1. The Silkers
The sky was the color of moldy cheese. A upside-down, frothy swamp hanging so oppressively low, some of the decaying towers pricked its purulent belly.
Geo always felt sick after looking at the sky, but he inevitably looked every time he observed the Golden Tower, or the Silkers Tower, as people called it. The only high-rise structure in the city still in use. All the other high-rises had been abandoned long ago, after entire floors collapsed with the tenants inside. They rose, derelict, their windows clotted, in a ghostly jungle. The Silkers Tower, though…it supposedly had been consolidated and adapted to the new conditions. The golden structure gleamed like the only source of light in a city of eternal mist and green reflections.
Geo breathed deeply a few times to calm himself. The unwholesome effluvia of corroding bodies coiled through the air. He shut his eyes and ignored the fetid damp creeping through the rebreather. Then he looked around and felt a pleasant thrill, an ever-present fear, and lust, all at once in a bubbling, poisonous mixture. Lately, that had been the marinade his brain floated in.
He was part of the Silkers procession that had traversed the city from its port to their Golden Tower. Ninety Silkers soldiers had disembarked and took to the streets of the city to be next to their brothers in the most celebrated event of the year—the Water Passage.
The people of the city filled the streets, eager to glimpse the glorious army. And Geo was at its head, in the lead. Next to Prince Boris and his court, surrounded by Boris’s elite guard of Luna Warriors, atop the royal wheeled platform of rust-red water-silk.
He was thrilled to be in such dangerous company. He lusted for the kind of attention this display of power attracted. And the fear was ever-present, fear of the Silkers’ reality and their way of life, their values and ever-shifting interests. Fear that today he was at the center of their attention and tomorrow he might wake up discarded. Fear of what being part of the Silker Court implied and what not being part of it meant for Geo’s clan.
The mayor and his Blue Officers watched the passing procession from the central balcony of the City Hall. It was supposed to show the people that the procession was for him, for the ruler of the city. But Geo knew that in reality it meant that the mayor was not invited to be part of the procession and was not invited to watch the Water Passage Ritual, as he, Geo, was. Geo, the prince’s special guest. Last year Nimesh of the Bones Clan, who had mysteriously vanished; this year, Geo. Prince Boris’s special guests and friends. The Silkers’ ever-shifting political interests.
The City Hall was a two-storey building lined with waves and waves of mortar to keep it from collapsing under the continuous attack of the water. It looked like a thick, monstrous candle, the wax melted in ripples from years of burning. Its balcony was the only thing moved forward so it remained on the outside, overlooking the Mayor’s Square and the Golden Tower. Prince Boris said that they had decided to rehabilitate the Golden Tower as a sign of respect for the City Hall. But Woodman the Elder, Geo’s grandfather and the leader of his people, had a different opinion on the matter—that Prince Boris wanted to rub the mayor’s face in the fact that they had the knowledge to actually convert an old structure to survive the vicissitudes of their times. And that the Golden Tower of the Silkers looked a thousand times more royal than the City Hall. And that all the people could see it, because the two buildings faced each other.
The procession stopped in front of the Golden Tower. The mayor waved formally and the prince nodded elegantly. The crowd gathered in the Mayor’s Square burst into cheers. The three detachments of the prince’s three armies took their places around the royal platform and waited. The Luna Warriors secured the tower’s entrance and took up position as a guard of honor.
Geo shuddered. He was about to enter the infamous tower for the first time. He was about to pull his clan into history. They were about to go public. Official. Known of. Dangerously exposed. Thrills and fear.
* * *
Lukas was a slim young man barely touched by corrosion. His face was disfigured by a deep gouge on his left cheek where he’d sandpapered the corroded flesh away before it could spread its roots. It had left a mark but the flesh was clean under the pale skin. He wore a curious thing around his neck—a silver cross on a silver chain. Curious because, as Geo knew, Christianity was a forgotten religion. After more than two thousand years, Christianity, along with several other old religions, had been suddenly and completely erased from existence.
Lukas’s voice was cheerful and his attitude a balance between respect and lightheartedness. He wore his Pupa insignia with pride. He was one of Prince Boris’s pups in training, ready to tear open the military school’s cocoon and spread his wings. A future Silker officer.
“Here you are, sir,” Lukas said and pulled away a curtain covering the entrance. The young man entered the room first and held the curtain aside for Geo. His smile widened and his skin flushed pink. Geo entered a room with blue-papered walls and glassless windows framed by golden curtains. A small empty basin, an intricately sculpted bone chair, and… Geo stopped and stared in confusion.
A feminine body was waiting on the edge of the bed, barely covered and flawless, all voluptuous curves. Geo gulped instinctively. Her skin stretched unblemished and luminous, not the slightest sign of corrosion. Her face was hidden behind a very distinctive black textile mask, eyes invisible under opaque chitinous lenses, yet her mouth was exposed, her full lips a shiny blood red.
“May I present to you Lady L, sir,” said Lukas.
A golden emblem shone on the forehead of her mask. Geo focused on that and tried to remember his lessons. Prince Boris had a complex system for the ladies of his court, consisting of three main orders.
The Chimaera Order was more legend than reality. Geo’s grandfather, Woodman the Elder, was of the opinion that they were the prince’s secret guard. Any one of his court ladies could be a Chimaera—a lethal warrior assassin ready to defend Boris, or kill at his order.
The Morpho Order was the prince’s intelligence bureau. No one had seen a Morpho and lived to tell of it. They worked undercover, spying, lying, infiltrating, spreading rumors—practically controlling the very reality of the world. Whatever reality they created through their cunning manipulations became the reality for all.
And finally, the Sun Glory Order, the members of which wore their emblem openly, were really the prince’s harem—his lovers, the mothers of his children, his advisors, his entertainers. Anything he imagined, they performed. Rumor claimed that their lovemaking was the stuff of magic. Their sex skills were supernatural. A night with one of them would haunt you forever.
“Lady L.” Geo recovered and inclined his head. “It’s a pleasure.”
“Of course it is.” Her lips smiled.
“If you need me, sir, I’ll be in Pupa Quarters, six floors up. Just tell the valet and he’ll fetch me.”
“Thanks, Lukas. Was there anything in my agenda that you forgot to mention?”
“No, sir, I told you everything. The valet will be here to pick you up at six for the Passage ceremony.”
“The valet, not you?”
“I’ll go through the ritual tonight, sir. We can meet again in two days, after I’ve completed the Passage. Only then I’ll be a Moth and we’ll have to be reintroduced.”
Lukas was grinning. A child. Not that Geo was much older, but sometimes it seemed that a couple of years made all the difference.
“I didn’t know,” said Geo. “I’m looking forward to meeting you as a Moth, young Pupa. Good luck to you!”
“Luck has nothing to do with it, sir. But thank you all the same. See you in two days. Lady,” Lukas inclined his head to the woman in Geo’s bed and left.
“So.” Geo looked again around the room and tried to swell his chest and look more imposing. “How can I help you, Lady L?”
“Not much, Mr. Ambassador,” said Lady L, her lips still smiling, red and voluptuous. She reclined on her elbows and exposed even more shining skin. Weird fragrances rose like heat from her body. Heavy smells, strange and delicious.
“How do you find Lady L, Geo?”
Prince Boris’s voice brought him back. He shivered and cleared his throat. “Boris?”
The prince laughed and slapped Geo’s back. “She’s something, isn’t she?”
One or two? thought Geo. One, minimum consequences.
“Yes,” Geo hurried to answer, hoping to put the subject to rest. He knew that Lady L was one of Boris’s Butterflies and while he was confused by her presence in his room, he wanted to show Boris respect and deference. He couldn’t spoil their relationship so close to signing a deal with the Silkers.
“Well, she’s your host in the Silkers Tower,” said Boris. “She’ll be with you day and night, sharing her experience and knowledge with you.”
“That’s a Silkers tradition and I’d be honored if you accepted, my friend.”
One or two? Deal with the consequences later.
“Of course I accept, Boris,” said Geo without hesitation.
“I hope you’ll be up to her standards.” The prince broke into a huge grin. He was a booming barrel of energy and appetite for life. “I’m joking.” He punched Geo on the shoulder.
Geo smiled. His visor plate was partially transparent, so unmasked people could see his face and feel that they were dealing with a human being and not a robot. He nodded and tried an even bigger smile, hoping it was visible to both Boris and Lady L.
“Or is he?” Lady L interjected.
Geo looked at her and hesitated.
The prince burst into explosive laughter. “I am, I am joking. But, my friend, life at court is very visible. There was a rumor that Nimesh Bones couldn’t quite satisfy his host. His, uh…his reputation—or more accurately the Bones Clan’s reputation—suffered immensely.”
Prince Boris left the room and his Luna Warriors grouped around him.
Geo avoided looking at Lady L. What had all that been about?
“Relax, Mr. Ambassador, nobody forces you to satisfy me. I’m your host. We establish the boundaries together.”
“That’s good.” Geo paced the room a bit to relax. Why was he so tense? Boris had proved to be nothing but a joyful, warm man. He turned to Lady L for elaboration.
“Yes, Nimesh’s host was Lady V. She’s quite the talker and she’s always kissed Boris’s ass.”
“Ah,” said Geo and sat on the bone chair. It was smooth and warm to the touch.
Lady L rose from the bed. She stepped closer, her opaque lenses fixed on his mask, her red lips parted slightly. The heavy fragrance that he’d sensed before was back again. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. It was intoxicating. He refrained from exhaling. From showing any sign of desire.
“I’ll be with you every moment, here or wherever your diplomatic mission might take you. Ask me anything.” She walked around him slowly, lightly touching his suit. “We’ll share this room while you’re the Silkers’ guest.”
She sighed a little bit and placed her palms on his shoulders. Geo saw her lips in his peripheral vision, close to his visor, her breath hot. Her scent found its way through his rebreather as if it weren’t there. He felt calm and relaxed.
“You can call me Lena, Mr. Ambassador.”
Geo sighed and realized only afterwards that he’d done so. He felt embarrassed, but still relaxed. She had that effect on him.
“What would you like me to do now, Mr. Ambassador?”
“Whatever you normally do,” he heard himself saying and tried to focus and remember what his plan had been for the day.
Lena flowed back around his chair and went to the bed. “I’d like to rest now, Mr. Ambassador.” She took off the cloth covering her breasts and threw it on the floor. Geo tried to look in a different direction, but she tsked and gently brought his head back around. “You needn’t worry. I like when people are looking at me.”
One or two? What would be one now? Geo stared at her dreamy breasts. She wasn’t his first…why kid himself? She was his second and definitely the first one to look so ravishing. Could this be real? Could this really be happening to him? One or…why waste time. Definitely one.
“What would you like me to do, Lena?”
The woman’s lips curved in a grin and her tongue slithered lazily over them. “What do you think, Mr. Ambassador?”
* * *
The Rain Hall was at least four levels below the Golden Tower. It was two floors high and spiked through with pillars—a stone forest with trees connecting the soil and the sky, dressed in luminescent green algae from the Ont Lake. Tatters of the famous gold silk, its undiluted threads that had made the Silkers empire, fluttered from the ceiling, spreading their musty aroma throughout the hall, imbuing people with dread and shivers. It was the silk of gods and monsters. It was the shield that protected the Silker warriors.
Bone logs were scattered among the stone trees. They were covered in moss and guarded by finely dressed Silker officers. Fat candles flickered, their flames shattering the darkness of the hall. The fragrance of melting wax mingled with the silk’s miasma.
Prince Boris dominated the scene from a bone throne placed on a dais covered in gold silk. Geo sat on his left, two heads lower, and next to him sat Lena. Next to Lena were two Silker commanders in full regalia. On the prince’s right were Commander Mort, the Luna Warriors commander, whom Geo had been introduced to earlier, and another commander who looked ancient and lethally corroded. He was a heavily sandpapered, shapeless lump of flesh with muscles like tightly knotted strings. His green eyes were the only things to possibly identify him as a human being. Geo knew the legend behind that lump of corroded flesh. Cephastix, the Antheraea Mare commander. The first sailor of the Gel Sea. The Kraken Killer. The Ghosts Puppeteer. The Dead Flesh Admiral. Geo avoided the Mare commander’s eyes.
Twenty-seven boys entered the hall, scarred skin on their naked chests. Still young enough to be barely touched by corrosion. How could they submit themselves to such a barbarian ritual, Geo had wondered ceaselessly since he’d received the invitation to the ceremony. He knew in theory what the whole thing entailed and would have skipped it gladly, but…his clan’s future depended on his so-called diplomacy. And diplomacy right now meant a strong stomach.
Prince Boris rose from his throne and the dim light in the hall grew even dimmer. A strange noise, a terrible, cruel sound filled the hall. Geo shivered and looked around in shock. He’d never heard it before and yet, it woke something inside him. As if it tapped an ancestral instinct, his skin under his envirosuit prickled, and icy fingers caressed his spine.
“Do you know what this is?” Boris’s voice was sinister and solemn.
“Yes,” whispered Geo. A tear rolled down his cheek inside his rebreather mask.
“Have you ever heard it before?”
“No,” he murmured and then said louder, “No.”
“Then how do you know?”
“It talks to me…”
“It. Talks. To. You.”
“It touches something inside me…”
“So, the Woodman Clan can feel it too. You’re not that different after all.”
“No, we’re not,” said Geo before he could think about it. It seemed the right thing to say.
“Can you say its name?”
“Rain!” shouted Boris.
“Rain,” all the commanders repeated in unison.
“RAIN!” The hall reverberated with the collective voice of every living being under its ceiling.
“Water!” said Boris.
“WATER!” echoed the Silkers, their voices like thunder.
All twenty-seven boys knelt next to the bone logs and stretched their left arms along their surfaces, resting them on the soft moss. The officers raised huge battle-axes. Their metal shone darkly under the luminescent algae. The gentle, fluid sound of rain soothed Geo’s heart.
The blades fell with a swish, like steel cutting through water. Severed arms rolled.
The rain stopped. Blood flowed down the logs. Water had turned to blood. Battle-axes rested. The Water Passage had taken its toll.
“Let’s celebrate!” said Boris, grinning. A weird light glinted in his eyes.
Geo swallowed back vomit. He could not allow himself to show weakness in front of the Silkers Court. He stared at the blood flowing freely and remembered the sound of the rain—the calm, soothing sensation of flowing liquid. It melded with the fragrance of melting wax, the flicker of candlelight. When Boris repeated, close to his mask, “Let’s celebrate,” Geo managed to smile.2. The Water Passage
Painted in crimson and black and carpeted with moss wool, the torchlit dining hall was cavernous, full of smoke and stone tables and chairs. The line of clan representatives coming to offer their congratulations for the Pupas who would soon join the Silkers army was long and macabre. They were dressed in their best, covering what was still their regular body and exposing their corrosion: deep gouges of raw flesh, sandpapered cavities, shapeless lumps of what had once been arms, legs, shoulders, or chests. They wore the damage as if it were a mark of pride, like soldiers displaying their battle scars.
Lady L named each representative for Geo: “Ian of the Bathurst Clan, 6 percent of the city’s territory, 340 strong; Hamid of the Transit Clan, owners of the transit rails, 1,022 strong…”
As a guest of honor, Geo dined at Boris’s table. Tonight the prince reigned from the wooden throne gifted by the Woodman Clan. To his right were Lady Y, princess of the week, and Boris’s four commanders; to his left sat Geo and Lady L, and the Silkers’ Horn and Wasp. Boris’s table was surrounded by two other curved tables populated by all his ladies and other court dignitaries that Geo had never seen. The guests sat at separate tables in the center of the hall, surrounding the round table of the mayor. All the people who counted in the city and therefore in the entire Ont Kingdom were there. And every one of them was staring at the wooden throne and whispering in awe. Not a single tree had survived the Black Rain Year anywhere in the kingdom. Wood was almost as expensive as gold silk.
More important to Geo, though, was that access to wood meant access to the most coveted resource of all—fresh, clean, liquid water. Now everyone knew that the Woodman Clan had it. Woodman the Elder had said that this reveal was a calculated risk. Well, in Geo’s assessment, this risk calculation had assessed Geo as zero value. As in if it worked, they made it into the good life; if it didn’t, then Geo was the only one they’d lose. The only aspect he couldn’t fit into any calculation was the danger of him exposing the clan’s location under torture. “He must really trust your mettle, little brother,” his brother, Alex, had said.
“Who are they?” Geo pointed to the four commanders. He knew they must be Boris’s commanders, but had never seen them at such a close distance before.
“Forget about them,” said Lady L.
“I’m a guest at the same table with them. I think it’s just polite to know their names and say hello.”
“If you get to say hello to them, it means you’re already dead. You cannot meet them. It’s Silkers etiquette, Mr. Ambassador.” Lady L pointed toward the other guests in the hall and for the first time Geo noticed that not one guest, absolutely no one, was looking straight at the commanders. They were all avoiding that part of the table as if there was a void and it didn’t exist.
“They, on the other hand,” —Boris grinned at him and indicated the two men sitting next to Geo— “you must meet, because you’re going to work with them from now on.”
The other two men were the Horn and the Wasp, two important people in the Silkers’ hierarchy, yet not as important and mysterious as the four commanders. Geo hadn’t met them personally but had crossed paths with them several times. Geo smiled, nodded to the prince, and turned to the two men.
“That’s Michael, the Silker Proboscis. He’s your contact for all your Silker affairs. Whatever you want or need, he’s there for you. Everything.” Boris almost spelled out the last word. “And,” he cut in before Geo could greet the Horn, “people call him the Horn. He hates it. Could you guess why?”
Oh, shit! Geo could barely restrain his surprise. “Never assume anything.” It had been one of the first lessons his grandfather had taught him. “Always stay back and listen first, think it through, and then talk.” Well, the math behind all this was too complicated and the people around him were waiting for his answer now, not a minute later.
“I presume because a proboscis is a silent part of the moth and has a very specific function, and that is not to make music like a horn.”
“What did I tell you?” laughed Boris with satisfaction. “Our man Geo is a well-read man. He is definitely not a Nimesh.”
Everyone at the table laughed as if sharing an inside joke. Again with Nimesh, the vanished favorite from last year. Geo could only grin a bit wider, just to show that he shared their mirth, if not their joke.