by Dan Grace
Watching the wasps come and go.
Come and go.
Come and go.
My stump is itching but I don’t scratch. The itch is just the past returning to ghost me. Pain expressed as a gentle reminder. I am real.
Every year they come and build their home, like a knuckle clenched tight in the nook between gutter and living wall. Delicate layers of paper spat to a pattern spooled through generations. Every year taken by the winds. A cycle.
I watch furred bodies knock against the delicate wooden lattice of the open window. Fat commas, their humming marks the break, a brief summer before the storms return and lash the Tree, our city.
In the space of a few months living, breathing, breeding, dying.
Like our city, our republic.
Tastes odd in the mouth that one. Still fresh. Wet leaves and the smell of smoke. Republic. Not a word we could speak in the streets only months ago, not the wide avenues anyway. Perhaps the lanes, the warrens creeping beneath the roots of the Tree. In the canopy, amongst the climbers. With the guildsmen in the mouldering leaf mulch pits. Always a republic there, even while the last King lived, a sovereignty built of years of separation, of art and guild and know-how and keeping firmly to themselves. You can smell the musty odour most days, although this room, set high in the Heartwood, is far from its source.
It is said by some that the stronger the smell of decay, the closer you are to the real heart of our city. I cannot disagree.
The body was found in his ministerial office. Sparse, puritan, an ascetic that one. Locked door, living wood, should only open to his touch. Not matter how he tried he couldn’t hide the honeyed glow, the satin touch of the Heartwood, polished by years of gentle contact. Anyhow, a problem, no matter which way I come at it. Only one conclusion really.
Don’t jump now. Only Sans. Good woman. Heard she’d made it through alright. Glad. Nuisance though, right now.
“Sans.” I turn, shift my weight onto my heels, gesture with my stump. No threat here, the old reflex. “Been some time, eh? And what brings you to my humble offices?” Allow a smile after that one.
She returns my smile. She looks old, older than before all this. She is older I suppose. There’s grey there amongst the black, though she keeps it short, other than the braid at the back. Plain breeches, tunic, ink stained fingers. Pen in hand, notebook ready.
“A quote?” She raises an eyebrow.
“A quote about what precisely?”
“Well, to start with there’s the pilot’s strike. The Guard won’t let us near the port…”
“It isn’t safe…”
“…so we’re reliant on you for news. Lest we weave our own interpretations of the clouds of smoke we see drifting from that section of the city.”
“I can’t imagine that’ll stop you.”
“What should we do if we aren’t allowed free access?”
“You shouldn’t make things up.”
“And we, I, haven’t. It’s an honourable trade now Camber. No more sneaking around, shifting the press from back room to back room. I have offices, a contact address!” A laugh. “We’ve done it my friend, we’ve actually done it! But the work doesn’t stop there. If you think for one minute we’ll stop asking questions… well, you’re misguided.”
I can’t suppress the sigh.
“I expect nothing of the sort, sister.” I sit in my chair. Living wood. I can feel its pulse, the gentle cycle of saps and fluids through its huge body. “We expect nothing of the sort. You did good work before the revolution and you’ll do good work keeping us straight now it’s over. But we need a little trust, you understand? We both know the pilot’s guild opposed the revolution, their monopoly on freight rested on royal privilege. They had it sewn up. Now they have the Council to deal with they know it’ll be harder…”
“Well, of course, key members of the council have their interests in sea and road concerns. Wouldn’t you be opposed if you were them?”
“…yes, but without those council members how would we have brought arms into the city? How might we have broken the blockade after the capture of the western quarters? The pilots were never interested, bar a few enlightened individuals, and now they have the consequences of their accommodation with the King. It is not as bad as it appears my friend.”
“And I can quote you on all this?”
“Don’t be absurd Sans.” I knead my stump, another old reflex. “This is us as friends, sisters, talking now, put the notebook away. Please.” She is reluctant. That book is her power. Ink and a sharp mind.
“Woman to woman then, Camber. You’ve heard about Stoke Frater I assume?”
Catch myself again. How does she? Nevermind. She does, that’s enough.
“Of course. A tough one whichever way you look at it.”
“A pity. Any death is a pity of course. But you never really liked him though, did you? That whole puritanical streak.”
Aware of my hearts beat now.
“What are you suggesting sister?”
“No, no! Oh no Camber.” That laugh again. No humour in it, oh no. “Nothing like that. Oh Tree no. I know you too well to believe that, but…”
“Others might. Or might choose to. First thought I had, sister. We clashed again only last week, over this situation with the pilots. He wanted to charge in, no quarter, etcetera, as you can imagine. I took him down a peg or two. In front of the Council. Not a happy man. And there are other unhappy men too.”
Met with a sarcastic smile.
“Too late. The sap is flowing now.”
“Damn right too late, but now is when it could turn if we’re not careful. So I need a resolution to this Frater situation. And that won’t be simple.”
“Pilot’s guild maybe? He was a sea man wasn’t he?”
“His family were sea, but he had little to do with the politicking around all that. He really was the puritan he made himself out to be. All the more dangerous for it if you ask me.”
She cocks her head, peers out the window. What does she see?
“The details. Of the death. They’re being whispered about already you know.”
Condescension in her voice. Thinks she knows what the whisperers don’t. Well, we’ll see.
“What are the whisperers saying, Sans?”
“That he was strangled. In his offices. That he has thorn wounds around his neck.”
Play the straight face. We dealt with… all that. Agreed?
“Next you’ll be talking about Events…”
Watch her eyes, a blink too many?
“Where? Are these actual reports or is this just talk Sans?”
“Is it true?” Her eyes are wide at that, even her. “Was he really strangled by a bramble?”
I let my silence speak for me. Watch her eyes again. Windows to the soul some say. What soul, I say. Genuine shock. Other noises float into the space between us now. Hawkers and peddlers shouting from the avenue below, the wasps’ fat drone, the wind pushing at the branches.
Is she as real as me? All this, does it feel to her as it does to me?
“Help me with this one Sans. As a friend, my sister. Help me.”
She nods, distracted, inward looking. I see her reach for her pen and notebook, touch them once then hands in lap. She nods again.
“Where do we begin sister?”
To walk on the avenues and lanes between the roots, to look up at the canopy. No map for those territories. Danger, ever changing. To be a climber, one of those born to explore. Not my place, not me. Can’t get any sense from those lads and lasses. They never come down, it’s said, but you see them sometimes. Rarely it’s true, but nevertheless. Who knows what they think of all this? Who cares really.
Dodge a cart puttering along, ethanol fumes spewing from its pipe. Nimble enough, no mud on the breeches. Yet. Funny, wouldn’t have worried about that a month ago, now it matters again. Expectations change overnight. There’s the sea, west, the side we came in from. Oh that night! The sight of the Tree from far out, lit up by the lives around its roots! I’ll never feel that again. One part terror, one part joy. What’s it to be from now on, eh? What’s it to be?
Can smell the pits stronger here, that deep tang of rot. Learning and decay, side by side. Looked down on by the nobility, those that sided with them. By some at least. Others knew it, marked it for what it was. Subversion, certainly, but useful too. No university, no progress. No trade. Imagine, no trade! Women guard it now. Another thing we never expected to see.
Sans out there, chatting, gathering. Good woman. Sister. I hope it comes out right. I hope. Need to focus on the task here. I nod at the guards. Cautious, suspicious even.
“Camber de Quant. Colonel Elect.” Odd watching the effect that has on them, the authority trick. Posture changes, respectful glances. Spot the stump. Heard of me? You bet. There the trick doubles back, gets me too. The games we play.
“Go right in sister.”
Tell that one later. We saw her, de Quant, stump and all.
Corridors of stone and wood, a bastard of a place. I like it. Like the people in it too. Like the smell of the stone. Inert. Where is that office? Hopeless sometimes, directions, too busy thinking about other, can remember the places just not the order. Ah, this is it? This is something. Go in. He’s bent over his desk, of course he is. Long red hair flopped forward, a tent around his face. Noble’s hair. Noble’s skin too, pale and freckled. Hidden indoors. Clear my throat.
“Camber? Sister, I mean Colonel, I…”
“Camber it is, Huvas. Just Camber.”
Can’t help but smile at his discomfort. Get one back, though he’s edgy, stroking the left eyebrow with the flat of his nails. What’s that about? We’ll see.
“All is well?” Tremble in the voice. He knows all is not bloody well. He knows. What does he know?
“All is well brother. How are things here? Your research? Spoken to the Tree of late?”
An old joke for us. Maybe joke is the wrong word. Let’s see how he takes that. Pale, that’s how. Oh here is something then, here is something indeed.
“Well, I, no, not of late. Look, if this about what we’re hearing, about Frater. I don’t know anything, alright?”
“I never suggested you did, brother. You look worried all the same. What’s got you?”
No need to mention he guessed my business right. Can’t hide a thing, useless politician. Good scholar though. We all have our strengths. We all have our weaknesses.
Hand through his hair, strokes the eyebrow again, rubs a bloodshot eye. Do tell brother, do tell. I trusted you. I trust you?
“It’s nothing Camber, nothing really.”
“And I don’t believe a word of that. Tell me now brother, what’s got you?”
Part of me knows what he is about to say. Part of me wants to smother the part that knows. Could walk away right now? Could, but won’t. Shouldn’t. Can’t?
“Events Camber. Two confirmed at least. Combined with Frater. Well, I don’t need to tell you what this means, do I?”
Everything we promised. Everything we agreed. Ashes. To be blown away by the autumn winds. Are those tears?
“One down by the pits, guildsman. An ecstatic vision. He’s comatose, family preparing the traditional celebrations, parade, sacrifice, the works. You, I mean we, won’t keep a lid on that I’m afraid. And… and a climber.”
That’s the one, that’s the one. A climber! Tree, no wonder he looked so pale. Thought they never come down? Never? Hardly ever.
“Never mind the Guild and their folderol. I never expected them to abandon the old ways. We can write that down as superstition, ceremony, ritual, and so on. But a climber?”
Can hear the edge in my own voice. What does it convey? Disbelief? Fear? The Guild were with us on this. Hid us, gave us passage once we’d got in what we needed. Gave us contact with Him. Gave us assurances. They would hold Him, they would give her what she needed, we’d give them what they needed and we’d be left in peace.
“Yes a climber. You think I’m making this up? You think I’d willingly… I mean Camber, I’m no happier than you are about this. Not happy at all. I mean. That doesn’t even begin to describe it. I thought the first one an anomaly, like you say. Guild folk are different, in a way. Wishful thinking of course, where’s the science in that? Then she turned up, here, in my lab. I’ve no clue how she got in, or how she got out for that matter. Pupils like soot blackened pennies. Hurt her to be in here, had to turn the lights down.”
The second time today my heart picks up its pace.
“Said she’d seen things, a chrysalis hanging from the branches high up in the canopy, size of a person, ripe with sap. Tasted some. Spoken to Him, to the Man in Green. It didn’t make much sense to me, but it was clear someone, something had told her to seek me out, had given her a message.”
“A message. ‘And so it begins again’.”
What does? It? All of it?
“That’s it? The whole message?”
“So she said Camber.”
“And you didn’t keep her here? To question her further?”
“Well I… no. No, I didn’t. I saw no point. And then she was gone.”
No point! Well he wouldn’t. A scholar not a politician.
“The Guildsman’s family was clear. Well, as clear as they ever are. He spoke to the Man in Green, or the Man in Green spoke to him to be precise. Next thing you know he’s out cold and hasn’t stirred since. The fervour in their eyes, sister. Pfff. Made me uncomfortable, I’ll tell you that. Reminds me too much of before, you know? Anyway, seemed keen to talk to me about it.”
She flips through her notebook.
“All they’d really give me was that there was a message, some last words uttered…”
Roll my shoulders, get up, walk to the window.
“And so it begins again?”
The soft riff of thin paper pages falling back into position. Bound by the spine to always return.
“Sweet Tree Camber. Sweet rotting Tree. What is this? I thought we ended this? Wasn’t that the point? Kill the King and it’ll stop you said. We all said.”
Like an old familiar coat that weight. Gaze drifts down to the pits. Up to the canopy. Sans stands, joins me. I can smell the sweat on her, the decay. The fear? Just want someone else to be scared too. Nothing to say. Nothing coherent. Everything we have done, the temporary injustices, the compromises, the bitterness, the desire for revenge, all could be made safe, explained away because we had ended the Events. Those capricious disasters, an alien will bound to the King, to blood, to the Tree and the Man in Green. Huvas, sweet Huvas, who had it explained so neatly, who made it clear that it was not only the academy’s desire to tame this, but that, with the help of the Guild, it was possible to end it in our lifetime. Where was that certainty now? Our authority, our claim to justice, everything we had hoped for rested on this. Shattered. Had we misunderstood the messages? Misinterpreted the signs?
“I must write about this sister. The citizens must know. I must do this thing. You cannot ask me not to.”
Oh the weight!
“I won’t ask you sister, I know you know better than that.”
She can see the grief in my eyes, can’t she? She understands necessity, doesn’t she? Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she never will.
Footsteps. Alone now, didn’t watch her leave. Couldn’t. The pulse of the heartwood rises against the sounds from the avenues below, fills my stomach, my bowels, my throat, my heart, my head.
Our city lives.
Here he is. Glass bowl cupped lazy, honeyed liquid sloshing to its rim. He hasn’t shaved.
No acknowledgement, no glance, no sound.
“Leave me alone Camber. I’ve nothing to say to you. There’s nothing, we can’t, I… I’ve nothing to say, OK?”
Watch him. Third drink? Fourth? Hands trembling like thin high branches in the autumn winds.
“Huvas. What went wrong? The Guild, have they gone back on their word? What does this mean?”
Pale eyes and a twisted smile.
“I have absolutely no idea sister. None whatsoever.”
Sit opposite him. Flick of the fingers, drink on the table in front of me, down my throat. Another, another. Keep them coming. We sit in silence.
“I was sure. I had spent so long watching the Events. Mapping them to the proximity of the King, his blood, the hangings, defenestrations from the High Window, and opposite that the pits, Guild Parades. You read it all? You saw what I saw there didn’t you?”
The desperation of a wronged scholar. He cares more about his beautiful theory than the consequences.
“I saw and, I’ve been thinking, it appears we were imagining cause where perhaps there was only correlation. Perhaps the Man in Green was not bound to the King or the Guild as such. Perhaps it is something else that calls him out, to take limbs, minds, lives. Something more abstract.”
“What do you mean Camber?”
“Where is the King now?”
Raise a glass to that one.
“Yes, but what was the King? Was he just a person?”
“Well he was a different person, across time. From father to son for over two hundred years now. Unbroken line. ‘Til we snipped it.”
“Ha, yes. So the King was a different person with each generation, but the idea of the King remained constant, yes? The individual, with their particular whims, vices and rare redeeming features, was merely a vessel for that idea? You see?”
“Well, yes. So?”
“So what was that idea? The idea of the King.”
Nods, drink slows him.
“And where is power now?”
“The council, officers, Guild as ever, University even.”
“Still here, still wielded by men and women. Dispersed we could say, but ever present. We might have expected Him to come back to the pits, and we could live with that. It was part of the deal with the Guild. But to emerge amongst the rest of us once more. Too much, too much. We made the mistake of conferring on the nobility, the King and all of them, some unique set of characteristics. We tacitly agreed with their doctrine, the right to rule, selected by the Tree and all that. We couldn’t see, blind, blind.”
Heart shuddering, up and stumble to the door. The whole bar is watching now? Maybe I was shouting. Maybe I don’t care who knows. Maybe I am drunk.
“Camber? Where are you going? Wait for me.”
Stumbling. Hard to walk three glasses. Stupid. We’d kill it off?
Bit sick. Only a bit. No one saw. Lost Huvas. Drunker than me.
Now which way? Corner of High Way and The Procession aren’t I? Blurred. Focus, focus, get home quick. Lay down sleep.
Here comes another few. Oh. Burns the throat on the way back up. Honey to acid.
Sit down for a bit. Not here. A ginnel, off down there.
Lights in windows, family sounds. Where’s my family now? Tree, don’t cry, don’t cry. Sit down for a bit, rest the head, rest the eyes.
Rest the head, rest the eyes, rest the heart.
Tiny metal hammer. Tap, tap, tappity tap. Drumskull. Drunk still? Not entirely. Remember the ginnel, remember resting. Where exactly? Crack the eyes and I’m not anywhere I know it seems. Not the ginnel, not home.
A breeze. Stirring green all around and the smell of the pits. Fetid, rotting, life. Smell I know too well. A root, hanging branches, leaves, earth floor. Where?
– Camber, sweet Camber. Mostly water Camber. Mostly water. We could drink you dry.
In my bones. In the hollow cavities. Teeth and chest. An echo almost.
“Who are you?”
– Camber, sweet. You know us. You thought you knew us. We are unknowable.
“Man in Green.”
– Your name, not ours. One name. We have others. What’s in a name? Tells us more about you than it does you about us. Oh we know you, we know you.
Dreaming maybe? Very real for a dream. Could be. Wake up! Wake up!
“What do you want from me.”
– Wrong question. What do you want from us Camber?
A figure. Branches, leaves, twisted, bound. A face, or mask, dried earth and twigs.
“I want what I’ve always wanted. I want it to stop. I want this back.”
Wave the stump at him. My mother. Took her and this. Shit. I can remember that. Remember something. This smell. And all those others. For what?
– For what sweet Camber? You want to know our purpose, our aim?
In my mind now? Gestures almost human. Mocking?
“No, I just want you to stop. To leave us alone.”
– Has it occurred to you that we may also wish to be left alone? That your infestation of our Tree is as unwelcome to us as our intrusions into your society is to you?
Closer. Shuffle away. No away to go to.
“Then how do you choose? Me and Huvas, we decoded the abductions, found the pattern. It’s power isn’t it? Close to those who rule? That’s where you take them from.”
Quiet. Ha! He, they, didn’t expect me to figure it out!
– Pattern? You talk of Kings, of power. What is that to us. Do not pretend to understand us. We take because they must be taken. We take those you do not see, beggars, the sickly child, whores, as much as we take those close to your King and Council. Your pattern is like your names for us, a reflection of your own prejudices and obsessions. We take because they must be taken, because we do not want you here and we must do something.
Leaves flutter loose, earth and twigs begin to fall.
“Then why not take us all?”
– You think we restrain ourselves? That this is a game? That if we could we would not throw you from our body like turning leaves from a branch?
“And you have taken me?”
– We wished to talk.
“Then talk. Tell me why you cause us such pain? Why you take those we love? Why you attack us in the night?”
– You have no right to be here. You have no love of this place. You arrived and burrowed in as if this great tree was yours to own. To possess. You have no such right. Can you not see?
“This is our home. Our Republic. I have fought for this, have fought to be rid the King, to be rid of you.”
– We grow tired of this. We thought that perhaps something had changed. We see now that this was foolish.
Disintegrating. Tired. Drunk and tired. Gone.
Thorn branch in my closet. Like I’d keep it there. Like I’d hold on to it. Had Sans already, Huvas not far behind. Confessions, accusations. Plucked from each of us in turn. We snapped like brittle twigs in the autumn gales.
Now this. Open, public. The model trial. A justice that all can witness. Humiliation and a massed hatred in the late summer air.
“Camber de Quant, colonel elect of the militia of the Republic, this armed council finds you guilty of the murder of Stoke Frater, captain elect of the militia of the Republic.”
Jeers. Cries. Screams. Murder? I have done worse in the name of this Republic. Far worse.
“Of worship of the Man in Green and association with others in the formation of a deviant sect.”
A hissing, like we’re at the theatre. That this, my life, is some play. That I would worship that? Only the wildest fantasy. And Sans. Huvas. Gone before me into the winds. My friends.
“Of crypto-Monarchist tendencies and treacherous intentions towards the government of the Republic.”
My Republic. The Heartwood, pulsing beneath my feet. Winding narrow paths and the broad avenues between the roots. Passages wormed through layers of bark and wood. Climbers in their canopy and the guild in their pits.
“Under the Emergency Revolutionary Laws the punishment for such crimes is death.”
My laws. My death. So it begins again.
“To be carried out by defenestration from the High Window.”
And, a leaf, they will watch as I float to the ground.
Autumn is here for me.
All things come and go.
Come and go.
Come and go.
“The Young Republic” (© Dan Grace) was published in Issue 6 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.