Previous chapters to the right.
Hopefully, this is the final chapter 8.
Tel Viv made several odd faces. She was wonderfully expressive, and she kept squinting and wrinkling her face, unsquinting and unwrinkling her eyes, and glaring at me like a new and unpleasant bug. I get that a lot, so she unintentionally put me at ease. Maybe it was intentional. I doubt it. She didn’t look someone executing a master plan. She looked like eaten something that upset her stomach.
“You’re a wheat merchant?” she demanded.
“I don’t handle it myself. I connect buyers and sellers,” I said.
She kept squinting. She needed a little more.
I continued. “The winter crop is already gone. I’m sure the Celephians have some in storage, but they’d fleece you. I can–”
Tel Viv interrupted, “You don’t know that!”
“That they have any in storage or that they’d fleece you?”
She squinted again. I could see her deciding if she really wanted to defend the Celephians against overcharging a customer.
“Let’s put that aside,” she said. “You’re not a wheat grower. Who do you know who is?”
“I won’t answer that directly, because you’ll try to go to my supplier and cut me out,” I replied. “But I did just show you a contract from the Truis.”
She sat back and crossed her arms. Her face closed.
I pushed. “The Truis won’t help you much because Citi Kageran observes the Maurite Prohibition. The Celephians don’t, but they’re difficult. They’re not the only exporters in Pallas, though. Who do you want to talk to?”
She exhaled, but I think she thawed a little. I pushed farther.
“What’s your timeline? Are people starving in the streets? The winter crop is growing, so most merchants will have found buyers already. The first summer crop is harvested around midsummer. Is that doable?”
She sighed again but definitely thawed. “By midsummer, you mean solstice?”
“Depends on where, but yeah.”
“I’m not under an executioner’s axe. Solstice would be fine. I could even push to autumn if the price was right.”
My knowledge of the wheat trade wasn’t too deep, but I had picked up a little. “Autumn is good. You can get a commitment cheaper that far out, but it’s risky. Weather, drought, dust-storms, bugs, anything could throw you off, but you save some money if everything works out in your favor, more if you pay up front.”
Tel Viv did a side-to-side nod. She didn’t like the thought but wasn’t reflexively arguing me. I smiled. We had a little connection.
“So you’re looking for something in summer or autumn?” I asked again, trying to get her talking.
She corrected me. “I’m looking for stable trading partners away from the Ashirai. I, we, are looking for bilateral relations.”
“Who did you used to trade with? Can you talk to them?”
“Because the Empire is leaning on its connections to cut our partners. They don’t want anyone to deal with us but them. Your contacts in Kageran won’t help. Citi Kageran is a small place, and once the Ashirai creeped in, they kept creeping. They’re like pythons, throwing one coil at a time over their prey.”
“They’ll deal with you themselves?” I asked. That sounded odd.
“Their terms are unacceptable.”
“What are their terms?”
I thought for a second. “Does it have to be wheat?”
She looked at me like she didn’t understand the question. “What?”
“Down south, away from the Ashirai, there’s a lot of rice.”
“You can’t make bread with rice.”
“They eat it straight.”
And we talked.
She wanted food. The people of Whitefire traditionally ate bread, so while she thought in terms of wheat and medium grains, she was willing to talk about rice. But as much as she wanted food, she wanted food not from Ashirak. The empire galled her. Her jaw clenched, and she scowled when she talked about them. She spoke in terms of deep grievances she wouldn’t clarify, old grudges she wouldn’t explain.
That’s unusual. People love telling me why they’re mad at other people.
She didn’t have as much time as she said. She needed something done, and she couldn’t do it herself. The Hierophant and other eparchs would be involved. But Eparch Tel Viv wanted to present a full plan by herself, and money wasn’t the biggest sticking point.
It was a sticking point. Money always was. But she was willing to pay to get someone talking to her.
She didn’t know it, but she was talking about Celephians. They cared nothing for Ashirai threats or pressure. Threatening Celephias across the seas was such a bad idea they enjoyed it. If the Ashirai threatened Celephias over trading with Karesh Ni, the Crystal City would have emissaries in Karesh Ni before the season turned. But the trade would be expensive.
Still, the Celephians wanted money, Tel Viv had some, they had wheat, Tel Viv wanted some, and things could be arranged. Tel Viv didn’t trust them either, and that put her in a bind.
No one should trust the Celephians, ever, about anything, but these were the players.
I needed time. My immediate contract was to find Kyria, and Tel Viv seemed pretty sure Kyria was dead. That would take some unravelling.
“Wherever you get it from, they’re going to have to bring it up here,” I said later. “And the stairs–” I hesitated.
“Can you find someone who will make the trek?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “I came here through the Hyades lake, and my boat, a little one, has probably floated away. I need a boat back,” I said. “Or I’m not finding anyone.”
Tel Viv went from smug to frowning. “What do you mean it floated away?”
I told her of the rowboat. I left out Alyssa.
Tel Viv looked less and less pleased as I spoke, and my short story was enough to put her in a foul mood. Perhaps it was just late.
She offered, “Why don’t you accept our hospitality for the night, and we can continue in the morning? Or later.”
She took me to lodging in the Sunset Basilica, this place, which was a dream come true. It had hot showers, flush toilets, and no bugs. I slept warm, dry, and clean like I hadn’t in years, and when I woke up, I had a horrible, terrible, probably blasphemous idea.
I hadn’t intended to be a spy. I came to Pallas to be a hero, a savior, and a champion of the world, and failed catastrophically. After all that ruin, I worked in a bank because it paid well. I’m okay with numbers but I don’t enjoy them, so I started out as a translator. Then I became a thief. Now I was here.
Remember how I feel about offices, and how no one gets it but me? Another little thing like that is languages. People don’t think you can learn a language in Pallas. If you’re Celephian and want to talk to someone from Ashirak, Celephians don’t believe they can learn. They think vocab, nouns, and verbs, are endowed upon them at birth and forever their domain, and theirs alone.
I don’t really understand what their grammar school is for, because all Celephians send their kids to it. If the language is a sign of their divine gifts, why send your kids to school? Shouldn’t infants be conjugating in the cradle?
Also, translators exist. After I arrived in Celephias years ago and learned their language was close enough to English to be speakable, I’d picked up Demseen, the language of the Ashirai too. It was hard. Demseen has a lot of irregular verbs with irregular tenses. But it’s just a language, so I learned it, got a job, and did soul-sucking translation for angry, overworked bosses. I hated them, they hated me, and I took a job in the goblin city of Invedeletch to get away.
In Invedeletch I ran a bipartite house for Celephians who manage an elvish way-house. It’s the only goblin city where foreigners are allowed. That means not only foreign goblins, but humans and elves. It’s the home of the Thunderblood clan, and Invedeletch- Invedeletch is a weird place.
The city’s under a hurricane, the Gath Mahore. Always. The Gath Mahore doesn’t go away but rotates about the Sevenfold Spires year in and out. The city’s on the Kahserach coast, where the mountains meet the sea. North is the Fhysay, the great water ocean of Pallas. It’s half the size of the Pacific but covers the north pole. The Kahserach isn’t that far north, but the Fhysay brings wind down from the arctic, and the currents that ring the pole bring cold water down year round. Further south, only a few hundred miles, beyond great mountains and deep waters, the rest of goblin territory is warm, often high desert, but the Fhysay coast is brutally cold.
Underneath the hurricane, it’s worse. There is no sunshine, and it only stops raining when the rain freezes. It’s the storm from which Thunderblood makes other thunderstorms, the ones goblins sail across the world. They spin little bits of storm off Gath Mahore.
It has endured since Nilo built the first stormcloud out of poetry, which probably meant a spell, but that was almost a thousand years go, a century after the fall of Whitehall to the army of Dread. Dread shattered the one goblin nation, and they were many small peoples until Nilo built the first storms to tie them together. Goblin traders on stormclouds go everywhere there are goblins, except Death Mountain, and the storms come from Gath Mahore over Invedeletch.
And I got used to it. I lived in Invedeletch for three years, and I got used to it. Goblins sail the high deserts on thunderstorms carrying wheat, fish, seal blubber, and seaweed, and it stopped being weird. Every now and then I’d stop and think, Goblins are on a stormcloud over my head. That is weird. But it was a dry, cognitive thought instead of a visceral one. I felt obligated to think about how weird it was so I didn’t take it for granted.
Humans and elves are allowed in as well as other goblins. We’re definitely second-class people, and our rights are subservient to goblins, but if I went to, say, Thra Koakha, a Tallfoot city on the Shaggeritarch coast, I would have no rights. If some goblin found me in the city, other goblins would have wondered why if he didn’t kill me. In Invedeletch the Thunderblood goblins live on top of the clouds, humans live underground the low with elves, and goblins of other clans liver wherever they can find a place. Those goblins are above us. They can take our places in line, our homes, push us to the side if the hallways are narrow, or kick us out of the way if we stand in doorways talking. If we don’t like it, we can leave. Thunderblood thinks we should be happy to come into Invedeletch at all, the only city of goblins that tolerates lower beings. In the bipartite home, we humans and elves stayed together and made bothering us too much trouble for goblins.
We lived in caves and mines. The fires and magmas of the mountain had receded, but the earth remained warm. Folds in the old mountain were still shot through with lava tubes, and by opening shafts uphill, we could syphon rainwater down into our houses. Used water vented into chosen wadis like sewers. Every house had a little one-story shack above ground, little more than an entryway and door, but ours had nine floors underground, stacked on top of each other. The highest buried floor was for entry and exit, the next two for elvish purposes, then came five for human beings, and finally one for deep storage. The port and volcano shared a slowly expanding web of tunnels and covered walkways, expanded piecemeal as people built homes.
There I learned Klime and Isari, what humans call Low Elvish and High, but elves call Moonlit and Day. They all speak Klime until they’ve gone to the Solange, when they switch to Isari. Imagine making the Hajj, but instead of gaining a honorific, you switch languages. You can understand one from the other, but an elf from the Solange would only speak Klime to a lesser elf. Klime has an ‘I’m better than you’ case.
Elves don’t have a problem teaching other people elvish. Elves are mildly perplexed why we don’t speak elvish already, and they wonder what’s the slow-down. They’re too polite to say anything, but they wonder. Thannius Al Fir once asked me why Celephians speak Celephian at all when Klime exists, and that’s a really weird question to answer. I learned Klime and spoke it for a year without really understanding the difference until in passing I mentioned my ship from Celephias to Invedeletch had made a port-call in the Solange for resupply. It was like they learned I’d visited Heaven. I had to learn Isari straight out, and suddenly I was brunching with elven lords and ladies.
I liked living in Invedeletch but not the city. There was an exciting but tiring element of danger to it, a sense of possessing secret lore. I learned goblin tongues, Whitehall, Throathurter, and Stonefoot, and no goblin I’ve ever met knows any human. I would overhear their conversations because they don’t pay attention to humans, especially not normal-sized ones, and steal away will secrets and rumors. Most I shared with the Celephians who ran the house or the elves who paid them to run it, but one day I heard that four of the ancient relics of Whitehall were being moved. I decided to steal them.
How to say this? I didn’t mind goblins, and I didn’t get upset when they shoved me in the caves or cut in line. But when I had the opportunity to do them harm and take something of theirs they treasured, I did. I didn’t think twice. I’d learned about them. I’d learned they don’t see well in contrast, bright light to dim. Lightning does not harm them, and they describe being struck by lightning as like warm water in a bubbling spring. They live longer than us, for centuries sometimes, and their grudges grow with them. They’ve carried axes against Dread for the sack of Whitehall for more than a thousand years, and they still hold it personally. They don’t like humans because Dread was a human, and so the sack of Whitehall (which happened more than a thousand years ago!) is our living fault. They’ll knock packages out of your hands, kick dirt in your food, and trip you on the stairs in revenge for ancient Dread’s attack. And the relics of Whitehall are great treasures to a past that humans denied them. So when two goblins spoke of relics after taking my spot in line for water, I decided, I’m going to take your stuff.
So I did.
Fabled swords: the Ending, the West Wind, the Blackwing, and the King’s Blade, goblins had forged them from lightning in the forges where the Clockwork Gods had made the world. The blades crackled. At rest, they glittered and shone, but when they were moved, they leaped like lightning. They arced to steel swords and killed the wielders. They burned weapons of wood. Their goblin wielders had thought themselves invincible at Whitehall with blades of lightning.
Dread had used archers. The goblins had gotten a few. Dread had had legions of archers.
To touch a lightning sword was death, so I wrapped them in rubber, wrapped that in fur for silence, and put out the lights in their Temple of Luminance. It is a great cathedral in Invedeletch in the heart-chamber of the ancient volcano. Where once magma bubbled and boiled, Thunderblood goblins have built a church of light. Candles burn in sconces, torches hang on the walls, brazziers burn charcoal, and oil-wicks hang from platters. It is endlessly bright, so I created dark places where no goblin could see.
They just can’t see contrast. They can’t go from dark to light or vice versa, and the Temple of Luminance was supposed to be all light, all the time. I arranged a distraction, put out some lights, ran in, stole the artifacts that make them a people, and ran out. Someone chased me. I kinda stabbed him a little bit. By then they were looking for me, so I couldn’t go back to the home where I’d been staying. I went up.
From the magma tubes and delved corridors under the mountain, where I had lived, I climbed through the high shafts. At the peak of the old volcano seven ring dikes rise in the eye of the storm, tall walls of black stone that curve on themselves. The walls are obsidian and yet impregnated with gems, so to walk on the summit of Invedeletch is to walk among walls of sky, and outside the dikes swirl the Gath Mahore, a seething boil of gray clouds, striking lightning, and endless rain.
High goblins, Thunderblood-clan goblins themselves, built their city on the top of the hurricane. Their towers rise and fall with the seething clouds. Cables and ropes connected them, attached to pulleys and clockwork. When the hurricane draws two castles apart, the storm winds cranks and pumps their water. When the storm drives the houses together, gears harvest the energy to mill their wheat. When lightning strikes a cable, gear, or tower, it leaps to special crystals in their houses to shed light, reflected, refracted, and controlled to be long, low glows instead of sudden bright flashes. The true city of Invedeletch is on those clouds.
But goblins carry stones up here, brass gears, and pallets of food. They do something to the cloud, something they learned from Nilo after the breaking of Whitehall, and the storms are thick enough to walk on. Standing on the hurricane felt like standing on a floating dock in a rough sea, for the floors moved underfoot but I never fell through.
The southernmost goblin city, Bloodharvest, had been Whitehall. Now, then, it was a prison. Once a year, at midsummer, a cloud sailed from Invedeletch to fallen Whitehall in the middle of the Arsae, the tree-ocean of Pallas. It wasn’t where I wanted to go, but the cloud was leaving when I wanted to leave. I stowed away, left at Bloodharvest, and wandered through the woods and the wilds until I returned to human places.
That wasn’t a story. I walked for miles, starved, got bitten by bugs, and chased by coyotes. It was cold, wet, and I nearly died of dysentery. Alone in the woods, that may have been the worst death I’ve come close to. But luck, fate, or whomever saw fit to deliver me to a small village on the south coast of Temerraine. Its name was Holist, and there humans fished the seas near sunken Meom. They put me on a ship to Celephias, and I never saw the place again.
I found out goblins had searched the bipartite house. They’d showed up, kicked down some doors, harassed everyone, and searched the place without saying why. They did that every few years. When I’d never come back, my old housemates had assumed something bad had happened to me, and that happened every few years too. I felt better knowing I hadn’t caused them any unique trouble.
Once in Celephias I started looking for buyers for ancient, priceless, goblin artifacts, and instead, a stranger wearing yellow robes hired me to return to Bloodharvest. He’d paid me in ‘never work again’ money, which with the ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ exchange rates meant I had to work again in a year and a half.
That had been a great year and a half. Then I was broke.
So I’d gone back to the Solange, spoken Isari to the elves, taken a contract payable in wheat options to rescue Prince Aehr from Bloodharvest, and the whole situation had been so strange, the elves so desperate, they’d never asked if I had any idea what I was doing.
I had none.
I was no spy. I didn’t know anything about combat or money laundering, and sooner or later, someone was going to figure out I was faking everything. I just paid attention to goblins when I lived there, and no one else did. I listened to the elves, and they thought that meant something. Even Alyssa thought I knew what I was doing, and sooner or later, she was going to figure it out. They all would. I had never met anyone from Whitefire, so I couldn’t listen. I didn’t know anything.
After a long, deep sleep, I woke to the smell of breakfast. A covered tray had appeared by the door, and I are it while it was hot.
My idea terrible idea percolated. It grew in my head.
After breakfast, I sent word to Tel Viv, and said it was important. She met me after lunch but acted like she’d hurried.
“Yes?” she asked. “You said you had something?”
“Have you considered goblins?” I asked.