Chapter 3 - A view of empire
Everything you saw. Everything you ever will see. It will all be controlled… by us.
Ol’ Bottlenose once told me that you can’t build a castle on sand. I was so young that the words washed over me like water. Chinara never did anything but laugh at him. He babbled on about so many bits of pointless minutiae. I could never be sure if there was anything escaping his lips that was worth more than the filthy old rag with which he occasionally wiped the crusted spittle from the corners of his mouth.
I thought he was trying to teach me some arcane tip about construction. About engineering. But standing here now, surveying this useless group of compatriots, I’m finally starting to understand what he was really driving at.
At this rate, my entire “crew” will soon consist of nothing more than me, and… Spinner. I’ve seen fishing nets with fewer holes than Jarin. I don’t know if Montal’s gonna make it to morning. Kamini’s in a state that I didn’t previously think was possible. As near I can tell, Namni’s, well… “fine”. And by “fine”, I mean that he’s been nothing but a blubbering wreck since I showed up. He did manage to climb out of his cage. But other than that, he’s been downright useless. I suppose I should cut him some slack. He's only 14. But the contrast between him and Kamini couldn’t be any starker.
Me: Help me with these gears. We gotta hoist the rest of these cages.
Namni: I don’t know if we should move Montal.
Me: Would you prefer we leave him in the jungle to die?
Namni: No… but Pang beat him down somethin fierce. I don’t know what kind of internal injuries he’s got.
Me: You’re right. I should leave the two of you up here. You can wait for the Absents to come down and heal him. Or maybe Rychov will nurse him back to health once he returns with his full crew in tow?
Namni chews over this for a solid moment like he’s actually weighing these possibilities.
Namni: I don’t think that’s likely.
Me: There may be hope for you yet.
The poor kid’s confused. He just stares at me.
Me: So get on the damn gears and help me out here!
He couldn’t look more scolded if I’d just smacked him upside the head. He has an odd affinity for baggy clothes. But it’s never more prominent than when he droops his shoulders and goes into full-on pout mode.
Namni: I don’t really know how these work.
Me: Neither did I. But if I hadn’t figured it out, you’d still be hanging down there.
Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure how I got him hoisted up here myself. The contraption that drives these things is a cobbler’s nightmare of over-engineered braggadocio. This is no Reaper rig. No one in their ranks has half the knowledge needed to deploy something of this ilk.
The Elladorans would sell it for parts. If the Diasporans got sight of it, they’d probably start praying to it. It’s awash in the stench of Tallonai. The Tallonai wouldn’t dream of just using a lever if they could find some way to bake a gaggle of gears, a few dozen pulleys, a dethane engine, and a couple of flywheels into it.
When the cages are finally at branch level, the device conveniently jars them sideways to the point where one can open the top latch and remove the prisoners with minimal effort. That’s a very good thing, because if we had to lift Montal from the basket it might be fatal. Jarin’s not much better, but he keeps flirting with consciousness and I’m less worried that every breathe will be his last.
As we pull Jarin from his cage, he emits a handful of uneasy grunts. I’m not trying to punish him in any way. But it’s pretty difficult to gently transfer someone who still has arrows protruding from their right hand, their left calf, and their left foot. While I’m trying to find some reasonably-secure spot to stash him on the canopeia branch, he squints his eyes open, looks up at me, and grins. He’s trying to talk, but his words are shallow.
Me: The one and only.
A cloud of confusion engulfs his face.
Jarin: You smell much better than usual.
Me: I wish you did as well.
Okay, when I prop him up against the trunk of the canopeia, it’s quite possible that I might have given him a slightly unnecessary shove. It’s definitely the mildest injury he’s suffered today.
Me: He’s lucky.
Me: Three arrows. No vital organs. No arteries.
Namni: Will he live?
He can’t hide the quiver in his voice.
Me: How should I know? He’s lost a lot of blood. He already grows warm.
Jarin is now as “secure” as he’s going to be for the time being. The same goes for Montal. Simply touching Montal filled me with dread. I have never felt skin so enflamed as his. I turn to Namni and place a hand on his shoulder.
Me: Listen to me carefully. I need you to range out, as quickly as possible, and find me some ottnet. As much as you can get your hands on.
Namni: What’s that?
Me: You know… the moss. The yellow stringy stuff that looks like giant webs. You can find it reaching between the smaller branches.
Namni: What’ll we do with that?
Me: I’ll use it to bind their wounds.
Namni: Will it heal them?
Me: Not hardly. But it wards off infection. It will combat the fever.
Namni: Does it grow at this height?
Me: Not nearly as much as ground level. But you gotta try.
Namni: How’m I even gonna see it in the dark?
Me: Listen... You need to try. We can’t be up here for too long. Go as far as you can. Gather whatever you can get your hands on. But don’t be gone longer than an hour. Do you understand me?
He nods his head solemnly.
Me: Good. Then, off with you.
As I watch him slide into the darkness of the dropway, an odd sense of sadness comes over me. He’s not like I was at his age. He’s overwhelmed. But there’s no time to ruminate on that now. And the best way to stop being overwhelmed is to fight through these kind of scenarios where you’re most-definitely… overwhelmed.
Kamini and Jarin are both propped against the base of the canopeia, shoulders nearly touching, facing out at right angles. Jarin’s head follows me as I move. But I’m not sure just how much he’s actually processing at the moment. I crouch down in front of Kamini and give him a proper overview.
Me: Looks like I got here just in time.
His mouth is clogged with blood. And mucous. And possibly a stray tooth. Despite this impediment, he’s hearing me just fine. And he can talk – or something closely resembling it.
Kamini: You killed Rychov?
I’m in no mood to suppress my laughter.
Me: I’m not dumb enough to take on Rychov by myself.
Kamini: I am.
Me: I saw that. And I’m happy to report that that pretty face of yours has started to acquire what the elders call: character.
Kamini: But… where is he??
I fish a handful of globules from my pocket and thrust them near enough to his face that he can see between his swollen eyelids.
Kamini: Snapcracks? Those won’t kill anyone.
Me: No. But when you can manage to light a whole batch of them, from various positions, timed so they go off almost simultaneously in the dead of night, it takes a keen ear to realize that you’re not under attack by a much larger force. Supplement that with a few rapid-fire arrows and it’s almost impossible not to think that you’re in an ambush.
Kamini: You mean to tell me that… he ran??
Me: He’s keen on preserving his own life.
Kamini: Fucking coward.
Me: I’d like to hear you tell him that to his face.
Kamini: I would. If he hadn’t run.
Me: Rychov’s no idiot. He’s knows better than to stand his ground when he’s surrounded.
Kamini: Where’s the honor in that?
Me: Honor is no comfort to a corpse.
Kamini: How long did it take you to set those snapcracks?
Me: I dunno. An hour? Maybe a little less?
Kamini: So… you saw everything that happened?
Me: I saw you teaching Pang how to soar.
Kamini: And you saw them filling us full of arrows?
Me: That was part of the entertainment, yes.
Kamini: Why didn’t you do something??
My following words are terse. And firm.
Me: Look around you. Who else do you see?
Kamini struggles to see anything at this point. He’s aware of Jarin off his left shoulder. I don’t know how much farther his vision currently extends.
Me: Where is the Collective? Where’s the support crew of Scarlets that I dragged up here to rescue your ass?
He can muster nothing more than a weak shake of his head.
Me: That’s because there is no support crew. I can’t muster a rescue party of Scarlets when you and the rest of the Felonious Follies are in the middle of fucking nowhere, selling behind the Scarlets' back. Do you understand me?
He desperately tries to avoid my gaze. Kamini would gladly stare death in the eyes. But at this moment, he can’t muster the courage to even raise his head toward me.
Me: Do. You. Understand me??
A silent nod is his only reply.
Me: Good. Can you stand?
He looks as though I’ve just asked him to develop space travel. I’ve been in his position before. At this point, he’s barely even aware of his own body. The prospect of standing must seem like a journey of a thousand klicks. He takes copious time to assess his own health, testing his limbs, gingerly touching various wounds. He finally nods.
Me: Then get up!
I believe my first steps took longer to consummate. His knees are shaky. His head is an anchor throwing the rest of his torso off kilter. When he finally achieves an upright position, he keeps glancing down at his own frame, as though it will betray him. His final confirmation is another solemn nod.
Me: Got your feet under you?
Kamini: Yeah, I… I think I do.
He is completely unprepared when my long pale hand windmills through the air and drives deep within the swollen morass of his face. Maybe it’s his sketchy balance in this moment. Maybe I really did hit him that hard.
Whatever the reason, he doesn’t simply absorb the blow. The force leaves him listing to his side, flailing for balance, and generally displaying the panic of one who believes he’s about to fall off a cliff. So perhaps it is lucky for him that, just as I have smacked the hell out of his tender features, I have, at the same time, snagged his jerkin in my left hand. I am his human anchor. I am the only thing keeping him from the murky muddwood floor hidden in the mists below.
Jarin: Oh, man. That had to hurt.
Kamini: WHAT THE HELL’D YOU DO THAT FOR?!?!
Me: I did it, because you deserved it.
Kamini: For what? So we slang some root? We were gonna nab some coin. Where’s the crime in that?
Me: Listen to me, Kamini. There is only one crime in this world. The crime of forsaking family.
Kamini: Since when have I had “family”? Since when have any of us had “family”??
Me: Since the day we became Scarlets. Montal, Jarin, Namni… me. We are all family. We’re the only family any of us have got.
Kamini: Yeah… and I tried to save our family. Damn near got killed in the process.
I would have thought he’d be more prepared for the second slap. I would have been wrong. A viscous mixture of blood and snot flee his nose and I can feel the squishy bits of cartilage as I lay a new pummeling on his previously-pristine features.
Kamini: GODDAMNIT! STOP THAT!
Me: You don’t get crediting for “saving” anyone after you’ve already dragged them into the fire.
Kamini: What are you talking about?! Montal’s the oldest. This was his deal. His idea. His shipment. His distributor.
I’m not sure if my third slap is more distressing for him or for me. He’s on the verge of tears. And if anyone other than the semiconscious Jarin and the catatonic Montal were here to see him, he might just kill me for causing him such shame. But despite what it may look like, there’s nothing about this process that satisfies me in the least.
I know the Elladorans can’t see our irises behind our milky eyeballs, but I want so badly for him to feel this message, that I’m trying to stare it directly into his brain. He’s either going to embrace my words, or he’s going to find himself permanently mired in the swamp mud at the base of this epic arbyr.
Me: Wrong answer. Montal is your family. You just implicated him. You offered him up, while he’s damn near dead. You sold him out. And why? You just sold out your family for the vague notion that it may soften my anger. Which means that you just sold out your family, for… nothing. Because it absolutely did not soften my anger.
His voice cracks and vacillates between yelling and crying. He’s usually the most mature one in the group – and at times, that can include me. But right now, he’s not 14-year-old Kamini. He’s toddler Kamini, squealing after he got caught in one of those small-time hustles they perpetrate in that shite-hole he called home.
Kamini: But why are you only punishing me?!
I redouble my grip on his jerkin and force him into an upright position. Even in his sorry state, he’s tall enough to look me dead in my eyes. I can taste the warm ichor emanating from his open mouth.
He’s trying to compose himself – and doing a marginal job of it. His face is a jumbled puzzle of rage. And fear. And confusion. And occasionally, even still, a hint of innocence. I answer him while my face is mere centimeters from his.
Me: Because you are the smartest one of the bunch. The others? They’re tools. Pieces to be played in a grander game of nits & naughts. But you? You know better.
Jarin: Hey, you know I’m right next to you, yeah? Like, I can totally hear everything you’re saying.
The rage, fear, and innocence vanish from Kamini’s face. What remains is nothing but unadulterated (and pummeled) confusion. His reply is soft, and wary.
Kamini: But Montal… he’s the oldest.
Me: When has age ever been your master?
Kamini: But there’s… there’s a chain of–
Me: Do you think Chinara is the oldest woman in the Collective?
Kamini: Huh? Well… no.
Me: But she controls the entire Scarlet Trust.
Kamini: But Montal… he’s–
Me: He’s older than me by more than a year. Do I take orders from him?
It may just be that he’s exhausted and punch drunk. But I swear I can see the gears starting to turn. I loosen my grip on his jerkin, but he maintains his posture. Standing before me – battled, bruised, scarred… but confident.
Kamini: This isn’t really about side dealing at all.
Me: Oh, it’s absolutely about side dealing. But not because I give two shites about the measly pile of coin you might have earned if this thing hadn’t blown up in your face. It’s about side dealing… because you betrayed your family.
Kamini: So what would you have had me do?
Me: Stop this fiasco. Before it ever occurred. Tragedy averted is far better than tragedy escaped.
Kamini: But, I didn’t… realize. Montal thought this was a really good deal.
Me: Montal would listen to you. Any of these halfbrains would listen to you. They respond to leadership. They respond to anyone smarter than them – which means they respond to nearly anyone.
Jarin: Yeah… still right here. Still listening to everything.
I resist the urge to plant a longboot in Jarin’s side. Instead, I gently turn Kamini away from the canopeia. With my arm behind him, steadying him, I motion to the vast Emerwold stretching out before us.
Me: What do you see?
Kamini: Umm… damn near nothing. It’s so dark.
Me: Close your eyes. What do you see?
Kamini: Wait… are you serious??
Me: Close your eyes! What do you see?!
It takes him a while to accept that I’m giving him a literal order. Although his eyes are barely open of his own accord, he doesn’t know what to make of my command. It takes several more glances, buffeted by my urgent do-it look, before he finally relents. He closes his eyes and stands there, anchorless, like the child that he still is.
Me: Now tell me: What do you see?
He squirms on his shaky legs. He may still be thinking that I’ll launch him off this arbyr. But I can tell that he doesn’t dare reopen his eyes. Without seeing my face, he’s still waiting for some kind of prompting from me.
But I’m done shoving him down the path. I won’t halt the exercise. And I won’t ease his tension by talking him through the process. We’ll stand here in silence till daybreak if he doesn’t answer my question.
Kamini: I see… well, I see… trees?
Me: Just any trees?
Kamini: No. Canopeias - towering hundreds of meters above the forest floor. Branches, wide as rivers, spreading out in every direction.
Me: Good! What else?
Kamini: Bloodwoods – piercing the canopy. Great robber barons, stealing the sunlight.
Me: Go on.
Kamini: Homuhns – dancing amongst the branches. Flashing their sacred signs. Schools of dracons slicing through the air. Diving. Splitting, then recombining. Picking bottonflies off the wind.
Me: Go farther. What do you see?
Kamini: Dropways. Slung from the mighty branches. Crisscrossing the forest sky as far as the eye can see. Carrying pilgrims. And merchants. And thieves.
Me: Good! Now go farther!
I’m taxing his brain. He’s not sure exactly where to go with this. But I won’t release him until he continues.
Kamini: Well… there are rivers.
Kamini: The mighty Mensset. Tossing and churning. Spitting sacrifices into Gollia Bay. Emptying out at the coquina guard towers of Despac.
Me: You’re not an Inqoan! Go farther!
Kamini: The Emerwold is cleaved by the open scar that is the Stoneyards. The rock bakes under the punishing rays of Syrus.
Me: Don’t stop!
Kamini: The Stoneyards give way to an epic sea of grass. Bleedblade, twice taller than men. The Boundless Plain stretches farther than any eye can fathom. Great labyrinths carved in the soil from centuries of nemesin vines. Tunnels that lead to nowhere. Tyrans preying upon man and beast alike. And in the middle of it all – the grandest of arbyrs. A lonely living mountain so great that it makes the canopeias look childlike in comparison. The Splynterwold. An entire forest embodied in a single tree. The last of its kind. Older than the casterways themselves.
Kamini: The plain finally surrender to the Stonwold. A hopeless quagmire of sunless channels and foliage layered like levels in a dungeon. When the braszin flowers can find no more purchase, the land ends in the purple waves that skirt the treacherous Mouth of Charen. Further south, daily fireballs race to Excilior, eventually crashing into the Dropship Seia. And another desperate exile will cling to life until he washes up on the hostile shores of Vetri.
Several quiet minutes pass while Kamini catches his breath. The pneumonic voyage has literally drained his flagging energy reserves. His eyes have opened. But that’s okay. I require him to travel no more.
He has no idea what to say. He’s utterly speechless. I don’t speak until I believe he’s ready for my words.
Me: And what does all of that landscape have in common?
He’s frustrated. And exhausted. And more than a little bit angry. But he’s afraid of saying anything that might be the wrong thing, so he fumbles over his nonexistent response.
Me: Everything you saw. Everything you ever will see. It will all be controlled… by us.
Kamini: By… the Scarlets?
Me: No, Kamini. By us. By me… and by you.
Kamini: But we’re just… root runners.
Me: The farmer is only a farmer until the moment that he puts down his till.
Kamini: So we’re going to abandon the trade??
Me: No. We use the trade like any other tool. We bend it to our will. We leverage it until we can harness it no more. Then we put it aside until it’s needed again. Do you understand?
Kamini: I… I don’t really know–
Me: Here’s something I know you will understand. There will be no empire. There will be no trade. There will be no Kamini if you EVER betray our family again. From this night forward you have a simple choice. You will either walk away. Leave us forever and never speak of the Scarlets again. Live a solitary life as a rogue and a petty thief. Or you can drive this conquest with me. You can be instrumental in building a machine the likes of which this filthy planet has never witnessed. We can have everything you have seen – and more. But we can only have it if you are fully, and unquestionably, a vital member of our family. Do you understand that?
Kamini: Yeah… I believe I do.
Me: So I’m going to ask you, just as I did years ago during your coronation: What are you, Kamini?
His words ring out over the night clearly, confidently. They are the words we have all spoken. They are the words of our order.
Kamini: I am the succor to my kin. I am the carrier of the silent voice. I am the fist of the ultimate justice. I am the guardian of the Scarlet Trust.
Me: But there’s something even deeper than our order. So I’m going to ask you now, who… is your family?
Kamini: They are. You are. We are kin.
Me: And will you ever go behind my back, or aid those who go behind my back, again?
An awkward silence hangs in the air. He steals a glance at Jarin propped against the canopeia. He surveys Montal, presumably lying prone on the branch behind me. He finishes by looking dead into my alabaster eyes.
Kamini: I will never betray the family again.
I grant him but a modest grin. The gravity of the moment is ambushed by the occasional wince that races across his face. But I’m content that he’s sincere. I’m content that, as much as is possible, he gets it.
Jarin: I hate to break up the lovely vision quest y’all got goin on here, but we got problems.
I don’t suppose I realized the depth of the spell that I had managed to weave even over myself. Jarin’s words are a cold splash of water pulling me from deep within a fever dream. When I turn around, I’m surprised to see Namni standing several meters away.
If I didn’t know Namni so well, it’d be difficult to grant him any positive identity in the starlight. Moss bulges from all of his baggy pockets. It’s stuffed down his blouse. It protrudes from his pants. It’s bunched in the tight grip of his hands. It’s even tucked under his hood.
Without any deeper inspection, I can already see that most of it is definitely not ottnet. But whatever’s he’s gathered, it will have to make do for the time being.
I immediately see why Jarin interjected. Montal has somehow managed to roll onto his side. Normally, that may be some modest sign of progress. These are not normal times.
I don’t know if it’s proper to say that he’s “conscious”. Instead, he seems to be caught in the throes of a series of full-body convulsions. Each spasm ends in the production of a new pile of vomit.
The ejaculate is black. And chunky. And I can smell it from here. It reeks of decay. He spews, lays his head in the puddle, shakes violently for a few moments, and then begins the cycle anew.
Namni: I found what I could. Will this help??
Me: You’ve done good, Namni.
Namni: He’s waking up! That’s gotta be a good thing… right??
Jarin, Kamini, and I all exchange worried looks. Each of us flashes that how should we answer look. But no one can properly solve the riddle. Rather than fumble over comforting words, I rush to Namni and start sifting through every bit of biomass that he’s managed to scavenge.
For every gram of ottnet that I can extract from the organic hodgepodge on Namni’s person, I quickly shove it into my mouth and start masticating it into something resembling a mushy pulp. With the bitter mash still clinging to my mandibles, I waste no time in mobilizing what’s left of my troops.
Me: Namni, gather any rope you can scavenge from those cages. We have to fashion a sling. Kamini, head down the dropway and scout ahead. Get back here as soon as you’ve mapped a clear path to the surface. We can’t afford any kind of interference right now.
Namni: What are we going to do with a sling?
Me: I’m going to use it to carry Montal.
Namni: To where?
Me: Anywhere but here. We have to get out of this canopy. And fast.
Jarin: What about me?
Me: Namni’s gonna be your crutch. He’ll have to help you down.
Namni: Umm… Chey?
Jarin: Down to where?
Me: Below. Down to the muddwood.
Jarin: It’s gotta be hundreds of meters of dropway afore we reach ground level. And I still have three arrows in me!
Namni: Excuse me… Chey?
Me: You won’t for long. Once I finish with this ottnet, we’re gonna pull them out.
This is the first time since I’ve arrived that I’ve seen Jarin in a non-delirious state. I guess the thought of yanking those missiles out of his flesh pulled him right back to a lucid state. He’s suddenly acquired a significant tremor.
Jarin: Awwwwww, c’mon, Chey! You gotta be shite’in on me?
Me: It’ll hurt me more than it hurts you.
Jarin: That’s a pile of bird shite.
Me: Yeah… it is.
Namni: Uhh, Chey?!
Me: WHAT, NAMNI?! WHAT IS IT?!
Namni: Can’t we, well… you know… can’t we just hunker down here for a bit? At least until Montal’s feeling better??
Me: Montal won’t be feeling any better as long as we’re stuck up here.
Namni: Why not??
Me: Because Montal’s dying.