This story © Keenan Cross 2023
Among Rouan Hai’s paid servants is a healer, who sees to my wounded arm when I return through the sewers. A tall and taciturn crowfolk, they have dealt with many wounds to my fragile skin in my year with the vennsh. I remove my peacoat and undercoat and vest, and the crow cuts away the sleeve from my shirt, which they then must peel away from my arm in soaked strips. Much of my upper arm has been flayed, flaps of skin crumpled over exposed muscle. My blood is nearly black, and other fluids give the appearance of infection. In the past the crow has gagged at the sight, but they are used to me now. They clean the arm, trim away the ragged dead flesh, apply a thick poultice and wrap it with tight linen. It is stiff and numb. Soon it will ache. And itch.
Throughout this process, I can hear my owner’s voice from the main chamber.
“Where is my scribe?” it demands, playfully but impatiently. “I must know what was said!”
My arm is not all the attention I need; I was cut under the spectacles somehow, where there would normally be an eye, my hooves are badly scraped and that has exacerbated the swelling in my my hips and ankles. I do not reveal any of this to the healer, though. What can wait must, until after I have spoken with Rouan Hai.
I stand and, as I gird myself for the smell, the crow touches a finger to their beak, a sign for me to wait a moment.
“There is some news,” they say. They speak with a thin Ontundran accent, slightly alternating vowels between words. “A fellow I studied with treated someone with fits like you described.”
I take a sharp breath in at the news, but I cannot address it now. I thank the healer quietly and must then address my duties.
My report does not much perturb Rouan Hai, though the vennsh is somewhat indignant at the abuse I received. It does not worry that its argument went unheeded. The university will know, it insists, what of import was said. It will have been transcribed, after all, and the transcription will be distributed. Perhaps today the focus is erroneously upon the words being delivered by a demihuman, but in due time the entire university will give the words the consideration they deserve.
I reiterate my suggestion that my owner should employ respected professionals for such public-facing exploits, and Rouan Hai agrees vaguely, but it has already dreamily moved on to other thoughts.
I meet with the healer in their chambers in the night, when the Lord Professor Advocate has finished with its day’s work. They greet me with the heel of their hand on their forehead, an Ontundran sign.
“Your arm?” they ask.
They touch the backs of two fingers to the same spot. Apology or regret, I suspect, or sympathy. Hours past the injury, and after more hours using the arm to type (“Nonsense,” Rouan Hai insisted. “Your fingers will do just fine.”), I feel as though the limb is gone, and my shoulder chained to a slab of misshapen lead.
The healer’s quarters are well-appointed, as best as could be expected within the sewer complex. Smoothly plastered walls the color of cream, a floor of dark wood, a soft mattress and a respectable shelf of books. A thick, translucent ooze smeared into a top corner, something developed in university laboratories, aspirates and metabolizes the sewer and vennsh odors. I lower myself to the mattress, and the crow sits beside me.
“I received word from one who is a nurse as well,” the crow says, in clumsy Esor Asel. They open one of several trunks stacked by the mattress, and select from the jars inside. “She says her patient could not be quiet. He spoke and spoke, he wrote plans and ideas she could not read, he tried to tell her things and he made no sense. She had to make him stay a full night until he calmed, and then he became very quiet and would not talk.”
They clean the single talon they keep sharp and drive it into the flesh above the bandage on my arm, then soak a rag in the contents of a jar and press it to the new wound. The solution seems bitingly cold where it runs down. It is not long, though, before the sensation in my arm begins to weaken altogether.
“That does sound like him,” I confirm. I stumble on a word and have to start over. As the pulsing heaviness of my arm slips into unpleasant numbness, I breathe the uncharacteristically clean air and touch a hand to my spectacles. I wait a moment, in case the crow objects to my removing them, and then slip them into my shirt pocket. “Mursat is tall, ruddy…full-human. He is from Hilland.”
The healer wipes the excess solution from my hand.
“This was an easterner. Full-human, from a place where they are somewhat green.”
I had not hoped that the healer had really discovered my treacherous partner back in Has Asel. The confirmation that they had not, though, was still disappointing. Blind, there is nothing to prevent the image to replay itself before me, of the moment Mursat turned to me, my papers in hand, muttered parting words I heard but have never remembered, took my spectacles from me and shoved me to the ground outside the checkpoint at the city’s gate. The moment I ceased to be free. He had taken the spectacles with him, and had looked at them often in the next few days—I know, because I still received a faint impression of what they beheld—but had, with some small mercy, returned them to me where I sat wretchedly on the street, before abandoning me completely. I see his smooth and roundish face in my memory, as he studied the black stones with guilt in his eyes. Not unlike when we had lain together on our travels, sharing a bedroll when the nights were cold, even though I could offer him nothing.
The pad of a taloned finger touches my face, near the cut above my cheek. Two brush across my forehead, smoothing loose hairs. My back becomes rigid. The fingers stray below my brow, and while there is no eye there to harm, not even a recess between cheekbone and brow, I flinch. The crow respectfully returns their hand to my forehead—maybe they make another Ontundran sign—moves it to the side to cradle my head. I cannot think of why the crow wishes to show me gentleness. I know the texture of the flesh they feel, I know the deepening lines in it. Still, I cannot help but relax my neck and let the hand take some of the weight. I wish to scream. I wish also to be silent.
In the pursuing days, my owner allows me some care. It sends more messages by birdling imprint than by letter, orders me bathed and rested. My hair is trimmed and my hooves filed, poultice on my arm changed as the skin beneath it regrows. I endure it, despite how much I must be touched, because I sense it is a manner of apology on Rouan Hai’s part. I have a new shirt, and with it a new armband, which bears Rouan Hai’s seal more elaborately embroidered than on the previous.
“You are an assemblage of twigs,” the vennsh says with as much of a smile as it ever bears, when a pair of other slaves bring me to it to show how well I have been cleaned. “But now you are twigs that have fallen into the home of a tailor.”
I thank it perfunctorily, and it smiles a moment longer, before lapsing back into melancholy. I then transcribe its thoughts on the plight of the Lay commoners who could not possibly be helped by the strangely abstract new calendar proposed by another professor. Twigs in a fine shirt I may be, but I do appreciate the vennsh’s concern.
It is while Rouan Hai is ruminating aloud on this topic that two messengers arrive. One I know, the demihuman who delivered the call to present its objections to Minark’s decision. The other I cannot say, but I am sure had come through before.
“I will hear you both,” Rouan Hai sighs, as though anticipating being pressed. It sits upright in its tub, hands restlessly folded over its chest, the only place they can meet.
The less familiar of the messengers is full-human, shifty and nervous. He places a sheaf of papers on my desk tentatively, eyes passing from me to the vennsh and back.
“I’m to inform you that the Lord Professor Administer Coparis seeks restitution,” he says. He is very young, I realize, and in awe at the size of the froglike professor before him. It is an impressive, and unnerving, sight, I agree. “For an offense against his underling.”
“Hmmmm,” Rouan Hai grumbles, with a mix of impatience, disdain, and sadness. It glanced sideways at the papers now before me.
The Lord Professor Administrator Coparis is the supervisor of the clerk who tore my armband following the hearing. His underling faces a significant crime for damaging a professor’s property. Coparis wishes me punished, for having caused the clerk to be inconvenienced.
I relay this to my owner. Rouan Hai is quiet for a long time, rage bubbling beneath its skin.
“I am owed favors by Coparis,” it says after some thought. “Return to your employer and tell him that I will chastise my slave verbally, and he will be content with that because I ask it. There is no need to be tally our remaining favors, I will send to a bookkeeper to adjust them. Tell him also that I am offended.”
The messenger stammers something affirmative and takes his leave. My arm throbs when I consider what forms of punishment the other professor may demand against me. I will consider the situation itself when I have the time to.
As that messenger leaves, the other steps forward. She studies me surreptitiously through her slit eyes, but her business is with Rouan Hai.
“I have a message from the Steward of Measurements,” she announces. I suspect that her armband bears the seal of that office. “He says that you are to be disciplined for your surrogate’s behavior.”
“I shall send a professional in the future,” Rouan Hai waves a tiny hand dismissively.
“—and that your criticisms of the committee’s findings have been heard. You are to debate with Lord Professor Minark. Yourself. Before the public.”
Nonplused, Rouan Hai searches for words, eyes unfocused. It has not left its tub in my year under it, and likely very rarely before.
“If that is the wish of the Steward,” it fumbles.
The messenger produces her own scroll to deliver. Presumably she had a second with different instructions, should the vennsh have argued.
“It has been arranged already,” she says.
When the scroll is in my hands she pulls away and leaves stiffly. Her eyes are her only visible demiformity; I suspect mine make her deeply uncomfortable.
I read the scroll to my owner. The Steward dictates a date and time (eschewing any mention of the year, by any standard) and makes it clear that Rouan Hai is bound to it. There is no provision for transportation, though it is noted at least that the hall will be misted.
In a storeroom in the depths of Rouan Hai’s complex, the vennsh does own a sedan. So old and disused that it is likely more efficient to purchase a new one than to restore it. Nevertheless, my owner sends me to investigate the sedan, and have it carried to the main chamber.
The entire staff, both slave and free, would be insufficient to shift Rouan Hai’s bulk onto the brass and faux-lapis cushion, let alone bear it to the citadel. Rouan Hai weighs easily sixteen times a heavy human. It’s legs have withered so that there is no evidence it ever had them; such is the way many vennsh age. Its arms can bear no weight to help either. When the household slaves have repaired the sedan, the professor will need to bring on a whole new contingent to carry it. Moths, I suggest, for their size and sturdiness. To my surprise, it does so.
There is much to prepare. My owner has a sonorous voice, and once held frequent seminars for students willing to sit in its lair, but that time is long gone. It orders me to read its notes again and again, hundreds of typed pages. Reports of Minark’s proceedings, as well, and the documents those cite. Rouan Hai knows all of these, they are all in its capacious head, but hearing them aloud (however haltingly read) serves some other purpose in its preparations.
There are several days, though not many, to prepare. Rouan Hai becomes glum, and, surprisingly, quiet. It tries now and then to ruminate on another topic, but never dictates more than a half a page before demanding that what I typed be burned and returning to the matter of years. I accumulate a stack of rambling false starts in my quarters, that I may find time to destroy or may not.
For all of Rouan Hai’s pensiveness, its worries leave me with more time to reconstruct the memoir. An hour or more inching into the evening and sometimes the morning, in addition to my typical nighttime freedom. A few days of this, and I realize that I have badly misremembered a key detail, and must retype a large portion to fix it. I do not start this work, but sleep more than I normally would.
At nights I wish that I could call Mursat’s name, and have him return. I beat him no forgiveness, no. But he has my original memoir. And I see his face often when I remove my spectacles. When I wrap them in linen so they do not continue to show me what they view while I am not wearing them. In those times, my former partner’s face will not cease to intrude on me. I am disturbed that my first reaction to it is comfort.
I come to the healer sometimes, under the pretense of monitoring the healing of my arm. (That is slow, because I always heal slowly, even when not immersed in a vennsh’s swamplike miasma.) I never ask it of them expressly, but they caress and they hold me. Nor do I offer anything in return. Whatever comfort there is, it is marred by the constant worry that they will ask something of me. To do the same, or more. And whenever I depart, I can think only how absurd it is that they should desire my presence at all.
I tell the healer a little, about the fungus below Goldenhill and its memoirs, about my attempt to trace its life back beyond the short time it remembered, with Mursat’s help. They listen quietly and do not say much. I cannot say if they find my story boring but are being polite, or if it touches on something sensitive to a native of Ontundra. If it is enlightening to know why I ask for word of anyone who might be Mursat, the crow does not show it. They talk sometimes when we lay together, but lapse into their mother tongue, and I cannot understand.
Rouan Hai says to me, after a pause while we work:
“You will be cared for. You needn’t worry about that, if anything befalls me. I have taken precautions to ensure that you will either be freed or transferred to a good patron.”
It unnerves me to know that this contingency is on the vennsh’s mind at all. I remain quiet, though I know well that it expects an expression of gratitude. I only await its next statement on the tyranny of unnumbered years.
When it comes time for Rouan Hai to attend the symposium, the team of lepidopteran sedan bearers has to transfer it from its tub into the bowl-shaped sedan chair. I am deeply perturbed to see several moths in one place, as it reminds me of my two decades living among them, and incidents I don’t care to recount. The moths are not strong so much as they are supremely poised, innately primed to employ lines of pressure and subtle pivot points to achieve what would take far more muscle to do. It still takes all eight of them to lift the vennsh: its great, wobbly bulk shifts and drips in their grip like an egg yolk. Once transferred, it demands to be left alone, skin turning a mottled brown in embarrassment.
I refuse to walk ahead, after my previous trip to the university, but Rouan Hai is now in no mood to humor me. It rests its head against its seat and stares beyond the ceiling, wide mouth set, and insists that I do as told. I bite my tongue and slink out of sight. I have forgotten myself.
A vennsh traveling is an event of the kind that draws gawkers and gossips. Most vennsh never leave their lair once they choose it as a pollywog, and though the land surrounding Has Asel boasts the most dense population of them in the world, they are still rarely seen. Rouan Hai’s sedan, on the shoulders of eight three-pace-tall moths, is like a landborne barge breaking through the daily foot traffic from the gate all the way to the citadel. In front of it, along with a small contingent of attendants and other staff, I sense what feels like thousands of eyes upon it, and upon me. The gaze is like hands reaching, and there is a malevolence to it. Not in every gaze, but all together they accumulate and transmit some evil. I want to shout at them to turn away and let the professor move in peace. That would be the most foolish response I could make.
The moths bear Rouan Hai to the citadel. Red and dense, with its winding paths and parapets, it feels at least large enough to contain the vennsh, where the city below felt cramped and miniature. We are less watched, but I still clutch at my armband, as though it may be torn away again it I am not vigilant.
The symposium is held in an amphitheater deep within the citadel. As promised it is warm and the air is fogged. A mercy for the vennsh, who is parched from these few hours’ transit. Condensation builds on my spectacles, and my undershirt becomes uncomfortable. Many attendees, university, lay, and even maritime, have already taken their places when we arrive. The Steward of this citadel sits in an elevated block, not to be addressed. His thick black beard is a distraction wherever I look, forcing me to meet his sharp and disapproving glare. Minark is already here, and prepared.
The team of moths sets Rouan Hai’s sedan on a dais in the center of the amphitheater, disassemble the sedan, and retreat. The Lord Professor Advocate is suddenly poised and confident, surprisingly unperturbed by its unaccustomed surrounds, let alone the hundreds of faces looking on. I am reminded that it is an old professional in this field, even if its species forces it to engage differently.
The speaker who oversaw my hearing has the same role here. Trailing a coat of even more brilliant blue, he stands below the Steward and announces the debate to the viewers. Rouan Hai’s objection to the proceedings of the Committee on the Measure of Years [[[make sure that name is consistent]]] raises such concerns that the Steward sees it necessary to allow both to present their views to the public—and so forth.
I am only glad not to be involved, even if I must be present. I still see eyes focused on me among the audience.
The Lord Professor Minark states the premise of the debate, his voice bolstered by an audiomage:
“My committee is a part of the University’s ongoing project to smooth the jagged and irregular language with which we state measures, to construct a new tongue that is consistent, that works synergistically with the research that speaks it, and that does glory to Has Asel and its king. For my part, I assembled my committee from scholars of history and numbers, all recognized by our King and therefore foremost in all the world.
“Our determination was thus: it is necessary to number years. There are many systems by which to do so; we have decided that Has Asel should adopt a standard wherein several key events are set as anchor points, the relative years between them commonly known, so that any event can be pinpointed by its relation to one of those dates. Most industries use this system already.
“The Lord Professor Advocate Rouan Hai has strong feelings on the matter. Very strong feelings.”
Minark is not an unkind man, nor is he smug. But he does not suffer fools, and he looks to his superiors to name them. He swaggers when he addresses the audience, and when he must stop and listen he leans to this side or that, smile strained with impatience.
The Steward is already bored. He leans on one elbow and raises his cloth fan, signaling that the other may speak now.
Rouan Hai cannot pace the floor as it talks, the way Minark does. It has the advantage, though, of an immense size that makes it more visible and its voice more audible. It speaks with deliberate elocution I rarely hear, hands gesticulating broadly but gently.
“Lord Professor Minark’s proposal is not without merit,” it opens graciously. “But my objections are still many. Consider, foremost, the ramifications of an official system such as the Lord Professor describes. For one, the reference dates are all past. Should we say, ‘the death of King Adayyu occurred six hundred and thirty years prior to the unification of the University, and one hundred and fifteen years after the opening of the canals,’ that is functional.
“Suppose, however, that the most recent reference date is decided as the Fall of Machinism—which it certainly must be. Every subsequent event will be necessarily referred to as ‘ten years after the Fall,’ ‘sixty years after the Fall.’ Until, presumably, something so momentous happens that it must be a new reference date. Essentially a new beginning to our calendar.”
I wince, both at how dangerous the coming point is, and at how much more easily and effectively my owner states its objections than I had. The latter concern I must forgive myself, but the former hangs over me.
“Suppose a future king subjugates Esor. The king—rightly—declares this day so momentous that it must be celebrated in every way. One such way is to create a new reference date. Henceforth every future event is ‘three years after the conquest of Esor,’ ‘ninety years after the conquest of Esor.’
“Suppose, further, that a professor makes a significant discovery in their field, a revolutionary one. That professor requests a celebration of their discovery, and has the resources to see it done. Only one year after the conquest of Esor, another new reference date is set. Every year following is ‘so many years after this discovery.’
“There are many professors, many lords, many tycoons in our city. For all of them, the most coveted treasure is the naming of a reference date. They also have ancestors whose deeds must be respected; powerful people will request that the past be peppered with their dates as well.
“For this reason, and others, I have proposed that Has Asel follow a practice used by ancients in many parts of the world, of setting only one single immutable reference date. All events shall be named as ‘so many years prior to the Fall,’ and ‘so many years following the Fall.’
“You will see that this method is not only more orderly, but egalitarian as well.”
I cannot judge the audience’s response, dampened as it is. I am seated on the amphitheater’s lowest ring, opposite the Steward and surrounded by Rouan Hai’s other staff and attendants. All of us are completely quiet.
The fan comes up again: Minark may speak.
“This is cataclysmic thinking,” the Lord Professor says, not without compassion for his opponent’s worry. “And it is predicated on cynical notions regarding the demeanor of our city’s gentry. As I have said, this system is in place among most industries, and in city-states across the world. Though barbaric, those foreign lands are not embroiled in a chaos of constantly reset calendars. In time, they will even adjust their dates to reflect the ones we decide upon, as they will naturally be more significant ones.”
I can see a brightening in the room, whenever Minark mentions Has Asel’s ascendancy. Rouan Hai must certainly notice this too. It is clearly key to their favor.
The Steward raises his fan, but then, with a slight shrug, turns it to its red side, allowing the combatants to reply to one another freely.
“What date can be more significant,” Rouan Hai takes the opportunity. “Than the death of the World Heart?”
“That will be one of the dates we select,” Minark puts his hands on his hips and faces the vennsh, cheating out to the bulk of the audience.
“So significant, in fact, that you need no other. Any other dates are superfluous.”
“They exist for clarity.”
“Is it not especially clear to require memorization only of one relative point? Two other events are no different in distance from one another if both measured from
the same referent than if measured from two.”
Minark takes a few strides and shakes out his shoulder-length hair, as though buying time for himself. I groan to myself, seeing: Minark knows what Rouan Hai will say next, and wants to goad it into saying it thoughtlessly by seeming off-center.
“The extra dates impose an artificial esotericism on the simple knowledge of time,” Rouan Hai stumbles into the trap, its language more measured than I would have feared, but its point sure to be unpopular. “They speak to a hope that only the University-educated will understand the calendar enough to know history.”
“Is there something wrong with University-educated leadership?”
Rouan Hai takes too long to answer.
“You are hoping that the lay, and outsiders, and the poor will be beholden to the University to know their own history. It is abusive to them.”
I turn away, because I cannot remove my spectacles. My owner is no model of circumspection but this is frightfully reckless.
Minark gives a look—maybe feigned, maybe not—of shock at the accusation. He turns away for a moment, as though to look away from his accuser but really to ensure that the audience sees his dismay.
“Abusive to them?” Minark turns back. “How, in this matter, can I abuse the lay? My object is only to codify an efficient and consistent measure for dates. The lay, outsiders, and the poor—they are colleagues of the University, just as you and I are colleagues to each other. They will benefit from our standards in the same way we will. I am doing nothing to abuse them.”
It is a shrewd response. Minark is centering the blame upon himself, so that if Rouan Hai wishes to clarify, it will have to be clear that it accuses the University as a whole.
“That was hasty language on my part,” Rouan Hai backtracks. “I mean merely that we should not overlook the efficiency and ease of a single fixed date.”
In saying so, the vennsh has conceded ground. Efficiency was a favorite of the previous king, but Has Asel’s current ruler is more concerned with the romantic glamor of scholarship. Most listeners will appeal to the king when they weigh in, and they will note that Minark’s system offers opportunities for scholastic flourishes.
Moreover, they have already heard Rouan Hai impugn the city. Whether or not they take offense at that, they will anticipate that the king would.
Satisfied with the discord sown by the red phase, the Steward turns his fan back to the blue, tilted toward Rouan Hai. My owner is flustered, and calls for its attendants to come and pour water over it, despite the already humidified air. Those seated near me scramble; I am fortunately allowed to sit still and keep my breath.
The rest of the debate continues as such. The vennsh addresses its other complaints, clearly and at length. It does not stumbles again, even when the Steward turns his fan to the red. It and Minark comport themselves well. When the Steward closes the debate, the speaker announces that it will be followed with a plebiscite, whose results will be brought to the king.
Minark is cordial and sincere when they part. He gives Rouan Hai a respectful half-bow, and a smile up at the towering, grimacing face. The vennsh attempts similar respect, but is too exhausted, dry, and uncomfortable to offer more than an almost dismissive wave of one hand.
Transferring Rouan Hai back to its sedan is a long process. Minark approaches me while I am forced to wait.
“Your master feels very strongly on this matter,” the Lord Professor says.
There is something in his voice and in his look that I cannot name. It might be concern. I can say nothing before he moves along.