Part 41: One's Story: VisitorsOne's Story: Visitors
JANUARY 1ST, 999 AD
It was the first day of the New Year, and joy filled the faces of the people gathered in the Cathedral City.
By virtue of my uncanny vision, I knew their smiles were genuine. There was the twinkle in their eyes; I could see their cheeks draw as laughter formed on their lips... Not a single brow was furrowed, nor did the corners of any mouths turn up awkwardly to indicate they were faking it. The Intoners had defeated the lords in each of the lands--the Sands, the Forests, the Mountains, and the Seas; the remnants of those regimes had been wiped from each land and the masses freed from tyranny.
Today, an Intoner returned in triumph, and the people had been looking forward to it for some time now. If anyone was feigning a smile, it was I. The only person there beating back a frown and fighting the urge to crouch down and cover her ears was the Intoner--me. For a moment, I wished I had brought my younger sisters along, but I quickly brushed the thought away. All five Intoners entering the Cathedral together might have been best for appearances, but my sisters each had obligations of their own. We would be less than good rulers if we left vacant the lands we had only just brought under control. And I would have to summon my sisters here soon anyway; I know the appointed time was growing closer.
I smiled from my horse and waving to the throng lining the sides of the road. Their cheers grew louder, and I could tell my horse was uneasy. He wasn't used to this kind of commotion. I was not fond of my horse, whose stench was intolerable, but I understood how he felt. He wasn't the only one who had to suffer through the long ride all the way from port to church. I would have returned here secretly if I could--after dark and unnoticed. I wanted to be alone; my mind and body were exhausted from day after day of battle without rest. But that was me being selfish and nothing more; it was best the great Intoner make a spectacular return and impress upon the people that peace and order had been restored to the world.
It didn't matter that my keen senses caused their simple cheers to bring me skull-splitting pain and displeasure.
JANUARY 27TH, 999 AD
I spent all my days after my return to the Cathedral City holed up in the library. I loved it there. The thick books packing the shelves shut out sounds and voices alike, making it quieter than anywhere else. There was no helping the dust or the fusty odor, but it was significantly more tolerable than the stink of man or beast.
Sight and hearing were not my only heightened senses. All five were extraordinary: smell and touch and taste included. It hadn't been as pronounced when I was little. If you went all the way back, my senses used to be only slightly sharper than other people's. But as I got older, those senses advanced at an absurd rate. Noise and odors became a constant irritation; being touched, even through my clothes, brought me displeasure; no matter what I ate, I was not able to relish it; excessive visual information battered my nerves. But right from birth, the Intoners' bodies all grew too quickly in their own way; in my case, it was my senses. What business did I have hoping for a normal life when I could wield greater power than normal people?
Footsteps broke the silence: on person was running toward me; a second person followed at a brisk pace. Before they reached me, however, they jerked to a halt. I sensed then that they were tiptoeing to avoid making even the slightest noise. Eventually, there was a hesitant knock at the library door. I already knew who it was: someone cheerful and fully of energy, and yet kind enough to be considerate of my heightened sense of hearing.
Just as I was about to greet Two, the door made a disagreeable noise and I heard a tiny shriek.
I'm so sorry. I broke it.
The oldest of my younger sisters was on the verge of tears when she emerged from behind the door. The doorknob she had ripped off was still clenched in her hand.
Just like I had my keen senses, Two grew in her own prominent way: her muscles. You wouldn't have known it by looking at her; if anything, she had a delicate frame. But her arms and legs were tremendously powerful--strong enough to twist a brass knob right off the door when she tried to open it like the next person. It could have been that she had gotten stronger. She was always careful with her movements to avoid injuring those around here, and only broke things after a sudden burst of brawn, which cost her the ability to control her muscles by tactile sense. Her growth was erratic; just when you thought it had leveled out, the next spurt caught you off guard.
Still, Two grew on the inside, which was more than could be said for my other sisters. Three's hair grew several times faster than normal, to the point she had to carry around scissors for her frequent trims. And poor Four had really struggled with her endless fingernails. Hair, you can ignore somewhat, but nails get caught on everything; they chip and they break. Before long, she had taken to biting them off, which had apparently been a tough habit to break. Even still, Four's nails ate away at her self-esteem; it pained me whenever I saw her frantically trying to cover her hands.
At the other end of the spectrum was my youngest sister, Five, who loved to flaunt her overdeveloped chest. Four would savage Five behind her back, saying that no one her age ought to have that full a bosom, that it was sick and obscene. In retrospect, I think it was envy talking-- she felt inferior. The fact that Five was happy with what she had only rankled Four all the more...
Oh no! One, what should I do?
Two's voice pulled me back into the moment.
Don't worry about it. It was old and already half broken.
Once I'd told her I would get someone to fix it, she brightened right up. Two's face could be on the verge of tears and instantly turn into a smile. That simple side of her hadn't changed one bit since she was little.
Anyway, it's so good to see you again, One! How have you been?
She made it sound as if we'd been apart for a while, but hardly any time had passed since I had taken Two and her disciple to put down the nobles' rebellion.
Wait. I guess it hasn't been that long, huh?
The man standing next to her shook his head. The way he ran his hand through that raven hair of his struck me as hopelessly pretentious, but it never seemed to bother Two. If anything, she liked it. Every Intoner had a disciple--a man to help and serve her--and this was Two's.
Don't tell me we're the first to arrive?
Yes, you were.
<eyes sparkle> YES! Number one!
You're always number one to me, Lady Two.
Oh, Cent, stop it. You're number one, and I love you more than anyone else in the whole world!
Two's cheeks reddened as she professed her feelings. It felt embarrassing to watch these exchanges, which they had kept at year in and year out, but it was good for an Intoner and her disciple to be bound together by so fierce a love.
That said, the two of them could flirt until the end of time if left unchecked, so I decided to step in early and get the conversation back on track.
And how are things in your land?
Oh. Well, a huge monster--like, this big--built a nest in the desert and caused all kinds of trouble, but I got rid of it.
I wanted to know what the nobility had been doing since we stripped them of their lives of privilege, or if there was any indication they were up to no good. But Two's mind was elsewhere; she wanted to talk about monster attacks and the harvest this year. Still, the fact she could stay interested in crops at all was arguably why the Land of Sands was doing so well on the whole. The people around her must have been dedicated; I had heard her soldiers were willing to lay down their lives for her and that she was loved by the commoners. The greater part of the Land of Sands' soil was occupied by deserts and wastelands. The earth there was poor, and its people struggled to live. I had chosen Two to rule because I thought she might bring light to their lives, and it had proven to be a sound judgment.
Hey, do you mind if I explore the inside of the Cathedral until the others get here? Can I, can I?
Before I could even nod, Two had done an about-face. I realized it had been over half a year since she had lived in the Cathedral City. She had wanted to explore the place then, too, but never got the chance; our stay had been chaotic. So I could understand why, after coming all this way, Two didn't want to miss out again. As she left with the same childlike spring in her step she'd always had, her raven-haired disciple bowed and followed her out. Again, the library fell quiet, and I got back to work reading the spines of the books. I hadn't just holed up in the library because it was quiet. I was looking for something. I had heard the Cathedral library housed tomes from every age and culture. Perhaps I would find it here: a book that told everything about the Intoners; a book that could answer my question:
Why do we exist?
FEBRUARY 14TH, 999 AD
Four, who ruled the Land of Mountains, arrived with her disciple Decadus much sooner than I expected. Hers was the farthest nation from the Cathedral City.
<deep sigh> I asked Three if she wanted to make the journey together, but she refused to leave until she finished her dolls.
Nothing new there. Don't let it bother you.
It was unlikely that Four had been turned down so much as ignored outright. Three was the strangest of my sisters. Ever since she was a child, she had loved dolls, and everything went in one ear and out the other while she was making them. She even forgot to eat or sleep. Poor Four must have approached Three just as her doll-making was reaching its climax.
You want the latest.
You know me too well, Four.
Everything is on track. As you now, the land is thinly populated. Neither the farms nor the towns are very large, making it an easy land to rule over. Why lord after lord wanted to lay waste to it, I'll never know. It makes you marvel at their incompetence.
Of course, if the place had been any different, I wouldn't have let Four near it. She was smart and meant well, but she was also poor at dealing with unforeseen circumstances. They caused her to panic and shut down--or lash out. In other words, she just wasn't suited for ruling a vast, populated nation.
I'm not worried about the Land of Mountains. Tell me about the Land of Forests.
There was a reason Four went through the trouble to approach Three; I asked her to keep an eye on her neighbor. Even I knew entrusting leadership to someone as odd as Three was a gamble.
Surprisingly enough, Three is doing all right. Considering she's up against those repugnant faeries and stuck-up elves, maybe I wasn't giving her enough credit.
Humans were not the Land of Forests' only dwellers; if anything, between the faeries' abodes and elven retreats, humans were outnumbered. This was exactly why I decided Three was right for the job. The non-human races detested human intervention. How well you got along with them came right down to how well you could leave them alone. The Land of Forests' previous rulers couldn't do it; they tried time and again to subjugate the other races and failed. But Three lacked even a shred of territorial ambition, and would therefore never repeat their mistakes.
Moreover, the fewer humans Three had to interact with, the better...
Sorry, it's nothing. Go ahead.
Well, that's it. So, all is well with the Land of Mountains and Land of Forests. The nefarious lords that ruled them are no more, and the people can get back to living without worrying that every last grain of their newly harvested crops will be stolen.
So that's the end of being forced into unpaid labor.
Is something wrong?
Do you really want us to go through with this?
That's why I summoned you.
We have nothing to gain from this fight.
So we should just lie down and wait to get murdered?
No. You're twisting my words.
I'm telling you what your words mean.
<sighs and looks at floor> You've changed, One...
Yes, I have. But not just me.
Like it or not, we all had. We couldn't stay children forever. We had to change; we were Intoners, and change was the only way to keep our songs' power in check as it grew mightier with each passing day. At some point, it hit me that our bodies all had something wrong with them for a reason. What was my song's power? I understood from my first moments that it was meant to preserve harmony in the world, but where did I learn it? Who taught it to me?
Four looked like she had more to say, but she eventually left the library in silence. Her disciple, Decadus, followed her out quietly. At some point, the two had stopped looking each other in the eye. Was she unhappy to be stuck with a timid middle-aged man? Compared to Two, Four was cold to her disciple. And yet her disciple accepted the treatment without a word of complaint, aggravating Four all the more. Once the pair's footsteps could be heard no more, I resumed my research. I had been searching for a record of the Intoners ever since returning to the City, but had yet to find anything. Nothing about the disciples, either.
Perhaps I had been going about it wrong. Instead of "Intoners" or "songstresses," I wondered if they might appear under a different name. Beings with magic as potent as ours couldn't possibly have escaped mention entirely. On top of that, our songs were invoked through an entirely different method than so-called spellcasting. Scholars of magic wouldn't have been able to resist making note of it.
And yet: nothing. Why not? Had someone deliberately concealed it? Expunged it? And if so, to what end?
FEBRUARY 22ND, 999 AD
I thought we would be the last ones. Two tells me Three isn't here.
I wasn't surprised. If anyone was going to arrive late, I knew it would be either Three, because she lost track of time making her dolls, or Five, because her land was closest to the Cathedral City and she assumed she had all the time in the world.
See? Told you there was no hurry.
Five's disciple could have been mistaken for a fragile young man, but the image was ruined the moment he opened his mouth. Once, when Four was lashing out, she had denounced him as a "rotten little shit." I was more or less inclined to agree.
You don't listen to a damn word I say.
What? How can you say that?
All right. How about last night, when I said, "hey, let's just go to sleep," and you kept me up who knows how long just so you could--
<clears throat> Let's keep this brief. Any news from your land?
The lord of the Land of Seas had more power than the others; she and the rabble that flocked to her were at the center of wealth and power of every kind. So of course they were going to hate us for taking it all away. Of course, they themselves had leeched it away from their own people, so it was silly for them to accuse us of taking anything. In any case, their land had more troublemakers than the others by far. I had expected Five to have her hands full keeping them in line, but my fears were apparently misplaced.
<giggles and winks> Don't you worry. The old lord's followers have all entered my service.
With a wan smile, the disciple next to her made a quip about all the servicing she needed. Five had never been able to cope with not getting what she wanted. She was insatiable. Once she set her mind on something, she just had to have it. And while her pushiness sometimes invited dark looks from those around her, she was the perfect ruler for an unruly nation. I remembered that, despite our best intentions, we had destroyed several of the Land of Seas' ports while routing the last of its dissidents. Even when we exercised the utmost of care, it was difficult to wield our power without damaging the surroundings; it had just grown too strong.
By the way, did you manage to restore the ports?
That's been going smoothly, too. We've even started receiving merchant ships from the eastern lands.
Which gave Five the perfect excuse to go on a shopping spree. She sold every last one of those jewels the old lords saved up!
The castle of the previous lord, a woman, had been full of wardrobes and treasuries. Five was delighted, and insisted on keeping the abundant dresses and jewelry. But even though they were the people's to begin with, I let Five do as she pleased. As greedy as she was, she quickly tired of things. She obsessed over what she didn't have and lost interest in it as soon as she did. And sure enough, Five had grown weary of her flamboyant trappings and tossed them aside in order to get her hands on rare goods from the eastern lands instead. No doubt she would soon tire of those as well and try to trade them for something else. The end result: a healthy boost to the Land of Seas' commerce. There wasn't enough arable land there to support the population, nor was the weather conducive to farming. And while the ocean could be counted on for resources, it left much to be desired. But through an exchange of people and products, the Land of Seas would grow prosperous.
Not just the jewels--I sold the dresses, too. They had gotten so tight I couldn't wear them anymore! Being a fast grower isn't all it's cracked up to be.
<shrugs and grins> Say that in front of Four and she'll kill you.
Says the man who has set Four off how many times now? I started to ask, then stopped. Something else was nagging my mind.
Two had clearly gotten stronger. And while Four wore weapons to cover her hands, I could hear her clipping her nails day and night, which meant they must be growing the same as always. Slowly but surely, my senses were getting sharper, too. I found more and more that sounds and voices felt loud, even from inside the library. And now Five was saying her clothes had gotten too tight to wear. These grotesque physical changes meant our songs' power was still continuing to grow. When I had to body of a child, I longed to be stronger. But now, part of me was frightening of just how strong I might become.
All right. We're done.
I told them I had research to do and hurriedly walked away. I wasn't lying. I wanted to get back to work at once. For all my searching, I still hadn't found a single account of Intoners. I was losing my patience. What if there was no such account? I flipped through the pages impetuously, wishing it could brush my fears away.
MARCH 3RD, 999 AD
Three showed up no sooner than the morning of the day it happened.
I had been stacking dusty tomes since the crack of dawn, still fuming over the utter lack of progress with my research. I heard the scissors before anything else. Then I heard footsteps: one person walking erratically, another at a regular rhythm. It was Three and her disciple.
I walk on two legs in the morning, twelve legs at noon, and one leg in the evening...
<enters room> What am I?
What took you?
Some of Three's riddles had a point, others didn't. Most were just meaningless plays on words. When she was little, Three hardly spoke, but ever since learning to make dolls she had become a garrulous talker. Perhaps playing with dolls and playing with words weren't so different.
Your hair... Don't tell me it's stopped growing?
Certainly not, my lady. A short while ago, I took it upon myself to coiffure my lady Three's hair. Ho ho ho.
Octa tried to present himself as a sly old goat with a few quirks. In fact, his quirks were anything but few. Ordinarily, Three's hair reached knee length, but at the moment it ended along the curve of her back. She had a terrible stoop. So Three's hair was growing as fast as always. And why wouldn't it? There was no reason for her to be the sole exception. We needed as much power as we could get in the fight that was now at hand. But what about after that? After our last enemy had fallen, what would stop that power from becoming more than we could handle?
<yawn> I'm tired
Instead of stretching, Three slouched even lower as she yawned. I'm tired had been Three's mantra ever since she was a child. She would start to droop whenever she wasn't making dolls, and could sit down just about anywhere and fall asleep.
Don't sit on the books. The old things will topple over and you'll get hurt. Why don't you go sleep in your room a while.
..... <lurches to side>
The Land of Forests was just as far as the Land of Mountains. Both Three and her disciple must have been tired from their long journey. Four had already reported on the Land of Forests, so there was no need to talk about it right now.
I had expected Three to do an about-face on the spot, but she made no effort to leave. Instead, she was playing with her scissors with a dead expression. I could never tell what she was thinking. And it wasn't just me; the disciple next to her couldn't have had a clue either. Still, every now and then I felt like my weird little sister saw everything. Like she understood things far better than I. I wondered if Three hadn't already found the answer I'd been seeking ages ago.
I won't be able to sleep.
Aren't you tired?
I felt like we were having two different conversations, but it wasn't the first time. I shot the disciple next to her a look.
I'm busy. Go ahead and do whatever you like.
Yes, my la--
A great serpent whiter than snow carries the rose fang.
<stares at One> But where is the fang going?
This was no play on words; I already knew the answer to the riddle. A serpent whiter than snow... A white dragon. It was carrying someone with rose-colored eyes. And the fang: the weapon in her hand. Three was trying to tell me she had seen our fated adversary on the way here.
Today was going to be the day.
<deep sigh> I guess I'm out of time.
I never did find any record of Intoners. Nothing about our songs, about the disciples--nothing at all. So be it. I wouldn't have been able to look through everything in a library this vast anyway.
Who's right? Is it you? Is it Two? Is it Four? Is it Five?
Is it Zero?
We're all right. In our own minds.
I wouldn't be able to do this if I didn't believe I was. People aren't strong enough to go into a fight knowing they're wrong. That's why I needed my answer. I needed to be able to shout at the top of my lungs that no, this isn't a mistake...
Was I that unsure?
Three's puzzled tone made me realize I'd been laughing.
It's nothing. I'm fine.
Whether I had my answer or not, it didn't change what I had to do. So what if I didn't know what Intoners were? So what if I didn't know the reason for our power? I could still fight. What did I have to be uncertain about? I closed my book and stood up. The faint roar of a dragon reached my ears. There was no mistake, then. The traitor would be here soon. And with Three and her disciple in tow, I left the library.
Come on. It's time to keep that promise we made.