Consider What Becomes of the Ashes
LaGatta has laws, many to govern its multitude. The sex workers must pass a test for disease and cleanness every week. From his first meeting with the doctor's shining thin probe, Noah both fears and is fascinated by the process. The workers must not speak or sing to sell their wears. All business must come through the business itself. They must live at a fixed accommodation, where others witness their compliance.
Placed in a dormitory, Noah meets six other men and twelve women who work for the same man he does. With fourteen beds in one large room, night gives no privacy. Noah thinks the room a luxury, with full lights even at night, no smoking lanterns, and lazy fans spinning to cool the day. A large bathing room opens to a central court, where the kitchen is open to the sky. The prostitutes sit and smoke between jobs, or eat food brought in by their employer. They share the beds on shifts. Under strict instruction to keep the property clean, the smoke and uncaring living fouls it every week, until the day before the city's inspection, when Noah scrubs and sweeps with the panicked others. He offers to take the dirtier jobs to avoid this one, of collecting and disposing buckets of cigarette ends into the cooking fire, of smelling stale smoke and feeling the heat.
On the street, the sex workers must wear white robes covering them from crown to heel. Unless with a client, the prostitutes rarely choose to leave the property. 'LaGatta respects value,' one woman tells Noah. 'Our flesh is our stock, why should we risk giving away even a glimpse free?'
'They try to shame us with the sheet,' another argues. 'They can all walk with their arms free and faces to the sun. Why should we hide our flesh, mask our faces as though we work the halls instead of their house, as though made wretched by disease?'
The halls are not for Noah, where the pay is more but needs him to accept the lash and pain. He is large, the white-haired man tells him, built for punishment. Noah cannot imagine that any free LaGattan would ask him to take the opposing role. He will only work the houses, he will only go to women.
Noah wears his robe as he finds his way to through the twisting streets and levels to his clients' houses, learning the names from First to Highest, and to walk without tripping on the hem.
The tension in his legs never leaves him. He must walk even on those days he does not work. Without a pass, he is barred to levels above Septe, guards preventing his ascent by the stair. He roams the lower bustling terraces instead, the robe a blessed invisibility for him, where his blondeness and size will always draw the eye of the graceful LaGattans.
When he undresses for his first client, he sees the wonder in her eyes, and tastes the smoke in her mouth.
The employment suits Noah's disposition. He is young and hard at a thought. When he makes love he feels as though the world is more real, on the cusp for him to claim. He suckles at breasts small and large, with equal intentness, captivated by the pride with which the LaGattan women expose themselves to him. Their virtue resides in neither their size nor physique, for those vary. Virtue, he decides, comes with the LaGattan nature of their flesh.
Noah masters the extent of LaGattan sexual activity, and never calls it perversion.
The LaGattans call him boy.
His lovers ask him to speak his native tongue.
Noah recites from memory his tutor's lore, in craftsmanship, in war, in legal method, trade and marketing. Uneasy recalling his lessons, he concentrates on the sound. He forms the ejective consonants, his thoughtlessness so intense he forgets the words.
LaGatta does not change with the seasons, as Badenstee did. The white stone city is always shining, always hot. Noah judges time passing by the change in his own flesh. The scars loosen, he shaves daily, his nightmares fade.
In bed, he learns concentration postpones his orgasm for as long these tight LaGattan women need to find release. He must always mind himself; they can rarely span him with ease or care. Noah comes to think the tension in his legs must be sexual, as his orgasms offer relief and a dreamless sleep, tangled about the LaGattan limbs of a woman who could never be his wife. Yet on waking, his tension resumes habitation.
He wanders, until he knows First to Septe by head and heart.
The restless ache sends him upwards, always upwards. LaGattans always live on the highest level they can; Noah asks a guard what will grant him permission.
'A card of credit? What's that? How can I get one?'
'Earn it. The Emperor awards them for long or significant service.'
'I don't think I can—'
The guard's curtness turns oddly apologetic, eyes on the dusty hem of Noah's white robe. 'Sorry, I didn't think. You might trade with someone for theirs, if they owe you enough money, or you can buy one. Ask whoever's keeping your stable, they'll tell you how you to - if you're eligible.'
Noah asks in the evening, after the white-haired man delivers the addresses and their clients, after he settles for a drink and a game of cards with the older sex workers.
The white-haired man shakes his head, dismissing the question. 'You don't need one.'
'I'd like to go higher.'
'You go up every day on warrant! Are you greedy or something? I give you the best clients, the richest ones, you've got more than your mouthful of luxury.'
'Exactly, I go up for work. What if I just wanted to see the sights?'
'You've got seven levels for that! And Auldemon, the old city. You could walk around all right. With your size you've nothing to fear.'
'Do you have one? A credit card?'
Muttering, the white-haired man sets aside his cigarette and his playing cards, and pulls a linen pouch from his shirt. Careful, he exposes the finely carved wood, smelling of sandalwood, thin as paper.
The carving is intricate, more than half the wood missing by intent, the remainder polished to a mirror's shine. With his sharp yellow nail, the white-haired man points to the faint scribed word along a curl.
'That's my family name, you don't need one. This is my family's credit card. Honestly, boy, it's a pretty thing, but I never use it. A mug's game, putting off your debts and the like. Coin's good enough for honest men.'
The whores at the table titter. The white-haired man frowns. 'Watch your mouth, boy.'
'You are lying. You use it to get home, don't you?'
'And what do you reckon, Noah Badenson, if you can rise to live on Noven with one of these, you'll find another life waiting for you?'
'How can I afford one?'
The white-haired man laughs, mocking, his whores cackling. 'Six years in the halls, I'll give you yours.'
The thought chills Noah, of being masked, of the potential for pain. The muscles in his legs clench, ready to fight.
'I can't say no if I work there.'
'Get out of here! And you reckon you can say no now, just because you get to sleep in silk sheets and embroidered linen? I'd better not hear of you denying anyone, you hear me, boy?'
Noah walks into LaGatta without his robe, and wears the sidelong stares instead. LaGatta does not encourage foreigners within the city walls, on any level but Auldemon.
'But I'm not foreign,' he tells a child in short pants with wayward midnight hair, too young to restrain his stares with politeness. 'My mother was born here.'
If he is caught, he will pay a serious fine from his hoard, or spend several days jailed and lose his income. He cannot care. Aware of the cards' importance, he sees them everywhere. It disturbs him for a city of stone and metal and air to rely on a slight piece of wood for distinction.
Without knowing, he laboured for a bit of wood. Noah is upset for days.
He clouds his sorrow in performance.
Noah does not know what he seeks except he cannot find it. He suspects it is his mother, but she will not be in Auldemon, she would not even be on levels for industry and market where Noah lives. Would he meet her on First Prime instead, or Dodecadam? Would he find her sharp cheekbones and rich, dark hair on a discreet, tree-shaded boulevard through Highest? The unknowing returns, the old tension doubled, tripled. Noah is young and whatever his mother's blood, his heart beats to his father's inheritance, Badenstee, Badenstee, Badenstee. LaGattan eyes tell him even age will not allow him escape from the native sensuality of his flesh. Noah must scratch.
He does not forget the addresses the white-haired man gives him. He haunts the levels not needing permission even when he is not working, and pleases as many as he can, undercutting the white-haired man's price, discreetly for the matter of his contract. In sex Noah finds completion, a whole being found his half. In application Noah finds his purpose.
He thinks he was taught differently. It should be the other way. A man should find his purpose first, and then bend himself to the application, lest the task bend him. Noah remembers his first tutor of the sword telling him so, he and his brother at attention, twinned in solemnity and diligence. Noah wants to forget all his old learning. He is in LaGatta.
One morning the tension is so great Noah comes with an uncontrollable violence. His client struggles against the pain, but he is stronger, larger. Instead of release, after, there is a fight, an argument. The tension tightens as Noah gathers his garb and races to the street. He throws away the robe.
He wants to fight. Born to fight, raised to fight, battling land, trees, the invaders, bred to battle to make what he would have of this world. But his fighting had done so little for him; he lost Dar, he watched his parents rage to no avail, fighting lost them everything. He will not fight, not here, not where every LaGattan looks at him as though expecting the barbarian violence to come whatever the barbarian's will.
He walks, and he cannot stop. How far he has come? Much further than Dar. His legs want to carry him beyond the city's streets, a clockwork machine wound too tight. His pace tells him he has not reached the end of his journey. He wants to run, to reach his ending faster. His feet want to take him away from LaGatta.
Such a revelation has Noah cry out, distraught, uncaring for the eyes watching his distress.
For his youth he thought LaGatta would be the end of all tension, all anticipation, his mother's blood burning within him more so than his father's. Yet here, he is not LaGattan, blood betrayed by flesh.
Noah remembers his mother's funeral, laying her in the wormy forest earth. A LaGattan profile confronted the sky; proud, defining. He sees her profile everywhere he looks, every merchant and runner-boy and citizen. Noah does not have the nose, the chin, the cheekbones; his features are his father's, shared with his brother. His mother gave him nothing but his name, and her tongue.
When the guards come to grab him, he curses at them in Badenstongue, howls at them in Badenstongue. He has forgotten everything except he will not, cannot fight.
'You're never to do that again, do you hear?'
'Yes. I won't.'
'Don't know who you think you are, acting up with a lady who paid— Do you even know how much she paid for you? Then running the streets with decent people looking at you, and you, hanging out in the open! I warned you, I tried, LaGatta's not like your bushwhacker's bloody backwater. I'm of a mind to send you to the halls anyway, just because you don't want to go. Teach you a bloody lesson. Ah, don't look at me with your murderous eyes, I'd never do it to you—Look, boy, you're good at what you do, you're still young, no need to branch out yet. You know it. You're good. But you think you're fucking them for your benefit, not for theirs. Prostitution's - well, it ain't a selfish industry.'
'Good. Now get up, and you go clean up in the bathhouse, and put this on afterwards. Decent clothes, mind.'
The prison's bathhouse is a high faucet in a courtyard, and a bar of gritty soap. Noah scours himself liberally, shivering in the cold. The sky is dark, night so much cooler in LaGatta than day, as though the diurnal shift compensated for the endless years of summer. He is nearly grateful for the warmth of the white robe.
There is a beaten sheet of metal by the shower, with a shelf holding a razor and a pat of soft soap for lather.
Mirrors do not feature in LaGattan interior design. This is the first full-length reflection Noah has seen in years. He startles at the sight: a man where he once was a boy, as though distance had made him where it should have been time.
Had Dar survived, he would look the same, sharing this softened version of their father's face.
After the prison, the white-haired man makes odd compromises to keep his Badenstee stud from anger. He sends Noah to the younger women, the athletic ones, he increases the workload and uses him as errand-boy as well, as though the action and variety should tire Noah to contentment. Yet his tension grows greater every day, he the more impatient. He is not who he is meant to be. Noah must race to catch himself, but he does not know to where he should run. The white-haired man gives Noah no direction but another address.
Noah tries, but his tension will not allow him to keep to the path.
Again, he runs. This time he runs the easier route, down the endless flights of stairs, past First Prime and Noven, to Auldemon.
He reaches the old city, old stone, old bones.
His tension was wound in Badenstee. Surely it must run down soon: circumstance would run him through a certain hard course, but there would be an end to this. Noah comforts himself with the thought as he lies alone, cold in Auldemon's old shadows and hungrier by the day. He does not think this is what he was meant to be, a boy whatever his age, a lover but never loved. He does not return to the white-haired man. He hunts for avenues he has not walked, but no path leads him to the sky.
Noah thinks his hunger is penance for his fat past, where he had luxury, and land, where he was a lord of his own tree-filled stretches and saw it all burned to ash. He will not steal. Masturbation delivers no solace, so he stops, and he trembles with the pent treachery of his flesh. He is incomplete; he must continue.
The tension drives him to seek another job, another purpose.
But Badenstee men are sized for war: the first offers come with a sword hilt extended for his palm. Noah refuses. He strives. He learns of paths of education as well as money leading to the sky, then learns he is too old to take these routes, with no legal citizenship to his name. Even base level employment requires skills of mechanics and higher knowledge he never learned in Badenstee's woods.
He is terrified of failure. Noah knows what it will do to him if he stops trying after he has begun. He swallows every rejection with a smile. He tries. He takes every beating in silence. When the breaking comes, it will be so hard.
The tension builds until Noah is wretched with weakness, trembling with urges he scarcely knows to name. He begs the cost of a cup of coffee and sits nursing the dark heat in a small booth by an upwards flight of stairs.
He is calm.
Swallowing, Noah raises his head and looks about himself.
This is still LaGatta, but changed, as though he looks through eyes that have never seen the city before. Everyone is so ugly. A subjective judgment, the time of the morning, his own hunger, his measured cup of black despair. Noah knows this is not true. The women are the colour of dust and all the lace in the world cannot hide their sagging flesh.
Noah finds his cup empty, with no memory of drinking. The coffee shop is cool, fanned. He has no want to return to the day's heat. It has happened then, the breaking. When Noah breathes a sigh, it is mostly of relief. He cannot stay in the shop or they will evict him. He leaves his empty cup and starts to walk.
His pace is slow. He is already in LaGatta.
Continue to Chapter 3 →
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