Per the initiative hosted at Crossed Genres, as first reported by Cheryl Morgan here, I am participating in the “Post a Story for Haiti” project. Crossed Genres will host links to stories posted on individual writer blogs or Web sites, with links and click throughs for Haiti donations.
I am posting “Not Much of a War”. This is a previously unpublished short story in the Flowers sequence, which takes place about midway through the novel Madness of Flowers [ Powell’s | Amazon ]. If you like this, please link to both the story and to the Crossed Genres page, and give whatever you think the story is worth to Haitian earthquake relief.
♦ ♦ ♦
Not Much of a War
by Jay Lake
Fleeing the invasion of Port Defiance in favor of raising rebellion on behalf of the Lord Mayor of the City Imperishable — the occupied city’s rightful master — the three of them had been navigating a foetid blur of muddy channels, slow currents, and overgrown riverbanks for weeks. Days on the stinking dark water were punctuated by meals of fish, fish and more fish, with occasional stops at plantations to seek aid and comfort in accruing a new army.
If their purpose were not so great, Onesiphorous the dwarf might well have despaired. His youth being raised in a box, and his years of work bettering the lot of his kind in the City Imperishable, were fading to fever dreams amid the endless swamp. As it was, only Kalliope the sandwalker kept him sane, while holding her brother Jason in check. She had been sold away from the city in her childhood and raised among the mystics of the Tokhari deserts. A strange woman whose own sanity was deeply in doubt.
Her brother Jason — city-raised and ordinary enough until he’d been god-raddled and touched by a profound, transformative magic — was beyond such considerations.
With every visit, the process of raising their army became easier. Port Defiance had been in corsair hands sufficiently long for even the most hidebound upper crust bastards to glimpse the empty future that awaited them if the city were not retaken. Barges sent down river to with commodities for the trading factors did not return. While some crops could hang in drying barns — turkweed and hemp, for example — others wanted shipment to market. Fresh indigo rotting by the hundredweight on the docks improved no one’s fortunes.
Onesiphorous and Kalliope rowed the boat, kept their maps updated, made notes and collated inventories of promised barges and other resources, set up and struck camp, and did what they could to advance their cause. Jason slept most of the daylight hours, and spent his nights standing knee deep in water staring upward. It did not seem to matter whether the canopy was stars or leaves. He was never troubled by leeches or insect bites.
Eventually they came to West Maiweather. The plantation was built amid long, low water meadows lined with mud dikes and planted with rice and a species of floating berry bush. The great house stood on stilts amid one of the flooded fields. Boardwalks extended everywhere, built from hardwoods that would have brought a fortune sold by the foot back in the City Imperishable. Here they were just so much lumber.
A delegation awaited them on the docks. The crowd of workers in their linen trousers and straw hats was, unusually, a mix of swamp-pallid Angoumois and brown-skinned Sunwarders out of the deepest south. Two ruddy-faced elderly women at their head, both dressed in last century’s formal wear, were definitely of the City Imperishable, as was true of all plantation owners.
Kalliope steered the boat close to the dock. Steady with weeks of practice, Onesiphorous stood to cast his mooring line up to waiting hands. When they were tied off he cast a painter line so the boat could be warped close.
Jason reached out to touch the mossy pier next to him. Tiny blossoms rippled open like snowfall amid the green fuzz.
Onesiphorous exchanged glances with Kalliope. That was new. She nodded. He would climb the ladder while she tended to her brother.
When he pulled himself over the edge, Onesiphorous found himself facing the two elderly women. They seemed strangely familiar, though he was certain he’d never met them before.
“Greetings,” he said, “in the name of the Lord Mayor Imago of Lockwood, of the City Imperishable.”
“So that’s where the little shit’s got himself to,” said one of the women.
This was not the response he’d expected.
A dwarf stepped forward, twisting to bow to his mistresses and then to Onesiphorous, bobbing back and forth in an attempt to show precedence to everyone at once. “My pardons, chamberlain.” His voice whistled through stitched lips.
Onesiphorous was startled to see one of the Sewn here, now — the most conservative faction of the dwarfs of the City Imperishable, in decline even amid the marbled halls of wealth far to the north, and virtually unheard of in these southern swamps. Well, they certainly know who I am, he thought. In earlier days he’d been the most prominent Slashed activist in the city, leading a quiet revolution against the traditionalists with their stitched lips and narrow minds.
“My name is Belisare.” The dwarf’s fingers twitched, as if wishing to say more in the fingertalk of their kind. “I serve as factotum to Humphrey of Lockwood, master of this humble plantation. These ladies are the mistresses dowager of the Eeljaw Extents, grandmother and great-aunt to the right honorable Lord Mayor Imago. I am afraid the materfamilias is away.”
“He always was a toad-eater,” snapped the woman who’d already spoken — the one on the left, wearing lavender. “I don’t expect he’s improved much.”
“Arabella,” said her sister. She wore a pale rose gown with lace trim. “Don’t be speaking so of the fruit of your loins.”
“Grandson. The little bastard didn’t crawl out between my legs.”
Onesiphorous kept a very careful face.
Belisare practically hopped in his frustration. His words rushed out like a leak from a cistern. “Miladies are most pleased to receive your embassy from the scion of their family.” His fingers flickered with a sign expressing the radical for fish in deep waters. He took a deep breath and pushed onward. “Milord Humphrey sends regrets that he is indisposed and offers all assistance that the Eeljaw Extents can offer.”
“Milady is in no way so pleased.” Arabella glared at the shuffling array of servants and field hands. Armed, Onesiphorous noted, with good blue-steel pistols that must have come fresh from the Metal Districts of the City Imperishable — no one else along the Sunward Sea manufactured such fine small arms. She made a shooing motion. “Now dismiss this rabble so we may speak with our visitor in good order.”
Belisare sweated. “Milord Humphrey gave me express instru—”
The dwarf was interrupted by Arabella’s sister executing a decorous side-step and hooking his ear with her fingernails. “Tell Humpy that you have discharged your duties to our satisfaction. He is free to take his questions up with us at his convenience.” She leaned close and hissed something that Onesiphorous could not hear.
He was rapidly gaining a new appreciation for the character of the Lord Mayor. A family such as this could turn any man to a career of crime or politics.
Belisare and the mob of retainers retreated to the point where the docks became boardwalk over the flooded fields.
Both of the old women shifted from a quivering propriety to a knife-edged attentiveness.
“Ladies,” Onesiphorous said cautiously. “This has been a curious welcome indeed.”
“We won’t have much time,” snapped the aunt. “Either that inane dwarf will grow a set of testicles, or one of the house servants will run back to Humpy. I promise you that the boy will loan one of his balls to the sawed-off little buggerer.”
“Indeed.” Arabella nodded. “You, dwarf,” she added sharply. “You’re the one who went down to Port Defiance with Big Sister, yes?”
That change of tack caught Onesiphorous flat-footed. Big Sister was his Tribade contact, representative of the violent female syndicate that controlled the City Imperishable’s underworld. She’d been executed by the occupiers of Port Defiance for aiding him, chained to drown with the rising tide.
He tried not to gape. “Yes.”
“Did you watch her die?”
“Y…yes.” He’d revisited the tale sufficiently that the burst of regret he felt at the memory had lost its cruelest edge.
“Did she die well?”
“She did not plead.” He couldn’t be certain — he hadn’t watched her be chained to the rock, and been forced to flee before Big Sister had breathed her last mouthful of cold saltwater, but he’d been there. He’d seen her. And he knew her well enough.
“Good,” muttered Arabella. Her shoulders sagged. “A sister should die better than she lived.”
“Else life is but a waste of a mother’s effort,” said the other.
Onesiphorous grasped the obvious. “You are Tribade. I thought the sisters never retired.”
“We’re not retired,” Arabella snapped. “Just living amid the swamps. Gray leather and a shaved head would be a bit conspicuous at the harvest banquets.”
Her sister added, “Dotty old women pass unremarked almost anywhere.”
Onesiphorous offered the one bit of tidings they might not have heard. “Since Big Sister’s execution, the Tribade has sent more sisters to Port Defiance. They seek to foster regrets among the miscreants.”
Arabella leaned close. “We’ll loan you everything that floats, and two dozen armed men to go with the hulls. This bunch is no better trained with weapons than those green monkeys in the trees. You’ll have to dance for Humphrey before you can have them, though. He thinks he owns everything here.”
“My thanks, ladies,” said Onesiphorous gravely. “If you wish tidings of your grandson, Imago continues to acquit himself well as Lord Mayor.”
“We know,” said the aunt. “The reports are favorable enough. The sisters own a piece of him now.”
Arabella nodded. “It wouldn’t be fit for us to show favor. The Lord Mayor won’t be helped by southern entanglements. Humpy’s happy enough to have nothing to do with his brother. He’d disown Imago if he had the nerve.”
“I understand.” Onesiphorous saw an enormously fat full-man waddling down the boardwalk with the dwarf Belisare bobbing along behind. “I believe the next act of your little play is starting.”
“Bother,” muttered Arabella. She winked. “Be obsequious. Humpy fancies himself a big man.”
“I can see that.”
Kalliope climbed over the edge of the dock and gave the women a long look. “You need to work on your tells, sisters, if you seek to pretend to less than you are. Your eyes see too much.”
Dipping her chin, Arabella said, “You must be the sandwalker. Where is that Green Man?”
“He comes,” Kalliope said uncomfortably. “He comes.”
Humphrey insisted on a formal sitting in the Red Room of Lockwood House. It was a long, narrow space draped with crimson velvet and a selection of carved wooden masks. The oddly proportioned table had obviously been built within the room. Its tropical wood was polished to an improbable gloss.
Their host had been seated at the head, Jason at the foot with his chin resting on his chest. Onesiphorous sat to the Green Man’s left, Kalliope the right. Belisare stayed close behind his master. The remains of an array of wines and chilled fruit were scattered at both ends of the table. Jason’s were untouched. Onesiphorous himself had been presented with an extremely traditional silver sipping cup, the narrow straw designed to allow the Sewn to take pleasure in their drink.
Too bad he was Slashed, long since abandoning his place among the Sewn. The cup bordered on an insult now.
“So, you come like beggars to my door.” Humphrey bore a noticeable resemblance to Imago, beneath the additional weight. “With no retinue or letters of introduction. And you seeking my few poor hulls and men for some fool’s errand.”
From his tone, he seemed to believe he spoke for history’s sake.
Onesiphorous had seen enough history in the making to know better, but he needed the boats that the old women had promised. This was no different from talking to a Burgess.
He took a deep breath. “Our pardons for our mean estate, sir. The message we carry necessitated speed far more than the proper forms. You are surely well acquainted with the lamentable state of affairs in the City Imperishable and at Port Defiance. We seek to remediate that situation so that trade might freely flow among all citizens and families, and most especially to the plantations that provide much needed exchange for the coastal economy, as well as the City itself.”
Humphrey briefly looked impressed. “In the exigencies of the moment you might be excused. Still, I would seek to know, why are you numbered so? A foreign woman, a lackwit, and a City dwarf would seem a strange combination to win the favor of a simple South Coast planter such as myself.”
Kalliope stirred. Onesiphorous strained to kick her under the table, then glanced at Jason.
He’d lifted his head to stare at Humphrey. His eyes gleamed green as swamp gas. With deliberate, slow movements, Jason set his hands palm-down on the table. “Would you like to see how much my wits lack, sir?” Each syllable was articulated with a shivering precision.
“I… I misspoke,” Humphrey stammered. “An error of judgment.”
Jason leaned forward. “Time grows short. Do not bandy pride with me, fat man. Or you will be just another pig roasting in the fires to come.”
“Belisare!” Humphrey’s voice broke high. “They are threatening me.”
The dwarf let forth an exhausted sigh. “Milord, our guests are about an errand of some urgency. That blunts their social grace. Knives truly are in the offing, and the death of cities. I recommend that we excuse them their manners and retire to count what may be given in their cause.”
“No! I… I…” Humphrey looked fit to burst a moment, then deflated.
Belisare took his master’s elbow and steered him out of the room. Kalliope and Onesiphorous were left to stare at one another.
“They need more sap here,” Jason mused.
“Don’t help,” Onesiphorous and Kalliope said almost in unison. The table began to crackle, shoots of pale green erupting from the wood-grain beneath Jason’s hands to bud tiny leaves as the lacquer boiled away.
At least it was a decent wine, Onesiphorous thought.
They were finally shown out by Belisare. The dwarf did not remark upon the damage to his master’s furniture. Onesiphorous was anxious to depart, worried about what Jason might do next.
Belisare bobbed down the boardwalk, leading them to the docks. “I’ve h-had the kitchen send down stew. It will keep you a day or two on your journey. Beyond that, I apologize for our hospitality.”
“We are messengers, not royalty,” Onesiphorous said.
“One thing.” The other dwarf stopped so suddenly that they almost trod on his heels. “Tell the boy Imago that he is missed. And loved.”
Such a wrench of sudden emotion bloomed in Belisare’s eyes that Onesiphorous’ growing dislike evaporated. Belisare’s fingers flickered again, fish moving through weeds. Meaning, have a care for what remains hidden.
That was scarcely a revelation.
Though Onesiphorous had eschewed fingertalk in the years since cutting his lips free, he signaled mice in their nest, we are guarded.
The factotum nodded gravely before continuing to the end of the dock. Food waited there in cheap clay pots sealed to keep their contents edible for a few days. These were meant to be broken open on use, then discarded. As Onesiphorous bent to fetch the first pot down to their boat, Jason touched Belisare on the forehead. “Grow, dwarf,” he whispered.
Belisare brushed his fingers across the chrism.
“Have a care,” said Onesiphorous, eyeing Belisare nervously. “He is becoming something dangerous and strange, though I don’t suppose he meant you harm.”
“Go, then,” said Belisare. “Do not trouble us further. When will you require our aid?”
The destination was always the same, but the routes differed. “Sail down the Eeljaw three or four days before the new moon of Mai. Pick up whomever hails you. Some will be miners, some may be Angoumois, but we all fight together. Have your men and boats and all their weapons at the Bay of Snakes the night of that new moon.”
“Not much of a plan,” the factotum observed.
“Not much of a war.” Onesiphorous took up a pot and made his way down the ladder. They loaded the boat and cast off without further misadventure.
Paddling around a bend of the Eeljaw, he last saw Belisare still at the end of the dock, stretching his arms as if his back had begun to trouble him. The wood beneath the dwarf’s feet writhed with new growth. The old women stood with him, and something winked in the sun with the brightness of a drawn blade. Arabella raised a hand in farewell.
Then they were lost from sight amid a tangle of pallid vines overhanging the dark, blood-thick water. Purpose beckoned, and an increasingly mad Green Man weighed at Onesiphorous’ every thought.
♦ ♦ ♦
© 2010, Joseph E. Lake, Jr.