, cauldrons of mist arising from the flesh vats of the bioartists of the Qlùfhem and the jhothùlwoxaum artist generals of the Thùlwu.
The carbuncles were all turning and opening up their steam doors, and the Duchesses came sweeping right within, beads of water dangling down the feathers of their eyestalk and shoulder, and the maidens came sauntering behind them and were wondering at what type of Aûm could possibly desire to work within hot steam, or indeed what Aûm may thrive within. The jacinth carbuncle, fhtàyo, xòmle, was spreading out about the children in patterns of frozen stone and flame all blue sparkling, the floor was all flowing mist, and all about them were arising tubes and churning machinery and massive billows heaving in and out and drawing fresh air from the surface of the glass and hot air balloons and deep into these laboratories. The towers of many of the machines were glowing bright with burning gledes, and a constaint rain of steam was flowing down the sides and cooling the machines and being feed into pipes and whorls and waterwheels whose purpose the children could not even guess. It was loud within, so loud that Akhlísa felt that her forehead was pounding, but when she tried to cradle her brow and wiped her forehead, Khosyaràsqa turned and gave her a look of warning. A few Thùlwu were dashing through the steam, many of them were wearing armor about their shoulders, but the Thùlwu were not stopping to bow unto the Duchesses, but were running about all the while intent upon their own errands. The Duchesses did not mind, at least the so the children thought, the Duchesses just waded through the steam and came into the central rooms where huge bones were reaching upwards and being lost in the haze, and the machines were churning at their loudest.
– Perhaps we should have announced ourselves – Siêthiyal muttered. A few Qlùfhem came rolling out in the mist, they were carrying a table with them and upon it lay a collection of ash and bones that were still burning, perhaps some of the harvest of the pyre above.
– I wouldn’t know what to say – Akhlísa chanted, as she looked at the walls of the nafgrofnηm, the carbuncle grogezin and saw that crawling down the face of the walls were many spindly machines that were opening themselves up and testing the steam and twisting the sundials inside themselves to monitor all things.
– Perhaps it is the custom of these artist creatures to make warriors wait – whispered Siêthiyal.
– Or just children – Akhlísa whispered back. – I’m used to waiting. I wait all the time. That’s when I do some of my best napping, when I’m sitting in a chair and waiting for the adults to do whatever it is that adults do. Do adults do anything at all? Maybe they just make each other wait quite a lot. –
Tap tap tap tap came a sound from the steam. The Duchesses were making their way towards the sound, and when they came between two tables they paused, for upon the tables many and various shadows were arising. Some of them were in the form of Qlùfhem and Thùlwu, and at first the children were not entirely sure why, but they were not quite moving in the way that the children of the Aûm were accustomed to move. A couple of the Qlùfhem came hopping right down and began to approach the maidens, and as they turned, the children could see that some of the Qlùfhem were missing tentacles and that wings had been grafted onto their shoulders, while other Qlùfhem were turning their eyen to the children and blinking with extra pupils and irises. Some of the Qlùfhem were arising upon spindly arachnid legs, and that was strange to contemplate, for they were a squat people shaped like teardrops and rolling upon wellthew’d spheres, and to see their sashaying about was quite an odd sight. Not a few of the Qlùfhem were revealing that parts of their thoraces were missing and had been replaced with churning clockwork, and some of them were glistening with shoulders and backs that looked a little like a blending with the flesh of the Khlitsaîyart and the Kháfha folk. The Qlùfhem were parting and revealing that several Thùlwu were also flowing outwards, also metamorphósed into other forms, the antlers of their shoulders were cut with bits of jade and jasper set within, and many of them had eyen blinking inside their shoulders and upon their bellies, and not a few of them were completely transparent, as if they had been taken apart cell by cell and converted into plasma and reässembled into a shape completely like the Thùlwu Aûm and yet also slightly different.
Tap tap tap tap came the sound from the steam, and the transformed Qlùfhem and Thùlwu began to giggle just a little one to another, and this was perhaps that which brought fear to the children the most, for so rare it was to hear mirth from the Aûm, let alone those who had been altered by the artistry of the people. A couple of Thùlwu were coming froward approaching the children, one of them was all green and flowing of pure plasma, but the other Thùlwus, although of flesh, was just as strange, for upon his belly a face was blinking, three eyen and a nose and a mouth, and the children gasped to see that, for the Aûm have no heads and no faces, and yet this Thùlwus’ belly blinked at them and was following them with its eyen. For a moment the sight of these two wihts was lost unto them, some Khmàfhlort slaves were stomping through the steam and carrying litters whereon lay new heaps of ash and bone, but when the Khmàfhlort thralls parted, Siêthiyal and Akhlísa found themselves face to face with the Thùlwus whose watched them, and the Thùlwus formed all of glistening plasma.
– Iipa! – gasped Akhlísa.
Siêthiyal squeazed her hand. The two Thùlwu regarded the children for a few moments and began to giggle one to another, and looking to each other the Thùlwu Aûm Kìkhma Lwúnis began to giggle and say – Look at how weird those two look! –
– Who’s weird? – Siêthiyal muttered.
Khosyaràsqa let her tentacles slip all about Siêthiyal, holding and caressing and hugging her and lifting her up a little chanted – This is our little grand-neice Siêthiyal, Kàrijoi’s Daughter, the Sister of the new Emperor Puîyos. She is our little wthinájha, our doll, we dress her in bright clothing, we come her hair, we make her oh so very pretty, we bring her to all of the fine places in our fleet and set her upon sheets of silk, and we feed her the very nicest of foods, our precious little doll. –
– We like dolls – the Thùlwus of virescent energy was saying.
– Emperor Kàrijoi used to make dolls and give me one every year – the other Thùlwus chanted, and his stomache face glowed in a beatific expression. – I was such a good little child. –
– Siêthiyal is also a good little child – Pereluyàsqa chanted. – Quiet and obedient, the very doll of the Aûm. But she has a slight situtation. –
– I am sad – the Thùlwus of verdurous plasma was saying.
The other Thùlwus swivelled forwards and lifting up his tentacles to Siêthiyal chanted – Are we allowed to pet the doll? May we hold her for a time? –
– Maybe later – Pereluyàsqa chanted – But only if you’re good. –
– All of the khmòlra xhmoêr are good – the Thùlwus of light was saying.
– Yes, all of us metamorphick mutants are good – the faced Thùlwus chanted, as his tentacles reached out and began to brush Siêthiyal’s face. – I like your little doll. –
– Our obedient child, however, has a slave who is broken – chanted Pereluyàsqa. – We command the bioartists to repair the slave, if at all possible. –
– Children can be so attached to their pets – chanted Khosyaràsqa. – We ourselves do not quite understand it, for we twain were never children, always adult, nubile, beautiful, perfect we were since the moment our beloved Khlàmfhors fashioned us of flowers. –
– Easier it would be toss the slave upon the pyre – the plasma Thùlwus chanted. – Easier to prove the doll with new slaves, better and stronger. –
– Easier is not what we command – Pereluyàsqa chanted.
– Repair the slave – Khosyaràsqa chanted. – The opinions of mutants do not reach the celia of the Duchesses. We command. –
– We obey – whispered the plasma Thùlwus.
– Obviously, such is the settled order of things. –
– May we just hold the little girl for a few moments – the visaged Thùlwus was saying. – We shall tell the bioartists to do such a good job. They will be good. –
– Give the mutants the Traîkhiim thrall, our dear, the tnoaqteûpa – Pereluyàsqa told Siêthiyal.
– I’m not sure that I want to, now – Siêthiyal whispered.
– We’re not so scary – the plasma Thùlwus chanted. – The bioartists were experimenting on me, they wanted to make me non-corporeal and über-corporeal. They want me to be able to break apart and flicker and reassemble … we have had some problems though, I keep losing some of ourselves in the transitions … the translations from room to room and place to place … –
The faced Thùlwus began to giggle and chanted – He’s losing some of his mind. Puff! Vanishing! Gone gone gone gone gone. Not I, though. The Aûm have no faces, so the rest of Real People keep saying, the Qhíng sniff up their antennæ, No face no face, they say, the Khlitsaîyart laugh at us, shake their tail, No face no face they say, even the Ptètqiikh have faces, they have twin half faces sealed with mandibles in the center, but even they lifted up glass hands and tell us, no face no face! So the bioartists plucked me and gave me a face just like the rest of you. There was no place to put an head, so they removed my insides and gave me a face just like you. See, I have eyen. I can move them too. – The Thùlwus’ tentacles jabbed into the eyen of his stomache and turned them as one would turn marbles. – Look, I have a nose, it breathes right into my stomache and I can drink with it just like you do. And look, a mouth in my stomache rather than in the palms of my mouth-trunk. I am just like you. –
– Just like me … – Siêthiyal stuttered with nervous laughter.
– My inside face can talk too – chanted Thùlwus chanted.
– Is that so? Duchesses, I want to go home now. –
– Hush, child – the Duchesses chanted. – The mutant is talking. –
– Would you like to hear my inner face talking? – the metamorphic Thùlwus asked.
– If you want … –
– My inner face is going to talk – the Thùlwus chanted, and his eyestalks turned down to regard his stomache. – Talk, oh face. Talk talk talk talk! –
– Give me the child! – the inner face boomed.
– Look, my face can talk! – the Thùlwus chanted with his Aûm celia.
– Imagine that … – Siêthiyal whispered.
– I want the child! – the inner face boomed.
– Duchesses, please … – Siêthiyal whispered.
– I need the child! – the inner face hissed.
– Do we get to play with the doll now, so good as we have been? – the faced Thùlwus chanted.
– Ask again, and we shall have you incinerated – Khosyaràsqa chanted. – Summon the bioartists. –
– Give the mutants the Traîkhiim, dear – Pereluyàsqa chanted.
– I want to hold it – Siêthiyal chanted.
– Oh, we may need the Master to fix that broken slave – the Thùlwus of pure plasma was saying. – The Master has been flickering around with the khlùpyo lwèrma biological artists. He may know how to fix the creature. –
– The child is mine … – the inner face was whispering.
– Summon the larginchzintry – the Duchesses chanted.
Tap tap tap tap came the sound from the steam, and the mutants were parting a little, although the stomache face kept turning its gaze towards Siêthiyal, and the lips were parting and licking themselves. Khosyaràsqa drew something from the table and spinning it around revealed it to be a fanstaff, and in her grasp the tips sprang open with knives opening and closing, and the mutants began to bow and shake before her, for they knew better than to anger one of the brides of Khlàmfhors of old.
– The master is coming … – the janyaThùlwu were saying. – The artists will be with him. We like the artists. The artists are good, as are we. –
– I wish the mutants would stop talking – Akhlísa chanted as she yanked upon Siêthiyal’s arms. – They chilly me, even in the steam. –
Pereluyàsqa’s tentacles, swift and deft came urticating all about Siêthiyal and managed to pulled Aîya’s cold cocoon away from her, and even though Siêthiyal was jumping upwards and reaching for it all te while, the Duchesses just held the Traîkhiim above the child and chanted – Now now we are not going to stay, dearheart. We’ll give the pet to the artists, and we must return to the surface. The steam down here is not proper for ladies as elegant as we are. –
– The bioartists will take good care of the pet – the Thùlwus of energy chanted.
– The bioartists will heal your Traîkhiim doll – the Thùlwus with the face chanted.
– Here they come – chanted Khosyaràsqa, and she spun the staff in circles before her torso and unto her sides and high above her eye, the staff cutting through the steam, the very air shimmering with heat and water.
From the long and winding rooms the lwèrma and khlùpyo were coming, the biological artists of the Qlùfhem and the jhothùlwoxaum the artist generals of the Thùlwu, and what the children found so strange was that these artists were just so ordinary in appearance in contrast to the metamorphic mutations, for these were the same artists whom the children saw working all about the ship and glass hot air balloon, the same ones who repaired and builded and mended in various capacities, and even though the children were not yet adept in recognizing individual Aûm, they could not quite read their bodies and movements and eyen as they did the faces of their own people, they thought that surely some of these artists had to be the same ones working upon the stained glass window just beyond the walls of mist. The artists drew themselves up unto the Duchesses and fell upon their sphere-legs to bow before them, and this simple act of stern normality somehow made the children feel better at ease.
– The mutations are quite interesting – the Duchesses were saying.
– We must experiment – the bioartists chanted. – We are Aûm. –
– Is the visitor still with you? –
– It is hard to define his equation. Coming. Going. –
– If he remains, use his help. Our doll here has a broken pet. – Pereluyàsqa was holding Aîya high above Siêthiyal’s grasp and came rolling up unto the artists and set the cocoon into their tentacles. – Fix it. –
Tap tap tap tap the steam was hissing.
– The Master … – the Thùlwu mutants were turning one to another, and one became red light, and the other was grinning and revealing layer after layer of shark tooth rolling throughout all where his stomache should be.
– May we leave? – Akhlísa asked.
The artists were parting and revealing a shadow behind them, a shadow that was comprised entirely of robes of scales, the robes shuffling from side to side, undulous and completely uneven. The sound of wheezing pipes and grinding gears came unto the children, and as the robes were slipping downwards, the sound of the tap tap tap tapping cane came all the louder. The figure coming untowards them was glistening with white rewel horns arising from his bone crest, or at least what crest was left unto him, and the movement of his limbs was all wheel and bone grinding one against the other.
– Tee hee hee hee … heh heh heh … hah! – came the voice with the tap tap tap.
– We need to leave – Akhlísa chanted.
– I agree – chanted Siêthiyal.
– Someone has dropped her slave, someone has broken her toy, who can put it back together, who can mend and make the little children happy? – came the creature who was in the form of a fhèlya, the genetic sub-caste of wheel and clockmakers among the Khlaêr Khlitsaîyart, and before him all of the jhothùlwoxaum artist generals were bowing and the khlùpyo lwèrma bioartists were nodding in deference and all of the xhmoêr khmòlra metamorphic mutants themselves were shaking in fear. – Perhaps I can be of some little service … tee hee hee hee hee … –
– I don’t trust anyone who laughs too much at whatever he saith – Siêthiyal chanted.
– I don’t trust anyone who wears some of his guts on his back – Akhlísa chanted.
The Master was indeed an Khlitsaîyart, or, to put it more accurately, most of the remains of an Khlitsaîyart, a being who shared the same general shape and structure even though much of his body had been destroyed and altered and replaced. His head was a skull such as the fhél wheelmakers have, but where half of his face should have been now lay wires and wheels of spinning clockwork, a few glassen eyen spinning around and focusing upon the children. The throat of the being was completely exposed and tubes were rolling downwards and were all affixed unto bells which were ringing all the while. His torso was mostly hidden in the rolling joint which protruded at odd angles, but it revealed that tubes and engines were bulging from inside his skin, and every few moments tubes were gurgling, and billows were hacking, the machinery straining to keep him alive. One arm was reaching out from a sleeve and revealed that his clawed hand was resting upon a cane which produced the tap tap tap sound of its approach, but when he reached up with his other arm he revealed it to be nothing but pistons and turning wheels, and the cold machine arm reached outwards and brushed against Siêthiyal’s face. She winced at the touch, the machine was clammy against the heat of the ambient steam. The creature took a few more steps forwards, it continued to writhe and bulge beneath the cape, and its tail was flickering from side to side, and as it drew its head down towards the child, she could see that the pathwork of clothing was glistening with the symbols and regalia of the House of Pwéru, and that silvern keys were dangling about its neck. Siêthiyal understood that this creature, or whatever it had once been, had served as a vassel unto Emperor Kàrijoi, and the very thought of that made her tremble all the more.
– I don’t like this! – Akhlísa whispered.
– This was one of honored Kàrijoi’s minions – Siêthiyal chanted.
– I hope our shabby appearance does not frighten you – the creature laughed. – I am in quite a state of disrepair, I’ve been flickering from one timeline to the next, sometimes I am whole and can continue on my work, other times just bits and pieces of me come through and I have to rebuild myself from scratch heh heh heh heh heh. One of these worlds I shall find myself made all out of sand or dust or light itself, what a fun world that will be hah hah hah, old Kàrijoi can never even imagine that. –
– Mend this slave, Jhwèsta. No one is interested in your sorted history or whatever you schemes you have now. We only harbor you when you amuse us – the Duchesses chanted.
– Is that how you treat someone who has made so many pretty things for you? – sighed Prince Jhwèsta.
– This is how we treat one whom we’ve vaporized many times. Alas, you never seem to be completely in one place whenever we try to kill you. – The Duchesses looked one to another and chanted – We tire of this. Artists, mend the slave for us, we cannot depend too much on the khwutànamat qlaêkh, the blood traitor. –
– Oh, but I want to help the little ladies of the Imperial House – Prince Jhwèsta chanted, as he reached out with his mechanical arm to touch Akhlísa’s face. She shook and buried her face in Pereluyàsqa’s chest, the Duchesses were rapidly becoming less scary in comparison to the denizens of the steam. Jhwèsta smiled and chanted – Oh, be not afraid of the clockweyth arm, little Concubine. It was quite necessary, you have to understand, I just had to know how bones and sinews worked together, so one day I started pealing away the skin from mine arm and set metal inside and glass and mirrors and studied myself, I was able to trace all of the muscles and learn how the arm worked. I took it apart, talon by talon, I removed my fingers, my hand, my wrist, I had to see how all of it worked, I removed the bones up unto my shoulder, and I learned quite a bit. Alas, when I tried to put myself back together again … tee hee hee hee … – His mechanical arm just shrugged in exasperation. – You can probably guess how that stories ends. But, I assure you, I shall do a better job in repairing your pet. –
– It is not proper to speak in such a fashion to the House of Pwéru – chanted Pereluyàsqa. – You frighten the child. –
– I educate her – Prince Jhwèsta chanted. – All knowledge has a price. An hundred million years ago Crown Prince Kàrijoi crucified himself upon the Tree of Light to gain the knowledge whichby to rule the billion, billion worlds, and he carved the runes that bind all things together upon his staff. Even an Emperor must attain enlightenment in order to know. –
Khosyaràsqa set Aîya’s cocoon into the hand and claw and metallic grasp of the one who had once been the Emperor’s jhpepòrnain, Imperial Mad Scientist, and Prince Jhwèsta began to convulse with laughter as he chanted – How I delight in serving the House of Pwéru. –