Souchart: A Wastes Ghali

This is a follow-up to the introduction of Souchart, exploring his life in the near-desert highlands West of si‘Scatvatsa, the primary location of The Right of Rule,the role-playing game I’m in. I should reiterate that I’m exploring the world, but exploring a part that is very different from the game. This gives me some leeway, but I’m also not able to really display the richness of what she’s created.

There will be more about Souchart. I’ve already invented a sail-powered train to get him around. There’s no way I’m leaving that in the dustbin.

This is just over 4000 words, and writing this for one post is why I did not post my 2000 word story on Monday. I plan to stick to the schedule more closely from now on.

Souchart had just entered his eighth Summer when he was sidecast and turned out from his family. A sidecast was untouchable, not an orphan. No family was allowed to take him in, but none could deny him his living necessities.

His first night he spent in the tribe’s herd of kamidar. The lumbering reptilians stank and moaned all night, but they were warm and they did not seem to mind. The light was dim and kamidar are not smart creatures; perhaps they saw his mottled, hairless skin and thought him one of their young, just out of the nest, encephalitic and unfortunately missing a tail.

Unlike the kamidar, Souchart had no beak with flat grinding plates, and he could not eat the grass and scrub brush that they seemed to relish. He owned a wooden bowl and a bent spoon, and was able to acquire food just by asking. One morning he decided he was tired of sleeping in the corral, and he bathed and washed his clothes, drying them in the sun as he carefully held them aloft to keep the dust off. That evening, he timidly approached a yurt just south of his family’s.

This was the home of the Shanritsa, a large family with seven Proven children, four already Marked. None of them looked like siblings. They had come from a tribe to the east, the Taansheh, and rumor was that the Taanxiu Grandfathers had declared them common seed. The Taanxiu and Taansheh were brother tribes, both in the family of Ta’an Re. Among the Ta’an Re, it has always been known that the toxins here in the Wastes degrade the blood over generations, and that the best way to fight it was to keep the bloodlines mixed. It was this custom that kept the Ta’an Re strong when all of their enemies had withered away, leaving only the Ta’an Re tribes to populate the Wastes alongside the rare and monstrous remnants of an older mankind. So it was by custom that Shanritsa Ribar was to father a child with each married Taanxiu woman, while his wife Shanritsa Chu Tsai was to bear a child from each married man if she could. Such was the rumor, at least, known but not to be spoken of.

Perhaps it was this mixing that strengthened their blood and made their mechanism fine, because all of the Shanritsa children were beautiful. The young men were strong, the playing boys vigorous. The girls moved with grace and strength, and the youngest even tussled with the boys and often emerged victorious, her laughter pure as temple bells or the chimes at the base of the Winter cliffs.

But of the Shanritsa children, Priya Kei stood out. She was born the Winter before Souchart, though his lanky and awkward frame already towered over her. Her glossy black hair was often loose, sometimes tied back with a thin leather strap that ended in two ancient copper coins. Her hair was not perfect, but that in itself added to her beauty because when the wind blew strands into her face, she caught them and slid them back behind her ear with a single deliberate, fluid motion. Souchart found himself looking up whenever the wind blew, hoping to see her wrist and fingers do that again. The arc and action of that motion must bespeak of some primal mechanical truth, some utmost optimum of efficiency and deliberateness, for Souchart felt an energy surge through him just from witnessing her hand move. Her machine was well wrought. While wetting down the rahona hens when they bake their tiny brains in the sun, or when setting out the table scraps for the feral pteryxi mousers near the granary, Souchart sometimes tried to mimic that motion, and discover its secret. His hands were too clumsy, and his mechanism just was not proportioned correctly. Not like Priya Kei.

She was young, and so often the adults had chores for her to do. Even when they issued harsh orders, her bow was appreciative, her smile true, and she would often skip a little when she thought she was alone. Priya Kei admired the world; Souchart admired her for it.

Souchart pulled the twined tumble-cotton cord that strung together empty cans to the right of the Shanritsa’s door. The conversation inside dulled, and Ribar pulled aside the stiff hide that covered the entryway. The light outside was dim, and the multiple candles inside bright, so the massive shadow that Ribar cast left the big man in darkness while behind him Souchart could plainly see his family’s faces. Could see Priya Kei look up. Her smile never dimmed as she looked to the doorway, though it was unclear if she could even see who was outside.

The man’s voice told a different story. “Souchart,” he said. “Is there… something you want?”

Souchart remembered his manners, and bowed deeply, though he found it difficult to keep his eyes off Priya Kei. “Mister Shanritsa, you honor me by opening your door in the darkness. I hope to cause no intrusion, and I apologize for… for requesting your indulgence.” Ribar shuffled his feet. The conversation inside had completely stopped. From the depth of his bow, Souchart could not see what was happening. “I was hoping to sleep inside tonight.” Souchart bowed even deeper, lifting his clasped palms higher above his head.

Souchart could not even hear Ribar breathe. From inside the yurt, a cricket called. Souchart smiled at the golden candle light cast from the door at his feet. Of course the Shanritsas have a pet cricket, he thought. All things under the stars smile on them.

Ribar let out a breath, and weakly, at the tail end he spoke: “Of course. Come in.”

Souchart bowed his thanks three times before crossing the threshold. Inside was warm, and smelled of burning tallow. The circle the yurt made was larger than the Tan’s, but with their many children the entire circumference was lined with bedrolls. The walls could hardly be seen behind hanging leathercraft, riding and herding equipment, and the woodbending tools that made Ribar a man of high demand. Priya Kei was there, helping her mother with a decorative swatch stretched out on a gravity loom. Souchart was terrified, and did everything to avoid her gaze. His eyes could not be controlled, and he stole a glance.

Priya was smiling. Souchart stopped thinking and hearing and seeing anything right then, and he raised his head from the bow he was still in. Through the fire hole in the ceiling, Souchart saw stars. He had been sleeping outdoors for weeks now, but seeing stars from inside made him warm. Safe. Better. The Shanritsa’s home was golden and clean. He hadn’t realized that he had been worried all this time. He took a deep, refreshing breath.

The stiff door hide was thrown open, and the sound brought Souchart back to awareness. Ribar was there, ushering his children out. The older boys were already in the darkness outside, the older girls following. Chu Tsai had set down her loomwork, and Priya Kei was doing the same. She was confused as her mother stood and urged her without words toward the door. “I don’t understand,” Priya Kei whispered.

Then they were out the door, and Souchart was alone. Ribar, still in the doorway, turned to face him. Under his upraised arm, Souchart watched the family walking away, the first boys entering a smaller yurt nearby where Chu Tsai’s blind mother mumbled to herself.

Priya Kei glanced back.

Ribar bowed a shallow bow, not honoring but merely recognizing the child in his home. “Taanxiu, our home is yours. Good night. Be well, Souchart.” He let the door hide drop closed.

Souchart stood there in the candle light. He knew he could not leave, could not let them come back without dishonoring them by defeating the properness of their actions. He must stay the night.

The golden light did not illuminate him. The warmth did not penetrate. He dared not touch their possessions, and lay without sleeping on the bare earth in the center of the floor, watching over the hours as the stars moved past the fire hole.

Souchart blew out their candles so they would still be useful when their family returned.

The first snow came early that year, before the Autumn Bridge, but even still as the nights started to be longer than days the big snow did not return until late in the year. After the Bridge Day celebration, the families of the Taanxiu sorted their belongings into Summer and Winter and hung their Summer things in hammocks suspended and arm’s length from the apex of their yurts’ roofs — off the ground to keep the migrating crorar from scavenging it for nest material, and down from the ceiling to keep the ghali from gnawing through everything. The fire holes were covered, and the door hides lashed down. The Taanxiu packed common belongings and large materials on the one tehar cart they owned, but an individual’s belongings must fit in a single pack. Three days after the Bridge, when the moon first became full in case stragglers needed to make their way by night, they would all walk a hundred kilometers to their south-facing Winter cliff homes.

Souchart had become accustomed to the rhythm, and looked forward to it. He felt the tribe was a machine, and he only had an inkling of its purpose. Though he wasn’t part of a family, there were things he could do to keep the machine working. Like any machine, the inner workings would wear less severely — though they could sometimes break, like when the daeva arrived one night riding a lithe two-legged beast Souchart did not recognize, and the next morning Chief Govinda abdicated. Then there was a fight to take his place — literally a fight, with knives, blood, and apparently something like a barrel on a chain that got its wielder laughed at until he knocked over half the contenders and made it to the inner circle before spilling his intestines in the dust. The doctor priest was busy, partly because his arrogant apprentice was in the fight and managed to get most of tendons in his forearm severed and he could not close his fingers any more. The daeva left before the fight was over, the people giving him a wide berth. The man was disfigured with amber eyes, curved claws where his nails should be, and patches of armor-like reptilian skin over his body, but though this disfigurement was far more severe than Souchart’s own, he was respected.

Souchart was away, retrieving a straggler kamidar from a ravine it fell in after a carchar wail scattered the herd the night before. Aside from the general breakdown of the machine — when Souchart asked Mr. Han the oven tender for supper crusts or leftover cakes he found the oven had not even been fired that day — the inner workings of the tribe did not seem to affect Souchart much. The people fighting, the people cheering them on, and probably even the daeva too — they were all interchangeable parts. Gears and cogs, levers and switches. The roles they play are merely the position they are in, not who they are. They seemed to value their role, value it enough to shed blood. But the roles are standardized and interchangeable.

There was a purpose, Souchart was certain. His pathetic Afflicted brain could not conjure it, of course. He was certain the purpose of the tribe’s mechanism was to generate people who were themselves perfect mechanisms. Who would not be just an interchangeable part. Surely Shanritsa Priya Kei would be one of these if the others did not disturb her growth into a powerful and sure woman. He could see it, and he recognized the value of seeing this from a distance.

The tribe’s mechanism also includes complex periphery workings that are just as essential to the whole. It is here on the outside that things wear down, degrade and break more easily. That morning, the seasoned herdsman and his apprentice were busy directing the panicky kamidar into a steep-walled floodplain so that any future stampede must be only forward or back, a strong defensive position the carchar would recognize and avoid. The carchar were smart, and the herdsmen were the brains of the otherwise dumb herd. That was the role of their cog.

Souchart saw their problem, roaming as he did at the periphery, and without notice or request he sought to correct it: the herd was missing one kamidar, a clutching cow only halfway through laying her eggs. The cow had been abandoned for the sake of keeping the herd safe, but could be saved, brought back to the fold. The flush of stress hormones has probably spoiled the next egg or two, but a common clutch of a dozen or more is laid just one egg per day, and no other cow would incubate those she had already laid. Losing this one cow would degrade the whole herd, wear down the mechanism’s effectiveness, set the tribe back at a time before the snows.

Souchart was no herdsman, and he knew that role was a poor fit for his cog. But he could help keep the machine going. He found the moaning kamidar in a steep but shallow ravine. The early snow had turned the ground muddy without creating a current strong enough to undercut the bank, so the cow stood too close and collapsed the edge, tumbling down in the mud. She had been trying to get out, but only succeeded in making the slope muddier and slicker. Kamidar are stupid, but in a herd they are persistent and could push through this. This one, alone, recognized that trying to get out was futile, but failed to come up with any other idea. Of course this meant it was just standing there in the mud, moaning constantly, declaring its position to all the hungry carchar around. By morning, she would be bones.

Souchart carried only two pieces of equipment: a steel-sleeveded bone rod taller than him for cases when things needed to be pushed apart, and a length of tumble-cotton rope with a silk core in case things needed to be bound together. The rope easily went over the docile and tired kamidar’s neck, and the other end over a tree near the upper bank then back and around his waist. Souchart descended backwards into the ravine, pulling the rope taut so that any inch the kamidar drifted or swayed toward the tree would allow Souchart to pull up the slack. Soon the cow was leaning its long neck forward over the sloping mud, but still reluctant to move. Souchart whacked it with his staff in the tender spot behind the legs, under the tail, and the kamidar leapt nearly straight upward, honking and gurgling.

He pulled in a little slack, and whacked again. The cow did not understand the process, but with its vertical leaps and clumsy clawing it made gradual progress up the mud slope. Souchart slipped himself a couple times, but tumble-cotton rope practically held itself, wet or dry. All he had to do was keep the rope tight, stay out of range of that two-hundred kilogram tail flopping madly about, and worry about staying clean some other time. Mud splattered everywhere, but by the ninth whack or so the kamidar’s honk turned into a hoot as it bounded out of the ravine and away — dropping the slack in the rope and causing Souchart to topple down in the mud. He barely had a breath when the lassoed kamidar caught up the slack on the other side of the tree and the loop of rope shot up to under his armpits and started dragging him face-first up the ravine wall.

Souchart bounced a couple times outside the ravine but untangled himself before being slammed into the trunk. He gave chase, hoping the stupid animal wouldn’t catch the rope on a rock or branch and strangle itself to death. He caught up when the kamidar was distracted by a tasty looking thistle, and he easily unlooped the rope from her neck. He led her slowly back toward the floodplain, and she followed without much other thought than maybe this muddy human knew where she had left her eggs. When she heard the moaning of the herd and the whistles of the herdsmen, she trotted off to join her family.

Out of sight, Souchart heard the herdsmen call out to her, and corral her in tightly with the herd. They laughed at the unexpectedness of a kamidar finding her way back to the herd. Who would have imagined such a thing? Surely this kamidar could tell its eye from an apple, they’d say, poking fun at how this dim-witted herbivorous species seemed to poke an eye out with alarming regularity.

Souchart felt good, relishing the warmth of the sun despite his wet, frozen feet and sweaty body. The tribe’s mechanism was fixed, again. Souchart knew he was not a real part of the machine, but at times like this he thought he was more than just a broken cog. He was like the spirit of a machine, invisible, ill defined, but a very real source of luck. He wanted to be a spirit of Good Luck. Make people laugh at their fortune, never knowing how it came to be.

Souchart went back to the village. He was covered in mud, the pockets of his thick chuba filled with it. The stormwatcher yurt at the hillcrest outside of the village stood empty, and propped up outside was a signaling mirror they used to tell the sailtrain that they wanted to trade when it was still an hour’s ride away. As he passed its silver surface, he caught a glimpse of his mud-covered self and stared. He took some mud from his chuba crevices, and daubed it under the right side of his jaw. It was the first time he saw his face without the disfiguring white splotches. He turned in profile, first one way, then the other. He smiled, and then laughed at the startling sudden whiteness of his teeth.

On the path to the village center, he saw the daeva race out of town astride his unnerving beast. The ugly reptilian man rode something Souchart did not recognize, that was low to the ground and seemed to have no hips, moving like a snake though it was on two legs. Then he was gone. Souchart knew that he was the eyes and ears of Srivana, the ysura who lived here in the Wastelands and far from si’Scavatsa to the East. He only had a vague idea of what a ysura was — carchar-sized person? Fire-breathing dragon? — or how they were “in charge” of everything. It seemed to him that Chief Govinda was in charge. He made the decisions, sometimes with the Grandfathers or Nans, and sometimes even overriding them. He was kind and fair, he listened, but then he ruled and there was no disputing.

That was before Souchart arrived at Mr. Han’s oven, and found out that the inner mechanisms of the tribe had been broken, reformed, with some parts swapped and others discarded. And there were no cakes today.

Souchart set out for the cliffs before dawn the third day after the Bridge. The others had prepared the night before, but just getting the people assembled to move out could take an hour or more. He was well ahead by the time he saw the dust cloud signaling their start. He had his tools. They would have Good Luck on their trip.

The air was still, and Souchart could see the layers of the atmosphere stacked like flatbreads: in the valley a dissipating fog portrayed a true level that the hillocks pushed through here and there; as the valley turned upward where the hillocks became foothills, clouds hung, equally flat on their bottom side as the fog below, but choppy, curled and smeared along their tops; and the edges of the bowl, the towering giant peaks to the South and North and even the lesser ones to the East constrained and bent the clouds, turning them vertically against their nature, so that when the clouds crested the peak they looped around, curling in an attempt to level out like their low-altitude brethren.

More than the layers, he could see the connections. The moisture was driven by the warm ground into the cold air of dawn, and it would hang there until the sun’s warmth drove it upward along the hillsides like the air above a lit candle. Something in the air of the foothills, perhaps the same mechanism that caused his ears to pop when he ascended them, would squeeze the water from the warm air all at once at some preset altitude. Under those foothill clouds Souchart could see “Ming Su’s grey tresses,” the dark parallel streaks of rain falling from the cloud. It was unclear how the moisture made its way to the next level, up to the very peaks, but the power of that mechanism was clear. He had heard stories of winds up there that could life a man and set him down a hundred meters away — if there was ground there to set him on. The clouds bent by such winds must be enormous and far away, because from here they appeared to curl so slowly as to be hardly perceived, like paper being dried on a stove plate.

This valley was, too, a mechanism of sorts. The clouds revealed an invisible fuel line. Souchart came to a wide and shallow river, more swollen than usual though they had had no rain. But the hills did. Like a chain or timing belt, the river connected the hills to the valley in a cycle. He was the spirit of the machine, and he waded into the water to fix the wobbly crossing stones the mothers, children and old cogs used upriver from the cart ford.

After his labor he climbed higher in the hills, and he could see more of the valley. The fog was now gone, as were the grey tresses, and the foothill clouds had been torn apart by the rising warm air, forming long fingers like tumble-cotton roving before it was spun into yarn, reaching up toward the peaks. The peaks were no longer visible, encased in roiling clouds that seemed to come lower and lower as he watched. The machinery was the same, but the mechanism had shifted gears.

At the top of this hill, he stood next to a damaged stormwatcher yurt. It was unusually low to the ground, sleek against the wind, and yet it seemed to have been rocked by a Summer storm. The yurt’s roof had parts missing, the door hide was gone, and the signaling fan’s arms were scattered. The mirror was intact, and standing just right he could feel the concentrated sun’s power reflecting from it. The tribe’s dust trail was still far away.

From up here it became obvious how the lines of this human mechanism meshed with the natural one. There was a clear view out to the Western Dune expanse, and also down into the valley where the Taanxiu summered. But the foothills blocked the view East, toward the other Ta’an Re tribes lived. During the Month of Winds, a stormwatcher — often just a roherd — would keep an eye on the dunes, looking for the dark streak that meant a storm was forming, or the signal from a more stormward watcher who himself may be relaying the signal from even closer to the storm. The mirror signaled during the day, and a fire could be lit behind the signaling fan for night. A hand-cranked device wobbled the mirror and adjusted the fan so as to send the flickering on-and-off codes written on punch cards that communicated distance, speed, and expected toxins. Souchart had never been a stormwatcher, but he had been told of the terror one feels at night when you see the stormward bonfire light up and convey half a toxin report before being snuffed by the racing and opaque sand.

The storms were the levers of the valley’s mechanism. They could switch everything off for days, even the sun. They were both the abrading sand in the cogs when they knocked down homes and scattered herds, and grist in the mill when the silty rivers refreshed the nutrients in the flood plains. The toxins the storms brought degraded human life, but the mechanism of the valley had been built to require it. Some plants would only germinate after a particularly heavy blast of sand scoured the land, and the kamidar and rohar would eat certain plants only after a storm, and at those times you could hardly tempt them with their usual feed. But to be caught out in a storm without at least a nose filter would mean you had seen your last Summer. A person’s mask was not his to own, and should anyone choose or be forced to leave the Taanxiu it is the one piece of equipment they must surrender back to the tribe. It is said that the only tribes with enough masks for everyone were the vanquished or corrupted. For all the hardship of the old cogs volunteering their masks for the newly Proven grandchildren, it would be unbearable suffering to not have enough children make it to their Proving Day.

Souchart could not fix this yurt or signaling fan before the tribe passed here. The damage was more than he was equipped for. He packed the fan and mirror inside the yurt, tied down a loose flap on the roof and re-wrapped the signaling device so that the snows would not stiffen it. Like the spirit of a machine, he did not want to be seen, so he moved on, and kept leading the way to the Winter Cliffs.