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A Conversation in Karen Albedo's Parlor [story]

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The first documentable reference to the existence of Karen Albedo lied on an old immigration form. The paper was initially stamped “REVIEW” before being stamped “CLEAR,” but it didn’t need a government official to catch the oddity. Under “Race,” the applicant had written “Hyur Midlander.” Under “Name,” the applicant had written “Cwaenwyb Helbyrtwyn.”


The second documentable reference took up a small portion of a vintage Bloodsands poster dated the following year. The poster advertised a bout between champion Victor Longdeath and one-quarter roegadyn newcomer “Lady Pine.” The odds were twenty to one against the young challenger: an immigrant miner who, judging by the betting stub attached to the poster, wagered her entire net worth on her victory.


A framed coal-dust copy of a check from the Mineral Concern, dated two years later, declared that one “Karen Pine” was entitled to seven hundred thousand gil. It was the first dividend of her generous investment in a low-valued strike that had turned out to be the Drybone Silver Lode.


Dried, yellowed newsprint under glass in different frames boasted of local events. A wedding to the successful private banker Mori Albedo. A mortal accident involving a dish of butter and a steep marble staircase. An immense transfer of wealth by a dramatic public reading of a last will and testament.


Karen Albedo preserved little else that the papers said about her. Only after a gap of decades did the news resume.


A front page told one and all that the Syndicate member and staunch Royalist nicknamed “the Silver Giant” had deliberately stepped down from power. An easy move, if unprecedented; all she needed to do was pare down her own wealth and keep it pared. The rest of the Syndicate was only too glad to bid her farewell.


“It doesn’t say why you retired, Grandmother,” Kannadi noticed aloud.


“It did, on a page I burned yesterday,” said Karen in her silk housecoat. Even at eighty-four, she could pass for hyur, because she was. Her height made calling herself a Midlander a bit of a stretch, though.


“No reason to keep that memory at all,” Karen continued, “now that your uncle and I have mended things.” She sipped her tea. There in her parlor, she watched Kannadi rummage in an ancient naval chest that somehow creaked even though it was already open. It held memories.


“And you have no sentiment attached to these documents?” Kannadi asked.


“None, Kanna dear. Take all of them if you like,” Karen said between sips of tea.


Kannadi rubbed a streak of clean through the brown grime on yet another pane of glass.  “I’d think Father would be more interested, wouldn’t you?” She asked.


“Your father would put them on display. With you, I know they’ll be safely stored among your books. I’m hiding trees in a forest, you might say.” Karen chuckled like an earthquake underwater.


“Why hide them at all? Why not destroy them if you wish them forgotten?”


“I want them nearly forgotten. Perched on the edge of memory and recollection. You’ll understand when you’re an old woman, dear.”


“Will I?” There was a tease in her tone.


“Yes, if you’re any granddaughter of mine.” Sip. “Which you are.”


“The face matches the memory now, hmm?”


“That’s not fair and you--”


“--What’s this one?” Kannadi held out a framed single-sheet grid table.


Karen squinted. “It’s from the first year after I shattered the bank. I’d rather not talk about it.”


Kannadi examined the sheet under glass. It bore nothing but numbers and business shorthand under the heading Metal Mirrors Financing. She put it aside.


“I heard business was troubled during my… absence,” Kannadi said.


“It was.”


Kannadi waited as Karen sipped her tea. She continued waiting.


“Most of the records were lost,” Karen said after a pause so pregnant it carried a litter, “but I still had my ways. We still have worlds more than I had when I first arrived,” she insisted.


“We do, we do.” Kannadi returned to the chest of papers, some framed and some not. All was quiet in the parlor safe for the occasional rustle and clink.


Karen set her teacup down, light as a thief, atop the thick book that served as her coaster.


“How did it feel?” She asked. “Your absence.”


“It didn’t.” Kannadi kept her attention on the chest and its contents. “I can’t speak for everyone, of course.”


“Then lucky for me that I’m asking you alone. What do you mean by ‘it didn’t?’”


Kannadi flexed her fingers. The span of five years hadn’t touched them. Even her nails had been the same length when she returned….


“I mean there was nothing much to feel. There was a glow, and… remember when I was twelve, and we went to that beach in La Noscea?”


“I do. I recall you were distressed.”


Kannadi smiled. “I’d never felt undertow before. It frightened me so. That was close to how the transition felt. Like holding still and flying and falling all at once, but without fear. Not an unpleasant sensation. And then after that there was nothing.”




“Yes. Not a feeling of emptiness, but no feeling at all. As though everything there was to feel with had undertowed back and away into….” Into what? There wasn’t a word for it, even in her vocabulary. “Blue,” she decided aloud, vaguely.


Karen’s broad eyebrows collided. “Blue? It has a color?”


“No, that implies eyes with which to see it, and even an it to be seen. So… colorless blue.” Kannadi rubbed her temple. “I apologize if that sounds meaningless, but that’s the best I can do.”


“That’s fine. And when you returned, how did it feel?”


Kannadi stared a malm through a rental deed that had expired before she was born.


“Like awakening from a dreamless sleep, only to remember moments later that you had dreamt after all. There were stars, I remember that much. And blue.” She rubbed her eyes for clarity that refused to come. “I’m sorry, it’s all mostly a haze. I’m still calculating it behind my waking thoughts. If that doesn’t sound meaningless.”


“Don’t worry, dear.” Karen rested her hand on Kannadi’s shoulder. Kannadi hadn’t even heard her grandmother get up. “Have you calculated anything more about your non-experience?”


“Only that I rather hope it’s what death is like.”


“Come now, you’re much too young for that.”


“I’m twenty-six, Grandmother, and thirty-one in parentheses. I’m old enough to contemplate mortality, far off as it might be.”


Kannadi looked up to where Karen loomed, and the comparison that came to mind first was to an ancient mountain.  One that had lost half its height and majesty by weathering, but whose hardest inner core, exposed by the ages, still dominated the environment.


“It’s not productive, Kanna dear,” Karen said. “Trust me when I say that I know of what I speak.”


“My apologies, Grandmother.” Kannadi rose to her feet. “But you have at least another decade in you, if I’m any judge.”


Karen hugged her granddaughter with arms that were once stronger than any man’s. “One can hope,” she said, as Kannadi hugged back. She stooped her neck to rest her chin on Kannadi’s head. “And on the subject of hoping, and productivity, and quite the opposite of death, I have a gift for you to take with the chest.”




Karen released her, returned to her seat and lifted her teacup. Underneath sat a book as large as a grimoire. Kannadi had seen and promptly ignored it when she first walked in; she took it as yet another long-winded adventuresome epic, based on the assembly of swords decorating the cover. Coaster duty was a fine use for that genre, in her opinion.


“I thought this might interest you,” Karen said, handing the book over. “Take a look inside.”


Kannadi took the oversized gift, clicking smoothly into the mental gears of humor-the-elder. She read the title aloud: “Twenty Blades and Twenty Sheaths, and How to Tend Them.” She blinked at her grandmother. “A manual?”


“Of sorts,” Karen smiled. “Two books came out a year after you… went abroad. They gained enough quiet popularity that they were soon bound into one complete work.”


Kannadi’s interest rose enough to continue being polite. She dreaded the task of catching up on five years of literature, but this was as good a place to start as any.


“I suppose my sword maintenance skills have suffered over time,” she said, returning to her seat and opening to a random page. “Illustrated, I see.”


“As one would expect.” Karen’s smile hadn’t left.


And illustrated it was. At least one line of sequential drawings broke up the text on every page. Each art-strip demonstrated different techniques of bladecare. On the page to which Kannadi opened, a smiling lalafell showed off a dagger to a hyur woman who, in the next panels of the sequence, sharpened the full length of the edge. Her meticulously illustrated fingers seemed to be taking exceptional care with the weapon.


Kannadi furrowed her brows. “The image is all wrong, you don’t hold a blade and a whetstone in the same hand. She could cut herself.”


“Keep reading.”


She turned a dozen pages in a pinch. Among the words, a drawing of a roegadyn woman proffered her scimitar scabbard to a male miqo’te, and in the next panels the swordsman’s fingers took inordinate interest in the strap ring above the scabbard’s open floral-carved throat….


Kannadi’s eyes widened at the speed of her blush. She turned pages. Men and women of every race and clan happily assisted each other with various ways of maintaining their weaponry. Quick skims revealed that the sea of text around them described the pictures’ procedures in innocent assessments of what to do with which and how. All it required was a simple substitution of words in the mind.


Kannadi went from turning pages to flipping them. Her eyes darted. It was a thick book, and by her estimation, not one combination of two possible assistants across the range of civilized races and clans and genders was left out.


She clapped the book shut and shot her grandmother a questioning look which found its answer immediately in the old woman’s smirk.


“Ever so quick on the uptake, Kanna dear,” said Karen as she poured herself more tea.


“And this was a popular book, was it?” Kannadi set it down as though it might bite.


“Wildly, to those who understood it. I must say, it is quite thorough.”


It took Kannadi several moments to assemble her thoughts in a coherent enough line to speak them. Karen took advantage of the silence to interrupt.


“You haven’t had any beaus since you left school, have you? I thought you might benefit from the study.”


The effect on her granddaughter’s train of thought was a derailment.


“I know you like all kinds, all sides. Or have you settled on one?”


The train crashed into a rock wall and exploded.


That is hardly any of your business!


“Isn’t it?” Karen coolly stirred a sugar cube into her tea. “How can I best ensure your happiness if I don’t know your proclivities?”


“That isn’t-- I’m more than capable-- you can’t just--!” Kannadi’s opinions crashed into each other on their way out of her head. She soon stammered on no words at all, gave up trying to express them and hurried to the open chest.


“Thank you for the documents,” she said, slamming the lid, “but you may keep that book.”


“I don’t need it, dear, I wrote two chapters.”


Kannadi flushed fiercely, grabbed the chest at both ends, hauled if off the floor and crab-marched to the nearest door.


“Always a pleasure speaking with you Grandmother we really should do this again sometime so sorry must run you know how it is take care see you later good bye.”


She slammed the door with a swing of the chest.


Karen smiled and sipped her tea.


“Well, there’s always her cousins….”

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