There were three thousand miles between the Athenaeum of Barriers and Darili Irid. Using a teleportation key for a single dwarf was out of the question. The typical cost for traveling between touchstones in major cities was ten thousand obols, but that assumed that you had four other people who would be splitting the cost, and there were service fees on top of that. Teleportation for a single person into an insecure location started at five times as much, and then on top of that, you would need to pay for some trusted key-keeper to go with, their expenses for returning to civilization, and the costs of having the key teleported out by bulk teleport.
Instead, Grak took the trains.
It was a long journey, with a large number of connections and layovers, but Grak was glad for that. When da had left Darili Irid ten years prior, da had been gawping at the world and nervous about the train schedules, frightened of so many strangers, all of them taller than di, and so many new and different things that da had only read about in the books and newspapers that came in by bulk teleport. The world was too big and too interconnected, with too many different people to see, and it had all washed over di in a torrent, most of it unintelligible. On top of that, da’d spoken only halting Anglish, which made the conversations around di utterly confusing, as people spoke too fast to follow.
On the return home, it all seemed so provincial. Grak had spent ten years at Barriers, in the grand city of Junah, and da had always taken an interest in exploring the world and seeing new things. The cities and towns that the trains passed through on da nad long journey home had little new to offer di, when compared to Junah. The food selections were horrifically limited, the people were uninteresting, and while the scenery went through some marvelous changes, the actual experience of riding a train was very close to standardized throughout Aerb.
Still, it was better than what waited for di at home.
The train didn’t go straight to Darili Irid, obviously. It was a town of two thousand some people, tucked away in the side of a mountain, and the number of people that came and went in a given year could be counted on two hands. Trains were among the services that suffered from ‘last mile’ problems, and in the case of Darili Irid, the ‘last mile’ was actually thirty miles.
When the train arrived in the city of Meerhan, the majority of the people on the train were altek, because Meerhan had started life as an altek city, and never grew much beyond that. When Grak had first made the trip there, da had marveled at it, but now da saw it for what it was; a cut-rate ethnocity that had barely grown beyond what it had been five hundred years ago, even as the Empires rose and fell. It was as provincial a place as you could find within the Empire, almost everyone of the same species, steeped in the same culture, and wearing the same fashions. The buildings were all similar to each other, the result of architects copying each other and putting little effort into creating something truly new. Perhaps it was even worse than that, and the local government had made prohibitions against ‘imperial sensibilities’. That was common in the more backward parts of the Empire, Grak knew.
And for all that Meerhan was depressing, it would be nothing compared to Darili Irid. Growing up, Meerhan had been the ‘big city’, thirty miles away and utterly exotic. It was dominated by the altek, but there were occasional ‘foreigners’ of other species, enough that if you spent an hour or two sitting on a bench next to the train station, you might see one.
Eventually Grak went over to one of the phones and placed a call to Darili Irid, to let them know that da was in Meerhan. The response was terse, and the first time that Grak had heard Groglir in months, a simple acknowledgement and a reply that a truck would come out to get di in due time.
Grak walked through Meerhan for a bit, found an altek cafe, and ordered a frongal-stuffed roll. Da nad server spoke only broken, halting Anglish, but Grak was used to dealing with a variety of language barriers, and got what da wanted through a combination of pointing at the menu and pantomime. Da ate the roll and thought about the fact that it was going to be the last good food da ate before going back into Darili Irid and eating little else but the kear that consumed the rocks . Da could order through the catalogs, and have food delivered in bulk once a month, but it wouldn’t be the same, and while the matter of wages would have to be discussed with da nad daler, da was certain that da wasn’t going to be making nearly what da had as a tutor and student worker in Junah. Food that had been through the bulk teleport wouldn’t taste the same anyway, and that aside, da would be expected to eat with the others and share in a sense of community. The obligation was already strangling, thirty miles from the place that had once been home.
It was Naridalogor that arrived in the truck, honking once as da pulled up at the train station. Darili Irid owned three trucks, all of them communal, all built specifically for a dwarf’s stature and range of motion by a dwarven company in one of the metropolitan dwarfholds. The truck was low to the ground, with a long bed in back.
“Come on,” said Nari, leaning over to pop the passenger door open. “I don’t have all day.”
Grak placed da nad two large trunks into the back of the truck, fussing for a moment to make sure they were secure. Those trunks were the entirety of da nad worldly possessions. Da had been a good and faithful dwarf, and brought back all sorts of things for people in Darili Irid, toys and games, treats and foodstuffs, whatever you couldn’t get through the catalogs (or not for as cheap as in the market stalls of the city).
They were outside of Meerhan when Nari started talking.
“There’s a trial going on,” said Nari. “When they got the call, they decided to wait for you.”
“Okay,” said Grak. Da hadn’t seen Nari in ten years, yet there were no questions about what the Athenaeum of Barriers was like, and no comments about how Grak had stayed longer than planned.
“Young Dalonakla was on deathwatch for Dalin-nai,” said Nari. “We don’t know if Dalon fell asleep or just wasn’t paying attention. Dalin’s soul passed on to the hells.”
“We used to have two for deathwatch,” said Grak. Da had done it more than once, as part of da nad duties to the clan as most-pure. You had a half hour after death to retrieve the soul, work that was usually done by the clan’s doctor. The final days of a dwarf could stretch on though, so the duty was often given over to younger dwarves. They would watch through the night and run to wake the doctor as soon as the old one’s heart stopped beating or their lungs stopped moving air.
“It was supposed to be two,” replied Nari, nodding slightly. “Dalin was a long time dying.”
“Is that Dalon’s defense?” asked Grak.
“No,” replied Nari. “Da has none. Da threw di-era on the mercy of da nad elders.”
“Did da say how da missed it?” asked Grak, pressing the issue.
“Da doesn’t know,” replied Nari.
Grak sat for a moment and thought about that. In Darili Irid, the traditional penalty for allowing someone’s soul to go to hell, whether through malice or neglect, was that the responsible party’s soul should follow. In practice, that was rarely actually followed, because it took quite a bit to prove malice or neglect, and because the interests of the families had to be balanced against each other. The families that made up the clan were likely going to be the focus of the trial, and Grak’s presence would only be to cement the return of the prodigal offspring, rather than because da nad input was desired.
It was all so small and pointless.
Nari filled the silence with more talk. Da didn’t seem to mind that Grak was quiet. From what Nari said, Darili Irid hadn’t changed one bit. The social fabric was different, but the pattern was the same, a balance of power between families, new scandals that put people out of favor, births and deaths, all of it as it had been when da’d left ten years ago. There were new rooms and structures in Darili Irid, carved from the stone, and there were mild improvements to infrastructure, new pipes, vents, and wires, but Darili Irid was still decades if not centuries behind the rest of the Empire. Part of that was poverty, and part of it was obstinate refusal to change.
The truck made the switchback climb up the hill on gravel roads to the dwarfhold’s mouth, which was filled with familiar outbuildings and didn’t seem to have a stone moved in ten years time. Nari parked the truck, took one of the trunks, and set off to the main lift down. Da looked back only briefly at Grak, and Grak took the other trunk, aware that da had been standing, unmoving, for too long.
They took the lift down and reached Darili Irid fifteen minutes later. Dozens of people were waiting for Grak, and the conversation immediately became a furious noise. Dwarves weren’t much for pleasanties, preferring a blunt approach to conversation, to the point that other cultures might consider it rude. People spoke their true thoughts to Grak, not seeming to care that da had been gone for ten years and might like some time to readjust. Da was told that da should have come home earlier, that it would have been better if da had been able to take the reins from the clan warder, Dalin-nai, rather than coming in afterward to figure things out. It was impossibly rude by imperial standards, and the part of Grak that had acclimated to foreign mores itched under the barrage of questions and comments.
Grak felt a hand around da nad wrist, grasping da nad, and was pulled in for a rough hug. Grak only realized it was da nad daler when they were already hugging. When the hug was complete, da nad daler held di at arm’s length, looking di over. They were the same, or close enough, with Grak’s daler having an extra twenty-five years of age etched on da nad face. Grak was surprised by how old da nad daler looked. Ten years was a fair amount of time, especially for the leader of the clan.
“It’s been too long,” Grak’s daler said. There might have been some trace of sentimentality there, but it was hard for Grak to take it as anything but a simple statement of fact. “We should talk. Privately.”
They made their way through the crowds, with Grak trailing behind da nad daler the way da’d done as a child. Grak was full grown now, with a braided beard just like da nad daler’s, but da still felt small. Da squared da nad shoulders and projected none of that as da walked through the hallways; da had always been better about hiding da nad feelings than the other dwarves, which was one of the reasons that da had been a prime candidate for Barriers.
When they entered into Grak’s childhood home, the sense of the past was overwhelming and unpleasant. Grak’s room was visible through an open archway, seemingly unchanged, with a thick-fibered blanket and a hard surface. Grak had gotten used to proper beds, the kinds filled with soft things. A dwarf was expected to go without so much as a pillow; they didn’t ‘need’ them in the way the other species did, but Grak had always liked having one. The cubby above the bed was still filled with books that Grak had gotten through the catalogs with da nad allowance, along with the wax cylinders and player that Grak had been gifted so da could hear spoken Anglish and pick up more of the language before da left.
“We have had a home carved out for you for several years,” said Grak’s daler. “You should have returned when five years passed.”
“I was doing well,” replied Grak. “My teachers said I had promise. I was sending money home.” That much was true; Grak had a gift for warding that had won di scholarships starting in da nad second year.
“You did not wish to return,” replied Grak’s daler.
Grak stayed silent at that accusation. It was true, after all, and da had always done da nad best never to lie to da nad daler. Da was here, back in Darili Irid, fulfilling da nad obligation, that was what was important. It shouldn’t have mattered what da wanted, only what da was doing. Action was more important than thought.
“I’ve arranged a childbond for you,” said Grak’s daler.
“What?” asked Grak, momentarily startled. Da nad heart began to sink as the impact of the words set in.
“It will do you good,” said Grak’s daler. “It will strengthen the ties that have grown weak.”
“Who?” asked Grak. Da could feel the stiffness in da nad voice and the tension in all da nad muscles.
“Kradohogon Kadok,” replied Grak’s daler. “It is a good match.”
It was political as well, Grak imagined, given that the Kadok line was among the largest and most powerful. Da had only faint memories of Kradoh, who had been two years younger than Grak, and was now surely a completely different person. In truth, it didn’t much matter who da nad daler had chosen for the childbond. Grak would have been aghast no matter whose child da was meant to bear.
Da turned away from da nad daler. Bad enough to be home, back in Darili Irid, away from all that was bright and new. The world was a great and flowing river, and Darili Irid was a rock stuck at the bottom of that river, unmoving. It was difficult to imagine being with Kradoh, pressing up against di. Da nad krin in Junah had been tall men of different species, needful men, and there were very few dwarves that could match that passion. It was incredibly doubtful that Kradoh would be one of them.
“No,” said Grak.
“You are not allowed to say no,” replied Grak’s daler. “I order it by my position as most-pure. The deal has been struck. Da is a good dwarf. A good match.”
“No,” replied Grak. “I refuse.”
“You cannot refuse duty,” Grak’s daler said. “No one can.” Da turned away. “Come. We’ve waited on you for a trial. It will help you get back into the rhythms of rule.”
They moved through the city, flanked by da nad daler’s friends and allies, until they got to the main hall. Tiered seating surrounded a circular space in the center, with a domed roof overhead. It was the biggest room in Darili Irid, and insofar as the dwarfhold could be considered to have a centerpiece, this was it. There was seating for five hundred, nearly a quarter of the population, and the place was packed when there were performances or festivals.
Here, instead of a celebrating populous, there were twenty dwarves, the most important in Darili Irid, and those who would decide Dalonakla’s fate.
Most of the ‘trial’ was already done, and Grak could immediately see that much of this had been arranged for da nad benefit. The timing was too suspicious; Dalin-nai had died a week ago, and the trial was only now, far later than it should have been. At issue was the question of duty and responsibility, and the parallel was bluntly obvious, even by dwarven standards. ‘This is what happens when you don’t do as you’re told!’, the assembly might as well have screamed.
Grak had been gone too long. Da’d been expected to stay at the Athenaeum of Barriers for five years, which had stretched to seven, then nine, and finally ten. Da had been on the cusp of becoming a proper magus, and from there -- well, it was all immaterial, because da was back at Darili Irid, over-educated for what would be asked of di. Da had argued to da nad daler, in a series of long letters, that every bit of extra skill da developed would be useful, that da nad skills as a warder would bring in money outside of Darili Irid, but it was all just a sequence of excuses. Da hadn’t wanted to come home. Being clan warder and most-pure hadn’t been da nad dream, not when da was a child, and certainly not now. To be childbound with a dwarf chosen by da nad daler was another turn of the vice.
Grak found di-era mumbling assent at the verdict delivered unto Dalonakla. Dalon was young, the elders declared, derelict in da nad duty and grievously in the wrong, but young nonetheless, with a life within Darili Irid ahead of di. Da would have to wear the black mark, so all would know what da had done (not that they wouldn’t in any case), and eventually, da might gather back some scrap of redemption for allowing another dwarf and valued member of the community to be eternally tortured. Forgiveness was the dwarven way, the elders agreed.
The community would abide much, so long as duty was followed. It was another message meant for Grak. Da wondered, idly, what the dwarves of Darili Irid had said about di during da nad extended absence, but found that da didn’t much care. Da would hear all about it, da was certain.
Dinner was in the great hall, the second largest room in Darili Irid, where the noise of dwarves eating and talking was nearly deafening. They ate kear, as expected, baked into flat loaves and completely without spices or seasonings. Grak forced it down while answering questions directed da nad way with as few words as possible. Da might get used to it again, eventually, eating the same thing every day, for every meal, with only minor variations. Dwarves didn’t have the same palates that other species had, and didn’t need the same variety that others did, but Grak had been a city dwarf for too long, and the kear was beyond bland.
When Grak entered da nad new home for the first time, late at night, Kradohogon Kadok was waiting for di.
“I’ve had a long journey, and a long day after that,” said Grak, pushing past the other dwarf. The house that had been created for Grak was palatial, by dwarfhold standards, with four different rooms, including a private bathroom. There was room for expansion as well, places where the rock walls could be carved away without running into the neighbors. It was generous, but all that Grak could see was the exposed wiring where the lights hooked into the dwarfhold’s power system and piping where water was pumped in and out, and the marks where tools had obviously been used to craft this space. In Junah, buildings were constructed to hide how they’d been made, and electricity and plumbing were tucked away, out of sight. Everything seemed so small, compared to the imperial standard of keeping ceilings fifteen feet high. Small and crude.
“We’re to be childbound,” said Kradoh. Da wasn’t unattractive, as dwarfs went, but Grak had grown to prefer taller, larger species.
“Childbound,” said Grak. Da stifled a sigh. “Yes, we are.”
“We should spend the night together,” said Kradoh. Da reached up and began undoing a button on da nad shirt. “Better to be krin first. Better to know each other’s touch.”
When Grak made no move to object, Kradoh undid a second button, then a third. Grak’s heart started beating faster. It had taken a long time to get to Darili Irid, a long time without anyone so much as looking at di, and even before then, it had been a dry spell, a time with neither krin nor krinrael. Da felt that familiar response stirring inside di, the response to need, until da looked at Kradoh’s eyes. There was no need there, and no desire, despite the forcefulness that Kradoh was displaying.
Grak accepted it nonetheless. Da had been too long without touch. Da removed da nad clothes, as Kradoh did, and they laid together, holding each other. Grak tried to take comfort in the feel of someone’s skin against da nad own, the heat that another body generated beneath the covers, but da nad mind kept going to the idea that this was all da would ever have. Even if da could learn to love Kradoh, even if they could raise children together without quarrels, it wouldn’t ever be enough.
Grak waited until Kradoh was asleep, then rose from the bed and dressed di-era. Da had no real plans about what da would do. Da only knew that da couldn’t stay in Darili Irid and spend the rest of da nad life as the clan’s warder.
It was late, and Darili Irid had emptied. Grak grabbed only a single one of da nad trunks, the lighter of the two, and took the lift up to the surface, where the multi-colored stars hung overhead. Da took one of the trucks and drove, without thinking too much about where da was going. Da would park it somewhere, da decided, and send a letter back to Darili Irid so that they would know where to go to retrieve it. Bad enough that da was depriving them of a warder, da wouldn’t deprive them of a truck as well.
It was six months later, as da was sitting in a cafe in Junah eating breakfast, that da learned what had happened.