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Karen's Command [story]

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The news spread all the faster for being unbelievable.


Long-former Syndicate member Karen Albedo, née Cwaenwyb Helbyrtwyn, alias Lady Pine, alias The Silver Giant, alias That Bedamned Royalist (an appellation from Lord Lolorito) -- the quarter-Sea-Wolf who moved like a shark through Ul’dahn finance, gave away her power for the sake of an estranged son, survived the Calamity and prevented the total collapse of her family’s wealth -- lay dying.


Kannadi Albedo, sixty years her junior, found it impossible. She continued to find it impossible as she ran down the avenue, having dropped her shopping at the news through her family linkshell. She remained firm that it was impossible as she barreled through the All Saints’ Wake costume parade, coming out the other side trailing fake cobwebs and wearing someone else’s hat askew on her shoulder.


Her utmost conviction in the outright impossibility of what she had heard only grew as she slammed into the lift, shouted something incendiary at the attendant and rode to Ul’dah’s upper level.


And so, adamantine in her confidence that her cousin the doctor was wholly, totally, completely and utterly mistaken and furthermore due a slap about the ear for telling her such lies, Kannadi stormed into the Phrontistery.


Her monolithic certainty collapsed into sand when she saw the eighty-seven-year-old giantess lying prone on a bed barely big enough in a room that seemed to expand with the speed of horror.


Kannadi had seen a few faces that she could describe as “ashen.” Most were on zombies. Karen’s was nearly there, pale and drawn and slack. Slack, that was what struck Kannadi: her grandmother was always poised, always alert, always at most an ilm away from predatory tension. Not like this limp thing with its hand being held by its eldest son.


Kannadi tried to ask her father what happened, but the roughness in her throat from screaming and running had laced itself shut in horrified shock. Her eyes -- her grandmother’s, passed down -- shot the query anyway.


“Heart attack,” Torrent Albedo said, with effort. He was fifty-seven. Kannadi heard roughness in his throat too.


Doctor Rasim Albedo, Kannadi’s eldest cousin, had a better grip on himself. “I’m given to understand that she was moving her firing range targets by herself,” he said from his wheelchair. His body ended at the knees. “Heavy things. One of her attendants heard her collapse. That was close to two hours ago.”


“Some people outside,” Kannadi forced herself to say.


“Less than she’d like, I’m sure,” Rasim said.


“She’ll recover,” Kannadi said, her self-control dancing atop a landslide in her head.


Torrent kept hold of his mother’s hand as he looked at his daughter. The look was enough. Kanandi’s throat shut again.


“She was able to speak not long ago,” Rasim said, wheeling himself closer to his cousin. 


“She asked for you the second I was about to call.”


“What else?” Kannadi squeaked.


“Nothing else. I rather hoped your presence would rouse her again.”


Kannadi drifted to her grandmother’s side. Her father said not a word.


“Mother at the Wells again?” she asked him. Torrent nodded, dislodging tears she hadn’t noticed had welled up. Her father rubbed his face on his shoulder rather than release Karen’s hand.


Kannadi fished under the bedsheet and took her grandmother’s other hand.


“Grandmother?” she asked.


Karen’s eyes slit open, checked her surroundings and shut again. “Who else is present,” she demanded in a sigh without a question mark.


“Just me, Kanna and Rasim, Mom,” Torrent said.




“Closed, Mom.”


“Lock it.”


“Yes, Mom.”


Torrent rose and hurried to the door. Karen rubbed her hand on the top sheet.


“And stop panicking,” the matriarch said, her tone slowed by a weakness Kannadi could tell she hated. “Your hands sweat.”


“Sorry Mom.” Torrent locked the door.


It wasn’t an expensive hospital room, not like the one that was nearly a hotel suite when Kannadi broke her arm in her youth. It was functional. Karen had gotten big on efficient functionality since the family finances took a Dalamud-sized hit. It saved money, she said, and it did. The fact that she was still richer than most could ever hope to dream of was a detail easily ignored.


“Kannadi,” the old woman said. “I am dying.”


“Everyone is, Grandmother,” said Kannadi, who tried to smile.


“Then I may beat them to it,” said Karen, who succeeded.


Karen squeezed her granddaughter’s hand. Torrent knelt on the opposite side of the bed and Kannadi knelt with him, shoving aside shame that she hadn’t done so already. Karen breathed deep and regained a small measure of her characteristic tension. Kannadi was glad to see it, but noticed her cousin’s professional concern and her father’s filial worry.


“I keep informed,” Karen said. “Your father. My retainers. Old contacts. They tell me there are… items… that turn back the flow of time.”


Several emotions ran so fast to the top of Kannadi’s mind that they collided and clanged out dozens of thoughts. No, Grandmother, they don’t work on living things. No, Grandmother, that’s just allegorical, they’re simply maintenance materials. No, Grandmother, don’t go, don’t be so damned soppy about this, you’re stronger than that, please don’t go, don’t be so depressing, there’s nothing I can do…


“Allegorical, I know,” Karen continued, oblivious. “There was that man who drank that so-called Oil of Time, and he got…” her eyebrows knitted in a moment’s thought. “What did you call it, Rasim dear?”


“Acute gastroenteritis characterized by frequent combustive paroxysm.”


Kannadi’s jaw dropped in spite of herself. “What, actual combustion?”


“Green flame, as I’m given to understand,” said her cousin with the straightest face she had ever seen.


“And there was that man,” Karen said, “who swallowed a handful of so-called Sands of Time.”


“Gastroenteritis again,” Rasim nodded. “Though it concluded in osteoporosis. He ended up vomiting far more granular mineral than he ingested.”


“And yet on materials of ancient make, these substances work miracles,” said Karen.


“Likely a trait of the original pieces and not the maintenance substance,” Kannadi said quickly. “They’re made of something that responds only in the presence of these Oils and Sands.”


“Yes,” said Karen, turning her face to her granddaughter, “and they respond with creation. Not repair, renewal. Holes filled, not patched, tears unified, not stitched, thinness made thick, not layered.”


“They don’t work on living matter,” Kannadi said as kindly as she wished and as sternly as she dared.


“Then make them.”


Karen’s gaze was horrible. Desperation mixed with stubborn strength and spun like candyfloss around solid fear. Kannadi wept in self-defense.


“You study things,” Karen said. “Study this. You solve problems. Solve this. Examine what makes those substances work, then make it work on flesh. I will eat, drink, or otherwise take whatever you devise.”




Karen turned her head to stare at the ceiling.


She wept.


Kannadi had never seen it happen. Judging by the look on her father’s face, neither had he.


“I do not want to die,” her grandmother said. With her surge of energy spent, her face slackened again.


Kannadi’s hand flew to Karen’s neck and bumped into her father’s fingertips, already there. A pulse remained. Both of them sighed.


“Well?” Torrent said, staring hopefully over his mother.


“Father, what she asks is…”


“Entirely reasonable,” Rasim said, wiping his spectacles.


“Oh come now, cousin, you’re a chirurgeon!”

Rasim fitted his glasses back on. They shone. “She started her command with ‘study this,’ Kannadi. So study. If the rest of it turns out impossible, then so be it, but do not refuse to do what you can.”


Kannadi blinked at her cousin, shedding lingering tears. This is a man, she thought, who witnessed a flaming stone from Dalamud kill his parents, and then witnessed the tower they were in come crashing down upon his legs, yet still had the wherewithal to stop the bleeding and save himself. He ought to know something about what one can do.


Kannadi comforted her father and left the room some time later when it became clear Karen had nothing more to say.


She walked in thought, apologized to the lift operator, passed another parade.


Study, eh?


She had already subjected the oil and sand allegedly-of-Time to analysis, for her own curiosity, and had hit enough dead ends that she had set well aside the question of how they worked. Nothing seemed to pierce their mystery, no matter what manner of test she tried. 


Sunlight exposure, chemical exposure, aether exposure, no answer came clear through the microscopes…


The microscopes. Ah-ha…


Expensive things, yes, but only bits of metal and bent glass. Common materials, regardless of the price for quality. But these weren’t common things her grandmother wanted studied. Perhaps the problem was one of equipment…


How long could the old Silver Giant hold out?


Kannadi raced to her apartment, her mind spinning with apparatus designs...

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  • 1 month later...

Not Karen! Can I say that I have been following your writing since first exploring the RP community for ARR (which is admittedly only a few months time having stumbled across your field Journal either on the Lodestone or some other blogspace) and your construction of Kannadi is inspiring.

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  • 1 month later...

Not Karen! Can I say that I have been following your writing since first exploring the RP community for ARR (which is admittedly only a few months time having stumbled across your field Journal either on the Lodestone or some other blogspace) and your construction of Kannadi is inspiring.


Well gosh.


Sorry I only now noticed this reply. The initial reception was crickets, so I never bothered to post the continuation and conclusion which I had posted at my FC's site months ago.


Time to fix that.

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She had completed the spell.


Twist the aether just so, avoid aspectation by generating a Thamassian Fog first, pass it through the somatic barrier at the proper pulse rate…


All parts were difficult, but the particularly difficult part had been projecting the wavelength of spiritbonded memory so that it persisted in the speci-- in thesubject, without damaging it. Kannadi’s learning process ended with the injections she intended, but it had started with bludgeons. There were many accidents. A jackal had exploded. Luckily there was never a shortage of monsters in need of culling, and practice quickly made perfect.


The next task had been to apply Oil and/or Sands of Time to the given subject. Happily, the usual forging process seemed to be unnecessary for a living body. Unhappily, the body didn’t enjoy staying alive thereafter. The spell allowed for greater aetheric convection so the Allagan materials would work, but there were unexpected problems of reliability.


The sea-scorpion had petrified, for instance. She still wasn’t sure why. The yeti had accelerated its age so fast it crumbled to dust. The kraken had melted into a foam of what turned out to be eggs, which were summarily killed with fire. The giant cactuar had shrunk to a week-old cutting and started following her around. Kannadi had named it Saguaro in a moment of levity.


Saguaro bounced idly from leg to leg as voices carried on far above.


“It seems your spell is sound, at least,” came the older woman’s voice.


“Hardly, Grandmother,” the younger woman’s voice said. They both spoke softly. The physicians had been dismissed, and the door was shut and solid, but sound traveled.


Kannadi was alone with her grandmother. She suspected the tiny cactuar wouldn’t spread rumors of what transpired.


“Cactuars of that size take a very long time to grow,” said Kannadi, “and Gerolt’s memorybond only records the time of his masterworks’ completion. He hasn’t been a useless lush for that long.”


Saguaro bumped Kannadi’s shin for attention. She kicked and sent it cartwheeling into the curtain of the elaborate breakfast cart. Its needles, though short, were still enough to snag it on the fabric and stick it upside down. It wiggled, gently clattering hidden silverware.


“The time subtracted and the time between his peak and the present simply don’t equate,” Kannadi said. “There must be something else at play.”


Her grandmother hadn’t yet touched the breakfast laid on the, yes, silver platter across her lap. She had hotel-quality room service in what several trusted and therefore well-paid doctors tried to prevent becoming her deathbed. It was so very like her.


“But it works,” Karen Albedo said. Her face was drawn and gaunt, but at least it wasn’t ashen anymore. To switch one horror for another, her expression radiated hope. Hope in the unproven. It was so very unlike her.


“It doesn’t work as intended,” Kannadi said.


Karen gripped her lap tray for emphasis. “You can reduce the age of a living creature, Kanna dear. Have you the slightest idea--”


“--How much people would pay, even for a chance? This is Ul’dah, Grandmother. If Lolorito--”


Karen spat at the name, missing her breakfast.


“If Lolorito,” Kannadi continued, “or any of the rest heard, do you really think they would pay for perhaps one chance in ten of being reduced to something asvulnerable as an infant?”


Karen at last took up a bread roll. “They can afford bodyguards,” she said. “So can I. Even at cribside.”


“You aren’t thinking straight.”


“Of course I’m not. I’m confined, lest exertion finish what the heart attack started.” Karen tore into her roll. The rest of her breakfast was inoffensive grain and water, not an onze of the sausage she ordered, and Kannadi could tell it offended her.


“Then think legally, Grandmother. What real estate rights does an infant have? What wealth is allowed of a minor? The law would no longer recognize you, presuming first of all that my spell even works so well as to leave you alive!”


“Try it and see,” Karen said casually between bites.


“I’m not about to turn you into a pile of dust or wet matter, Grandmother.”


“I’m both at this very moment. All of us are. What have I to lose?”


“Your life!” Kannadi punched the mattress two-fisted and leaned hard. Annoyance successfully dammed the tears. Not anger, that was important. It was definitely annoyance at how lightly her grandmother seemed to be taking the likely prospect of suicide.


Karen stared at her, gray eyes to gray eyes. Carefully and without a fuss, Karen tucked her pinky fingers under her tray and lifted it off her lap. The water in the glass at one end wobbled.


“Kannadi,” she said, “I will lose it anyway.”


The tray hit the serving cart at speed with a satisfying crash and clatter that disentangled the cactuar.


A nurse instantly threw open the thick oaken door, but Karen’s hand was already raised.


“Muscle spasm,” she said. “My fault entirely. Take all of it away, please.”


The nurse was Nadra, one of Kannadi’s cousins, younger than her. Nadra had initially served her brother Rasim the doctor as a pair of functional legs, but she had made herself a fixture of the whole Phrontistery. Even if her idea of responsibility made her a busybody.


“I’ll get your waitstaff, Gramma,” Nadra mumbled, grateful that she hadn’t propped a cup against the door this time. It would’ve been too incriminating.


“You will take it yourself,” Karen said.


And she did, because one didn’t argue with a glare like that. Kannadi watched Nadra work in silence until she wheeled the serving cart away and gently shut the door. Saguaro peeked from under the bed, where it -- he? -- had scuttled.


“I doubt if she heard much,” Kannadi said.


“Lock and ward it, Kanna dear.”


Kannadi complied even though Karen spared her a glare. Warding a door against sound was a time-consuming process that she had skipped before. Now it provided time to think, but Kannadi didn’t use it. What was there to think about? Killing her? It was out of the question.


Kannadi always loved her mother Avani’s abundance of support, of course, always enjoyed having it, wouldn’t say anything negative against it. Karen, though, her father’s mother, always came off to Kannadi as... more compelling. If Avani was a mountain, Karen was a glacier. More mobile, to the perceptive. Moving with more foresight, more irresistible shaping strength. More hazardous to navigate. More dangerous. And yet equally on Kannadi’s side.


Her mother was her strength to weather the ills of the world, but her grandmother was her strength to weather them, actively, to scour and erode and make disappear.


Kannadi was a reserved child. Avani was a reserved adult. But Karen had taught Kannadi that holding back built pressure, built power. So she held many things back to power the turbines in her head.


Kannadi was patient. Avani was patient. But Karen taught Kannadi that patience could grind peaks into prairie. So she ground away at mysteries until the vague future day when all horizons were clear.


Kannadi hated surprises. She was alone on that. But Karen taught her that nothing surprised someone who was sufficiently prepared. So she prepared herself for everything she could.


Except her grandmother’s mortality...


Kannadi finished the ward after ten minutes. She knocked twice on the sturdy wood, to a resounding silence.


“What is there that you have yet to try?” Karen asked.


“The same process on hundreds more creatures,” Kannadi said, turning from the door. “I need more specimens, more practice.”


“I will wait no longer. I have no time.”


“I need more,” Kannadi repeated. “The ones your age or older, with a larger ‘time buffer’ as it were, are highly uncooperative. I have to beat them into submission, to near-death, before I can even get close enough.”


“You can get close enough to me.” Karen beckoned. “Come, at least demonstrate how you would do it. Pretend I’m a monster.”


Kannadi successfully kept her face straight and stepped forward. She extended her right arm, holding out an invisible staff.


“First I project a simulation of the memory-bond from Gerolt’s masterworks into you.”


“Very well.”


“But to make it perceptible to the Allagan substances at all, the spell weakens the somatic barrier -- what is to your aether as skin is to your body.”


“And this means what?”


Kannadi lowered her imaginary staff. “It means that ambient aether can cross into your body easier than usual, which… muddles things.”


“And it doesn’t work on dead bodies?”


“I can attest with certainty that it does not.”


“I see. The next step?”


Kannadi rubbed her fingers as if dusting sugar. “Then I, well, sprinkle the stuff on you. It doesn’t require forceful persuasion as it does with objects. I think it may be due to vital aether galvanizing the differential convection of--”


“--And this is done after the projection?” Karen cut her off, lest she recite a dissertation.






Kannadi blinked. Her lips parted. Surely not...


“Well,” she said after a moment, “for practicality. If I dosed the specimen before it was subdued, the Oil or Sands of Time would have rubbed off or fallen away in the regrettably assured battle.”




“Monsters, particularly older ones, are quite averse to small creatures throwing things at them.”


“I guarantee I will not be averse to your process.”


“The order of application oughtn’t matter,” Kannadi began, but her grandmother smelled uncertainty as a shark smells blood.


“Oughtn’t it? Who are you to tell ancient Allagan science how it ought to behave?”


“Fine, but I haven’t--”


“--Haven’t experimented enough, yes? Then think. Wouldn’t this Timestuff have a more stable reaction to your spell if the subject were willingly exposed to it first?”


Kannadi almost rolled her eyes. “This is science, Grandmother. What does will have to do with it?”


“Will is everything, Kanna dear,” said Karen in a professorial tone. “Will is the capacity for freedom. Will is the border of life. Will is the very soul. And didn’t you tell me that aether could reflect aspects of the soul?”


Kannadi hadn’t said that exactly, but she knew a good point when she heard one. Karen pressed her advantage.


“And I guarantee you again, my soul will be in total focus. No ambience will trouble your spell, with me allowing you in.”


Kannadi, mentally stumbling, secured her footing on fact. “But there is no proof that aether can carry the shape of will!”


Karen moved under her sheets. “That is only because your device doesn’t tell you which bit is which. Did you bring any of the Timestuff with you?”


“A flask of the Oil, yes, but Grandmother you really should--”


“--I should do what I will to do.” Karen stood out of bed, dressed in a nightgown. “And I will have you work your spell on me, here and now.”


Kannadi looked up, unmoved, which was difficult. Her grandmother loomed no less ominous for the demure frills and lace of her gown. Kannadi still managed a stolid huff.


“You can’t force me to possibly kill you, your pride won’t let you reduce yourself to blackmail, I don’t even have my staff right now, and what if it does work? Do you expect me to reduce your age at regular intervals?”


“I wouldn’t impose so much on your kindness, Kanna dear.”


“Yes you would, Grandmother, and you’re already imposing a great deal. So please don’t lie to me.”


Karen stared at her a moment, then smiled.


“You’re so close. So very close to confirmation. So close to a truth never seen, never touched.” She spread her arms before her granddaughter. “A specimen stands before you, and you will never find another more willing. Its body isn’t much longer for the world. It is a perfect opportunity. How inefficient it would be to waste it.”


Kannadi hesitated. Her grandmother knew everyone’s resonance frequency, and the words rang in Kannadi like a Sil’dihn temple bell, muting her internal protests.


Inefficient. Yes, it would be, wouldn’t it. Spending resources was one thing. Wasting them was quite another. And wasting an opportunity to learn an unknown scientific truth? That was the closest thing to a sin the nonreligious Kannadi had.


All right, so she hadn’t accounted for either willingness or order of operations before. She could try.


And then what? She asked herself.


What indeed? Kannadi hated mysteries, hated riddles. She felt that they mocked her for not knowing the answer.


So know the answer, dimwit! Cast the spell! Learn, and be enlightened!


Yes... she would try, and with a clench of her brain she banished all thought of getting it wrong.


But even so, if anyone knew, there would be questions. Demands. Incarceration. Disappearance. And not just about the spell.


“Grandmother,” she said, “I was witnessed with you in a locked room which I then warded against sound. If eighty-seven-year-old Karen Albedo disappears, by either my success or my failure, there will be inquiries.”


Kannadi knew how to ring her grandmother too. “Inquiries” implied questions asked by paid-off authority in locked rooms, truth arrived at by tunnels and shade and sharp things. The old woman had made several, in her heyday. She had even been inquired after. It wasn’t a thing to inflict on a family member whom you liked.


Karen reluctantly returned to her bed, failing to conceal the tremble in her knees.


“Right as always, dear,” she said. “I will endeavor to be somewhere less conspicuous for you to cast your spell. Will that do?”


“It should,” said Kannadi.


“Then open the door and send for Rasim. And your father. I know better than you how to convince him of anything.”


“That’s easy,” Kannadi said, “just tell him it’s rare.”


“That may be nine-tenths of it, but he needs to hear it from me.”


“Should I tell Nadra to come as well?”


“No, the girl can’t keep her mouth shut.” Which was true. To tell Nadra would be to tell her sisters, and to tell them would be to tell the newspapers.


“What is your plan, exactly?” Kannadi asked.


“To wait here until you do as I command. I will not repeat myself.”


It was a statement of fact. They knew each other well. Kannadi knew her grandmother would in fact repeat if asked, but Karen knew she wouldn’t. It would be inefficient.

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Karen Albedo spoke in the freshly sound-warded Phrontistery room to her remaining grandson, her eldest remaining son, and her remaining daughter-in-law whom her son had brought along and who earned a scowl for being present. But Karen supposed she had as much a right to know as any. Kannadi and Torrent’s combined insistence was adamantine anyway.


Kannadi listened as her grandmother, sitting up in bed like a more casual sort of monarch, spun the story of what Karen demanded and what Kannadi discovered. Most of it was even true.


When Kannadi’s father Torrent raised various logical questions and emotional appeals, Karen settled them one by one. He thought of more than Kannadi did, but those too were shot down with characteristic finality.


As for avoiding Inquiries, Rasim in his capacity as doctor would hide the truth in all necessary medical records. He tried to explain that “Magical Experiment” was an admissible cause of death under inheritance laws ever since the incident with the previous Ossuary chairman and the plague of toads, but Karen wouldn’t have it. It would only raise further questions that might have made Kannadi’s life uncomfortable.


Kannadi herself held so firm to her stated confidence that her spell would work that she almost believed it. Her parents appeared to, anyway. Still, she qualified her self-assurance with the truth that she couldn’t be certain what age her grandmother would become. Saguaro, pivoting quietly in a corner, expressed no opinion.


“I suppose I’ll need a caretaker if I’m subtracted to a drooling newborn,” Karen said.


Her gaze fell meaningfully on Avani, Kannadi’s mother.


“I am sure a suitable arrangement will be made,” Avani said with more ice than Coerthas. “But I haven’t held a child in so long. Any number of things might make me lose my grip.”


To Kannadi’s astonishment, Karen withdrew. Kannadi looked on her mother with renewed respect.


“And if you aren’t an infant? If you’re my age, say?” Torrent asked.


“An easy one,” said Karen. “You will generously allow me the use of some of the property that you will inherit while I will pose as my illegitimate daughter.”


Silence shrank the room.


“I do not have an illegitimate daughter,” Karen said flatly.


Everyone breathed again. You never knew, with someone like her.


Rasim, who until then had absorbed the conversation with his hand over his mouth and his elbow on an armrest of his wheelchair, dropped his hand and sat up straighter.


“So what you’re saying, Grandmother,” he said, “is that you are satisfied with results that end in you becoming younger and alive. But are you really content with the possibility of -- and I stress this so that you’ll consider the selfishness -- granddaughter-assisted suicide?”


“I already agreed,” Kannadi said.


“You agree now, cousin, but will you still wish you agreed if it goes so wrong you end up wearing her?”


“Rasim!” Torrent shouted. “Kannadi knows what she’s doing!”


“And what she’s doing has a nonzero chance of death!” Rasim pounded his armrest.


“I’ve considered that possibility, cousin,” Kannadi returned with frost, “but I have a greater probability of success with Grandmother than any other... subject.”


“Can you quantify it?”


“No. But she weakens by the day. The worst that happens in all of this is that I hasten her schedule and you lie on paper. And speaking of, are you content with that?”


“You have no idea how many papers I’ve lied on for clients richer than all of us,” Rasim said. “I’m fine with it, but I am telling you that assisted suicide is not to be entered into lightly.”


“You have no idea how many people I’ve slain in the ordinary course of adventuring,” Kannadi said.


“And did any of them have a hundredth of Grandmother’s value to you?”


Not one, she admitted in silence. The silence spoke for her.


“Just think carefully,” Rasim said, adjusting his glasses. “I don’t want to have you in here later taking tranquilizers for anguish. I’ve seen it happen.”


“You won’t with me.” Kannadi looked to her parents first, to reassure them with a look, then nodded to her grandmother. “Will that be all?”


Karen scooted herself off the bed. Torrent rose immediately to support her, and to Kannadi’s surprise she leaned heavily on him.


“Nearly,” Karen said. “Doctor Albedo,” she said to Rasim, “you are hereby discharging me and allowing my clever and dutiful son, my brilliant and devoted granddaughter, and my daughter-in-law to escort me to my home. There, after an exquisite meal of something not served to Phrontistery patients, I will fall blissfully asleep to the sounds of music and the gentle fragrance of lavender, comfortably surrounded by loved ones--”


Avani coughed sharply. Kannadi elbowed her.


“--and enviable wealth, with all my worldly affairs in order.”


Kannadi knew an official lie when she heard one. “But the life of Karen Albedo won’t end there, will it?” She asked.


“I’m sure the paperwork will say so,” Rasim said.



- - -



After swapping her nightgown for a more becoming pantsuit, Karen made sure that she was seen using her son as a crutch on the way to the Goblet. She even took a circuitous and rather inefficient route through the city, but Kannadi didn’t comment aloud. It was all for the alibi.


Kannadi and her mother communicated in knowing glances along the way. It was amazing what one could express by the position of one’s eyebrows. Avani’s registered concern. Kannadi’s registered placating confidence. And that was all they needed. Words were inefficient, sometimes.


The Goblet seemed to spill new wards every other week. Karen’s estate had once been the only building in its ward -- she was an adventurer on paper, and most of that paper was a very large head-turning banker’s note. Now it had a mountain of neighbors. Witnesses. She wanted to pass each one.


“If you want them to think you’re dead,” Torrent said under the strain of being a crutch, “we could put you on a stretcher.” Kannadi could hear a twang of strain in his voice too. He was trying for levity.




“Maybe a cart? Sit you on a little stool in a big glass box like Ishgard used to do with their pontiff?”


Karen closed her eyes. “Avani, please elbow your husband.”




“Much appreciated.”


The image still worked to lighten the mood. Kannadi tried next.


“I suppose you’ve thought of a name for your legally new self? Something incomprehensibly Sea Wolf?”


Torrent gently clipped Kannadi upside her head. Well, she had tried.


“Funny thing, that,” Karen said. “The one-drop-of-blood statutes changed just before my arrival, so I chose to pass legally for Midlander.”


Legally, Kannadi thought, but no one could make that mistake face to face. One-fourth Sea Wolf lineage wasn’t, for Karen, dilute enough, but Kannadi privately treasured her own one-sixteenth, recessive though it was.


Karen continued, breathing harder, “The consonants no longer fit. I picked a name with a sound I liked. And then those residency fools spelled it such that anyone literate, which is everyone who matters, would pronounce it wrong. It stuck.”


“What?” Torrent said. “You never told me that, Mom.”


“It wasn’t important. The name I chose back then was Karrun.”


A spark flared in Kannadi’s well-educated mind. “The Nymian psychopomp?” She laughed.


“A homonym of it, yes,” said the almost-Karrun, who did not laugh.


“I beg your pardon?” Avani asked, lost.


“Charon, ferryman of the dead,” Kannadi said, chuckling unstoppably. “You would pick that, wouldn’t you, Grandmother?”


“I liked the sound,” Karen said. She clenched her jaw. “But spell it right and they’d pronounce it wrong again…”


She clutched her chest, making a fistful of ascot.


Her family stopped cold. Her mansion loomed within sight.


“Fine,” Karen grumbled. “I’m fine. Get me inside.”



- - -



The retainers had remained at the Albedo estate despite their mistress being held at the Phrontistery. A mansion didn’t protect or maintain itself, after all. Karen dismissed them for the evening, waving off their attempts to help her to her bed. Kannadi shut the door before Saguaro could follow her in.


Karen directed her family to her basement. The house-length room was a firing range. She had given herself the heart attack by moving too many of the man-sized wooden targets by herself.


Even down here, she had giant chandeliers. Kannadi looked up at one while her mother and father retreated to the stairs, on her insistence.


“Even now is not too late, Grandmother.”


Karen, at Kannadi’s side, unbuttoned her sleeves. “I’m sure it isn’t,” she said, moving on to unbutton her coat.


Kannadi looked back down. “What are you doing?”


“You said you had the oil with you, yes?” Karen dropped her coat on the shiny hardwood floor.


“Yes, and a simple anointment should be enough.”


Karen began unbuttoning her shirt. Kannadi slowly withdrew.


“This is not the time for shoulds, Kannadi. Apply it everywhere.”


Kannadi blanched. “You cannot be serious.”


Over at the stairs, Torrent’s expression was a mirror of his daughter’s. Avani stoically closed her eyes.


“Serious as a non-zero chance of death,” Karen said.


Kannadi looked at the ceiling again, directly into the light. “I’ve already had several lifetimes worth of this sort of thing, thank you.”


“You’re welcome. But it’s your spell, your process, your responsibility. Someone else might get it wrong.” Karen undid her slacks.


Kannadi rarely showed skin below the neck or wrists. It was definitely not a trait she inherited from her grandmother. And as Kannadi forced her line of sight away from the chandelier, she was reminded of why.


Karen’s skin was definitely her age, wrinkled and well-worn and spotty here and there. Time had thinned her muscle mass and softened her edges, but all of it hung on a frame of iron, like the memory of her prime was what she moved and her body followed it by force of habit. And her mannish height was the end result of decades of shrinking like any old woman; her name on the bloodsands had been Lady Pine, for good reason. It was a form to take pride in, and Karen certainly did.


For an instant Kannadi wished she were religious so that she could have someone to thank for her grandmother keeping her smallclothes on.


“Get to it,” Karen said, arms akimbo, unabashed.


Kannadi unstoppered her flask of Oil of Time and massaged it into her grandmother’s skin, with much care and more reluctance and abundant evasion of the Smallclothes Regions. Karen took care of those herself, giving Kannadi’s selective blindness a serious workout.


“I could just give you the flask,” Kannadi said, eyes clamped shut.


“No, there’s enough to spread. Carry on.”


Kannadi slit her eyes open toward the stairs. Torrent was thoroughly engaged in examining the masonry. Avani had produced a book from somewhere and read it very closely.


As the work continued, the doubt Kannadi had banished began to leak through its restraints.


Here she was, anointing her grandmother’s body for the grave. External embalming. The moment filled the present. Kannadi’s mind, treacherously observant, took in everything. The smell of the oil, the smell of spent firesand from weeks or moons ago, the shade of the light, the subtle squeak of her boots on the floor as she moved in place, the breathing of her parents a few yalms away, her own breathing. Everything she was, everything she wore. The details flooded in, unfiltered.


Remember this. This is the last moment before you fail.


Kannadi shut her mind again, restoring silence.


She had worked her way down to the floor when Karen clutched at her sternum and made a choking noise.


Kannadi bolted upright. Karen only grinned down at her, her skin shining under the chandelier.


“The next one might be genuine. Hurry up.”


Kannadi scowled. She heard a single loud clap from the stairs behind her, followed by a muffled grunt of a ribcage taking an elbow.


“I’m done,” she said flatly.


Karen turned her head to look at her son. He looked back. Kannadi could only guess what passed between them.


Karen faced forward, gave Kannadi a studying look, closed her eyes and stood as straight as she could.


“Then complete it.”


Kannadi grasped her staff before doubt could slip back in.


She breathed.


Much later, when she tried to puzzle out what went wrong, she realized she should have washed her hands before casting the spell.



- - -



The news spread all the faster for being unbelievable. Karen Albedo was dead, having expired in her home among music and fragrance and loved ones and enviable wealth, with all her affairs in order.


She had requested cremation, and so the funeral just outside the Ossuary featured a silver urn and a life-size portrait -- that is, as tall as her, but only portraying her head and shoulders. And so the Silver Giant’s dominant gaze looked down on the small procession of mourners and visitors. So very much like her.


Lord Lolorito even spared a moment to grace the event with his presence on his way to somewhere more important. Kannadi watched him at a distance as he lingered at the urn and portrait, silently smiling victoriously at each.


“Smirking little gremlin,” she said.


“Let him smirk,” came a voice behind Kannadi.


The formal service was over and the assembled had broken into small accretions. Kannadi’s parents were making the rounds, settling business and saying goodbyes. Kannadi loitered near an oil lamp with a specter of death: a very tall woman completely in black, veil and all. The lamp only added to the figure’s shadow.


“You could probably give him a heart attack,” Kannadi said, inclining her tone toward suggestion.


“Oh, he doesn’t startle that easily,” the standing shadow said. “Even if I stood by the painting and pointed at him.”


“Perhaps if you carried a scythe.”


“Much too slow a weapon for me, dear.”


“’Dear?’ Do act your age, Karrun.”


“Advice I could direct at you,” Karrun said. “Do act? You sound like a snooty old woman.”


“I’ll grow into it, I’m sure.”


“And you’re certain your spell won’t work on you?”


“I told you before, it’s like trying to see the backs of my eyeballs or bite my own teeth or digest my own stomach. Vital aether just can’t bend itself like that.”


The shadowy dress billowed as Karrun crossed her arms. “I still don’t see why it locks me out of another treatment.”


Lolorito began to move on with his entourage. Kannadi rubbed her thumb over her fingernails, deliberately nonchalant just in case he deigned to glance her way. He didn’t.


“I’d have to spend some time at my desk to elucidate on it in small enough words,” she said, “but it has to do with vitality convection and our, um, skin contact with the Oil of Time between. My body added a variable, or perhaps a score of variables. When my spell hit, it overshot the intended time subtraction and dragged you to my age. Another cast of the spell is impossible because it would think you are me, and recursion would keep me out.”


Karrun waited until Lolorito and company were well out of sight before replying.


“But you think for the aether of your spells, don’t you?” There was a suggestion of bunched-up eyebrows under the veil. “Can’t you just will it through?”


“Think of it like a bullet, Gran-- Karrun. Physics does all it can to spoil the shot once you aim and shoot. Any spell cuts through an array of clashing forces just to work, and this is one of those that simply can’t be cast on the caster. It was hard enough to make it work on you. Frankly I must have some sort of... natural affinity to this sort of thing to have done it at all.”


A large hand in a black lace glove settled on Kannadi’s shoulder.


“The word for that is ‘genius,’ Kannadi.”


“And the word for that is ‘inaccurate.’”


The glove gripped. “Just take a compliment for once. I could not be prouder of you. You’ve given me an extra life.”


Kannadi allowed herself to take the compliment without further contest. She supposed the life was hers to give, since she had invented it.


Karrun was much too young to be Karen’s illegitimate daughter. Down in the basement, Karrun had begun a sentence which held the trajectory of suggesting to pass as Kannadi’s illegitimate half-sister, but Avani had stopped it without a word. She had glared so hard that Kannadi almost heard earthquakes in the distance.


So Kannadi brought up the fact that she had a vagabond uncle who, though he had returned to his travels, was still alive…


And outside the Ossuary, Kannadi looked far up at the dark veil, behind which she could see the shape of a smile.


Kannadi returned it.


“Race you to the end, cousin?”

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