Chapter 1 The Beetle Sreiwa I enter Niislek Jhot under the cover of darkness. The ancient Tchaigan capital of wood and basalt is now showing its decrepitude as grenades splinter dry-rotted timbers and projectiles shatter weathered stucco facades. They would not be the only facades shattered on this day. I feel like the tiny beetles that voraciously eat the flowers on the sour kiraz tree. The beetles that my sadistic boy cousins would capture, pluck the legs from, and then throw up into the air to fly away on a flight that would never end. The power is out in the city, and the world is the deepest, darkest indigo without the little sun to burnish the night. The strong south wind has blown away the particulates in the stratosphere from city-smashing kinetic weapons, if only momentarily, and the galaxy makes an arc of a billion blazing suns overhead from quadrillions of kilometers away. The din of projectiles deafens my ears and the rumble of explosions rattles my bones. The blasts are accompanied by the screams of the dying and the slapping of feet running toward or away from danger, but I keep to the shadowed recesses of the convulsing city. Deadly confusion reigns. What was supposed to be a swift war against our sworn enemies, the Gathaban-run Eastern Alliance, is now a fiasco. The Vankarem, our former slaves, have risen in a cunning ambush against their distracted masters. Tchaiga is caught in a box, a box that is quickly turning into a casket. I slink down thoroughfares that for most of my life have been the entirety of my known world. I peer into the abandoned wood and stone of illegal bajshars, the traditional martial training centers, looking for anyone I know yet see nothing but corpses and rats. On the sacred rise in the distance, I see the Donagi’s palace giving off a glow of flames licking the thousand-year-old timber and tiles of its tiered roof. Where is our sovereign, Donagi Radien? I make my way methodically to my aunt’s villa in the old district. Seeing her again is the only thing that matters to me now. I know she has not been here for years, yet I hope there are clues. Soon I reach the portico of my childhood home, the theater for the play that was my youth. A play that was sometimes comedic but ultimately tragic. The door is un-warded, and I walk in. My aunt has not lived here since the pre-uplift era, and the villa sat unoccupied for many years. I have no knowledge of who lives here now, if they still live. Whoever are the denizens of this manor now, they were either leaving or moving in before the fighting started. There are chests, trunks, and kists in all manner of sizes and in different states of packing or unpacking; it is difficult to tell which. I walk into one of the larger rooms where I remember the whole family gathering during the holidays. As I ponder whose home this may be now, I roam around like a nomad. Sights and smells transport me back to my youth: pickled vegetables and meats, aromatic herbs, gall inks, kusahti, and something else--death. Those smells don’t bring comfort, for my youth was not a simpler time; it was not something I look back on with swooning nostalgia like most fools—it was as complex as the innards of a sincit and just as fraught with peril as the present. I continue wandering until I reach the kitchen where I notice two people slumped over in the nook where my aunt and I would eat laibi, the first meal of the day. The something else smells are the gasses of rotting flesh. I glance briefly at the corpses, but they are bloated beyond recognition. I decide against ghoulishly knocking the bodies over to see if I can discern their identities by staring at their swollen faces; I just don’t care enough. And although famished, I leave their food stores untouched for the moment, but I will soon need to eat if I am to keep my senses sharp. I am still not fully recovered from my poisoning and journey back from the god Tangun’s embrace. He shot me, the bastard! The poisoned dart affronted my rib. I had cultivated that boy and made him into a man. Any demand that passed my lips, he would comply. And now this. I suppose I should be proud of my student for surpassing my expectations. My aunt is not here, that much I know. But the dwelling contains other relics from my past that can be of use. I open the wooden sliding door to the garden and stare at the jalavu tree, more majestic than I remember, as memories flood back unbidden.
One day in the garden, I tore my new kuvta climbing the jalavu tree while I boarded with my father’s sister. I knew she would be angry—it was muhan silk and expensive. It was not something that my mother could easily afford, and I shouldn’t have been climbing trees in it. She had sent me to stay with my aunt to finish me for Tchaigan society, for my mother was not of Tchaiga. My father’s revenues had been cut back as punishment for marrying outside of his social caste and culture, and our fortunes had never recovered. “You are no better than a slave, just like your mother,” my aunt said to me when she saw the tear. She liked to belittle me by saying that I had the eyes of a ghost, and I could never belong to Tchaiga. My eyes sometimes enraged her to no end, for they reminded her that I was not her daughter. “You should be in a hole in the northern mountains with the rest of your degenerate kin! Here you are living a lie, a deceit that fools no one. All they have to do is look at your hideous face.” Her rage came out in deeply wounding ridicule and the withholding of her affection. I adulated my aunt, but her emotions were as changeable as the northern sagara, calm and gentle one moment and a violent storm the next. Perversely, I wanted to be just like her: elegant and refined but also quick with a sharp tongue when needed, and above all, unpredictable. However, I was frequently reminded that I was not one of them. My aunt would give me hugs and kisses one day and the switch and insults the next. The switch I could handle, but not her tongue. Yet, she did not have an easy life herself. Her husband, my uncle Naran, beat her, on one occasion so badly she cried to my father, Henda, for revenge. He challenged Naran to combat, but my grandmother, put an end to it and chastised Aunt Hele for being weak and not giving Naran any sons or even a daughter. Once a year the whole family would gather at Grandmother’s for the Feast of the Vallutama, a holiday to celebrate our final victory over the Eskihalk, the ancient people who lived south of the Babo River. This was the battle in which Mynlo was killed, his throat and body pierced by spears of the elite Eskihalk tiger hunters when he sallied too far into the scrum of warriors. His corpse was found and hidden by his lifeguards until the battle was won. During the dinner, my grandmother, whom we called the Spider, would be brought up from her crypt-like room of dusty relics from which she resided to spew venom at perceived infractions. But in later years dementia made her more tolerable. My Vankarem mother once told me that her people also celebrated a victory over Tchaiga. This surprised me. I had never heard of Tchaiga losing anything. She told me that in the northern mountain passes the Vankarem spears and bows cut down the Tchaigan shinjiich like corn at harvest time, allowing the Vankarem to not be erased like the Eskihalk, whom were now an aside in the history of their conquerors. She also said that if I asked anyone in Tchaiga about the battle of Henetoo, they would feign ignorance. Tchaigans had selective memories. When the Eighter invasion finally came, it was as absurd as a mite wrestling a man. Imagine seeing a voidship drop out of the sky for the first time when our civilization had animal shit in its streets, thought sickness was brought on by Jadujj possession, and the fleas in our beds outnumbered the ones on our dogs. We thought that the ruin, the Hukatustu, had come. Their ships even favored the falling leaves from the season of Naimar, a time associated with death and storms. This was the main force. Only later in life did I find out that they had been here for months, their silver-tongued spymasters making hollow promises to our leaders and preparing the ground for invasion. Death, destruction, and enslavement followed. The Eighter’s appetites were too voracious, their morality too lacking, and their deadly fulgu-toigs too accurate. And the weak resistance that was put up was an un-diverting joke. Our leaders had sold our souls. Have we sold our souls again?
I gaze into the night sky covered in the bright fires of the galaxy that is the brilliant backdrop to the jalavu tree. If we did, I am an accomplice. The zandan floor panels creak. Someone has entered the villa. I go through possible scenarios of how I would react to the threat in case my muscle memory fails me because of my poisoning. I now wish that I had eaten. A voice with the cadence of an older man with a barely discernible accent breaks the silence. “I am no danger to you.” I remain in the shadows, feeling a certain relief that I have not yet uncovered my hidden cache of supplies that I buried in the garden years ago. However, it is probably no matter; this man will soon be at the end of my knife. The fool speaks again, “I come to you with an offer, for I know who you are.” “Who am I?” “You are the daughter of Jaeo Henda Nikufiu.” “Show yourself, and I shall determine who you are,” I say, masking my surprise. “I see that I have caught you at a disadvantage, so I shall tell you, but I shall tell you from where I stand, for I also appreciate your reputation as a shinjiich, and I wish to keep my guts in my belly. “I am an agent of Mnos and a functionary of Ion zal Satrulea, Suveran of Mnos, Hammer of the Idrix, Imperat of the Tertat systems, and now benevolent ruler of Luska. You, Sreiwa Nikufiu, are his subject and have been honored to be chosen as the representative of Luska.” He knows much about me, too much. “'Hammer of the Idrix.’ Presumptuous, don’t you think?” I say, mostly trying to delay and digest what he just said. “The Idrix are no more, and Mnos is free from its imprisonment; all are indisputable facts,” he says, betraying a slightly irked inflection to his voice. I feel loud booms in the sky. Not bombs this time but a noise I remember from my youth, and the memory causes an involuntary shudder. I look up in the open sky of the courtyard and see the bright fires of the night firmament falling, growing. It is true! We have sold our souls once again! “You see, we are here,” he speaks, coming out of the shadows and facing me. I know him. “You were Woya the servant. The dead are the Nimogens.” I had visited them once in Ree with their son. The father knew who I was. I even suspected that he was the one who assigned me to his son. He knew his father despised him, but not how much. “Yes, I was. Jaeo Sei Nimogen was to be the reprezentat, but his wife was playing a long game, just as I was, misdirecting me with that slave. She saw her death. “And now you are here. I have promised a reprezentat, the choice that I have cultivated for years is dead, so you, a member of the Sukui, must do.” Now I see him in the light, and he appears as white as new snow, but his lips are crimson with his lifeblood. “Prepare yourself to be taken to the conducator. If you impress him, you may rise high, daami Nikufiu. If not...well, I think that you will be sufficient. What is left for you here? The donagi fled with most of the Sukui. Oh, we know where they are—on Silla, the largest moon of the gas giant Bai-Ulgan. Consider yourself fortunate; it is a poor existence. They do not appear to want to collaborate with us this time except to make sure we destroy the Gathaban. No, they did not tell you anything, did they? Perhaps they are planning something else. No matter, they are crumbs to be swept up later.” The former Woya looks to be fading even as he sprays more and more verbiage mixed with red. Blood trickles down his nose and his mouth, which he wipes off occasionally with his embossed wool, deil sleeve. I take leave of him, but it appears not to register in his lost gaze, and he continues speaking as if he does not notice he is dying. The villa shakes with a blast from an unknown combatant, but neither of us react. I go to the bathing room and clean the road off myself with a cloth. I remove my brown contacts and stare at my Vankarem mother’s curse, my grey eyes, while I wonder whether my former lover is alive. If he is, he does not know that his parents sit rotting face down in their uneaten breakfast. I have fulfilled my oath to him, but I do not know how to treat him in my mind. My thoughts, my life even, are an un-curated collection of images and failures. When I finish, the former Woya is as dead as the couple, collapsed against a wall in a pool of his own liquefied bowels, right under the wood-carved heraldry of the seto resplendent. A bit less resplendent now. I eat some pickled fish and dig up my supplies. I dress in my battle wraps, tie the scabbard of my ciekka blade to my waist, pull my hair back with a weaponized hair clip, and sit.
I am brought to a storm ship on the eastern outskirts of the city by two soldiers of Mnos. For the first time I glimpse their legendary eyes of impenetrable black, the product of some founder effect or bottleneck ages ago. They were informed that I was to be the reprezentat and almost treat me with respect while their blood-soaked sfarzicani sniffs me with disinterest. En route, I see Gathaban attack ships die quick, glorious deaths overhead, and a group of Vankarem Pascha-tuul vaporize before my eyes, but I respect their valor. The hate has gone out of me like steam from a venting geyser. But I feel that it could be replaced; it is an old friend that I could invite back. As I am forced to kneel before the conducator, he asks me my name, and I tell him, Inra Okara, as my mother used to call me in Vankarem: White Eyes. Seconds later his head explodes as it is hit with proximity ammunition fired from the top of a building, and I am peppered with fragments of exploding road stones and bone shards. I stand and wipe the dust and gore off my face and smirk a little at the stupid, overconfident, dead conducator, whose body is covered in machinas-teq armor except for his fool head. I squint at the building where the flanking fire came from. I have a silly thought that I see someone familiar, my poisoner with his ridiculous mustache and crooked nose, up there in the ship’s searchlights. But quickly the vessel’s boilers reduce the roof to ash as more Gathaban attack ships swarm, and I am rushed up into the storm ship. The legless beetle has found a place to land after all.