The Progress of Things
2 Rho: The Quiet
Published: August 17, 2023
Warnings: Just Tower this time
Blurb: The times, they are a-changin'. Tower is here to usher the new age in - or something like that, he supposes.
The tip of the pen pointed at the tallest. They smiled in response, half-nervous, half-relieved, staring back.
Their eyes followed the pen as it glided across the entire group, pointing at each member in turn. It came to a sudden stop at the end, then turned back towards the second-tallest, at the toddler clutched in their arms.
“That’s new,” Arzhi said. “Name?”
“This is Inari Medew Iuse-Iwe,” the proud father said, hefting the child another inch. They giggled in response. “Freshly two years old. Their birthday is Ultredan twelfth.”
“Happy late birthday,” Arzhi said, scribbling down the name and date. “You have the form?”
“Of course, Autonoe,” said the mother, prying it out of her bag. She offered it, still smiling nervously.
Arzhi’s eyes flicked up to her as he accepted it, then dipped his head.
“Oh, nothing’s wrong,” she said, smoothing out her dress - a nervous tic he was familiar with. “Just want to catch up to the Southern Caravan before it gets too far.”
“I’ll make this fast, then.” Arzhi snapped the magink photograph, the flash of magic temporarily blinding.
“This wouldn’t have happened if you good folks didn’t miss out on the last census,” Heylen added, offering a wink as they entered with a box full of papers. It was dropped on the ground next to Arzhi’s desk. “Not holdin’ it against you all - just tellin’ it like it is.”
“Heylen!” the mother perked up. “I didn’t know you were still an assistant! How have you been?”
“Eh, making ends meet, you know how it is.” Heylen took up their usual spot leaning against the far wall, arms crossed. “Looking intimidating to newcomers.”
Case in point, they stuck out their tongue at the toddler, earning another wave of giggles.
“Okay. It’s done.” Arzhi leaned back in his chair, briefly, holding the form to admire it.
The family breathed a sigh of relief and the mother gratefully accepted the receipt he tore off.
“Thank you, Autonoe,” she said, hands clasped over his, eyes sparkling, “I’m so sorry to have troubled you.”
“Alright, let’s get movin’,” Heylen said, and they scurried out. After a pause, they glanced to Arzhi. “How many more do you have to get through?”
“Not sure,” he mumbled, unlocking a drawer to heft his atlas onto the desk. He penned in the family’s route in red ink. “Check if anyone’s outside?”
Heylen slipped out.
Arzhi tucked the atlas back away. It thudded into its spot within his desk, and it took more effort than he’d have liked to kick the drawer shut.
He sat back with a quiet sigh after a moment. His ears could catch the twinkle of the windchimes outside, the sound of the dusk winds kicking up. Hopefully they wouldn’t transform into a proper storm.
He regarded the window. The weather still looked fair - no clouds in sight. Visible was only the moon, freshly emerged; the stars, soft against the dark blue; and the gray sand, rolling with the breeze.
He reached back into his desk, pried free a handful of charts on population growth. After skimming, his eyes narrowed - none of these were as specific as he would’ve liked. They’d have to break into the archives proper. He penciled in a note to compare Ultredan of last year to this year - not just year-by-year.
A handful of papers splattered onto his desk in an uneven stack. Pens clattered, the chart he’d been working on fled to the ground, and Arzhi leaned back in his chair with a pout.
“You should really learn the magic of polite, y’know that, jackass?” Heylen barked, darting a second behind into the newcomer’s space, posturing. “Coming in here, rude as all hell, like you live with these f-”
She rolled her eyes in response, planted a hand on Heylen’s chest, and shoved them back. “C’mon. Let Arzhi speak for ‘imself.”
“Why don’t you let him, eh, s-”
“What is it?” Arzhi cut in, peering at one of the papers. Photographs, actually. Blurry and haphazardly-taken, the details were truly indiscernible. Something brown and large, obscured partially by dustclouds. “I’m doing records right now.”
Seysene turned to him, her hands on her hips. “I know. I’m real sorry, Arzhi. But I thought this was a matter o’ major importance.”
He thumbed through the rest of the photos. None were any better. “What is it.”
“It’s-” Seysene sighed, reaching to pinch the bridge of her muzzle. Her cutlass clanked against the myriad of potions on her belt with the motion. “It’s some sort of giant fuckin’ metal animal.”
“Far huger than any I’ve ever seen, but yeup.” she tapped the stack, now even more scattered. “Big hulking thing puffing out steam at the edge of the Southern Caravan. Just sittin’ there, creaking, scarin’ the children. And guess who’s harkin’ its mystical powers to anyone who’s passin’ by?”
“Verselle,” Heylen said.
“Verselle,” Arzhi agreed. “Ah. Hm.”
“Sunstraight,” Seysene affirmed. “Keeps prattlin’ on about how it’ll save us come doomsday. You know how he gets. Well, I says, you can’t keep the damn thing here, it’s in the feckin’ way. He ain’t movin’. Keeps saying he’s waiting for you to sail there.”
“Son of a bitch,” Heylen said, “could’ve opened with that, eh, sis?”
“Fucker, was tryin’, you’s telling me be polite ‘n shit.”
Arzhi cleared his throat. Both mortals startled into attention. “How long has it been there?”
“Only a few hours,” Seysene said, face slightly flushed. “Guessin’ it’s what he went for on that business trip, souped-up fucker.”
“Rich boys,” Heylen said, with a shake of the head. Seysene shook hers as well.
Arzhi sorted the stack neatly. “I guess I should go see him.”
Seysene stood up straighter, “Ah, Arzhi, you don’t gotta! I mean I was half comin’ here for permission to kick his ass six ways to-”
“No, it’s okay, I can just talk to him.”
“I know you’re busy-”
“No, it’s okay.”
“-with chartin’ all these-”
Seysene deflated. Heylen elbowed her. “He’s got a veritable army of assistants, too, y’know. Could hire you on if you’d put that damned sword down for even a meal.”
“Ey, shut it.”
“You takin’ the whole ship, Arzhi?” Heylen asked, turning towards him.
He paused, in the midst of pulling his cape back on, and shook his head.
“Want me to get the dunescooter?”
“You heard the man, office hours are over,” Heylen barked, ushering Seysene out amid her protests, “Move, move, lemme get the damn engine started.”
The moon hung far above the grayed sands, casting its quiet glow on the silent desert. Dunes rose as mountains, pockmarked by clusters of plants half-withered from the night’s chill.
The only sign of life across the vast expanse were the fading footprints and wheelmarks of the Southern Caravan, which had drawn to its nightly stop. Pale lights flickered from behind windows as people drew into their wagons, drew their curtains, wrung out clothes.
Some quiet chatter rose from the groups, a murmur of people enough that even the bravest desert mice and lizards scurried away from the commotion. The residents paid them no mind; they milled between home-to-home, carrying water and food and talk, discussing the path ahead, the path behind, the things they’d lost, the things they’d find.
But the silence came to them, too, as they turned as one village to watch Arzhi’s vehicle ripping across the desert, an eon away from their quiet and quaint home, but familiar all the same. No one spoke, no one protested, no one questioned. They simply watched - and then, as he disappeared over one of the far dunes, returned to their prattle.
Arzhi glanced their way as he passed, eyes flicked over the parked wagons, the animals of burden sipping from the oasis they’d camped at. Everyone looked accounted for from a glance.
Not that he’d expected different, really.
He turned back to the blank sand in front of him. The machine he rode hovered a few feet from the ground and rode the desert’s hills like waves - his favored transport when there was no need to bring his entire ship.
Bringing the entire ship was a statement - a disruption. He’d have to calm the whole caravan if he’d brought it. Instead, with the scooter, they’d simply know he was doing some sort of quiet, private work, and they’d shrug it off. It was simply the way things were.
He leaned to the right, twisting part of the controls. The dunescooter obeyed, turning in a wide radius.
“I think that’s it,” Heylen yelled from behind.
Their voice was barely louder than the thrum of the dunescooter’s engine. But it was loud enough - and, besides, Arzhi could see the enormous shape looming ahead, twinged brown from the distance and dust.
He twisted the left knob on the scooter’s panel. The magiengine rumbled, then audibly shifted gears, their speed slowing to a more comfortable coast.
They came up against the great structure, keeping pace. It took Arzhi another moment to realize that it was not moving - it was merely massive - and he slammed a foot into the scooter’s brakes. It jolted to a halt, impressively smooth for the jerky response, and idled irritably.
“Wonder where that asshole is, eh,” Heylen said, unperturbed by the sudden stop.
Arzhi dismounted. The engine quieted as it shut down. “I imagine he’s inside.”
“Yeah, figure.” Heylen joined him.
He stepped forwards - then hesitated, leaning back.
Spires of bronzed metal dug into the sky, stacked haphazardly on top of one another. Wires strung from tip to tip, splayed like a web over the structure, little bolts of magic scuttling along them. Down, at the base of the thing were a set of six legs with gargantuan claws, digging into the pale sand.
Oppressive, his mind supplied. Overwhelming.
“That is one ugly son of a bitch,” Heylen said.
“Yeah,” Arzhi said, voice barely above a whisper.
They approached. Closing the distance only made starker the enormous size of the thing, towering over even the tallest buildings, the grandest ships in Arzhi’s memory. The clockwork of the great joints of its ankles and knees whirred, occasionally expelling a jet of steam far into the atmosphere. The entire machine bobbed up-down in a tempo, almost like breathing.
It wasn’t alive, though. He knew that. It probably came damn close, though.
Heylen braved the shadow of the beast, trotting right up to one of its claws. They peered at it, then slapped the metal harshly. A clang resounded - they retracted their hand to nurse it with a whine.
“I don’t know why you did that,” Arzhi said, flatly.
“In hindsight,” they admitted. “I can’t even see any ways inside, it’s all gears and wires and shit. No doors. Where’s that Verselle?”
“Um,” Arzhi said, and let his eyes slip shut.
When he opened them again, the colors in the world oscillated and turned, bleeding and congealing into more discrete pockets of magic. He could see how the Heylen-bundle turned what would be its head to watch him, blazing bright for how much magic was in their braincase.
He looked up. Much of the machine was illuminated by the sheer quantity of magic blitzing between its systems, keeping the entire thing powered. Dozens of magic circles, etched into its concepts, lit up like beacons across the structure - a sign of its craftsmanship. Most of all, they bore the unmistakable taste of Ochre’s magic.
Iota magic, in other words. He frowned. Ochre had been willing to sneak this thing in under his nose? Or Verselle has forged his signature. Which was worse?
Didn’t matter right now. His eyes flicked to its front, though there was no discernable head. Not alive. Remember.
Regardless, there were a few bodies mulling about within a tightly-sealed room, tied to the rest of the structure through dozens of artificial ley lines. The ley lines stretched out like a cat towards the magic circles. So this was probably the control room. Probably where Verselle was.
“Got a hunch,” he said to Heylen, who stepped away from the claw.
They didn’t react as he crouched, then launched himself into the air.
The wind whistled briefly before his feet collided with the roof of the room with a loud bang. Startled murmurs and yelps, muffled by metal, became clearer when a piece of glass was thrown open. No, not glass. A window. It just hadn’t looked like one from afar.
Verselle leaned out, brandishing a humming rifle in one fist and a wrench in the other, though his hands were shaking. He twisted to peer up at the roof, but his expression melted into relief as Arzhi stared back down at him.
“Hi. Can we talk?” Arzhi asked, pointing to the ground.
“Arzhi,” Verselle said, and stuck his head back into the room. There was a shout of, “It’s just Arzhi!” and a brief chatter, then Verselle re-emerged. “You - you’re here a bit quicker than I was expected. Do you want to come in?”
He shook his head.
Verselle balked. “No? That’s - but I - you really should come see the controls. You’d be the best driver here, I reckon! Wouldn’t you like to see....”
Verselle’s smile slipped further. He glanced out across the empty expanse and his smile morphed into a frown. “You didn’t bring your ship... ah... oh no.”
“Can we talk?”
“...Alright. Just give me a moment. Someone throw out the ladder?”
Arzhi landed on the ground a moment before Verselle slipped down the rope. The latter wiped his hands off on his coat, almost sheepish. He startled when Arzhi grabbed his wrist to inspect his palms, but they were uninjured. He let go.
“Verselle!” Heylen barked, “you son of a bitch!”
“Oh. You brought Heylen,” Verselle hissed, arms flying up to cross at his chest. “Lovely. I would’ve appreciated a warning.”
“Sorry,” Arzhi said.
“Oh, Arzhi, I didn’t-” they both turned to him, talking over each other, “-have to apologize to a jackass like-”
“Machine,” he said.
“Right,” Heylen said, straightening slightly.
“Right,” Verselle said, tightening his arms. “I suppose you’ll want the full specs? Three hundred tons, mostly made of bronze with nysil interior channelling and several augmetia cores peppered throughout to ensure full control even if damaged. Hull three inches thick, thicker near habitation areas. State-of-the-art magic generation system using a core-and-circle closed loop system. Can travel through miles of uncharted voidspace without catching a bought of corruption, guaranteed.”
He patted the side of the leg, prideful enough that one could believe he’d had any hand in making it. But the silence stretched on in the desert, cold and frozen, and slowly Verselle drew his arm back closer to his chest and didn’t meet anyone’s eyes.
“Ah-huh.” Arzhi finally managed.
Verselle huffed. “It’s Iota tech, Arzhi. Top of the line, expensive Iota tech.”
“And I wish it cost you an arm and a leg,” Heylen crowed. Verselle turned beet red. “You’d shut up more! Let ‘em take your tongue!”
“Stop,” Arzhi said. Heylen gave a nod respectfully.
“Again, don’t know why you brought them....”
Arzhi’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you bringing in outsider stuff into my Timeline without permission?”
Verselle sighed, then raised an eyebrow. “Do you really think it’s going to make the instability worse? We’re practically one of the worst already. And this is just technology, not-”
“No we’re not.”
Verselle heaved a greater sigh.
“And I don’t like that you went behind my back about it.”
Verselle’s shoulders deflated. “Arzhi. I asked you about it a dozen times over the course of the year. You kept telling me you’d figure it out later.”
Year. Year, right, four hundred and something sun cycles. “I was going to speak to Ochre myself. I hadn’t gotten around to it.”
“Oh, shut up, Verse,” Heylen snapped, crossing their arms. “You’re wasting Arzhi’s time.”
“He’s not,” Arzhi said.
“I’m not,” Verselle said, at the same moment. “I’m just trying to help him!”
Arzhi gestured to Heylen for them to shoo. They obeyed without a mote of protest, wandering off. Arzhi watched in silence until he was certain they were well out of earshot. Verselle, in turn, watched him.
Once Verselle, too, realized that Heylen was far enough, he lunged. Arzhi startled, but Verselle’s hands only landed on his shoulders with a renewed vigor and desperation and opened mouth, eyes wide - but he only gaped, voiceless.
Arzhi blinked, then reached up to unhook Verselle’s wrists and gently lower them. He didn’t resist. Instead, he pulled his hands over his lap, tail flicking.
“I’m just trying to help,” Verselle said. “I just want to make sure we have a future secured.”
“Hmm,” Arzhi toned.
Verselle didn’t lift his head. “You know that. I know you know that. I had this imported with my own money, you know. Money that I would happily put towards Rho’s future. That I have put towards Rho’s future. I wish you’d take it more often. For things like this.”
“I don’t need money,” Arzhi said.
Verselle huffed, brushing his hair out of his face as he righted himself. “I’ve caught on to your Fragment ways, you know. Had a sizeable portion of my coffers converted into raw augmetia.”
“That Ochre fellow was quite pleased to-”
“-You have a, a mountain of augmetia somewhere? That’s-”
Verselle waved him off, “It’s uncharged and kept in a secure underground vault. It should pose no harm to anyone.”
“That’s not really... better....”
“I can take you to see it?” Verselle offered, head snapping to Arzhi, eyes almost glinting, “Would that put you at ease?”
“Yes. Don’t change the subject, though.”
“I’m not,” Verselle protested, wringing his hands slightly. “You know, he did offer to upgrade your ship for-”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“Am I? We’re still talking about Rho’s future.”
“Why did Ochre let you buy this? Did you say you had permission?”
Verselle frowned at the ground, then lifted his head again, “Would you believe a bribe? I couldn’t believe how willing he was to take it.”
“You bribed him?”
“That won’t get you in trouble, will it?”
Arzhi rubbed his temples. An image of Jubilee’s disapproving glare flickered into his mind. The excuse of a rogue mortal followed. The likelihood of the COR even finding out darted after. Iota’s turn-a-blind-eye finished it.
He shook his head after a second.
Verselle let out a relieved breath. “I’m so glad-”
“I don’t think you should be asking forgiveness instead of permission,” Arzhi said.
“You weren’t going to talk to him. I - I have to do something to help you!”
“Could help by becoming an assistant.”
Verselle’s muzzle scrunched. The unspoken protests, cried so many times before, filled the air: uncouth, undeserving of his bloodline, not good enough, not helping enough, not worth it.
“You don’t want to,” Arzhi mused. “That’s fine. This isn’t fine.”
“I was going to give the voidship to you,” Verselle said, as if that helped, arms crossed tightly still. “Have it as security just in case. And I would be willing to put much more money towards more being shipped here in case-”
“Okay. Then let me put money towards- towards whatever solution you find best for Rho.”
“We don’t need money.”
“Arzhi,” hissed as Verselle’s hand dragged down his face. “Please. It’s the least I can do. You know that.”
“I appreciate you trying but I don’t need this kind of help.”
“No?” Verselle reached forwards. Arzhi didn’t stop him from linking their hands. “Even though you’ve been doing this for years, Arzhi? Longer than I’ve been alive. Wouldn’t it be nice to have help?”
“That’s why I have assistants.” Arzhi freed his hand.
Verselle paled. “Arzhi - is doing the same thing over and over really the right answer for Rho? Shouldn’t we be looking forwards? What happens when we lose everywhere?”
Arzhi stared. “You don’t really understand how old Rho is.”
“That’s not - I’m trying to say, that isn’t it an inevitability that -” Verselle hesitated, “that at some point, we’ll have lost more than we have? Is your library going to help us in that situation? When we run out of space to live? What worth is an archive then? I’m just trying to - to ensure we have somewhere to go.”
“I understand.” Arzhi looked back up at the machine. He squinted up at it, then tilted his head back down. “I don’t think this is the answer.”
“Then what IS?!” Verselle threw his arms open, “what is, Arzhi!? Iota’s been losing parts of their Timeline for eons; why is it wrong to look to them for help? They’re practically our cousins! Their technology is the perfect answer! We can transport everyone into - and - we can live in voidspace once Rho’s-”
At once, an image conjured itself in Arzhi’s mind. His hands, splayed open, placed on a pulsating organ of magic, the ripples of its power sending waves up his arms.
Heart thumping in his chest, he pressed back against the swell, forced his own magic as a wall against it. It crashed and broke, sprayed his face with raw magic for the effort, gurgled like it was dying. He pulled strips of it across strips of it, stringing it together bandages of its own flesh. It writhed, resisted, screamed. Screamed like they haven’t done this a dozen times before.
Its protests stilled as he finished, sealing the bindings with a burst of his magic. A fresh circle engraved itself onto the Timeline’s heart.
It would hold for now. His hands disappeared to his sides, and bile from the effort rose in his throat.
“I’m holding it together,” he said.
Verselle’s face was only pitying. “Frankly, I don’t think you should have to anymore, Arzhi. We already ask too much of you. Why not let us take care of you instead?”
“Ah-huh. I’m fine.”
“That’s why I had to -” Verselle paused. “Well. You know what. I am sorry for going behind your back. But I didn’t really have any other option. You were going to string me along for years! Years we might not have!”
“Sorry,” Arzhi said, then blinked again, “Uhh-ah, we have more than years.”
“Do we? That’s what I’m saying.” Verselle prodded his palm definitively. “Nothing is guaranteed for us in Rho.”
“I’m not saying it’s not bad.” Arzhi’s muzzled scrunched up. “It is not as bad as some of the others, though. We haven’t lost anyone in... uh....”
“Six thousand years.”
“Yes. Six thousand.”
“Six thousand years of depending on you to sense when a location is being lost, tear across Universe Core at breakneck speed, haul the mortals out on your back in the nick of time, and then skip right back into your boat to continue collecting your censuses and whatnot. Do you see the problem?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Arzhi,” Verselle said, voice crescendoing with exhaustion, “are you seriously incapable of-”
His voice died in his throat at the sight of Arzhi’s tiny, tiny smile. He let out a loud sigh, almost offended, turning his back to Arzhi, tail trembling. Arzhi’s tail flicked in response, but his grin didn’t leave.
“Glad to see someone can laugh about all of this,” Verselle hissed. “What else are you pulling my leg about?”
“I make my fun somehow,” he said. “I don’t really see the problem with depending on me. It’s my job. And it would still be my job to round everyone up if... we were to somehow move into these... machines. It’s not safe for mortals-”
“-To be exposed to voidspace, yes yes,” Verselle waved a hand.
“And we’re not going to lose Rho anytime soon.” he tilted his head. “Not in your lifetime, not in a million of your lifetimes.”
“I’m an Immortal,” Verselle protested, almost as if reminding him. Unspoken: my parents ensured that. Don’t you remember? Don’t you recall?
Arzhi simply stared.
After a tense beat, Verselle continued. “I just don’t understand why you want to do all this alone. How can you be happy with your entire life wrapped up in - in chasing after a dying Timeline? That’s why I’m trying to help you. Why I put so much of my money and effort into this.”
“I know. We talk about this every few years or so.”
A blush blossomed on Verselle’s face. “W-well. It hasn’t changed my feelings about it.”
“I do appreciate you trying. But not behind my back. Or...” he glanced up at the machine again. “Bringing... this thing in.”
“It can survive voidspace. Iota use similar models for transferring people and cargo between their Core archipelagos. Of course, they have a wide variety of sizes - you know, some of them are very small for daily transport, like a bus almost, and I almost bought-”
“Very good for them. How did you go to Iota?”
Verselle froze, then sighed. “Direct as always, aren’t you today?”
Verselle covered his mouth, staring at the sands for a long moment. Arzhi waited. Then: “I know it was wrong of me.”
“Is it something that other people can use?”
“It’s an artifact.”
Arzhi frowned. “Where did you get it?”
Verselle’s face contorted into pain and uncertainty. Something wormed into Arzhi’s gut. Trepidation.
“A lost place,” he said, for Verselle. The other nodded. “You have to stop doing that.”
“Why?” came a quiet almost-growl. Not quite angry. Closer to desperate. “Here I am, Arzhi, with a wonderful power akin to yours. Why won’t you let either of us use me?”
“It’s not predictable,” Arzhi said, simply. “If your concepts shift, you could lose the ability very easily. Mortals are-”
“-more predisposed to concept-shifting due to their malleable nature. If you were a Fragment-”
“-it would be different.”
Verselle stared back at him, eyes unreadable. His muzzle was still scrunched, his arms hugging himself miserably, his tail shaking in pent-up passion.
“I just want to protect you,” Verselle said, voice cracking.
“Do you need a water?”
“Fucking - hell, Arzhi.” Verselle flopped onto the ground, head in hands. He let out a broken laugh a second later. “I - you know what, sure.”
He summoned a cup and presented it. Verselle reached, hand wrapping around the glass and Arzhi’s fingers tightly, lingering.
“Then make me a Gladar,” Verselle said, voice strained. He didn’t let go of the cup or Arzhi’s hand.
“I’m sorry. I don’t really do that. Nor is there a way to guarantee none of your concepts shift.”
“So? Let me -” Verselle caught himself, fell silent. His hand twitched. “Let me stay at your side longer, then. I’ll last a long while as a Gladar. Even without my resistance. You deserve... someone to help you.”
Arzhi stared down at him.
Verselle stood, clasping his other hand on top of the cup as he rose. They were the same height, Verselle staring with hopeful desperate wide eyes, body tense in anticipation.
His voice, however, was surprisingly steady: “Arzhi, I-”
“Slow day, Arzhi, pal?”
They both turned. Heylen was speaking to - yelling at, actually - another figure swaggering towards them both, smile lopsided, hands tucked in pockets. They paid Heylen no mind, sauntered to a stop just short of the duo, and mock-fanned themself.
In the middle of the desert. At night.
“I always do forget how warm Rho gets. It’s practically sweltering,” they said, though the smile didn’t somuch as twitch. “I don’t know how you stand it, wearing that many layers!”
“Hi, Tower,” Arzhi said. “Why are you here.”
Verselle’s head whipped around to him. “Tower?” he repeated in a snarl, “who’s this? Arzhi?”
“In the flesh and magic! Sorry to interrupt... this,” Tower said, circling a finger at them, “I’m here on a matter of business, but it can wait for you to finish your... meeting.”
The snideness in his voice was not lost on Verselle, who had bristled like a cat. He startled when Arzhi patted his shoulder. Oops.
“What business?” Arzhi frowned, turning to Tower. “It can’t be good business. How did you even get in?”
“Better than you might think. I’ve got a proposition for you and Rho.”
Verselle and Heylen tensed hard enough that they both froze. Arzhi tilted his head. “Um... that’s kind of a concerning thing to hear from you.”
“Am I really such an omen?” Tower brushed off a bit of his coat. “Well, either way, you’ll at least hear me out, won’t you?”
“Sure. How did you get in?”
“The Arzhi I know and love!” Tower beamed. “I can only hope this goes as smoothly as Eta did.”
“You visited Eta for something?”
“Oh yes, and they found my terms rather agreeable.” Tower inspected the back of his hand, eyes flicking up to Arzhi. “I’m just asking for a spot of privacy whenever you have the moment so you can hear them out, yourself.”
It was like he was trying to come off as more of an evil omen. The guy managed it flawlessly, without effort.
“Okay. Why don’t you...” Arzhi looked up, then down, “wait on top of the thing. I’ll be up behind you in a few moments.”
Tower glanced at the beast and chuckled to himself. “The ‘thing’. Importing Iota machines now, are we? Maybe you’ll find what I have to share extra worthwhile. But very well. Don’t make me wait long!”
His wings flared, and he launched up, disappearing over a wave of wires and bronze. Before he was out of sight for more than a second, Verselle was already grabbing Arzhi by the shoulders again, turning him so they were face-to-face.
His and Heylen’s voices mixed at once: “Who was that? What does he fucking want? Where is he from? Who does that jackass think he is?”
Arzhi held up a hand. They stilled. He glanced between both of them, and said simply, “He’s another Fragment.”
“Another Fragment? In Rho?” Verselle’s eyes widened.
Heylen balked, “Arzhi, I - I tried to stop him coming over but he didn’t stop! Didn’t listen to a starsdamned word I said!”
“It’s okay. He’s like that. It’s not your fault.”
“Is he dangerous?” Verselle cut in.
“He’s from another Original. Psi. I don’t actually know why he could be here...” Arzhi hummed, “I’ve only seen him before in Eta, with the other Psi Fragments. Maybe something happened with their new one. And he wants my help...?”
“New one?” Verselle pressed.
“Sorry. It’s a really long story. Actually, I’m not even sure why he would come to me. Unless maybe everyone else has turned him down.” Arzhi peeled one of Verselle’s hands off. “I should go speak to him.”
“He’s not going to do anything.”
“You don’t know that!”
Arzhi’s muzzle scrunched. “Yes I do?”
“I’ve been telling you, Verse, Fragments are too trusting of folk,” Heylen said, with a shake of their head, “Guy’s halo was brighter than the sun, and he... Arzhi, listen, I don’t agree with that rich ass on much, but-”
“-Let me come with you!” Verselle blurted out.
“That’s not necessary.” Arzhi peeled the other hand off. Verselle clamped them both back on and he sighed lightly. “You’re not going to let me say no.”
“Heylen’s right!” Verselle squawked, “He was - you want to just go talk to him? What if he kidnaps you? Hurts you?”
“...What? He’s not going to-”
“Yeah, I ’unno why you find him so trustworthy,” Heylen unhelpfully added.
Arzhi’s frown deepened. “I’ve - I’ve known him a long time. He’s not going to do something as unhinged as that.”
“You said you only met ‘im at Eta parties? And that’s enough for you?”
“Yes? And even if not, it’s - there’s - the COR,” he managed. “If he did anything to me the COR would, uh, get him.”
This was a lot harder to explain than the “introducing your mortals to the nature of reality” pamphlets the COR always had in the waiting rooms implied.
“This mysterious COR you’re always prattling about,” Verselle said, face contorted in concern, “you really think they’d come save you? Why don’t they come help you with Rho, then?”
Arzhi stared at him for several long seconds. Then, quietly: “I’m not going to convince you, am I.”
“I just want you to be safe,” Verselle pressed, leaning forwards, muzzles almost touching, “I just want-”
“-And you keep saying he doesn’t have a crush on you!” Heylen barked.
Verselle ripped himself away, face bright red, “I- I! Can you SHUT UP for ONE MOMENT! You ridiculous country inbre-”
“Both shut up,” Arzhi said, lifting a open hand and closing his fingers to accentuate, “Come on. I need to go talk to him.”
Ho offered a hand. Verselle took it almost gingerly, almost like he was grasping a sacred object. Arzhi frowned, but didn’t call attention to it.
Tower was sitting on the edge of the structure, legs dangling, turned towards the Southern Caravan. His eyes flicked around, catching details and wisps of people, as if committing them to memory.
He turned, appropriately, when Arzhi landed, Verselle scooped in his arms. A wide grin broke over Tower’s face. Arzhi’s remained blank.
“Honestly, I was expecting you to be longer,” Tower said with a light shrug and closed eyes, “I appreciate your speedy response. You know, I always thought of you as rather punctual.”
“How did you get in?”
“Hm?” Tower opened an eye lazily to inspect him. “Why, Arzhi. The same way any Fragment would. I teleported my concepts through the Timeline’s outer barrier.”
“I have wards. You didn’t alert-” the wards alert was back on his ship. Arzhi’s tail flicked. “Nevermind actually.”
“Wards? Concerned someone would break in?”
Concerned someone would break out, actually. He placed Verselle on his feet instead of speaking and gave him a pointed look.
Tower’s grin widened, barely covered by his lifted hand. “Ah. I see. Is this your-?”
“One of Rho’s mortals,” Arzhi clarified.
“Immortal, actually.” Verselle offered a hand to Tower. “He-him, Psamathe Verselle Selle-Set - yes, heir to Selle-Set - it’s a... pleasure.”
Tower’s grin did not falter. He did at least take Verselle’s hand and shake. “Quite the tongue-twister on you, little mortal-”
“-Which one of those names do you go by?”
With caution befitting the situation: “...Verselle.”
“Excellent to know, Selle-Set. And at your service-” Tower bowed gracefully, “Milk and Stone, the Tower. Fifth star of Timeline Psi, second-to-last in our great creator’s tapestry. I don’t care what pronouns you use.”
“Selle-Set is my family name, actu-”
“Tower. Why are you here.”
“Arzhi. You’re a direct person, no? Then I’ll be direct in turn.” he leaned forwards, almost ready to tell a secret. “This may come as a surprise, but Psi and Eta have tired of the COR’s heavy-handed rules hand-in-hand with their unwillingness to actually offer a hand to any one Original.”
“I’m sure you’ve a myriad of stories you could share about their... hm, shall we say, reluctance to do anything of substance.” Tower patted the machine. “Resorting to importing Iota tech? It speaks volumes.”
Arzhi’s frown tightened. Verselle glanced to him, eyes wide.
“But it speaks volumes in another way, does it not? It speaks to our unity, fragile as it may be, as Originals. To our willingness to help each other, even against the COR’s rules.” he spread his arms wide. “After all, of the millions of Timelines shuttered into life by our great creator, who other Frags could claim to understand what we have gone through but each other?”
“The Spire,” he said. “Creator’s Spine. AKN-12. Feathered Sundering. JLMA-909489.”
“You remember JLMA’s entire sequence?” Tower sounded incredulous. For once.
“Well. That speaks to your dedication, Arzhi.” Tower chuckled. He still didn’t lower his arms. “Your kindness. Did the great people of JLMA know how Rho suffers? Do you think they would have cared? Can that be said about any of the Connecteds?”
“...I don’t know. Everyone in JLMA is dead, anyways.”
“Another notch in the COR’s expansive failures, is it not? If they fail even the Connecteds... how can they hope to properly care for the Originals? Hah. As if they care beyond trying to ‘preserve’ us in their twisted fashion. Why let us grow and change, as a Timeline should, in service to pretending we can exist as static works of art?”
“Okay. So what about all that? Why bring this up?”
“Because I have a solution, Arzhi. Psi and I have crafted one.” Tower clasped his hands together, pulling them away to show an infant ball of magic. “The COR is riddled by and beholden to its myriad of rules. Without those rules in place, it would collapse under its own weight. We can exploit this.”
“The signatures of all of a Timeline’s guardians are what leash it to the COR.” he opened his hands, and the magic expanded. “But those same signatures can be given to a declaration of independence. It’s happened dozens of times before.”
Arzhi regarded the ball.
“For us Originals? The guardians are us-” the ball flickered to a facsimile of Tower, then Aryl, then Arzhi. “-Natural Fragments. Unified in our dealt hand of cards, custodians of the Originals. We who intimately understand the suffering that was placed upon us by nothing other than lady luck.”
“You want to leave the COR.”
“All of us, as a collective. In the place of the COR’s oppressive hesitancy, we would form an alliance. The Foundational Alliance. A way for us to help one another, legally, free from the COR’s laws. With enough Originals behind the Alliance, they would have no choice but to bend the knee. We could support one another, visit each other’s Timelines, share technology and information and magic dedicated to fixing them.”
“You want my signature for this.”
“And you want my Timeline to join.”
“Yes.” Tower’s face was serious, reserved, no smile. It approached disconcerting, uncomfortable. “Psi has already pledged. Eta as well.”
Arzhi hummed. “You want Rho to be the third. Why?”
Now Tower quirked a smile. He conjured a contract in his hands - emblazoned with the signatures of Aryl, Phenyl, and Xylyl. “Anyone would dismiss our cause with only Eta backing us; they’d accuse me of sleeping with Aryl to guarantee it. But you, Arzhi, are calm, collected, determined, and respected. To have your name behind the Alliance would sway many of our peers. And Rho would appreciate the help, I imagine.”
Aryl. Phenyl. Xylyl. Arzhi stared at the names, in each of their handwriting, and the name ‘Eta’ scrawled at the top of the sheet. It was cradled in Tower’s magic lovingly.
At that, Tower lit up like a beacon.
Verselle tugged on Arzhi’s cape. “Can we speak in private for a moment?”
He turned. “Sure.”
Verselle pulled him a few feet away. It was practically useless for stopping Tower from eavesdropping, but it probably made him feel better.
He leaned forwards to whisper, “I don’t trust this Fragment.”
“It’s Tower.” Arzhi said, in way of explanation.
“What, is it - is that just how the Timeline he hails from is? Is that his excuse?” Verselle looked perturbed at the idea.
“I haven’t been to Psi.”
“What do you know of it? Maybe he’s trying to get more support for his own Timeline. Who’s to say that he’s being genuine about helping Rho?”
“I don’t think he is.” Arzhi hummed. “Psi is... in a worse shape, though.”
Verselle huffed. “Is it really? Or do you just consider it to be?”
“It’s called the Poison Well for a reason.”
“What does that mean?”
“A well is generally a shaft used to obtain water, and poison is-”
Verselle sighed, loudly, hand pressed to face. He looked sheepish, though, as he pulled it away. “I’m sorry, Arzhi. I don’t mean to be short with you. I just - do you really want to answer to him?”
“I won’t be. It’s an alliance, not a fiefdom.”
“You’ll get outvoted! He said there were five Psi Fragments!”
Arzhi frowned. “There are a lot of Fragments outside of Psi. Gamma has twenty I think.”
“...Twenty?” Verselle peeped, eyes wide and vacant.
“I don’t mean to interrupt you two lovebird’s discussion,” Tower said, sliding into frame, “but I do understand you obviously must discuss this matter with your devoted guard dog and lover, despite-”
“Gee, Tower. Shut up.”
Tower froze. It was only for a split second, but it was all the second Arzhi needed to have an excuse to grin. Verselle’s eyes flicked between them, tense.
The grin on Tower’s face twitched an inch larger. “I’m afraid I’ve never heard those words before in my life, Arzhi. Do translate?”
“My translation is be more quiet. Can I have the contract?”
Tower conjured it with a burst of magic, and offered the document like a proud parent. Arzhi flicked through the text. It was exactly as Tower said.
He supposed that made him relieved.
“Listen,” Verselle barked, suddenly. Tower barely turned his head to acknowledge. “I may only be an Immortal, but I have connections and wealth beyond my peers. And the protection of Arzhi - and Rho - is the banner to which I’ve been opening my coffers since I came of age. If you - if you harm him, or let harm befall him, I will - do everything in my power to return it to you ten times. Do you understand me?”
“He’s feisty,” Tower said. “How old is this one?”
“I’m! I’m eight hun-”
Arzhi frowned, conjuring his pen. “Don’t talk about Verselle that way.”
“Right, I’m sure you’re closer to yours than I am to mine. Well, half of mine aren’t even mine.” Tower chuckled. “That’s a great part of why we’re pushing for this. We’ve all gotten that short end of the COR stick.”
“Well!” Verselle bristled, “I’ll be at his side for every meeting you drag him to for this alliance! So you’d best remember my name! And my threat!”
“Oh? Is that so, Arzhi?”
Arzhi glanced at Verselle, then returned to signing. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Well then. I look forwards to making your proper acquaintance, Selle-Set,” Tower said, voice dripping with smugness. He turned the contract to inspect it - eyes lighting up at the sight of Arzhi’s signature - and magicked it away somewhere. “Muchly appreciated, Arzhi.”
“I have a question,” he said.
“Of course. Let me hear it?”
“What is your plan for Phi and Zeta?”
Tower laughed, heartier, from his chest. More genuine, probably. “How probing of you! I’ll hunt down Ferreon at Headquarters and at least have that signature as a sign of goodwill. Who knows? Maybe he’d come live in Eta. As for Phi....”
He paused to think, smug grin, hand clasped over chin, wings flaring slightly. An overdramatic act. After a second, he let his fingertips light with magic, and tapped his head conspiratorially.
Arzhi scoffed. “Yeah. You’re not going to mind-control Ivletri.”
“Are you so sure of that?”
“Aw, Arzhi.” Tower snorted. “Well. I’ll approach him, though his answer is likely obvious. We - Cradle and I - have deduced that he’ll simply be a member by proxy. The COR will not want to enter our voidspace without reason, and he’ll eventually capitulate after being cut off from them for a few dozenthousand or so.”
“I don’t think he will.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, won’t we?”
“You say we. I’m not helping convince anybody.”
Tower shrugged, smirking. “You’re a riot of laughs, Arzhi. I’ll be glad to be seeing more of you.”
“Any more questions? Or threats?” Tower half-turned to Verselle, who stepped between the two Fragments in response. “Ahah, I’ve made him mad again, Arzhi.”
“No more questions. Thanks. Hope the rest of the convincing goes well.”
Tower gave another bow, and then disappeared in a flash of light.
But it took several minutes for Verselle’s outstretched, protective arm to lower, for Verselle’s breathing to slow to normal. Arzhi put a hand on his shoulder and earned a startled jolt in response.
“Arzhi, you’re - you’re fine.”
There was a longer pause. Verselle fiddled with the edges of his tie until, painstakingly, “I trust your judgment with this Alliance. I wish you wouldn’t call it your Timeline so much, though. And I don’t like that man.”
“It’s fine. I’ll be the one mostly talking to him.”
“Arzhi, that’s - that’s not okay. You shouldn’t have to deal with... him. He’s so... off-putting.”
“You don’t have to like him to agree with the idea,” Arzhi said, gesturing lightly. “There are more Originals than just Tower. You met Ochre.” he gave Verselle a pointed look.
The other wilted slightly. “That’s - even this Ochre fellow didn’t impress. His creations were fascinating, sure - the double-layer magiengine was - no, wait. Nevermind that. Who else in the Originals could you possibly be willing to put up with... him for?”
“I put up with worse.”
“Um, you can’t repeat this.” Arzhi leaned forwards. “Especially not at any meetings. But Chomyzi.”
“The... gray one that visits sometimes?” Verselle’s muzzle scrunched. “Are all your peers terrible, unappealing people? Are you the only good Fragment?”
“No. You’ll meet a lot of good ones soon.”
“I sure hope you’re right about that....”