Interlude: Interview with Owl
The room is quite small in terms of physical space, but it is empty save for a desk sitting in its center, so not much space is needed. Lanterns light the little room with a warm yellow glow, and an additional lantern lights the young man’s face in flickering tones, glinting off of the edges of the small silver spectacles he wears. His messy black hair hangs almost low enough to obscure his vision, but he seems so engrossed in the small leather-bound book in front of him that he pays it no mind.
Owl has been transported here from the castle, directly from Chapter 1.5. Any reader may ask a question in the comments below, including anonymous commenters. After reading each comment, I will translate it into a language that he will understand (unless requested to do otherwise), and then bring it to him, recording his answers and returning to post both question and answer below. At midnight on Sunday, June 14th, he will be returned to the castle with no memory of any of his exchanges here.
Was Studio Foscari your first pick, or were you rejected by other studios first?
The author drops the question on the desk in front of Owl, and he notes his place in his book before closing it to turn his attention to the paper.
“It can be a bit hard for Faberi in this city. It might be that way for Faberi everywhere, but Milia is the only city that I’ve had the chance to observe from inside the studio system, and…well honestly we tend to be seen as the ‘lower’ caste of Stormtouched. I knew, for example, that it was pointless to supplicate to Studio De Luca or Studio Malatesta. Originally I was actually interested in Studio Crivelli, on the Street of Red Artisans. I had a friend who was a garzona there, and I knew they had a reputation for versatility. They interviewed me a few times, but eventually decided they wanted to keep their empty slot open rather than taking me. My friend let me know that Studio Foscari has more Faberi than any other Studio, so I went there next and sort of found my place there.”
How does your Storm work and what does it do?
When he reads the question, Owl gives a small self-deprecating smile.
“A lot of people expect there to be some hidden depths or strange use of my Storm, but there isn’t any; my Storm is a fairly straightforward one. Faberi make things, I specifically make locks. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very good locks, and I’ve never had a problem adjusting the specifications of the locks I make. My Storm works just about the same as anyone else’s; I sit down to make a lock, the bones in my wrists and knuckles start prickling, and I just know how to put everything together just right. Tightly cramped spaces, or special materials, or in one case a lock designed to open to any key except for one, I’ve been able to create any lock that I’ve put my mind to.”
What happened to your echo, did she go change and never come back?
Owl’s brow furrows at the question.
“Why would she be hurt by changing?”
The author shrugs, “that’s what the question said.”
“Tomma died when we were really young, about eleven or twelve years old. My parents took us to the lakeside as a treat, and we were running along the rocks that lined the water. They were stacked all against each other high up above the beach, and the view was wonderful. We jumped from one large rock to another. It was foolish, but we were children, children do foolish things at times. It happened right in front of me, Tomma landed on a rock just a fraction too far, turned her ankle, and slipped…fell all the way down to the beach below. I didn’t really notice until then how high up the rocks were, almost fell myself as I made my way down.”
Owl carefully removes his glasses and flicks a tear from one eye, not self consciously but almost casually, before he continues.
“Um…she was almost all gone by the time I got to her. I don’t know if you know, but when an Echo dies they sort of…unravel. Like they were made of spiderwebs and now there was a rough wind blowing them away. By the time my parents found me there wasn’t any of her left. They’re Mortalis, my parents, it was…it was really hard. It’s not that they weren’t sympathetic, but they couldn’t quite understand what it felt like, you know? Your best friend of twelve years, never ever apart, and then suddenly she’s just not-”
The boy’s voice doesn’t crack, exactly, but he stops speaking quite suddenly, and stares down at the leather-bound cover of his book as if he doesn’t see it.
“May I have the next question please,” he asks quietly.
How would you say your Storm stacks up when compared to well known names in Milia, like Hundred-Eye or Cross?
“Against Hundred-Eye?” Owl raises his eyebrows, “nowhere close. There are some names in the city who can all but do whatever they like when they become journeymen, and Hundred-Eye is one of them. Cross is not quite as powerful, but she’s a Saggitara, she won’t have an issue finding work as a journeywoman. Really that’s what it all boils down to; what can you do with your Storm to make money after leaving a Studio. Me, I’m going to become a locksmith, I don’t think there’s any question about that. So I guess in answer to your question, my Storm doesn’t even touch Hundred-Eye or Cross’ Storms.”
Is there any resentment among Mortalis for your gifts?
Owl stares at the paper for some time.
“Did a Mortalis write this?” he finally asks. The author shrugs. “I mean…yes, of course I’m sure there is. There are people who say we don’t deserve what we have, but that’s a slippery argument, isn’t it? If there was no such thing as the Storm, there would still be people with more or less talent, wouldn’t there? We didn’t ask to be touched by the Storm, but we’re not going to throw our gifts away just because some people aren’t.”
Is it possible for Mortalis to gain recognition, or even a career, as artists?
“Of course. Mortalis art is a booming industry, and sometimes a Mortalis will find their way to the courts, if they’re good enough. It’s only happened once or twice, but it has happened. Studios are a great way for Mortalis artists to prove themselves as competent artists. A journeyman with Master Isotta’s recommendation behind him, for example, will absolutely be able to make a career for himself, even if he’s a Mortalis.”
Why are the martial stormtouched not recruited and trained by the military?
Owl flips to the next question and reads it twice, then shakes his head.
“This person has bad sources. There’s a reason that Saggitari and Lanisti have a reputation in the Studio system for not really caring so much whether they succeed or fail; they always have the military as a backup plan. I have never in my life heard of any army turning away a Saggitari or Lanisti, not unless they were so full of themselves that they made wild demands. It still benefits them to gain journeyman status, so they can find places as bodyguards or protectors or Rhetorguards or what-have-you, but even the most lazy knows they have a place in the army if they so choose.”
What is the “storm?” Is it a literal piece of weather (physical or metaphysical), or some religious/cultural metaphor?
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question,” Owl says, perplexed, “are they asking about the etymology of the term? Or how it works? I don’t follow…”
“I think they’re asking how it works,” the author clarifies, “answer both, just to be safe.”
“Well, I don’t really know about the etymology, to be honest,” Owl looks almost sheepish, “I know that when the Stormtouched first appeared that’s what they called themselves, but I don’t know how that was decided, or why it seemed to be so universal.”
“And the second part of the question?” the author prompts.
“Well it’s called the Storm as a metaphor I think, probably cultural. It’s certainly not religious, not with the uneasy relationship the Church has with the Storm. His Holiness Pope Clement VIII has said that the Storm is brought to us as a reward from the Lord, but…there have been enough nasty Stormtouched that I don’t know whether or not that’s the case.”
Is the unique effect of a Stormtouched’s art a feature of the art or the artist?
“A feature of the artist, that’s easy. When a Caelator dies, their sculptures slowly begin to petrify. When an Artifex dies, their paintings slowly start to unanimate. The time varies, of course, and no one really knows why this doesn’t apply to things made by Machinators and Faberi, but it’s a pretty clear indication that the art comes from the artist, not from itself.”
If someone else were to produce an exact replica of a Stormtouched’s work, would it have the same properties?
Owl seems very excited about this question.
“Oh oh I know this! In Venecchi there’s an entire industry based on this! A very talented group of Mortalis artists makes quite a lot of money selling replicas of Stormtouched work. A few years back they made a tour of Italoza, and quite a few Masters donated their time to provide their work to be copied. The copies do not have the same properties. After all, how could they, they were made by Mortalis.”
If a Stormtouched were moving the arm of another person who held the brush, would it work? What about vice-versa, another artist moving a Stormtouched?
“I don’t…maybe? Perhaps, since at that point the arm of the other person would count as the Stormtouched’s tool? One thing you have to realize is that not every Artifex or Caelator’s creation works, it’s the ‘artist’s curse’. So even if someone tried this and their piece was not touched by the storm, that doesn’t necessarily mean”
If two stormtouched artists are working on a piece together, do you get both effects, or neither?
“If that’s ever worked before, I don’t know about it. I mean obviously there have been pieces that have different components. A Caelator could carve a sculpture and have an Artifex paint it, for instance, and I think both Storms would have the same chance of working that they normally do.”
Why do some Stormtouched have unique effects, while some just make good stuff/do things supernaturally well?
Owl seems confused by the question. “Well different Storms act differently, that’s just…it’s just…it’s nature, you know?”
“I don’t know,” the author lies.
“It’s like how birds fly, or like gravity, you know? No one understands why it works, but everyone knows that all objects’ nature pulls them towards the center of the universe, they know that birds flap their wings and fly and that’s just how life works. You can’t make a hammer rise into the sky, just like you can’t flap your arms and fly like a bird. It’s the same for the Storm; no one knows why it happens, it just happens.”
Why the hell do Stormtouched artists waste their time fighting when they could be making art? Especially considering that their place in the hierarchy is determined by the fighting, not the art. These are not art studios, these are military regiments that also make paintings. The art suffers for it, and it selects for the wrong values. A talented artist may be passed up a chance to learn from a master in favor of someone who can only fight. They wouldn’t gain anything from the studio- they could hone their craft better in a barracks. Please explain to me why the students play along with this scheme?
Owl spends some time reading the question, his eyebrows raised.
“They sound really angry. Is this a Studio dropout?” he asks.
“No, I think they’re just frustrated about the lack of art coming from the studios,” the author explains. Owl is silent for some moments, clearly thinking of how best to answer the question.
“What I don’t think this person realizes is that, as a city, we simply cannot afford to foster artists in that way. Milia is a huge city full of Stormtouched, and our relationships with the other city-states of Italoza is wonderful, right now, but if the Prince of Licre decides he wants us for his own, we have absolutely no guarantee that the King will stop him. He might, but no guarantees.”
Owl is tapping the cover of his book, a nervous tic he apparently does not realize he’s doing.
“Art is an important, vibrant, wonderful thing, but why would the Prince of Milia not take advantage of the enormous power condensed in the walls of the Studios? What could he do to oppose a Venecchian army of already-battle-hardened Stormtouched? Or if all of the Italozan cities focused only on art, how would we hope to repel a Francian army of the same?”
Owl is getting more heated now, “and why do the students ‘play along’? What choice do we have? The choice to not ‘play along’ and be booted to the street? The choice to pass up the opportunity for recommendation and commendation from the Masters? For what? Because we think we know better than the King of Italoza? Because-”
“Owl, you’re yelling,” the author interrupts.
“Sorry…sorry. It’s just frustrating, because I don’t disagree. I try to make art in everything I do, but as far as the overarching system…there’s not a lot we can do to change it, is there? We’re limited by circumstances beyond our control, both Italoza as a whole and us little students on the lowest rungs of the latter.”
Are you going to insert yourself into Cog’s love triangle? Squares are in fashion, I hear
“Cog?” Owl seems legitimately startled, “I…I guess I hadn’t ever thought of her in that way exactly. She’s a good friend to me, a good person, and a good Fabera, but…” he seems to be choosing his words quite carefully, “…I think if I were to court her, we would eventually drive each other mad. She’s a very vulnerable girl, very easily taken advantage of, and I think that would cause a large number of problems for anyone who were to seriously woo her.”
How much pull do you have with Foscari? Are you the leader of their garzoni?
Owl seems relieved to return to discussion of Studio Matters. “I suppose I have a little bit of ‘pull’ by nature of being one of the older garzoni there…but honestly, we try not to think of each other in terms of ‘leaders’. In instances where we disagree, we try to talk things out, to reason our way to a conclusion rather than listening exclusively to one person. Master Foscari has the final word, of course, but I can’t remember the last time the studio couldn’t come to an agreement after we discussed it.”
Mr Owl, how many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?
Owl reads the question over and over, his frown deepening further with each reading. Finally he looks up, his face the picture of confusion.
“What’s a tootsie pop?” he asks.
“A hard sweet, rolled into a ball and put on a stick.”
“I see. Why would you lick it if you wanted to get to its center? Couldn’t you hit it with a hammer or something?”
“I think they’re referencing an old TV commercial.”
“What’s a-” Owl begins, but the author explains before things get too complicated.
“The sweets market puts on a play-within-a-play, in which a small boy asks a wise owl how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop. The owl could not answer since the sweet is so delicious that the owl can’t resist the urge to bite into it directly.”
“You call yourself ‘Owl’, it was a joke, I think.”
“Well I wish I had a tootsie-pop then, I could see what it tastes like and reciprocate the joke by re-enacting the owl’s portion of the play-within-a-play.”
“I don’t have any tootsie-pops, I’m sorry.”
Is your nocturnal watch duty the reason you picked owl? Or is it a likeness issue?
Owl shifts uncomfortably in his seat when he reads this question.
“No, it’s because I’m wise, like an owl. All of my studiomates tend to look to me for advice, and the name really caught on when we all realized that I work best late at night. When I first arrived at Studio Foscari, I picked,” he looks down at the desk, clearly embarrassed, “I picked ‘Scarab’ as a name, because I thought a scarab beetle’s shell looked a bit like a lock? I guess? I could change what my studiomates called me, but all of my coins still have a stupid scarab beetle on them.”
Tomas, thank you for agreeing to answer these questions. I would like to hear about your thoughts about Elena on first meeting her, and how your opinion of her evolved.
“This one is very polite, I like them,” Owl says, “tell Mister Omeris that he is very welcome. Hm…when I first met Elena…”
The boy pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he considers.
“I suppose the first time I saw her would’ve been when I came to Studio DaRose to bring them Foscari’s offer of a truce. I had heard rumors of her, but that was the first-”
“No, that’s not it,” the author interrupts.
“The first time you met Elena was when she took your coins in the raid on Foscari.”
“Oh yeah!” Owl breaks into a grin, “that was her, wasn’t it! Well then my answer is a bit different, because the first time I saw her she looked terrified. Honestly, she looked like she thought I was going to punch her in the face, she was practically shaking. She’s still got that sort of ‘beginner’ feel about her at times, but she seems a lot less scared of everything now. Working with her to strike back at the studios was interesting…the more tired she got, the scarier she got. I get the feeling that lurking under the frightened naive surface of her there’s a really powerful Master waiting to get out.”
Who manages Foscari’s finances? Do you have a storm touched with a Storm that helps? Or is your studio master just that good?
“Master Foscari manages our finances as part of his duties as Master of the Studio. He is quite good at it, and his Storm gives him the ability to fit more calculations on a page than would normally be possible. At his will, the numbers he has written can become very small or very large, and he can move them across the page like pieces on a chess board. One doesn’t think of an Artifex Storm as being very practical, but his very much is.
Occasionally, if Master Foscari is very busy or otherwise indisposed, he gets Inkblot to help him. Her Storm let her build a filing management system that allows her to be the most well-informed of us all. I’ve seen her do things with her filing system that were frankly a little creepy…like being able to draw up information she should have no idea we needed. I sometimes wonder if her Storm somehow allows her to transcend the limits that a Mortalis filing system would have, but I don’t have enough about it to say that for certain.”
Who’s decision was it to team up with studio Da Rose?
“A lot of us were a little uncomfortable from the moment we read the letter of declaration against Studio DaRose from Studio Malatesta. I don’t remember who was the first to voice our discomfort, it might have been me, but in the discussion that followed it was pretty clear that we were all worried about such an unprecedented shift in Milian Studio politics.
I do remember that Snugglet brought up a good point; it seemed a bit hypocritical that Studio Malatesta was making such a big fuss about DaRose upsetting the system in a novel and technically legal fashion, and then turning around and trying to upset the system in a novel and technically legal fashion.”
Do you think your studio’s ability to remain solvent irreverent of the inter studio conflict negatively impacts the purpose of the ranking system as a whole?
“I suppose if the other Studios noticed or knew what we were doing, that’s what they would say, but honestly I don’t think so. After all, the ranking system is the way it is for three basic reasons. Firstly, it’s a way to train up combat-oriented Stormtouched into a sort of standing army, and Studio Foscari turns away the combat-oriented. There are enough other Studios willing to take them, and we don’t need them. Secondly, it acts as a mark of quality to those who might hire graduates. Foscari may not be well known to the courts or to the higher classes, but enough craftsmen buy from us that our name actually has quite a bit of swing with craftsmen all over Italoza.
Thirdly the rankings are a way for the Court to help the Studios without acting as if they’re playing favorites, although they are. Studio Foscari doesn’t need the help.”
Owl leans back, but then furrows his brow, “or did they mean we negatively impact the other Studios? I suppose we might, but I personally don’t worry too much about that. Nothing is forcing them to take part in the rankings in the way they do. In theory every Studio could carry on the way we do and be able to reap the same rewards. After all, aren’t we supposed to be balancing combat with art? It’s the other Studios who make the choice towards combat, that’s hardly our fault.”
Mr Owl, what are your thoughts about the Milian court?
“Well, I’ve only been here for a few days, but I will say it’s very…opulent. I’m quite aware that, as a Faberi, I most likely wouldn’t have ever made it this far if not for Cog, and it makes me a bit self-conscious. I’m not used to wearing the clothes that have been procured for me, but I would almost feel embarrassed wearing the ones I brought…they’re about the same quality as the servants I see scuttling around. to be perfectly frank, I very much hope I can find some quiet room that no one uses, and spend my time there working on locks.”
He shrugs, “I know that’s kind of pathetic, but this place…it’s not really my sort of place.”
To the best of your knowledge, have all the different kinds of Storms been defined, or are new types of Stormtouched still discovered from time to time?
“Well of course new types of Storms are being discovered,” Owl smiles, “it’s very very rare for two people to have the same Storm…even in Lanisti, who seem to all have the same Storm, if you sit them down and actually talk to them about how their Storm works you find that theirs are all subtly different.
As far as different types of Storms, that one is also easy; there are seven types of Storm, and that’s a fundamental number of nature, you see it everywhere. There are Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Virtues, seven days in a week. It makes sense when you think about it.”
The author remains silent.
“What? What’s that look on your face?” Owl asks.
“Nothing. No look. Let’s move on to the next question.”
What is the function of Rhetors and Rhetorguards in the current society?
“The same function as anyone else, I suppose. They live, they work, they have hobbies, they die,” Owl shrugs, “I’m not sure I understand the question. Do you mean, is there a place in which a Rhetor will always have a job? No, there isn’t. But that doesn’t mean they can’t function! I’ve seen Rhetors work as servants, as chefs, as cart-drivers and farm-hands. Any job that doesn’t require someone to communicate a lot, a Rhetor can take.”
Are Rhetor powers used in some situations?
“Not as far as I know. A Rhetor without a mask is dangerous, unpredictable. I don’t know of any context in which one could allow them to use their Storm where there wouldn’t also be the danger of turning that Storm against Italoza. It’s just too much of a risk.”
From what we see of Italoza Rhetors are never allowed to speak and are killed if they try to communicate. Wouldn’t removing their tongues instead of putting masks make them much safer to be around?
“It might be safer if a Rhetor’s Storm was always centered around words. This is where urban legend of Rhetor gives the wrong impression, I think. A Rhetors’ Storm is based upon communication, not around speech. Some Rhetors have Storms that work through writing, or through singing, or through dance. If removing a Rhetor’s tongue made them harmless, the Guardhouse wouldn’t have to exist! But it does have to, and Rhetor’s need guarding, so there’s no point in going to the barbarism of removing tongues.”
Why allow them to walk the streets and eat in public places if keeping them in one place (island/prison) would make the process of supervising them much safer.
(I am not asking this out of enmity to Rhetors, but simply to understand why the Powers That Be in Italoza decided on the current rules. Rhetors seem to have a lot of power and a mask and one guard simply do not seem as adequate measures to stop their power from being used, as recent cases of escaped Rhetors prove.)
“One is born a Rhetor, it’s not a choice. Yes, it would probably be simpler to imprison all Rhetors, but that’s an awfully draconian course of action for something that a person cannot help. The Guardhouse isn’t just to keep the Rhetors under control, it also exists to help them live as close to ‘normal’ lives as they can. Besides, if all Rhetors were imprisoned, far fewer of them would turn themselves in to the Guardhouse!
I would take any reported cases of ‘escaped Rhetors’ with a grain of salt if I were you. Most of the time it hasn’t actually happened, it’s just something made up by a bored rumor-monger or a politician with a goal.”
Related question. Is there some way to identify Rhetors or to protect yourself from their Storm?
“No, no more than you can protect yourself from a Saggitari’s arrow or a Lanisti’s blade.”
How would a newly born Rhetor ever be caught by the Guardhouse, if the don’t have an Echo and can convince anybody of anything just by speaking?
“Well first off, that’s a common misconception. The actual effects of Rhetors’ Storms vary wildly, just like any type of Storm. From what I recall, there has never been a single Rhetor who could ‘convince anybody of anything just by speaking’, that’s the stuff of ghost stories and apocryphal tales.
In the vast majority of the time, a Rhetor isn’t ‘caught’ by the Guardhouse, they go to the Guardhouse and report themselves, signing up and receiving their mask and their Rhetorguard. You have to understand, Rhetors aren’t soulless monsters. They realize how dangerous they are, and most of them are willing to turn themselves in for the good of Italoza. Of course, you hear the horror stories of Rhetors who never turned themselves in, but the Guardhouse is quite good at following trends, the high-level changes in a city that indicate a Rhetor’s presence. You can be sure that anyone in a position of power, anyone who seems very lucky, anyone who is just a touch too popular, the Guardhouse has checked them out and vetted them.
As far as what happens to Rhetors who haven’t turned themselves in…it’s not really clear what the Guardhouse does when they catch them. I presume they’re executed, but they’re certainly never seen or heard from again.”
What would stop an escaped Rhetor from convincing the king and the court that Rhetors are safe for society or just to trust one particular Rhetor in everything?
“If the Rhetor’s Storm were such that they could do that…and no one around the King suspected…and the Guardhouse’s agents both public and secret failed to catch on to their plan…absolutely nothing would stop that from happening!
That’s what makes Rhetors so frightening. There’s no sure-fire method of keeping ones’ self safe from them, even if you’re the King of Italoza.”
Finally why would Master De Luca use Rhetors/Rhetorguards as guards in his studio? I don’t see how Rhetors are suited for guard duty and if you wanted a capable Mortalis, why not just hire one?
“De Luca had Rhetor guards? Interesting, I didn’t know that. It’s a pretty common thing, though. The Guardhouse pays their Rhetorguards, which means that if you hire a Rhetor, you get what amounts to free muscle as well. In addition to protecting the world from Rhetors, Rhetorguards also protect their Rhetor from the world, so an attack to the place of employment of a Rhetor usually means the Rhetorguard will respond in kind. Sure, some people hire Mortalis, but some people enjoy the two-for-one deal that hiring a Rhetor represents.”
Why does Guardhouse allows hiring Rhetorguards for anything, if their only purpose is to watch Rhetors?
“The Guardhouse doesn’t allow the hiring of Rhetorguards, but why wouldn’t a Rhetor be allowed to work? The Rhetorguard watches the Rhetor, the Rhetor works, and if a combat-situation arises the Rhetorguard might step in to help. A win for all sides but the attacker.”
And the competition seems to be between Studio Garzona, do the rules even allow Masters to hire help for Studio defense?
“Some studios have the money to hire security, but that doesn’t come cheap, especially when one can take on students to act as security for only the cost of room and board. There’s nothing in the rules that disallows for security, although a Master’s intervention is certainly frowned upon. If the Master of the studio feels the need to intervene in a raid, it casts a very poor light on the students involved.”
Do the locks need to be literal, or have you ever tried to create something to lock an idea or to lock up a concept?
“I don’t know what that means…lock up an idea? Like…in a box? I’ve made very small locks for boxes before, like jewelry boxes. I’m not sure how I would even go about locking up a concept, or locking something metaphorically. I guess I’m really good at keeping secrets, does that count? Maybe that’s my Storm at work?”