Political reasons, thought Kevin, always seem to be bad news. Nevertheless, it was becoming clear that the political establishment in Lyndesfarne, or at least the part of it that was fully aware of the special properties of the crossing, were distinctly nervous about the effect of unlimited access to the Other World.
"But why don't you want more visitors?" persisted Kevin, "Don't you like us?"
Amiss shook his head, obviously disappointed with Kevin's political ingenuousness.
"How much do you know about the history of your own country, your own world?" he asked.
"Well, a little, I suppose."
"So how would you characterise the last few hundred years?"
Kevin thought about this. He supposed this era would incorporate both the Industrial Revolution and the Internet Revolution. So much had happened, so many changes, from huge improvements in health and well-being, to the invention and deployment of the atomic bomb.
"Well," he answered slowly, "I would say that this was a period of rapid development, now spreading world-wide, and unfortunately punctuated by several large-scale wars."
Amiss nodded slowly, like a teacher receiving an unexpectedly insightful answer from a normally recalcitrant child.
"Yes. And you need to understand that, here, the history is very different. We have a very stable society in this world, one that has not changed very much in millennia."
Amiss leaned forward in his chair, presumably to emphasise his next remark.
"And we like it that way. We want no disruption to our social structure, our way of organising our lives. We demand stability from our partners in the Other World. So, an essential pre-requisite for any change to, well, for example, the way goods are transported between the worlds, is to identify and remove any risk of societal changes."
Cultural stasis at all costs, Kevin mused. I bet that world-view leads to very conservative decision-making.
Both Tanji and her Uncle were following the conversation closely. Her Uncle seemed unsurprised by what he was hearing, and appeared to be able to follow the discussion reasonably well. Kevin had noticed that he was occasionally whispering to Tanji, presumably to get a translation of some word or phrase. Kithyn, on the other hand, seemed slightly uneasy, and was watching her husband closely, and noticeably fidgeting in her seat.
"So," Amiss said with a tone of finality, "The Board is politically opposed to extending communications with your world, simply because it is too socially dangerous."
Kevin remained silent for a few moments, mulling over what he had just heard. He suspected that the Board's position reflected other, more far-reaching political organisations.
"I think I am beginning to understand your concerns," he said finally, "But why increase the risk by building a new bridge?"
Amiss looked at Kevin for a long moment, and then turned and spoke in a low voice to Kythin, holding his head close to her ear so that her dark curls partially obscured his mouth and chin. Kevin's niggling feeling that he had encountered Amiss before was suddenly redoubled, although he could not work out why. He felt that the reason was in his head somewhere, hovering just below the level of consciousness.
As Kevin watched, Kithyn nodded in response to Amiss, and then turned to Kevin.
"Amiss has just suggested that I tell you a little about my role," she said.
She settled herself more comfortably in her chair, shaking out her hair and arranging her cape about her knees.
"Tanji and I work for an organisation over here," she began, "You'll have heard it called the Guild of Directions. It's dedicated to supporting trade between the worlds. I don't know if you've ever wondered why the new bridge is vital, but it must be obvious to you that continuing trade is very important to us here in Lyndesfarne."
Kevin had been extremely curious about this very question, and nodded vigorously.
"I'm sure it must be," he said in response, "Otherwise no one would have bothered with the new bridge - or the old one, for that matter. But I've not been able to work out why the goods traffic is so important."
Kithyn raised her eyebrows, apparently surprised that he had already given the matter some thought. Glancing sideways at her husband, she continued.
"It's to do with the characteristics of what you refer to as magic. I'm sure it appears to you that, in many ways, magic has properties which are little short of miraculous - powerful, long-lasting, even pollution-free."
Kevin, listening intently, nodded.
"The aspect which is perhaps less apparent is that magic is expensive - very expensive. It takes lots of people-time, a great deal of skilled and careful effort to make anything work."
Kevin thought about the spell - he could not think of it in any other way - which Bret's husband Eosin had put on the teddy bear he had brought as a present during his visit. Even adding a few simple movements to the toy had taken several tens of minutes, and Kevin had taken as read that Eosin was a skilled practitioner. So, he could well believe that it took considerable effort to conjure even a simple sprite.
"It's also not amenable to mass-production," Kithyn continued, "So for every item, individual and often lengthy attention is always required."
"Why is that?" Kevin asked, aware that, even to himself, he was beginning to sound like an over-inquisitive six-year-old.
"Well, that's a little difficult to explain without going into a lot of technicalities," Kithyn answered, sounding very slightly exasperated. "But generally, just making two things which are apparently identical still requires just as much effort. It's simply because there will ultimately be very tiny, but undeniable differences between different items, differences which are amplified by the process of infusing the magic, and which require a certain amount of skill and training to sort out."
Kevin nodded again, satisfied with the answer, at least for the time being.
"Anyway, magic is expensive. So, it turns out that many simple products would be cheaper if they were machine-made, or even made by hand in what you would regard as a conventional manner. So, traditionally, we've preferred to import large amounts of goods, and simply add the, well, magical enhancements we require."
Kevin could understand this. He imagined that the increased pace of industrial developments in the recent past meant that it was even more desirable to import partially completed products, which were then completed or upgraded in Lyndesfarne. He was also beginning to suspect that the Island economy had become increasingly dependent on these imports. Which would certainly lead, he considered, to the desire to increase the efficiency of trade, and hence to the need for the New Bridge.
"Let me give you an example," Kithyn continued, "Take the construction stone used in building the bridge. Do you know how it is made?"
Kevin shook his head.
"No, I don't," he said, "But it seems completely unlike anything we can get at home."
Kithyn looked amused for a moment.
"Actually, it uses cement, ordinary cement imported from your world. I don't know all of the details of the process but, as I understand it, the cement is used to make concrete, and then both the shaping and the additional properties are added magically."
"So, the lightness, the reinforcements, and all that, are added to ordinary concrete?" Kevin asked.
"Yes, exactly," Kithyn confirmed.
Kevin was determined to find out more, perhaps from Bret, as soon as could. But he also realised that, from an economic viewpoint, his country, even his entire world, was being regarded as a source of low-cost labour and cheaply-made goods (at least by comparison with the Island). And it still didn't answer the question: what goods were traded the other way?
"Let me give you another example," interjected Tanji, "We were talking about Dragons earlier, you remember?"
There was a sudden feeling of consternation, a frisson of nervousness, at the mention of Dragons, even amongst such apparently suave and sophisticated individuals as Amiss and Tanji's Uncle. There must be, Kevin mused abstractedly, something about these creatures hidden deep in the Lyndesfarne collective psyche.
Tanji evidently caught the unconscious reaction, and paused for a few moments before continuing.
"Because of the Dragons, keeping domestic animals in this part of Lyndesfarne was often fraught with difficulties. The presence of the animals tended to attract the Dragons, so that even if one had constructed pens and buildings strong enough to keep the creatures out, they tended to loiter in the area, making it hazardous to venture outside."
"So," she continued, "It became popular to import animal products from England, particularly hides to make leather clothing. And these days, we import other kinds of cloth as well. All of the tailoring and closures, the waterproofing, the wear resistance, and the self-cleaning and self-repairing properties - they are all added here."
Kevin made a mental note of the hint that magical methods used to ensure longevity of goods. This was, he thought, another aspect which leads to cultural stability. Clothes which did not wear out, and which were expensive, would last for ever, meant a quite different dress culture than the ephemeral fashions of his own world.
Kithyn picked up the thread of the conversation.
"Lots of other goods are imported, too," she said, "The tiles, used to make the writing slates you've seen, and paper and wood - all imported from your world."
"Why not just allow machines across, and manufacture things here," Kevin asked, once again feeling slightly as if he was nagging.
Amiss spoke up.
"It's a cultural issue again. Machines are regarded as 'dirty' and disliked for that reason."
Kevin had a momentary mental image of old-fashioned Victorian smoking chimneys and persistent coal-laden smog. He could imagine how this association could come about. Nevertheless, he wondered, perhaps the view that machines are somehow unclean was deliberately promulgated on the Island.
"Propaganda," said Kevin, to himself.
"What was that?" Amiss asked.
"Oh, nothing really. I was just wondering if the perception that machines are dirty was officially encouraged."
"No, not at all. It's just a deep-seated feeling in most people."
Amiss's answer did not quite ring true. Kevin suspected that the official standpoint was based on the fear that machinery could swamp Lyndesfarne, and provoke radical changes in society, just has it had done during the Industrial Revolution in Kevin's world, and was happening even more quickly now.
In any case, Kevin thought, they would have to turn off the sprites that were already active around the crossing. He was not sure if they actually could be disabled, even if one wanted to.
"There's another factor to take into account," Amiss said, giving the impression that he was trying to change the subject, "Which might be summarised as people trades."
"You mean slavery?" Kevin asked, aghast at the thought.
"No, no, nothing like that," the other man laughed, "It's just that people move from your world to ours, or vice versa, for private reasons, to do things, or have things done which cannot be achieved so easily in the other world."
"What kind of things?" Kevin asked, suddenly baffled.
"Well, a select few, those who have the right connections, and the money, travel to your world for surgery."
"You mean, to have medical operations performed?"
"Yes. There are certain small private clinics and hospitals set up, in England and in other parts of your world, specifically to cater to this trade."
Kevin was astonished. He had been forming the view that everything was more advanced in Lyndesfarne.
"You mean, our medicine is better than magic?"
"Well, sometimes," Amiss assented, "You see, for certain directly-treatable diseases and medical conditions, the techniques in your world are much more advanced."
This was a complete revelation to Kevin, although it made a certain kind of sense. For those in the know, of course, it would be an irresistible opportunity to get life-saving, or at least life-enhancing, medical treatments which were not available to everyone.
"What about the other way?" Kevin asked suspiciously, "Do people travel to Lyndesfarne for medical reasons as well?"
"They do. For reason I can't explain right now, in this world we're better at psychological disorders, as well as whole-body, systemic medical conditions."
Kevin began to wonder about some of what he had heard of so-called "alternative medicine". He had been assured by several medical professionals of his acquaintance that there was absolutely no basis in science for most of these techniques to work. But perhaps, he mused, they really do work in Lyndesfarne. They had certainly developed considerable psychological skills, and had some ways of directly working with memory and perception, he knew, which were used frequently, almost casually by many people.
Kevin shook his head.
"So, to summarise," he said, "Lyndesfarne needs - or at least wants - goods and services from England more than my world wants goods from Lyndesfarne - or at least goods that Lyndesfarne is prepared to let us have. Is that about right?"
Amiss stared at Kevin for a long moment, with a strange look on his face: some admixture of shock and suspicion, with just an undertone of loathing.
Just at that moment, Kevin became aware of a variety of rustling noises in the bushes around him. The others had obviously heard it too, judging by the way the conversation stopped abruptly, and they all turned in their seats, trying to track down the source of the interruption.
Moments later, many dark figures started emerging from behind the hedgerows, and moved purposely over the lawns. Some of the strangers rapidly encircled the party with what Kevin could only describe as military precision, while others ran in the direction of the house. Someone shouted something that Kevin did not understand, but everyone else clearly did, and Tanji and her Uncle stiffened immediately. Shortly afterwards, the same voice repeated in English.
"Everyone stay where they are!"
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