OT: Seven For The Dwarf-Lords

on August 16, 2012 in Other Tales


Her Imperial Majesty Vera III had not grown up with titles and styles, but she had grown accustomed to them all the same. There was one that she was still getting used to because it sounded to her ears like a sign of familiarity rather than formality, no matter how respectfully it was pronounced.

“Dear Cousin Vera,” the ambassador from the dwarven clan Schwertgriff said. Vera held out her hands, palms towards her and fingers down, like she was holding them out for an attendant to dry. The dwarf touched her face lightly to each of the hands in turn.

It was a compromise between conflicting traditions. It would be rude for the ambassador to not offer the greeting of touching her cheeks to Vera’s, but it would be unthinkable for Vera to bow down to receive it. Yet it would be rude for her to refuse, and beneath the dignity of either party to bring a stepladder.

It was a gesture that dwarves normally reserved for other dwarves, which was what made it too important to be skipped or glossed over. Vera had thought it not dissimilar to the double-kiss that so many cultures employed, but the symbolism had been explained to her that it meant they were breathing the same air… as two people in a small chamber or a tight mineshaft might do.

It amused her that the ultimate dwarven sign of respect… or at least the highest one that they had paid to a non-dwarven official in the relatively brief period of the Imperial Republic… was breathing together, which was the literal meaning of conspiracy.

“I would conspire with you” as the ultimate compliment, the ultimate sign of trust.

Of course, being willing to share someone’s air could take on a different meaning in the close quarters of a dwarf fortress. It meant putting up with someone through thick and thin, even if you were both fairly thick and the maximum space between you was thin. It meant that you found their habits and general level of hygiene tolerable. And if things ever went very badly wrong, it could mean that you were willing to live or die as they lived or died.

My air is your air. I breathe with you.

Once that ritual was completed, Gertrude lifted a box off the table. It was made of polished steel and shaped like a ring box that had been stretched sideways to some length. The dwarf held it up to the empress and snapped the lid open for her inspection, revealing a glittering poniard inside.

“It is lovely, thank you,” Vera said, accepting the box and then setting it aside.

It was a detail of her meetings with the imperial swordmarkers that drove her security detail to distraction, along with the fact that no guards were allowed in the room. Longstanding security protocol dictated that no weapons were allowed in the same room as the emperor unless they were in the hands of the praetorian service. The dwarves were not the only ones who ever presented the imperial family with weapons as gifts, but they were the only ones who were allowed to hand them off personally and to refuse to submit to inspection.

The box would have been divined to within an inch of its life from the moment Gertrude had entered the Pallatium, Vera knew. She also knew that it would have been screened against as much magic as possible, with the wards set to dissolve when the box made contact with her own flesh. There was an ongoing contest between the praetorians’ wizards and the various dwarven clans who claimed their own versions of Schwertgriff’s privilege.

Gerry encouraged it, viewing it as ultimately beneficial to the security of both the dwarves and the Imperium that they had a friendly foe to test their skills against.

Vera sat down in her chair and gestured for Gertrude to do the same.

“You still drink the nutbrown?” Vera asked.

“Unless you have more of the sparkling mead from the reception last Thursday,” Gertrude said.

“Which reception would… wait, you don’t mean the raspberry mead at Aristos’s going-away party?” Vera asked, with a touch of mostly controlled surprise. “I’m sure I didn’t see you there… I would definitely have remembered it.”

“I wasn’t there, but it was the only thing our representatives could talk about afterwards,” Gertrude said. “Who knew wine with fruit in it could taste so good?”

Dwarves spying on elves was not news and not anything that concerned her. They’d probably wanted eyes at the party for the same reason that the Palatium had hosted it. The ageless bastard was not just leaving the diplomatic service, he was preparing for the westbound journey, as the elves put it.

“I shall ask the elven ambassador to send… me some,” Vera said. “And forward it to you.”

“I would appreciate it,” Gertrude said. “How does the light find you?”

“Quite well,” Vera answered.

“That’s good.”

“Things must be well that I am able to be good,” Vera said. “An Empress is not always accorded that privilege.”

“Sometimes, things need doing,” Gertrude said. “And sometimes things happen.” She paused. “We of course know your opinion on this.”

“They are not just my opinion, they are our laws,” Vera said.

“And sometimes your opinion is the law,” Gertrude said. “If you will forgive me for stating the obvious.”

“And sometimes the law needs to be more than the opinion of one person, or two,” Vera said. “We are a Republic. If imperial citizenship is to mean anything… and I believe that it is… it must include a measure of protection.”

“They are subjects as well as citizens,” Gertrude said.

“They are subject to supreme power so they might be protected by it,” Vera said. “The law should be a shield as often as a sword… or a shackle… or what is it good for? But as you said, your clan is aware of our stance, so I must ask what has occasioned this visit?”

“There was an attempted theft in one of your limeland provinces,” Gertrude said.

“Was there? We haven’t heard anything about it,” Vera said.

“Naturally, dear cousin,” Gertrude said. “That is to say, it’s natural you wouldn’t have heard of it as it was only an attempt and not a very high-profile one. One of the thieves did, however, die in the attempt.”

“Accidental?”

“Well, she did not leave a note.”

“You know our meaning,” Vera said.

“My apologies, dear cousin,” Gertrude said. “It was certainly not our intent to kill her, nor did she die by our hands. She fled the scene in the form of a mouse, and encountered a stray cat. Her family is making some rumblings, but the law is on our side. The matter is not yet settled but I am confident we shall not need to trouble our cousin about this case in particular. It is more in what it represents.”

“Go on,” Vera said. She made a mental note to inquire after the full details of the incident, as it would be out of character for Gertrude to tel her everything.

“It is simply that involving human law in crimes against dwarves is such a regenschirm to begin with,” Gertrude said. Vera’s limited dwarfish told her that this meant something like “a shield for rain”… she knew the word from context to refer to a useless and inconvenient thing. “Many of the clans are coming to feel that the time is coming to to re-examine our law enforcement arrangements. There will be a proposal on the table at the next Grand Congress, you may mark my words.”

Vera knew better than to ask when that would be, because she would not be told. Even knowing that the dwarf clans of the westering lands held a Grand Congress was a rare privilege.

“And what would you like us to do about it?” Vera asked.

“I simply thought you should be forewarned,” Gertrude said. “There’s been a lot of grubengas about this.”

“So… this actually is a friendly visit, then,” Vera said.

“All my visits are friendly,” Gertrude said. “If I wanted to fight, I would have made an appointment with your husband.”

From anyone else, this might have been an insult aimed at either one of them, but Vera knew that neither her nor her husband’s diplomatic chops were being slighted. She refused to meet with the emperor, for the most respectful of reasons.

Gertrude had met the emperor in passing in less formal situations, though she took care not to linger near him at official functions and she never applied to see him in private. This was not an insult against him, either… it was her way of acknowledging his dwarven heritage, slight as it was, by treating him the way necessity would demand she treat a male dwarf.

“She didn’t tell you that for nothing,” her husband told her when she’d relayed the words of the conversation to him… he could have heard them himself, but something had gone wrong with the echo-catcher… one point to Clan Schwertgriff’s newest crop of enchanters.. “Something else will come out of that congress and she’ll be looking for a favorable disposition from us.”

“We’ve always done well by the swordswomen.”

“And they’ve done well by us,” Magisterion said.

“When will the Grand Congress be, do you suppose?”

“They happen every seven years, of course,” he said. “And I am fairly certain that one happened last year. So they’ll probably have the next one a year late because of that, to throw things off.”

“Why not have it earlier?”

“Because they can’t. It would lead to a fracture if they tried. Seven years is actually the mutually agreed-upon minimum time frame. The Grand Congresses used to be incredibly rare. The required gap between them is to limit the ability of a coalition to ram through changes, and to spare the poorer clans the expense of participating more often.”

“She gave me a warning about something seven years away?”

“It will take them seven years to set the agenda, it’s only fair that we have seven years to respond to it.”

“But doesn’t she know how much can change in politics in seven years?”

“Think of it as a show of confidence.”

“In what way?”

“In the sense that she believes you will remain in power after I’m gone.”

“You are a cruel man, Tyrant of my Heart,” she said.

“If you will forgive me, I will tell you something I’ve never told you before,” he said.

“Oh? You’ve been keeping secrets from me?”

“In my defense, they aren’t mine,” he said. “They belong to the dwarves… to the whole of dwarven culture.”

“Do tell.”

“There are seven orders of secrecy in dwarven culture,” Magisterion said. “The first is the Secret of the Party. It means non-dwarves, non-kin. If you tell ‘Cousin Gertrude’ something in confidence or if someone asks her about your whereabouts or habits, this is the level of secrecy she’ll observe. It means caution, but not necessarily silence. She’ll find out who wants to know, and why, and what they are to you.”

“Sounds sensible enough,” Vera said. “I’d hope most people would do that.”

“Most people hope most people would, but most people don’t,” her husband said. “Dwarves try to teach the habit to their children. The second level is the Secret of the Person, the individual. It’s how a dwarf like Gertrude would protect her own secrets. The third is the Secret of the Kin, meaning only her immediate family, sworn sisters, and in some contexts her husband and his family.”

“Long-distance contexts, I would hope.”

“When it comes up, her male relations would be treated the same as her female ones, except when it conflicts with the fourth order…”

“Clan secrets?”

“Yes,” Magisterion said. “And the fifth is the Secret of the Folk, of the dwarves themselves. In some cases a non-dwarf can enter into the third or fourth circle through marriage or adoption, but the fifth circle is for dwarves and dwarves alone. Stone born.”

“So the Turnip-King of Dwarves…”

“Is a comic play and not a sociological primer, but yes, the title character would not be entitled to any fifth level secrets no matter how nice a fellow he was,” Magisterion said. “The nature of the sixth level is not known to any non-dwarf, and the seventh is known to no dwarf living.”

“Really? None? Anwhere?”

“Well, on a practical level, there are doubtlessly some old and powerful entities who know the truth,” he said. “And some mortal scholars who’ve kept it very, very quiet. The prevailing theory is that the sixth is the Secret of the Ancestors and the seventh is the Secret of the Gods, but the way the orders are practiced from day to day, reverence for ancestors seems to be covered by the the third and fourth levels, depending on the degree of relation.”

“How does it even work, though, to swear to protect a secret you don’t even know?”

“Well, I imagine it’s easier, for one thing,” Magisterion said.

“But it could be anything,” she said. “It could be something awful.”

“If they never find out what they’re swearing not to divulge, then for all practical purposes it’s nothing,” he said. “It’s more about the idea of secrecy, the ideal of it, than anything else. I think that’s probably the actual point. My personal theory is that the sixth level of secrecy consists mostly or entirely of the knowledge that there is no seventh level… though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention it to our swordmaker friends.”

“Or mention that I know about the orders at all, I suppose,” Vera said.

“They are not common knowledge… even among emperors.”

“Still, though, I can’t fathom swearing to abide by something I don’t know,” Vera said.

“Naturally not, as you’re the empress… normally people would be making such oaths to you,” he said. “Our soldiers don’t know every order they’ll be given when they take the oath of loyalty. Anyway, the dwarven people aren’t an army… or at least, they’re not a singular army, and there isn’t any one figure at the top giving orders who could take advantage of such blind adherence. The orders of secrecy are important, but… well, human cultures have ordered virtues and principles and sins in all sorts of lists, but even when these things are taught in schools as established facts, that doesn’t mean people go around evaluating everything in terms of them. We make such lists to establish the importance of a concept, not to rule our lives in strict accordance with them.”

“So the orders of secrecy are just there to remind dwarves to be careful of loose talk in general,” Vera said.

“As with all things, some people are more strictly observant than others,” Magisterion said. “I wanted to give you some context for your interactions with Gertrude and her clan sisters, my heart, that’s all… I know you find their insistence on secrecy a bit peevish, when it seems to be for no reason.”

“Thank you.”

“The day will come when you need…”

“Stop,” she said. “No more. Today, between us, death is a seventh-level secret, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Meaning we cannot discuss it?”

“Meaning I don’t believe it exists.”


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19 Responses to “OT: Seven For The Dwarf-Lords”

  1. fka_luddite says:

    Not actually a typo, but “invoking” might be more apt than “involving” in “It is simply that involving human law in crimes against dwarves…”

    Current score: 0
  2. Erm says:

    “I need that like a dwarf needs an umbrella.”

    I love learning new idioms.

    Current score: 1
  3. Erm says:

    My personal theory is that the sixth level of secrecy consists mostly or entirely of the knowledge that there is no seventh level…

    Rule Five: You do not talk about Rule Seven.
    Rule Six: You DO NOT talk about Rule Seven.
    Rule Seven: There is no Rule Seven.

    Current score: 0
    • Greenwood Goat says:

      For me, it’s Monty Python’s Bruces.

      Alright – reading of the rules concerning dwarves in the MU Underhalls.
      Rule One: NO WOMEN!
      Rule Two: I don’t want to catch anyone not drinking this year.
      Rule Three: NO WOMEN!
      Rule Four: No bashing the elves… while there’s anybody looking.
      Rule Five: NO WOMEN!
      Rule Six: There is NO Rule Six!
      Rule Seven: NO WOMEN!

      Current score: 1
  4. pedestrian says:

    Alexandra, I ‘adore’ your usage of such terms as ‘conspire’ & ‘privilege’ & ‘Westbound Journey’.

    “human cultures have ordered virtues and principles and sins in all sorts of lists……We make such lists to establish the importance of a concept, not to rule our lives in strict accordance with them.” This ‘should’ be a truism. But, we do love to delude ourselves.

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  5. Billy Bob says:

    I would have liked to have head more discussion of the thieves. It’s sad that of the two of them, the ass still lives and the nicer one is cat poop.

    Current score: 0
  6. Micah says:

    Minor typo: The first “tell” in the story is missing an “l”

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    • Lunaroki says:

      Typo Report

      “Many of the clans are coming to feel that the time is coming to to re-examine our law enforcement arrangements.

      Double “to” in this sentence.

      one point to Clan Schwertgriff’s newest crop of enchanters..

      There is either one too many or one too few periods at the end of this sentence.

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  7. Shine says:

    Didn’t you already use that “conspiracy” line in Tribe?

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  8. Zathras IX says:

    Cunning Linguistics:
    Schwertgriff‘s a German/Dwarven
    Word meaning “swordhilt”

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    • Kevin Brown says:

      Zathras, didn’t you already use this one a while back?

      Current score: 0
  9. Ducky says:

    It took reading the story twice and looking at the title again to get the reference. I know the next books I’m rereading…

    Current score: 0
  10. Author_Unknown says:

    I love how you can take a word and make it do tricks it didn’t even know it could do. I would read this just for that, lucky for me there are so many other reason to read this… The best modern literature I have read.

    Current score: 1
  11. Apollo says:

    Now all we need are the nine Mortal Men, the three Elves, and one Dark Lord, and we’ll have ourselves a poem, yeah? ;3

    Current score: 0
  12. OhPun says:

    Typo comment:
    out of character for Gertrude to tel her everything.

    should be “tell”

    Fabulous story. I’m greatly enjoying everything you’re writing and eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

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  13. Amelia says:

    “Turnip-King of Dwarves”
    I take it they don’t have Carrots in the Imperium then.

    Current score: 1
  14. Arancaytar says:

    such a regenschirm to begin with

    Love this line.

    Current score: 0