In the hour that followed, Erik kept Danielle under conditions that had a good track record of keeping her in a state of slumber. He also inflicted as many trick questions on Rachel as he could, for Rachel’s response to mental exhaustion was naps.
“Did you know a dollar today would probably be worth only ninety-eight cents next year?” Erik mentioned casually over his empty toy teacup. Underneath the teacup was Danielle, hanging on a cloth sling and positioned to hear the sound of his heartbeat.
“Why?” asked Rachel, frowning.
“A dollar buys an ice cream cone, now, yeah?”
“What if next year an ice cream cone costs a dollar and two cents? Can you buy an ice cream with a dollar?” Erik asked.
“Nooo…” said Rachel slowly.
“So if you have a dollar now and you want to buy ice cream next year, what do you need?” Erik asked again.
“Two more cents?” guessed Rachel.
Erik nodded. “Correct. Now, what if the ice cream man raises the price of ice cream to a dollar and four cents the year after that?”
“He’s mean!” Rachel exclaimed.
“He could be, sure,” Erik said. “But if you had no choice and you want to buy an ice cream two years from now…”
“I need four more cents?” said Rachel, scowling.
“Yes. Very good, Rachel,” said Erik, nodding in approval. “Now, what if this keeps happening? Every year the price of ice cream goes up by two cents. How much is an ice cream cone going to cost in ten years?”
Rachel laboriously counted her fingers and toes.
“A dollar and twenty cents?” she answered uncertainly.
“Good, you’re thinking the right way,” said Erik, nodding again. “In the future stuff costs more. So you need more money to buy stuff. That’s why a dollar today is probably going to be worth only ninety-eight cents next year. It loses two cents of purchasing power.”
Rachel didn’t quite clutch her head, but she looked close to that point.
Erik posed more questions on the similar vein, and it wasn’t long before Rachel had it. She flopped out of her chair, lay on the ground, and started flailing her arms and legs.
“NO MORE QUESTIONS! I’M TIRED! STORY TIME! I WANT STORY TIME!” she screeched.
Erik did a mental fist pump. “Okay.”
Rachel changed into her pajamas and Erik tucked her into bed. As Rachel snuggled under the covers, full of anticipation, Erik brandished the leather binder Rena gave him with a flourish.
“‘Frost, by Lieutenant Weaver, formerly of Her Majesty’s Royal Army Medical Corps’,” Erik began.
“Is it about a princess?” asked Rachel.
“I have no idea,” Erik replied. “Why don’t we find out?”
Rachel wriggled in her spot as Erik opened the binder and started to read aloud:
“’Forward. I realize that for most people, the word Yeti means a mythical monster inhabiting the snow-capped mountains of Aur. My self-appointed editor complained a great deal over my choice of subtitle for this reason, and strongly pressed me to use the more obscure appellation “Snær Jötnar” (which means “snow giant”) as an alternative. I refused, however, because of Frost’s distaste over the term. Incidentally, I have rejected Frost’s own preference, snowman, because it invoked the mental image of stacked balls of snow, a carrot nose, and eyes made of coal.
“‘In the end, I have only my inability to create gripping titles to blame. All I wanted was to evoke the image of an elephantine race of people, whose hair and skin are as white as the snow that so often covers their lands. But every attempt I made to convey this image faced stern rejection or outright ridicule. Hence I settled for “Yeti”. It at least got their size and geographic location right.’”
Erik paused after this point.
“So the story isn’t about the abominable snowman,” he said.
“Boooo,” hissed Rachel.
Erik grinned before he continued to read aloud, using the low rumbling baritone he’d specifically crafted to lull children to sleep:
“’Preface. I lived through the twilight years of the Seventy Year War and I swore I would never relive my memories of it through writing. This is for two reasons. The first, everyone in my generation lived through the war with the expectation it would stay from cradle to shallow mass grave. Thus everyone had to internalize the meaning and purpose of the suffering it wrought. As such, it felt presumptuous of me to publish my own thoughts on the subject when I didn’t possess a broad, sweeping knowledge of other people’s stories. Certainly, my experiences as a combat medic stationed for six months in Putin are not comparable to that of a field operative who had been deployed multiple times, in multiple locations.
“’The second, I’m not a writer by trade or inclination. I love reading—too much, according to my self-appointed editor—but the books I’ve read is the full extent of my literary background. Though one cannot be a good writer without reading good books, this doesn’t mean a reader of good books is by necessity a good writer. In fact, I imagine I’ve already bored you, dear reader, as of this point in the Preface.”
Erik paused for a second time and checked Rachel. Her eyes looked glazed. Encouraged, Erik continued his droning:
“’Despite my lack of literary skills and reluctance, I felt compelled to pick up my pen. After my encounter and subsequent friendship with Frost, I saw a glimpse of our world’s future. Simply put, the West will forget chokmah, the East will follow their footsteps, and both will reap the whirlwind of this folly.
“’This doesn’t mean I think we should revert back to using chokmah the way our ancestors did. That would be foolish in the extreme. My main intention for this book is to convince you, dear reader, to carefully examine why we stopped using chokmah in the first place, and why our attitude towards it has turned so hostile. For I’m afraid if we do not, our generation will regard all knowledge related to chokmah as distasteful, if not detrimental, and consign them to the rubbish heap. Then our future generations, who will surely rediscover chokmah, will be forced to relearn everything from the wreckage we left.’”
Erik stopped here. Rachel was fast asleep at this point. Danielle was also asleep, and with any luck, she would remain so for another hour. This meant Erik was free to leapfrog through the book as he pleased, reading only the bits directly related to qi, which the fictional author called chokmah.
Erik surprised himself by not doing so immediately. The Preface and Forward, for all that it was imaginary, had an undercurrent of truthfulness that made him flinch. Here he was, groping through the dark, trying to make sense of qi after discovering it by accident. Moreover, the fictional author’s somber comment that his future generations will have to root through the wreckage of forgotten qi knowledge stirred within him a powerful yearning. It was a shadow that hounded him since he was a small child playing make-believe by himself because even the kids who liked that sort of thing found his imagination too weird. A looming specter that haunted him since he read an article about children writing desperate letters to J.K. Rowling, asking her how they could find Hogwarts, for he was one those children.
The feeling of homesickness for a home he can’t return to, for he’d never been or it never was.
Perhaps being oblivious to qi was what made him feel like a stranger? Or was it that he hadn’t recovered from the solitude that was forced upon him as a child, and the wounds still ached? Either way, it seemed like reading Frost in its totality would give him what he’d been missing all his life.
In the end, though, Erik went straight to chapter three, where, according to Moe, one could gain a working knowledge of qi without reading the whole book. Though Moe warned it would make him miss a lot of the subtle nuances, he didn’t want to do what Rena told him to do. He also felt a strong sense of reluctance and ambiguity towards Frost. The story asked a lot from him: suspend disbelief, learn imaginary things, change the way he lived his life, even. Erik could tolerate the first two, but not the third. He didn’t want qi to disrupt his life. He worked hard to get where he was, and he wasn’t going to sacrifice everything over idle curiosity. He only pursued it this far because, as fascinating as it was, qi was just a nice extra. He could drop it, and his life would go on.
I’ll read the whole chapter, not just the last page. Erik thought to placate his conscience. I can always go back and read the first two chapters if I’m confused…
And so, Erik began to read.
Frost, Chapter Three:
The three of us entered Helix’s office. I offered Frost a seat, thinking I should give her the benefit of courtesy while I still had the chance. I knew better than to expect consideration from Helix, as my friend believed himself exempt from good manners. True to form, Helix started to fire off questions the moment he sat in his high-backed chair.
“So, Frost, tell me about the healing arts of your family. Was the focus on dispensing medicinal products or general clinical practice? Does it utilize chokmah?”
“Hok-mah?” Frost repeated, looking bewildered.
“Surely you heard about chokmah,” said Helix. When comprehension didn’t magically occur, he waved a hand at me. “Weaver, pray demonstrate.”
I sighed. “Very well.”
I fished around my pockets and found a coin. I placed it on my right palm and then held it out. Frost peered at me curiously.
“Behold, the Pull effect,” I said.
I shifted my hand so my palm faced the floor. The coin stayed attached to my hand. Helix clapped mockingly.
“Bravo…bravo…” said he.
“Thank you. Now please restrain your enthusiasm,” I said. Then I turned my hand palm-side up again, and declared: “Behold, the Push effect.”
The coin shot high up into the air, as though an invisible piston pushed it upwards. The coin flipped several times before it landed back on my palm.
A look of understanding dawned on Frost’s face.
“Qi,” she said.
“Yes, qi,” said I, as I recalled the Han word for ‘breath’ and ‘vitality’.
“I thought the Albion cannot use it,” said Frost.
“We can. We just don’t use it often,” I replied.
Frost made a thoughtful noise. “You call qi ‘chokmah’.”
“Yes,” I said. “It means ‘wisdom’. We call qi masters ‘wizards’— as in ‘wizen one’ or ‘wise one’—for that reason.”
Frost nodded again.
“So do you use chokmah for healing?” Helix asked.
“Yes,” said Frost, “for reattaching limbs and such.”
“Intriguing. Those who have been torn apart usually stay in pieces,” drawled Helix.
“Need not be so if the cut is clean and the severed part is reattached quickly,” Frost said.
“Can you reattach eyes?”
“No, too many nerves.”
I sat back and quietly observed Helix and Frost have their conversation on the medical use of chokmah. It wasn’t a topic I had much to contribute, my training in battle medicine notwithstanding. For me, chokmah was something one used to light a fire, cool down one’s tent or give one the extra strength to push the hay cart out of the ditch it had fallen into. A free resource only the destitute used nowadays.
The discussion went on for quite some time. At some point, Helix asked Frost if the Royal Palace employed face sculptors. It turned out Helix was correct about the existence of face sculpting. The skill itself, however, belonged to beauticians and barbers.
“So what do you do, go to a beauty salon and get your nose fixed?” said Helix with a sneer.
“Yes,” said Frost simply. “But you need to be careful who you go to. Many people get their face marred forever by going to an unskilled barber.”
Erik stopped reading.
“Are they talking about plastic surgery?” he muttered. “Why is Helix even bring it up? No, never mind that—qi can attach severed limbs and these people thought it’s only good as a last resort? What the freak?”
Shaking his head, Erik resumed his reading. He quickly found himself in a quagmire of confusion because the next page ran as follows:
“I suppose only the best get to work for the Emperor.”
“Were you one of them?”
Frost looked insulted. “No.”
“Why do you and PC Blue look the same?” I asked.
“Queen Mother’s wishes.”
“I didn’t see any scarring,” Helix observed.
“The palace beauticians are very skilled. They also start the process young,” Frost replied.
“Between ages twelve and fourteen; before one loses childish looks, but old enough to learn court manners.”
Helix snorted at that.
“Well, I am delighted to learn you are not a beautician, Frost,” he said. “I would hate for people to besiege my clinic demanding you to make them hairier, smoother or whatever else that is supposed to make one look more beauteous. I do despise such meaningless if harmless disfigurement.”
Then Helix shooed us out of his office, telling me to help Frost get ready for work.
“Don’t worry, he is a decent employer,” I said when Frost leveled a frown at me.
“I did not agree to work here,” Frost said, her alabaster brows low and stormy. “I followed him because Inspector Eareckson told me to.”
“People of Helix’s class are certain of the rightness of their actions because they are the ones doing it,” I said. “Go along with it for now. He’ll let you go once he’s bored or when you find a more suitable employment.”
“Eareckson? Blue? Who are these people?” Erik wondered aloud. Then he continued to read, hoping the later passages would provide clues to their identities.
Alas, he got more characters instead. There was a Hyacinth Fort, whom Frost mentioned as the person who inspired her to learn Weaver’s native tongue. Then there was Police Inspector Platt. He entered the scene: “smelling like a fish crate, sporting a strained back and massacring the Queen’s language.” When Helix came to treat him, Platt directed his venom at him without reserve. Erik couldn’t fathom how Platt, a lowly police officer, could’ve even met Helix, who appeared to be a wealthy doctor of aristocratic lineage. Then the mysterious Eareckson popped out of nowhere and nonchalantly stated she and Platt ran into a bit of trouble over stolen sailors.
In the end, it was just too much. Erik gave up trying to make sense of the plot and went straight to the last two pages of chapter three. There, he encountered these passages:
“I’m not interested in alternative medicine!” Platt bellowed as Frost drew nearer. “You’re going to shove prana up my back, aren’t you? Why don’t you just snap my spinal cord in half and send my pension through the mail instead!” He switched his glare to Helix and roared: “I’ll have your license for this, Sigh, I swear I’ll—!”
Platt stopped; Frost had lightly touched the spot under his nape, right where the thoracic vertebrae were located. There was an extended moment of silence, during which everyone waited for Inspector Platt to react with baited breath.
“…It doesn’t hurt,” Platt muttered in astonishment.
Several jaws dropped. Unperturbed, Frost pushed down Platt when he tried to raise himself up.
“Don’t move. I only pushed away the pain. Your back still needs healing.”
“You can’t just push away pain!” Platt protested as he squirmed like a frog pinned to a board.
“Of course you can push away pain,” said Frost, sounding like a teacher admonishing a dim student. “Qi can touch anything that which is real. Pain is real, so you can push it away.”
Everyone in the room went completely still. Frost blinked at us all, puzzled at our reaction.
“Intriguing theory, but not at all relevant right now,” said Helix, breaking the silence. “Frost, you should know better than to remove the pain. Platt is the type to let his spine rupture unless he feels severe pain. You can imagine what he’ll do if he doesn’t feel any. We also need to find the exact size and location of the herniation.” He turned to the rest of his audience. “Constables, please step outside, I need to examine Inspector Platt’s overtaxed spine. Eareckson and Frost, make sure everyone stays out. Weaver, remain, please.”
The police officers minus Platt dutifully trooped out of the room, Frost bringing the rear. I took out a poultice soaking in a jar and handed it over to Helix, who applied the cataplasm to Platt’s lumbar curvature. Helix then shut himself inside the apothecary, taking me with him.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” said Helix as he rifled through the herbs with trembling hands.
“I’m not sure if I do,” I muttered. “I may use chokmah on occasion, but I don’t know much about it.”
“Like everyone else in this blessed country,” Helix grumbled. “Weaver, recite the Three Major Laws of Chokmah.”
I frowned at Helix, but did what he asked.
“First Law: only that which has life can generate chokmah as long as it lives.”
“Good. Excellent memory,” Helix muttered. I frowned at him again before continuing:
“Second Law: chokmah manifests itself as ‘push’ or ‘pull’.”
“It is comforting to know you have not wasted your education,” said Helix snidely.
“No interruptions, please,” I said, feeling irritated. “Third Law: chokmah can only interact with physical matter.”
“There. You can stop right there,” barked Helix. “Even you, who never studied chokmah in depth, should be able to see the significance of what Frost did a few minutes ago from the third law.”
“Do you really think pushing away pain violates the third law?” I asked skeptically. “Since physical pain is chiefly of the body, isn’t it possible that—”
“I’m surrounded by idiots!” howled Helix, throwing his hands up in the air. “Weaver, please refresh my memory, because I clearly forgot the historic event in which a person was able to manipulate automatic body functions using chokmah!”
I shut my mouth with a click.
There was a long period of quiet.
“I thought as much,” said Helix, as haughty as only he could manage. “Even if we limit ourselves to the physical processes that let our bodies recognize pain, we still need to prove chokmah can, in fact, manipulate them. You know as well I do that chokmah has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The most it can do with any degree of delicacy is accelerating hair growth.”
“Why do you even know that?” I sighed.
“I thought Collette would find it amusing. But this is entirely beside the point!” Helix started pacing back and forth. “The Three Major Laws of Chokmah triggered the Scientific Renaissance a hundred years ago. Our world radically changed because of it. Now it turns out the third law is wrong. This is explosive news, my friend, and I don’t know if it would be wise to ever make it public.”
“Why not?” I asked.
Helix stopped pacing and looked back at me. The single lit candle highlighted the grim pallor of his face and accentuated the shadows.
“The War, Lieutenant,” said Helix in a low voice. “You know what started the bloody war.”
Chapter three ended there. Erik set down the book on his lap. He felt mentally winded.
“What the freak did I just read?”