Towards the beginning of summer, a crime discovered in our City of the Wall led to a second. I was complicit in this–it troubled me very much then. The after years have at least taught me that many things we give so much importance, become important indeed, but not as we imagine. Powers work through humans and even non-men, like blue naiman and nightscaws. Possibly our Gods move us, or the will of stones themselves.
Thane Gehir said that what I write may be read by others in some different time. Whatever I write, he says it is for someone–the Recordsmaster of the Fortress, or perhaps a soldier appointed next Corpsmaster at the Wall. But as I scratch down these words with my pen and ink, I write for Thane Gehir, though I know that is not what he meant to ask.
In my time all the civilized lands and kingdoms of Earth have deep conventions of conduct, establishments of honor, and one great promise that we keep lest our world and all things within it come to an end. No nation breaks the Great Rule. None dare the anger of Gods and stones.
We know of the force called electricity; we possess an idea of how it can be harnessed. We know too the flammable powers of black ooze petroleum that can be mined in some districts. But we leave these things alone. Any hand raised to create any machine, however benevolent its intent, that uses either of these two powers of earth and sky, will be cut down. The labor of men or of animals is acceptable to the Gods and stones, but not the non-living labor of these other powers.
Time and again, across ages of Earth humans have harnessed these powers, and each time, Earth, stones and the Gods have struck back and destroyed all the civilizations of that moment, guilty and innocent together. We have read evidence of this in rock and land, in scattered human records we have collected and shared, piecing together this cyclical story with its repeated, inevitable ending. Thus the Great Rule is written in history for all humankind. We are sworn, all who live here on Earth, to deny ourselves and each other, such powers. Any who transgress, all are pledged to destroy before it brings and end to us.
But transgressions recur.
Humans have great curiosity, great persistence, great perversity, and in this year of which I speak, one man was discovered who had built a thing of wheels and bands of leather that used the force of steam to make it move. He was tried in the Halls of Hearing in the Fortress, and since he had not used electricity nor petroleum, the sentence for his crime was merely banishment.
I stood by while he was escorted out from his hearing. The crowd made a vicious noise, restless. While kept from their desire to inflict physical harm upon him and thereby prove loyalty to the Gods, they expressed their frustration ably with words and offal freely thrown.
“The Guild of Streetsweepers will petition the King for compensation after this,” Mell said. I could only agree, looking over the mess. No naiman moved upon the streets. They seemed to sense that human tolerance ran low during events like this.I was glad that they kept their pale blue bodies out of sight when the crowds surged. One less problem to watch.
We opened the Gates to send him to his death, and he walked away without looking back. He seemed so harmless, like any artisan’s son, a thin young man clad lightly for the warm months, allowed nothing but his clothing to take with him into the Outside. He would find no mercy there, I thought as I watched him go. He turned his head to look back once when he was quite far away. All I saw was a pale blur of his beardless face, the dusty brown of his slight figure against looming forest.
We of the Wall kept the peace. After a little while afternoon light grew full of summer shadows, and the fretful crowds dispersed. Perhaps no one escaped a shiver of fear at how close to destruction the world we knew might have come. We knew the Gods watched, for they’d acted before. If this one man had accomplished his designs, this warm world, this long red light of evening would have convulsed and expelled us all. I looked down from my station on the Wall and saw a woman from the crowd swing her little girl up and kiss her, hugging her until the child protested and was set back upon her feet to walk home to a candle-lit kitchen and supper on the table. I imagined them there, the girl’s short legs kicking from her chair as she waited for her bowl of porridge, or perhaps stew and a piece of bread.
Barely as dark fell and shadows grew confused I saw one of my own soldiers leave the darkness of the Wall’s tall shadow below, flit across the Arena along a ragged edge of the shrubs and rock outcrops, before vanishing into the green depths of the woodland beyond. I thought I knew her. My heart sank. Her movements followed a pattern deeply familiar as she broke her pace and her direction time and again, taking ten times as long to cross the Arena as it would have taken for her to walk it straight. I called another in my place to watch upon the Wall and went down to our little gate, where they let me out without question.
Because I did not know yet what my purpose might be, I faded into the mosaic of evening. I only set myself in direct pursuit after I had reached the deep wood. But I had no great distance to go. My quarry stood silent and waiting in the mottled dark, listening.
“I should have remembered that you were upon the Wall this evening,” she said as I stepped to meet her, my sword unsheathed.
“You should have, Datch,” I said, waiting for her first move. I listened to the night with all my senses, expecting to hear our banished criminal’s untrained breathing. I eased a long breath and stood still, but it felt painful to swallow.
“What I do has no purpose to harm,” she said. I heard no defiance in her, only regret and resignation. “I will not raise my hand against my sword-mate.” I saw her black face in the broken starlight. “I will give you my death, according our Law,” she said. She knelt, set down the bundle she carried and raised her head, arms returning lax to her sides. I heard her catch her breath back hard, and hold it.
I looked at the black line of her throat against the wavering leaves of the forest and I could not lift my weapon. All I could hear was Thane Gehir’s steady voice. This was what he had prepared me for, and I had sworn an oath to obey him.
“I have no Law to uphold, Datch,” I said. “My oath is not to the Wall and its rules.”
She said nothing.
“I would have killed you in fair combat, if you hadn’t surrendered. You are still my soldier. I’ll not waste your life. I shall not kill for discipline nor to enforce obedience. That is part of my oath,” I said, though I didn’t know what she would make of my words. “After all, you didn’t try to bring this criminal back into our city to defile it, instead you bring him supplies to send him on his way. Yet why trouble, Datch? He is not your blood. Is he some old friend or lover?” I asked.
“He is no friend of mine, no, not even an acquaintance,” she stammered, and fell silent. I was so puzzled by this that I could not speak for a moment.
“Whatever he is, let us hasten and find him, before some thing of night finds him first.”
She stumbled to her feet, unlike herself in her uncoordinated movements. I knew by that disorientation that she had honestly meant to offer me her death. In a little while she would recover herself. We moved through the woodland with speed, needing only the least of signals between us to direct our search. Datch and I found our exile sleeping exhausted in the hollow center of a tree about half a mile from where we had met.
He first expected slaughter at our hands, and it became clear to me from his bewildered disbelief, that he did not recognize Datch. She had spoken truly. Nor did the exile understand that we might have any motive to give him aid. When that idea became clear, he wept without knowing it, tears streaking silently down his cheeks as Datch gave him a water skin, a good knife, rope, tinderbox and a parcel of dried food, rolled into one of her own heavy wool cloaks. We said very little, but he stared after us, his pale face gleaming in the dim woodland as we moved away.
Halfway back, I stopped in a small clearing made by a felled tree.
“Now you will explain to me what we have done and why.”
Datch sat down upon the trunk and looked up at me. Even her blackened face could not conceal the trouble of her mind, for her voice expressed it.
“Then you should first understand why I am a soldier,” she said. “I was born in a family of watchmakers, the kind of family that are closely observed by neighbors and Burgmasters for transgressions against our Great Rule. I had considerable skill,” she said, and glanced down at her hands in their fine black leather gloves. “I could mend watches and clocks, I could design casings, yet best of all was the creation of new timepieces. Of the three children in my family, I had the greatest gift. I made my first successful clock, though a clumsy big thing, when I was but five years old.”
Timemaster families were wealthy in the City. Rare to find the child from such a rearing among the soldiers of the Wall.
“I am not sure when my first dream came. I was young, Already I had learned the Great Rule, for we were all taught it early, being of a family under scrutiny. In this dream, I was a maker, of more than clockworks. The first dream brought me to a great room, with tables full of tools made of metal and even of glass. One wall seemed formed of flickering color and light. I had pieces of material of many kinds for my use, some not familiar, with properties I seemed nonetheless, to know. I shaped elements with my tools and hands — I spoke with people whose faces I never saw, for all my interest centered upon the things in my hands and the laws of force. I imagined the principles between compounds that could bring power out of the inanimate. In this dream I made the machines of humankind’s downfall. I formed them with ease– I understood them in every piece and how one part transferred the force to another. I saw how explosions of petroleum or gray powder could be harnessed. I even passed through that moving wall of light as if it were no wall, instead a door whose opening changed letting me pass into other places to find the parts I needed for my work, then return. I had a fever of power… I woke in such joy.” She looked up at me her hands flexing smoothly black in the moonlight.
I shivered, for I remembered then a dream of my own with a door that was no door. I shook it off. Fever dreams make their own worlds.
“Corpsmaster, I knew, young as I was, I had been possessed. Even so I kept wondering if what I had dreamed would work. And the dream returned on another night, with more detail. I did things in these dreams to make the machines perform more successfully still, and I loved them. Their oily metal became more and more beautiful to me. I could even smell them in my dreams. I would rub my fingers together in the daylight half-expecting to feel their grease. I wrought new uses for the tools, I invented parts and controls. I lived for my nights and these dreams. I knew better than to confide. My mother knew something was wrong. She said she feared some witchcraft bled my energies. My parents had the doctor see me, to discover what my illness might be, but all he could prescribe was herbs and sleeping draughts. I still built fine clocks and watches in the day, and I kept my secrets of the night.
“In my tenth year my second cousin was arrested for having devised a chemical unit that was encased in a metal tube. It had some slight capacity to emit sparks. I saw it at his trial, and I heard him confess that he dreamed it. He claimed that his ideas came from the God Hua and were divine revelations. It did not save him. He died the four-way death in Methen Square, and God did not come to save him when they drew his liver from his living belly.
“The day he died, I gave myself to the Wall. My family continues to make their clocks and watches without me.”
“Do you still dream such dreams?” I asked. I heard something among the trees but it was familiar, not alarming.
She nodded. “Not as often,” she said. “Still no exhaustion nor opiate or dream-killing drug can stop them all. Exhaustion is best potion.”
“Will you disobey the letter of the law for others like this man again?”
“I do not know. I confess I have done it once before.”
“And what if you are one of the guard assigned to execute the four-way death on one so accused?”
“I do not know.”
I looked down at her, fingering the hilts of my sword, then I turned my head.
“Mell,” I said, casting my voice so that it would just reach her where she stood in the dappled shadows. “Your woodcraft is good, but I’ve been aware of your company since we left off our package. If I will not arrest Datch, will you?”
“Hardly,” she said, coming towards us. “I will always obey my Corpsmaster’s decisions.”
“Always is too long,” I said, and I did not jest. “My First Oath is neither to King Matthew nor to any other of the City. If I sin in this, I would rather you had remained clean, Master Mell. It is too late now. Our night maneuvers are over. Whom did you leave at the gate to guard for us?”
“Master Cascada,” Mell said.
“All in the family, I see,” I said. “Let us go home.”
We may have gone home, but I did not sleep that night. Only the old blotched rat kept me company, and I admit I kept it with me at my desk by feeding it bits of bread and dried fruit while I ran back and forth over my thoughts until they felt tattered and old. I hoped I had done according to my Oath to Thane Gehir. I found it hard to contemplate killing Datch, but how much simpler that would have been.No going back, no second guess, no changing the past.