By E. Markham
He’d almost been disappointed to find Lamak’s central station was old but well kept, like most stations this far from the Capital. The vagueness of the briefing he’d received before leaving the Capital had left ample space for imagining the worst, and he'd half expected to step off the train into a tattered ruin of a station. He sighed. What did a dying city look like?
During the briefing he’d realised that no one knew why cities died but everyone in the Service understood the nightmare that it created. Pagia was a land where little changed over generations and the process of moving the population of Lamak to a new settlement over just of twenty or thirty years, was very painful. He wasn't sure he wanted his family's name becoming synonymous with such a terrible event.
Qvar’s bag wobbled it’s way toward him down the aged conveyer, the distinctive sound of it’s locator catching his attention. He slung it over his shoulder and joined the stream of sunworn farmers heading out of the station, walking slowly so he could note the garb of each person who passed him. This small survey showed that amongst the majority wearing local costume, were many from regions all over Pagia, indicating that Lamak was still a healthy trading centre.
A group of young local men showed their frustration at his leisurely pace by pushing passed and one lad, deliberately jostling him, hissed “Wast-rel!”, as he planted an elbow in Qvar’s ribs.
It wasn't the first time he'd been mistaken for a Wastrel, and if it hadn't been for the pain in his side, he might have found it amusing. He could forgive the mistake because in the regions they rarely saw Wastrels but to lay a hand on anyone in Service black was unforgivable. Wishing for no further trouble, Qvar moved a little faster and readied his identity slip well before he reached the barrier.
He chose the longest of the exit queues, giving him a few extra moments to inspect the state of the barriers before he’d passed through the scan and found himself on Lamak’s main boulevard. Looking around he realised that the entire boulevard was a toe deep in dust and frowning slightly made a note in his memcom to check if there’d been a dirt storm recently. Crossing the road Qvar consulted his notes for the address of a recommended bakery and set off down a side street toward the residential quarter.
The street was packed with farmers, traders, and locals, and Qvar found the going slow. A few blocks from his destination the way was blocked by a farming family trying to reverse their kart. As he waited patiently while a man and woman tried to guide the driver into the traffic, he noticed a group of children playing on the opposite side of the road and wondered how it was they’d gotten so filthy. Even considering the thick dust on the street, they definitely looked like they hadn’t seen a bath for some time.
One of the younger children noticed him watching and whispered something to the others. They all stopped playing and stood staring and pointing at him. He smiled and waved, but this seemed to terrify them, and they scampered off down the street. A man who had witnessed this looked furiously at Qvar, spitting on the footpath to show his anger. Luckily the kart moved and Qvar hurried passed deciding that Lamak wasn't the friendliest of places.
When he reached the bakery, he was pleased to find it was past the lunch rush, and ordering he took a seat near the door. He could see why it had received a recommendation – the food was plain and simple, without any challenging regional dishes. By the time his food arrived Qvar had noted what the other diners were eating and where they were from, as best as he could tell from their garb. Most were farmers from the outer areas of the region Lamak serviced and, with the exception of one young farmer, they were all sitting reading the produce lists.
As he ate, Qvar watched the young man staring attentively out the window as though he was waiting for something to appear. Qvar recognised in him, the type of man his eldest brother had been around the time Qvar had entered the Service. Dedicated to the farming life, with an eye constantly on the produce lists and spending a third of the year in towns far from home selling what had taken the rest of the year to grow. Like every native of Pagia, the strong sun and harsh winds had made his skin thick and leathery, but the extra hours spent outdoors had given him the worn darkness peculiar to farmers.
By the time Qvar had finished his meal, the bakery was almost empty and only he and the farmer remained. Pushing his empty bowl away Qvar watched aghast as a heavy trader's kart rolled passed by causing a thick cloud of dust to rise up and float in through the bakery’s open door. Qvar put his sleeve to his mouth but the dust found it’s way to his lungs and he began coughing violently. The proprietor swore and rushed out with a broom, creating a series of smaller clouds as he swept.
“Never sit near an open door in Lamak.” the young farmer commented and then patting the back of the chair next to his added, “Join me if you like.”
Qvar smiled and moved to the offered seat. “Has there been a storm in the last few days?”
The man gave a disgusted snort, “No. Lamak is always filthy.”
“Always like this?” Qvar asked surprised.
“In my lifetime. But I’m young and once it was my parents favourite trade stop, so I guess it hasn’t always been so.”
Qvar nodded. This wasn’t welcome information, and Qvar was tempted to press him further on his observations about the city but noticing the young man’s attention straying back to the street, he instead asked, “Are you waiting for someone?”
To Qvar’s surprise, the young man blushed and gave an embarrassed smile, “Truth be known, I had heard that a Waster was in Lamak for and I’ve been hoping to see them.”
“Have you seen one before?”
“A few times in my travels.” his smile broadened at the memory, “I think they are most remarkable.”
Suddenly Qvar exclaimed, “That explains it!”
“Apologies. I have been getting unfriendly responses ever since I got off the train this morning… I suspect people have been expecting to see the Waster and mistaking me for one.”
The man looked at him and with a slight nod said, “You do have the fairness of a Wastrel about you but I wouldn't have thought anyone could mistake you for a Waster.”
“In my experience, sometimes just the Service black is enough to cause the error.” Qvar said gesturing to his clothes. “Though I’ll admit it was a little unusual.”
“I suppose it was quite rude… round here they seem to dislike Wasters more than in other towns. Just this morning I heard a lady saying things that I wouldn’t repeat.”
“Not an attitude you share?”
The young man shook his head, “I don’t pretend to know much about Wasters, but I see no harm in them and even if they are just royal play things, or whatever people think, in Lamak they have no right to judge them. This town is a disgrace to all Pagia!” Seeing the surprise on Qvar’s face the farmer smiled, “I’m sorry. I’m never in the best of moods when I’m forced to stay here and I am days overdue for the next leg of my trip.”
“Not at all,” Qvar replied, “It is encouraging to find someone who will defend a Waster. I am always surprised how disliked they are.”
“True. Even my uncle, who’s been known to say they have the faces of angels, often repeats the saying – “Royalty guides, Service smoothes the path, Farm and Trade bring wealth and all else is Waste.”
Qvar nodded. He'd heard many such sayings. “It comes from people caring more for wild stories than the truth… and so few of us ever see people from other places.”
“So it’s true that the Wasters look like people from Kelin or Berush?”
“I‘ve seen only a handful of people from outside Pagia but I would say that a foreigner of my age and maybe older, would be mistaken for a Waster here… by your uncle’s age they would look more like I do now.”
The farmer's eyes widened with awe at the thought. “How is it possible?”
Qvar shrugged, “Our climate is extremely harsh. Theirs is not. They would look as we do if they lived here…It is only the Waster’s who are immune.”
In a low voice the farmer asked, “Is it by science or by magic that they are preserved?”
Qvar suppressed his desire to laugh at his companion's naivete, “Science. They say it is one of our greatest achievements and more so because it was our own science and, not like so much of our technology, bought in trade.”
The farmer nodded and was about to say something but a reminder chimed in his satchel and he smiled at Qvar, “I am due elsewhere but it has been a pleasure passing time with you.”
Qvar returned his smile, “Well, I hope you cross paths with the Waster.” He held out his hand, “I’m Qvar.”
The young man was for a moment too stunned by the honour of the introduction to respond but then grasped the offered hand and replied, “Hukk, from the Remle region.” He rose gathering his things, “Luck to you.”
“And to you.”
Qvar ordered another drink and wondered if Hukk hadn’t chosen the wrong vocation. He liked Hukk's easy smile and open manner, both of which would have served him well in Service.
He frowned as another cloud of dust rose up and threatened to float into the bakery. Certainly something wasn’t right in Lamak, but what was it exactly? The dirty street, the furious shop keeper with his broom and the faint sour smell that he noticed with each puff of air entering the bakery – all strange but seemingly unconnected.
Sipping his drink it dawned on him that maybe he had again been expecting too much and that maybe each small thing carried it’s own significance. Dirt on the streets was a sign of very poor civic pride if nothing else, as even cities in the most storm prone parts of Pagia placed great store in a clean town and, naturally, they all had the technology to achieve it.
He smiled to himself. Technology, at least, must be a part of the problem – why else had the shopkeeper used only a broom? A broom without a suppressor was almost not worth using at all, and if there was a problem with keeping the streets clean, then a suppressor on the door to stop the dust flying in in the first place was an even more logical solution.
He swallowed the rest of his drink and paid, but as he left, he scrutinised the shop for anything else unusual. Once out on the street he peered into each shop he passed, taking note of how dusty they were and with each doorway, his frown deepened. By the time he’d reached the corner he was absorbed in imagining how his family would feel having the death of Lamak referred to as the “Tangik Occurrence.”
Turning up the street that lead to his hostel he banished all his dismal imaginings and focused instead on being able to rest in a comfortable bed, which was a pleasant thought after two days on a train. As he walked he saw a figure in Service black turning onto the street ahead of him and held his hand up in greeting. It seemed he had found the Waster.
She returned the gesture and as she approached she said, “A relief to see you.”
She nodded, “I have lost my Companions and lost my way.”
Qvar raised an eyebrow, “Lost your Companions?”
“There was a disturbance in the workhouse sector and we became separated. I am trying to return to the Service hostel, but I’m lost without my tracker.”
“You’ve lost your tracker as well?”
“No.” She shook her head, “No, the tracker isn’t working… the city’s towers aren’t functioning.” Seeing his surprise she shrugged and said, “It happens.”
“But it shouldn’t.”, he said and added, half to himself, “And it might be indicative of something greater.”
She gave him a questioning look, “You wouldn’t be in Lamak for an inspection?”
He smiled, “Yes. That would be me.”
“Ah. I had been told we would be staying at the same hostel. When did you arrive?”
“A few hours ago.”
With a slight smile she asked, “You’ve noticed the dust?”
“Mmm. A man told me it’s something of a feature.”
“It’s definitely that. I think it might be worse since I last visited but maybe I am just seeing Lamak in a dark light – it hasn’t been a warm welcome. At least you have had more luck if you’ve been speaking with locals.”
He shook his head, “I’m afraid my young friend was not local and cared vary little for Lamak. He was, however, quite keen on meeting you, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to provide an introduction.”
“An introduction? Well! How few people want to meet a Waster.” she looked delighted at the thought, “Even in the Service many people treat you like something frightening. Out here I doubt anyone would believe how normal we are.”
Qvar looked at her pale, smooth skin with it’s unnatural texture and doubted that anyone thought Wasters ‘normal’. Their faces looked too much like that of a child stuck on the body of an adult and an unearthly child at that.
As they approached the lodging, the Waster turned to him, “I imagine you will be eager to rest, but I wonder if you would mind staying with me while I wait for my Companions to return.”
She held out her hand with a grateful smile, “I’m Nesp.”
“Qvar,” he replied pressing his hand to hers.
They entered the hostel and Qvar noted to his dismay that it was an automated facility, which meant, with the towers out of action, that many things wouldn’t work. Sighing he tried his identification slip and the hostel system spat it back at him politely saying that his documents weren’t current.
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Nesp said, “a local Service representative is acting as host. I’m sure she’ll be here somewhere.”
Qvar raised an eyebrow, “So the towers have been out of commission long enough for them to appoint a host?”
She smiled, “So it would seem.” She pointed to a doorway, leading off the foyer, “There’s a lounge through here.”
Qvar followed her in and flopped down on a chair, every part of his body thanking him. Nesp, looking equally tired, dropped into the chair opposite, “What a day.” She ran a hand over her face, “I don’t remember when I was last this tired.”
There was a note of concern in her voice that surprised him, but he supposed losing her bodyguards must have left her feeling vulnerable. “You expected your Companions to return before you?”
“Maybe.” She gave an exhausted sigh, “I don’t like to be separated from them and I’m just so tired today.”
“You feel unwell?”
“No. Just tired.” she tried to give him a reassuring smile.
A woman clothed in Service black entered the lounge and on seeing them exclaimed, “Thankfully you are here.”
Nesp rose, “Ah our host has returned. Qvar, this is Amrel.”
“I am sorry that you arrived while I was seeing to my other duties but there have been a series of disturbances today and with the towers down it takes some time for me to write and send all the dispatches to the Capital.”
Qvar rose to greet her, “Excuse the question but how long have the towers been down?”
“They have been down over a month.”
He was shocked. “That is hard to even comprehend.”
She nodded, “I know. And still the Administration bickers over who is responsible.”
“You mean that there is no real reason for the delay?”
“I suspect it’s part of someone’s agenda, but since the Administration broke contact with the Service it’s hard to know.” Seeing that this was news to her guests she added, “They broke ties with the Capital six months ago.”
It was almost unheard of for a local Administration to break with the Capital, but it made a sort of awful sense. Nesp shook her head in disbelief, “What caused this break?”
Amrel sat and with sadness in her voice explained, “In the last few years it seems as though Lamak has turned in on itself… become distrustful of outsiders. The Administration began making edicts that were prejudiced against anyone not from within the environs of Lamak and that in turn has caused trouble in the trade sector. At first most outsiders put up with it but, since the towers ceased to work, they have lost patience and now we have disturbances almost daily. We have tried to do what we can, but all Service personnel find doors closed against them.”
Nesp looked horrified, “Lamak is then very far down a path that leads nowhere good.”
Amrel nodded agreement, “And I am just waiting for the day when it becomes unsafe to wear Service black.”
“You see no hope of a change in the Administration?” Qvar asked.
“What the Administration has done the people support and that is why things worsen.”
There was a sad silence. Voices in the entrance hall caused Amrel to leave them with a polite, “Excuse me.” She returned a moment later with two synthetics, “It appears that your Companions have returned.”
Nesp looked relieved to see them, but there was no mistaking the irritation in her voice when she addressed them, “I had begun to notice your absence.”
“There was a further disturbance in the sector and our route was blocked for some time.”
Amrel turned to her guests, “The whole residential quarter is unpredictable, but the trade sector is beginning to be quite dangerous. Please promise me that you’ll avoid entering that sector.”
“I leave tomorrow so you have my guarantee.” Nesp said.
Qvar yawned, “Right now I’ll admit have no desire to do anything but rest.”
Amrel smiled at him, “Make the fifth room your own and rest as long as you need. I’ll work on getting something acceptable prepared for dinner.”
Nesp rose, “Now that my Companions have returned I think some rest will also do me good.”
“Head on up and I’ll call you at meal time.”
Qvar woke to the smell of a rich stew cooking and was surprised to find that he’d slept as long as he had. He wandered down the stairs and followed his nose to the kitchen where Amrel was quietly stirring the stew. “You slept a long time,” she said.
He took a seat at the bench and rested his head in his hands. He felt as though he could sleep another few hours. “Is Nesp up already?”
“Uh-huh. But I’m afraid resting doesn’t seem to have helped… she looks quite unwell.”
“Where is she now?”
“Sitting out the front.” Lowering her voice she added, “I have decided I’ll stay here with the two of you tonight. I’m concerned that with no towers, things will go badly if… well… if it’s her time.”
Qvar looked at her surprised, “That’s a dark thought.”
Amrel shrugged, “I’m only concerned because of her Companions… I mean they’re synthetics – immune to the Waster’s Curse.”
“But if the Council knew that the towers were down before they sent her out, they would have made sure she had the best protection. Each synthetic is like a small army.”
“I admit I hadn’t thought of that… You knew about the towers before you left?”
“No, it wasn’t in my brief but often with inspections they tell you very little so that you make fewer assumptions.”
Amrel seemed comforted by the thought. “And I suppose that if the Council knew she was nearing her time, they simply wouldn’t have sent her here… why risk her dying outside the Capital?”
“Well, to be honest, I don’t think they can’t predict the timing of a Waster’s death with any accuracy. – That’s what I’ve heard.”
“Still. I think it’s unlikely they’d send her if they thought there was a risk.” She sighed, “I hope that’s the truth of it.”
“I’m sure it is.”
Placing some bowls on the bench she asked, “Hungry?”
“Well it’s ready so if you don’t mind telling Nesp, then I’ll serve.”
Qvar rose, “Certainly.” He left the kitchen and crossing through the foyer, noticed the Companions sitting in the lounge apparently consulting a book. Smiling at this strange image he continued out to the veranda and found Nesp sitting, staring out at the passing traffic.
She looked up as he approached, “Please tell me Amrel is serving.”
“Good. That smell has been the most exquisite torture for the last hour.”
“I know what you mean.”
Rising with obvious difficulty, she gave him a wry smile and said, “Lend your arm to an old woman?”
He offered his arm, “Would it be too rude to ask how old you are?”
She laughed, “Well I’m older than you and that’s all I’ll say.”
As they passed back through the foyer Qvar asked, “Would it also be rude to ask what your Companions need with a book?”
“A book? Well, unless they have decided to teach themselves to play Kadrat, then I imagine they are preparing for our departure. They don’t carry all the required information in their heads you know… I suspect they were looking at an atlas of the region.”
“So the Council didn’t know that the towers were down before you left?”
“They knew. But my plans have changed since I left the Capital.”
He gave her a questioning look, but she offered no further explanation. As they entered the kitchen, he said, “I honestly hope there are seconds of that stew.”
Amrel smiled and took her seat, “Careful – it is very hot.”
Nesp took the chair opposite Qvar and Amrel and pulling her bowl close, she breathed in the steam. “Well, we can thank the towers for one thing… this is far superior to the slop these automated hostels usually serve. Synthetic Companions are one thing, but I really draw the line at synthetic food!”
Amrel smiled at her, “I have to agree. I firmly believe that’s why people in Service are always so thin when they travel. No one wants seconds of that stuff.”
Gesturing with her spoon Nesp said, “If Qvar got any thinner, he’d pass for a Wastrel.”
“You know, I called that this very morning at the station.”
Amrel smirked, “Have you ever seen a Wastrel?”
Nesp gave a slight nod of the head, “But there are Wastrels and Wastrels. There are far too many of the type you mean. The vain and obsessed ones.” Pointing at her own thin body she added, “It has always been beyond me why anyone feels the desire to look like this.”
Qvar grunted, “People who have seen foreigners in the Capital and want to emulate them, end up seeming to emulate you.”
“And there are those who become obsessed with the idea that we are youth eternal.” Staring at the meet on her fork she sighed, “But eternal we are not.”
The bitter note in her voice wasn’t lost on Amrel or Qvar, and they exchanged a look. At that moment, one of the Companions knocked at the door and to Nesp it said, “We have done all the calculations.”
“I’ll join you in the lounge.” Picking up her bowl she said, “Excuse my leaving you, but I have much to discuss with them.”
Once she had gone, Amrel gave Qvar a questioning look and he replied, “She mentioned that she has changed her plans. I don’t know any details.”
Qvar laughed, “Tell me what hasn’t been strange about today. Lamak has proved more interesting in the short time I’ve been here than most cities are in a week.”
“Do you regret the assignment?”
“I certainly don’t relish the idea of having my family’s name associated with what does seem like a catastrophe.”
“So you feel sure Lamak is dying?”
“Dying? I don’t know. Ever since I was briefed I have asked myself what a dying city looks like… but there is definitely something wrong here, and the Council will have to intervene.”
Shaking her head she said, “The Emperor himself will have to intervene before these blockheads pay any attention.”
“And he probably will. This inspection was definitely given an Imperial push, and if I could communicate with the Capital, my thoughts would be going to the top level of the Council.” He took another mouthful and chewed thoughtfully, “You’ve lived here all your life – what do you think caused the change?”
“I was in the Capital undertaking Service training when it began, but it seemed to stem from just one woman. She was the Prime Administrator, and her policies were all about how Lamak suffered to the benefit of other cities. I’ve never understood how she was elected, but suddenly everyone seemed to share her ideas.”
“Maybe she touched the vanity in them.”
“What a price we’ll pay for it,” she said quietly.
The gloomy silence that followed left Qvar ruminating on why a city should die. Once or twice he glanced at Amrel, and the sad expression on her face showed that she was thinking of something similar.
They had finished their food when one of the Companions knocked and said simply, “Nesp requests your presence.”
Following him to the lounge they were both shocked to find Nesp looking drawn and obviously sick. Seeing their expressions she managed a weak smile and gestured for them to sit. “I called you in, to discuss a journey I must make tonight.”
“But you are too ill to travel!” Amrel interjected.
“It is because I am ill that I must travel. I must reach the Capital.”
Trying to be as delicate as possible, Qvar asked, “It is your time?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I’m dying.”
There was a short silence before Qvar asked, “What must be done?”
“Even with the tower down, A Companion can use it to transmit a signal requesting a Glider, but from all that has been said about Lamak’s attitude to the Service, I fear that avenue might be blocked. The only other option is to get to Minst, which is the outer limit of the signal from the towers at Fern. A Companion could safely transmit from there… but it is a three hour journey by kart.”
“And another two for the Glider to arrive once called.” Qvar rubbed his forehead with his hand, “Will you try one or both?”
“Both. So first we must find a suitable kart.”
Amrel, with a trembling voice said, “The kind seni farmer's use would be best. They travel the furthest and so have sleeping compartments.”
Qvar sprang from his chair, “Does the hostel have a printed register of the farmer's lodgings?”
“I spoke with a young farmer from Remle today and that is a seni region. If he is still in Lamak then he will help us.”
Amrel pointed to the shelf at the far end of the room, “It should be the green one. But what makes you think he’ll be in the lists?”
Qvar went to the shelf and began examining the book. “He said his family has come here for many years, so it’s likely they would have a fixed lodge. Ah!” He slapped his hand on the page triumphantly, “Here, I think this is the one.”
“Then I should go.” Amrel said standing.
He showed her the entry, “Give him my name.”
“Before you go,” Nesp said, “If you can’t find this young man then ask at the lodgings about others but don’t spend too long on it – we need a kart but I’ll take whatever we can get.”
“Will you send the Companion to the tower straight away?”
“I’ll wait until you return with a kart. A synthetic will have more luck, if any is to be had, in the company of a local Service representative. The other will drive the kart to Minst Pass.”
Qvar frowned, “Why not send the other Companion to the second tower? Surely that doubles the chance, accompanied or not.”
“Because the synthetic that comes with us can transmit a beacon signal, so if Amrel succeeds at the tower, the Glider can track us wherever we are. Besides, it is night and you are tired – the synthetic will need no sleep.”
Amrel nodded, “I will go.”
They watched her leave and Qvar resumed his seat. He looked at the Companions and thought back to the conversation in the kitchen. Shaking his head he asked, “Did the Council know?”
Nesp sighed, “Probably. They gave me synthetics on my last trip too, and there was no apparent need then.”
The thought made his skin crawl, “But they said nothing.”
“We all know we’ll die this way. And my assignments have been too important for me to excuse myself.”
“If we get you to the Capital?”
Quietly she said, “My body will reach the Capital… that is itself of the utmost importance.”
“Then it’s true?”
“That they harvest our blood? Partly, but more crucially they can “harvest” our memories, our knowledge. That is why the bodies must be retrieved.”
Qvar was stunned, “That I didn’t know.”
“The enemies of Pagia would blow us all to bits if it were widely known… as it is they fear the Waster’s Curse too much to risk killing us.” She smiled, “The Council does it’s best to foster the myth that our blood is toxic.”
“Under the circumstances, I would feel more comfortable if I knew more about what is happening to you.”
“Your training will have told you enough.”
“My training tells me to put you in that kart and leave you to your fate.”
“And that is as it should be.”
He shook his head, “You are not dying alone. I will stay with you.”
She closed her eyes and took a breath. “I wouldn’t ask such a thing of anyone.”
“But I choose to.”
“Then, thank you. Promise me you will be careful.”
“Tell me what to expect and I will take all possible care.”
With great weariness she said, “I have maybe an hour from now until the fever starts. The fever will burn for two hours and then, when it breaks, I will have just a short time before I die.”
“And nothing can be done?”
“And the Curse?”
“It is the fever that makes our blood toxic. >From the time it begins there is some danger, but the worst is after it breaks… you cannot touch my body at all from then, as the blood sometimes comes through the skin.”
He shuddered, “And they make you this way, knowing the death you’ll face.”
“We were the product of a desperate time, and Pagia has prospered because of our creation.”
“We are still necessary… but with every generation less so and someday they will stop making us.” In a comforting tone she said, “I don’t regret what I am.”
Qvar nodded but said nothing, focusing on the hope that Hukk would be there to lend them his kart. He’d lost sense of how long Amrel had been gone and began to fidget and glance at the door.
“I’m sure Amrel will return soon.” Nesp sounded very tired. “I think it best that you keep everything we’ve discussed to yourself. I fear Amrel will crumble if she knows I won’t see the Capital.”
“That thought had already occurred to me. She went so pale before I thought she would faint.”
“I must say that you have taken it well.” Amusement played in her eyes as she added, “Not that I would have expected less of you.”
“You have read my files then?” Seeing her nod he asked, “Can I ask why?”
She thought about it for a moment, “Well, they don’t pick just anyone to carry out an inspection such as you are undertaking.”
“You had me sent here?”
“I thought you a wise choice.”
He couldn’t help smiling at the thought, “Why me?”
Choosing her words carefully she said, “You have the right level of commitment to your work.”
“Level of commitment.” he repeated trying to glean some further meaning from the words. She didn’t seem about to offer any further detail.
Footsteps in the foyer announced Amrel’s return, and Qvar recognised her voice as she said, “This way,” ushering Hukk into the lounge.
On seeing Qvar, Hukk smiled broadly but the sight of Nesp’s pale drawn face caused him refrain from any enthusiastic greeting and he instead gave a small formal bow.
“Hukk, thank you for assisting us.” Qvar motioned him to take a seat. “Nesp, this is Hukk of the Remle region.”
Nesp smiled warmly at him, “I wish we could have met when I was in better health, but you have done me a great service by lending us your kart.” Turning to Amrel she said, “It is probably best if you leave directly. Take this Companion to the tower in the administrative quarter, but if you encounter very strong resistance from the officials, do not force the issue. There is nothing to be gained from getting yourself into difficulty with the Administration.”
Amrel nodded stiffly and without saying a word made a gesture of farewell before she turned and left, the Companion following. The second Companion, seemingly without instruction, rose and left the lounge, and they could hear it going up the stairs toward the rooms.
Qvar asked Hukk, “Is your kart empty?”
“Yes. I gave the very last of my crop to a friend at the lodgings – she will sell it for me.” He glanced at the doorway and guessing what the Companion was doing asked, “Are we to leave immediately?”
Nesp frowned slightly, “I’m not sure it is advisable for you to come with us.”
Obviously disappointed he replied, “Oh. I assumed you would need more than one driver.”
“My Companion is a synthetic and requires no rest.”
Qvar looked thoughtfully at the farmer, “Maybe Hukk could watch over you for a little while and give me a chance to get some sleep. I can keep watch from the beginning of the second hour.”
Nesp considered this and nodded, “Maybe that is a good idea. I can pass the time educating him… you were keen to know more about us I believe?”
Embarrassed he nodded, “If you feel up to it.”
“Ah… it will keep my mind from how my body is feeling. But we should leave now. I have too little faith in Amrel’s success to delay.”
Qvar helped her from her chair and Hukk lead the way out to where they had parked his kart. The Companion arrived with Nesp and Qvar’s bags as Hukk and Qvar helped Nesp into the kart’s sleeping compartment. Pointing to the furthest bench Hukk said, “If Nesp takes the bed, then you will find that bench almost as comfortable.” He then vanished around the front of the kart to give the Companion the activation codes.
Nesp lay on the bed, “I’m not sure it is wise to bring him but as long as you take the utmost care later in the journey, I have no objection.”
“I hoped you wouldn’t." Quietly he asked, "Do you think Amrel told him that you're dying?"
"She'll have followed the protocol I think. I see no reason to hide the truth from him but there is no need to cause him concern."
Qvar clasped her hand, “Should I bring any food or drink for you?”
“No need. But you have something for yourself?”
“I have provisions. Can I get you nothing at all?”
Hukk stepped up into the kart and as he closed the door they started moving. “Are you comfortable?” he asked Nesp.
“Yes thank you.”
Qvar opened his satchel, “If you get hungry or thirsty, help yourself to what’s here.” Lying down he added, “Wake me in an hour.”
Hukk nodded and noted the time. As he took his seat next to her, Nesp said sternly, “If fever should come before that hour is up, wake Qvar immediately.”
In a softer tone she asked, “So what do you know about Wasters?”
“Rumour and myth.”
“Well then I’ll start with some history, but let me know if I start to bore you.”
He smiled, “I doubt you will.”
“We’ll see.” She paused for a moment while she chose the best place to begin, “Seven generations ago,” she said, “Pagia knew little of Kelin, Berush or Madjan. Their people had never visited here, sending only messages government to government, but it seems that they were well aware of our resources, rich in seni, kalajiel and zouc as we were.
“During this time we knew war raged between Berush and Madjan, and yet it was many years before we came to see how this terrible conflict could affect us. Suddenly, Berush demanded supplies from us on terms we could hardly accept, but the Empress feared that if we resisted they would attack us, and we were in no position to defend ourselves. Seeing negotiation was the only hope, the Empress sent her most skilled diplomats to Berush, but they found little success. When they returned they did, however, bring back crucial information about Berush, Madjan, the war and how much at risk Pagia really was.
“Berush was in fact in no position to attack us but also in no position to pay us more than they had offered. Seeing an opportunity the Empress decided we would trade our goods for their technology, and that was the beginning of good relations with Berush.
“The most valuable information, though, was what we discovered about their attitude toward Pagia… it seemed that Berush, Kelin and Madjan shared the perception that Pagia was a land of peasants.”
“To them it means someone who works the land and who is seen as having little education. As Pagia is almost entirely a land of farmers, they saw us a simple folk who could be patronised and bullied. Once Madjan had forced Berush to surrender, it seemed that they would engage Kelin in a war no less awful, and the Empress feared that soon Kelin would request goods from us as Berush had done, and this time we might struggle to come to a diplomatic agreement. So, she put half the Service to investigating how we could change the way Pagia seemed to these more technology oriented peoples.
“Finally, they decided that whatever we did, our people would always be responded to as peasants because to outsiders, even our younger people look as the peasants of their own lands do. Particularly then, when none of them came here and experienced our climate, it was impossible to think that we could make them see the achievements of our society when all they would see were sunworn faces.
“I don’t know if the Empress thought of it as anything more than a vague hope, but she asked her scientist if there was anyway of making our diplomats look more like the people of these other places. Their response was to develop something which acted like a preservative, but in those early years there were terrible side effects.
“A new Empress came to the throne and seeing that Kelin was gaining in the war she told the scientists to work harder on perfecting the compounds that preserved the skin. They soon found great success with injecting a substance into the veins, and the results indicated that the younger the subject, the fewer the side effects. So it was that the first generation of Eshrel – which is our proper name – we’re made.
“Trained to be diplomats and treated with this drug, the first Eshrel found great success in the court of Kelin, just as Kelin defeated Madjan. Berush was freed from Madjan rule and an alliance of sorts was formed between Kelin and Berush.”
She sighed deeply, “It was the success of the Eshrel that built our prosperity.”
“I've never heard that name.” Hukk said.
“It fell out of use in your grandfather’s time. Not that ‘Waster’ wasn’t already common before then… but I get ahead of myself: It was in the time of the Emperor who followed, that three seasons of storms ravaged Pagia, and as always in a time of such adversity, the people of many cities became unsettled and threatened the order of the Imperial throne. Naturally the Emperor sent his best diplomats to these cities, but by then all our diplomats were Eshrel and, not having been seen outside the Capital, they terrified people… Which intended or not, successfully subdued the regions.
“Soon the Eshrel had become messengers that kept all Administrations functioning, but many myths sprang up about them. The Emperor saw no harm in this as some fear of his representatives served a purpose, but he did all Eshrel harm, by restricting – even among those in the Service – knowledge of what we truly are. The mystique of the Eshrel and the secretive work we do, made us seem more like a folly of royalty than a functional arm of government.
“And so it continued to the end of his reign and through the reign of the next Empress, that Eshrel were seen as useless, pretty dolls for royalty to impress our neighbours with. Our science grew, our relations with Kelin and Berush were greatly strengthened thanks to the work of many Eshrel, but the popular attitude worsened with time.
“Finally the Empress felt that this wasn’t desirable and sought to educate the Service about the Eshrel. It can be said that she achieved her goal, though not in her lifetime, but for every piece of information that slipped from the Service to the general population, new myths formed and rumours spread. So to those outside the Service it was never any clearer what function we performed or what our value was.
“It has only been in the reign of the current Emperor that a ruler has tried to improve our image.”
“But why has he left it so late. – The Emperor is not young!”
“No he’s not but he must try to undo the damage done without making it known what part we really play in the governance of Pagia. And there is still something useful in many of the misconceptions about us… Some of them protect our work and some of them protect us.”
“Like the Waster’s Curse?”
She nodded, “It does stop people from trying to harm us. It is in fact a perfect example of how truth and myth become indistinguishable.”
“So it isn’t just a myth?”
“Oh no. The Waster’s Curse is very real but… well… my blood will become toxic as I die but it is perfectly harmless normally.”
Hukk looked horrified, “But your blood can kill?”
“Yes, though only if you get a certain amount on you. A lesser amount will make you sick and… another mixing of truth and rumour… you will become a Wastrel.”
“You see, Wastrel, Waster, Waster’s Curse… these are all words that come from the truth about the Eshrel but that have been altered with time. Originally, Waster referred to an Eshrel who was nearing the end of their life because the drug they inject us with as children causes our bodies to waste away.”
“Wastrel was a type of affectionate term for the poor souls who would forever look something like an Eshrel but never be one.”
Hukk sat back in his seat, “That is amazing.”
She shivered, “Sometimes I think that too.”
“I will never use the word ‘Waster’ again, I promise you that. People will learn the word Eshrel wherever I go.”
With a sorrowful smile she said, “Thank you.” She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, “but now, you must wake Qvar… the fever has come.”
Hukk rose and went over to Qvar, shaking him gently until he woke, “She feels the fever beginning.”
He pulled the blanket up over her and gently touched her forehead. Nodding he said, “It is coming on quickly.”
“It will… and I may become delirious… I won’t be much company for you.”
Hukk took the seat beside Qvar, “I’m not tired. I’ll stay with you both.”
Nesp nodded, “Good. Good. You can tell Qvar the history I told you. Though I’m sure that he knows some of it, it will pass the time.”
“That is an excellent idea.”
Hukk began the task of re-telling what he’d heard, and Nesp made the occasional correction or addition until after a while, she drifted into unconsciousness.
When Hukk had finished, he yawned loudly and looking at Nesp asked, “Do you think she’ll mind if I sleep?”
Qvar shook his head, “Not at all. She is just grateful we’re here.”
“She’s dying isn’t she? Like she said, about their bodies wasting away and the end of their lives… that’s how she is now.”
Hukk went and lay on the bench, “Don’t let her die while I sleep, Qvar.”
“I’ll wake you. I promise.” Qvar saw Hukk fall asleep straight away and felt his heart fill with affection for the farmer.
The kart bumped along the road and Qvar guessed they were on the mountain road. In his mind he went over the facts that Nesp had told Hukk and all of the facts that he knew about the history of Pagia, the wars with Madjan and everything that had happened in Lamak.
Nesp began to toss and turn and from time to time she muttered or called out. He thought about what she’d said about his commitment to his work and why she’d thought him a good choice to inspect Lamak. He’d known that the inspection had been ordered by the Emperor, so it wasn’t surprising that there were Wasters involved but she had chosen him when anyone with experience could do such an inspection.
He looked at Nesp as he pondered whether he might get the chance to ask her, and it was then that he noticed she seemed to be sleeping. He had been so pre-occupied that he hadn’t noticed the fever break. She seemed very peaceful and at first he feared she might be dead, but after a moment she turned toward him and her eyes flickered open. She whispered, “Still watching.”
He nodded, “I am.”
Her eyes slowly closed and she drifted back into sleep for a few moments. When she opened her eyes again she asked, “Do you know, now?”
“Why Lamak dies.”
He shook his head, “No. But I think I understand why you chose me to do the assignment.”
The corners of her mouth twitched in a fleeting smile, “Tell me.”
“You weren’t choosing me for the inspection itself – anyone could have done that – but by making me responsible for the findings, you knew I’d feel committed to taking on the task of dismantling Lamak.”
“But why is Lamak dying?”
“Lamak dies… because the Emperor wishes it to. Why else should a city die?”
Qvar looked at her, thinking that she must still be delirious, but then he thought about what Amrel had said. “The Prime Administrator,” he whispered.
“Yes. She was planning a rebellion against the throne, and she is not the first one in Lamak to do so.”
“But all the signs of decay…”
“Are real… just given a little help.” She drifted off again and when she next opened her eyes she seemed breathless. “I would have… told you… Now I don’t know who will… will take on… my assignment.”
“Thank you for telling me.”
“It was… important… that you know.”
Looking at her pale face he said, “I must wake Hukk. Talk to me while I go to him.”
“It is a shame… to have met you… like this.”
Hukk rose and he and Qvar took their seats once more at Nesp’s side.
“You have both… made this… bearable.” she said “I… thank you… both. I hope… that… you… might be… friends… for many years.” They both nodded. “Luck to you.” Her eyes slowly closed again and she slept.
They watched her sleep for a while, and then they saw her breath become shallow. Finally it stopped. Hukk wiped a tear from his cheek and turned his face away from her body. “Luck to you.” Qvar said sadly and taking the blanket from his shoulders he carefully placed it over her.
As though aware of it’s mistress’s death, the synthetic pulled the kart over and stopped. It was then that they heard the humming. “A Glider,” Qvar said.
Hukk opened the door of the kart and they both stepped out into the darkness. The Glider drew close and landed a short distance away. In the dim light it emitted, they saw three synthetics emerged from it’s hatch and approach them. The synthetics made respectful gesture, and then they entered the kart and began preparing the body to be moved. A fourth figure left the Glider, and it wasn’t until he drew close that they saw he was a Waster. “Were you travelling with her?” he asked.
“Yes,” Qvar replied.
“Did either of you touch her after the fever started?”
“Good. Then we will remove her body, clean your kart and you can be on your way.”
“On our way,” Hukk repeated.
“We will take care of everything from here. You can return to Lamak.”
Hukk stared at the Waster as if he didn’t understand what had been said, “We must leave her?”
Qvar put a hand on Hukk’s shoulder, “We have done all we can.”
The synthetics carried the body to the Glider, but neither Qvar or Hukk had the heart to watch. Seeing their emotion, the Waster said, “Thank you for staying with her. It would have been a great comfort.”
One of the synthetics returned and sprayed the inside of the kart. Once it had finished the Waster inspected the sleeping compartment and seemingly satisfied asked, “Will you drive back directly?”
Qvar shook his head, “We are too tired.”
“There is a hostel up ahead, I will let them know to expect you. Ride in the front – the cleanser won’t do your lungs any favours – but it will be fine for normal use by daylight.” He turned to go and then stopped and said, “Luck to you.”
“And to you.”
They watched him disappear into the Glider and saw the hatch close. As the Glider rose gracefully into the air, Hukk shook his head and walked slowly to the driver's seat. Qvar took the passenger seat and Hukk, still shaking his head, started the engine and pulled onto the road.
After they had driven in silence for a while, Hukk said quietly, “I made her a promise.”
He nodded, “I said I would teach everyone to call them Eshrel, again.”
Qvar stared out into the darkness thinking of all the things Nesp had said and of the task that lay ahead of him in Lamak. He smiled, “I think I made a promise too.”