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Following the theoretically unprovoked Vail invasion of Badenstee, the LaGattan Emperor Aured Rel cast out the Vail and assumed Imperial control of his weakened ally’s territory. Badenstee's primary industry and national pride, the great forest, was burned to the ground by a rebel Badenson's activities in an attempt to deny the LaGattans further wealth. Across the ocean, the Vail mobilise to combat the LaGattan countermove.

Consider What Becomes of the Ashes

Chapter 1.

The ship was never intended to transport live flesh.

Noah's bunk has a wooden frame, fixed poorly to the hull, the only wooden piece aboard the ship. The craftsmanship is suspect compared to the quality of the metal hull, the intricate steaming engine. He has never touched metal this sleek. Where articulated, even the rivets are set with the fineness of clockwork, scaled to conquer spans.

This is a LaGattan ship, from a city of metal, stone and air. Noah has only known the continent's mud, earth and fire, but Badenstee's ashen ruin he leaves behind, a land whose strength once formed about a great forest spine. He would be pleased to never see another tree again.

He is careful not to stare. He will not be a leaf-haired continental to be laughed at by the illegals in transport. He cannot sleep for the anticipation. In the dark where the refugees cannot spy, Noah strokes the curve of metal with one hand and his prick with the other. He is adolescent, his sex insistent. The first night he remembers the magnitude of his horror after he came, as though he defiled a church. But this is no sacred space. This is a LaGattan ship, he a paying passenger.

The rumpled linen of the bunk so temporarily Noah's is grey with the sweat of strangers. Noah surpasses his sense of sacrilege, goes on to come again. This is all right, fitting, both his action and his hand. The second night Noah discreetly marks the wall with his spend and affixes a photograph to his impromptu adhesive.

The other illegals do not ask. They are not from Badenstee, and do not think he speaks their language.

The photograph is black and white, of a girl.

Her hair is a flat black, but Noah remembers the dark depths differently, shimmering hints of gold and bronze, a chatoyant richness usually found in cat's-eye stone. The girl's cheekbones are high, her nose long and aristocratic. A portrait, the photograph does not show more than her face and her shoulders. It is enough. Noah remembers the sharpness of her collarbones. There is a faint hint of dimpling at her cheek, but she does not smile. Photography was so serious in backwater Badenstee, a rare event with a treasured outcome. Her seriousness gladdens Noah: for once, his memory is the true reflection. Her energy was entirely expressed through the slimness of her body, always bound in crisp, competent motion. In stasis, she is only a reminder of that other woman.

Noah will never love another woman as he loved her, the girl his mother had been before marrying his father. She was born of sharp metal, shining stone and as free as the air, a full-blooded LaGattan.

Noah will never forget he buried her in Badenstee's bloody mud.

In his sleep, he sees the great wood-framed house as though there.

Noah was at war for a year. In those scant months Badenstee rose, Badenstee raged, and Badenstee burned. He returned to find the house choked with a winter's worth of ivy. The afternoon's brilliant light did little to dispel the sense of forbidding. Noah came back because he had nowhere else to go.

All the years of his life unfurled in that house of wood. He knew the rot. He wanted to reduce it to a wreck and destroy his childhood, but he had no strength. He still struggled to walk.

In death, there was calm about the house. Noah remembered the tension, the noise. The house used to groan and creak with the weight of life the wood supported. He and his brother had always fought, shouted, laughed; sometimes they sang. Enough noise to drown out what noise their parents made more, though theirs came only at night, as though deep darkness blinded ears as well as eyes.

Inside, Noah disturbed dust on the floorboards. The air hung heavy, muffled. The tension was gone; Noah thought most came from his parents. Their marriage only existed in a truce written in the lines between conflict and compassion. When the treaty between Badenstee and LaGatta dissolved, Noah's parents did also.

He smelled the decay.

But the house stunk of the rot long before its abandonment, better now than when they all still lived there. Noah remembered trying to tend his mother, but her burns were horrendous. The healers, the physics had all gone to the front, even the women trained to tend women's troubles; Badenstee's men never believed a woman much trouble. When the Badenstee warrior came the first year, the housekeeper helped Noah and his brother hide the herbs for his mother's sleep; she helped hide them three months later, at fifteen, when the soldiers came for the men.

Noah left when Dar did, a spear in his hand and a sword across his back. Noah came back once despite his father's command, to bury his mother. He had lost Dar by then, to the fighters in the great wood who wore no colours. Dar ran from authority, railing against the invaders and Badenstee both; the captains called him a rabid wolf, and never trusted Noah because of the threats coming from Dar's mouth.

When the grave was filled and flattened, Noah returned to his father, who spoke no word of his wife's death or to his son, nor questioned the absence of Noah's twin. The great man fought as though he would never topple. When he died, it was with an arrow in his eye, one in his throat and half a hundred dead Vail at his feet.

The house had been looted. Noah checked every room except his mother's. He felt nothing for the house; with the absence of relics to provoke him, his memories faded. Carefully, still unsteady from his wounds, he picked his way over the gaps in the floorboards. His youth had been looted with family's wealth.

The ceiling in his bedroom sagged to sweep the floor. Noah stared at the exposed beams. The house's structure was the same sound. The stairs spiraled, the walls stood. His room and Dar's room were still where they had been, at the opposite ends of the house and separated by a whole storey.

Noah knew how to work wood, how to strip the house's skin and repair the broken bones. Floorboards and wall panels, cosmetics only; he'd replace the skin with a new one, unscarred and whole.

Noah walked through the gap where the back door had been and paused on the verandah. Someone had tried to set a fire to the house, recently. The air hung heavy with smoulder.

Noah stared at the scorch-marks for a long time, until sunset stained the blackened wood the color of old blood.

Noah left as he had come, limping, with nothing.

In LaGatta, Noah goes ashore with a forged work permit allowing him past the dockyard guards. This he discards: the punishment for forging formal LaGattan documentation is greater than for a young illegal's wish to sight the city's grandeur.

He does not accept he is here, truly here, until ten minutes down his first paved street.

The city is pure and gold, like the stories, stone of sun-bleached white and pale yellow forming precise walls, spilling into broad, wide steps betweens the terraces. Every avenue extends further than vision.

His anticipation becomes a tension making every step a spring.

The last time he felt this way, the great wood burned.

Noah queries the coiled restlessness. Where do his legs want to take him? Where else should he be but in LaGatta? The sun shines; even the meanest of buildings is beautiful. Everything around him is so beautiful, the women with smooth bare arms and jeweled, spun-silk black hair, the men, even the old ones, lean, soft, indolent.

The tension intensifies.

Muscle clenches all over Noah's body. His hands shake, curled about the strap of his rucksack. He is here. LaGatta embraces him so wholly his tension is sexual. That is good; it is for that he is here. Noah will never fight again, risk limb to tree or sword or knots of age; he will claim his right to decadence.

The most difficult part is yet to come. Noah memorised the directions at his port of disembarkation. He finds a cab with the correct number noted on the sign to the front, and pays coin to board. Pushed by a steaming engine to the rear, this cab is a common one, by the lack of paint, roof, shutters, the crowd aboard. Noah stands to the left, sways with the jerking motion, and does not meet anyone's eyes. He looks upwards, and follows the trail of black smoke from the engine chimney; when the cab descends LaGatta's famed levels on a jerking, wrenching lift, he clutches at the rails crossing the cab's roofless top to keep his feet. The route passes over rough stone, and takes him to where the intensity of building and narrowness of street dims the bright LaGattan light.

Noah leaves the cab among a small crowd, but within seconds he stands alone.

The sun does not penetrate, only the heat. The wind carries a festering stench. Noah hastens down a street lined with red doors until he finds a single squat building composed of brick instead of stone, styled on a bastardised model of a Badenstee drinking hall. Noah dislikes the likeness when he wants newness. His life is a devious collection of symbols, endlessly repeating.

He pushes through the doors, finds the lounge and orders a drink. He waits. Within moments, a tall man with white hair approaches and greets him in Badenstongue.

'I am in need of employment,' Noah says, in clear LaGattan. The white-haired man is pleased with his aristocratic accent. A few quick queries, and Noah responds: 'Sixteen and nine months, several burn scars, and ten when firm.'

The white-haired man grins. His voice is as slow as his smile. 'I'll need proof of the last.'

The drinking hall is near-empty and dim, and smells of something stale. Noah stands and unlaces the tie of his breeches.

'When firm, you said.'

His compunction seems to be under question. Noah hesitates, then closes his eyes. His wrist works briskly, and he has nearly forgotten the fraud of his surroundings when the man speaks again.

'You Badensons certainly hold up to your stereotype. Breed them big amongst the trees.' He laughs and coughs, spits and laughs. 'The great wood, indeed.'

He lights a cigarette. Noah refuses when the man offers him one, but accepts the second offer with a definitive, 'No, only women.'

'Pity.' The man's gaze is sharp. 'You'll have to be more than big and blonde. LaGattan women aren't like your Badenstee broads, you understand. These are rich women, the landowners and merchants and enchanters, they'll be paying for something worth having. You'll have to learn to be good.'

'I can be do that.'


Continue to Chapter 2

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