Heri stood, walked to the table, and took a long drink of water.
"What did you think?" she asked, pouring herself more and returning to her seat.
Ryarn considered for a moment.
"It was pleasant enough, I grant you. Or unpleasant enough, should that be? I like the stories that take us to dark places. I like a page smeared with blood. When did all this happen? When was it supposed to have happened, I mean?""
"Oh long, long ago."
"Did they really talk like that?"
She smiled deeply. "Once upon a time."
"It didn't end how it should have, though."
Heri sipped at her water.
"What do you mean?"
"Shouldn't Captain Yana have died?" Ryarn asked. "By which I mean, not if she was real, naturally, but in terms of narrative structure? Should she not have ended up in one of those alcoves? She had two crewmen killed and the rest terrorised because of her unfettered greed. To say nothing of the disrespect inherent in robbing the dead. I make no claim to be an expert on story blueprints, but usually isn't those kinds of grotesque sins punished rather severely?"
"As a general rule," Heri agreed, "But here that would cause its own problems."
"Various reasons, but let's pick one of them. What is disrespectful or sinful about stealing from the graves of kings?"
Ryarn felt his mouth drop.
"Are you serious? That's the kind of question that so revels in its own idiocy that I've no idea how to respond. You may as well ask..." He found himself groping for an analogy. "You may as well ask why babies don't come out already wearing shoes, or why dogs can't sing underwater. The number of fundamental truths that have to be ignored or trampled on just to frame the question is so vast that it's almost impossible to decide which to start with."
"I won't pretend not to sympathise," Heri said. "Still, for the sake of form, and in the interests of a full discussion of your impressions of the story, perhaps you would be prepared to try."
"Very well. Let's start with the fact that by definition everything they are stealing doesn't belong to them."
"I... What? What could you possibly mean by that?"
"Why didn't the things they take belong to them?"
This was entirely too much. Ryarn was finding it increasingly difficult to quiet the suspicion that this was all some elaborate set-up, that generations of ancestors were laughing softly in their tombs over the latest Fullprince to treat the hadithi as though it were a sensitive diplomatic engagement, when in fact it was simply about trapping young royals with a lunatic inside a box. It took some effort to keep a handle on his temper. There were naturally almost no circumstances in which Ryarn actually couldn't abandon patience and lash out, but there were a seeming infinite array of circumstances in which he shouldn't, and this was high among them.
So he'd been told, anyway.
"They didn't belong to them," he said in what he knew must be an obviously fraudulent tone of good humour, "Because they belonged to - oh. I see. Are you trying to get at what 'ownership' actually means in any useful sense?"
Heri beamed as though Ryarn were her child and he had just managed his firsts words.
"No," she said. "No, that's a fine topic for sensible conversation, but it's not what I am interested in. My question is specifically what it means for dead kings to own something."
"Well, if they owned it when they were alive..." Ryarn said. "I'm sorry. I'm genuinely not trying to be flippant, or difficult. I just genuinely don't understand the point we're circling around."
"Could that be," Heri said, her voice all innocence, "Because you have more than a few dead kings in your own history?"
Ryarn didn't bother correcting her on her terminology.
"So this is personal?" he asked instead.
"It is informed by who you are, yes. This is not a story I would tell everyone, or at least, not for the same reasons. But to return to the point: what does it mean for a dead king to own what he is buried with. Where do the treasures he hoards in his tomb come from?"
"They're gifts, usually," Ryarn said, "Or they're the standard Imperial trinkets; the kind of things we have commissioned to denote our rank. I trust we're not about to have an argument on the importance of the trappings of power.
"No", Heri said. "Not because I agree with the principle, but because the point I want to make lies elsewhere."
"And that is?" Ryarn asked, allowing a sliver of his impatience to show.
"Which is that everything a king is buried in was paid for by his people. or was a gift from someone whose people paid for it."
"What about family heirlooms?" Ryarn pointed out.
"Exactly the same," Heri said. "Just from earlier on. Everything was either given to them by their people, or stolen directly from them, which we can't really consider an improvement."
"So... what? Captain Yana was just stealing things back? Is that the argument?"
"Not really; what Sandra had in mind wasn't all that much better than just sealing treasures up forever. They would at least perform some microscopic stimulus to whatever economies Sandra wandered through after making the sale, but mostly she was in the business of keeping the ludicrously wealthy happy, which isn't a particularly good use of a person's time."
"Says the person entertaining the heir to the Empire with stories" Ryarn pointed out.
Heri nodded, as though conceding the point. "A solid hit, Master Callican, but the difference is in fact no small one; it would please me to know my stories make you happy, but that is not the reason I deliver them."
"In any case, whilst Sandra's actions are not a large amount better than those of the kings who steal their treasures to sit beside them as they rot, her crimes are not actually worse. You think she should be punished for her thievery, but at least her plan involved antiquities actually being pressed into some purpose. Compare that to those of you who call yourself Huber. In the absolute best-case scenario - a scenario so unlikely I'm not actually convinced it ever happens - you acquire these artifacts from a willing public on the understanding it will ultimately benefit them, and then you lock them away forever the instant they stop being of value to you personally, just because you're dead. You limit the benefit your people buy for themselves with their own coin, because you think just because something is given to you, you own it."
Ryarn was silent for a moment, brushing a stray hair from his immaculate trousers.
"I'm not inclined to argue the point, actually," he said. "All things being equal, I'd rather see things continuing to be being used, though your argument carries some rather ugly implications that we're not people in and of ourselves but just state assets to be utterly forgotten when we stop all our useful breathing. But even if all that were true, there's a world of difference between admitting those of the Kingdom erred and concluding Captain Yana did nothing wrong."
Heri raised her eyebrows.
"You're defending the Kingdom?" she asked, though her tone suggested a challenge rather than an accusation.
"You know I'm not," Ryarn said wearily. "That's the advantage of fiction, isn't it? You can make people as viciously unpleasant as you like to try and make a point. But even with the deck stacked so fully against those being robbed, it doesn't exonerate anybody. Captain Yana had no idea that those she planned to rob would turn out to be so despicable they deserved far worse than what she had planned. All she knew or cared about was the possibility of a good haul."
"You're right," Heri said, nodding. "As you say, this is fiction; I'd hope in the real galaxy our grave-robbers select their targets with a little more care."
"Doubtful," Ryarn snorted.
"I wouldn't claim to know," Heri replied. "But yes, it's entirely possible Sandra could have broken open a tomb to find nothing worth stealing. The dead desecrated for no purpose, not even one as selfish as that of the career thief."
"So," Ryarn said, smiling sardonically, "We can at least agree on desecrating graves being a moral wrong."
"In general, absolutely."
"Because of how it insults the dead? Because of how it trammels upon history?"
"History", Heri repeated in a strange tone. "That's a slippery context. Forton remembered his history, you will recall, or at least he thought he did. The cavernous gap between what his family had repeated to themselves and the actual truth ended up getting him killed."
"Captain Yana ended up getting him killed," Ryarn retorted.
"Yes. Yes she did. Because in at least one respect she was no different from the rulers who hide the treasures entrusted to them in their tombs when they die. Those people take the wealth of their people and hoard it past usefulness; Sandra took the trust of her crew and used it to fuel her avarice. Either way, it was not the taker who suffered eventually."
"So Sandra did deserve to be punished?"
"She deserved to be criticised, and harshly. Whether she deserved to be punished isn't a question that interests me. But yes, her chosen trade fills me with discomfort. Not because of how it might insult the dead, but because of how it insults the living. Like almost any other insult, it is not clear to me that it is never something we could make use of to good purpose - sometimes generating offence is a necessary act, no matter how unpleasant the result to those offended - but personal profit isn't going to get the job done in terms of sufficient justification."
"Ah!" Ryarn said. "So you're not immune to the way in which the average person views and feels about a given subject. With all this time spent defending grave-robbers, I was beginning to wonder."
"On the contrary, consideration for others is going to be critical to every thing follows. I would be a poor Hatha-Sheha indeed were I to undermine that at the very beginning." Heri fixed him with a strange look before continuing.
"The only point at issue is how well you can possibly be expected to be able to speak for the average person".
Ryarn was still crafting a response when the tiny receiver buried in his shoulder blade began to vibrate, just fiercely enough for him to feel the tremors in his chest. A message, tapped out in modal code. Ryarn stood and walked to the table, pouring himself some coffee (a strong and fine vintage, by the smell) to give him cover whilst he translated the message,
It was commendably brief; Captain Eldacott was a capable woman. "Warspite. Checking comms poss, Reply." Ryarn's mouth twitched when he considered that had Eldacott said that to him in person, the breach in protocol would have been so huge as to have her drummed out of the service. He took a long swallow of his coffee, and then began tapping out a reply against his thigh. "Comms active."
With that done, he carried his steaming coffee over to his chair, and sat back down.
"Do we have anything left to discuss with regard to the 'Eight-Pointed Star'?" he asked.
Heri shook her head. "I think we can consider that one dissected enough for the moment."
"I had a different story in mind."