It’s not terribly long after Bertrude’s exile that he first hears that there might be a way back.
Or, rather, the living proof of it is brought before him: a demon, horns still visible even before she removes her hood.
“I’ve heard that you’re the man to see for information about the Downside,” she says.
“I have an interest in such an area,” Volfred replies, sitting down rather heavily. The chair creaks beneath him, but doesn’t break. “But I’m afraid you almost certainly have more information.”
She snorts. There are two pitches to it- one within the normal register for a human woman, one much lower.
“I must admit, up until this moment I considered it extremely likely that ‘demon’ was a metaphor for something,” he continues, reaching for paper and quill. “Why don’t you tell me what you know, and I’ll tell you what I’ve been trying, and we’ll see what we can come up with?”
He allows her to speak almost uninterrupted, until she mentions a colony of bog-dwellers.
“I don’t suppose you happen to remember any of their names?” he asks.
She looks at him, trying to get a read. He lets her, still ignorant as to what Reading was.
“Friend of yours been exiled, then?” she asks.
“My oldest and dearest, I’m afraid,” he admitts. “It’s not quite been a year.”
“You don’t really stick around the bog dwellers for long,” she says with a shrug. “Nothing on them, just- that place. The Pit. It’s- bad. For the rest of us, I mean, they all seem to get along just fine.”
He nods. It’s- better news than he expected, to be honest. If Bertrude survived the fall- and he refuses to believe that she didn’t- then she will at least have had somewhere to go.
“Please continue,” he says.
She speaks, and then he speaks, and then he gets up to get his copy of Bertrude’s notes about liminal spaces and how they might be thinned, even transversed.
“Do you think you can do it?” the demon asks.
“I might be able to get a message through, eventually,” he says. Pairing up with the rumors they are already following about the smugglers, eventually may come sooner rather than later. “Is there someone in particular you want me to contact?”
“Send a message to the Nightwings,” she says. “Tell them Katriona has returned home to safety, and awaits the day when they, too, will ascend.”
And that’s how it starts.
Or perhaps it would be better to start at a more literal beginning.
When he is born, it’s not terribly long after the literacy ban. Certainly, much more time passes between his birth and his exile than passed between the ban and his birth.
Those scant decades were nothing to the Sap, who routinely live centuries. The law was ridiculous- the feeling in the groves was it could not last, but while it did last, they should at least keep up appearances.
Volfred learned to read as a child, at his mother’s roots. It did not occur to him, at first, that other children did not have similar experiences. No one spoke of it, of course, but he still got through most of his childhood believing that no one spoke of it and he saw no one do it outside of their homes because it was impolite, like pruning one’s foliage of dead leaves, not illegal, like protesting the war with the Harps.
But, eventually, he learned about the ban, and about the consequences for being found breaking the law, and that it wouldn’t matter, in the end. The law was a bad one, and bad laws did not last, not for Saps.
The humans and curs and wyrms and Harps would not be so lucky, of course, but such was the way of things.
Of course, he learns better. And learns and learns. He’s lived for more than two hundred and fifty years, when they catch him. Ten generations for humans and Harps; almost twice that for curs and wyrms.
And he’s watched the ever-tightening noose of the Commonwealth’s laws and bans and wars wear down upon them all.
He’s watched as the curs’ customs and celebrations begin to require permits, and then require special permission, and then are outlawed in public altogether.
He’s watched as the bog dwellers become more and more insular, any transaction with other citizens of the Commonwealth become the price of being left alone, to be paid with a grimace and gotten over with as quickly as possible.
He’s watched as the Sea Dominion becomes more and more indebted to the Commonwealth, a series of fishing accidents and problems with polluted water being routed into the sea placing them at the mercy of the land’s government. The debt is large, nearly unsurmountable, interest compounding and then compounding again as new disasters strike, until the Commonwealth so graciously allows them to pay it off with the blood of their knights.
He’s watched as the Commonwealth’s Harp citizens, never very numerous or well-liked, disappear bit by bit. Sometimes in an explosion of mob violence after a defeat in their never-ending war with the Highwing Remnant. Other times, it was sinisterly quiet, as though perhaps entire eyries had simply decided to leave in the middle of night, leaving their dwellings open for looters to pick over.
He’s watched military service for humans go from voluntary to mandatory. He’s watched the years of service raise from one to five. He’s watched the Commonwealth insinuate itself into affairs that should be private: outlawing marriages involving humans that can produce no children, mandating that unions should produce a certain number of healthy babies or risk being dissolved, all to feed the ongoing war.
He’s watched as what would have been considered natural rights a century previous become privileges, rewards for serving the Commonwealth. To the humans: serve ten years in the military and you may choose how many children to have when you marry; serve fifteen you may choose whether to marry at all. To the curs: pay a special tax, and you might display your clan colors, or wear your traditional jewelry; serve in the military and you might be buried according to your traditions. To the bog dwellers: you might practice your arts, and ply your crafts but only as we dictate, only with our institutions, only with our guidance and never with your own initiative.
He’s watched his people, too. He’s watch as they quietly move their own festivals indoors, and groom their children for vital positions in the Commonwealth’s bureaucracy, as they begin to shove their roots into shoes and surgically remove the foliage on their heads to make room for hairpieces. He watches as they comply with the as yet unvoiced- and therefore unenforceable- wishes of the Commonwealth government, and in so doing make themselves complicit in its wrongs.
He’s not sure whether or not young Saps learn to read at their parents’ roots, behind closed doors and with the understanding that they will outlive the literacy ban. Either answer is abhorrent in its own way.
He decides to stay and be arrested. It’s his choice.
Not that escape was ever likely, at that point. But he could have tried to run, or perhaps made some sort of stand. He could have escaped if he’d been willing to leave behind evidence of their contact with the Downside for the police to discover, but while that was a physical possibility it was a morally indefensible one.
His students and agents have all fled, taking what they need to continue the work with them. It’s only him here, alone, destroying what needs to be destroyed so that they might not be caught.
He finishes early. Not early enough to manage an escape- they’ve already surrounded the building, and he can hear shouting from below- but early enough to decide how he wants to be found.
In the end, he decides to go into the little room that has been both a bedroom and an office for him, and smoke. He’s got a little stash of herbs, the last of Bertrude’s special blend, kept with him all these years as something like the talismans he understands are so highly prized in the Downside. He’d been intended to smoke them once they’d located her, but under the circumstances it seems unlikely that he’ll have a better opportunity.
The herbs had long since gone stale, and indeed are very nearly powder. They’re dry, though, and catch quickly even with the shaking of his hands.
He’s terrified. He can feel the fine bristles on his leaves standing upright, and his phloem begin to firm. After a decade on the run, he knows for a fact that they’ll want to make a particular example of him. They’ll brand him, he knows that for sure, and that will likely not be end of it. The open-ended quality of it is what's truly frightening. He doesn't quite know what to expect.
Still. It’s been a long time in coming, and he’s nearly as prepared as he’ll ever be. He’s spent the last decade establishing communications with the Downside, and establishing a network of agents here in the Commonwealth. It’ll be a self-sustaining system without him- not that the police will know it, not at first. They’ll likely think that by catching him, they’ve put an end to it. In truth, he might very well be able to iron out some of the kinks in their lines of communication from the other side.
His main regret is that he still hasn’t been able to pinpoint Bertrude’s location- or verify her death, should it have come to that. He also hasn’t been able to get in touch with these ‘Nightwings’, who he rather feels a debt of gratitude towards, for the inspiration, and the hope. All in all, it's a very short list of regrets for someone who's spent the last two centuries or so in a state of insurrection.
He puffs on his pipe, and waits. The activity is a calming one. He is calm, he is calm, he is calm; this is his choice, and he will face it with dignity.
The first police officer to find him comes to an abrupt stop when he sees him.
Volfred affixes him with the look he used to use on students who clearly had not being paying attention to his lectures.
“Yes?” he asks.
The guard’s lips curl into a sneer. “Sandalwood,” he snarls.
“You are correct. Is there-”
For the life of him, he could never explain why the truncheon hitting his face took him by surprise.
And that’s the start of things too.
They start off on their walk, hand in hand on the sidewalk but not quite walking in the classical sense of the word. Bertrude, of course, slithers, and while Volfred normally forms his roots into two leg-like appendages he let them spread out more naturally beneath the hem of his robes for this. It helps to close the distance between their heights, for one thing.
They aren’t the only pair to do this. It isn’t terribly far from the university where he teaches, and as a matter of course there are many young people out and about at this time of night. Besides, it’s a dull world without books or writing of any kind, and the destruction of the Mangrove Library is the most excitement many have had in months, what with the bodies still being recovered from the wreckage, and all.
There are others come to pay their respects, as Volfred and Bertrude are doing, but they will not be acknowledging them. It’s too soon to be safe for- no, that’s not a reason. It will never be safe, but they have no plan for this. It would be danger for danger’s sake.
Going at all is also reckless, but there are some risks that simply must be taken, for the soul’s sake.
The Mangrove Library had been a cooperative effort between their peoples: unofficial, unfunded, but protected, contributed to and utilized by bog-dweller and Sap alike. They’d often gone there, for information, or the simple pleasure of being among books and away from the prying eyes of the Commonwealth. They’d printed several of the volumes that had been housed within it- had even taken requests, on occasion. They knew every person who’d burned in it.
That isn’t how it’s normally done: exile to a slow death by thirst, starvation and exposure was considered the more appropriate, merciful way to deal with rulebreakers. Or, at least, it has been. The official word of why this has happened has been the sort of contradictory that occurs when there are no common notes to work off of: it was the result of overzealousness on the part of the police, the true problem is that bog-dwellers and Saps are given too much autonomy, who’s to say that the insurrectionists didn’t start that fire themselves? Time will tell, which version Volfred will one day teach in his history class, should he be permitted to speak of it at all.
He will have to write of it, in either case. The truth has to be remembered.
They clutch at one another as they pass the spot by, each terrified by the thought of what they might do without the surety that they would bring the consequences down upon the other.
They look, they each pay their silent respects, and then the continue on. They turn the corner.
“We ssshall see the end of thisss,” Bertrude hisses suddenly.
They have been holding hands for too long, and Volfred knows that he’s already doomed himself to at least a week’s worth of numb and tingling fingertips. He gives her hand a squeeze anyway. “We should see to the end of it, I think.”
Volfred is not quite a century old yet; Bertrude is just past. They are young enough, by the standards of their peoples, to be forgiven a promise made in the heat of the moment. They are old enough, by dint of their experiences, to know that they must keep it anyway.
Perhaps the best start is also an end: the last thing he ever printed on his poor old Stamping Press.
It’s about Oralech, actually: a small booklet of opinions, solicited from his students and their students, about his sentencing. He provides an introduction, and editing, and, of course, the press itself, and even as the ink is drying on the first editions, he know that this is the finest thing he will ever put into print.
It’s the form of the thing that makes it work: a shining example of what open, civil debate might look like, in a world which is so far removed from such that it has been exiling people- including some very young teenagers- for being too obviously different for decades. Each perspective is different because each author is different. The cur belonging to the Order of the Silver Star has a very optimistic outlook for the possibility of peace with the Harps. The bog crone has been a midwife for a century, and therefore has a very keen understanding of a physician's duty to the preservation of life. The former Lieutenant, who had intended to spend their life in the military until the gangrene had set into their leg. The former knight, bravest and most bloodthirsty of the wyrms right up until she found she could stand the senselessness of it all no longer. The boy from the mountains, who’d grown up in a hamlet that was under Highwing control as often as it wasn’t, who knew the Harps as people no less reasonable and no more cruel than human soldiers could be.
There are well over a dozen of them, no two in complete agreement with one another. The one thing they have in common- and the main thrust of his introduction- is that exile is a useless punishment, both in Oralech’s specific case, and just in general.
The judiciary is obviously intending for Oralech to be an example. The town criers throughout the Commonwealth are bleating about it for days before and after his sentencing. Mercy for all, but demons like you. That’s what the official word had been. They decreed that this- the seeking of peace with the Harps, the weariness with the slaughter, even the very characterization of it as senseless- is the lowest possible crime, and all good citizens are expected to agree.
Publically, they do, of course. Privately, however...
The words prove incendiary. A second edition needs to be published within a fortnight, and a third less than a week later. They were careful, as they always were, but this was more of a demand than they’d ever been faced with before, a number well into the thousands. It’s inevitable that several copies should find their ways into the hands of the constabulary, and a bonfire night called.
The physical booklets themselves prove to be the exact opposite of incendiary. For a moment, it looks like it will work as usual, and in truth that’s what Volfred expects. But the fire splutters and dies too soon, and every subsequent attempt at rekindling it fails in an increasingly ludicrous fashion.
One of his students- and one of his peers on the faculty, and one of the coauthors of the booklet- has stretched himself out along the wall behind Volfred, his paws dangling off the edge. It places him in the perfect place to whisper in his ear. “A miracle from the scribes?”
“It’s something from someone, certainly,” Volfred mutters, and then makes a show of checking the time on the gold pocket watch he got for a hundred years spent on the university’s faculty.
It’s a miracle, of course, but he knows instinctively that it’s one of Bertrude’s. He has her formulas for ink and paper and binding glue, and they use them still. She’s be gone for two years. Sooner rather than later, they will put the two together, and suspicion will fall upon Volfred, her closest known associate.
“Let’s wait until some of the others have begun to disperse, and then take our leave,” he replies. “And when you do- make sure there is nothing untoward to be found in your house.”
His student’s ear perk up a little, even as his tail tucks between his legs. “Should I be worried, if you fail to show up for your lecture tomorrow?” he asks.
“I will almost certainly not be showing up,” Volfred tells him. “I find that I’m feeling quite ill.”
It’s not untrue. He feels unwell, uneasy- one might say queasy, if he were of a species that could vomit.
It’s not terribly long before the crowd disperses, bored by the lack of spectacle. His fellow faculty members want to stay longer, and discuss the possibilities behind this anomaly, but he has the excuse of feeling poorly already at hand.
He’s fairly certain that he makes it home without arousing suspicion. He’s not followed, at least.
He spends some time considering his options, that night. They will watch him closely, likely search his office and his house, as they did after Bertrude’s exile. Their scrutiny will probably only increase, now that they know that she has an accomplice. He’s the most likely suspect.
He would have to stop printing for a year, or more. He would have to be careful about who he spoke with and what he taught, even more than usual.
It’s unpalatable, but ultimately, that’s not really a deciding factor. There are two contenders for the title.
The first is concern for his students, particularly the coauthors of the booklet. Left to their own devices, he has no doubt that the police will presume- correctly- that this is the work of an entire network of people. They, as known associates of him, will be subject to greater scrutiny as well, and they might not be able to bear up under it. If Volfred were to disappear, carelessly leaving behind evidence which suggests that the coauthors were mere characters of his own design, then they might be left in peace.
Secondly, there is the matter of his correspondence, which he takes from its hiding place and places safely in his pocket. There are seven letters in total. One is from a former student of his, who he’d last seen laughing in mad defiance as her cage was tipped into the River Sclorian. That had been ten years previous; she lives in the Downside still. The rest are from family members of those friends he has in exile: people he knows he can trust, people who have a vested interested in seeing this new venture of his succeed.
People who might, in the short term at least, be able to give him a place to hide.
His aim, for almost two centuries now, has been to proliferate both reading material and the ability to read- the truth and the ability to divine it. In doing so, he has discovered that there are three things he can never run out of: students to teach, lies to debunk, and people who wish to read.
He knows what all the judges and constables in the whole of the Commonwealth will always fail to grasp: that all their talk of mercy and order might make them feel better about themselves, but it does nothing to make their victims feel as though what happened to them was justified. It has had quite the opposite effect. For every person exiled for trivial reasons- Scribes, even for people who had actually done something that might be reasonably expected to merit some punishment- their friends and families sat in the aftermath and became fertile ground for the seeds of resentment to germinate. All of the laws and the bans and the punishments and even the rewards have done nothing to make the Commonwealth more stable and secure. It has only made it inevitable that it will fall.
There is no small portion of the Commonwealth’s citizens who would happily rise up against their government, given sufficient reason. A very large portion of it would be reluctant to come of their government’s aid. All that they need now is a spark of some kind. A reason to believe that things might be made better. A hope.
He might find it here. He hasn’t yet, in all his decades teaching here, but stranger things have happened.
It’s far more likely that he’ll find it if he leaves, though, so leave he does.
Bertrude does not lie when she says that she was a great beauty during her youth. She cut a large and imposing figure amongst the bog crones of the Southern Bogs, and that along with her striking facial features and bright red serpentines made her very desirable to a wide variety of beings.
Though he sometimes thought that she occasionally enjoyed the feeling of power it brought her, it seemed to largely be a source of irritation by the time they met. Lovestruck fools would follow her everywhere, looking to shower her with gifts and serenade her with love songs, and Bertrude did not suffer fools, no matter what they were struck with.
Once, after she’d move to the capitol for their work, they were followed for several blocks by a human woman. They both agreed that it was likely that she was with the police, and returned to Bertrude’s apartment, where they’d hastily hidden everything incriminating. When the knock on the door came, Bertrude answered it, and the human had immediately launched into a love sonnet of her own composition.
Volfred had ended up having to more or less chase the poor girl away with a broom. Bertrude would doubtlessly have done it herself, but she was preoccupied with falling on the floor and cackling for a solid quarter of an hour, until even her serpentines had hiccups.
Naturally, Volfred knows nothing of this when first they meet. He notices her beauty of course, in much the same way he would notice a particularly well-carved statue. He notices the collection of love tokens piling up on her verandah too, but those he put down to evidence that he has very stiff competition for her services.
He’s not here to woo Bertrude the Beauty. He’s here to woo Bertrude the Alchemist. He’s here, in the Southern Bogs, having taken two trains and an airship away from his university, because he needs someone with ingenuity, discretion, and no small amount of disdain for Commonwealth Law. As he understands it, the one called Big Bertrude has those qualities in spades.
At first she doesn’t even let him in the door.
“Leave thine offering with the othersss, if thou mussst,” she calls from the window.
“Certainly, if that is your wish,” Volfred replies. “However this extract of cockatrice marrow will not keep well in the humidity for much longer.”
That’s gets him some eye contact, at least: she comes over to the window, and pokes her head out. She looks down at him, and he looks up at her. It’s one of the few times, over the course of their acquaintance, that such could be said, and most other occasions would involve Volfred being injured.
“As I understand it, you must been running low, after the incident with the constable’s daughter,” he continues carefully. It’s not one of the deeds generally attached to her name, but it’s recent, and from what he’s been able to find out about the case, very much in line with her work.
Bertrude narrows her eyes.
“Wait there,” she hisses. After a moment the door opens. She makes no move to turn so that he might enter, so he makes no move to attempt to enter.
“Thou hassst disssturbed our work,” Bertrude said. “For what purpossse?”
“More work for you, I’m afraid,” Volfred admits.
She snorts. “Of what kind?”
He hesitates, because he neither wants to assume her feelings on the matter nor presume that she was ignorant of the way the written word used to be disseminated. He settles on saying “Tell me- what do you know of the workings of a Stamping Press?”
She looks him up and down, gauging his sincerity- and his worth. Then she smiles, and holds out her hand. He transfers the marrow over to her for inspection.
“Thou will do,” she proclaims, slithering to the side a little so that he might enter. “Tell usss more of this Ssstamping Pressss, and your plansss.”
The first things Volfred ever writes are done longhand, and purely for his own benefit.
If one wishes to be complete, then the first things he writes are his mother’s exercises, designed to teach him how to hold a quill, and string together words into a coherent sentence. The first thing he writes for his own sake comes when he’s about thirty. He’d gone to visit a Harp acquaintance, and found her entire eyrie deserted. There are no people visible, no bodies, nothing to suggest foul play save for a few broken-in doors and some now insect infested meals left on plates on tables. It’s more than enough to leave him certain that something truly terrible has happened, and once he returns home he writes of it.
It’s a good thing he does. Within a decade, the last eyries in the Commonwealth have been blotted out. Five years after that, Archjustice Andromache XIII ascends from whatever cloister they keep future Archjustices in, and she decrees that there have never been any Harp citizens- merely sleeper cells, now eradicated with all due mercy. That’s the version of history Volfred is required to teach- in his classroom, at least.
It’s also, after a fashion, the first of his own writings that Volfred prints, once he gets his Stamping Press up and running: a history of the Commonwealth Harps, taken from a book he’d borrowed from his friend, and now no longer had the opportunity to return. He adds his own recollections to the end, as a sort of afterword:
I cannot tell you for certain what happened to them all. I have thought of the possibilities for many years since, and none are particularly kind. All I know for certain is that there were Harps living here as citizens of the Commonwealth. They lived here. They fell in love here, married here, reared their children and buried their elders here. They had shrines to the Silver Star in the eyries and kept altars to Saint Triesta by their nests. They worked, sometimes in their own business and more often for other people, and then they paid their due to the grocer, their rent to their landlords, their tithe to the Stars and their taxes to the government. They were wont to drink a strong red tea with honey in the evenings, and watch as their children played, leaving downy baby feathers strewn in every alleyway and yard.
Some eyries, as I have already said, were massacred. It was acknowledged, even if it was rarely punished. But those attacks alone would not have wiped the Commonwealth’s Harp population out. That was something else.
Archjustice Andromache XIII called it a mercy. She also called it an eradication of sleeper cells. Every part of that is a lie, save for the word ‘eradication’- and whatever form that eradication took, it took the Commonwealth Harps down to the smallest infant and feeblest elder.
Until such time as the interminable war with the Highwing Remnants ends, this is where the history of Harps in the Commonwealth ends.
He feels oddly empty, once he’s typeset the words. He stamps out the pages required for the completion of the book, and locks his workshop up once the ink has sufficiently dried. He sets the false wall back in its place, and locks the cellar door. He goes for a walk.
It takes roughly one city block for the emptiness to fade, leaving in its wake a cold, hard anger he hadn’t known was festering.
Amarati Lors, that had been her name- his friend among the Harps. She’d had green plumage that had a golden tint when the light hit it right. She’d been very patient with him, considering that by her people’s standards she’d been a grown woman whereas he’d still been in the early grip of adolescence. She’d been just a few years older than he. She’d been thirty-three when she’d disappeared. She’d be seventy-five now, had she not done so.
She might have plucked up the courage to go after that human man who owned the bakery just outside the eyrie. She might have married him, had children by him, had grandchildren even, by now.
She might have died of old age, peacefully in her sleep, as so many of the first of his human friends were doing these days. She’d been eradicated instead.
When it comes time to bind those first editions, he inserts a few extra pages into one, meant to be his own personal copy. He writes on it, in longhand once more, all he can remember about Amarati. He even sketches her face, insofar as he could be said to possess the ability to sketch.
It’s not so he can remember later on, because he’s in no danger of forgetting. Saps have long memories, most often unthreatened by either the passage of time or encroaching senility. He will remember her, as he will remember all his friends and loved ones: with near-perfect clarity until the day he dies.
She still requires a memorial. She requires justice. For now, the written word will have to do.
Mind the updated tags.
The first thought that entered his head when he was finally shoved into his cage prior to his sentencing was They really do not wish me to live, even in exile.
It’s very nearly the only coherent thought he has all day. The interrogation had been rougher than he’d braced for. They’d shaved the foliage from his head as though it were dead, nerveless human hair rather than a living, feeling part of himself. They’d carved the mark of Literacy so deeply into his head that he’s certain that no amount of woundwood will ever be able to heal it completely. Sap had run down his face, and then hardened into a resin, forcing one of his eyes shut and nearly laminating the muzzle he’d been fitted with to his face. It feels like- and Oralech will later confirm this to be true- part of the spile they’d used has broken off, and is still embedded in his arm.
There are gaps in his memory that will terrify him later, but he nevertheless retains the impression that he betrayed no one still alive and at liberty. It would not have been as difficult a thing to do as it might have otherwise been. He has been breaking the law for such a long time that he could have given them a name for every hour of every day they’d had him, and still not have it amount to anything they could use.
They left the chains on him after placing him in his cage. He’s attended enough sentencings in his time to know that’s not standard.
And he hurts. Scribes, but there is no part of him which isn’t experiencing at least an ache straight down to the core, if not outright agony.
He manages to stay mostly upright as they wheel his cage into the sentencing chamber. The justice of mercy assigned to him- nominally his advocate, but the practice of actually advocating on behalf of prisoners hasn’t been done in his lifetime- is armed. She would normally be, of course, but it’s usually a ceremonial sword, not a rather functional-looking musket rifle with a bayonet on the end.
He’s the only prisoner present in the sentencing chamber. Another oddity- exiles are often sent into the Downside by the dozens, sometimes even by the hundreds.
Something else which likely should not be happening: there is no audience, no onlookers, no one but himself and the justices.
He will later put together how plainly they fear him, but at the time, all he is capable of noticing is how plainly they want him dead. This is a lot, even if Saps are notoriously difficult to kill.
Ever the lovers of their own view of tradition, they begin to say all they are required to say before an exile, a routine call-and-response between the justices of peace on the bench and the justice of mercy next to his cage. Volfred lets the words wash over him, unheard. They are the same words they have said to far too many of his students, and to Bertrude. They are the same words they would say if he were some moon-touched child kicked into the streets by fearful parents. They are not meant, and therefore mean nothing.
And when they finish saying them, they will almost certainly shoot him and toss his body into the Downside. Even if someone who might have cared came across it, even if they were able to tell that he was killed by something other than the fall, then what could they do about it?
There’s nothing he can do about it, for that matter, save perhaps to refuse to give them the dignity of his attention, such as it might be.
The sudden crushing pain in his head, and a Voice which whispers through his mind And what were your plans, Volfred Sandalwood? is not so easily ignored.
There are so many unknowns, in the moment the follows that when he thinks of it later it nearly makes him dizzy. He doesn’t know what Reading is, at that moment. Later, he will not know if it was meant to hurt, or if it was simply the byproduct of attempt to intrude upon a mind that already felt scraped raw. He will not know if it is routine, though he hopes it is not.
In that moment, he is ignorant of the Rites, of their place in Commonwealth society, of their significance to the justices before him and to Archjustice Androbeles IX in particular. He knows there’s a way back, but could never have guessed the form it takes.
Nightwings, he thinks.
There is no rational explanation for this. At that point, he can only speculate as to what the word means on a good day, and this is a day on which he could not have strung together a thought to save his or anyone else’s life.
The Archjustice holds up his hand, and the call-and-response dies instantly. The pain in Volfred’s head increases exponentially. He would have clutched at it, if there had been enough slack in his chains. As it is he groans behind his muzzle and slumps against the bars of his cage.
Black spots dance in his vision, and when they clear the Archjustice is there. He’s removed his mask- he’s a younger man than Volfred would have guessed, with some scars down the side of his face.
They’re Howler scars, Volfred will learn later. Oralech had done as well as he could with the stitching, but the damage was too severe to avoid scarring entirely.
What was that? The Archjustice’s lips don’t move.
He will not connect that Voice to the Voice until he begins to conduct the Rites. He will not connect that face to Brighton’s face until he sees it amongst Oralech’s sketches. It does not even penetrate that this is, for all intents and purposes, the face of the enemy he has been fighting for so long.
Nightwings, he thinks. He thinks it so loudly, so strongly, that for a moment it blots out all else in his head, even the pain. Nightwings.
There is no rational reason for him to do this.
There is no rational reason for him to think this particular word, at this particular time. There is, perhaps, a divine one. Later, months later, after he is a nightwing, after he knows all about the Rites and their function and their corruption, after he realizes that the spark the revolution requires must come from the Downside, as the Scribes always intended it to… after all of that, he will scrape together some twigs and resin into an approximation of a traditional offering to the Vernal Star and leave it in the Glade of Lu with his most profound thanks.
The unspoken word hangs between them, a connection far more equal than that between justice and prisoner. Then suddenly, violently, Archjustice Androbeles IX lashes out, and Volfred’s cage tips back into the water.
He falls for a very long time.
He lands in the Downside, battered and distinctly worse for wear, but alive.
Bertrude is utterly necessary, when it comes to his role in hastening the downfall of the Commonwealth. That is the first thing he wishes all those biographers would remember.
He does not speak merely of her material services, though those were innumerable and invaluable in their own right. The inks and papers and binding glue, the improvements to the Stamping Press, the illustrations she drew for him were necessary for the proliferation of their material, and the inspiration of so very many of the children of the revolution to join them. Her sacrifice, when she’d laughingly, gloatingly taken full responsibility for the same and left him, drifting in a shocked fog for weeks afterwards and watched closely by the authorities for months, but alive and at liberty for more than a decade afterwards, had likewise proved to be needed. Without that, he would have never turned his attention to the Downside, would never have discovered the smuggling network already in place and turned it towards a nobler purpose, and the Commonwealth might have stood for decades more.
He speaks of the fact that without her he could not have ever conceived of the Plan in the first place. He would not have been Volfred Sandalwood the Revolutionary without her friendship. At most, he might have been Volfred Sandalwood the Malcontent.
He was a very solitary man when they first met. Part of it was nature- Saps are known to be self-involved, and though he likes to think of himself as different from the general trend there are some things which hold true, up to a point. Part of it was nurture- for reasons she was never ever to satisfactorily explain, his mother had chosen to raise her progeny not in a grove amongst other saps, but in a largely human neighborhood, not terribly far from a cur den and a Harp eyrie. As such, he spent much of his adolescence watching his oldest friends die of natural causes. It’s a process which does not end until after he has found the press, but those first deaths were somewhat traumatic. It was a very strange experience, of being half-grown himself and watching the curs whither and die, of watching the humans march to war and never return, of seeing every Harp he’d known even in passing disappear… it proved to be rather a formative experience, like a hammer against heated metal.
(He probably could have confided in his mother, even if he’d known that showing such a weakness in front of Saps from other family lines was ill-advised. But he could never quite consider his mother to be much a confidant.)
Part of it was pragmatism. He had very little idea as to what he wanted to do with himself as a young man, but he knew he disliked how the Commonwealth was run, and knew that the combination of insurrection and literacy was a dangerous one. Anyone he was involved with, anyone he was close to, would be at risk whether he involved them or not.
(He chose so many of his first students poorly, when it came to teaching them what truth he knew of history, and how to read. He chose for caution, and survivability. He lost so very few of them to the Downside, but they accomplished so very little with the knowledge they were given. Most did not even teach any students of their own.)
So he was keeping to himself mostly, when he showed up at her doorstep in the Southern Bogs. He had his mother, still, and would for nearly a century more, which couldn’t be helped. His sister still lived, presumably, but they hadn’t actually spoken since she left for the Westerly Woods, and become involved in the various isolationist politics there. He had his students, a few of which he trusted well enough to impart reading lessons upon, but he was careful not to allow himself to grow too fond of them. He had his dalliances when the season took him, but he was careful to choose men who were nice enough to look at in the night and he was sure to find disagreeable company during the day, a system which worked out surprisingly well for him.
Bertrude changes that.
He must work closely with her, to begin with. She needs to see the Stamping Press, examine its parts, even attempt to operate it before she can gauge what sort of materials it can work with, and she requires to make them. It’s nerve wracking, that first appointment, but his nerves dissipate after a time. She is, after all, involved in a great number of illicit activities all her own, plying her trade right under the Commonwealth’s nose. His requests do not place her in any graver danger than she has already placed herself in.
(And, of course, she is a bog crone. She will very likely outlive him.)
She also challenges him. When he has a problem, she helps pick it apart until he has a solution. When he has a solution, she picks it apart until he has a better one. When he’s being an ass, when he’s wallowing when he should be working, when things seem hopeless and he feels helpless, she’s the one who pulls him out of it.
She teaches him, inadvertently, to reach out to others, and listen to them in return. She teaches him, more deliberately, to form relationships, to mourn, and then to continue- because there would be no greater insult to their memories, to their chosen legacies, than to give up after they were gone. She teaches him that there is no way to do this on his own, and it’s a lesson much more gently taught than he perhaps deserves, at that age. He is as indebted to her for it as he is for those years when he was in the Commonwealth and she was in the Downside.
(He is indebted to her too, for what happens when they are both in the Downside. For what happens after the worst day of his life. For what happens when he has watched two of the most important people in his life perish, and the only body he has to bury belongs to Erisa, who he is so blindingly furious at that there really is no truer word for it than hatred.
He goes to the Flagging Hands after dealing with the blackwagon because it suits his mood- and because something about potentially running into a vampire squash from the Fallowfields is appealing. And he goes because the tiny part of him not buried beneath his grief knows that’s where Bertrude is, and knows that if there is anyone left alive who might be able to pull him out of it, it’s her.
This proves to be correct.)
There simply could never have been a Plan without Bertrude, not from him. In all honesty, he cannot imagine the Commonwealth falling without her.
(He doesn’t realize that there is a significant unevenness to their feelings for one another until it’s too late to cut ties with her, or at least attempt to create some distance, to spare her feelings. She is, after all, as necessary to their budding revolution as she is to him, personally.)
The Stamping Press is actually his grandfather’s originally.
He never knew the old man had it, until after he’s dead. He accompanies his mother to his house in the afternoons to clean it out for sale, and on one such afternoon he finds it. It’s in mint condition, for a given definition that includes having never been assembled and still in its original packaging.
He never learns why his grandfather had it. His grandfather had a great many things, and while the Stamping Press is by far and away the most illegal of them, it is by far and away not the only illegal item kept in his house.
It makes a wonderful distraction for his mother, who (thank the Scribes) does not notice as he lugs the crates out, and places them over with the pile of furniture he intends to use in the house he’s been renting. He even places some books in the crates, right at the top. If she’d bothered to check, she would likely presume the crates to be full of nothing but books, and that was one vice which she’d never made so much as a disappointed sound over.
The books, incidentally, ended up being about some archaic tax code once applied to the Westerly Wood. All forty-seven volumes of them. It was easily the dullest read of his life, which he slogged through due to sheer force of spite alone.
Volfred is not generally given to spite. It takes years.
It takes some doing to get the crates into the secret library he has in the basement. For one thing, the landlady is a very old cur, who doesn’t quite know that there is a secret room of any kind in her basement, but does have very keen hearing still, and a nose for gossip. It takes some months to move the crates in fully. Partially, this is because he has to do the moving himself, and he has to do the moving when she won’t be around to see. He keeps some in a rented storage area, until his mother grows paranoid enough about the possibility of a random check finding the books to consent to keep the crates in her cellar for the time being. Another reason is that he himself is not often in the capitol for very long. There isn’t room on the staff of the history department at present, so he has to wait until someone either dies, retires, or is sent into exile before they can take him on.
The history department is, at the time, comprised of five Saps and a bog crone. He understands that, despite the provost’s very sincere commitment to his joining her staff, the wait may be a long one. So he bounces around for a bit. He gives guest lectures, defends thesis in front of various committees… he even did a brief stint as an apprentice to a very well-respected archaeologist, which was utterly frustrating. If the man had some belief, however misguided, that forcing the fragments they recovered from the Spiral Sanctum to fit whatever established narrative the Commonwealth had decreed to be history, that would have been one thing. But Professor Hovannes knew it was wrong. He knew it in the moral sense, and he knew it in that he openly, laughingly read out the fragments to him and the other workers.
Volfred quietly commits several fragments to memory, and learns how to sound like he’s laughing with someone who is making truly reprehensible jokes about truly reprehensible behavior. It's not, by any means, the first lie he's told, but it is the first time he's lied and thought Well, at least this will be good practice for later.
When he finally manages to put the last of the crates in his library, he feels enormously clever, for the entire ten seconds it takes him to realize that he has to actually assemble the thing now.
Mechanical expertise has never been a strength of his. This part of the process takes years. He is careful, so very careful. He cannot misplace any of the many thousands of moving pieces, because they cannot be replaced. There is no manual or diagram included in the crates, and so he must guess as to what goes where. He can’t force any of the pieces to fit together because, again, if one breaks it cannot be replaced.
For the first two years that he works on the Stamping Press, he has it set on its side, simply because he doesn’t know any better.
Once he finally, finally has it in working order, the very next problem presents itself: materials for printing.
By that time he’s a professor- well, he’s an adjunct. He teaches a lot of the introductory courses all freshmen are required to take- Elementary Mnemonics, Dictation, Oration, a sort of primer on the Stars and their chosen Scribes that is so different from what he was taught as a child that it’s all he can do, sometimes, not to laugh- and that affords him an allowance of paper and ink, so he could draw diagrams to help him remember his lesson plans, or explain tricky concepts to students. It’s enough for his personal writings, but not enough- not nearly enough- for what he has in mind.
Throughout it all, he has gone through great lengths to see this to its end on his own. But now he has to concede that he needs a partner. He needs inks and paper and binding glue and something to cover the books themselves with…
So he starts looking for someone: an alchemist whose priorities might be said to be in line with his own. His search leads him straight to Bertrude.
It’s a very auspicious start indeed.
I'm actually really excited about this one!
There is a saying, in the Commonwealth: that Saps are slow to age, slower to die, and slowest of all to change. Volfred has always considered himself to live in the reverse of that. He would change and bring change with as much urgency as he could, and if that cost him the experience of dying of old age, then so be it.
But Saps truly are notoriously difficult to kill. It’s not merely the fact that, left to their own devices, they could easily live to their fourth century or beyond- though, that might be why so many of them do tend to prefer their own devices. A Sap’s bark is thicker and less easily penetrable by blade or mace than the skin of any other race- even small-caliber bullets have difficulty, at times. Many common diseases pass them over entirely, even as they jump from cur to human to Harp to bog dweller. They do not require air to the degree that even a bog crone would- they mainly breathe only to take in the air required to produce speech.
Still, there are ways. Fire is an old and reliable method. Saps might not be susceptible to diseases like dysentery or spachenpox, but fungal infections were serious, and often fatal. And, of course, there’s water. Given enough time, water would wear down the tallest mountain- and given considerably less time, it would fell a Sap.
It was an old method of execution, dating back to the pre-Imperial barbarism of the Copses in what is today the Westerly Wood. Take a Sap from any enemy cultivar, seal them in a barrel full of water, with their head left exposed, and allow the rot to take them.
The cages that carry exiles in the Downside are meant to be more civilized, he supposes.
He doesn’t remember very much of his first days in the Downside. But he could make several educated guesses, and ultimately he concurred with Oralech, that it was the water that would have done him in, if they hadn’t found him when they did.
He’s been in the Downside for some time when they came across him- two days at least, no more than five. That time is a blur of heat and pain and encroaching rot, and he retains nothing more than fragments. Still, he can reconstruct a reasonable account of that time from what he knows.
He’s still in chains, when he is found. Therefore, he didn’t swim to the shore, but rather had to walk along the bed of the pool at the base of the waterfall until the water became shallow enough to surface. It’s hard to say how long this might have taken. The pool is not very big, but he would have likely not been able to walk very straight. It may have been some hours before he emerged- it’s not impossible, though it would have done his health no favors.
He’s mostly out of the water, and some great distance away from the fall when he’s found. Therefore, he must have been alternating between walking in the river and walking in the desert surrounding it. The desert would have been treacherous to travel on, but it also would have aided in drying him out some, which he would have sorely needed, especially to travel so far. The river would have provided him with nutrients, after a fashion. Root-feeding was not generally done past the age of ten or so, unless there was a famine, but he hadn’t eaten since the day of his arrest, and that had been at least a fortnight before his banishment.
The sun would have beat down upon the soft, new bark just forming on the top of his head. He knows this, because it takes months for him to stop being distracted by how directly he can feel the elements now, and years before he fully breaks himself of the habit of checking to make sure his foliage wasn’t about to fall into his eyes.
At some point, he fell, and did not have the strength to get back up again. That much is obvious to anyone. Given a little more time, it would have been obvious even to the Howlers.
He’s fairly certain that’s the whole of it. It’s not impossible that something unanticipated happened, but the unanticipated in the Downside is often fatal, and he’s still very much alive when he’s found.
Not that Oralech or Erisa could tell that, at first.
That’s his first clear memory of the Downside: Oralech’s fingers, feeling strangely soft and cool as he looks for any signs of life.
“Scribes,” he says softly, after a moment. “I don’t think we missed him by much.”
“Would you have been able to help him any if we’d gotten here while he was still alive?” That was Erisa.
“I would have tried.”
They leave, just for a moment.
Am I dead? Volfred thinks. I was sure that being dead involved less pain.
They come back. Volfred can feel something being shoved into the sand next to him.
“Come on, let’s get him out of these chains, for starters.”
They attempt to lever him into something like a sitting position, which proves to be his salvation, though he doesn’t appreciate it very much at the time. He’d been keeping quiet up until that point, not because he thought these newcomers couldn’t be trusted, but rather because he was running purely on instinct and he knew attempting to speak- or anything of that kind- would hurt. Water had seeped beneath his muzzle and into his throat, sitting heavily on already-hoarse vocal reeds and settling rot into them. It would be weeks before he could make any kind of vocalizations without an undue amount of pain. Under less skilled hands than Oralech’s, the damage might even have been permanent.
One of Erisa’s fingers ends up partially in the hole where the spile is still lodged. Oralech’s hand catched on the muzzle, which pulls at the resin hardened over his face- it feels like his bark is ripping off of his face. It’s not the sort of pain that can be borne silently, even if he can’t quite scream.
Oralech and Erisa both freeze.
“Do Saps do that when they’re dead?” she asks.
“Not generally,” Oralech tells her. “Quickly, lay him back down.”
“Triesta shat the roost, Oralech, what kind of a doctor are you?” Erisa says, though she assists him in laying Volfred back down. “I was about to suggest chiseling away at his wrists.”
Oralech pauses, his hands resting on the sides of Volfred’s face. “Why?”
“These chains are made from an orichalcum-steel alloy!” Erisa hisses back. “You can’t just get metal like that down here!”
“How do you even- never mind the metallurgy,” Oralech says.
Around this point, it occurs to Volfred that he should probably take a look at the people kneeling over him. His left eye is still encased in resin, but he can open his right, for long enough to get a blurry impression of the two humans, and a strong enough impression of the sun to realize that, actually, he does not wish to have his eye open after all.
“Stay with him Erisa.”
“What- where are you going?”
“We’ll need my medicine chest and likely some other things as well! Stay with him!”
“Sure I’ll just stay here with my charming bedside manner and complete lack of medical skills and YOU BETTER GRAB MY KIT TOO THIS JUST BECAME A MUCH MORE DELICATE JOB!” Her voice grows progressively louder as she continues, and Oralech is too far away for Volfred to process his response. Whatever it was, it causes Erisa to sigh, stand, and then haul him out of the water entirely.
This does not sit well with him. He flails, insofar as he is able with his arms chained to his sides and his roots more like overcooked noodles than limbs.
“Hey! Cut that out!” Erisa says. She takes him by the shoulders and pins him down with an ease that says as much about her innate strength as it does his present weakness. “Look, I can’t tell from under all that what you did to piss them off so badly, but that doesn’t matter. Really, it doesn’t- would you stop. Okay, look- just- for fuck’s sake. Can you open your eye again?”
Wherever he got the energy to flail from, it runs out quickly. He stills.
“Look at me, okay?”
He forces his eye open again. Erisa’s face isn’t terribly far from his own.
“You see?” She points to her face. Volfred can see that she has a mark there, but is in no state to connect that to her words to it, much less make out the shape of it and connect it to patricide. “So, I doubt you have worse than that, so you’re good, okay? He’s a doctor, I’m a blacksmith- if you are going to have any chance at all, you need us. Just- stay calm until Doc gets back. Can you do that? I’m shit at this. Just- be calm, okay? Right now I’d rather those chains came off you rather than your corpse.”
Oralech returns not long after that, medicine chest in hand, and there his memory grows mercifully fragmented once more.
Looking back at it now, it’s patently obvious that his first published works are rather reactionary.
They’re mostly reprints, for one thing: works of nonfiction, history mainly. The closest thing he publishes to his own works is the afterword of the Harp history, and exercise books designed to aid in the learning of literacy. He writes, of course, but his writings are largely private, or at least personal, to be shared only with Bertrude.
For a time, this suffices to assuage his conscious. Largely this is because, quite in spite of himself, he still believes in the wisdom he received as a boy: that one day that Commonwealth’s ban on literacy would end, and until then, all that was required of him was to preserve knowledge for future use. It’s not nothing, after all, to save the truth from destruction and obscurity. It’s just not all there needs to be.
The destruction of the Mangrove Library is, in addition to a horrific tragedy, something of a wake up call as to his own complacency. Preservation is not enough, and never has been. The ban on literacy and the government which enforces it with exile and destruction… these are evils which must be faced down directly. He cannot simply wait for it to end on its own.
Resolving to take a path and actually setting out on it are two entirely separate matters. Volfred spends a great deal of time staring down at the paper he’d intended to write his first draft out upon, before carefully putting his forbidden materials away, dropping his pipe into the vest pocket of his robes, and heading out to see Bertrude.
She is living in an apartment complex which houses a borderline-notorious group of bog crones- not generally the sort to tread on the toes of those who might be able to exile them, at least not in any way that could be traced back to them- but still practicing arts the Commonwealth pretends to not encourage. It makes for a very convincing smokescreen for Bertrude and her genuinely dangerous activities, as well as something of a protective buffer of willful blindness. Just as she is entrusted with not reporting on their activities with the police, they take it upon themselves not to betray her. It’s one of those paradoxes of living in a society such as the one the Commonwealth has become: there is more honor and sympathy to be found among the law-breaking than the law-abiding.
He knocks on her door to find her still awake- in the midst of an experiment which was, thankfully, more tedious than volatile at the moment. She lets him spew out his troubles and smoke until the ceiling is shrouded in it, and even Volfred, who has developed a tolerance for such things, offers to open the window and let the air clear a bit.
She refuses, citing the need for temperature control over whatever it was that she was in the process of evaporating. Privately, Volfred suspects that it’s also to do with the fact that it’s winter, a cold and dry season in the capitol, and Bertrude is still used to the humid warmth of the Southern Bogs.
This is what eventually costs her the security deposit on her apartment: not the residue from one of her potions that solidified over the work stove and refused to be removed, nor the small explosion that nearly destroys her a good part of her laboratory. Those are considered normal wear and tear for renting to a bog crone. The smoke from his pipe which stains the ceiling and settles its scent into the carpeting after several decades of regular visitations is not.
He puts his pipe out instead, and then turns to her, running his fingers through his already frazzled foliage as he does so. “The thing it everything I think to say is wrong. It’s trite. It’s overwrought. It’s too obvious. It’s inadequate. Where do I even begin to detail how far we have fallen?”
Bertrude nods to show that she’s listening, and flicks her nail against the glass of the solution that she’s evaporating. Volfred takes a moment to study her.
“You needn’t continue with on this endeavour, you know,” he says gently. She looks at him so sharply that there is no doubt in his mind as to what her answer will be, but still: he must ask. “I recognize that this is a much more dangerous thing than I had originally contacted you about.”
She snorts, and slithers over to him. “We are with thee, Volfred Sssandalwood,” she says, laying a hand on his arm. “Until the end of the path, whatever ssshape that end may take.”
Volfred finds himself to be unexpectedly touched by this.
“Besssidesss,” she adds after a moment. “We have already committed actsss that would sssee us in exile. We may asss well do more, nrgggggh.”
“True enough,” Volfred admits. “Though, I still don’t know where to start.”
“Ssstart wherever ye are most upssset, work until ye are not,” Bertrude advises. “Thy wordsss have moved us many timesss. They will move us many more, and othersss asss well. Write, and edit thy wordsss later.”
He dislikes editing. He wants things to go correctly the first time. It’s a failing of his, one he’s aware of and is attempting to make steps to correct.
“Now, begone from thisss place,” Bertrude admonishes him. “Ye have writing to do, and our work aproachesss a critical ssstage.”
So he takes her advice, and his leave of her, and returns home. He steals back down into his private office, and sits at his desk. He pulls out quill and ink and paper, and he writes.
I suppose I should start with an apology. Or perhaps, confession is the better word.
He will never get anywhere if he continues to agonize over word choice thusly.
Like I imagine so many people think, I believed that if I kept my activities quiet and was careful not to directly confront any of the powers that be, I would be left alone. That my friends would be left alone. I believed that this was sufficient.
Sufficient for what, he can’t quite articulate, so he leaves it there for now.
And, as I imagine so many of you reading this have yourselves done, I only came to realize my error as a result of personal loss. There is no being left alone, you see. There is no safe place to hide without fear of discovery. Sooner or later, the Commonwealth will come for us all, for one reason or another.
He strikes through that last sentence almost immediately.
I was taught, as a boy, that the Commonwealth’s laws might be draconian, and in many cases downright idiotic, but that this was not cause for despair. On the contrary, it was proof that things could not last: sooner or later, and probably sooner, something would happen and the government would come crashing down. Now I wonder
He stops, for a long enough time that the ink dries in his quill. He dips it back into the pot and begins anew.
Now I wonder what sort of happening was envisioned. A bolt of divine retribution, perhaps? The Scribes themselves returning to admonish the government formed in their name? Some mass awakening amongst the justices as to the harm their policies were causing their subjects? No. It’s us. It has always been us. If there is to be an end to this oppression, it will come from our hands and our words and our deeds, or not at all. If there is to be a revolution then it must begin with-
He nearly writes it must begin with me, but stops himself almost the moment the words enter into his head. It’s not untrue. It’s also insulting specific for his aims.
It must begin with you.
Better, but still too small.
It must begin with all of you, with each and every one of us. With every person who has committed any small act of rebellion, whether it be learning to read, or turning a blind eye to neighbors who more readily break laws. Together, we can create those safe places so many of us crave, we can protect our loved one’s from the Commonwealth’s reach, and we can be the end of this nightmare.
There. It needs editing, just as Bertrude predicted, but it’s out now.
It makes an adequate foreword to his Manual on Revolution, eventually. In turn, his Manual on Revolution quickly becomes one of those books which he must reprint each year in batches of two hundred. In turn, it becomes one of three books he compiles into an omnibus, to be printed out in batches of a hundred each year, sandwiched between A History of the Harps in the Commonwealth and The Teachings of the Scribes, heavily annotated with every bit of historical documentation he can get his hands on.
Bertrude is, as usual, quite correct. His words seem to resonate with a large number of people.
He supposes that it should be disheartening, that so many people- himself always, always included- did not recognize the need for more direct action until it turned up on their doorstep. It is disheartening on occasion, when he knows the newest member of their band of revolutionaries not as a student or a victim of the Commonwealth’s laws, but as someone who had been all too willing to enact those laws until they fell from favor.
He keeps that feeling to himself. He does believe, in spite of everything, that the Commonwealth was intended to be a merciful society. He does believe that such a society is possible. And if he cannot act in accordance with that belief, then he is not fit to be a part of this revolution.
He becomes quite an accomplished liar over his years of insurrection. Unlike some of the other less savory skills he picks up- the ability to Read thoughts into and out of people’s heads, rather than simply Reading them from their heads being chief among them- it’s one he knows is necessary and takes care to cultivate from the start.
The trick is to do it as passively and indirectly as possible. For the sake of their own protection, many in the Commonwealth do not question things that are put in front of them- many seem to have shut down their ability to do so even within the privacy of their own thoughts.
So that’s the first, and most essential lie: to create the sort of persona that would be beneath suspicion and beyond question by all but the most determined of minds. The role of unassuming history professor is easy to take up. He feigns a certain disorganization and absent-mindedness to account for missing paper and ink from his ration, and a few other things as well, that must be made to disappear over the years.
He makes a show of acquiescing whenever a new Archjustice is appointed and orders modified sets of history and doctrine to be taught. Indeed, each time it happens he makes a point of inviting the messenger into his office for tea to discuss strategies for imparting this new ‘truth’ to his students, so as to avoid confusion.
He recites the oath with his students in the great hall each morning, not with any particular zeal but rather with the same dull expression so many wear while they recite this, a reminder of loyalty so empty that the words had ceased to have any meaning.
And then, as he gives his prepared lectures and seminars and grades his student’s speeches in accordance with Commonwealth doctrine, he watches for those who disagree.
He has to be careful with that part. Simply because one of his students makes a disagreeable face at his seminar doesn’t mean they’re in favor of revolution. A sneer during his lecture on Saint Triesta might mean that the student in question felt that the Harps were incapable of assimilating to Commonwealth culture, rather than they felt like it never should have been asked of them anyway.
He has to look for patterns, ask certain open-ended questions, and, in the end, with each student, he must take a leap of faith.
It must be said that he never leaps and is rewarded with failure. He chooses a receptive audience every time- and not one of his students ever betrays him, or one another. Considering that he taught for nearly two hundred years, it’s an oddity, if one which strikes him only in hindsight, once he has spent some time Reading and discovered that he has quite the talent for it.
Then comes his next big lie: study groups.
Oh, some of them are quite genuine. Most of his human students are the children of wealthy industrialists, aristocrats in all but name with all the privileges that implies, and his cur students tend to hail from one of the mercantile clans that assimilated and now do quite well for themselves, moving goods up and down the River and its many tributaries, and into and out of many shops and warehouses. The Saps and bog crones he teaches are often only in the Capitol because they wish to study in university. They’ve often been attending academies and scholastic apprenticeships since they were small- a period of several decades when it comes to the Saps and the bog crones. These students, he finds, often do just fine with minimal help from him.
But every so often, he gets a different kind of student- those who have distinguished themselves in battle, or suffered some kind of calamity that made them worthy, in the Commonwealth’s eyes, of receiving scholarships. Sometimes some rural community, or Eighth World commune, or traditionalist cur clan scrapes together enough to send a pupil to university. There is even, more rarely, the odd wyrm who has grown weary of fighting. These students require more help.
Humans have mandatory schooling, of course, full days from the ages of three to ten, half days from ten to twelve, one day weekly meetings until they turn sixteen and the recruiter comes knocking to give them their regimental assignments. These mandatory schools aren’t schools as Volfred would understand them, however- they’re military training grounds. There humans learn to march in formation, to never question orders, to fire a crossbow, or swing a sword, or charge with a lance, to run for miles in the rain over rough terrain, to do violence without hesitation, and to pack and unpack a ‘field standard kit’ quickly. In some places, students are split off into groups as they grow older, most remaining in the standard infantry, others becoming janissaries, medics, transistors, battle-smiths, siege engineers, or outriders.There are even places in the north where students might walk into class on day and find themselves faced with a row of cudgels and a Harp kept prisoner under a net, and be expected to beat her to death as a kind of exam.
Even laying the dubious morality aside, these lessons do not do much to prepare anyone for university.
The curs do not have mandatory schooling, but those who are from traditionalist clans often have the long memories and verbal acuity necessary to sing all the old songs. A little discretion, some Commonwealth-appropriate polish, and they can easily stand toe to toe with any of the more conventional students. The wyrms, on the other hand, tend to be a bit hopeless at first, in the sense of literally being without hope. There is naught but struggle in the Sea Dominion, as he understands it, so much so that many are genuinely grateful to make landfall, where at least their death in battle against the Harps might be considered a glorious end. The wyrms he teaches have, to the last, given up on that dream, and very often have little to replace it with. The rest are unpredictable. He might end up with a perilously bright young woman fresh from the transistor corps, who has rightfully dazzled her teachers and commanding officers alike. He might end up with an obviously moon-touched child a good five years younger than their peers who places their bare feet on the walls on his lecture hall and asks the strangest and most imperative questions. Add that to the odd Sap or bog crone who’s experiencing a greater degree of culture shock than anticipated, and he often has his work cut out for him- both in terms of academics and in keeping his students from being exiled for simply saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. A certain number of his students will be exiled, of course- after so long in academia he would be a fool not to acknowledge that. That doesn’t mean they need to spend their freedom on something as petty as an argument with the bursar, and after so long in academia he knows he can teach them as much, if he can spot them early enough.
Then there are the expected study groups. If one thrives at university, one will almost certainly go on to better things- to more authoritative things, to things which brought with them power and wealth. Every professor is expected to select the most promising of their students and curry favor with them, so that they might later be able to increase their own prestige and influence. These study groups are little more than cocktail parties and an excuse to show off and make a few connections one might otherwise miss- alumni are frequent guests at these types of gatherings, for example- and an invitation to one is not to be ignored lightly.
Volfred hosts these types of study groups as well. He does it because it is expected of him, and because it does him no harm to have the powerful and self-important feel they owe him a favor, and because it does the Revolution good to have the ability to place people in positions of power, and to hear information before it’s officially announced to the public.
Then there is the third study group, the one composed of people from the first two groups and others besides. When questioned about it, he always says that he selects people on the basis of their ability to hold interesting dinner-time conversations.
It’s not wholly a lie, as all his best lies are. He does serve dinner at these meetings, and they do have some truly invigorating conversations at them. He simply also utilizes this time to teach his chosen students how to read.
That is the way of things, for many long decades. Students become agents; agents become networks; networks become actions.
He sees it most clearly once he has left his university for a life on the run from the law, the actions his children of the revolution have taken. He moves along secret paths, in secret compartments long since built into stagecoaches and railway cars; he stays in numerous safehouses, neither the first nor the last to be given a bed in exchange for little more than the correct passphrase, or the introduction of a mutual friend. There are hostels whose entire business seems to be housing revolutionaries in need of a place to lie low for a time. It’s not just their communication with those trapped in the Downside that they work on either, though at the time it seems his most important work. There are schools for literacy held under bridges for any who wanted to learn of the Scribes and their Book and the importance of reading. People often hold strikes and sit-ins and coordinated protests against inhumane production quotas, for all that such actions are as illegal as reading. They’ve built and kept libraries, scattered about in every major city, serving as bulwarks for history, creativity, and philosophy- something to build upon once this is done.
Once this is done. During that last decade of freedom, he begins once more to believe what he’d once considered a lie of his childhood: that he would outlive the Commonwealth. How could he not, when such evidence was before him? He teaches in the schools his students have founded, speaks to inspire the protests they have called for, sits down to strategize in the libraries they’ve built and hidden away. They are numerous, they are organized, and at every turn Volfred feels as though he is witnessing the final coalescence of the Commonwealth’s coming fall.
How could he doubt it, when it is no longer a statement of passivity, but of purpose? He’s always envisioned this to be a revolution of a thousand little necessary rebellions, something that might grow quietly before being revealed once it had grown too strong to be ignored. He’d first envisioned it over a century ago, however- generations for many of the other races. They had taught their children, who had taught their children, who had taught their children… the people he works with now are as likely to be raised with the belief that they can bring about the Commonwealth’s end as they were to have discovered revolution on their own. They have their own culture of heretics, poets, historians and artists that thrived and teemed on the margins of the Commonwealth, whose own intellectual spheres had stifled and stagnated for centuries.
How could he doubt it, even though it is still a lie in many respects? So many have died to further their cause, even just in the ten years he was on the run from the law. He’d known his own death was a possibility when he was captured, and he would feel it a certainty when he was sentenced. Many people do not outlive the Commonwealth, and he could have very easily been one of them. He’d been prepared to do that- he has to believe that they had been too.
Some lies aren’t really worthy of the title, after all. They aren’t meant as provable facts, so much as guiding intents, and context is everything.
“We will outlive this,” he’d been told when he was younger, and then it had meant so keep your head down and wait for it to pass on its own.
“We will outlive this,” he says, many times over in the years before his capture, and then as in now he means because we’re going to bring about the Commonwealth’s end.
He can’t doubt it. As he’s said, it was his choice to remain behind and be captured. In order for him to do that, he has to trust that this revolution that he’d help shape in its infancy and over a century later had found shelter in would continue, no matter what happens to him or any other individual who claims its goals as their own.
He has to believe it, when the mayor of Tisfon City- the city of his capture- comes to visit him in the holding cell the local constabulary before his transfer to the Old Capitol for interrogation and sentencing. She’d been a student of his, not more than thirty years ago. He’d disliked her then, and likes her even less now, with the bars of the damp little cell between them.
“I don’t suppose you have anything to say for yourself, do you?” she asks.
“My capture doesn’t change anything,” he says. He lets the words strain under the depth of the conviction he means to convey. “Neither will my exile- nor my execution, should it come to that. The revolution will continue, and we will outlive you.” He lets the words hang in the air for a moment before curling his lips in a parody of a smile. “So in answer to your question: no, I don’t have anything to say for myself.”
Metaphor, he recalls, has never been a strong suit of hers. She storms out without actually formulating a question, though it’s obvious that she tries for some minutes.
Volfred tries to settle into his cell without touching any of the water-slicked walls, and waits for things to start.
Fun fact: If had thought to give these chapters any names, this one would have been called "Lies, Damned Lies, and Tenure".
The Plan comes to him in a flash.
It comes after- well. After a great many things. After his exile, and his rescue by the Nightwings. After his vocal reeds have recovered as much as they are going to, and he can speak his normal amount, even if his voice no longer quite sounds like his voice. After he has accepted the position of Reader, and the Rites have begun anew, and has been scrambling ensure they can compete with more seasoned triumvirates, leaning heavily on Oralech’s vast experience, Sandra’s ability to perform practice rites, and the Book of Rites itself. After Oralech has mentioned the community of bog-dwellers in the southern portion of the Flagging Hands as a place to trade before setting off to cross the Sea of Solis, seeing as all rumor points to the fishing and mining community on the northern shore having been recently devastated by a tsunami. After their wagon has gotten stuck in one of the allegedly safe paths there and none other than Bertrude has come to investigate.
After he’s said “You’re alive!” and gotten “What have they done to thine head?” in reply. After she has invited them back to her shop/home, for poultices and creams to keep the effects of the Hands at bay. After they had met up with the Tempers again, fresh from their narrow defeat at the Pit and having heard the same rumors as the Nightwings, and everything has become something of a party.
“Do you still keep your liquors to the left of the icebox?” Volfred asks her.
Bertrude snorts. “If ye think we shall part with the brandy, dear asss it isss in thisss place-”
“I’m already adding tea to the list of supplies to be sent down by my agents,” Volfred tells her. “And smoked fish, and pipeweed, and apples.” The tea is for Oralech, the fish for Ti’zo, and the apples for Erisa. The pipeweed is because he is in desperate need of a good smoke. “I can certainly add brandy as well.”
“Ye better,” Bertrude grumbles, but waves in the direction of her shop in permission.
Oralech notices him leaving, and raises an eyebrow in question. Volfred cups his hand and lifts it a little (drink), lowers his hand again with the palm face down (here), presses two fingers together and briefly waves them (soon), and inclines his head towards Bertrude (the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone).
It had taken weeks of Oralech’s care before he could speak at all, followed by several more weeks of having a greatly constricted number of words he was allowed to speak. Oralech had enforced this edict by occasionally threatening to smother him, but more often by encouraging Erisa to compose loud and somewhat distressing lymericks every time he opened his mouth after having used the day’s allotment of words. At one point Ti’zo had even threatened to attempt to recreate his ancestor’s feat and try to fly into his mouth. After that, Volfred had decided that a graceful surrender was probably for the best, and resigned himself to communicating primarily with their own cobbled together sign language, developed as needed. Mainly by Volfred’s needs, but Oralech has some hand signals from his army days that prove easy to utilize, and any signs that involve the prominent display of the middle finger are of Erisa’s design. They still use it, now; it will be some time before Volfred realizes that he can Read outside of a Rite, and having a form of nonverbal communication they can rely on is an edge when it comes to things like haggling.
The spirits are, indeed, to the left of the partially buried container he takes to be the ice box; Bertrude has always been exact in her placement of items. It’s something that’s always been, not quite a bone of contention, but something to tease each other with. One day, early into their friendship, Bertrude had gone home to visit relatives, leaving Volfred to tend to her orchids, bloodroot, cohosh, bumi flowers and the like. On a whim, he’d turned all the furniture in her apartment slightly to the west the day before she was due to return home. She’d said nothing of it, but when he’d returned from a conference two weeks later he’d found that his entire library had been placed onto the bookshelves, including one he would have sworn hadn’t been there before, and arranged alphabetically- by title. They’d been little more than overgrown children at the time, in terms of emotional maturity. It had set the tone for the rest of the summer.
He finds a bottle of brandy that looks like it won’t be too dearly missed before he can secure replacements, and heads back outside. No sooner does he cross the threshold then he stops short, overcome.
He’s rather inordinately fond of them all. Bertrude, of course, is his oldest and dearest friend. Ti’zo has proven to be, once they had gotten past the part where he’d sunk his teeth into Volfred’s arm and not been removed for some hours, quite an amiable and clever companion. Oralech is unbearably gentle, and almost detrimentally noble-minded, and has the sort of wit that sneaks upon you and leaves you laughing until you forget that your laughter hadn’t always sounded like that. Volfred may have fallen rather hard there. And, of course, he’s fond of Erisa as well.
Perhaps he should pause there, and explain. It wasn’t that he hadn’t known about her temper, or her violent impulses. He was her Reader, and such knowledge could not be hidden from him. It was simply that, as her Reader, he also understood it. He didn’t see her memories, precisely, but he got the general gist of why: nights with no sleep and little food or water, the sparks from the forge the only thing keep her from falling over in a dead faint; bruises and burns and broken bones; an entire village that heard the screaming and saw the marks and never did anything but warn their own children to stay away from the two of them. He knew how diligently and constantly she worked to control her anger and the urge to lash out, and how her own tendencies irritated her on a good day and frightened her most of the rest of the time.
And she was so young. Fully grown, by the time Volfred knew her, of course, but she very plainly had not been when they’d exiled her. It was one more fact that made it easy to be sympathetic to her struggles, and easy to believe that she might one day grow past them. He had the distinct impression that she’d mellowed during her travels with Oralech, and every reason to believe that she would mature further. He’d rather thought that once she’d managed to shake herself free of the frightened, scarred girl she had been for most of her life she would be quite the self-possessed young woman- if also undoubtedly still crass and sarcastic. He was looking forwards to seeing it, though he understood that the Downside offered even fewer guarantees than University did to his students.
It will take years, but eventually he’ll realize that what she did that day was nothing more and nothing less than an extension of that war she’d been waging with herself for the entire time he’d known her. On that day, like all other days, she’d gotten up and done battle with her baser instincts, and unlike most other days, she’d lost. Most of the time, losing would mean that something heavy was hurled at Volfred’s head, or some rather nasty invectives were thrown in Oralech’s directions. On one memorable occasion, she’d even managed to throw Ti’zo at Volfred’s head while screaming at Oralech, a feat of such unlikely mutlitasking that it jarred her out of it. On that day, however, it meant pushing Oralech off the mountain, leaping to her own death, and irrevocably shattering the Nightwings. It wasn’t malicious, or premeditated. Likely, she hadn’t even known what she was doing until Oralech was already over the edge and she herself was already doomed.
It’ll take him some years more before he can admit that this means that he had no chance to Read her intentions and prevent them from becoming actions. Perhaps one day he’ll even believe that, without reservation.
So, to resume: fondness.
Yes, there’s a swell of fondness for the people he sees. There’s joy, even that most unlikely of places: he has found a place with good people, found that path to freedom he’d so long speculated about, found Bertrude alive and well and still a very able alchemist. Perhaps without that, the inspiration would not have come- or perhaps the inspiration would have done more to him than root him in place for a moment.
It feels like when he’s studying the Book, and suddenly he understands yes, we can move more swiftly, return more promptly, deal more damage, if we just- and then the moment ends, suddenly and with no explanation as to how it began. It feels like that a hundred, a thousand times over, in the space of instant that stretches into infinity.
The Tempers are lead by a woman who, even here in the Downside where titles are meaningless, could never be addressed as anything less than General Meraki Toth. She’s an old contact of Oralech’s, from his days of trying to broker a peace, and currently Erisa seems to be developing a bit of a crush on her. Lady River, who at thirty should be past her prime but does not show it in the least, is with her, as is Talina Ioreth, a wing-sister of hers, and a rowdy young cur by the name of Ileska Yellowfang. Several of Bertrude’s acolytes have gathered around, including a middle-aged woman with horns that twist up from her head towards the night sky.
This is what the Scribes saw.
Difference made small by shared hardship. Once-adversaries turned to respectful competitors, if not outright friends. Peoples united, but not subsumed. At least one of each race, save for a Sap, save for Volfred himself. He was all that was needed to complete to picture.
This is what the Scribes wanted.
Not the Commonwealth that Volfred had known his whole life, or even the Commonwealth the government claims itself to be, but an ideal of respect and affection. After all, when those first exiles had been liberated, they had not returned to government built on the returned, but an Empire who had thought themselves well shot of them and was a little preoccupied with its own destruction.
A society which raises a clenched fist against its own shall follow the doomed path of the Empire of Sahr.
Yes, indeed it would, complete with exiles risen from the Downside to herald its destruction.
He’s not sure what kind of expression is on his face- rapture? terror? giddy delight?- but whatever it is is severe enough that Erisa does a double take when she turned away from General Meraki long enough to catch sight of him.
“You okay there, Volf?” she asks.
“Perfectly fine,” Volfred replies. The moment has passed, leaving a feeling of disconnect. He’s almost getting used to it, the sensation of ideas that aren’t exactly his own suddenly manifesting in his head. He holds up the bottle, and finds he can smile easily, genuinely. “Shall we?”
It doesn’t fool Bertrude in the slightest, and he can tell that she will draw him aside later and ask what happened. He wonders what he’ll tell her. And then he knows.
Bertrude, I saw it, he’ll say. I know how we’re going to bring the Commonwealth down. The end has just begun.
I had intended for there to be fifteen chapters. "Chapter Fifteen" is now almost as long as this entire fic, though, so I guess I'm just going to write a follow up????
Stay tuned for more of the revolution, I guess.