Virak was a merchant, just as his father had been, just as his father had been before him. In fact, to judge by his granther's stories, the family trade stretched back for generations. They'd practiced it here in Agoe for centuries, maybe even all the way back to the time of Orakio. It showed in his craftsmanship, he was certain. The secrets of the trade handed down from father to son, father to son kept them vital and alive.
"All right," he told his first customer of the day, "let's see what you've got here."
He selected an auto-screwdriver from his toolkit and quickly had the access panel off the stubby little Whistlebot.
"Its FOI technique just doesn't seem as effective lately," said the guard officer.
Virak nodded, inspecting the circuitry inside.
"Ohh, I see." He rummaged into his toolbox and came up with an insulated-grip probe. Carefully, Virak touched a tiny switch inside. "Yep, looks like there's a loose connection here. It's been upping the TSU technique at the cost of FOI."
"Wait a second. This cyborg isn't equipped with a TSU weapon."
"Doesn't matter. All the cyborgs use the same basic design for their tech grids. The part's interchangeable, so you can build a bunch of different cyborgs without having to retool the assembly lines. Now, since this Whistlebot's only got FOI, I presume you'd like its power maxed out?"
The guard nodded.
"Can't think of any reason not to. Uses the same amount of power either way."
That was the down side to the grid system, Virak thought. A set amount of power was fed into the grid, then divided among the various techniques according to the grid setting. The selected weapon was fired while the remaining power was shunted away, unused. That was the cost of the redundant internal design that allowed Agoe's cyborg plants to produce an army of the combat machines rapidly.
Virak quickly made the necessary adjustments to the grid, then repaired the loose connection that had created the problem in the first place.
"There you go," he told the officer. "That should have everything taken care of." Virak replaced the access panel. "It gives you any more trouble, just bring it on back."
"Thanks. Just glad we don't need it to keep Shusoran off our gates any more. That Prince Rhys showed up just in time to save our bacon...even if he had to marry a Layan to do it." The guard shook his head, obviously amazed that anyone would have the courage to do such a thing, even for the sake of a long-undreamed-of peace. Virak didn't answer; he'd gotten a chance to see the prince and his wife when they'd traveled to Agoe to help negotiate the treaty between the Layan and Orakian cities of Aquatica and Rhys didn't look like a man making a personal sacrifice to him!
"That'll be ten meseta, please."
"No problem." The guard flipped a coin at Virak, who plucked it out of the air. The waist-high cyborg followed him out of the shop, scuttling happily on its rollers.
There I go, attributing human feelings to cyborgs again. Well, it was possible, just look at that Mieu who traveled with Prince Rhys, but not in anything Agoe could build.
"Yes, they're much more cute when they aren't shooting something."
Virak's head snapped up. He hadn't even noticed the stranger come in.
"Sorry," the man said. "Just caught the little grin you had there watching the cyborg, and took a guess. Was I wrong?"
"N-no..." Virak stammered out, taken by surprise. This new customer wore his lime-green hair pulled back in a ponytail, a long cape of steel mesh hung from his shoulders, and two short staves were worn at his belt.
In other words, the man was a Layan.
Sheepishly, Virak ran his hand through his hair.
"No, I guess I should be sorry. For staring, I mean. It's just that I've never had a Layan customer."
The Layan grinned quickly.
"Feels weird for me too. Of course, Shusoran and Agoe have been vacillating between armed hostility and open war for Laya knows how many generations, so I bet it's been pretty odd for everyone.
"Yeah, I know a bunch of people who think Prince Rhys was crazy."
The Layan chuckled.
"Oh, true. We all think it was Prince Lyle who was the insane one. Though at least those of us in Shusoran don't have to accept what the people of Cille did. It's their princess who married Prince Rhys, after all--and when the King abdicates, they'll be ruled by an Orakian!" He laughed at the irony, and the comment reminded Virak so much of what the guard had said that he laughed too.
The Layan extended his hand.
"I'm Julian, by the way."
"Virak." They shook hands. "So what can I do for you?"
"Well, this is a technique distribution shop, isn't it?"
"That's what the sign says."
"Good. I'd like to make a few changes. Increase GIRES, I think, and maybe FORSA, too."
"Not a problem. Where are your cyborgs?"
Julian looked at him blankly.
"Yeah, the same ones you want me to work on."
The Layan shook his head. "No, I was talking about me. I need my techniques adjusted."
"Your techniques...oh, you're talking about those strange powers you Layans have. You call those techniques, too?"
"Yes...what do you mean, 'too'?"
"That's what we call the weapon units we build into our cyborgs, techniques. I should have known something was up. It seemed kind of strange that a Layan would have a cyborg."
It was Julian's turn to look embarrassed.
"Well, I've got to admit I thought it was odd that there'd be a technique distribution center here, too, considering that you Orakians can't use techniques. Just a bit of cross-cultural misunderstanding, I suppose." He raised a hand in farewell. "It was nice meeting you, anyway."
"Yeah, you too," Virak replied absently. Something was nagging at the back of his brain, something his father had once said.
Virak, what I'm going to teach you today isn't part of our business. It's something that's been passed down in our family for generations, though, a part of who we are. A series of meditations, meant to focus the mind, or so Virak had always thought. If you do these exercises with another, this is what they should do...
"Hold on a second," he said, stopping Julian on his way out the door.
"What is it?"
"Just an idea. I'll be right back." He dashed upstairs and dug a small wooden box out of his nightstand. Virak brought it back down and took out two faceted crystal spheres about two inches across. "Do these look familiar to you?"
"Yes, of course. Those are the focus stones used...you mean, you can help?"
"Well, I'm not sure; I've never actually done it before. When you get right down to it, until you came in here I didn't even know there was an it to do. Just kind of a leap of faith, I guess."
"So you want me to be your test subject?"
"Well, if you put it that way..."
Laughing, he dragged a chair over to the counter.
"Just a joke. This should be an interesting experience. Consider it an experiment in Orakian-Layan cooperation."
Virak gave the Layan the two crystals; Julian closed his fists and laid his hands on the counter, backs up. Nervously, Virak reached out and rested his own palms on the Layan's fists. The only time he'd actually done this was when his father had been teaching him the art; certainly, he'd never done it for a Layan.
He took a deep breath, then tried to steady his thoughts, to center them in the way he'd been taught. Virak pictured a castle in his mind, a fortress of glowing jewels...and then, there it was. Floating in the eye of his mind was a square, its sides made up of individual gem-blocks, blocks of sapphire, ruby, amber, and emerald.
It looked like a cyborg's weapons grid. The pattern was the same, the distribution. Increase one, decrease another. Exactly the same. Virak reached out with his mind, recognized which color represented each technique, and made the necessary adjustments. There was a sudden flash of light, and the vision was gone. Virak opened his eyes.
"Well," Julian said, setting down the crystals, "that seemed to go all right."
"I'm surprised. It was almost...easy. It worked exactly as I'd been taught, and I'm sure my father had never done it either."
Shaking his head, Julian replied, "No, I doubt he would. I doubt any Layan has been in this shop for decades at the least."
"It's strange that Layan-style technique adjustment should have been passed down like that. Only thing that isn't weird is that we didn't know that was what it was. If we had known, I'm sure that we'd have deliberately forgotten it."
"Makes me wonder."
"About if there'd be a kit of cyborg repair tools hidden away in some closet as a family heirloom in Shusoran's technique distribution shop."
Virak raised an eyebrow.
"Sounds like you don't think it's a coincidence."
"I've been starting to have funny thoughts about that ever since I learned that Laya's Law and Orakio's Law were the same thing. Now I find something like this...and you know, even the signs for tech distribution shops are the same in Layan and Orakian towns, too. The same for inns, healers, weapon shops, armories--everything."
"You're right; that is strange. Makes you wonder..."
"Yeah, it does. I wonder if Orakio and Laya knew that peace would come some day, and so prepared us before they died by leaving us these little reminders that we aren't that different after all."
"Wait a minute. Why wouldn't they just tell us then?"
Maybe they couldn't?" the green-haired Layan replied with a shrug. "In the middle of a war, would anyone listen? Legends say that Orakio and Laya destroyed each other in the final battle."
"Ours, too...are you saying that it didn't really happen that way?"
"History is written by the survivors. It could be that people changed the stories over a thousand years, or that the end was just assumed, or it might have been deliberate deception. I don't know."
"Well, I'll tell you one thing," Virak decided. "Now that Layans and Orakians aren't at war any more, we'll find out some of those answers."
"Virak, I think you're right. Oh, hey, I almost forgot about taking care of the FORSA technique, too."
"Right." Virak reached to give Julian the crystals, then stopped and snapped his fingers in remembrance. "You know, I almost forgot about something too."
"Technique distribution costs ten meseta."
Julian groaned and reached for his purse.
"Another similarity. Our Layan merchants always remember to make me pay, too!"