I spent almost forty minutes circling the aviary. Forty minutes it took to descend to nesting level. What’s the longest you’ve ever spent around a griffon? Ten, fifteen minutes? And I’ll bet you all the gold in the Augur’s Sanctum you were praying for a head cold by that point just so the stench would go away. Try forty minutes in a ten-tiered carousel of molt stink. You’ve got griffons calling to one another, trying to mate with one another, riders who think they don’t have to wait their turn. It’s pandemonium. They used to have all the nesting mouths open all the time. You never had to wait. But since the guilds took over inter-provincial travel, they’ll only pay to keep a handful of mouths open at a time. The guilds cut down on their overhead and we keep flying no matter how intolerable it gets.
Remember when you were a kid, the first time your dad took you for a ride on a griffon? Remember when you first got to the aviary? You’d never seen a building that disappeared into the clouds before. It was like you were being shown proof that there’s something bigger than you out there. You walked into the office and the building could be hundreds of years old – it could’ve been built before the Chyrodian Purge – it still had that smell of freshly cut ipe and teak. All those bas reliefs blanketing the walls sprung to life in the torchlight, like you were watching a myth play out in front of you. And that lift ride up to the nests, the ropes crackling and the winch creaking, made you tremble like you were running to the hearth on High Winter’s morning. Then that giant cavernous room opened up and you couldn’t even understand the awe that overtook you in at that moment. You looked up and you thought the building rose and rose into the sky forever. I swear, to this day I remember not being able to see the ceiling even though it’s clear as day when I go in there now. Do you remember the odor? I don’t. It had to have been there, but I honestly don’t remember it from back then. And I don’t remember Dad acting like there was an odor either. He took me around, showed me all the griffons so I could pick which one we would ride, but he never wrinkled up his nose or complained about any kind of smell. That first time we rode this beautiful gray bronze-beak, my dad picked me up and put me in the booster saddle. I’ll tell you, the only other time I’ve ever felt that weird mix of excitement and terror was when I lost my virginity. Even with the saddle between me and the griffon I could feel its every muscle twitch, every feather ruffle. Dad never told me how strong those things are. I thought I was going to get thrown before we took off. But when we did, that palpable rush of freedom and power as you sail through the troposphere, doing something the gods didn’t give us the ability to do, looking at the mite-sized realm below. That was one of those moments, I think, that makes childhood sacred.
You never get that feeling again as an adult.
Today I was going to take a carriage from the aviary to the Market but they had raised the fares again. So I walked. The streets right now are like the world’s most nauseating obstacle course. There are piles of garbage tall as the Spires of Dronumede in front of every house. The smell’s worse than in the queue to get into the aviary. The air in the city’s this gauze of flies and you’ve got rotworms sprouting out of the trash heaps. As you walk your steps make a crunching sound because you’re walking on the pulverized remains of their egg sacs. I asked a constable what was going on and he said the wastemen are striking again and the Congress of Barons won’t negotiate. Never mind the fact that all the garbage and effluent is a total health hazard, which is obvious to everyone with eyes to see the lines around the block for the hospital and the throngs in front of the Temple of Veydu. The Congress doesn’t care. They know nobody’s going to leave the city with Lord Garun’s ShadowCorps still on the loose. You could feel this pall over the city. There’s this tension that you can’t put your finger on, like you’re feeling your way through a dense fog and any second you expect to come face to face with something out of the Catacombs. And there I am, going to the Market.
Actually it made me remember the first time I went there. It was right after Amarost’s coronation and the city was practically vibrating. Everyone still thought that he was going to be the Deathless Star and you couldn’t help getting sucked into the enthusiasm. Granddad took me. He had arthritis by this point, so we went by cart. He was old-world, a man of few words, there’s a way to do things. You know what I mean. Great guy though. Always smiling, praised you when you did well. And I didn’t realize this until I got older: he had a straight-up scatological sense of humor. The forgebeast that pulled the cart he had named Swinefelch. I didn’t know what that meant back then, so I’d ask him, “Granddad, why’d you name him Swinefelch?” He never told me. Every time I’d ask him, he’d say, “If I tell you, your mother will never let me take you anywhere again,” and he was right. She wouldn’t have.
So we’re walking through the Market, Granddad’s telling me how to tell a chiseler from a legitimate merchant. All of the sudden we hear two loud voices barking in the crowd up ahead of us. Granddad grabs my hand – because, you know, it’s the Market and I’m a kid. We get a little closer and it’s these two vendors. One’s dealing in scientists, the other’s in sorcerers, and they are screaming at each other. I can’t tell what they’re screaming about because it’s all in Old Tongue, but it had to have been entertaining, because in the crowd that’s watching all this all the old people who understand O.T. are chuckling. Then the Science Vendor spits right in the Sorcerer Vendor’s face. Now the crowd braces itself for a duel, spreading out so the blades that come out don’t cut them. Sorcerer Vendor spits back. Hits the dude right in the eye. Science Vendor reaches under his table, pulls out a spittoon, puts his hand in, pulls out a handful of offal and flings it right at Sorcerer Vendor’s head. Sorcerer Vendor retaliates in kind and now you’ve got two guys hurling gobs of purple glowing ectoplasmic feces at each other. People are doubled over and turning blue as they’re watching this scene. Everyone’s laughing – even the vendors’ merchandise! This one archmage is floating shoulder to shoulder with Nicopontys the Younger and they’re exchanging these knowing looks with each other, both trying not to laugh. How’s that for irony? The fellow merchants are ready to kill each other while the bitter ontological rivals are sharing a laugh. Granddad wouldn’t tell me what the beef was, but I’m glad he didn’t. It’s a better story without a context.
You know, historians would say that incident took place during the same age we’re in now. But the thing is that would never happen at the Market today. The thing about the Modern Age is that everything is so antiseptic and impersonal. There’s no character to anything. It’s like when you go to the Amphitheatre now: they want everything to appeal to everybody so they dilute it and de-saturate it until it appeals to nobody. When’s the last time you actively wanted to see a show? Nobody does. We just go because that’s what you’re supposed to do when the rites come to town. You ask someone why it matters, and they’ll tell you that it’s tradition. And if that doesn’t work, then it’s for the sake of public morale. But it’s just an empty ritual at this point. We don’t have any emotional investment in it. They put on the same shows they’ve been doing for the last fifty years or so but with more sex and blood. Granddad used to tell me how when he was a kid everybody waited on pins and needles for the next production to roll around. People cared about it back then. Adults, kids, nobility, laborers, men, women, even inhumans. And if you missed it you had to endure everybody else rhapsodizing for the next month about what a kick it all was. Granddad said that you felt like you had done something wrong if you hadn’t made it, like you’d neglected a sacrament and you were poorer for it.
That’s the thing I loved about the Market when I was growing up. I would cross the threshold and feel like I was being ferried into the Hills of Mists and I would float out the other side and be five hundred years in the past. The world still looked like the world but it was unsullied and uncorrupted. It was like the world had just been born and nothing calamitous had happened yet. There were these tents everywhere I looked, all of them different colors and designs, emblazoned with these wild-looking sigils that swept me off to worlds I’d only known from schoolbooks. And they all looked strong and durable. You could’ve told me they’d been standing there for epochs, completely impervious to erosion, and I would’ve believed it. The vendors all spoke the Old Tongue and if I did hear one speak the Common it was in this lilting sing-songy accent. Even the horses clomping over the cobblestones – the ones with the flecks of tourmaline that are only in the streets of the Soul Herder’s Market – there was a melody to it. Vendors calling out to shoppers, coins clinking together as they changed hands. It sounds like it would be a cacophony. But walking through it and hearing it with my own ears, it was all in perfect harmony.
And you got to go home with someone’s soul.
I always liked to see what generals and high commanders were for sale. You’d walk up to this or that tent and see these men and women who’d made and saved the realm and there they were. Strong, stoic, proud, they actually looked more like all their monuments than they did actual people. Translucent statues floating over the ground. One day this bent-over tumor-faced crag of a vendor was selling General Magyus. THE Magyus. Right in front of me, the dude who held the Fractal Gates with half a battalion and drove off the Azeraax Horde! Every time a customer came up to inspect him he snapped to attention like he was addressing Ucheros II. He’d say, “How can I be of assistance, my liege?” To the customer. He even acknowledged me. I mean, he didn’t address me. The soul of General Magyus isn’t going to risk exorcism speaking to a child. But he looked at me and bowed his head and gave this warm smile. The vendor wasn’t making him do that. That was just him. When’s the last time you encountered a public servant who was that honorable?
Want to know what today’s trip to the Market was like? First my mother starts barking that I have to go get an artisan for the Day of Bladesmen. I’m like, “What kind of artisan?”
“Just an artisan!” she screams.
I’m like, “Mom, I know you have some kind of artisan in mind. Tell me what you want, because I don’t want to get back here and have you tell me I got the wrong soul.”
Now she’s getting impatient so she huffs and starts over-enunciating her words. “Get – me – an – Erullean – sculptor - please.”
I grab some coins and I leave before I have a meltdown. Has she always been this insufferable, or has she degenerated since Dad died? I don’t know.
I already told you about the flight so I won’t regale you with anymore of that catastrophe. I told you about the filth in the streets. I get to the Market and go up to the first artisan’s tent I see, which mercifully is only a few spots beyond the entrance and that’s the last spot of luck I have for the day. I see the vendor. He’s cursed by Ajda. Awesome. I have to look the guy in his eyes while putrescence is seeping out of them. But I have to honor the social contract so I can’t reel back from the stench of his eye snot and throw the guy a handkerchief or set his face on fire or anything. I go, “Do you have any Erullean sculptors?”
He puts his finger to his cheek and goes, “Ummmmmmmmmmmm,” for a good thirty seconds. Just a ceaseless drone of, “Um.” That’s it. Finally he goes, “Yes, I do.”
Then he stands there. Just stands there looking at me with brown-green rivers rushing out of his tear ducts. I’m like, “Well, may I see what you have?”
More silence while he just stares at me like I’m the one whose eyes are cursed. Then he disappears into the tent without a word. No explanation. Okay, Common’s probably not his first language so there’s a barrier I’m just going to have to deal with. Not the case, which I find out ten minutes later. Why ten minutes later? Because that’s how long I’m standing at his table waiting for him. The tent is fifteen by fifteen at the most. What the hell’s he doing back there? I don’t hear any voices, no noises like he’s rooting through merch, nothing. What’s going on? People are walking by and looking at me like, Who’s this idiot standing at an abandoned tent for no reason.
Finally, he comes back out, all smiles, and says, “Okay.”
“ ‘Okay,’ what?”
He’s goes, “No problem.”
I go, “You’re sure about that?”
So I say, “Okay. Where is it?”
“Where is it?”
“The sculptor,” I say.
“You never asked for a sculptor.”
He said that.
I’m like, “Uh, I most certainly did. It was the first thing I said to you: ‘Do you have any Erullean sculptors?’ “
His face straight as a board, he says, “You never said that.”
Now I’m starting to lose it. I’m like, “Don’t tell me what I did and didn’t say! I left the house and came here this morning with a specific purchase to make. I’m not just browsing willy-nilly. My sole objective in coming to the Soul Herders Market today was to acquire an Erullean sculptor.”
“You didn’t ask for an Erullean sculptor, sir.”
Now I’m starting to think, This is what this guy does. This is his sales technique. Fine. I go, “What exactly did I ask for?”
He says, “Excuse me?”
I go, “No, no, no. Don’t say, ‘Excuse me,’ like you didn’t hear me. Answer my question.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I honestly did not hear you.”
I’m back to screaming: “Yes, you did!”
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t, sir.”
I’m ready to slap the snot out of this hayseed’s eyes at this point. “You’re insisting that I did not specifically ask for a sculptor,” I say. “Then what did I ask for?”
“You didn’t specify.”
“So you went back into your tent for ten minutes for no reason whatsoever?”
He goes, “Not at all, sir.”
“Well then, why’d you go into the tent?”
He says, “With all due respect, sir, it’s really none of your business.”
I go, “Yes, it is! I’m a paying customer!”
I’m like, “Oh! Now you’re going to play hardball with me?”
“No, sir. But technically you’re not a paying customer until coin has changed hands and it hasn’t yet.”
“Yeah, because you refuse to bring me an Erullean sculptor!”
“You never asked me for one, sir.”
“Fine,” I say. “I didn’t ask for one. I DID, but fine. You win. But you still haven’t told me what I did ask for.”
Now this whole time, Old Man Rheumatism is completely unperturbed by all my carrying-on. “As I’ve said, sir, you didn’t specify.”
“What then did I say?”
I’m stunned. Now it’s my turn to say, “Excuse me?”
“So I came up here, said absolutely nothing, and we just gazed longingly into each other’s eyes until you went into the tent?”
He goes, “That depends on how you look at it.”
I know. Why don’t I walk away at this point? Because I have to know what’s going on with this guy. I know I’m only going to get more and more aggravated the longer this goes on, and I’m probably not going to get an Erullean sculptor out of it, but I don’t care. I don’t care if I have to vault over the table, storm into the tent, and end up getting thrown into the dungeons. I am getting to the bottom of this.
He goes, “Well it’s all about your point of view. From your point of view it probably looked like I was just staring at you, but what I was really doing was ascertaining what you wanted.”
I say, “You could’ve asked me what I wanted.”
“But you see it’s not what you say. It’s what I hear.”
I go, “Could you try hearing what I say – especially when it pertains to Erullean sculptors?”
“No, I can’t do that.”
I’m like, “Why not?”
“Because it’s not always what you say. Usually it’s what you don’t say.”
“Okay, I’ll bite. What didn’t I say?”
“For one thing, you didn’t say you wanted an Erullean sculptor.”
“Yes, I did!”
“But that’s not what I heard.”
Now my hand is inching toward my dagger. I’m on the verge of drawing blood at this point.
He says, “What I heard was that you didn’t need an artisan. You wanted an artisan but you didn’t need one. What you needed was a reason to celebrate the holiday.”
“You just said I didn’t say anything.”
He goes on. “You needed a reason to believe our holiday has any significance in these insignificant times, that the Day of Bladesmen can still bring hope when men with blades spill more and more blood every day.”
“Total silence and you heard all that?”
“That’s why the last thing you need is an Erullean sculptor. What you need, sir, is a painter of the Ittalycite school, and I happen to have the finest in the realm right here.”
Do I even need to finish the story? I think you can see where this is going. Well, needless to say, not only did I get an earful from my mother when I got home, I got an earful from the painter’s soul on the way. The whole ride all he did was accuse me of having no eye for composition and smelling like dwarf dick.
That’s where my beloved Market is now. That’s what age has done to it. Don’t tell me it’s my fault for falling for his con. “He’s a salesman. That’s what he does.” No! It didn’t used to be like that. You went to the Market, found the soul you were looking for, you haggled over the price, and you either made the deal or you walked away. The incorruptible has been corrupted. Yeah, it still looks the same, but everything wonderful and special about it’s been eroded. Is this what happens? Does everything get eaten away piece by piece every time a grain of sand falls?
You know, on the way home I kept thinking about this one trip there when I was eleven. Equinox was coming up and my mother, for whatever reason, decided she wanted to do it right that year. So me, Dad, and Granddad get dispatched to the Market to pick up a pontiff. As soon as we’re out the door Dad goes, “Let’s take an arachknight.”
Granddad starts giggling. I go, “Dad, Mom will kill you if you spend that much.”
He’s like, “Don’t worry. We’ll make it up at the Market.”
“What do you mean?”
He’s like, “You just watch me when we get there.”
That was the only time, to this day, I’ve ridden an arachknight. The only other time Dad rode one was on his wedding day, and Granddad had never been on one. On the way to the corral he had this expectant smirk on his face like a kid whose parents are taking him to a toy store. Dad would look at him and then smile at me, like he was happy to give his old man an experience he never had before.
We turned a corner and saw it, that ten-story tall spider, and we were just gobsmacked. We got to the corral and Granddad was suddenly possessed by some extremely gregarious poltergeist, asking the keepers how the day was finding them, how they kept the arachknight in place, what it ate, everything. Dad pays for the trip, we go up the ramp and climb into the hollowed-out thorax. There were a couple other laborers there, but for the most part we took our seats among all these hoity-toity merchants and nobles. I know it’s shallow but it was kind of cool, getting to pretend like we weren’t the hoi-poloi for a few minutes. The doors close and – tops – ten seconds later, “We hope you enjoyed the ride.” That thing went over five miles in one leap and I didn’t feel a takeoff or landing. Whoever figured out how to turn an arachknight into mass transit should be Heralded.
The thorax opens up and there we are just outside the city. We cross the Beytheos Bridge, through the gates. I start to go left toward the Market, when Dad grabs my arm and says, “Let’s go get some breakfast first.”
He takes us to the Tumuli ShroomaRoom.
Have you ever been to the Tumuli ShroomaRoom? Everything you ever heard about it is true. It’s this giant hollowed-out toadstool and inside they’ve set up tables and chairs. All the chairs are smaller toadstools that mold themselves to fit your body when you sit down, so it’s the most comfortable seat you’ve ever been in. The food is all mushroom-based, and I know it doesn’t sound like it, but it is delicious. The staff is entirely composed of prairie gnomes, so they’re naturally impelled to provide great service. And I’m telling you right now, the rumors about the cuisine have to be true, because two minutes after we started eating, all three of us got swept up in this wave of euphoria. There wasn’t any kind of hallucinations or anything like that, but it was like I could sense this faint little halo around their bodies and I knew they were sensing one around me too. Dad, Granddad, and I would look at each other, the silliest ear-to-ear smiles slapped across our faces, and start conversing without opening our mouths. At one point Dad looked at me and, even though he had a mouthful of food and didn’t actually say anything, he asked me, “Good day, huh?” Dad told me he loved me, Granddad told Dad how happy he was to see how his son turned out, Dad told me of how Granddad once stood up to his crooked commanding officer in the navy and that he was proud to be his father’s son. I don’t know what was with him that day. Maybe it was the holiday mood or that he was there with his old man and his little boy. I don’t know. But he really wanted us to enjoy that day.
We go to the Market and Dad insists on making a circuit of the whole place, checking every pontiff tent before we even talk to a vendor. Granddad’s putting his two cents in at every stop – “You’re looking at Post-Restitution pontiffs? No, you can’t buy from a mountain troll,” – and Dad just smiles.
Then Dad leads us to the third or fourth vendor we passed. He marches up to the vendor, this swarthy Eastlander with a dolly on his left foot, points to the back right corner of the tent and declares, “Him.”
He wants Draendl IV. My father thinks he’s walking away from this tent with Draendl IV – and with enough coin left over to convince my mother we didn’t take an arachknight there or eat at the ShroomaRoom. No way. Not going to happen.
I watched my old man operate, I was proud to call myself his son. He had this vendor convinced he wasn’t going to sell another pontiff all day if he didn’t sell to us. He actually trolled this guy down to twelve and three. I’ve never witnessed haggling like that since. It was insane. Dad turns to me as the vendor’s pulling his pants back up and tells me to take Draendl over to the locksteps and get him ready to go home.
I take him over and as I’m fastening his flagella to the lockstep, Draendl looks down at me. He says, “Are you having a good day?”
I’m speechless. Did Draendl IV just speak to me? A kid? Out in public?
I never understood what was so dangerous about a soul talking to a kid, let alone why it’s illegal. They say it’s a matter of keeping the souls in their place, whatever that means, and that souls can’t be allowed to impart any information to the young and impressionable. But, alive or dead, this is Draendl IV. If the man’s got something to say he should be heard, right? But I’m so stunned I don’t say anything back. So he arches his eyebrows and give me a smile, like he’s saying, It’s okay, go ahead. Finally I’m just like, “Uh-huh.”
He does that kneeling-down motion that souls do so he’s eye level with me. He goes, “Enjoy this time, my son, while this is the only time you know.”
I’m like, “Okay.”
He smiles and straightens up. I didn’t know what he was talking about but who cares. Draendl IV risked exorcism to speak to me.
I don’t think I really got what Draendl was talking about until today. I’m sitting here pining for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, most of which I never got to experience in the first place. I’m lamenting the loss of a culture that was far superior to the one I have to deal with. But I never did that when I was eleven. Remember Nicopontys’s Fourth Stanza: Every being experiences time subjectively? Well when I was eleven I basically didn’t have a past. I was like an animal where the only sense of time I understand is the now, no concept of past or future. Maybe Draendl was telling me it’s better to not have perspective like an ignorance-is-bliss kind of thing. Maybe the older you get – the further away from that past ideal you got – everything just gets exponentially worse.
Kind of bleak, isn’t it? I mean, I still have a lot more years ahead of me than behind. How much worse can it get? Maybe that’s really why they don’t want souls talking to the young and impressionable. It’s the responsibility of the living to keep the kingdom going, keep the fires fueling the economy burning and always entertain the fiction that things just keep improving. Any problems like the wastemen’s strike or the greed of the guilds or Lord Garun’s armies are just hiccups in the natural respiration of the system. They’re just cosmetic blemishes on the ageless visage of a monument to Magyus or the other greats that have defined who we’ve thought we are all these years. But maybe they’re not. Maybe Magyus and Nicopontys and Draendl are the cosmetics hiding the entropy. That it’s the entropy that’s really the natural order. What if the beginning is as good as it gets?