by Den Valdron
THE FALL OF MANT
An argument broke out, with bitter claims and feuds. I listened to as much as I could gather.
It seemed that some time after Mant’s surface had been abandoned, there had been a trickle of refugees half mad with fear and hunger telling tales of the vanishing seas, the green hordes running rampant, the fall of nations and even the thinning of the air.
Had those refugees been the ones to desecrate the tombs above? I wondered.
There had only been a handful, each more desperate than the last. And then a few raiders, who had made their way in wreaking destruction before they were overwhelmed, and told their own tales of a world gasping its last.
They, like Az-Lium had assumed that the world above had died, that they were the last survivors, and nothing remained beyond. The Judgment of an angry god.
The notion that metal had been forged long after they’d assumed the world destroyed... Well, that was astonishing to the point of blasphemy.
“Enough!” Shouted the Jewel Master’s strident voice, her face filled with naked frustration.
Finally, when the tumult had subsided. She turned her focus to us.
“You are not messengers of God, are you?” She asked, in a tone that brooked only one answer.
“No,” I said.
Beside me, Vadak Eth’s eyes widened and he mouthed at me. What was I doing? I waved him and the others down. There was no point in trying to maintain a lie that your target had no intention of believing.
“And you must have some device or trick, that causes seizures,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied. “but we are reluctant to use it, for fear of causing permanent injury.”
She nodded with satisfaction.
“You told the Mollusk farmers that you were a Princess... From Az-Lium.”
I nodded back. And then caught myself, and said “Yes.”
“Az-Lium appears in our most ancient records.”
“It still exists,” I said, “it endures upon the surface.”
“But the surface is uninhabitable.”
“Your people went underground, we built a dome to protect ourselves.”
She seemed to think that over, and finally accepted it.
“Princess is an archaic obsolete title,” she said, “vaguely similar to a sort of Jeweler.”
“It is still used in Az-Lium,” I told her, “though we do not have true equivalents to Jewelers there.”
“So, you are a person of great importance, you have traveled through the land...”
“Across the surface,” I corrected.
I noted shudders of revulsion at the mere mention of the surface.
“Traveled across the surface,” she suppressed a shiver, “to come here.”
She leaned back.
“Why? What do you want?”
What did we want? I could tell her we were refugees fleeing the fall of my city? Travelers? Mercenaries? My mind flitted through different versions of the truth. Perhaps with a more sympathetic audience. But these cold minds? The best we could hope for was lifelong imprisonment here, or quick and quiet executions.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked.
“Invasion,” one ventured.
Oh, no no no, I thought. Too obvious.
Rapidly dug unmarked graves filled my mind.
I forced an authentic laugh. “Six of us? Including a woman and an old man? A remarkable invasion force, don’t you think?”
That brought a small round of chuckles, at the speaker’s expense. I sensed some politics behind it. He was not well liked by some.
“Trade?” offered another, as much to stick a needle into his companion’s foolishness, as in genuine query. But, watching their reactions, the idea seemed to hit home with several of them.
These people did not conceal their expressions, or the language of their bodies at all. Their thoughts lay all on the surface, I realized. They could not see each other, only hear and touch. So if they were not touching, they concealed nothing. It was astonishing, voices that gave away nothing, but faces once you learned to read, that revealed everything.
“Yes,” I said, “our mission is trade.”
“Trade?” the Jeweler asked, showing interest despite her dismissive tone. “What sort of trade? For what? With whom? What could you possibly offer?”
But it was already falling into place. I wasn’t watching her. I was watching the metal taster, as he held the knife, going stiff with shock, and then quickly running a finger along the flat of the knife.
“Steel,” Aspar Aguus roared. “New metal, fresh metal, copper, aluminum, silver, gold, blades and tools, metal of every sort, tools shaped and crafted to your whim.”
Stepping on my lines, I thought, rolling my eyes. But he brought a boisterous enthusiasm to it, so I decided to forgive him.
And suddenly, they were utterly speechless. Astonishment, excitement... but horror. Aspar Aguus had said the right thing.
“Incalculable,” one whispered. “The wealth... incalculable.”
But he’d gone too far.
“Ruin,” the Head Jeweler snapped. “Every piece of metal in the Four towns is measured, weighed, treasured and catalogued. The very fulcrum of our culture, of our relations, are balanced upon them. Flood our economy with metal, and it would be a ... Flood. The value of metal would collapse, and with it the worth of everything else would be thrown into chaos. It would ruin everything.”
They had floods down here, I noted. There didn’t seem to be any useful application to the notion. Instead, I watched the idea of metal trade careen around their heads, full of terrors and opportunities, all writ plain upon their faces.
“There are the theological implications,” a more careful Jeweler said, “metal is holy. How does it affect holiness if metal were to be as common as... Mollusks.”
As I watched, the first flush of greed and anticipation ran its course and doubts set in. They wanted it, yes, but they were afraid. If that fear grew enough, it was bodies in a ditch again. Would mollusks eat our corpses? I hoped not.
“I agree, that the matter is complex and troublesome. This is why,” I waited for a theatrical pause, “I propose to offer you a trading monopoly!”
“What...” The Head Jeweler floundered, “what could you possibly want in exchange for so much metal, such wealth. If you have that, what could you require? We are but a poor nation, your price is too high.”
“Mollusk leather,” Japh Leah replied. “Meat and food. Crafts. Jewels and crystals.”
“Ah,” she snapped back, recovering altogether too quickly, “gems. In the most ancient histories, the outsiders coveted the gems even more than metal. But our gems are holy too, for without them, we cannot see clear to the afterlife when we pass from this world. We cannot part with them easily.”
“This is too much,” a Jeweler said, the one who had feared invasion, “she speaks truth. These strangers will unleash a flood to drown us all, there is no channeling such waters. We are the only ones who know of them. Kill them all.”
Yes, I thought, I’d seen it coming.
“There are two problems with such a proposal,” I said.
“Three,” amended Aspar Aguus.
I had their attention. “First, we are merely the explorers, no matter what happens to us, this place is known. Others will come.”
“Second, we have already met with the leaders of Manal.”
There was an explosion of consternation. I should say so, I’d heard of it only a moment ago.
“They have said nothing of this!” Someone yelled, in between cries of “lies” and “outrage.” I grinned. I was waiting for that.
“Of course they said nothing,” I replied, “they had the prospect of a monopoly. Wouldn’t you keep such a secret?”
That shut them up.
“The third?” The Head Jeweler asked. She was playing for time! I recognized the tactic, having used it so often myself.
“The third,” Aspar Aguus grinned horrifically, I was only sorry they could not see it, “is that we are very very had to kill. Perhaps impossible. While you.... are very very close, and perhaps not hard at all.”
But the threat was unnecessary, and she barely paid it heed.
“How can we be sure you are what you claim?” she demanded. “Perhaps you are mere wanderers, or refugees.”
It was a poor gambit, and we both knew it. Wanderers and refugees of unspeakable wealth? She didn’t believe it even as she said it. But she caused some of her companions to waver.
“I am the Princess of Az-Lium,” I replied, “a place you know from your own histories. But you have seen that I have companions not of my own race. You think that yours is the first lands we have explored, yours the first people we have discovered and traded with?”
I paused dramatically, “Aspar Aguus, what are you?”
I mouthed the word as carefully as I could. Aguus grinned.
“I am an ambassador,” he replied, “of the nation of Orgus, bound by treaty to Az-Lium, through its royal house.”
For once, he’d managed to get it right. I wanted to kiss him.
“We have no records of the Orgus, yet here you are. The ages have made strange creatures of the human race,” the old hag replied. Aguus grinned again.
“And Ton Sabat, is of the city of Tazor Ylan, beyond the Jagged Lands.”
She sighed. “Our histories have heard of Tazor.”
She drummed her fingers against her thigh.
She gave up.
“It seems,” the Head Jeweler said sourly, “you have us. I presume that now we must negotiate a trade agreement. But to ensure your good faith, we require tokens of metal to prove your worth... And you will leave a hostage.”
The Archivist heaved a sigh.
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