Tuesday, 29 March 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt. 8

The sun was still climbing in the sky as I and my freshly-laundered daysuit stepped onto the northbound Y-train for Rhigo’s northern climes.  My cloth bag was a little heavier by this point, as I had added to it yesterday a copy of Bernird Doregun’s childhood classics.  It had been nice to spend the previous evening under soft candlelight, reacquainting myself with long-forgotten heroes and villains.

I had no particular destination in mind this day, and the northern tip of the country had little to offer to casual sightseers unless they had particular interest in the historical sea-fortresses that guarded the forelegs of the Barking Dog, or in the Carrier Birds that lived on the rock beaches there.  For my part, neither held any particular fascination, but I was not feeling any pressure to commit myself and it would not have come as a surprise to me if I had spent the evening alone on a stony shoreline, eating my dinner in the company of Carriers.

Exposed to the sea to the north, south and east, invasion from the waves has been a frequent feature of Rhigan history.  Several centuries ago, my own kinsfolk sailed across the narrow expanse between us and seized control of the southern half of the country within days.  Before that, northern pirates, buccaneers sailing on the behalf of states whose names are now long lost to us, raided the exposed towns year after year, burning crops and buildings, and carrying off the residents as slaves.  It was these incursions that prompted the building of the sea fortresses, early examples of Rhigo’s engineering prowess.  History suggests that they were paid for directly from the pockets of local military officers, who had no other means of responding to the lightning raids of the northmen.

Of course, these days it was land-invasion that presented the greatest concern to military minds across the continent.  With Ondia adopting an isolationist stance in response to its fading military influence, it was the Rzermis raiders to the far north who had started to make incursions southwards.  Camir, their enemy for the better part of two millennia, had responded to repeated raids by strengthening troop and ship numbers on its own borders, but the northern tribes, normally notable for their infighting, had recently been showing signs of uniting.  Each month their armies swelled with greater numbers, greater purpose, and by now even the Ministry had concerns about their ultimate intentions.
Still, one cannot allow the shadow of war to dictate one’s actions.  It is precisely when the stakes are highest that cool heads are most in demand.  At some point I would have to head west, towards the escalating conflict.  First though, I would cross the Sholl of Grains.

What can I say about this place that more able scholars have not already said?  Imagine a land longer than anything a man could walk, in one day or ten.  Then imagine you are standing in the middle of that land, and all you can see in every direction are the bowing heads of the various sorgha grasses that feed the continent of Nebra.  Feel their softness in your hands as you pass by.  For a sholl, think of a waist-high ochre sea, one that you could wade through in any direction until the strength in your legs failed you and you dipped beneath the surface into a world of endless green stalks.  Above you, as you lay there, clouds rushed across the yellow sky with all the speed and adroitness of windborne caravels.

The Y-train was absent of tourists, but packed to the brim with buff Rhigan labourers.  They were dressed for conditions in lightweight, light-coloured clothes.  Loose trousers were secured at the waist with sashes, and many went bare-chested altogether.  Each of them seemed to know all of the others, and their erstwhile greetings were repeated time and time again, swelling up the body of the engine like a wave.  In their hundreds, they swarmed the carriages, taking up the seats, the tables, one another’s laps.  Outside, they climbed upon the roofs and hung from the sides.  Many of those who arrived early could have got inside but chose to stay outside anyhow, proud of their acrobatic prowess.  In this ubermasculine environment, I became the focus of much attention and merriment.  As per usual, I did my best to bear this with good grace, but as we accelerated into the countryside, the temperature in the carriage rose dramatically and quickly became wearing on everyone.
It was some hours later when the train pulled into one of the tiny nameless supply depot stations that acted as storage for villages within the Sholl.  I was hungry, cranky and desperate to get out of the baking carriage, which by now smelled hellishly fruity and oppressive.
I was whistled as I hauled my bag through the crowd and fought my way out the door.  At no point had their attentions moved beyond simple ribbing for my beard or the smartness of my daysuit, but the heat had left me ill-tempered and I was conscious of dozens of pairs of curious dark eyes following me as I stepped out onto the platform.  Still more traced my steps through to the sand-coloured tent that doubled as a mess canteen for labourers passing through the area.  Such was my antagonistic mood that none of the food there appealed to me, and I was forced to eat a stew that would normally have been quite palatable but which on this day conspired to burn my mouth while simultaneously tasting of nothing.  I rejected all attempts at conversation with an escalating succession of glares, and sulked to myself in the discouraging atmosphere.
When my dish had been taken away, I picked up my bag and considered my options.  There was nothing except sorgha fields for fifty miles in every direction, and there seemed little point in wandering when all it would lead to was sunstroke.  I had heard much of the sweeping beauty of the vistas in the Sholls, but those I had spoken to had been people like myself, passing through on the way to somewhere else.  Now that I was here, amongst the sweat and the stifling, endless nature of the toil, there was far less glamour to it than I had imagined.  It was no wonder that an artist and storyteller like Doregun had made whatever sacrifices were necessary in order to leave this place.
When this thought had come and gone, I moved onto a different and still more sobering one.  How many more artists, storytellers, potential legends, lived their lives in the middle of this vast expanse and were so tired from their labours in the field that they never so much as picked up a pen?  In my mind, I could feel the righteous anger of whole mistreated generations, and they queued within my fevered mind, eager to denounce their wasted existences.
I was alerted to a change in the mood of those outside, many of whom suddenly stopped in their labours and began to run across the fields in the direction of the tent.  Still others called to one another, and there was evidently some curiosity.  All I was able to see through the rapidly-growing crowd was flashes of light on the horizon, as though projected by flames.  Then, in the wake of the light came a distant hissing noise, which gradually grew in both volume and intensity.
I could feel eyes upon me, and I turned to see one of the Rhigan forewomen who would have sole responsibility for a single farming detail.  Her loose cotton blouse was white and simply tailored, her body beneath it hard and heavyset.  A thick skirt prevented scratches from the grasses as one walked amongst them with a scythe, and a pair of leather moccasins completed the ensemble.  Maybe fifty years old, she had a light red bandanna knotted through her hair and burnished features that swelled outwards in their prominence, giving her the appearance of a large olive-skinned bullfrog. 
She met my eye with a measured stare, and said in Ondian, ‘Storm.’  Five seconds later, the hissing outside the tent intensified to a roar, and the rain fell upon the Sholl in torrents.

Go to Chapter 9 > > >

Saturday, 12 March 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt.7

I'm pleased to say that sobriety arrived before breakfast, but then breakfast came later in the day than usual, merging seamlessly into lunch in a most agreeable manner.  Both Taly and her late father, safely ensconced in his glass prism, attended, and they retained their genial good humour from the day before.

'Tell the world,' Taly said when I approached the table.  'Even when nursing a hangover, it's possible to be quite the dapper gentleman.'

She was being kind.  This was my third day in this particular day-suit, and while it was impeccably tailored, I was nonetheless keen to take it to be cleaned.  First though, I wanted an opportunity to sit and reflect.  I had returned to my room yesterday to a message from the Ministry informing me of Hernan's passing.  While I had of course been aware of this for several hours, it was still enough to cause me to sink into melancholia.  I had lain awake in bed while the room spun around me, thinking of the language projects we had worked on together.  True polymaths were rare in Ondia, and finding one who shared my passion for literary nuance had been a rare thing.

Secondary to that concern but still prominent had been the knowledge that the Ministry was clearly watching my movements.  This was of no particular surprise, and could be viewed in some ways as a compliment; I was clearly important enough in their eyes to be worth watching.  What I found to be discomfiting was the thought that anybody I met - the casual conversationalist in the bar, the fruit-seller in the market, the peasant woman with the empty eyes - any or all of them might be a person reporting on me.  In the same way that I was trading Ondian bonds for local currency as I travelled, so eyes and ears were the Ministry's currency on the ground.  It was inevitable that eyes would end up watching ears, and that ears would be listening to eyes.

And yet, one can only spend so much time reflecting on nostalgia or mindful of benevolent surveillance.  I was on holiday, keen only to stretch my legs, broaden my horizons and have a tasty lunch.  What better companion for that task than Taly, who charmed the waiter with her amazing smile and arranged us fresh fish fillets?

'What are your plans?' I asked when we had eaten.

'I'm hoping I can charter a boat that will take me to the northern coast.'

'It's a dubious strategy.  When the gunboats see you, they'll turn you back.  Just go south and take the train.'

She sighed.  'If I do that, I'll have to travel through Kassium to get home.  I have lots of memories of spending time with him there.  I'm not ready to deal with that just yet.'

It was a sentiment I could appreciate.  Here I was on the road, entirely free to travel as I wished, but not yet ready to commit to a route, to decide how to get where I was going.  Instead, I became the eternal wanderer, my simple cloth bag my home away from home.

I walked Taly to the docks and wished her farewell.  She gave me an enthusiastic hug.  When she had disappeared into one of the dockside taverns in search of her captain, I felt a wholly unaccountable sense of loss.  It took several deep breaths of the sea air before I felt fortified enough to head wearily back towards the centre of town.

I hadn't been walking long when I came across a small square, tucked back from the road, that I hadn't seen coming the other way.  In no particular hurry, I wandered over.  The paving was dark and even, very different to the roughly-hewn yellow sandstone so prevalent elsewhere.  Neatly-trimmed bushes lined the edges, and a number of dark wooden benches were arranged in a circle around a bronze statue.  The benches were occupied by children, some sitting quietly with parents, others seemingly devoid of adult company and instead grouping with their peers.  All of them were listening intently to the tall thin man who was standing in front of the statue, reading a story from a book.

The story was about a bird who stole a magic plum from the Gods, and was seeking to flee their wrath.  Such was the ingenuity of the text, evocative and yet deceptively simple, that both children and adults were rapt.  Even I became one with the tale, and felt a secret satisfaction when the bird grew magnificent red-gold plumage, and fled to safety disguised as a candle flame.  I sat down as others around reluctantly got up and left, and in a few minutes, I and the reader were the only two left in the square.  He smiled at me as he packed books away in his bag.

'That was quite excellent,' I said.  'Is it your work?'

'I wish.  Have you heard of Doregun?'

I had heard of Bernird Doregun, and so had every other boy who had spent part of their childhood outside of Ondia.  He had come to Vairin a hundred years ago, the youngest son of a farming family somewhere up in the nameless villages that made up the Sholl of Grains, and he had travelled to the coast in hopes of escaping that life and earning passage as a sailor.  However, he quickly realised that sea travel left him hopelessly seasick, meaning that a life on the waves was not for him.  Crestfallen and faced with a humiliating return to his homeland, Doregun instead tried to make his way as a musician.  In that regard too he was terribly unlucky, and at the point that he first began to attract attention, his threadbugle was stolen. 

With no money to replace his instrument, he was forced to fall back upon the spoken word as a means of entertainment.  Here, finally, he struck gold.  He told bawdy tales of maidens and knights in the taverns in the evenings which were always well-received, but it was writing for children that was his calling.  His stories combined thaumaturgy, miraculous events and a string of heroes who resisted the will of the divine.  In time, he became an international sensation and readings of his stories packed out market squares across the land. 

Given that the Gods were frequently characters in his stories, Doregun's work had never achieved the acclaim in Ondia that it received elsewhere, but the fact that it had not been banned outright was a reflection of its power and influence.  Some things transcended rules.

The man tapped the statue's leg, which echoed dully.  'Doregun is Vairin's favourite adopted son,' the man said.

The man in the statue was short and stood with a stoop.  He wore a baggy cap and other clothes that seemed to be two sizes too big for him.  Over one shoulder, he carried a bag that stretched down to his knees, giving him the appearance of a child carrying a man's possessions.

'I know what you're thinking,' the man said, finishing his packing and lifting his own bag up.  'But not all things are as they seem.'

'Surely,' I replied.  In my head, I was thinking: this one is definitely Ministry.

Go to Chapter 8 > > >

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt.6

Upon arrival in Vairin, I realised quickly that the send-off Taly had planned for her father was not going to be a slow or sombre affair.  Furthermore, by the time she finished her third shot of danxo before we had spent half an hour in the small dockside bar, I realised that if I tried to match her tin for tin, she was going to drink me under the table.

At this point, I should perhaps apologise, dear reader, for assuming that you are Ondian, or otherwise familiar with our death customs.  Unlike the countries on the mainland (and as every true-hearted Ondian patriot would remind you, the narrow strip of land that chains us to the continent does not make us part of the mainland, any more than falling off a cliff means that you can fly), we have no links to gods or afterlife.  None whatsoever.  We are not secular, but rather actively atheist.  It surely seems obvious that your primary goal in life should be success and self-improvement within your allotted timescale.  In accordance with those nihilist principles, the Ministry rejects all applications to build places of worship.  You are here, it says, you are now.  Every day you get closer to the abyss, so do your best before you go.

Also, given that we are the most densely populated country in all of Nebra, we cannot simply allot land for burial purposes.  Not for us, the brutish Rzermis funeral pyre, or the simple Rhigan burial somewhere beneath the countless miles of dust.  No, we chose a process that was sophisticated, elegant, and in keeping with our place as world-leading innovators.

Okay, perhaps it's the danxo.  Perhaps.

So anyway, actually, we stole it.  But don't tell the people back home.

Once, a long, long time ago, before Ondia ruled half of Nebra, before the nation of Camir rose from the flaming ruins of Yzyrobia, before Gresia and Merin split into separate fiefdoms, the southern end of the Kolkas was part of a wider territory called Selii.  The mountains in those days contained a number of active volcanoes, and on one particularly portentous day, a superheated cloud of ash descended onto a village at the base of the mountains, instantly smothering all the residents.

The remains of those individuals was subjected to intense vibration under certain thaumic conditions that flushed out any remaining liquids and caused them to break down into powder.  The residents of the area knew of glass already, from the frequent lightning strikes on the sandy beaches.  All that remained was to move the dust to containers sculpted from the lightning glass.  They were placed on display and honoured.

That might have been the end of it, except that the first Ondian emperor chose a place in lightning glass in the same manner after his death.  The Empire collapsed, but the ideas at the heart of it fled back to our tiny southwestern peninsula.  Our own active volcano was used for centuries, and glass procured from the continent at great expense.  Now we can reproduce many of the conditions scientifically, with freeze-drying via chemically-induced cold being a popular choice instead. 

I stared at the pale blue cube as it sat forlornly on the table.  One day, I too would be placed inside one, and my remains transported back to my homeland, where I would be bricked into a wall, a ceiling or a floor in some important civic building; both a stepping stone and a curio for a future generation.  Not for the first time, I wondered who would carry me home when my time came.

'Are you going to stare at him all night?' Taly asked.

'No,' I said, immediately proving myself a liar by being unable to look away.  She rolled those beautiful violet eyes in an easy manner and placed my cloth bag between it and me.


'It seems strange to be here,' I said, looking at her flushed features, 'celebrating someone I met on the other side of the bay who did all his best work on the other side of the continent.'

Taly crossed her feet over the table.  Away, behind her, a group of sailors were singing songs at the bar.  'I get the feeling that he wouldn't have cared much to be remembered as a glass brick in a wall back home.  He was a problem solver, a brilliant mind.  Plus, he was my father.'

'I expect he shared much wisdom with you.'

'Honestly, I think his opinion was that people should find their own way and make their own mistakes getting there.  It amused him no end when I followed him into cultural anthropology.'

'Really, if we're to celebrate him in style, we should send out for cruorweed tobacco,' I said.

She regarded me carefully.  'I didn't have you pegged as a smoker.'

'I'm not really, but it would be fitting.  Food is here.'  The last comment was accompanied with a nod past her shoulder, where the waiter was carrying a steaming plate of the ubiquitous spear peppers.  He laid it before us, placed two more glasses of danxo next to it, bowed and left.

A shanty kicked off at the bar, and one or two in beards and bandannas tried to dance.  It wasn't the most elegant show.  Taly seemed less amused by their antics than I.

'Well,' she said, 'will you go first, or will I?'

'Ladies first,' I said, settling back.  The chairs here were well upholstered, fat and luxurious.  I could certainly think of less agreeable ways to kill a hot afternoon.

We had already discussed the circumstances of her father's passing.  Perhaps predictably, Hernan had been found at his breakfast table immediately after repast, newspaper folded across his lap, sunbeam illuminating his restful face.  'The earliest memories I have of my father were of him reading the newspaper at the table.'

'Every morning, regular as clockwork,' I said.  Hernan had been a great believer in breakfast.  You could have set your watch by his morning routine.

'So, what's your story, Patrick?'  The girl relaxed, dangled a pepper between her fingers, allowing it to cool.

'My story?'

'Yes.  You've talked lots about my father, but said hardly anything about what you're doing here in Nebra.  It seems inevitable that you're here on Ministry business, but you're allowing me to distract you with alcohol and idle chitchat.  That's not the behaviour of a man keen to get where he's going.'

'Oh, I am keen,' I said.  'Just not in a hurry.'

'Where are you going?'

'To visit a friend who's been assigned to a diplomatic post in Camir.  I am to meet the Rum, talk to him about matters of state.'

'So should I feel honoured,' she said, stretching in her seat, 'that a man who associates with kings in his professional capacity chooses to spend time with me in a personal one?'

I reached for a pepper myself and blew on it to cool it.  It dripped translucent oil into the bowl.

I said, 'I don't believe you feel that way for a minute.  Kings are just men, after all.  Fellows like the sailors at the bar.  Just better dressed.'

She bit into her pepper and giggled as green juice dribbled down her chin.  'Hopefully he'll be a better singer than those sailors at the bar.'

'Oh, I don't know.  They aren't so bad.'

Her eyes sparkled.  'Why don't you sing with them?  I bet you have a great voice.'

'I don't sing.'

'You could!'  She turned, waved to the sailors and called out in Rhigan, 'Hey, gentlemen!  This man here wants to sing with you!  Play him a tune!'

The sailors laughed and one of them pulled out a tin whistle.  He picked out a cheery tune and they broke into an eye-watering harmony, gesturing to me to sing along.  Instead, I bit into the pepper, intending to claim that my mouth was full.  This was a mistake.

The one pepper in a batch was hot, they said, but in truth even the hot ones could be manageable and a man could go many batches without even encountering one.  This time, I had picked one hot enough to sear my soul.  It slipped down my throat before I could stop it, causing me to cough and then to inhale deeply, trying to get cool air into my mouth.

'He's found a hot one!'  'Ondians shouldn't be trusted with real food, see what it does to them!'  'The danxo, quickly!'

After a delay I can only put down to heat-induced panic, I found the danxo and downed it in one.  It lessened, but not ended, the pain.  Quickly, Taly passed me her glass too and I duly drank that one as well.  All the time, she was doubled over with laughter, and when the inferno within me was quelled, I started to laugh too.

More peppers followed, and then hot zur soup with croutons, and much, much more danxo.  Needless to say, I did get involved in the sailing ditties that followed, and Taly duly congratulated me on my acapella.  'See?  I told you you would be excellent!'

So it was that with hazy, cloudy heads, we stumbled onto makeshift seats on the wharfside, and talked for hours more.  The good people of Vairin laughed and danced and sang around us as the evening progressed.  I think I had an innocent arm around Taly's shoulders when the lanterns in the bars were lowered and the night sky was suddenly pinpricked with white and blue lights.  Each colourful explosion was punctuated with a bang that sounded like the firing of a distant cannon, and behind us, the crowd murmured appreciatively.  Taly hugged her father as he rested in his ignoble cloth casing, and we smiled together in acknowledgement that we had given him a very appropriate send-off after all.

Go to Chapter 7 > > >