The bloated opomu spun a delicate thread from spinnerets on its abdomen, working with a mechanical sureness. In the dim light, Mele watched dozens of its sisters doing the same. The thick, musky odor of decaying aeta leaf was heavy in the air, yet he hardly noticed.
He closed the hatch and moved to the next pen. Inside, a mass of squirming grubs devoured the last of the aeta, nearing the end of a two week eating binge. Mele picked up one of the grubs to inspect it. With no sign of disease, he nodded in satisfaction and replaced the wriggling white larva.
Opening the next pen, Mele found it ready to be harvested. He reached in, pulled out some of the sticky web, and began winding it around a wooden spool. As he did, he took mouthfuls of bitter, mineral rich water and spit it onto the threads. They began to clump and thicken into silky cords.
With a full spool, he went to the spinning room and locked the spool into place. Cranking the machine, he wound the threads and let the machine do its job, pulling, weaving, and stretching the threads until he had a nice, soft bundle of silk. He hung it on a wrack to dry. It would soon be ready to take dye, and fetch a nice price in the market.
The next batch of eggs was due to hatch in a week. He would need to get more aeta food. With the weather changing, he might get lucky and find some ybbe flowers to mix with the aeta. It made for a finer silk that could fetch higher prices, but ybbe was tricky and never easy to come by.
Boss N’Yin dozed at his desk when Mele found him. A cough and scraping of a chair woke the old man. His eyes were cloudy and his hands twitched more and more lately. Mele knew the old man was sick, but wasn’t sure what to do about it.
“What is it, boy?” Boss N’Yin shook himself awake and took a long swig of the foul smelling drink.
“I’m out of aeta leaves. Gotta take a trek to get some more.”
“None at the market?”
“Hasn’t been for weeks. I’ve been using some of the old stuff we kept in the cellar, but that’s running out now, too.”
“How long you gonna be gone, you recon?”
“Shouldn’t be more than three or four days, I should think.”
Boss N’Yin began to cough and sputter, until another swallow of the rancid liquid calmed him.
“Boss, you need me to get you anything?”
“A younger body, maybe.” He managed a wan smile, and Mele thought he saw blood on the old man’s teeth.
Mele strapped on leather boots, shrugged into a long coat, and tossed his pack over one shoulder. He pulled a knitted cap over curly hair. With a stop in the larder for jerked meat, dry bread, and two skins of water, he was ready to go.
“I’m off, Boss,” he said, heading for the door.
“Careful out there,” the old man called after him. “There are bandits on the road this time of year.”
“Not much chance of that, Boss.” To himself, he said, “nothing left for them to take anymore.”
He stepped into the narrow alley, deftly avoiding a foul smelling puddle. Hunched against the morning chill, he hurried along the winding path as it doglegged and twisted between buildings.
On the main road, he weaved between the few early rising vendors and laborers. The sun was not yet visible and oil lamps, few as they were, cast deep shadows. Abandoned and crumbling buildings loomed, threatening to collapse upon him with a strong breeze.
At North Bridge, he paused as he always did, to look along the flowing M’Lemzail River, watching the barge crews preparing for their day. He called out a greeting to Kyon N’hatta, Boss N’Yin’s old friend. She flashed a toothy smile and waved as she cast off from the shore. The current pulled the barge away, crew vigilantly eyeing the water for dangerous debris.
At the far end of the bridge, the gate was already open. The guards, both rather portly old men with impressive waxed beards and mustaches, sat with steaming mugs of casse tea. They paid him no mind as he passed beyond the gate, into the broken down remnants of the old Outer City. Once, when Yelemma was a bustling town, many of the workers lived in these houses. These days, with no shortage of space, the city’s few remaining residents lived within the inner walls. Old homes and civic buildings were in shambles, looted to improve the more populous inner city. The wilds encroached, vines and trees growing out of broken windows, buzzing insects making nests in sagging rooftops.
Mele passed the outer wall, now more of a memory than a functioning barrier, as the sun began to brighten. A chilling wind picked up, cutting through the places where his coat had worn through.
Though less traveled than the days when the city was thriving, the ancient stone road remained visible. Weeds sprouted between cobblestones, but grew stunted and gnarled. Mele followed the path absentmindedly, thinking about stories of war and adventure heard from travelers at the market. Gravais, the City of Cities, home of the Church of the Twins, center of culture and civilization. Aranam, the Scholar’s Paradise, red stone towers, dusty with ancient mystery and shadow. The Shield Wall of King Om, holding back Yaro hoards in the lands beyond the Black Mountains. Daan, the sinister home of masked slave-lords, hidden behind sandstone walls and taboo. Umnaiz with its massive lighthouse. He would see those fabled places, he promised himself, and more besides.
Mele kicked a loose stone, watching it skitter across the road into thorny brush. Something darted away in a blur. He caught the scent of rotting meat and decided to speed his step. It would not do to run afoul of scavenging umkac and have his aeta hunt end so soon.
Tall trees rose on both sides of the road. Broad leaves cast shadows, yet did little to stop the chilling wind. Rain began with little warning. At a crossroad, Mele sheltered in the moss covered remnants of an old toll hut. He chewed a strip of jerked meat, watching the treetops sway. Spring might be coming, yet this day had more of winter in it. The rain continued for the better part of a half hour.
When the rain abated, Mele left his shelter and returned to the road. Something stood in his path. He froze, staring at the thing. It was perfectly still, not looking at him, yet he felt the focus of all its attention. Long, sleek, deep purple fur bristling, gleaming black claws dug into loose gravel, its whole presence was warning him to run. Wide mouth slack, its bright yellow eyes stared into the middle distance.
Mele knew if he ran, the thing would catch him before he took a dozen steps. It was an umkac, and it was as deadly a foe as any hunter in this region might expect to face. Mele was no hunter, no warrior. He was perhaps a bold young man, but his days were spent feeding opomu and gathering their silk, not wrestling vicious beasts.
Mele reached into his jacket and withdrew his blade. He’d cut yards upon yards of silken cord with it, yet expected it would not serve especially well in such a violent situation. His fingers tightened around the hilt. He tried to remain calm, tried to take some solace in having a weapon at all to drive the beast away. His heart pounded a fearful rhythm in his ears and in spite of the cold, sweat beaded on his dark brown skin.
Muscles tensed. His mouth went dry. The yellow eyes of the umkac slowly turned until they stared directly into Mele’s. His scalp itched and his knees felt weak. His jaw clenched. His breath caught.
It was in motion.
Mele brought his left arm up to defend himself, ready to thrust his small knife if he saw an opening. The beast’s dripping fangs grew to consume his vision. The mouth opened wider. He’d seen carcasses left by umkac. He’d heard stories of trappers who had run afoul of the things.
It lunged for him. He pushed forward, stabbing wildly, closing his eyes as claws slashed toward his face. His blade did not connect, nor did the claw. He found himself tumbling over into the mud, looking around frantically, wiping filth from his face.
What he saw took a few thundering heartbeats to understand. He was no longer in immediate danger. The umkac had bigger trouble to worry about. A tall Una, covered in furs, stood with a foot upon its back, holding a pole with a snare line wrapped around the umkac’s neck. The beast was choking, thrashing about, trying to shake off its tormentor. The Una twisted the pole and gave it a quick jerk. With a muffled crack of bone, the umkac was dead.
Mele shook off his surprise and stood up. He retrieved the blade he’d dropped in his fall and turned to face the intervening Una. The face was familiar.
“Inoke?” he asked. “Inoke N’Pek?”
“You’re Mele.” she said. “Old N’Yin’s boy.”
“I haven’t seen you in a year or more.”
“I’m glad you picked today to change that,” he said, putting his blade back in his coat. “Thank you.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Collecting aeta leaves for the opomu.”
She bent to remove the cord from the umkac’s neck. “None at the market lately, huh?”
“None worth paying for.”
“I’m not surprised. Things haven’t been right for years. It gets worse every season.”
Mele looked around suspiciously. “What do you mean?”
“Farmers having bad crops. Hunters not finding game like they used to. Fewer pelts for us trappers every year.” She poked at the umkac and turned to him with a grin. “Speaking of pelts.”
Her cockeyed smile sent a shiver up his spine. In that gesture and expression, he realized how beautiful she was. Her amber eyes and smooth brown skin. The way her nose wrinkled when she smiled. Her curly hair, tied into four long braids. Her fingers, rough from work, but nimble and sure.
He was staring. He knew he was staring. She was looking at him. She was waiting for him to speak.
“Uh.” It was all he could manage for a moment.
“Are you all right?”
“Uh,” he said again. “Yeah. Sorry. Pelts.”
“What?” She cocked her head to one side, a look of concern on her face.
“The pelt. You want it.”
“I do.” She smiled again.
Mele tried to think about anything else. He focused on the umkac. Now that it wasn’t trying to kill him, he saw that it was a beautiful creature. Its purple streaked fur was soft and shiny.
“You want to skin it?” He asked. “Here?”
Inoke sized the thing up. “I think so. I’ll skin it. You dress it. We’ll cook some meat and have a nice meal. What do you say to that?”
“That sounds great.” He definitely liked the idea of spending the afternoon with Inoke. “But I need to find the aeta.”
“I’ll help you.” She grinned again and Mele felt his heart pound harder. “You help me with the umkac and I’ll help you gather aeta. I saw a nice patch of it last night. I’ll lead you there.”
“It’s a deal.”
The fire cut the bitter chill. Mele savored a piece of charred umkac meat. He slowly turned the makeshift wooden spit, roasting more. Between them, Mele and Inoke made a broth of foraged fungus, salt, and a pour of wine. He held the small pan below the umkac to catch some juices, occasionally pouring them over the top as the meat turned.
In a pot, Inoke boiled releba tea leaves. The pungent odor was heady and pleasant. She gave him another lopsided grin, speaking around a mouthful of umkac. “Not bad.”
Mele nodded. “I miss meals like this. Boss N’Yin used to bring me out of the city on opomu hunts. We’d sit by the fire and he’d tell me stories of what the city used to be like, what my parents were like.”
For a moment, his memory climbed up and threatened to swallow him. He stared at the fire, watching a piece of wood pop and smoke. He’d said too much.
Inoke coughed gently, shaking him from his thoughts. “How is Boss N’Yin?”
Mele paused. How much should he tell her? How much could he let himself believe? “He’s…” Mele swallowed and took a long, slow breath to calm himself. “He’s an old man and I don’t think he has many more springs.”
Inoke’s brow furrowed. “We can’t know when the old will pass. Why my father’s father’s mother only left us a year ago, and she was quite old when my father was a boy.”
“No. Boss N’Yin won’t be surprising my grandchildren.” He shook his head and poured tea into tiny metal cups. “He can’t make the trip to market anymore.”
“What will you do? Take over the silk making business?”
“I think that’s what he wants, but I don’t think so.”
“The Boss has made some mistakes. He owes people. A lot of people.” Mele drained his cup and poured more tea. “I’ve heard things I wasn’t supposed to hear.”
They ate in silence for a time, each lost in thoughts of their own. When Inoke spoke, her voice was like morning rain. “If you don’t take over, what will you do?”
His eyebrow raised as he considered the question. He’d never said it aloud, never let another know his thoughts. “I’ve thought about signing on with a caravans heading to Gravais, like my mother did.”
With those words, he felt a weight lift off him. His shoulders hunched less. It was real for the first time. It was possible, something he might actually do. Telling another Una made it more than a vague dream. Washed clean by his confession, he had a momentary exaltation, not noticing the strange expression that crossed Inoke’s face.
“Here,” Inoke called, pointing to a shaded glen. “I saw a patch of aeta growing around these trees.”
After a night camped in the wilderness with Inoke, Mele was glad for the sun’s light cutting through the forest canopy. He opened a pouch and drew his blade. The ground was rough and the morning dew made the moss covered rocks slick. Low ferns sprouted around the trunks of gisp trees.
Clumps of pale, diamond shaped leaves covered a depression in the rocky forest floor. Mele smiled. “Perfect.” This aeta was young and healthy.
“How much do you need?”
“I’ll take every fifth branch. No need to be greedy.” He looked up from his work for a moment. “This is excellent quality.” He cut stems with a meticulous, mechanical movement. For him, it was muscle memory. Though Boss N’Yin began buying aeta at market several years before, Mele remembered well his time trekking through the woods, in search of a good patch of the leaf.
Inoke stood watch, keeping her eyes roving around the hill. Many dangers might hide in the forest.
When mele filled his pouch, he turned to Inoke with a smile. “The opomu are going to eat well.”
“Good.” She looked at him for a moment, weighing her next words. “You want to see something strange?”
Mele paused. What a question. “I do.”
To be continued…
So, that’s chapter 1, which consists of the first 5 (and a half) episodes of the serialized story I’ve got going on Patreon. Episode 15 went up last week. If you like it, and want to follow as the story develops, please think about contributing. I’ll be using the money to commission artwork, among other things.
As always, you can check out some more Conquest of the Sphere with my Amazon ebook.