Callie hated social functions, because it inevitably meant that she would have to make small talk. Almost all of the small talk that people wanted to make seemed to lead to big talk, talk about things that were, if not painful, then at least awkward. She could survive basic, easy questions, ones like ‘what do you do for work?’ or ‘have you lived in ‘Brast long?’, but everything after that would risk poking at the tip of an iceberg and showing a bit of what was beneath the surface.
The event was for Halgona though, and there would be a fair number of friends around. Besides, Callie wanted to make sure that Halgona knew there were no hard feelings over the way their relationship ended, or at least to keep up the pretense that was true. Regarding their relationship, Callie was willing to give a little half-truth, and when someone asked, ‘how do you know the artist?’ she would simply say that Halgona was a friend, which didn’t quite explain what had passed between them, but was close enough.
Callie had fretted over what to wear, but there wasn’t actually that much to choose from in her wardrobe that was sufficiently trendy and stylish for an art showing. Really, most of it was fine for work, or a night on the town, but nothing that radiated class and elegance. In the end, she’d settled on an aggressively asymmetric green dress that she’d bought on a whim and later been informed was two years behind the times. That had been three years ago, and maybe five years was enough for it to be a fashionable throwback again, but either way, anyone who was so concerned about it that they felt fit to judge her could get bent. That was what she was telling herself, anyway, knowing that in the moment, she would probably feel ashamed, and after the fact, she would replay it over and over again in her head.
It was all made harder by the fact that she was an orc, one of the rarer of the mortal species following Uther Penndraig’s genocide at the dawn of the First Empire, and a separate genocide at the hands of the Second Empire. Her skin was green, which had to be taken into consideration when dressing in ways that neutral-colored skin made less important, and she was taller, more masculine, than a female of other species. To be an orc living in an imperial city was to be judged by the beauty standards of the humans, even if people liked to pretend that wasn’t true. Worse, they didn’t make much makeup for green skin, even a lighter green like Callie’s (human blood, somewhere in ancestral past), and a hairdresser couldn’t be guaranteed to know how to properly work with an orc’s hair, not that she could afford a hairdresser. There was a book sitting on Callie’s nightstand, A Thousand Hidden Inconveniences, and while she’d only read the first chapter in the three months she’d owned it, it was more or less about all these small things, how they had been created, and how they might be fixed. If she was asked what she was reading in the course of small talk, she would probably lie and think of a less controversial answer.
The showing was at the Exolus Gallery, and open to the public. Callie probably would have felt better if there were someone at the door to take a ticket or something, because that, at least, would have made her feel like she belonged. Instead, she simply walked through the door, back straight, trying to project confidence, knowing that she would wither the first moment someone questioned whether she was supposed to be there. There were supposed to be friends, but she saw none, and so she went over to look at the artwork.
Halgona was a sculptor. She had always focused on figures, typically nudes, and the focus of this showing was, according to the brief description that had been put in the invitation, the theme of repetition, translation, re-creation, and the inherent interplay between medium and message. If Callie had been talking to her mother, she would have put it in simpler terms: what Halgona had spent a huge amount of time doing was making sets of the same sculpture, varying only one feature for contrast. For this showing, there were a huge variety of figures, each of them replicated in different forms, the same woman in the same pose done in wood, glass, bronze, and more exotic materials, like bone, marble, or flordite. The lighting for all of them was set up identically, which was part of the craft of the showing, making each of them distinct in a single, rigid dimension, that of material.
The set Callie found herself staring at was of a horned figure in a dynamic pose, one foot planted on the ground, the other high in the air, making it seem to be in the middle of a kick. They were roughly a foot tall each, on pedestals, and for this set, Halgona had left in what she called the ‘scars of artistry’, things like fingerprints in the clay or sharp edges where a chisel had met stone. The glass one in particular had very visible points where the pieces of glasswork had been joined together.
“It seems a bit lazy to me,” said a boy that was standing in among the figures with Callie. For a moment she thought he was talking to her, but no, he was with a woman. So far as Callie could tell, both had quite a bit more money than she did: the girl was wearing jewels in her hair and had a necklace that had the exotic look of an entad, while the boy had all the slickness and accessories that she expected of someone from the upper crust. They were young, maybe in their late teens or very early twenties, but they moved with the confidence of older people. They were both close to human, but the girl was so pale that she might have been something else, and the boy had two small nubs coming from his forehead, only slightly hidden by his bangs (he was qis, almost certainly).
“Lazy in what way?” asked the girl as she stopped to peer at a figure that had been sculpted from bone.
“It shows the work,” replied the boy. “It’s like a painter putting their brushstrokes on display. It’s a failure of craft. I will give ‘scars of artistry’ some points for trying to cloak that fact.”
“You’re a fucking idiot,” replied the girl in a slightly bored voice. “The display of craft is the craft, and here, it’s done by intent. You’ve seen the other works in this showing, it’s only this one that puts the process on display. Do you understand how many talents this showing required from the artist? To work in so many different media which have only tangential overlap with each other? It’s all compounded enormously by her focus on repetition, because she’s not just attempting to make a single piece in an unfamiliar medium, she’s putting work into the details so that they’ll look the same. Replication is often more difficult, on a technical level, than creation.”
Callie felt like a weight was being lifted off her chest as she listened to the girl talk. She had worried that she was going to see Halgona soon, and the question would come, ‘how do people seem to like things?’, and the answer could now be that there was praise for the technical accomplishment, if not the artistic vision.
“It’s an interesting idea,” said the boy. “And I will admit that there’s something to the execution. But the idea is what compels us, isn’t it? And this idea and its variants do nothing for me. You could say to me outright that the choice of material greatly impacts how we see the subject matter, and I would reply that was true enough, facilely true, but this — it doesn’t strike me with that idea. Good art should make you feel like you’ve been hit upside the head. This makes me feel … nothing.”
Callie wondered who these people were. The boy, at least, was a pompous asshole. She wondered whether they were older than they looked, which happened sometimes: when she had first met Halgona, she’d thought that they were the same age, but no, Halgona was vitric, and features that looked like they belonged to someone in their mid-twenties were held by someone two hundred years old.
“I do think there’s something a little anodyne about the work,” replied the girl. “The technical proficiency on display is stunning, but the subjects, and the poses they take, don’t appear to be saying much. I could see an argument for it being blandly inoffensive, even if I do think the core idea has more merit than you seem to give it. Perhaps the artist could have gone with something more political, which would have suited your tastes better, I’m sure.”
“Materials as mortal species, perhaps?” asked the boy. “A commentary on how our differences define and divide us, while still leaving common threads? Materialist determinism?”
“Too derivative of — who was the painter we saw last year?” asked the girl.
Callie drifted away before hearing a name. Eavesdropping was a bad habit of hers, and she was liking these people less the more she listened. In part, she was worried that their thoughts would poison her own. She had always thought that Halgona was a little studiously inoffensive with her art, though they had been born in wildly different times: Halgona was a child of the Second Empire, and had done most of her growing up during the second interimperium.
As Callie looked around at the sculptures, she saw no figures of orcs. Most of the mortal species had a similar basic shape, and the works were all unpainted, which let you imagine different possibilities, but there was nothing outside the human norm. There were a few bald women, which might have been vitrics like Halgona, but none that looked like orcs, and particularly none that looked like orc women. Callie didn’t know why she thought that there might have been. Perhaps it was because they had dated for long enough that she might provide inspiration, or at least reference. A cynical and depressed part of herself thought that no one would want to buy a sculpture (or set of sculptures) of an orc woman, not unless she was humanized. It wasn’t that cynical though, because anytime you saw an orc in an advertisement or painting, she was shorter, less muscular, with fuller breasts and a more narrow waist.
It sometimes surprised Callie how horrible of a time she could have when she was more or less alone inside her own head. It was difficult to be happy, even when there was nothing in particular to be unhappy about.
“Callie!” called a voice, and when Callie turned, she was relieved to see a friend making his way through the surprisingly crowded showing.
“Jestin,” she said, nodding to him.
He was lodona, one of the few people at the event who was taller than her, and dressed in a nicely fitted and almost painfully colorful suit, which she knew he had in abundant supply: Jestin was a tailor by trade, and considered his outfits to be walking advertisements. He’d been trying to move into the world of the rich for quite some time, which might have been part of the reason that he was at the showing. He had thin, close-cut hair and a typical lodona skull, which was to say, with less forehead than a human and a rather large rounding at the back of his head, the skull appearing to hang down a bit. Lodona had ‘moods’, and for almost all the time that she’d known him, he’d been using the same ‘mood’, an affable one that he used when out and about with friends. The only two times she’d seen otherwise had been a serious and studious one, when she’d visited his shop, and an angry, intense one, which he’d used when he was dealing with the police after she’d had a break-in (they hadn’t known each other too well before that, but he had come when he’d heard, and that had cemented them as friends). She could see a slight bulge in his cheek, where he kept his ‘cud’.
“Calleen, this is Zena, Zena, this is Calleen, Callie to her friends,” said Jestin. Zena was apparently his date, one of the other people taller than her, a mezin woman whose height was mostly in her neck. Callie knew little about the mezin, which made her feel awkward and worried that she would make an unintentional faux pas. “Enjoying the show?”
“I’ve seen a few of these before,” said Callie. “Mostly I’m happy for Halgona. Turn out is good, and she told me that it was the second showing that really mattered.” Callie hadn’t attended the first showing, which had happened at a time their relationship was experiencing significant troubles.
“I’m fairly sure that was self-deprecation,” replied Jestin. “Getting even a first showing takes quite a bit of work, and her pieces have a transcendent beauty to them. If this is a success, then she’ll have a solid relationship with the gallery moving forward.” He turned to his date. “Zena, Callie is a chef at Leotica.”
“Oh, I’ve never been,” said Zena, smiling and giving Callie a bright look. “I’ve always envied those who know how to cook. When I go to restaurants I’m sometimes baffled by what people are capable of creating.”
“And what do you do?” asked Callie, mostly to be polite.
“Oh, I’m a doctor,” she replied. “A blood and bone multimage with a specialty in infectious diseases.”
“That’s a lot of schooling for that,” said Callie, looking over at Jestin, who was beaming with pride.
“Five years at Sanguine, then another eight in Cranberry Bay,” replied Zena. “I spent half my life in school, starting when I was fifteen. My father used to joke that I went for that path because I just loved school. I’m working at Exebrast General now though, paying down the debts that I’ve accrued.”
Callie could feel herself withering. People like that, ones who had drive and ambition, who had made something of themselves, always got her feeling defensive. Callie was at an age where the people who were more accomplished weren’t freaks of nature or prodigies. There had been a comforting thought, when she was a teenager, that she wasn’t supposed to be accomplished. Now, accomplishment seemed to be the norm for her cohort. A multimage doctor like this wasn’t exactly at a normal level of achievement, but still, if Jestin had been able to land her as a date … it made Callie’s stomach curl, that was all. It made her feel like she had fallen behind, and had no hope of ever catching up.
“And how do you know the artist?” asked Zena, after an awkward pause as Callie felt inadequate.
“We’re friends,” replied Callie, thankful that she’d already had this conversation in her head.
“They used to date,” replied Jestin. “Once upon a time.”
“Oh, really?” asked Zena, looking a bit puzzled. She didn’t outright say, ‘isn’t that a bit unusual’, but it was fairly clear from the look on her face that was what she was thinking. Callie fought down the urge to defend herself.
“We’re just friends now,” said Callie. Orcs didn’t visibly blush, but she could feel the warmth rising in her cheeks.
“She did a sculpture of you, didn’t she?” asked Jestin. “I hope you kept it, it looks like it will be worth a lot in a few years. There’s more of a crowd than I’d have expected.”
“Can you settle a question for us?” asked Zena. “I was wondering whether there was any entad assistance in making these.”
“It would be less impressive if there were,” said Jestin. “There was a sculptor, Poul Greatcopse, who did most of his work with an entad that allowed the manipulation of stone. It let him be quite prolific, though there was still quite a bit of technical skill involved. Obviously I think that if Halgona were doing that, she would be upfront about it.”
“So far as I know, it’s all her own skill,” replied Callie. “It’s something that she’s talked about a lot though. She thinks that art is a matter of ideas, execution, and technical skill, and from what she said, all the technical skill in the world won’t make you an artist.”
“The show is an astounding display of technical skill,” said Jestin, looking around.
“It really is,” said Zena, looking around with her long neck. “I didn’t mean to cast aspersions.”
“I’m not sure Halgona would see it like that,” replied Callie. She stopped and thought about the sculptures she’d seen. “Though some of these are about the nature of art, so …”
“Ah,” said Jestin. “It would undercut the message she’s going for.”
There was a crashing sound from across the gallery, and everyone turned to look. Callie hesitated for a moment, then rushed to the source of the sound, pushing past people when that was necessary, trying to be gentle. When she got to the source of the sound, Halgona was standing there beside one of the sculptures, which had fallen to the floor and shattered. It had been one that was made of glass, which she’d always said was a finicky material to work with. She had a shocked look on her face, staring at a three-foot tall piece of art that represented an enormous amount of work, shattered on the floor.
Callie reached out into the air with two hands, grasping at imagined points, and reversed the flow of time.
It had been weeks since she’d done something large like this, but the statue unshattered itself, the pieces sliding across the floor and back into a coherent shape, with people moving out of the way as soon as they saw what was happening. It was important to get everything at once, and Callie did her best, imagining the coherent whole, the pieces that would need to slot into place, trying to trace them through the flow of time, which she’d never learned to do very well. Still, within half a minute, with Callie keenly aware that people were watching and talking, the sculpture was back in one piece.
Halgona went to it, looking it over. Revision magic wasn’t always exact, and in a large fracture like this, small pieces could go skittering across the floor, flying away from the others. Callie had tried to get everything back, but there were always risks, ways that it could fail. A shard that had been stepped on could stay stuck in the sole of a shoe, unless the field of what was revised was large enough — and to do a revision that involved actual people, let alone dozens of them, was beyond Callie.
“It looks good,” said Halgona as Callie came over to look at it. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Callie. People were watching them, and after a few moments, there was some scattered applause. “What happened?”
“Someone might have bumped into it, I’m not sure,” replied Halgona. She was looking radiant in a slinky blue dress, themed in blue to match the coloring of the hands that all vitrics shared. It was something that they’d shared gripes about, the ways that their color palette limited their aesthetic. Halgona had never looked better though, part of which was due to the sheer effort she’d put into her appearance on the most important night of the year. She was wearing a hat, the better to hide her bald head, as many vitrics did. It was another concession to beauty standards that were never meant for them, though at least Halgona hadn’t gone so far as to wear a wig.
“It’s good to see you,” Halgona said, finally turning to face Callie. She smiled. “Not just because you managed to save the sculpture.” The noise of the people around them had returned, and the incident, now over, was no longer drawing attention.
“There are a lot of people,” said Callie. “I feel out of place.”
“There was a column in Saunter about it a few days ago,” replied Halgona. “The gallery manager had a hand in it. I’m a bit worried that it won’t translate into sales or commissions.”
“You always hated the business side of things,” said Callie.
“I still do,” replied Halgona. “But it’s necessary.”
It was a conversation they’d had a number of times before, though those conversations usually came in the form of griping. It wasn’t enough to create, you had to market, to network, to put effort into things that weren’t the art. You had to pay attention to marketability, and then work within the confines of what would sell, and if you worked on commission, you were essentially beholden to the prompting of someone else. Patronage was as good as it got for an artist, but even then, you were subject to the whims of the patron.
“I meant to call,” said Callie. “But I knew you were busy.”
“My schedule should be clearing up soon,” said Halgona, raising an eyebrow. “Coffee, maybe?”
Callie hesitated, then nodded. “That would be good.”
“Well,” replied Halgona, smiling. “I do want to catch up, but I need to be making the rounds, unless you’ve come into money lately and want to buy a lot of sculptures.”
“I’m afraid not,” said Callie. “I’ll see you soon.”
As she backed away, she found Jestin and Zena again, who had come over while she was speaking with Halgona.
“Saved the sculpture, did you?” asked Jestin.
“It looks like I did,” replied Callie, smiling slightly.
“I thought you said you were a chef?” asked Zena, and Callie winced, because it was exactly the sort of question that she didn’t want to answer.
“I am,” she said. “But I did go to Claw & Clocks. I’m just … not pursuing it as a career.”
“Ah,” said Zena, but the way that she said it was laden with all the thoughts she wasn’t giving voice to. “But I suppose it’s still helpful with cooking?” she asked, brightening somewhat. “It must be rare that you can’t recover from burning something.”
“That’s true,” said Callie, relaxing somewhat. She had a complicated relationship with revision magic though, and even the mention of it left her feeling awkward. Everyone had seen what she’d done, and being the focus of attention or gossip was something she dreaded.
“It’s not something she’s keen to talk about,” said Jestin, slipping his arm in Zena’s.
“I’m fine,” said Callie. She took a breath. Better to get it over with. Jestin didn’t tend to go through relationships quickly, and there would likely be more of Zena. If Callie didn’t talk now, then the two of them would talk later, and that would feel worse. “To become a revision mage, you lose a year,” she said. “There are a few ways around it, but none that work at scale, and it’s a bit of a rite of passage, so … it was like I had traveled through time. I left myself notes and a journal, and learned a lot about myself.” Whenever she broached this topic with someone, she wasn’t sure how much to say. The truth felt too much like a punchline, but it was what she’d decided to go with. “I found out that I was attracted to women.”
Zena looked a bit puzzled by that. “Is that … usual?”
“It’s not uncommon for people to learn about themselves during the lost year,” said Callie. That was a diplomatic, practiced answer.
“I meant — and I’m sorry if this offends, but is it usual for orcish women to be attracted to other women?” asked Zena.
“Oh,” said Callie. “No.”
“She’s very data-driven,” said Jestin with a smirk. “Tell her some fact about the world, and she has a natural desire to know the numbers.”
“Sorry,” said Zena, looking a bit sheepish.
“It’s fine,” replied Callie. “I don’t know the numbers, if they exist.”
“I don’t know much about orcs,” said Zena, by way of apology. “If it was offensive, I hope it can be a learning opportunity for me.”
Callie waved a hand. “I don’t want to interrupt your date with a history lesson, and I’m not the best person to talk about it anyway.” It was always an awkward conversation, with Callie wanting to use the word ‘genocide’ and worried that she would be challenged on it. She’d had one too many debates about the definitions of words to ever want to have another, if she could help it.
“But,” said Zena, “And I’m sorry if this is sensitive, which it probably is, but one of my faults is being a curious person — but why did you stop being a revision mage?”
“Ah,” said Callie with another wince. “I left a letter to myself. There were a lot of things in it that cut deep. I think I must have been aiming to change my own mind, and it worked.”
“She’s — if I may?” asked Jestin.
“Sure,” said Callie.
“She’s described it as an understanding that the world really was different for everyone, that experiences she’d thought were universal were, if not unique to her, then at least vanishingly rare.”
“I doubt I was ever that grandiloquent,” said Callie.
“You’re a very pompous drunk,” said Jestin with a nod.
Callie looked around. The place was filling up, even more than it had been before. It was getting harder to talk. “Was there more you two were going to look at? Or did you have plans for after?”
“We’ve been here for a bit,” replied Jestin. He raised an eyebrow at Zena, who nodded.
“Not the best conditions for taking in art,” she replied. “I may come back when it’s less crowded.”
“Really?” asked Jestin. “I’ll have to tell Halgona, I’m sure she’ll take that as a compliment.”
“They’re very meditative pieces,” replied Zena. “It’s hard to let it sink in when there are so many people around us. To be honest, I was thinking about buying one, but it would immediately become the most expensive thing that I own.”
Callie nodded along, but she was torn. She didn’t actually know if she even liked Halgona’s art, or whether she just liked Halgona herself.
The three of them left together, leaving the gallery behind them and moving toward the nighttime street market that wasn’t too far away. Callie had felt awkwardly under-dressed and unstylish at the showing, but in the market, she felt over-dressed, and worried that the people looking at her would mistake her for something or someone that she was not. Neither Jestin nor Zena seemed at all perturbed, and Callie held her head high, trying to hide her discomfort. If she’d been by herself, she might have taken a trip back home to change clothes before heading back out.
“I think people have different revelations,” said Jestin. “It’s odd, isn’t it? For myself, I always thought that I was different, unique, special, and the serious revelation of my early twenties was that I was, in fact, fairly average, or if not average, then no more different than most people. That was the big thing I had to learn: most people have their peculiarities, and my own peculiarities didn’t make me exceptional.”
“A good rule of thumb is that 68% of the data will fall within a single standard deviation of the mean,” said Zena. “Hard to say what the mean would be, in this context.”
“Well, but the point being, if I had a point, is that for Callie, the revelation was the opposite, and took a lost year to figure out,” Jestin continued. “Her grand revelation of her early twenties was that not everyone was like her, that she had her own unique experiences.”
“I probably would have gotten it eventually, even without the lost year,” Callie replied. “And you’re making me sound stupid.”
“Not stupid, no,” said Jestin. “Just ignorant.” He beamed at her. “For which I’d blame your upbringing, incidentally, not you.”
They came to a stall that sold noodles, one which Callie had eaten from frequently before she realized how much more expensive it was than making her own. It was hard to justify eating there now, but she reasoned that she could pay more attention to the flavors and the techniques this time. The dish was simple, but doing simple things was difficult, especially when you had to take into account the many different palates that your clientele might have, along with species-specific allergies.
“Can I inquire about your upbringing?” asked Zena. “I don’t know much about orcs.”
“It wasn’t an orcish upbringing,” said Callie, once she’d placed her order. Her eyes were on the preparation, not that watching would tell her much. Most places that made street food did all of the important work ahead of time, including things like making the noodles, seasoning the meat, and creating gallons of broth. “It’s hard to even know what a traditional orcish upbringing was like.” She tried to think about her words, and whether they were appropriate to this audience. “We lost our history.” Our history was taken from us. “My parents were square pegs in round holes, and they wanted me and my brothers to be like them. There was always this sense of obligation and duty. And when I was an ignorant idiot, as Jestin said, I had these ideas about what that meant.”
“Ideas like being with men?” asked Zena, cocking her head slightly.
There was a certain boldness to Zena that Callie liked, though she was caught off-guard by the directness of the question. “Yes,” she replied. “It wasn’t until my lost year that I realized that some women actually liked men.”
“I will never not find that hilarious,” said Jestin.
“Yes, har har,” replied Callie. She didn’t find it funny, but she could understand how other people might, especially Jestin, who often had an absurdist take on the world. She turned back to Zena. “In my mind, every woman through the entirety of history was as equally attracted to women as I was, and they all pretended otherwise because they knew that it was necessary to keep their species going, or because they were oppressed by men, or — I had all these half-formed theories, missing the obvious because it was a way of thinking that was alien to me.”
“Wow,” said Zena. “That’s wild.” She looked over at Jestin. “I can’t say that I ever had a big revelation about the world like you two had.”
“Mine wasn’t particularly big,” replied Jestin. “I think it’s endemic to young people, men in particular, especially of a certain level of intelligence that’s not all that high, in the scheme of things. There are probably millions of people who have thought that they were going to change the world with the awesome might of their intelligence, and only a handful who actually did. Eventually, most of us realize that we’re not actually that amazing, and end up being only at the upper end of our chosen niche, which sounds arrogant, I know, but is probably true.”
“Has he told you that he’s won awards?” Callie asked Zena.
“He mentioned it when we first met,” replied Zena, rolling her eyes. “But I’ve seen his work, and it is impressive.” She looked at his suit and touched the lapel as though inspecting it, then pulled him close to her for a quick kiss.
“See?” asked Jestin. “And that’s all I want, for my work to be appreciated by a lovely woman.”
“Don’t trust him,” said Callie. “He has boundless ambition.” Her noodles were finished, which was to say, fully assembled, and she began eating from the bowl using the provided two-tine fork. The broth was salty, acidic, and very slightly sweet, with various bits of herbs and minced vegetables floating in it. “This is so good.” There was much more to say, but talking at length about ingredients and preparation would have made her feel self-conscious, or boring.
“My ambitions are confined to the field of tailoring,” said Jestin as he took his own bowl. He paused with his fork above the bowl. “Callie and I had a wonderful conversation about chasing trends in different mediums the other day. I was saying that I wanted to set a trend, and she replied — what did you say?”
“I was just thinking about how different it was between our two, uh, fields,” Callie replied. “Between different mediums, I guess. The time between having an idea and putting that idea into practice is pretty small in cooking, so long as you know what you’re doing. Trends can move very, very fast in the food world, depending on if the techniques are obvious. A chef can eat at a restaurant for lunch, and take inspiration from it, which he puts into his own dinner entrees.” That was more the case at smaller places that could turn on a dime and cook with ingredients bought piecemeal from the market.
“Yes,” said Jestin, slurping slightly as he ate a mouthful of noodles. He was a fastidious eater, in part because of his suits. “A well-tailored suit, on the other hand, takes a full week of work. So if I were to see something that I really liked, or more accurately, someone came to me to commission something that they liked, it would take me a full week to bring it into reality. Not that I chase trends, because that’s a loser’s game, and I am no loser.”
“You could make a sort of generalized medium velocity metric,” said Zena, taking her bowl and giving a long-necked bow to the cook. “Time-to-produce? But you’d also have to factor in time-to-perfect, because I can’t imagine that your first attempt at a new dish is actually good, is it?”
“No,” replied Callie. She pointed down at her empty bowl with her fork. “I made this for myself, but it took five or six tries.”
“Oh,” said Zena, then she stopped before any words could come out of her mouth and started eating her bowl of noodles. Callie returned her own bowl and fork to a small tray set next to the stall, where it was quickly whisked away to be cleaned.
“Yes?” asked Jestin, after Zena had a moment to eat.
“Nothing,” said Zena, looking guilty.
“Out with it,” said Callie, frowning a bit. The only thing worse than an impolite remark was an impolite remark that was never voiced and left to linger in the air, unspoken.
“I was just thinking that iterating through different dishes would be a good use case for revision magic,” said Zena. “But that seems like a sore spot, and I didn’t want to make a thing of it.”
“No, it’s fine,” replied Callie, feeling a bit guilty herself. “And it does help, quite a bit, it’s just … not what my training was meant for. If you told someone that you were going to spend the investment it takes to become a revision mage so that you could become a marginally better cook — if you said that’s what you wanted to do, you’d get laughed out of the room, and if you went ahead and did it anyway, somehow, without any support from the athenaeum or your community …”
“You’d be a pariah,” said Jestin, nodding. He knew this story, more or less.
“I usually don’t get into my issues the first time I meet someone,” said Callie. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” said Zena. “I’m a fan of frontloading a friendship with all the heavy stuff. Have you ever had a friend who left out some big fact about themselves that made everything make much more sense in context? For me, that’s where it gets awkward. And hey, if we never meet again, at least I’ll have really gotten to know you.”
“So then,” said Callie, slowly, “What’s your deal?”
“I’m normal,” replied Zena. “My dad was a psychologist, my mom was a doctor, — it wasn’t a surprise to me that I was different, or that I was the same, because dad talked at great length about people and how they relate to each other and fit into the world. I’ve got no major traumas to speak of, knock on wood, just some vague guilt that my life has been and continues to be pretty great, with none of the usual roadblocks that other people stumble across.”
“A bit of rage, too,” said Jestin.
“Aya sena,” said Zena, holding up her thumb and forefinger and inch apart while balancing her bowl in her other hand. Callie had handed her bowl back already, which left her feeling a bit awkward about not having anything to do with her hands.
“Rage about what?” asked Callie.
“The whole fucking world!” said Jestin, giving a smile and making a wide gesture.
“It’s very rational to be angry with the whole ‘fucking’ world,” said Zena. “Or at least, it’s normal, if not rational per se. You look at the world, you see things wrong with it, and you get angry. That’s natural, at least for my species.”
“For most of them,” said Jestin with a nod. “Or at least, for most people, regardless of species.”
“Well, I don’t want to speak for them,” said Zena. “I don’t want to say that the things I feel are universal to even my own species, let alone all species. Really, I only want to be authoritative about myself, unless I have data that lets me be an authority. But yes, I think it’s normal and natural to get royally pissed off at the state of things.”
“Just … things in general?” asked Callie.
“Oh, no,” replied Zena. “No, I have specific bones to pick with the world at large, but I doubt that either of you want to hear it, Jestin especially, because he’s heard me go on at length about the world’s issues more than once.”
“I’d like a very small slice of it,” said Callie. “An appetizer.”
“Hrm,” replied Zena, idly twirling her noodles with her fork. “Okay, how about this — the world is too damned big and complicated.”
“Okay,” said Callie, frowning. “Maybe just a smidge more than that?”
“There are variations among the mortal species,” Zena replied. “But even accounting for those variations, imperial society is way, way, way more complicated than any ancestral home environment, and well beyond the ability of all but the best and brightest brains to cope. And even if our brains were fine, which I don’t think they are, there’s an incredible amount of overhead everywhere, all around us.” She pointed over at the noodle stall behind her, then let her finger fall. “You’re a chef, right? Don’t you ever think about how six or seven hundred years ago, a chef like you wouldn’t have had to know anything about cooking for the mortal species? How your list of ingredients would have been a tenth as long, maybe even less, focused on what was local and seasonal?”
“Are you … an anti-imperialist?” asked Callie, frowning.
“Oh,” replied Zena. “Gods no, and I know, obviously, that pointing out how things were better in the past is a tool that people have historically used to argue for ethnopolities or worse, but — no, I’m just, you know … thinking about the world as we live in it, and the costs associated with how we live, and how the world could have been designed in a way that would prevent those costs from ever coming up.” She looked down at her now-empty bowl. “Food is a prime example, isn’t it? Because sure, it’s interesting to have species with different preferences, different diets, different ways of thinking about food, different qualitative experiences with food, different cultures … but if you were the designer of this world, why would you make some of the species deathly allergic to ingredients that are extremely tasty to other species? It’s cruel. It’s unjust. It’s the kind of thing that we should rightly rage against, and where possible, find solutions to.”
Callie turned to Jestin. “She’s really very intense.”
“Isn’t it great?” asked Jestin.
“I can be fun too,” said Zena, with a bit of a pout.
“Well, let’s put that to the test,” said Jestin. “The night is young, the city is bright, and our bellies are full. Where are we off to next?”
“Nowhere for me,” replied Callie. She knew Jestin well enough to know that one obligation would lead to another, if she let it.
“As you wish,” smiled Jestin. “Me and my lady can surely find something in this wide city to supply us with the entertainment we’re so desperately lacking.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you,” said Zena with a small curtsy. “Sorry if — if anything I said was just the dumbest shit you ever heard in your life.”
Callie curtsied back. Self-deprecation was something that had never failed to make her feel better. “Thanks. And no, you did fine. Someday, when I have the energy, we’ll talk about big, important things.”
The two of them went drifting off into the city, and Callie went on her own way, at first thinking that she was going back home. Then on realizing that she’d be passing by the gallery, she decided to return, ostensibly to see whether the crowd had thinned out a bit, but really because Halgona was there.
It was still as full as it had been, perhaps even fuller, and Zena had been right: it really didn’t seem conducive to taking in the artwork. But as it happened, Halgona was close to the window, and spotted Callie just as she was about to go.
“Thank you again,” said Halgona once she’d stepped outside.
“It wasn’t a problem,” replied Callie.
“Good night?” asked Halgona.
“So far,” she nodded. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course,” replied Halgona. “So long as the answer doesn’t take more than ten minutes or so.” She waved and smiled at some people going through the front door, then turned back expectantly to Callie.
“What would you create, if you could create anything? If you didn’t need to worry about paying for materials, or your studio, or your life,” said Callie.
“Wow,” said Halgona. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Jestin’s new girl was a fan of big talk,” replied Callie with a shrug.
“Well,” said Halgona, tapping her chin. “Giving myself no more than ten minutes, I would embark on a new series, one that’s about something more … grand, I suppose. I would take my fascination with materials and processes and produce something that’s more of a synthesis. Have you noticed that there’s a particularly Anglish cast to my work?”
“No,” replied Callie. “In what way?”
“Technique and materials,” replied Halgona. “Some of it you might call imperial rather than Anglish, but many of the techniques are exactly what are taught in imperial schools, and have been since before I was born. The ways of carving marble, the methods of joining glass, it’s all from the imperial schools, sometimes with its original inspiration being a culture that had a deeper specialty, but often with nothing more than the rigid utilitarian approach of the Second Empire, when technique was made as efficient as possible.”
“So they claim,” said Callie.
“Yes, of course,” replied Halgona. “Much of it was the aesthetic of optimization. Sorry.” Callie gave a casual shrug, as though it didn’t bother her. “The point being, for my big project that I would do if I were completely free, I would try to get to the roots of expressions of creativity and form, to repeat similar ideas as they would be translated by cultures that no longer exist, using mediums that are no longer worked in, tools that are relics, techniques that have been lost to time.”
They stayed for a moment in silence.
“It would be nice,” said Callie. “I’d like to see it.”
“Well, you’re not likely to,” replied Halgona. “But it’s what I would do, if I didn’t need to worry about my career, and the ability to keep making art. Actually, the bigger issue with that kind of series is that I would have to work with a team of historians, and the artwork would be dwarfed by the research we would need to present, but you were the one who said that I didn’t need to worry about anything.”
“It’s a good idea,” said Callie. “It’s a nice dream for you to have. Thank you.”
Halgona nodded. “I need to get back, but I’ve already said that. You have a good night.”
“You too,” nodded Callie.
She left, taking the long way back to her apartment, her eyes moving over the people she was passing, and thinking about the world, and all the variations contained within it.