Inheritance

“We’ve built it all for you!”

Neral still heard his aging father’s voice, from better times, which he had not identified as better times back then. Saw his father stretching out his withered arm with difficulty, wrapped into the same old unravelling cardigan, to point at the fields and the house and the dilapidated barn. Pleading with Neral to stay and resist the lure of the army.

We’ve built it all for you.

The house and barn burnt half-shells, fit only to harbour rats, but those aplenty.

The fruits of the fields lying rotten – further out here. Closer to the barn, they were ash.

A piece of singed red cloth in the dirt, still firmly tied to a knocked-over wooden post. A Camlandian flag, a late signal of pride; a signal of the kind that didn’t fit into words in these lands. A signal to neighbours as much as to the impetuous son once he’d come home from chasing glory.

Neral knelt down and untangled the tattered flag from the snares growing over it, dusted it off. Most of the dirt landed on his uniform. He left it there. Let the flag lie in his lap for a while.

We’ve built it all for you.

Well.

He stood up, erecting the improvised flag mast once more. The ground was yielding this time of year; a small mercy.

He looked around. First, the clean-up.

Help would be hard to find.

Perhaps some tools weren’t burned. But he’d need to buy roots and seeds and new animals.

He’d need a lot. But then, so would everyone.

His eyes wandered down to the rotten fruits and vegetables once more.

During the long winter lull in the Fenfield campaign, Trandor had roped the whole company into distilling essences from whatever was there, to lift the spirits. And if there was anything the people needed above all else right now, it was lifted spirits.

On to work then.

News of a stabilised reign

Cry to us, travelling town crier, of the coronation,
of gleaming metals never glanced upon here; just glum copper,
of velvet and visions that don’t involve us.

Tell your tale, tale-teller,
and don’t leave out the licentiousness and the late-hour brawls
for us to relate to lest we wander off forlorn,
lest our serf-hearts stray from the crown’s signpost.

Gossip about gowns, gossip-mongerer,
worn by haughty highborn, forever out of reach but still hideous.
Convince us to care if you can;
let us agree on palace attire while our men assemble in the barns.
Reap our attention, report back our loyalty; keep your eyes off the robbers.

The last path

Steps. Steps. Falling on the cobblestone floors, echoing off the rocky walls. Muttering voices, chanting through open doors, accompanying Likabra on her last path in her old shell. Present but secluded. In this corridor she was alone. On this path, she treaded alone.

Steps. Steps. The leather of the rough temple-issued shoes still chafing the sides of her feet. When she had joined as a young girl, Old Seer Ramaika had said you had to walk them in, and you and the shoes would get used to each other. That hadn’t happened.

After a few months, young Likabra had asked her, “If you’re a Seer, why did you lie about the shoes?”

Ramaika had smiled her wrinkled smile and said, “I’m a Seer.”

“You’re a Seer so you lie?” She had been young and fresh enough to get away with it then.

“It’s all a matter of perspective. Give it time.”

So Likabra had given it time. She still felt the chafing.

Steps. Steps. Down the stairs, into the forbidden basement, where only the highest initiated went, and the chosen. The voices got quieter with every step and eventually faded out entirely. Left behind above in a different world.

The initiated came back out of the basement; the chosen didn’t. It was how it was.

She knew she would not return, not like her old self. She would learn the last mysteries and become something new, something special. Her spirit would be freed from the confines of her body, become untethered, among the first to enter a new existence.

Steps. The last door. Knock. The door was opened by a robed and hooded figure beckoning her in.

Steps. Steps. A circle of robe-clad hooded initiates around an apparatus she could not grasp. Muttering voices, chants in a tongue she did not understand. Guided to the apparatus, steps, steps, pause, entrapped, the voices again. Then she understood them. Then darkness.

Steps. Steps. Steps. Steps. Stone. Steps. Floor. Steps. Hunger. Warm room. Warm room food. Stop.

Order. Move. Steps. Steps. Steps. Steps.

An offer

“The question is, my dear Minkria,” Surrah drew herself up to her full height, “what are you willing to give up?”

The aspirant down the steps wasn’t kneeling as would have been proper, but didn’t need to for how small she looked. Oh yes, she understood.

Through gritted teeth, Minkria pressed out, “I give up one of my sons.”

“Again?”

“Well – this time… It is time…”

Now they were getting somewhere. And it had only taken years.

Years of bargaining, proposals and counter-proposals and their subsequent withdrawal, the same silly dance over and over and over. All for Minkria to gain a seat on the Council that she didn’t deserve but thought she did, and then enjoyed spreading her tale of woe and unfair treatment, the righteous one wronged.

“Now,” Surrah said, “you know you can’t just offer nothing for what you want. It is a substantial shift in the balance of power after all. There must be an equivalent exchange.”

On previous occasions, Minkria had always offered Asmarren, the useless one. The one that didn’t hurt as much to give up. And each time, Surrah had refused her.

Minkria tensed up and made a display of thorough thinking. False, of course. She would have done all her thinking before she came here.

“Take Belvann,” she said at last. “I offer you Belvann in sacrifice for a seat on the Council.” Her voice was thin and broke at the end.

The favourite. The worthy one.

“I’m surprised,” Surrah said although she wasn’t. “I’m glad you’ve finally taken on sense. Now was that so hard? No need to answer that, my dear. Your proposal is accepted. Shall we proceed?”

After the formalities had been concluded and Minkria had slunk out, a shell of her former obstinate self, Nabtin came in to report on last night’s errand, carefully placing an emptied vial on the side desk.

“It’s all done, my lady,” he said. “That one’s consciousness is fried. Won’t be leading any more initiatives, that one. Bit of a shame to offer him up in that state, not much of a sacrifice like that, makes me think we ought to throw in a little extra for the goddess to make up for it. But whatever works, eh?”

Her agent’s effectiveness made it easy to forgive his chattiness. “Whatever works,” Surrah confirmed. “She finally made the decision, all by herself – in her mind, at least. She’ll be easy to handle now.” She placed her long fingers against her lips. “What I meant to say is: Oh no, my dear Nabtin, could we have been tricked? You firmly believe in your people’s sincere spirit of sacrifice, that they’d only offer the very best, and they deliver you a vegetable. What a disgrace if that came out. We’d better treat the case with the utmost discretion.”

“Utmost discretion,” Nabtin parroted. “As always.”

The garden afterwards

Sydna’s rooftop garden was the envy of the district: New unusual plant species, as well as old ones deemed dead and taking back their ground, and after all this time, who could really tell which was which?

When watering the plants, Sydna made sure always to keep to the optimal ratio of infected rain and the murky standing water the buildings were gradually sinking into.

One day, the whole city would be submerged, and all these species of plants would have to find new ways to survive, or die out again.

But until then, there was profit to be made.

The Tome of Enlightenment

There were many enchanted books, but none like this one. Each page read, it was said, brought the reader closer to enlightenment. At the same time, each page read took a certain amount of their lifespan as payment.

When Virya had been young, the undertaking had seemed worth the price.

As she got older, she started paying attention to her health.

In late middle age, she cultivated a calm lifestyle that minimised the risk of injury.

In old age, she sped up her reading, devouring page after page.

At last, she put it aside and made a cup of tea.

And now

“And now?” Kariphia asked.

“What ‘now’? We’re blighted.” Trust Artam to state the obvious.

“And now that we’re blighted, what now?”

There was nothing obvious left to state.

Kariphia looked around the caved-in storage basement of the temple they were now trapped in. The entrapment could be rectified. What had happened to them and their people couldn’t. Not anymore. The faint gust of wind coming from the ill-isolated trapdoors above singed her scales. She winced and stepped aside, away from the draught. Not perfect, but better.

At last, Artam found something more to say: “Now there’s no more hope. We were the last hope they had. We could have reversed it, had we imprinted our healthy state upon them. At the price of some memory loss and some other injuries and grievances, but it would have been worth that price. Arguably. Now that they got us, too, this is it. What more is there to say?”

“You always have to be like that, don’t you?”

He pointed at the green lesions on his arm, from earlier, when the sun had still been out. “I have to be like this, too, now. It’s better to accept such things. I advise you to do the same.”

He did have to be like this. Kariphia sighed. And that damned wind had to be like that, too, didn’t it? She stepped further away from the trapdoor, resisting the urge to rub her shoulder, where it had stung her.

Acceptance. Now maybe there was an idea. “Protective clothing,” she said. “Shells, maybe. To keep out the wind. And the rain. And the sun. And every damned thing out there.”

Artam was silent for a while. She found it wasn’t as welcome as expected. Then at last, his eyes narrowed to slits, and he began pacing the basement. “Maybe. Maybe.” He turned to her. “This can be expanded. Some of the commoner houses have basements, but not many. It will be effort. It would probably be most beneficial to start the underground network from here.”

“It also gives us a central position. And someone has to lead this whole thing.”

He tilted his head to the right in assent. “Large societal changes unled are a problem. We don’t want to live through an unchecked revolution in addition to a blight.”

“What about the temple symbolism? Spires into the sky. I know I wouldn’t care if I was dying from sunlight and wind, which in fact I am right now. But do you think the simple people…”

“A good point. We would need to…” His voice trailed off.

“Give them something else?” she suggested. “Mother planet is taking us into her salvation and… Well, it needs work.”

“It’s as good a start as any,” Artam said. “Maybe better. We will need to change crafts. More miners, and they will enjoy privileges from being particularly relevant. And if we need shells crafted…”

“There has to be something to write on down here,” Kariphia said. “Let’s get the basics down before they come to rescue us. We could have had an apparition if you want. Common sense is a weak voice in a crisis.”

“Fine. Apparition it is.”

She tiled her head to the right. “Apparition it is then.” While searching for writing supplies, an unwelcome thought came up. “What about those damned Nizrian rats and their blight? I hate the thought of just letting them get away with it.”

“Let them,” Artam said, “for now. Let them have the surface. We have no more use for it anyway.”

“I suppose.” There, finally some paper and charcoal. “We’ll need a different surface to write on in the future.”

“Leather… Stone… Shells… Something thematically appropriate. As for the Nizrians… Leave them for now. We’ll retaliate later.”

“Is that an apparition, too?”

“Why not?”