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Dolce waits placidly as the Emissary clatters across the floor towards him at maximum speeds. Not yet. His hooves remain grounded. His legs stand ready for the one step necessary to prevent being bowled over. Not yet. His spine remains properly straight as he skids to a stop in front of him. Not yet. The Emissary begs for his life. Frantically he pleads, pouring words out as fast as he can think them, asking Dolce - Dolce, of Beri, when once he was the Architect - for the privilege of simply going with him.

There is a pause. The Emissary doesn’t need to breathe. His thoughts and his hearts run too fast to continue. His metal hands grasp at the air. And his metal body completely blocks 20022’s line of sight.


Now, Dolce's calm mask melts into the weary, but earnest smile, glowing until it wrinkles his nose and lights up his eyes. “It would be no trouble at all. If there are no objections,” he says of the Architect, who would have kicked the Emissary out personally if not for the divine repercussions, and lack of feet. “Then of course, you may come with me.”

Please, Emissary, do not take it too personally, that he kept you in suspense. You are not safe. He is not safe. There is no reason for him to refuse your claim, and 20022 has an. Opinion, of him, that would make it more surprising if he turned you down. But 20022 does not need to read the message in this smile; it is meant just for you. There’s been enough trouble this day, you ought to have this gift without fear of how it may be used against you.

You have nothing to fear from me. I would have asked you to join us if you had stayed silent.

Dolce is nodding. Slowly. Wonderful thing, a nod. All at once, it tells a room you understand, you’re thinking, and you’re going to talk, but not yet. Not yet. Give him a little time, please. He will give you a good answer. Just give him a little time. Please.

He heard every syllable, every brush of air that passed 20022’s lips. Intonations and emphasis pile up alongside carefully smoothed expressions. This raw material, he systematically tears to pieces, cataloging every bit of data he can wring out. If he works hard enough, he'll find meaning. He'll find reason. He'll find everything he missed. The first time. Every time. And. And. And. And. Not yet. Put it in a box. Set it on the shelf. Later. He’ll get to that later. He knows it’s important, but there’s no time. Not now. Later. He promises. He’s got more important things to worry about.

He stands in the seat of power of the second highest-ranking individual in all the Skies. He is bound by oaths, a labyrinth of corridors and sealed doors, an army of guards, a horde of drones, and more besides. Dolce of Beri wields neither power nor influence. He’s got…well, he’s got the hope that when he leaves here, someone will remember to give him back his little sword, and whatever else he happened to be carrying in his bags today.

He. He has. He had. He’s not got…

No one here is a friend. At least, not a friend he can rely on.

He is not safe. He may not be safe for quite some time.

Dolce is not nodding. He lifts his head the correct amount to indicate both attention and humility. His hands remain folded. He speaks in a voice beaten into his tongue.

“Thank you, but that doesn’t seem sensible, given the circumstances. I’m sure I can find some small way to make myself useful in a time of crisis.”

He is a sensible sheep. Thank goodness for that, sensible sheep are well-known to be helpful, nonthreatening, and inoffensive. You will find no better follower in all the galaxy. Through Poisidon’s storms and Zeus’ thunder, they will put one hoof in front of the other, and they won’t give a lick of complaint or question. They’ll find a way to roll up their sleeves and muddle on through, somehow. 20022 may collect his voice, and search for the fear that brought this lost lamb to heel, but he may not recognize the shape of it.

Dolce is not safe. Somewhere in the universe, on an Imperial warship, rides safety. Rides home.

He has to live. He has to muddle his way back, whether it’s under the nose of 20022 or from a cafe in Beri with two windows.

It’s the only sensible thing to do.
Was that necessary? Was that really necessary? Adding in the little personal address at the end? Now he has to say something back. He was falling to pieces a moment ago. The news is…he has to know, doesn’t he? He can’t not know what that means, to him. How can he say it so casually? The same way he can ask him to make a polite response, now that he’s been lightly addressed. The words carved into his bones spring to his lips. His voice is warring to stay neutral, and warring where to go from there. “Thank you. I’ll-”

You’ll like him.

Dolce freezes.

“Why should I be meeting a Regional Director? I’m not part of the Service.”

20022 is watching him. The Royal Architect is passively watching him. The Emissary is watching nothing. There is one door, to his right, currently closed. The room contains a shack, an X carved on the floor, a ramshackle table and chairs, food, water, fire, on the table, several patches of torn floor. Nothing within arm’s reach of anyone but the Emissary. Nothing between him and anyone else. Apertures for drones cannot be seen. He hears them in the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. There must be many. The buzzing is constant. They are not moving in.

He is standing with his hooves shoulder-width apart. His hands are clasped together, at his waist. He is leaning neither forward nor back. He is not moving. He is looking at 20022. He is speaking.

He is not safe.

“...why did you bring me here in the first place?”
He listens. He raises his head, when asked. Somewhere in the proceedings, he takes a seat on the shining floor. (A risk. A hunch. How long has it been, since someone did not stand on ceremony and remained amicable? No one but 20022 is here to see, and if the Great Lord does not object, then what room does he have to complain about decorum?) He listens, and he learns, of temples, of assassins, of Biomancers, of the life of the Royal Architect, who is second only to the Shah in the Endless Azure Skies.

Before the talk is done, his hand strays from his lap, and gently pets the floor beside him. He touches the polished gold as if it were a friend’s shoulder. The Royal Architect is not the whole station, his concept of body and self must be much different than his own. This much, he knows. But perhaps the Royal Architect also knows that he knows, and that his options are rather limited here. How else can Dolce of Beri tell a digital mind that he sees the fear that grips his ancient heart? Can he say as such, in what few words he has? Can one so small offer any help against a prison of the mighty? The Architect may see this humble offering of sympathy, and take some small comfort when Dolce presses no further on his point of hospitality.

He wouldn’t be right. But he wouldn’t be entirely wrong, either. There is just more than one monster trapped here.

Can you feel him down there, Diodekoi? No, probably not. To be frank, he hopes you don’t feel anything, haven’t felt anything for a long, long time. Better to sleep, and dream of someplace better than here, than to be awake for every moment of your fate. What one god works, no other god may unwork, but perhaps, Hera, there could be room for a warm, peaceful dream? And if she dreams not, then somehow, let her feel this gentle touch through countless layers of ice, bone, and metal. Let her know that someone knows she is there, and wishes it were not so.

Thus run his silent prayers, when a voice snaps his full attention to the present.

“Decommissioning?” At once he is on his hooves. At once he is trembling to hold himself still. “My, my apologies, I, no one gave me any reports. Who’s to be decommissioned? Who’s in revolt? We left so suddenly, I didn’t see - is everyone,” The moment he touches the idea, a pit of dread opens in his stomach, and all his thoughts cling desperately to keep from being sucked into an abyss. He wills his throat to loosen, and his tongue to speak coherently. “Are they okay?
It must be a stunning display, the likes of which hasn’t existed for centuries, orchestrated by one of the last living digital minds. Lights more numerous than the stars themselves, coming together to form a bespoke picture. They tell the tale of the galaxy’s doom at the point of a Spear, as told by someone old enough to have witnessed it.

A fantastic show that Dolce doesn’t see, because he still hasn’t lifted himself up from that first bow. Neither does he really know when it ends. It is long seconds before the Architect’s booming voice stops echoing through the chamber, and still the colors reflecting off the deck shift and swirl. It is a long, patient silence, a thousand opportunities for the Architect to say more, and he passes on each of them.

This, too, is a ritual. On its completion, the Royal Architect may know that he has been heard, his words have been duly considered, and the reply Dolce gives is given only by his leave.

“Great lord. I don’t know anything about assassins and technomancers. I don’t know about what it takes to put a planet back together. I don’t know very much about you. I’m just a chef from Beri. What seems like good sense to me might be a death sentence for you, and I’d never know the difference. What I do know are the stories, great lord. The tales of the gods and their doings. As many as have passed my ears, I’ve listened well, and I’ve remembered them. And those stories warn of terrible danger if you take this course of action.”

“You have all of my apologies for upsetting you. But knowing this, how can I stay silent? I do not cry for hospitality to force open your private sanctums, I speak a warning, lest some spy finds this leverage and uses it against you.”

He folds his hands. He inclines his head further. He takes the smallest step away from 20022, and closer to the eye. “Great lord, I put myself at your service in this matter. What knowledge and wisdom I have, I put at your disposal. 20022, and the host of your proofs can vouch that what I say is true: I am a simple chef from Beri. I have no training in any art beyond that of the servant and the chef. The one path open to one such as I for advancement, I lacked the necessary spirit to succeed, and left without ever receiving a number. I am Dolce; nobody of any great importance, who finds himself before you by chance, and in all likelihood will never see you again.” A harmless, humble servant. Useless and without ambition. Who just so happens to be on hand, in the midst of an unprecedented situation, when the gift of a harmless, humble, listening ear would be most welcome. Yes, it would be an audacious thing, for the Architect to confide in such a soul. Then again, what if it was so audacious that even the most wicked schemer, the most cunning malcontent, would never suspect he had done it?

Of all the places to look for the secrets of the Architect’s heart, who would ever think to look to Dolce of Beri?

“If it pleases you, great lord, then whatever you wish to speak to me, I swear never to repeat. I only ask that you speak softly, or else I may not be able to listen for long.” His ears still throb painfully from the last outburst. “And,” his nose wrinkles. Obviously out of his depth. Flailing for what little ground he can stand upon. Charming, isn’t it, to see him trying so hard at matters so above his head? “Is ‘great lord’ your preferred title? Or is there one you would like better?”

[Rolling to Speak Softly: 4 + 6 + 3 = 13 Dolce forges a Bond with the Royal Architect. Why is the Royal Architect so afraid, that he can’t even spare some extraneous rooms for the Emissary to live in?]
Don’t wince. Don’t frown. Don’t smile. Don’t shrink. Do thhe job. Expect nothing back. Let their praise prove their graciousness. Speak when spoken to. His knowledge is theirs. Give what is asked for. Do not tarry. Do not stutter. Speak. Speak.

“It would be presumptuous of me to speak for them, Great Lord.” He deflects smoothly. His body remains bowed. Only his mouth moves. “I can say you have surely met the requirements of what is owed.”

He could count the jagged points in the ramshackle house. The metal ripped in chunks as it was pulled on the floor. Each scream of metal yielding rings in his ears. Below it all, the hum of drones. In the walls. In the floor. All around them. Waiting.

“...all you could have left to fear is the potential reproach of miserly treatment. If you were to allow them some limited freedom to move about your vast home, then no accusation of poor hospitality could stand against you. In this matter, you would be safe.”

Ringing. Humming. Waiting.
"Great lord?"

His voice is soft. His voice is quiet. His voice rests on the exact pitch to cut through all noise.

"If your Emissary is, as you say, no longer of you, but his own distinct entity, then your offer of hospitality may well extend to him also. Though he can neither eat nor drink, your servant 20022 offered him tea, and that was sufficient to compel us to save him. You have even tended to his injuries, at some small, personal expense.”

Brilliant blue light pools around his feet. Brighter and brighter the opulent floor shines as the great Architect’s attention focuses in on him. He must keep bowing. He must not grow stiff. He must not rush his words. He must breathe. He must speak.

“In what few legends and histories I am aware of, none speak of such a case as this. But given the terrible consequences of inviting the Thunderer’s wrath, perhaps some additional caution may be warranted, for the sake of your safety?”
If you asked him, hospitality wasn’t quite food, drink, and fire, like a body wasn’t quite bones, flesh, muscles, and whatever else a body was made of. You needed those things, true. The stories generally agreed it was the bare minimum requirement, good enough for the purposes of Zeus, and who was he to argue with that? But you risk missing the spirit of the thing, and in doing so, you might miss the act entirely. Compare a random box of seeds and fruits, thrown in front of whoever walked in, to a meal prepared out of whatever resources one had, made for the purpose of feeding your guest. Compare the constant, middling burn of a chemfire cube to a fireplace tended carefully, burning neither too hot nor too low, that your guests may sit in comfort all through the night.

…didn’t it also require shelter of some kind? A home? A place of relative safety? Since you could offer the hospitality of an open campsite, you didn’t need a roof per se. But you did need a space that was mostly your own, where somebody else could exist in peace.

If you asked him, the bare definition of the concept was lacking, possibly critically so.

If you asked him. But why should the Royal Architect ask the opinion of a chef plucked from the backwater town of Beri? About all he knows is his manners. His bow is lower than his higher-ranking companion. He is going to continue staring a hole through a floor the drone swarms tore apart as if it were paper. He will continue to ponder the wonderful mysteries of crackling fireplaces and bubbling pots of homemade stew on a cold night. He will not make a sound.

Unless you ask him.
His awe is silent, by necessity.

When you see a peculiar ship, you still know what a ship is. Somewhere, a pilot has to sit, or stand, or be strapped in. Something makes it go in one of many directions. Maybe there are things for battle? Or not, that says a lot too. Esoterics, now, those are strange by nature. But they are still held, or wielded, or manipulated by expert hands. While the workings may be strange, you can tilt your head just so, and think of a craftsman with a particularly complicated tool.

What is he looking at? What are these lights for? Why is it painted in so many colors? Is that paint, or a natural color? What holds it in place, if it is held in place at all? Does it move? Can it move? None of these questions come to mind, because all of them might be wrong, and he can't begin to know what the right ones are. He is filled with wonder and silence. He beholds something alien, for the first time in his humble life.

And yet.

In strange lasers passing through him. In rituals lasting hours. In the careful hop from ship to ship to ship. These are the presence of the Architect. These are the instruments of its will. Its hands and feet. And in these motions, he sees fear. Fear just as the robot limping alongside them felt. They are the same. They are different bodies. Some of their mind is the same. He watches the robot curiously out of the corner of his eye as it is helped along by a changing guard of soldiers.

A chef from Beri is here to see the Royal Architect. As impossible and improper and unthinkable as such a thing might be.
There’s always more rubble. Six times over with the handkerchief, and he’s still picking out bits of rubble from deep within the curly depths of his wool. He will need to do a seventh. He ought to use a clean handkerchief. This one is quite filthy. He feels the stray bits between the folds of smooth cloth, pressing into his clenching fingers.

“You know-” Does he? Ought he? Why bother with preamble? He works his jaw stiffly. “I. Had thought,” what, exactly? What, exactly? Only he’s opened his mouth too early. Observe. 20022 is waiting. Think. And all he’s got is bitter on his tongue and hot flushing through his face. Observe. And anything he says will be wrong. Think. He is better than this. Observe. He’s already failed him once today.


With an effort, Dolce shuts his mouth, and swallows his heart back down. “I…have already given my answer.” His voice is quiet. His voice is tight. “Nothing’s changed that would make the prospect more appealing. I’m sorry.” His bow is slight. His bow is perfect.

It will not make a difference. It didn’t at the Manor. He has no fellows here either, as it turns out.

Still, he bows.
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