See the introduction for more information.
This story © Keenan Cross, 2022
[moth cup, 6afm, 22yo]
Dandec had first communicated with Karst Loess by letter as a student. It had been a brief exchange: one letter full of notes and questions regarding the lepidopteran scholar’s research, and one response, most of a year later. That response had mainly directed Dandec to other treatises and scrolls of Karst Loess’s, wherein he had addressed most of the boy’s questions—and which Dandec had not known existed, because the satellite university had neither copies nor records of them. The aged arborist had praised his young correspondent’s instinct and understanding, but Dandec had been too embarrassed to write back afterward.
Nonetheless, it was that brief correspondence which had cemented Dandec’s decision to settle in the Moth Cup. That, and the wonder of the great towers of Goldenhill.
The village in which he had settled was still within view of the mountains in the south and west. It was a little knot of paved streets lined with high-roofed domiciles, surrounding a wide market square and nestled in farmland. Not poor, not rich. The aliens, as the moths called all other sapients, lived alongside their insectile neighbors. The crest of Goldenhill, comprised of three trees within a circle, was on every public building, and stamped in wax on every letter Dandec wrote and received. Molded into the glass of the wine bottles brought in from and sent out to the cities.
The moths liked their wine. The perfumed, cinnamon aroma of it filled the village and masked the prosaic scents of sweat, soil, and lunger droppings. Dandec had not thought himself one for drink until living here. Now he drank it almost like the moths did. They drank it throughout the day, from bottle or dish—or bowl, when they thought to accommodate neighbors who lacked the curled proboscis—and during any task. It did not seem to impair them, with their bottomless stamina and impeccable balance. It did Dandec, just a little.
Even after most of a year living in the valley, Dandec often found himself surprised to be out of the Great Common Plains, to be surrounded not by the endless tall grass and unrelentingly giant sky, but by the Moth Cup’s rolling hills and low, soft grass. It seemed like a gentle place, like there was something harsh and evil absent here, kept out by that mountain range.
Upon reaching this village, Dandec had embarked on a sabbatical, acquiring and devouring the literature he had missed in the years that he had forsaken his field. Karst Loess had been a great help in this, able to grant limited secondhand access to the libraries of the great city. And the moth post was efficient: it was often a mere eight days from when Dandec sent a letter to the scholar and when he received a response, with a stack of treatises. He had begun in a few Hands, as the Moth Cup’s calendar reckoned its twelveday intervals, to learn the ways of the flora in his new home.
He could not imagine, now, why he had ever ceased his research in the first place.
His home in the village was modest. One of several ruling councils had granted him half of a domicile that was divided in the middle. Soon after, Dandec had filled it with books and sheafs of papers, racks of silverpoints and charcoal sticks, and planters for study. He retired to it in the evenings, after spending the days studying and sketching around the village. He spent much of each night writing. Most days he received a message of some kind, and most days he sent one.
In exchange for housing, the council only required that he publish more than one new writing a year. Several were aged scholars themselves, and they were willing to accept his collaborations with distant colleagues.
Occasionally he lingered in the town square, or wherever his fellow aliens gathered. With false ears and dark spectacles somewhat obscuring his eyes, he listened to their idle talk, and shared their wine. Sometimes he talked himself. The full-humans and the crowfolk and the ptericeryne, equally relegated by the moths to alienity, were shockingly receptive to him and the few other demihumans there. Few had any interest in botanical philosophy, but they rarely turned him away, even when he had little else to talk of.
On occasion, he kicked a wicker ball in the streets with several crowfolk, for as long as his eyes would let him. He could not play their game, which required lifting and throwing the ball with their grasping toes, but they welcomed him to approximate it as best he could. He still sensed that their game halted when he joined and only continued when he left, but they never complained.
Afterward, Dandec always retreated to his home with a strange rawness in his breast. What a relief to be finished talking, however little of it he had done! Spoken words rattled in his head at the end of the day, he was always pleased to return to written ones. And glad to discover that the wine dampened their rattling as well.
He sat at his desk quietly for some time, sore from the crows’ game. His notes spread before him: the beginnings of a new treatise comparing the grass here with that of the Plains; drawings of a strange shrub he had not identified; notes taken on many other treatises. He ignored them for now, and broke the seal on a letter brought just today by the postmoth.
Karst Loess had enclosed a copy of a scroll Dandec had requested, from a Goldenhill library. Dandec gave it a brief read, and was disappointed. The text frequently referred to drawings, but the copy had been done by autoscribe, and so included no images. Swathes of it would be useless.
With the scroll was a brief communique. The scholar asked Dandec to visit the city.
With your clarity of words and your keenness, you should be here in the seat of learning, where you can walk our gardens and read in our libraries, even if briefly.
Dandec did not write his reply right away, as he usually did. He sat back down at his writing desk several times in the next days with the intent to, but he did not have words. Initially he expected himself to refuse outright—and so he was surprised when, after several days, he realized that he was prepared to accept.
The old moths of the council granted him two Hands—twenty-four days—in the city before they would consider his home forfeit. Dandec loaded a pack with all the books and papers he could carry, and hired a rickshaw driver, one of the several who lazed around the market square all day in hopes of hire.
It was three days’ travel to the holy city of the moths, Dandec seated in the padded car as the driver jogged along with mechanical endurance. The rhythmic thudding of chitinous feet on the packed dirt road was hypnotic, and prevented Dandec from reading along the way, even though it was a smooth enough ride.
At night they camped not far from the road, the fragile demihuman beneath the overturned rickshaw and the sturdy moth seated peacefully despite the light rains. Hedgecomb, as the driver was named, insisted that Goldenhill’s law kept the countryside safe from bandits and highwaymen. He had drawn passengers to and from the great city and the smaller cities and any number of towns and hamlets for nearly as long as Dandec had been alive, and had only been attacked a few times. Those, only when ferrying a much more ostentatiously wealthy passenger—not to offend.
“In the GCP,” Hedgecomb insisted. “You rely on fear of the wasting sickness to protect you on the roads. Here it is the errant gendarmes and the dignity of the kingdom that prevents robbery and violence.”
Dandec did not try to argue, having heard similar things from denizens of the Moth Cup since long before coming to it himself. One thing he had learned in his travels was that anyone who called their land a “kingdom”—nevermind that the days of Goldenhill’s warrior kings were even farther past than those of the Plains’s empire—would never be swayed. Especially not on matters of regional pride.
“I was not attacked often in the Plains,” he could not help but note, however. Slyly, he added, “You do not have a swamp witch here.”
Hedgecomb probed at a rag soaked in fruit juices with his proboscis. The large compound eyes that dominated his almost spherical head showed nothing, but after his time with Loam Ravine, Dandec could see the moth’s posture shift as he took the challenge.
“You’ll not be endangered by it because of the gendarmes,” Hedgecomb declared. “but there is worse than an alien stalker in the Cup. Particularly in the mountains and the woods. There is the lightning boar in the south, and there are the stone men, and the Pyent Devil.”
The driver spoke at great length on stories of creatures and spirits in the countryside, much like those that were told everywhere. All of them too intimidated by roving, hardlight-armed moths, of course, to attack. Dandec wondered how many of them were mere bloated stories about wandering demihumans like Chidurin as well. The monstrous Pyent Devil, quite likely. It was a wry pleasure to listen, and to correct or question none of it.
Seeing the city of Goldenhill was much like looking at the tintypes he had seen in Alu Hechak. As enormous as it was, it loomed into being far in the distance, faint blue against the sky, a tableau of itself. It seemed impossible, a crisp image of nearby trees somehow drifted too close to the horizon. Once it appeared in the second day of travel, Dandec could scarcely look away from it.
One of the great cities—rivaling and exceeding Dandec’s home in many ways—Goldenhill occupied the surface of its titular hill and many others besides, having spread far from its original bounds. Dandec had read much about it as a student: the seven false trees marked the sites of seven ancient groves, from which the moth people claimed to have emerged. Those had been torn out to make the capitol a site of industry in the expansionist days prior to the age of lepidopteran warrior kings, and the towers built to honor the profaned groves later. Their roots towered over the ground-level sprawl at their feet; their trunks swept to the west and back, throwing the bulk of their canopies over the city. The towers were legendary world-round. While in imitation of no particular living plant, they had captured and clung to a not-insignificant sector of Dandec’s imagination since he had first learned of them.
He had delayed this visit for so long, precisely because it had been such an enduring dream to see them in person.
“You only hear of one such dangerous killer in the Plains,” Hedgecomb brought the swamp witch back up the next night, more perturbed by Dandec’s slight against the Moth Cup than impressed by the looming city. “And you hear of that one constantly, she could jump out at you anywhere in the GCP, and has been doing so for a hundred years. I have my own hypothesis.”
Dandec waited eagerly, wondering if Hedgecomb would guess at the truth about Chidurin.
“You have many, many swamp witches,” the moth nodded to himself. “and it is therefore a problem of discipline and security, not a matter of great mystery.”
Dandec smiled. From here Goldenhill’s canopy was beginning to show its hue, a bold blue that shimmered in the sunset. It was a wonder that the rickshaw driver could look at or think about anything else.
For all the hugeness of its tree-towers, Goldenhill sported what amounted to another entire metropolis at ground level. It spread out like a carpet across the namesake hill and the ones adjacent, spires of its own that looked like toys by comparison.
Dandec knew very little about that city, other than that its southern reaches contained the so-called Alien Quarter. He would chide someone for studying a real forest while ignoring its floor.
The rickshaw driver had left the younger man in the streets of the Alien Quarter, among rambling houses made up of cubic structures painted an autumnal red. The canopy above made shadows waver, and gave them a bluish note. Finding the arborist’s home had taken a great deal of walking and trying to understand the very different dialect that was spoken here.
One thing Dandec had learned in his travels was that he did not like cities. In open country, his eyes could flick whatever direction they chose, and much of the time he could keep his bearings; in a city the spaces were tight, his eyes glanced off of a dozen new shapes each time they turned, and those shapes often did little to orient him. So many of those, as well, were people. He was never more self-conscious of his bulging eyes than when in a city, and he could also not cover them up. He was very glad—and more tired than he would have been after a full day of walking a country road—when he was able to locate the public garden which his host tended.
Karst Loess was larger than Dandec had imagined; large even for a moth, the smallest of whom stood almost an arm’s length taller than the demihuman. Wide in the shoulders and hunched, he seemed like a wave prepared to crash upon Dandec when he came forward to greet him. The fur of his head and ruff was long and shaggy, which was unusual for his species. His large compound eyes were rheumy, but the three small simple ones between them were bright.
“I knew it was you from your description,” Karst Loess said warmly. He had been seated at the door to his hut, overseeing the workers trimming the tall and ornate bushes of the garden. Surrounded on all sides by lush growth, the hut was like a mushroom on the forest floor. “A strange-looking alien you are.”
The moth flickered his proboscis at that, a gesture equivalent to a sly wink. He closed his blocky hands over one of Dandec’s and bowed his head three times: once for politeness, twice for a foreigner, thrice for an alien. Without waiting to see how his guest would respond, he waved the demihuman into his hut.
It seemed Karst Loess lived quite differently from Dandec, despite their shared profession. The hut was small but spacious, and fastidiously tidy. Windows let in the blue cast from outside, and looked out also upon the gardens. The floor was hard cork and the sitting cushions thick peasant fiber. Or, what would have been called that in Alu Hechak. A writing desk below one window, with neat stacks of books, paper, quills, and ink bottles atop it. The moth heated a cauldron of coffee over a firepit between the cushions and offered Dandec a bowl.
Dandec learned that Goldenhill coffee was much too bitter for him. He drank it politely, nonetheless.
“I am quite glad that you decided to visit,” Karst Loess nursed his coffee from a dish held in one hand as he knelt on a cushion. “The reason I asked is that I should like for us to conduct a study together. You are a bright mind.”
Dandec had been called that before. He had also been called uninspired, and a hack.
“I would be honored,” he said. Karst Loess was widely celebrated: even if Dandec did not consider him something of a friend, it would be a welcome invitation.
“I should like to see what would interest you—and what you would discover—in our gardens.”
When he was rested, and his pack moved to one of the gardeners’ unused huts, Dandec went out with his host to walk the garden. It was large, the size of some villages he had stayed in; lush and vibrant. A stone walkway, built to seem old, uneven and sunken, wound through loops and lanes planted throughout with bushes and flowers, low trees with purple-red leaves. All well kept and orderly, which was not how Dandec preferred it, but which had an undeniable charm of its own.
It was hard, despite the beauty of it all, to care, when the tree-shaped towers hung above it all.
“The High Council allows me to direct the planting,” Karst Loess said. “So long as it reflects the grandeur of the city. You and I know I needn’t do much: study a shadow fungus and you will find as much to admire as in the tallest oak. But I must make concessions to the Council’s tastes here and there.”
The moth took the rest of the day to walk his guest through the gardens. He named each plant—many of them Dandec did not know—and described the peculiarities of their cultivation. Dandec followed quietly, first full of the unease that cities always instilled in him, but soon light and calm, awash in the details of the garden. He would remember none of what Karst Loess explained, would not learn any of it until he studied the plants himself, but the flow of information on them was a wave of pleasure that eased his anxiety.
In the ensuing days, he and the old moth designed their study. It was to be quick; Dandec had fewer than twenty days in the city. He had lived in many places, had helped to design and grow the gardens of many towns across half the continent. He could observe the methods of cultivation Goldenhill’s gardeners employed in this season. Surely there was something to be learned in that comparison.
There were many gardens and parks within Goldenhill. A few on the ground—and many more within the towers. Dandec took in a sharp breath when Karst Loess first suggested that he bring the demihuman to those as well. He was quiet for the next few minutes while the moth talked, wondering at his surprise. Had he really never considered the fact that the towers were, in fact, buildings like any other? With rooms, and floors, and people inside? It would take him a while to overcome the discomfort this caused him, which he could not explain. He quietly delayed visits to the treeborne gardens as long as he could.
After the one in which Karst Loess lived, they first observed the park within the Alien Quarter. That one was no less lush for its location, though city gendarmes patrolled it thickly. It was used largely by ptericerynes and full-humans; a winged-deer thinker led a school of acolytes through it while the botanical philosophers walked it, and a family of nigh-humans bathed in its pond.
At others, the gendarmes stopped Dandec to question him more frequently, despite that he was chaperoned by a noted local. The pattern of reedy buzzing sounds that comprised Karst Loess’s well-rehearsed explanation (which included quite an exaggeration of Dandec’s accomplishments as a philosopher) became well-trod and tiresome. This would only be worse, he was sure, within the towers.
He dreaded seeing the gendarmes. Every one of them was large even for their species, and they swaggered through the city like lords. They smelled strongly of cinnamon: a pheromone their species released when especially confident. Pride in the city, according to the more cynical sources Dandec had read, had replaced Machinism following the Fall, and the moths of Goldenhill worshiped its orderliness and beauty above all else. He did not doubt that, when they saw either being disrupted, they were quick to blame an alien.
He did not come near the towers until it was time to enter one. This was a long rickshaw ride from Karst Loess’s home, during which Dandec could watch the unfathomable trunks gradually approach, their all-covering blue canopy slide past, closer to the faint blue of the sky beyond than the rich blue he knew they really were.
How lucky it was that the moths did not make much use of horses or lungers, let alone autocarriages. It was rare that Dandec could be transported without walking. He walked much less in those two Hands than in any comparable time in his adult life. He was unused to it.
Did the trees of Goldenhill have roots? They flared at their bases as though they did, but Dandec suspected they were really supported by massive steel rods shot deep into the ground.
The tower they were to visit was named for Build-Your-Palace-Facing-North, one of the most famous warrior kings of old. It looked perfectly like a gnarled old oak, runnels of thick bark made from stone in trails from its canopy to its foot. The ground-level city crept up onto and between the false roots, houses and shrines and small neighborhoods up against the base of the tower. Lives began and ended in its shadow, by the hundreds.
As Dandec had been told, each tower was a city unto itself. As many moths lived in the Tree of Build-Your-Palace-Facing-North as there were people in Alu Hechak. Most of them never had need to leave. Lives upon lives.
They entered through a tunnel that brought them to the middle of the giant trunk. It dove underneath the tower wall, climbed back and opened into a huge space, an artificial cavern. It was a market square, underneath a hundred-foot ceiling with walkways all around leading higher up. The floor was packed with hundreds of moths, bartering and barking. Grubs, clad in armor and padding to protect their sickly soft skins, ran between their legs to play and steal.
Karst Loess led Dandec to the stairwell they needed, but stopped when he noticed one merchant’s wares. He purchased one out of a stack of blue tiles, diamond-shaped with a hole punched through its middle, and gave it to his guest. It was one of the ceramic tiles that made up the canopy, cantrip-enchanted to keep the towers standing at their impossible heights. Thousands upon thousands of these hung in chains from the branches above. They fell sometimes, a single tile here or there. Every merchant had a few for sale as useless souvenirs or charms, some people hung them in or around their homes for decoration. Dandec had not seen one up close, let alone held it in his hands. He nearly lost his host while staring at it, turning it in his hands to watch the light catch it.
Something about it made him uneasy. Nonetheless he accepted the gift and took it with him.
Nothing inside the tower suggested its tree-shape, aside from its verticality. Climbing stairs and riding upward in counterweighted cars, Dandec tried to imagine the transit as a tree’s vascular system, but the effort to maintain the analogy was a waste.
Above the market, the tower was a complex comprised of many stories and tunnels, like all the buildings of a terrestrial city stacked and compressed to share the unusual space with one another. So like that, in fact, that it was an effort for Dandec to remember where he really was. He saw very few aliens, as well, and he smelled cinnamon constantly.
The indoor garden to which Karst Loess took him—many, many stories above the ground—was fantastic. Aisles meandered through a many-tiered landscape of planters and plots, more hung from the ceiling, vines climbed up walls and poles. Among it all was the most astonishing collection Dandec had seen in one place. Standing irrigation tubes sprinkled and misted the plants, with precision that allowed many to grow that would never survive side by side in the wild. No village Dandec had lived in could do such things—but there were surely methods and devices here that would be of great use to them.
Above, the ceiling was obscured by hundreds of small magelights surrounding a large one. Those did not quite create the effect of an open sky, but they made the garden far more inviting than the rest of the tower had been. Presumably a number of mages maintained them, and kept them carefully calibrated to provide for the garden’s needs.
Dandec spent much of the day simply exploring the garden’s paths, looking at and feeling the plants. While the expertise of their growers was impressive, he was not nearly as interested in that as he was in merely seeing their results, searching his memory for knowledge of each one. Once or twice he dared ask an attendant about a flower he did not recognize. He sketched those as well. Only in the evening did it occur to him to be embarrassed that he had done none of the research for which he had come, while Karst Loess had spent the whole afternoon speaking in great detail with the garden’s keepers and planners.
Rather than returning to the surface, Karst Loess brought Dandec farther up in the false tree, to its lowest branch. That structure was like a bridge, wide enough for several bulky carriages to drive side by side if needed. The moth explained the machinery within the branch, which carried fresh and cooled air and water, and distributed the magical force collected in the blue tile-leaves. He assured the demihuman, knowing of his reaction to magicomechanism, that they were ancient machines, from before the use of a magical pulse became widespread. Dandec, of course, knew that; his head was not throbbing in their presence.
Out at its bough there was a cluster of small buildings that was almost like another small village in itself.
A resort, in fact. Sleeping and dining rooms and baths, all with a view of the city far below and miles of valley all around. Strings of tiles flowed from around it as though the buildings sprang straight from them.
With his connections to the [grand?] council, Karst Loess was able to make use of it, if sparingly. It would be his and Dandec’s base, while they surveyed this tower’s gardens. Dandec did not ask what he had sacrificed for permission to bring an alien. He was certainly the only one here. The only other non-moths he saw were striders that scuttled to and from the trunk with supplies in their packs.
Dandec was immensely glad to be away from the crowds within the trunk, though he would much rather be in the guest hut on the surface, let alone his home far to the south. Even in the luxury up here, and even with his breath taken whenever he looked out into the view, it felt almost as strenuous as carrying his pack from one crowded place to another.
“What I should really like,” he said to his host while they sat on a balcony hung all round with tile-leaves. “Is a real Goldenhill wine.”
Karst Loess requested some immediately. A strider came to them soon with a selection of wine skins, of which both could take their pick. The wine was sweet and strong, and it quieted something within the demihuman.
He looked over his sketches from the day. The work he was doing with Karst Loess was valuable, he really believed so. They would compose a treatise, perhaps even a monograph, on the topic. Perhaps it would be used in the training of new arborists. Perhaps it would even be circulated in the university cities, with the name of a respected fullkind scholar on it.
He was grateful to Karst Loess. And there were wonders in this city that he could not have imagined before visiting. But at the moment, looking out at the hazy lights of the city far below from within the branches of this marvelous not-tree, he only felt too high.