II.I En Media Residence

Laura Noema, Greg Corcoran

The stories peddled by couriers — of Vladik’s disappearance, his father’s murder, the charges of treason against the Lounge of Etch — were becoming more fantastic each day. They cried that Vladik had appeared on the scene to fight the High Questor after witnessing his father’s death, then fled to the Chersonese. Even now he was in the Black City, amassing an army.

There was only one consistency, and it became truth: who was to blame. The daring voiced their outrage by leaving half full bottles of kresnik on the corner of Kawther Street and Manjusha — a drowned scarab at the bottom of each. There were endless complaints of beheaded vultures strung from streetlamps.

As with the death of General Korsch, Avarath had no vent for its grief, which boiled and surged to overflow.

Mira was numb to it.

These horrors, and Nilofer’s cryptic message, were only distant sounds echoed from the bottom of the ocean. She could not be a part of the fervor. That luxury had been stripped away, with everything else.

Like nomads, the Tariqs wandered the streets in the small hours before dawn. Their apartment in the Guilded Fasthold was no longer their home, for Nasim Tariq had been quietly dismissed after the unpleasantness. A menagerie keeper with no menagerie. An old man with no use. His wife and daughter followed as he wandered the city a somnambulist, his mirrored eyes peering to the distance, as if the walls were an alien frontier.

Sadia moved with her usual briskness, but with a painful hitch in her hips and stutter in her step. Once she had possessed an exquisite limb of polished sandalwood and iron joints that commanded efficient movements. That too had been traded with the faro surgeon for her daughter’s life. In its place, a crude, ill-fitted peg. For the first time, Mira saw her mother as others did: a disfigured woman.

In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to cease existing. Mira was the hole sinking the ship.

They pushed without pause through early bird crowds around the imperial arena. The people were thronging to catch a glimpse of the materials carried through the gates — a gaping, fanged maw. The arena was the skeleton of a titan serpent curled upon itself. Before it had showcased bloodbaths it had been a place where cults gathered for sacrifice.

The Wedding Beast, the Avarthi called it, for it was a marriage of ideals and compromise between old and new. Lukesh’s warriors had permitted the merchants to live, and the merchants had brought the gift of bloodsports. It marked their commitment to the Red Nation.

But more than that, the arena stood as proof of the titans that once roamed Sulci. It stood as proof that even gods could be killed.

The trio came to Ketif — the market district — and crept like cats over sleeping bodies packed together in the alleys.
There was a well nearby that reeked of sulfur. But the water was drinkable. And a scrap heap to scavenge for containers and tools. This was home, for now.

By evening they had driven off a pack of wild dogs and constructed, from rusted tin sheets and canvas scraps, a shelter against the wall of a textile shed. They supped on a handful of raw durum atta flour, the last from their old life. To preserve their bowels, Sadia forbade them any water for the rest of the night.

They lay shoulder to shoulder in their shelter, thirsty, sleepless. It was her mother who first spoke of the future. “Tomorrow, I will go to the arena to find work.” With the games only weeks away, warriors from far and wide had come to Avarath to compete. Even now, before the games, they shed their blood in brothels and training yards. There would be no shortage of wounds a sawbone could stitch.

Already knowing the answer, Mira chimed “Me too.”

Her mother’s judgement could sever delusion as quickly as a bone saw. “You will return to your edification tomorrow. Heal your wounds, join the Czar’s Army. It is your best hope for survival.”

Mira’s compulsory schooling was still months from completion, and after that, another month before the imperial assessment. It had been her dream to pass the rigorous trials for the First Army and work her way up to officer. But that was an eternity ago. There was no room for dreams in a shabby lean-to, crushed with the scarred and the walking dead. Mira was old now.

“I can work. I worked for years in the menagerie with Father.” She shifted her gaze to the old man beside her. In the dim light there was only the outline of his features. He had lain down early, having eaten his flour in silence while staring at the roofline. Nasim’s nature was to seek the wild and exotic, to train eyes on the bush, the water’s surface, waiting for the hidden to stir. It was he whose company Mira sought the most, who would come to her aid when she battled her mother’s cynicism.

But the former menagerie keeper lay still and silent as a corpse, waiting for his heart to stop beating. Mira was alone in her stand.

“You were raised in the menagerie,” Sadia said. “In edification. You will not last outside.”

(Not as I did.)

Mira knew the unspoken part of her mother’s sentence. Before she wed her elder husband, Sadia had spent her youth as a sawbone in the First Army. She had crossed the Scorched Land on campaign after campaign, pulled the wounded from battle. Every day she had witnessed horror and death, and stitched it back together.

“Because Kaustir has changed?” Mira asked. “Or because I am weaker than you?”

“Because you have a chance!” Her mother looked at her for the first time, and it was enough to shame her. “Kaustir is as dangerous as ever, Mira. A woman must tread wisely lest she step into her grave.”

In the darkness Mira imagined her mother’s finger, outstretched and pointing at Nasim. Perhaps her father imagined it too. Beyond the ends of love, he was his wife’s shield, the one who guaranteed her place.

“You have a system that protects you,” Mother said to Daughter. “It is better to be on the inside.”

Sadia twisted in the shadows, her peg-leg knocking tin and refuse. She lay beside her husband, their bodies touching, their hands unheld.

Wind shook the shelter roof. As her mother slept Mira cried without sound and watched as black clouds smothered the Scarred Moon.

Let the players be as giants, fighting between mountains, oceans at their knees, a rain of glass and fire. Do you see it?

In truth, Gulzan was the lucky one for not seeing it. After the oceans had become walls, fire had rained and the earth had split apart; after ice swallowed the highlands and poison drowned the forests; after the Malentide filled with godsblood, those who survived were the ones who had, precisely, not seen it. They had hidden underground and turned their backs as the gods fell. And in the century that followed, as the world licked apocalyptic wounds, those who joined the death toll were merely the ones who took a second glimpse.

That was Gulzan’s opinion, at least. Historians spoke of plagues and droughts and all kinds of calamity that whittled the population in the wake of the Rack of Ruin. But for him the cause was simply too much seeing. Those who stared too long at the misery of this world took that misery upon themselves and lost the will to survive. The Rack and Ruin was a shared phantom — visions of cracked skies flashing in the mind, fiery pillars glimpsed in the corners of the eye.

To face them — to look up from your fetiche — was surest death.

So Gulzan did not see it. As the High Vent supervised construction in the Avarathi Arena, it was not an exercise in visualizing the Rack and Ruin nor the world that limped from it. Historical accuracy be damned. It was about presenting something impressive, and trusting it was monstrous enough to stir the phantom.

A good ventilator uses bad air to his advantage.

“More red!” he bellowed through an iron cone. His voice carried from his stomach across the space between the imperial stand and the central stage. The stone disc had been carpeted with six types of sand, shipped from various parts of the desert. Green and purple for Viridos; blue and grey for Pegulis; yellow and (more!) red for Kaustir.

The platform would symbolize the Chersonese, that fertile strip where the Malentide’s north shore formed borders for the Three Lands. This was where speakers would speak, where fighters would gather, where battles would start.

Sharing the middle ground with this stage was a clay-lined pit, dug by hand. It was Gulzan’s second centerpiece, to symbolize the Malentide. Servants worked around wooden channels, raised on sticks, that pumped in water from the coastline a mile away. The High Vent hadn’t decided what games to throw upon this miniature lake. But he had instructed the servants to not filter the water. It carried a detritus of eldritch bottom-feeders, toxic silts, parasites and deep magic. He imagined that extra element of fear as contestants tottered on rafts or flailed upon replica boats, less afraid of each another than the prospect of plunging into waters that drowned the gods.

Then came the sides. By the west stand, a cage of thorn weeds. Solescent slaves had latticed the briars into a rough cube and strewn a cactal floor beneath. The fighters in that cage would risk a variety of poisoned nicks. Nothing fatal, mind — merely comical, a few toxins to dull the senses or bloat the limbs. Gulzan was counting on some laughs from that corner.

Opposite, on the other side of where the imperial stand jutted into the coliseum circle, a series of trenches. This was the salute to Dorgrad, the empire’s third (some would say second) city. Some of the holes would be filled with lamp oil, with braziers mounted on the verges above. Others with Ipari dust to choke the lungs if kicked up. Still more parts were fashioned as steep-sloped labyrinths where fighters would be trapped or thwarted by landslides. All in all, a fine tribute to the Dorgrad Mines.

Across from Gulzan, beyond the lake and sand platform, lay his particular pride: the ice mountains of Pegulis. Of course, real ice was an impossible import, even for the shrewdest belgas. But Gulzan had found a substitute. From the Glass Desert east of Avarath, black shards had been dumped in seven distinct piles. The effort was ongoing. He wanted the “mountains” to be as high as the upper stands — enough to topple with the right vibration or impact. He had also instructed that the glass be whitened (for ice and blood’s sake), and an envoy was running through the city now to gather the paint.

It was a distorted representation, of course. Viridos was actually in the west, Pegulis in the north and Kaustir in the east. But Gulzan had turned the map so the Czar, seated in the imperial stand, would view the arena like his own campaign maps, seeing Virdos to the left and Pegulis straight ahead.

Twist the world for the Czar. A compass is more forgiving.

As for the wall closest the stand… the east wall that represented the south shore of the Malentide…

Gulzan shook the phantom from his head. It was better not to think of that fourth, unclaimed shore. The Lounge Lords whispered its name sometimes: Deadlands. But Gulzan did not have the first idea of what to put there.

No one did.

“No better time,” a voice belched behind him. Lord Klarr of the Mustum Lounge sat with his belly spilling over both arms of the Czar’s seat. “If it had to be, no better time. Games open; new contracts. New business. New House of Etch.”

Gulzan grunted. It was the first time Lord Klarr had talked politics since he arrived this morning. But he had a point.

While the toad-like merchant managed only slight motions — picking from a bowl of insects, inflating his goitre, cooling olive scales with his feathered fetiche fan — Gulzan’s second attendant was a mess of anxiety. Sanpat paced the forward aisle and scratched his arms, both tucked in heavy sleeves. The robe that covered him showed only his half-moon teeth, flashing at the end of his jawline. The ghul moved in and out of the sunshade, as if forgetting he would burn, then remembering and retreating.

“It’s unjust. Shameful. Better yet — illegal. That unhoused little swine has no business invading a Lounge Lord’s house. There will be words with the Czar. Oh yes! Lut Sar’s seen his last raid. We all agree on that.”

Gulzan scowled over his shoulder. For belgas like Klarr and himself, a shrill, fast-talking ghul was a vexing one. It made Vent-speak difficult when there were so many words to re-breathe. Sanpat hadn’t always been like this. But ever since he was mugged, on the night of the occupation celebrations, twenty five years ago, the ghul had inherited the manic frenzy of all who had misplaced their fetiche.

It had been a coin — a simple gold coin. The thieves had taken it then vanished into the desert.

Sanpat’s answer? One that only a long-lived ghul would conceive of. Become high treasurer of the empire and pray that his coin would one day circle back into the coffers.

It was for this reason that he liked belgas — especially economically-stimulating ones like Klarr — and hated investigators — especially disruptive ones like Lut Sar.

Klarr did his best to reuse Sanpat’s words, following the pacing blood-drinker with just his eyes. “Illegal? Yes. Last raid? No. Good business survives bad variables.”

The high treasurer’s eye was twitching, the corner of his mouth seized in a grimace, then he cleared his throat three times without needing to. “The fighting’s supposed to be in the arena, not in the streets. The Questor will have all the Spice Lounges trying to kill him now. This is what happens when you use gutter-rats. How can the merchants swap coins when their hands are being hacked off by imperial thugs?”

Klarr ran the feather fan over his face. “No fighting. Spice Lounges swapped coins before imperial rats ever arrived.” He smirked at the ghul as he gave the insult. “All Spices Lounges — one. Agree, no words with the Czar.”

Senpat drew hands from his sleeves and gripped at the air, as if his lost coin were floating there in the vapor of a troubled economy. “You’re a fool, Lord Klarr!” His fingers began to burn. He withdrew them. “A fool if you think there will be no retribution. There are some very angry, disenfranchised belgas here in Avarath, and…”

Gulzan turned sharply. “And not here. No fools in the Spice Lounges. No gutter-rats. Branik was shameful swine, and retribution just. Now lords will be better yet. No fighting, agree?” He looked to Klarr and the other belgas nodded, despite not needing to. Klarr was an old one. Two and a half decades ago he had carried the sacks of spice and ashes alongside Gulzan, out into the desert where Lukesh’s army waited. He had learned that good business overcomes bad variables.

Klarr had grown fat on mustum seed, insects, and the wisdom of that decision.

“Trying to kill Lut Sar?” the High Vent declared. “Disenfranchised. Unhoused — out on streets.” He narrowed eyes at the treasurer and finished, simply, with “Last words.”

Senpat found a place in the shade and twitched there. “Well,” he muttered. “I’m glad sanity has prevailed.”

Klarr swallowed another cockroach and Gulzan went back to watching the engineers. He took Senpat’s comment with him, into the Vent-speak of his thoughts. Sanity — was that really the word for the ruin that followed? His mother once told him he was born in a white egg, laid painlessly and cracked easily. Was Gulzan the insane one, then, to live in a world sprung from fire, among mammals delivered in blood and screaming, in a city forged by invaders? Was suffering the baseline?

He was building more than torture traps in this arena. He was building the familiar. For Sulci made these things familiar: these mountains of glass debris; these poisoned oceans and virulent jungles. These were not extravagant showpieces; only a mirror.

He was building home.

Klarr burped like an operatic frog. He emptied the insect bowl into his gullet. “Branik was payment. Kazmir is reward. One belgas lost, another becomes First General. The Lounges will profit.”

“You assume the people’s hero will win?”

“Kazmir is strong, disciplined, greedy. Good variables.”

The High Vent peered at the merchant. Such confidence could only come from having his hand on the puppet strings.

“Then what bad business is afoot?”

Klarr grinned and said nothing.

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Authors’ Note

Those of you who have been reading may have noticed a sudden shift in narrative and that previous chapters are no longer public. We realized that the way we were initially breaking down the chapters was not condusive for us writers, or you readers. Since Ruin Follow takes place in such a big, strange world, we’ve decided to stay with Mira for much longer before we move on to other lands. We apologize for any confusion and hope this is more enjoyable. As always, thank you for reading.

Images courtesy of Pixabay