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16

↤ HUSK ↦

I

(that is, the hollowing out of a body entire)


Dallam Jel grew up in a sorrowful place. Her mother was part of the sacking of the free city of Ingyen, which overgrew itself on the eastern coast of the Central Continent, and was a thriving trading hub that absorbed goods to and from the northern cities. Those cities were blocked by the line of mountains that both provided resources to mine and isolated the people living there. Without Ingyen, the northern cities would die a suffocating death as their bilateral trading dried up.


This made the city particularly appealing to the forces surrounding it, as controlling trade with the northern cities would make a rich Fealty even wealthier. Such was the desire of the Ihaal, the most prosperous of the Fealties.


For nearly four hundred summers, the Ihaal lineage had carefully increased their lot by building a strong military presence and overthrowing the normally independent trade cities scattered throughout the upper half of the continent. Most of the vast mineral wealth of the land moved through those cities, and the Ihaal took their cut much as a swarm of flies pick at an animal carcass.


The strategy of power through conquest was assisted by their bloodless occupation of the cities afterwards. They would be allowed to continue to govern and make laws as before, but with the caveat that all trade moving through their borders would make their way into the Ihaal treasury.


Compliance was always high given the brutal way their enforcers — who were benignly called Auditors — would come down upon anyone that failed to live up to their obligations under the tariffs. Punishment would start with excised limbs and escalated to wholesale slaughter. It was not uncommon for recently sacked cities under the Ihaal to have the bodies of “the noncompliant” gutted and strung up on crosses at the edge of town as a warning to do as they wanted.


But if the money was given and the Auditors allowed to oversee things without interference, little else changed for the population. As generations wore on, the memory of the initial horror diminished and the tariffs were just another part of doing business in a bustling trade city.


The Ihaal had grown fat from the largesse that these cities provided over the centuries, which was wisely reinvested into improving trade routes, finding new opportunities for raw material mines, and continuing to train and grow their shadow army of Auditors.


It had been nearly eighty summers since the Ihaal had used their army to take a city for their own. The Fealty’s leadership felt that they had solidified their power on the continent, and further intrusions into other territories could only lead to lower profits.


But then there was Evar ed Vigan — Evar the Crippled, heir apparent to the Ihaal Fealty. Born with weak muscles, he couldn’t walk without the aid of crutches, and when he spoke his words seemed slurred and ungainly. But though seen as witless, behind his infirmities was a bright and cunning mind.


His mother, chronically ill throughout his life, died from some infirmity that robbed her of her faculties just one summer before he became a man. She was a frail, diminished thing when whatever sickness had rooted into her finally decided to end her life, but she was kind to him, believing that he was as strong as he made himself. She pushed for him to be educated as any other child of an Ihaal leader, encouraged him to strengthen his muscles as best he could, and refused to allow him to be quietly moved to an out of the way place where he wouldn’t be seen.


His father was not so benevolent, thinking the gods had cursed him with his indigent son for some sin he must have committed. He was far more concerned with getting another, worthier child out of his ailing wife than submitting to the grim outlook this lame boy held for their great dynasty.


It was not to be, and so the lineage of the kingdom was thrown into uncertainty. While his father lived, there was consistency, but the rising fears of life after him became ever more present as the years wore on. Though the wealthy and powerful lived longer than the stepped-upon dirt holding them aloft, they didn’t live forever.


Shortly before Evar’s twenty-fifth summer, his father took ill. He held no sorrow or pity for the aging king’s inevitable death, for he’d bore decades of abuse and misery from the old man’s distaste for him.


He hadn’t had his mother’s protection for many years, but there were members of the extended royal family that had taken a shine to him, overcoming their skepticism of his infirmity and listening when he spoke. He’d gained confidantes and made promises that they would be gifted prominent positions in a rule of his command.


But though he was the sole heir, male or otherwise, to his father’s reign, it was not obvious that he would become ruler. The true governing class were the five ministers who sat in power over the laws and leadership of the Ihaal. Appointed for life, replacements were nominated by the monarch and approved by the remaining ministers. But if the ministers were to all meet an untimely end, the monarch’s replacements would be automatically confirmed.


And so came The Crimson Night, named because there had never been such blood and fire n the darkest hours of the house of Ihaal.


It was tidy, in its way. Each of the five ministers slept within a small section of the city, all certain of their power and security, slumbering with unknown dreams dancing in their heads. But shadows crept up their balconies and stairs, opening loose windows and slipping into the corners they had not checked.


The grand bell at the center of the city rang in the middle of every night. Halfway between dusk and dawn, the singular spectacle of its warble would reach even homes on the very edges of Vahta. Visitors to the city were often awoken from their slumber by the sound, which rang so clear and intently, only to find the citizens there remained quietly sleeping.


Anyone who moved to Vahta would be turned away from work for two weeks because of the “tumesil” — dreamless sleeps. It took a half month for the mind to filter the bell during the night, allowing for uninterrupted rest. But until then, the mind would become slippery and strange, wet with longing for dreams untangled by the clang in the darkness.


Because of this deprived sleep, tourists would be looser with coin, less aggressive, and leave the city with a feeling of being in some other world, while those accustomed to the sound stayed firm in the reality of what was. It was a manipulation that paid for itself in the stories and songs sung of the mysterious Vahta, with its bright blue-tiled roofs and sunlit-white exteriors.


But on that particular night, the black figures of men wrapped in the purple colors of darkness stood above the beds of the five ministers and waited with stilled breath. Their blades were freshly sharpened, hovering a hair’s width away from the throats of the men who controlled the Ihaal Fealty. They waited until they heard the sound.


And with the concussive knell, the ministers’ throats were opened and spilled of all within. The shrieks of wives and lovers hidden under the singular music of the bell. Eggshell sheets quickly stained red with the blood of the ministers, their silent killers gone before the resonance faded away to chime.


After that, there was not a person in the Fealty who questioned Evar’s leadership or cunning. As no ministers remained to oppose him, he implanted his pre-chosen five, all of which were entirely supportive of his ambitions and position.


With his place secured, he organized and executed the sacking of Ingyen, one of the last remaining free trade cities.


Jel’s mother Eles — then all of thirteen summer’s old — had the unfortunate timing to be at the border market with her father the day of the attack. She was distractedly drawing in the dirt with a stick as he attempted to swindle an artisan with what he claimed were genuine pearldrop beads at an unbeatable price, but were actually worthless counterfeits.


The calamitous sound of the nearby gates exploding inward was so sudden that many actually looked to the sky, thinking thunder had somehow reached them on that cloudless summer day. Those close enough to the entrance to see it happen would recall the splintering wood flaying into the streets, revealing the slain bodies of the guards who had been brutalized by the Ihaal army.


Eles was a few blocks away and could spy the commotion with her young eyes. She would remember there were no individual men, just an ocean of swords and armor pouring into the city. The tangled mass of violence cut down guards and innocents alike in their pursuit of the Ihaal’s pleasures.


Had her father been cleverer, or more nimble, he might have grabbed his daughter then and tugged her deeper into the marketplace, towards the central nexus of the city. Instead he stood there agog, his face betraying utter confusion as he failed to do anything. Eles grabbed at him, begging him to run, but he was already fat and immovable without the added irons of fear he had then.


So she ran alone, sparing a look back to witness a soldier’s blade pierce her father’s stomach and exit his back. Her greatest regret in life was that she looked back that day, though perhaps she wonders if the mystery of his fate would be worse than knowing.


She hid under a woodworker’s booth, abandoned by the owner as he fled for home. She was paralyzed by the frightening sounds of screams, and the even more terrifying silence that followed.


She could only lie on the ground and peer through a misshapen crack in the wood to see the horror unfolding around her. She might have been ignored if not for the yelp she made when an old man’s body fell in front of the booth, startling her. The soldier who’d gutted him heard her surprised cry and ducked behind the booth to grab at her.


There was no way to overpower an armored man a decade older and a hundred pounds heavier, but she fought nonetheless, kicking and screaming in a blind panic until he punched her in the jaw. She would always remember the feeling of a back tooth crunching out of her mouth.


Dazed and unable to do anything but stare at the sunbleached fabric overhanging the stall, she drifted into a shimmering state of mind disconnected from body. As the grunting man entered her, the pain of him ripping into her seemed as distant as an echo in old mountain valleys. Memories lifted and fell as a timid breeze, meandering through her head with comfort and ease.


Her mother singing by the river.


The traipsing sisters at the festival who giggled with her.


A brush of wind against her as she stood on the cliffs overlooking the eastern seas.


Pieces.


Moments.


A disjointed tapestry stitched for her to witness while the man with green eyes raped her.


She didn’t even realize he was gone until some time after. The noise of the incursion had quieted, and the sun had taken less of an interest in shining down on them, melting into the crimson golds of twilight hour.


When she stood up, she was confused by the sticky feeling of something running out onto her thigh. She reached down to find blood mixed with whatever the man had left behind, though she didn’t know what that was at the time. She rubbed it between her fingers experimentally, without having thought to why.


She eventually stood and walked out into the street, the chaos having shifted to other streets and alleyways far away from her. In the grim shadows of near night, she beheld the bodies and blood, tattered with remnants of the lives lost. Shattered pots, crushed fruits, empty stalls. Loss and broken parts.


She stumbled and walked, aimlessly, for how long she could not say. But it was dark when the old woman and her husband asked her if she needed help, and led her to their home without response. She fed and bathed her, and the man of years carried her to the bed that would be her nightly home until some time after.


Jel was told this story, and the tumult to follow, on a near endless loop as she grew up. The couple were kind, but demanding. For Eles’s stay, she was expected to be their housemaid, and with few other prospects, she settled into the role.As the seasons changed and Eles grew fat with her unborn, so did the city change with her. Like any successful parasite, the Ihaal subsumed the bustling metropolis into its gyres, though the influence was more subtle and insidious than the initial sacking. The true cunning and success of the Ihaal, and Evar’s success as its most recent leader, was due their impeccable way of making their permanent occupation the new way of things.


First came the Auditors, with their prim purple robes laced with gold fabric. They began in the central nexus of the city’s trading hub and worked outward, wasps delicatizing over a hive they conquered. They would have their wooden boards with scrolls upon them, coalpen at the ready, and setup mandatory meetings with the maestros of the trade commissions.


We realize this is a shock, but we’re only here to do our job, they would say. All of the Auditors had a serpentine disposition, as if they struggled to hold themselves in the skin of men. It became a dark and begrudging joke amongst the Ihaal conquered that you could see an Auditor’s forked tongue if you watched them talk long enough.


Your lives will go on as always, we are just going to excise a tax of sorts, they would also say. But it wasn’t a tax as such, it was a drain of blood from an unwilling donor. Not enough to kill or even incapacitate, but siphoned away to the gluttonous coiffers of the Ihaal. Every piece of cargo, materials mined, anything that passed through the eastern port would have an excise removed from it.


But this was not sufficient, not by half. The Auditors, having absorbed the most profitable industry, extended their tendrils into the lives of the common folk. It would be too grueling to go to each shopkeeper in the city and demand a piece, so instead they had a puppet government installed that passed taxes for them. The taxes wouldn’t fix the roads or keep the peace or feed the hungry — no, they were taken off in carts and nestled in the Ihaal treasury. Not so much that it would cripple anyone, and growth was allowed and encouraged, but shavings off the top of the coin were now dedicated to the city’s new masters.


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