Brother Arlund appeared in the front doorway again; it was hard to tell if he was scowling as they hadn’t yet seen his face wearing any other expression.
“Still nothing,” the Huntsman growled. “How long do you plan to wait? The Rust prance unimpeded through the city while we loiter in one spot where they may or may not even return today.”
Juniper set down the crate of fish she had just picked up and turned to face him. “Hunting,” the dryad said pointedly, “requires a lot of patience.”
“It’s a solid lead,” Toby said in a much gentler tone, adding a smile. “That’s better than wandering through the city at random. And this way, if they don’t show up today, at least our time wasn’t wasted. If you’re bored, we can always use another pair of hands.”
Arlund’s eyes flicked from him to the fish they were in the process of loading onto the back of a battered old carriage. His expression altered slightly, though his thick black beard made it hard to read. With a soft grunt, he turned and strode back out into the sunlight.
“What an asshole,” Juniper muttered.
One of the Omnist monks working with them, Jahi, had discreetly picked up Juniper’s crate and added it to the truck bed. He now covered a grin with his hand and clambered into the driver’s seat, clearing his throat. “A thousand thanks for your help. I have to get this lot to Mudhi’s as quick as possible.”
“Glad to help,” Toby said, turning to the doors. “You need…?”
“I have it, thanks,” Anita replied, and indeed she had already pushed one of the storehouse’s wide double doors open. Jahi waved at them as he carefully guided the carriage full of fish out into the street beyond.
“Who’s Mudhi?” Juniper asked.
Toby had stepped forward unasked to pull the door shut again, so Anita answered her. “He runs a factory that salts and dries fish, and very generously donates his services to our pantry, so long as we don’t ask too much. Fish does not keep well unless you take steps to preserve it, and any fish we get is usually a day old, whatever didn’t sell down at the docks. So getting it preserved is always our first priority. The rest of this is relatively easy!” Smiling, she strode over to the remaining boxes. “Just inventory and sorting. The system isn’t too complex, we just prefer to keep different kinds of things together so it’s not impossible to find anything in here; the only somewhat challenging part is moving boxes and bags as you go, so older stuff is always near the front and gets used faster. I already did the inventory so you don’t get to see the boring part, I’m afraid.”
“Wow, you got a lot of stuff,” Juniper said, impressed. She had elected to wear her disguise ring when out in the city, and only stood out a little; Stalweiss (which the ring made her resemble) weren’t especially rare in Puna Dara, and her choice of attire drew more attention. Lately, the dryad had begun trading out her sundresses for clothes in the wood elven style, which had to have been made for her specially as they fit and she was more full-figured than practically any elf. The monks at the Omnist food pantry where she, Toby, and Arlund were spending the day hadn’t said a word, though both had stopped to stare a couple of times when Juniper effortlessly picked up and carried loaded crates as if they weighed nothing. Omnist monks in general weren’t suspicious or confrontational, and besides that, being with Toby gave her a lot of credibility.
“Omnu provides,” Anita intoned, bending to a pick up a sack. “Potatoes, very good; these keep wonderfully and are very nutritious. We don’t grow many locally, so they are always a valued gift.”
“Sounds like the people of Puna Dara provided,” Juniper grunted, casually gathering up six heavy bags of potatoes. “Where to?”
“Ah, this way,” Anita trotted off toward one side of the warehouse, Juniper following along.
“Yes, well,” Toby said, repressing a grin and picking up two sacks, “if Omnu provided with his own two hands, he’d be a neighbor and not a god. He encourages the spirit within people that urges us to help one another.”
“It’s a sign of the times,” Anita added. “The Punaji look after each other. In times of trouble or even just uncertainty, we always see more donations; those who are blessed anticipate that there will be a need and contribute more than they otherwise would.”
“Now that sounds like a good system,” Juniper said approvingly. “I wonder why they don’t do that in the Stalrange.”
“It would be a mistake to judge all the Stalweiss by the Huntsmen,” Anita replied. “Especially a single Huntsman.”
“It all comes back to agriculture,” Toby said thoughtfully.
Juniper had just set down her sacks and turned to go back for more from the big pile of stuff near the doors, but now stopped to frown at him. “Huh?”
“Shaath is the god of the wild,” Toby explained, patting her on the shoulder as he went back for more potatoes. “Omnu is the god of life, which means they have an overlap, but Omnu is also the god of agriculture, and that sort of makes them opposite. Agriculture is what makes the ultimate difference in societies. A Shaathist lodge is basically a tribe, you see. Hunter-gatherers in the truest sense, with each person responsible for acquiring their own food. Well, actually, not the truest sense, as they don’t let women hunt, so that requires a division of labor… I guess elvish tribes are the only true hunter-gatherer societies in that way. But elves are a whole other case, since they don’t need much food and their very presence keeps the environment healthy and productive. Hunter-gathering works for them as a lifestyle, to a degree of success that humans can’t achieve without agriculture. Carrots?”
“There’s a bin over here,” Anita said, pointing.
He picked up a crate of carrots and trotted in that direction, Juniper doing likewise and still listening as he continued. “Agriculture means food surpluses, and complex divisions of labor. Societies that farm have farmers, people who specialize in producing food, and make a lot more than they need. If they do it well, more than the whole society needs, so it has the resources to expand. But ultimately this is what makes everything else possible, all that sapient creatures do which other animals don’t. Not only different jobs with specialists, but every kind of advancement. Artists create culture, inventors create new technology, and that only works because…well, people take care of each other. I guess you could say the measure of a society’s ability to advance is its ability and willingness to support people of…dubious utility.” He set the carrots down with a grunt and turned to grin at Juniper. “Without people who have the luxury of sitting around tinkering with stuff, nothing new would be created. What sets a civilization apart from a primitive tribe is that it doesn’t let people starve to death just because they apparently deserve to.”
“Interesting.” She dusted off her hands, peering at him quizzically. “And…did you change the subject, or is this coming back around to Shaathists?”
“Ah, yes. Sorry; agriculture is Omnu’s purview, like I said. It prompts me to go off on tangents. Anyway, yes, Shaath being the god of the wild… To Huntsmen, civilization just means too many people in too little space with too little respect for nature. So we have a…difference of opinion.”
“Well, I have much the same opinion of civilization, but here I am, helping. Because I’m not an asshole.”
“Here, let me handle the tomatoes,” Anita said, bustling past them. “They’re more fragile. Would you two mind loading the apples into those barrels over there?”
“On it,” Juniper said, heading for the crates of fruit she indicated. “Wow, where’d these come from? This isn’t apple country.”
“I suspect that’s why we have them,” Anita said wryly. “Outlanders are always importing apples, but they never get popular around here. I’m glad even the merchants would rather feed the poor than just dump them in the harbor when they don’t sell.”
“See,” Toby continued in a more pensive tone while picking up a box of apples, “the process of taming a wild animal begins with feeding it, and ends with making it dependent on you. To Shaathist ethics, that’s a horrible thing to do to someone. Anybody in need would find shelter at a Shaathist lodge; they don’t skimp on their hospitality, or judge people for being in bad circumstances. But in the long run, they won’t support someone who doesn’t contribute, and they don’t do charity. The Huntsmen feel that teaching and empowerment are the only true compassion, and giving people things they haven’t earned weakens them, which is cruel. You’ll find them quite eager to share their ways—not just their doctrine, but their skills, the ability to provide for oneself in any situation. That’s their idea of kindness. Like the saying goes: give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish—”
“And since he can get his own damn fish he gets to sneer at people who’re doing actual work to help others?” She balanced her box on the rim of the barrel and paused to give him an exasperated look. “Toby, this obsession you have with seeing the best in everybody is gonna get you in real trouble someday. This really isn’t a doctrinal issue. That other Huntsman, Ermon, he’s nice. I haven’t heard him speak to anyone with anything less than complete respect since we met him. Arlund isn’t an asshole because he’s a Huntsman of Shaath, he’s an asshole because he is an asshole.”
“He is a fanatic.” Anita approached them with another box of apples; she also balanced it on the rim of an open barrel, but then began carefully moving apples from the crate into the barrel itself, prompting them both to do likewise. “You can see it in his eyes, the way he glares at everything with that…that specific blend of ardor and anger. Those are the eyes of a man who despises the world for failing to meet his expectations, and means to correct it.” She frowned into the barrel as she continued to shift fruit, careful not to bruise them. “They crop up inevitably among any religion. I have seen eyes like that before… Rarely among Omnu’s faithful. Never on someone in whose company I felt safe.” She deposited the last apple and let the wooden crate dangle from one hand, turning a concerned look on Toby. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing, Tobias, but…be careful around that one, please.”
“I appreciate your insight, sister,” he replied seriously. “I am pretty confident I can handle anything that comes up from working with the Huntsmen, but I won’t get careless.”
“Omnu’s ways are gentle ones,” she said with a sigh. “In my years working directly with the general public, I have gradually come around to the viewpoint that some people just cannot be handled gently. Judge me how you must for this, but I truly think people like that are better left for the Avenists to deal with.”
He smiled at her. “I would never judge—”
A shadow darkened the warehouse’s smaller front door as Arlund himself appeared, this time bursting eagerly into the room, practically quivering with energy. “He’s come!” With that terse announcement, he whirled on his heel and strode back out.
Toby turned to Anita. “Sister, I’m sorry to have to duck out…”
“Don’t apologize,” she said with a smile. “I’m way ahead of schedule on these chores thanks to you two. This is a good time for a break, anyway.”
The Omnist complex in Puna Dara was actually one of the city’s larger temples, but just because the structure was mostly utilitarian. Its actual temple stood next to the open gates: a tall, square stone edifice furnished only with low benches and scarcely large enough for a dozen people to convene in its one open room. It connected to the long barracks along the western edge of the compound, which housed the kitchens, living space for the handful of monks in residence, and the available beds for anyone in need of a roof over their head for a few days. On the north was the broad storehouse, with doors into the barracks and the central courtyard, and the big carriage gates opening onto the quiet street behind. An L-shaped wall blocked off the eastern side of the complex, and half the north adjacent to the front gate; within this was sheltered a large garden in which plants grew in raised beds, fenced off from the central courtyard. Pillars supported a sloped roof extending into the courtyard from the barracks, providing an open-air shelter in which tables and chairs were set up and where those who came here in need of a meal were served. Down the center of the courtyard, from the front gates to the warehouse doors, ran a long strip of open space between the garden and the seating area.
It was in this that the Rust preacher had appeared, and was now holding court.
The courtyard wasn’t that expansive; they could hear him clearly immediately upon stepping outside. The man had the characteristic reddish metal arm, and spoke in a voice which projected well without seeming to be yelling. “Food and shelter are but the basics of life,” he was saying earnestly, “but basics can easily become a distraction. There is more potential within you than you can imagine until you have touched it!”
“He doesn’t come every day,” Anita murmured, the four of them including Arlund now standing just outside the storehouse. “But when he does, it’s always him. They’re organized; they each have their own turf to preach. I suspect he makes rounds to other places when he’s not here.”
“Those people look cornered,” Juniper said quietly. Indeed, the street preacher’s audience consisted of three uncomfortable-looking monks and a dozen or so people in ragged clothes lining up for lunch. Most were local Punaji, and most were ignoring him, but the cultist’s current focus was on a Sheng family who had just been seated and were trying to eat—a man, woman, and two small children. They were visibly nervous.
“That is why this bothers me,” Anita said. “We have not wanted to challenge him, because he’s harming no one, and this place should be open to all who come here in good faith. But he makes the people we serve reluctant. They should feel safe here.”
“And so you ignore him,” Arlund scoffed. “Perhaps you feel such as he are better left for the Avenists to deal with.”
Anita made no reply, but glanced at him sidelong and very subtly shifted her weight to the balls of her feet.
“People,” Toby said firmly, “are not to be dealt with. Their actions, however, are another matter.” With that, he set off toward the Rust preacher with a long, even stride, Juniper immediately hurrying after. Arlund followed at a somewhat more sedate pace.
“Hard circumstances only seem overwhelming. The power to face them, to overcome anything life—”
The cultist broke off his speech and turned to Toby, who approached him wearing a friendly smile.
“Welcome, friend. Are you hungry?”
“My needs are met,” the man said, his expression almost quizzical. He apparently was unused to being confronted by the Omnists here. Toby wore nothing to advertise his rank and his simple shirt and trousers did not exactly match the robes the local monks wore, but they were of the same rough cloth in the same shade of brown.
“That’s good to hear,” Toby said earnestly, still smiling. “Do you need a place to stay? There are several beds open.”
“I thank you for your concern,” the preacher replied, now with a wry note, “but I lodge with my brothers and sisters. We want for nothing.”
“Ah, I see. Did you perhaps need help finding work?”
“We have good relationships with several merchant guilds, dockmasters, and factories,” Toby continued blithely. “Omnu’s people are glad to feed those in need, but we are even happier to help people back to the path of being able to support themselves. If you’re willing to help with some of the compound’s chores for a few days so we can vouch for you in good faith, we can almost certainly arrange employment with one of our friend.”
“I hope you’re not embarrassed about that metal limb,” Toby said solicitously. “I’m very sorry if you have experienced prejudice because of it. People can be nervous about things that are unfamiliar to them. Situations like that are exactly when the credibility of Omnu’s monks can give you just the boost you need. We find that most people have the strength inside themselves to prosper in the long run, but everyone needs a little help once in a while. There is no shame at all in that.”
The Rust cultist, apparently realizing Toby was not going to be brushed off so easily, finally turned to face him directly, and even sketched a shallow bow. He was an older Punaji man, gray-haired and with a lined face, like the woman from the docks yesterday—and like her, more fit and vigorous than it seemed someone his age ought to be. He had no additional metal touches, however, only his right arm. Its design was unique compared to hers, lacking any visible wires or pulleys and the fingers having a distinctly spider-like quality.
“All of this is very encouraging to me to hear,” the cultist said, once again using the booming voice with which he proselytized. “I could not agree more—the power is within all of us, all the power we could ever need. For just that reason, I have no need for charity. I come to spread that power, to awaken my fellow beings to their own glorious potential!”
“Ah, I see,” Toby said brightly. “Well, we always welcome volunteers! I assure you, no profession of faith is required to either receive or offer help here. There are plenty of things to be done around the compound. I can introduce you to the Abbot, if you want to help—he can most efficiently show you where we most need another pair of hands.”
Juniper had been grinning openly throughout this conversation, and now smothered a giggle behind her hand. The Rust cultist glanced at her briefly before returning his attention to Toby.
“I… That is, I am not at liberty to involve myself with…the cults, so directly,” he said, his voice softening as he was clearly thrown off his rhythm. “I only come to spread the truth.”
“In that case,” Toby said, still with his welcoming smile, “I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.”
The pause which followed emphasized the silence that had fallen over the courtyard. Monks, petitioners, and Toby’s group alike now watched this confrontation as if afraid to breathe.
“It was my understanding,” the cultist said finally, “that this space was open to all.”
“That’s precisely it,” Toby agreed. “All are welcome here. Anyone may come and receive a helping hand, without expectation of repayment or pressure to convert. No one here shall be preached at, unless they ask to learn more of Omnu’s teachings.”
“Ahh.” The man from the Rust tilted his chin up, looking satisfied as if he had scored a point. “I understand, now. Perhaps Omnu feels threatened by a voice which speaks with power, and does not parrot his dogma.”
“Omnu is threatened by nothing,” Toby said calmly, his smile undiminished. “And more importantly, Omnu does not permit anyone under his protection to be threatened. Or harangued, or pressured. Not by his own monks, and not by anyone else. Now, may I offer you a bowl of rice before you go?”
“If Omnu is not threatened, why are you?” the man countered. “I don’t see Omnu here telling me I cannot share my thoughts with others.”
“I’m not sure this one understands how gods work,” Arlund snorted. A few soft chuckles sounded from the assembled watchers. The cultist glanced fleetingly in their direction.
“More to the point,” he continued forcefully, “you will find that the truth is not to be silenced.”
“I have no interest in silencing you,” Toby said pleasantly. “I encourage you to live your truth and share it however you will. Just not here.”
“You bail a leaking boat with your hands,” the man retorted, pointing dramatically at Toby with his metal hand. “All the tools you need to plug the hole lie within easy reach, but you will not see them. And worse, you try to hide them from those who do! Here you sit, growing tomatoes and handing out rice, and what does it do for the world? I speak of change. Of progress. Of power! The power to—”
“I asked you to leave.” Toby’s smile had vanished, and his voice now grew notably more even. The watching monks watched with increasingly visible alarm. “Please, friend, don’t compel me to insist.”
The cultist actually grinned. “Or perhaps your tomato vines will silence me for you? Nature is well and good, my child. Too much reliance on it blinds you to the truth, however. The truth that you can become more!”
He punctuated this pronouncement by brandishing his right arm high, forming a metal fist; the short sleeve of his shirt fell to the shoulder, displaying more of its coppery surface.
“You think you’ve improved on nature?” Juniper said suddenly, stepping forward.
“Hah! Why ask the question? Trust your eyes, my sister.” The cultist, still grinning, now held out his metal hand toward her. “My frailty has become my greatest strength. Flesh and blood is only—”
“You’re all just animals, you know,” she said. “Flesh and blood and spirit and mind. That’s nothing but a tool. You haven’t conquered or overcome or changed anything, any more than a monkey using a rock to crack a coconut.”
“Wherever a voice is raised in opposition to my message,” the cultist declaimed, “it does so with exaggerations and lies—those who oppose the truth have no better weapons! I stand before you, living proof that mortal man is more than nature would have him be. And there is nothing unique in me! Within each of you is the power—”
He was interrupted by the chorus of gasps as Juniper removed her ring. Most of the assembled Punaji looked nonplussed, clearly unfamiliar with dryads. A few reacted with wide eyes, however, and the monks dropped to fighting stances in unison. The Sheng mother and father immediately abandoned their meal, grabbing their children and retreating to the far corner of the courtyard.
She stepped forward, while the cultist gawked at her in astonishment, and grabbed him by the upper arm before he could retreat.
“Nature,” she said, seizing him just above the wrist with her other hand, “always wins. Always.”
With a dreadful screech of rending metal, she ripped his forearm clean off at the elbow. The cultist yelled in alarm, staggering backward with sparks flashing from the wrecked joint. Arlund’s derisive laugh boomed across the courtyard, almost drowning out the imprecations which followed. Almost, but not entirely.
“You whore!” the cultist raged, skittering back a few steps from the dryad. “You brutal—you vicious…thug! Animal!”
“Not so eloquent now,” Arlund observed. “Was the silver tongue located in your wrist, maybe?”
Baring his teeth in a snarl, the preacher took a step forward. “Give that back!”
“Oh?” Juniper said innocently, holding his arm behind her back. “You want me to even those up for you?” She grinned broadly and directed her gaze to his left, flesh and blood arm.
For a tense moment, the man glared at her, bristling with rage.
Then, suddenly, her smile collapsed. “Get the hell out of here,” she ordered curtly.
He stood his ground, clenching his remaining fist.
Juniper very deliberately brought the metal arm up, stuck it between her teeth, and bit down. With a sound that was physically painful to the ear, the whole thing bent noticeably in the middle.
Still spitting curses, he turned and fled back into the street.
“Fool,” Arlund grunted. “Had he been smart, he would have controlled the situation by agreeing to help do chores when you asked him to. If they are all as prideful and as stupid as that, this will not be a difficult hunt. I will see where he goes.” He nodded respectfully to Juniper and then strode out, turning in the direction the preacher had gone.
Toby heaved a deep, long sigh, then turned to his classmate. “You okay, June?”
“Yeah…I think so,” she said, now frowning pensively down at the metal arm in her hand. The odd spark still flickered from its elbow joint, and as they watched a tiny arc of electricity snapped in the tear just made by her teeth. “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m a little nervous about being that aggressive, but… At the same time, it’s part of me, y’know? Sheyann says repressing it would probably just backfire. It’s like Professor Ezzaniel is always saying: control, control, control. Only exert force to the degree you can control it. I’m doing my best to harness those predatory instincts.”
He nodded, reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “You are more than just a predator, you know.”
“All the sapient races are predators,” she said in some irritation, then pointed at her face with two fingers. “Eyes on the front of the head is for depth perception, so you can gauge the distance between you and what you’re chasing. Herbivores have eyes on the sides of the head, to scan for threats.”
“Huh.” He blinked. “I’ve…actually never noticed that. You’re right, they do.”
She nodded, looking smug. “You’re not the only one who can be pedantic. Well, anyway.” Grinning, she held up the bent arm. “Fross wanted a sample, after all!”
“Yeah.” He sighed and gazed around them; the monks were only just beginning to relax, but everyone who had come for lunch was now huddled against the walls. “Well…so much for not riling up the Rust. I wonder how much luck the others are having.”