Sometimes even the Leader of Humanity just wants to get Out and About by herself...
"So, Captain Austin, how do you find the Arena, now that you have returned and had some time to accustom yourself?"
Ariane felt that she did quite well not to visibly jump at the deep, sonorous voice that she associated with the most severe beating she had ever taken. True, she'd emerged victorious, but despite that great and dramatic victory, what she remembered most about her battle with Amas-Garao was the feeling of being utterly outmatched; even the few times she'd managed to strike him, she'd felt like a child kicking an adult in the shin. I got ridiculously lucky – humanity got ridiculously lucky – but I'm not stupid enough to think I could beat him a second time.
Wu, she was pleased to see, had moved with startling speed and, despite Amas-Garao apparently having materialized from thin air nearby, had inserted himself between the Shadeweaver and Ariane.
"Well enough, Amas-Garao. Do you people have something against just walking like the rest of us, or is there a reason for you trying to make me jump out of my skin every time you show up?"
The low, rippling chuckle she remembered rolled out. "Jump out of your skin? A most… interesting expression, that. The mystique of the Shadeweavers is enhanced by our being seen only infrequently acting as the other inhabitants of the Arena will act. I am sure you understand." The cowled face turned slightly towards Wu Kung. "I notice that you have found yourself a most formidable bodyguard. Wise. Am I right to suspect it was Doctor DuQuesne who convinced you to have one?"
"More like told me I was and said he'd chosen Wu for the job," she said, continuing her walk along the Grand Arcade. One advantage of having a Shadeweaver with you on a walk is that no one gets in your way. The crowds parted before them like water in front of a battleship's prow; where most people in the crowded parts of the Grand Arcade might be practically rubbing elbows (or the equivalent), Ariane, Wu, and Amas-Garao had between two and three meters clearance, all the way around. "You say 'wise'. Do you know something I don't?"
"I undoubtedly know uncounted things you do not, Ariane Austin," the Shadeweaver answered, ironic humor in his voice. "Yet in this case I have no concrete evidence of a specific threat. It is simply wise to assume there is such a threat, especially when you are so visible a presence in the Arena, and one who has scattered many boxes indeed during her entry."
Ariane made a guess at what that expression meant. "I think you might exaggerate things a bit – dramatics being your stock in trade, of course."
"A bit, yes. Yet it is perhaps not clear to you how widely you are known, and how far your influence has already reached." The clawed, black-furred hand pointed at the soaring, straight-edged lines of the Faction House of the Blessed To Serve. "To give a single example of many; when you arrived, the Blessed had eradicated or turned most of the allies gathered by the Liberated. They had arranged to trap Orphan twice, and each time he had just barely escaped. Even when you first appeared, the fact that he had managed to ally himself with First Emergents caused more amusement than anything else.
"And then two of you defeated a Molothos scout force, winning your citizenship to the Arena in unprecedented time."
A faint gleam of white teeth; Amas-Garao's species did smile somewhat as did humanity, though the face beneath that hood would make a smile look like a threat of death. "Utterly unprecedented, Ariane Austin. In mere days you had gone from the naïve newcomers to true citizenship; others took years, some have waited centuries or more. This meant that the reputation of the Survivor," by which Ariane knew he meant Orphan, "went up by association. The Blessed's attempt to ruin this budding partnership… did not go well, as you know, and instead boosted your reputation. The Liberated suddenly had a visible and proud ally, and built mightily on that new visibility.
"And then, of course, you defeated me," he bowed to her, "in what I will not deny was one of the most utterly unexpected and spectacular victories I have ever been privileged to witness. Prior to leaving, you managed to evade, without Challenge, a most clever gambit by the Molothos.
"So in your few months here, your species has insulted and humiliated the Molothos – and thus far gotten away with it, despite being a single newly-emerged world; chosen an outcast and schemer as an ally, and benefited from it; humiliated the Blessed To Serve; and publicly humiliated the Shadeweavers themselves. While still but one person, the Liberated's power and influence have drastically increased due to the association; the Blessed have lost allies and prestige, for much more rides on each Challenge than the overt prizes for the victor; the Shadeweavers have found their mystique weakened, others viewing us for the first time in many millennia as less than invincible; and your little species, and you in particular, are now known and spoken of by every race of beings in the Arena, on worlds so far distant from your own that by the time the light from their stars reaches yours, your own will have died and dwindled to a cinder."
She admitted that, laid out that way, it did sound awfully impressive, even if she knew how much panic, desperation, luck, and prayer had been involved. "So did you come here to tell me how awesome I am, or did you have a purpose?"
The eyes gleamed yellow for a moment within the cowl, and she heard him chuckle again. She noticed that Wu was walking tensely; he obviously didn't feel comfortable around the Shadeweaver. "I did, in fact, Captain. You are of course aware that the Shadeweavers are not a faction in the same sense as most others?"
She nodded. "You aren't all required to be united, don't have any actual leader, things like that. In some ways you're more like the Powerbrokers than the regular Factions."
"A reasonable analogy; and you of course recall that Gona-Brashind and I had some… differences of policy which would not have been seen with most factions. That said, we do engage in many of the same activities of most other factions, including recruiting."
Ariane felt her gut tighten. "Don't tell me. Let me guess. Maria-Susanna."
"Correct in a single guess, Captain Austin. Yes. She has been discussing the potential of an apprenticeship with us as one of her choices."
Goddamn. Ariane gritted her teeth, even as she saw Wu's momentarily sad expression. Could there be any worse choice for us than for her to become a Shadeweaver?
Still, there were the limitations… but she had to be somewhat cautious. They had come to a lot of conclusions about the way the Faith and Shadeweavers worked, but a lot of it was guesswork and none of it was public knowledge. She didn't want to reveal too much to them. "If she… chooses that path, how long would it take for her to become an actual Shadeweaver?"
"It entirely depends on the apprentice, how well they learn what we have to teach, and of course when one of our number retires," Amas-Garao answered. "For a number of reasons, we generally do not allow our numbers to expand, so only when one retires – or on very rare occasion dies – will one of the apprentices become a full Shadeweaver."
"So a retired Shadeweaver is forbidden from using his abilities?"
"Not precisely. We pass our powers on, when that time comes. So once I, for example, step down, I will no longer be a Shadeweaver."
She raised an eyebrow. "And you will do this? Pardon me for saying so, but I find it hard to imagine someone giving up that power."
"It is one of the greatest demands – and the final test – of our worthiness, Captain Austin," Amas-Garao said, and his voice was solemn, without a trace of irony or evasion. "I know that your experiences with our order, and especially with myself, do not lend themselves to making us appear in any way noble, but there are very ancient traditions, usages, and requirements that are part of being a Shadeweaver. Our people have much freedom of action, much ability to do that which other beings cannot; we can pass from place to place as we will, and even the Arena cannot entirely bar us. We wield powers no others save, perhaps, the Faith can understand, and can shape matter and energy to our desire. We can touch the minds of others and understand their will, even bend it – as you know – to a direction that we find more pleasing. We can even hold off death, refuse it, for many years. We have shattered fleets and moved Spheres, begun wars and stopped them. Where walks a Shadeweaver walks the power of the universe made manifest.
"And a power that has so few limits, Captain Austin, is a tempting tool for change, to adjust the world around one to one's own views. As the power increases with knowledge and skill and time, so too the danger of one who believes they know better the true way of the universe. It is therefore forbidden that a Shadeweaver extend his own life past twice its natural span, forbidden that they hold forever onto this power. We may hold it a year, or ten, or even a hundred, depending on our natural span of years, but before our death we will teach another and give this power to them, never to wield it again; it is the greatest of all crimes to seek to hold that power beyond that time."
Based on what we deduced earlier, of course, there's another reason; they can't generally make someone a Shadeweaver unless a slot gets opened – by transfer or death.She remembered a prior conversation. "Orphan said you were one of the oldest of the Shadeweavers."
The cowl nodded, a probably deliberately human gesture. "And while my people are long-lived indeed, there are not terribly many years remaining to me before I, too, will have to pass on what I have learned."
"So she would likely have her chance fairly soon?"
"If she trained well, and was fully accepted? Yes, I believe so. After all, we have yet to have one of your people join us, since both you and Doctor DuQuesne," irony had now returned to the deep voice, "declined our most gentle invitations."
Great. Boy, I really wish DuQuesne were here, but I'm not going to see him or Simon before they finish transferring our new little fleet. "I thank you for this information, Amas-Garao. Might I hope that you will let me know if a decision is, in fact made in this case?"
A crouching bow. "Of course, Captain Austin. If we accept your Maria-Susanna as an apprentice, I personally shall let you know immediately. You have my word."
Before she could say anything else, the Shadeweaver melted away into mist and vanished.
"That… doesn't sound good, Captain," Wu Kung said.
"No. I'd say that would be about the worst option I could have imagined, actually. I hope the Shadeweavers will decide that the last thing they want as an apprentice is someone who's a multiple murderer and on the run from her own species, but on the other hand, Amas-Garao was just subtly pointing out to us that the Shadeweavers need to re-establish their mystique and show that we haven't got any special tricks or secrets that they haven't got."
She signaled one of the floating taxis. "I think I need to go back to the Embassy for maybe a drink and relaxation."
"There are many places to drink here," Wu pointed out. "And some smell very good, too!"
The innocent enthusiasm managed to bring a smile to her lips. "Thanks, Wu, but honestly? I'm probably going to drink just enough to get in the mood for a brawl, and from what I know of the way Arena-people usually think, there isn't a decent brawling bar closer than Kanzaki-Three in our own solar system. So I'll drink and go beat up on punching dummies, or if you feel like it we can spar. Though you have to let me land a couple or I'll just get more frustrated."
Wu laughed. "I will gladly provide you with that kind of entertainment!"