(A handshake serves as a greeting or a parting that denotes cordiality and friendship. That’s not to say it’s only used among friends, though. You might also shake the hand of a business partner before and after a successful negotiation or something like that. Do you understand?)
(Now, you’ve probably seen it happen between humans in the past, right? There are a few little subtleties to it you might have missed, though. For example, it’s customary to squeeze the other party’s hand a little. Not too hard, otherwise it’s aggressive and confrontational, but not too limp either, or it’s like you don’t actually care about the handshake. You just need to squeeze enough that people know you mean it. You can also cover the handshake with your other hand, for emphasis, if you’re especially happy or grateful or passionate about whatever you’re shaking hands for. Be careful with this, however. Using two hands makes the handshake much more intimate, so some might be uncomfortable with it, in which case you should refrain.)
[…How do I know if they’re uncomfortable with it?]
(Well, you watch their faces and see if they look uneasy, if their smile is a bit too stiff. You try to guess. I suppose that, for a first-timer like you, it might be simpler to restrain yourself to the one-handed handshake for now. When you’ve become more proficient and experienced with it, you can upgrade to the two-handed one, when you feel it’s relevant and appropriate.)
(Still, you have to be careful. Mortals shake hands much more easily than gods. Gods are more cautious about it since it involves direct contact – which can be dangerous, for people who’re proficient in magic – and you can never really trust another god you don’t know well. Someone inviting you for a handshake might only want to grab you to prevent you from fleeing, or to cast a close-range spell on you.)
(The thing is that you can’t refuse a handshake casually, either. When someone offers you a handshake, refusing it is a grave insult to the other party, which could easily lead to a grudge if the handshake was well-meant and they didn’t mean to trick you. That’s why it’s something of a social faux-pas to offer a handshake to someone you think might not want to return it.)
…This is getting ridiculous.
How am I supposed to remember and consider all of these questions every time I greet someone? Even with my strengthened brain, I don’t think I could keep track of so many variables. How do mortals even do it? Is there some trick I’m not aware of that could simplify the process?
And wouldn’t a ‘hello’ be enough? Isn’t that how people are supposed to greet each other? That’s always been sufficient for me.
I’m starting to wonder if it was such a good idea to request Phineas to teach me Caldera’s common sense while on the way to Alsomn. It’s already been a few days since we started, but I’m not sure I got any closer to acting like a normal person. I don’t feel particularly confident, but I suppose we’ll see once I meet someone else – which probably won’t happen anytime soon, so deep into the wilderness – and I find the opportunity to put his teachings to the test in a real situation.
Before the trip to Alsomn could properly start, of course, the first thing for me to do was to discover where, exactly, Sanae brought me when she retreated from the battle in Dorn. That took a bit of time. I walked aimlessly until I found a landmark I recognized from my map book, which revealed that Sanae had carried me a few thousand kilometers north from where the battle took place, crossing borders between countries and bringing us even further from Alsomn than we’d already been before.
The human countries are vast. Even for someone like me, who can walk day and night tirelessly, the trip is going to take some time.
Hence, my request to Phineas. My time can be better spent making up for my lapses in knowledge than only walking, after all. But while it’s easy for me to memorize everything he says, actually understanding it – understanding why people who presumably have functioning brains inside their skulls would behave in such arcane ways – is a much more challenging task.
(Are you sure you understand? Say so if you don’t.)
[…I understand the words. I don’t understand the point.]
(The point behind all these little rituals, you mean?)
(The point is to maintain a proper, orderly society. Courtesy and politeness involve complex rituals, indeed, but they’re also very much necessary. Gods are often eccentric individuals. And they’re also immortal. These characteristics together mean they can carry their grudges for a long, long time. Stories wherein a family is exterminated a few generations down the line for an offense their ancestor committed two or three thousand years ago aren’t uncommon. The skill to avoid creating those grudges inadvertently in everyone you meet – that is to say, politeness – is nothing less than a survival skill.)
[…So all gods are polite?]
(Not at all. A lot of gods are quite rude. Because in addition to being eccentrics, a lot of gods also happen to be prideful and arrogant. Those prideful and arrogant gods, however, usually die in violent circumstances. For example, they enter a full restaurant and demand one of the clients there relinquish their table to them. Except that client, who was peacefully eating his meal, turns out to be a hidden expert. Naturally, he refuses to give up his seat. Then, the rude god insists again and again. He starts threatening and blustering… Then, he dies. Violently. Like the daft bastard he is.) Phineas rubs his beard and lets out a small chuckle. (There were a lot of such stories, in the past, but nowadays, people have wised up. Unless their brains have turned to mush – or they’re confident in their own power – no one would go looking for trouble quite that blatantly anymore. They’d be criticized for being too stereotypical. Also, as I said, they usually die, so such trash has already been cleaned up from the gene pool.)
Phineas clears his throat. (Anyway, I rambled on quite a bit, but the point is that you should strive to be polite and courteous to people you meet. Polite gods who avoid stepping on the toes they shouldn’t live much longer lives than the others.)
I quite agree with what Phineas is saying – though I’d have preferred if he’d said it using fewer words – but my problem isn’t there. I’m all for being polite; I’m just not confident I can do it. I might miss something and unknowingly offend someone.
I need to pile up training and experience.
Reflecting and learning and discussing, I continue walking for a few more days, slowly but steadily getting closer to Alsomn with each step I make, until an unexpected spectacle makes me stop up short.
There, deep in the wilderness, far in the distance but getting closer to me with each passing second, is a carriage similar to the one I rode alongside the Springfield family some time ago. A team of two horses hauls it forward, rushing frantically as if their lives depend on it. Thick white foam drips from their open, panting mouths, but their driver doesn’t seem to care and even pushes them further with his lash. Behind the carriage follows a team of riders, casting magic and slinging spells at it in an effort to stop it. It seems like the carriage has been magically reinforced, however, because they have yet to succeed. Still, they don’t seem in any hurry. Magical reinforcement has limits, and the carriage just isn’t fast enough to escape them. Sooner or later, it’s going to fall to their assault.
(What’s this, then? Bandits or some such?)
What it is, is none of my business.
(You should help them.)
I inspect each of the riders’ faces. They’re likely too far for them to even notice my figure in the middle of the shrubs and rocks and things around me, but as for me, I can even count the number of hairs peeking out of the nostrils of the rider furthest in the back.
I’m certain I’ve never met any of these people before. There is just no reason to involve myself in a troublesome matter like this.
(Well, I could say, ‘because rescuing innocents from the jaws of bandits is a deed worthy of applause,’ but I’m not sure it’s a reason you could identify with. Also, we’re not actually sure they’re bandits in the first place. But how about the fact that it’s an excellent opportunity to exercise your social skills on real people?)
[…By murdering them?]
I don’t think I need to exercise that particular skill – at least not against weaklings like those. Or are we going to find a necromancer so that I can talk with their reanimated corpses? That sounds tedious and needlessly complicated.
(Well, you’d only be killing the bandits or whoever they are. Then, you’d go and meet the people in the carriage and try to negotiate for a reward. Wouldn’t that be a good exercise?)
Oh, I see.
Hmm… That might not be such a bad idea.
(Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work, though. They’re all humans, apparently. So if they recognize you as a demon, they might not react well. Keep your guard up at all times.)
While Phineas and I speak, the carriage gets closer to us at high speed, rattling noisily on the uneven terrain, crushing bushes and overturning earth on its way.
Unfortunately, its luck soon runs out. The spells of the riders after it finally manage to affect it, and the two back wheels explode in a cloud of splinters and wood chips. The whole carriage shakes hard enough to propel the driver off his seat and to the ground in a bone-breaking tumble. The carriage doesn’t topple onto its side, but there is no way for it to go any further; even if they can somehow fix the destroyed wheels, the horses are already down. Indeed, the moment the carriage’s back started dragging along the ground, they suddenly couldn’t pull it any further, and their run was stopped short in a rather brutal manner. Now, they’re on the ground, their limbs entangled. They’re still breathing, but I suspect the shock must have broken their legs.
The pursuing riders direct their own horses to circle the downed carriage, like wolves around a kill. They’re loudly hooting and calling as if they’re very proud of what they’ve done. One of them approaches the carriage’s driver, who still lies on the ground only half-conscious, and drives his spear into his face without so much as a warning, finishing him off for good.
Before the other riders can approach the carriage and force their way inside, three armored men file out of it, their boots clanging loudly down the small stairs leading to the carriage’s door, their faces stony and resolute. They all carry drawn swords in their hands.
They exchange a few pointless threats and insults, then a pitched battle ensues, three warriors versus eight riders.
To me, it looks like a bunch of children playing around, only pretending they’re fighting. Their movements are too regular, forming predictable sequences which can be easily parried and countered – except their opponents are just as bad and don’t even have the ability to parry and counter effectively and can only respond with their own sequences of predetermined moves. Sometimes, they use magic, here and there, but they don’t make their spellcasting an integral part of the battle. Their physical and magical attacks are clearly split from each other instead of seamlessly melding as they should. These people are not very well trained at all.
(Of course, they are. They’re mortals. What do you expect from people who’ve barely had a few decades to train and cultivate? Anyway, go ahead and save them. They’re about to die, here.)
Like Phineas says, the three warriors are quickly forced on the defensive. Seeing the situation under control, one of the attacking riders breaks off from the fight and climbs into the carriage, before coming out again pulling a young woman by the hair. She’s wincing in pain, and one of her cheeks is red and swollen.
The three warriors panic when they see the rider has caught the young woman, and they pay for their inattention dearly. In the next exchange of blows, one of them takes a sword to the neck, while the others are more lightly wounded.
Their situation seems desperate, until ice spears appear over each rider’s head. A burst of telekinesis comes just as the spears finish congealing into reality and sends them hurtling downward, impaling the riders below them from head to groin and pinning them to the floor.
None of the riders expected such an attack, and none of them survive it.
(Why didn’t you cast a spell earlier than that? You could have prevented one of the carriage’s guards from dying.)
[…They weren’t in range. My magic can’t reach that far.]
(Really? How far can you cast spells?)
[…Between 250 and 260 meters.]
(Hmm. Strange. You can use telekinesis, which is a 4th-rank god’s power, but the range of a 4th-rank god’s magic should average around a kilometer. Your range is more like that of a midling 2nd-rank. Your soul seems to be developing crookedly, somehow.)
My soul feels just fine, I assure you. There is nothing crooked about it.
I ignore Phineas’s mumblings and focus on the matter at hand. The two guards are looking at the corpses of their attackers, skewered on tall ice spikes in front of them. The young woman dropped to her knees when the one who was yanking on her hair died. She looks at his corpse with wide eyes and an open mouth. It takes her a few seconds to come out of her shock and hear my footsteps approaching behind her – I’m making them loud on purpose so that they won’t think I’m trying to sneak up on them and attack them. She looks over her shoulder at me. At first, she doesn’t react much upon seeing me, but then tears leak out of the corners of her eyes and stream down her cheeks.
Then, she starts sobbing.
I stop walking in front of her and only look down at her, flabbergasted.
I didn’t expect that.
Crying is a sign of distress or pain. Shouldn’t she feel grateful that I saved her life, instead? How am I supposed to negotiate with someone who’s busy crying?
Usually, I would just ignore it and continue as if nothing’s wrong, but perhaps Phineas has a better solution.
[…What should I do?]
(Give her a hand and help her stand up. That’ll be an excellent first impression. Then, you can even use the opportunity when she’s holding your hand to do a handshake. In this instance, not only will it serve as a greeting, but this girl will also see that as a reassurance that someone is there standing next to her and the danger has passed. It’ll help her deal with the trauma she’s just suffered.)
Oh. All right, then.
Let’s do this right the first time. It’s not that difficult. I’m sure even someone like me can do it if I try.
I keep an eye on the two surviving guards as I extend my hand for the girl to take. The two of them are standing a little further away from the carriage, still looking dazedly at the bodies of the riders who’d been fighting them. I don’t think they’ve even noticed me, yet.
“A–A–Are you the person who helped us? Are you the one who killed these men?” the girl asks me as she takes my hand, her body still wracked with sobs.
I nod as I draw her to her feet and don’t forget to squeeze a little.
Not too hard, but not too limp, either. Just enough to show that I mean it.
crack, snap, snap!
My gentle squeeze probably should have been a bit more gentle, all things considered, because my fingers crumple the girl’s hand like paper. Bones shatter; skin tears; blood spurts.
The girl, her face still covered in tears, doesn’t even react. She just stares at the remains of her hand in mine, uncomprehending.
I do the same.
It’s the girl’s two guards, who finally noticed me when the girl spoke, who react first.
“Let go of the lady, majin!”
“Get your filthy paws off her!”
They both shout in anger and pounce toward me, swords already swinging to sever my arm and free the girl from my grip.
(Woah! Why did you do that?! Just… let go of her and try to apolog…)
I’m sure Phineas’s advice would help the situation recover.
Unfortunately, most of my mind is still occupied with thoughts of how this really didn’t go as planned.
In the end, I’m too late to restrain my own reflexes.
A fraction of a second after the two guards start their futile rush toward me, a burst of magic is already flowing through my meridians. When the magic materializes, everything around me freezes solid. Frost covers the grass, the broken carriage, the downed horses, the few rare, round-leaved trees growing nearby. Frost also covers the two guards. And the girl whose crushed hand is still in mine.
I… didn’t mean to do that…
In my dantian, Phineas isn’t saying anything. He’s not even watching anymore. He silently shakes his head, his hands held over his face, blocking his eyes.
Sanae, however, isn’t quite so restrained.
[…Shut up. It’s not funny.]
Trying to ignore the tides of amusement flooding in from my link to Sanae’s soul, I look at the devastation around me. The girl in front of me still has the same look of incomprehension on her face. I feel kind of sorry for her. I know I wouldn’t want to die because the person who shook my hand was too stupid to moderate her own strength.
‘Let go of her and try to apologize,’ was it?
I release the girl’s hand. It breaks off from the rest of her arm and falls at our feet. No blood flows, of course, since all of it froze in her veins.
Let go of her; this, I can do.
But I’m unable to apologize. My telepathy requires a target; I can’t throw words into thin air. And that girl’s consciousness has already dissipated from within her dantian.
(Ahem.) Phineas clears his throat. (Well. That could have gone better.)
[…I didn’t do it on purpose.]
(I’d certainly hope so. Otherwise, I’d have to conclude that your concept of politeness is very different from mine.) Phineas sighs. (I didn’t expect that trying to teach you courtesy would result in innocent people dying horribly. I wonder if I should say that I’ve underestimated you?)
(In any case, I’m afraid you don’t get a passing mark. Also, I suggest that, next time you try, you reserve your politeness for people equipped to survive it.)