Author Topic: Chapter 14  (Read 5478 times)

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Online Daen

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Chapter 14
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:01:28 AM »
Chapter 14

Arico stood in Endu’s house, looking down as she bandaged the girl’s shoulder with herbs that could lessen the pain. Jaas stood next to him, visibly trembling. Whether from fear or rage he couldn’t really tell. He doubted she could, either.

They were on the second floor—out of sight of the villagers outside. For once Arico was grateful that Endu had inherited such a large house from her father. It made hiding Jaas that much easier. The boys knew that she was here too, so they were staying clear of the second floor. They didn’t know much about Jaas, but they were smart enough to keep her presence a secret.

“How could he do that?” She whispered viciously. “He’s a monster!”

“Alzhi was following orders,” Arico responded in an undertone. “If he’d refused, they would have just sent another navigator to do it.”

“And that makes it right? He mutilated that poor girl!” Jaas had apparently forgotten her calm, scholarly way of doing things. Despite the situation Arico felt the urge to smile. For all her training and experience, it seemed Jaas was just a human being after all.

“It was necessary for her to start her new life here. That brand marks her as a member of Tellek patch, now and forever. Everyone here carries one, and most other patches have their own mark as well.”

“You don’t,” she accused. “Neither does Durhu! What, did your dwarven friends pull some strings to spare you that?”

Arico grimaced and pulled her back away from the railing. “Shh! Careful what you say!” He looked around hurriedly. Grent and Yela were still looking through the window at Endu and Pelo, waiting to take their new daughter home.

They seemed to be out of earshot for now, though. “I can trust Endu and her sons,” he explained as they sat down and waited for Endu to be done, “but there’s no telling how anyone else would react. For both our sakes, please be careful.”

She still looked angry, but took a deep breath and nodded. “All right. But I still don’t understand why he did it. Why brand that little girl? Why is she even here in the first place? Is she being punished for something? What could any child have possibly done to deserve that?”

“No, it’s not anything she did. As I said, everyone here carries that mark.” Arico tried to streamline his explanation; he knew that she appreciated clarity. “Every child in Patchwork is tested at age three. I was too, in dwarven territory. Their names are put on the Registry, and the stra’tchi children are branded and given to new parents in another patch entirely. They’re also given new names by their new parents, in the hopes that they’ll accept the transition more easily. The patch is chosen at random, except for the particularly strong children. They’re sent to the Deathwatch patch to train as fighters.”

Jaas’ face contorted briefly. She was still obviously upset at what she’d seen back in the Deathwatch patch, and now Arico had piled this new batch of atrocities on her. Unfortunately, there was still more to come.

“What gives them the right, though? How do they justify separating children from their parents, just because of some line on a map? And why move the children at all? Is it some kind of sick dominance display by the Sustained? As if these people don’t already know they’re at the mercy of whoever has the water?”

Arico shook his head. “I know it looks horrible, but there is a method to this madness. It’s far more complicated than you know. I’ll explain it all, but it will take some time.”

He sighed and gestured to a seat near the window, as he sat down himself. Her face was still twisted with disbelief and anger, but Jaas reluctantly sat across from him. “All right. Explain it to me. Tell me how this-” she pointed a finger downstairs, “became what is normal!”

Arico ran his hands through his hair, trying to arrange his thoughts. “Of course it all started with the Threading itself. It’s basically Year Zero for us. Before this city was cut off from the rest of the world, there were almost a million people living here. There were vast tracts of farmland outside the city on both sides of the Waters, and fishermen would cart huge numbers of fish from the docks up into the city every day. The old Emperors kept several underground chambers filled with food as well, in case of a siege. When the threads appeared though, everything changed.

“There are no records of exactly what happened here in Tellek patch. No surprise there—the Council made it illegal for stra’tchi to know how to read or write. But the dwarves kept their own records, and so did some of the earliest navigators. The truth survived, in one form or another.”

Arico glanced out the window at the sky beyond the wall. “When the threads first appeared, they were pitch-black. A featureless obsidian wall that killed anyone who tried to pass through it. I told you that no one knows exactly why they became invisible, or why the image is updated every three months like clockwork. But at first, it was a dark nightmare for everyone who lived here. It’s really something of a miracle anyone survived at all, but before long the first navigators realized they could see the threads when their eyes were closed. When they found out they could move through the threads safely, and even take people with them, at least there was some hope for once. But even so, no one could leave the city. The threads on the outside of the city were still impenetrable to everyone, just as they are today.

“It didn’t take long for the survivors to realize they were in trouble. Thanks to the navigators, they could make sure everyone had drinking water, but food would be a problem. Not every plant needs light to grow, so it would still be possible to plant a crop (though they had no way of knowing how effective that would be). But they had to clear flagstones and rocks away first, and then find seeds to plant. Even with the emergency food stores, the navigators knew the entire city would starve long before the first crops could be harvested. So about a hundred of them banded together, armed themselves, and… solved the problem.” He stopped there, waiting for her to absorb it all.

“Solved it?” She responded after a few moments, and then the puzzlement in her face was replaced with horror. “You mean they killed them??”

“Yes,” he said softly. “They moved as one into each patch, killed everyone there, and then moved on. The victims never even had a chance. There was nowhere they could run, even if they did somehow find out about the attack before it came. After the third or fourth slaughter, the navigators were getting pretty good at it, too. Some of the histories mention them bragging about being able to kill silently and near-instantly. And all the histories agree that they viewed their work as a mercy to people that they couldn’t save. There’s no record of exactly how many they killed, but it was in the tens of thousands. The rest either died of thirst or starved before they could be put down.

“As fate would have it, the threads became transparent just as they were finishing up,” Arico continued, partly so she wouldn’t have to say anything. Her face had gone a slightly ashen color, and he was glad there was a bucket nearby just in case. “Pretty much everyone who was still alive took that as a sign, not just that the navigators had done the right thing, but that they were the natural rulers of the city, blessed with wisdom as well as magical powers. It was those navigators who then founded the first Council.”

They were silent for a long time, listening to the sounds below. The girl had woken up, and started crying again, despite the pain-deadening herbs Endu had wrapped around her shoulder. Her new parents were tending to her, trying courageously to get her mind off of the brand.

“You almost sound like you agree with those first navigators, Arico,” Jaas finally said with an undertone. “Like you even admire them for what they did.”

Arico couldn’t answer that, partially because he wasn’t even sure himself. “Have you ever known hardship, Jaas? Have you ever been seriously injured—felt the sting of a wound so deep you know you won’t recover on your own, but also known that there is no one who could help you? Endu wasn’t always a world-class healer, you know.

“What about disease? Have you ever seen people you know and love—people you’ve known since childhood—coughing up blood, and known for certain that many of them simply won’t recover? Or worse yet, hunger and thirst. When your lips are cracked and bleeding from the very air, and your throat is so dry you can barely swallow. You know you need the Waters, but you can’t risk drinking more than perhaps a mouthful a day, for fear of running out before you can get more. You feel the slow burn of hunger, twisting your gut every day, getting worse and worse, despite rationing what food you have. Peoples’ eyes get sunken, if they go without food for a long time. Their skin becomes thin and stretches over their bones, and their bellies, strangely, can even swell outward.”

He looked at her sadly. “Worst of all is the effect on children. Even if they survive to when food is plentiful again, good luck getting one of them to smile, let alone laugh. They’re… dampened. Muted, from the experience. Sometimes permanently. I’d rather die myself, on the end of a sword, than just fade away like that.”

Jaas didn’t seem to have any response to that.

“If that makes me a monster, then so be it,” he concluded. “At least the original navigators were able to make the hard call. The Deathwatchers feel the same way, even to this day. If their children aren’t strong enough to stay and learn to fight, they just kill them. It’s horrible, I know.”

He just sat there for long moments, staring down at the floor. “I can’t say that what those first navigators did was right or not. I wasn’t alive back then—I didn’t see what they saw. I just hope I never have to make a decision like that—that I’ll never need to choose who lives and who dies.”

“I’m sorry,” Jaas said, looking down. “I didn’t mean to imply anything like that. And it’s true that I don’t know what you’ve been through. All my needs have been provided for, since before I was even born! I don’t think you’re a monster, even if you do agree with what they did.”

“It’s easy to do nothing,” Arico recited, remembering what Durhu had told him years ago. “That’s why no one tried to stop them. There’s bravery in taking action, even if it’s the wrong action. And those navigators were brave in another way, too. They let their names go into the histories. Right or wrong, they wanted people to know what they’d done, and why.”

Down below, Grent and Yela were leaving with their new daughter. Endu bid them farewell, along with some parting instructions, and closed the door.

“Hang on,” Jaas looked back at Arico. “You’re the Hauld’s Golden Boy. You’re important to his plans—whatever they are. And I know dwarves: when they make an investment, they protect that investment! Why would he risk you starving?”

Arico gave her a tight smile. As usual, her mind was working double-time, coming to conclusions in minutes that others might take days or weeks to reach. “I didn’t give him a choice, that’s why. When he found out about the shortage, he tried to intervene. He had food smuggled in at night so no one would know. He even made sure it was the same kind of food we grow here. I just didn’t eat it, and neither did Durhu.”

“Why not, though? If he was trying to help you-”

“I don’t fault the Hauld’s intentions,” Arico cut her off, “but he’s not from Tellek patch. If I had eaten that food, I would have been benefiting from who I am. From who the Hauld wanted me to be. I’m not one of these people either, but the very least I can do is try to understand them. To suffer when they suffer, so I can represent them when the time comes.”

Arico bit down on his tongue and grimaced again. Everything he’d said was true, but he’d said a bit too much. Thankfully Jaas seemed more interested in the details than in his accidental admission about the Hauld’s plans for the future. “So you shared the food with the rest of the patch?”

Arico nodded. “It had to be in secret, though. Endu, the boys and I carefully snuck around the village and spread it out to as many people as possible.” At her surprised look, he smiled. “No one noticed, or no one claimed to notice anyway. You don’t question good fortune, not if it’s keeping you alive.”

“You really do love these people, don’t you?”

Arico paused. He’d never really thought about it. “There are a hundred and twenty-two people living here. I know all their names. I know where they live, and with whom. I know when they were brought here. I know who’s outspoken and who’s timid. Only Endu and the boys know that I’m a navigator, but yes, everyone here is important to me.”

He stood slowly and arched his back to stretch a little. “Come on. We have to get back to the cabin before nightfall. Remember to keep your cloak up. This is a small town, and we can’t have anyone seeing you’re not from around here.”

On the way back, Jaas caught sight of the factory building near the middle of the village, and asked about it. It was kind of hard to miss, but then she hadn’t really had a chance to see the whole patch before today—not in daylight anyway.

Arico explained that it was used only during Tumults, when the demand for weapons and armor was actually greater than the demand for food. Most patches in the city had them, even those that were too remote to be in danger from the Tumults. During war, everyone had to do their part, even if the war was pointless and ridiculous. The word ‘factory’ was foreign to her, and she kept on calling it a smithy. Which was what a factory really was, he supposed: just a much larger version of a smithy. Apparently there were no assembly lines in the Outside.

They had been talking most of the day at Endu’s place, and it was fully dark by the time they got back to the cabin. Arico started the fire in the fireplace and used it to light a few candles around the common room he shared with Durhu. He was careful to keep the shutters closed, though. People in Tellek patch weren’t really known for snooping on each other, but it was better safe than sorry.

Jaas unrolled the parchment she’d been working on since that first conversation in the Hideaway. Only a small part of it had writing on it, but that in itself was deceptive. Her writing was so small that she could cram entire paragraphs into small sections of paper. As usual, she immediately got out his old quill and began summarizing everything she’d learned at the Ritual and afterwards.

Arico could only marvel at her diligence. He knew how to write of course—that much the Hauld had insisted on—and Durhu had taught him a good deal about how the city worked, especially when it came to history. But to write down everything she learned must be exhausting. In her place, Arico doubted he would remember even a fraction of all that. But then, he might be in her place soon enough. With her help, he might be able to leave the city before long, and then there would be an entire world to experience!


Eventually, Jaas looked up from her parchment. Her voice was more controlled now. It seemed writing was also a calming exercise for her. “So this Ritual of Rejoining we just saw: moving children to a different patch and branding them like cattle. That’s some kind of… population control?”

Arico thought about it. “I suppose that is the main reason for the Rejoining. I mean if you conceived a child, gave birth, and then three years later had to watch that child be taken away…” He paused. “How likely would you be to have another child after that? The alternative is much worse. I’d rather have the Ritual of Rejoining than another series of purges like the original navigators did. At least this way no one dies.”

She thought about it for a moment, before nodding slowly.

“There are other reasons for the Rejoining, though,” he continued. “Most patches only have a hundred or so people. Moving the children around keeps family lines apart. But it’s only done here in stra’tchi patches. The Sustained have no Ritual of Rejoining. They can go wherever they please because they have enough navigators to move around freely.”

Jaas put down the quill and gazed at the fire for a few moments. “So it’s also to avoid inbreeding. I guess that makes sense, in a barbaric kind of way. I’ve heard you use that word, stra’tchi, before, but I don’t know what it means. It sounds like Patali, but the language has changed here. Is it people of the fields?”

Arico sighed. “It actually means ‘dirty people’. It was something of a cruel joke at first, played by the Sustained Council and other top officials who could speak Patali. They knew what it really meant, but to everyone out here, it was just a name for who they are. By now every Sustained knows that it’s actually an insult.”

“Wow. I’ve heard some nasty pejorative names before, but ‘dirty people’ is a pretty low blow. I suppose they call them that because they don’t have enough water to shower and bathe regularly?”

Arico nodded again. “But after all this time, it runs even deeper than that. ‘Dirty people’ means dirty on the inside as well. As if they could never be anything more than that. I think that’s part of why it’s so easy for the Sustained to treat them like animals. If you can think of someone as less than human, you can treat them that way.” He couldn’t quite filter out the bitterness from his voice while saying that. Even though he technically wasn’t a stra’tchi, he still felt like one. He had been raised in a stra’tchi patch, surrounded by stra’tchi friends. It was how he thought of himself, to this very day, even if he didn’t have a brand to prove it.

“So who decides where newcomers end up?” Jaas changed the subject, looking down at the parchment again. “Did the magistrate say that Grent and Yela should have first pick?”

Arico tried to follow her handwriting as she wrote. “Their own son turned three last week. He was tested and taken away. That means they had priority on the next child delivered here, if they wanted. If they didn’t, there are others who would have taken her in. From what Alzhi’s told me, the Sustained find it’s easier to place children with families who have just had a child taken away.”

“But how can people live like this? Doesn’t anyone try to hide their children? To keep them at home?”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “People have tried. Every once in a while, a patch is found to be hiding unregistered children and the entire patch is punished. The child and parents are killed, and one in ten of the rest are killed at random. The Rite of Decimation, it’s called. It hasn’t happened in decades, though. Most people force parents to go through with it now, for fear of their own safety.”

Jaas gaped at him. “And that would happen here, if you were found out? Are you registered?”

“I am. Tellek patch is safe. Before we moved here, Durhu added both our names to the Registry in Penntu patch. He forged himself a Transit Pass, and we moved here over twenty years ago. I barely remember, but it was very different than the dwarven patches I was used to. It took some time for me to adjust.”

She gave him a curious look. “If Durhu’s not a navigator, how did he manage to alter the Sustained records? Did the dwarves help with that, too?”

Arico smiled. “Actually I was the one who brought him to Penntu patch. I was very young but he knew exactly where to go, so he drew a picture of the patch for me so I could find it. My first mission against the Sustained, at age three, and it was a complete success. I don’t even remember doing it!”

He waved a hand back in the direction of the village. “Anyway, this is how people have lived for hundreds of years now,” he continued in a grim voice. “The people have come to trust that the Sustained and the penets know what’s best for them. It’s become… tradition by now. I’m sure you know how hard it can be to break a tradition. And if you lived here, can you honestly say that you wouldn’t want to care for that girl? After seeing what was done to her back there?”

Jaas set her jaw, but he could tell it was only a reflexive motion. Eventually, she shook her head. “I see your point.”

Briefly, Arico felt a surge of shame. He’d never been branded like that. It was important for his mission that he be able to attach whatever brand he needed to his arm, hence his bag full of fake brands. Still, he wasn’t one of these people and never would be. He didn’t know that pain. How could he lead anyone from these patches if he’d never experienced that pain?

“After those first navigators slaughtered so many people and the Sustained took over the city, the Registry was all they needed to keep people in line.” He spoke mostly to fill the silence, but it was partially for his own benefit as well. “There were a lot of empty patches back then, and the Sustained began relocating people to them. Eventually though, there were too many of us for the Sustained to track. That’s when they started branding people.”

“But there was more to it, wasn’t there?” Jaas said slowly. “The Sustained wanted to control population growth, and prevent inbreeding in these… stra’tchi patches, but why create a whole ritual around it if it’s just a matter of control? What else were they after?”

Arico chuckled. As usual, Jaas was a few steps ahead when it came to understanding this society. “Well, there was… one other reason. It’s not relevant anymore, but people have long memories when it comes to sickness. Just after the Threading happened, a lot of people who weren’t being systematically killed off or left to die of thirst, just ended up dying of disease all on their own. The worst disease that made it into the histories was called the Blood Plague, or the Blood Fever, because it caused its victims’ blood to heat up, and come out of their eyes, noses, mouths and ears. Even their fingernails in some cases.”

He shook his head. It was another thing he would never truly understand about his own past, because he hadn’t lived through it. “No one knows even to this day which was deadlier: the purges just after the Threading or the Blood Fever itself. The Sustained forbade anyone from going to a diseased patch, for fear they would spread the Plague even further. And now, even though the Fever has been gone for centuries, the Council still uses it as an excuse to move children around. Most of the children are just shuffled off to some random patch and given to random families. Any child who can see the threads though… is taken to Sustained territory and raised by one of their families as a navigator. That’s how they maintain control.”

“And how they hide it from the people,” she reasoned aloud. “If no one can check on how their children are being raised, no one can protest. I guess it makes sense, in a sick kind of way.”

Shaking her head, Jaas finally returned to her earlier line of questions. “So, if you were to have a child with one of these women, you’d only have three years with him before they took him to another patch and branded him? And if he turned out to be a navigator, he wouldn’t even end up in a stra’tchi patch?”

Arico nodded again, but then shrugged. “Well, that’s what would happen. For me, it’ll never be an issue.”

“Why is that?”

Arico hesitated, looking away for a moment. This was challenging for him to even think about, much less say. Not even Durhu knew the whole story, and Arico was sure that if he told Jaas, she’d press him for every detail. Perhaps that was a good thing, though. Maybe he’d kept it under wraps for long enough.

He took a deep breath. “I… I don’t believe I can father children.”

Jaas lifted the quill again, and looked up at him. Her expression was one of curiosity mixed with sympathy. Too late he remembered her reaction to the shared shower. Perhaps this was also too intimate for her. It was too late to back out now, though.

“I take it you’ve tried?” She asked matter-of-factly. There was no hesitation at all, just a tone of businesslike curiosity in her voice.

Arico felt a little uncomfortable with his decision, but he pushed the feeling to the back of his mind. “I was with a Sustained lady for almost a year, about…” He paused again, “fifteen years ago, now? I think it’s been that long. It got pretty serious actually, before it fell apart.”

“What happened?”

He gave her a searching look, but her expression hadn’t changed. She still looked curious, but open. He couldn’t detect any artifice or deception in her voice or expression.

Arico tried to compose the story in his mind. “I guess it was my version of teenage rebellion. I’d been training with the Hauld’s soldiers, and learning history and politics from Durhu my whole life. When I started moving around the city freely, it was terrifying at first. I’d been told about the dangers. About what would happen if the Sustained ever found out where I was from. After a few trips though, I started to enjoy being around them. Life near the Waters was so completely different from everything I’d known! Because they could come and go so freely, there was a community in Sustained territory that I’d never even imagined. It was tempting to stay.

“Eventually I convinced myself that my responsibilities to the Hauld were foolish, and that I should just do what I wanted.” He looked down sheepishly. “Of course I made that decision right after I met Nouma. I know, big surprise there.”

Jaas grinned. “You fell in love with her?”

“Head over heels. She was all I could think about, day in and day out! It was crazy, to be so out of control, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care. I turned my back on all of my responsibilities, on Durhu, on the Hauld, on the city itself, just so that I could be with her.”

He sighed and looked down at his feet. “When I think back on what I felt, and what I did, it scares me. I came within a hair’s breadth of losing everything I was! When I finally came to my senses, the Hauld was understandably furious with me. Durhu never judged me, though. Unconditional love and all that.”

“She sounds like a pretty special woman.” Jaas said quietly as her hand started moving over the parchment again. Arico thought he’d heard a touch of jealousy in her voice, but quickly admonished himself. And he claimed the Council was arrogant!

“I certainly thought so at the time,” he admitted, trying to clear his head. “I told you about the fake identity I used while in Sustained patches, right? A merchant named Timot Brower? Well that’s how I introduced myself to her. Before long I was so taken with her that I almost convinced myself I could be Timot Brower, for her. I told her that my ‘father’ had disowned me for refusing to marry some heiress or other, and she said she was in love with me too. It worked great, for a while. I didn’t have a job, so I spent my time repairing her family’s manor. It was pretty old, so it took me a while.”

“Didn’t she have other suitors, though? I mean a Sustained lady like the one you’re describing probably had men knocking on her door day and night. Either that, or an arrangement set up by her family, if I understand Sustained society correctly.”

“Well, that’s part of what made Nouma so special.” Arico’s mind wandered back to that time; living with Nouma in her house. “She’s an only child, and her parents left her a sizable fortune when they died. Under the law, her family’s wealth would go to one of her male cousins, but she found a way around that. She convinced the arbiter to rule her independent, somehow, and kept control of most of her parents’ money. It’s exceedingly rare to find an unmarried Sustained noblewoman, but she pulled it off. That meant she could see any suitors she wanted to, and didn’t have to marry anyone if she didn’t. For some reason, she chose me.”

“But that’s when things went wrong?”

“Very, very wrong,” Arico grabbed the poker next to the fire and moved a log closer to the middle of the flames. “She was a victim of her own good nature. She tried to contact my ‘father’, Quintos, to mend our relationship. When she found out that my supposed home was nothing but an empty warehouse, she confronted me.”

“That’s when you told her the truth?”

Arico spread his hands helplessly. “I couldn’t! If I’d been lying to her about me alone, it might have been possible. But it wasn’t just about me. It was about the dwarves, and the Sustained, and the stra’tchi everywhere. To tell her the truth would have put her in terrible danger, and I couldn’t do that to her either.”

He poked at the fire again, as if reviving the dying embers could somehow fix his past as well. “In the end I just lied again. I told her that I had a woman just like her in each of a dozen other patches all over the city. It cut her deep, but it worked. She broke things off, and we haven’t spoken since.”

“That’s terrible! Do you know what happened to her?”

Arico searched her face for any signs of deception. Jaas was being remarkably understanding with this whole story—more understanding than he suspected most people would be. Come to think of it, she wasn’t writing any of this down anymore, either. “I did look her up eventually. Nouma ended up marrying some minor functionary in House Hooper. They have a child of their own, now.”

He was uncomfortably aware of what Chanul might say about just how often he’d looked her up. “I’m grateful she was able to move on with her life,” he concluded. “Almost as grateful as I am to the Hauld for eventually letting me back into the fold.”

They sat in silence for a while longer, as Arico mulled his ‘confession’ over and over in his mind. Nouma was undoubtedly better off now, as was Arico himself. Living a lie like that had been exciting, but it could hardly last. She was living the family life she wanted now.

Once, Arico’s only wish had been to help the movement succeed so that he could live a quiet life as well, perhaps back here on his father’s farm. Now that Jaas had arrived, Arico could dream bigger than that. Bigger than this one city, and this little life. Perhaps as big as the world itself!
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 03:58:06 AM by Daen »