Only One Death: Part One of Ten
Only One Death is the first in the Tales of The Lesser Evil and this is the first chapter.
This is a fantasy series—not quite grimdark, but dark nevertheless—with complicated and believable characters doing their best to survive in a world simply indifferent to their existence.
To read an introduction to this novella, and the backcover blurb, click here.
If you enjoy this story and aren’t already subscribed, please consider doing so,
share this with those you know,
or like, comment, or restack on Substack Notes.
Like each of the cities on the Isthmus, it was rumoured Eastsea was built upon the ruins of a far more ancient settlement. Sewer children and tunnellers whispered that the lowest of the barely-accessible levels dated from the time before the Encircling, before the Reversal, even before the Maelstrom. Whether this was true did not really matter; Kees was not even sure she understood what the Reversal was. Eastsea was old and that, as far as she was concerned, was that.
It was the day before the first new moon following the equinox and the city was abuzz with preparations for the start of festivities the following dusk. There would be three days of devotion, or three days of debauchery, depending on your preference. Some enjoyed both.
Kees did not want to stay for the festival. It was the time of the year where she itched to leave behind the Talking Races, head into deeply-wooded hills, hunt and gather, explore ancient ruins, make a sort-of-living. For two months now, she had waited for a caravan heading in the right direction. For two months she had been disappointed.
She was not religious and two months of drinking, smoking, revelry, carousing, and overeating had already taken their toll. She felt slow and bloated and miserable. Every year was the same; the longer she stayed in the cities, the more she longed for the wild; the longer she stayed in the wild, the more she longed for company. It was like one of the rope bridges stretched between floors in the Tower district, one rope to walk upon, one to hold on to. If either snapped you would almost certainly fall.
She was getting too old for this.
A week earlier she had visited the horse market, buying a pair of hardy mountain ponies, now stabled near the Westgate. Every day she delayed was a day she had to pay for their keep and her funds were rapidly dwindling.
Kees needed to leave and leave soon.
‘Too old,’ she muttered to herself, waving at the bar to order another drink with one hand, reaching for a taper to light her pipe with the other.
Eastsea was like nowhere Dhinal had ever seen. He had been raised on dry steppes where shelter from the wind was at a premium. At times the blown loess dust would cover everything: food, eyes, bedding, clothing, and the inside of your lungs.
Once a port, Dhinal knew Eastsea had commanded trade across the Isthmus, the Great Canal crossing to her sister city, the equally imaginatively named Westsea. The wealth and traffic had been legendary, until civil war, political unrest, plague, and silt almost completely destroyed the canal and Westsea. That great port was now home to a small whaling fleet and some coastal fishermen, living in vast and crumbling ruins, casting wary eyes to the forests creeping closer every year.
Eastsea was no longer on the coast, the dredgers long ago having failed to keep up with the build-up of silt. She now lay five miles from the deep water. Salt-marsh and, subsequently, reed-beds and swamp-woods had filled the miles between. On this occasion, in this place, the ocean gave and the land received, elsewhere and in different times these roles were reversed. A constant war of many battles, never-ending and with no possible winner.
A causeway wound from floating jetties, fixed piers and a scattering of buildings, themselves built on constantly updated rafts and piles, before twisting across the wetlands to the city itself. No longer would the unloaded cargo be poled and pulled across to the other side of the continent on barges, instead it was strapped onto pack animals and slaves, to be carried onward to the cities of the south or, until recently, the north. Some of the traders would sell their goods in one of the Eastsea's own markets, or to a syndicated merchant. Others preferred to continue their journey and risk the dangerous overland passage, despite council-levied taxes they would still receive a much higher percentage of the profit. Money and riches talked as loud in Eastsea as the poverty and misery smelled.
To reach the city the traders had their wares packed into a series of carts, owned and run by the Motherhood of Trade. The Guild would charge a flat rate per cart and everyone seemed happy with this situation.
Successive councils talked about stemming the tide of decay, about digging a new channel back to the old docks and even reopening the canal, but it was only ever talk.
The towers dominated the skyline. They were huge, tall and wide, with bridges spanning between them far, far above. Dhinal had never seen a man-made structure so high, and here were eight, still standing despite the passage of time. The city of his own people was perhaps taller in some ways, but it was hewn from living rock, stretching high above the great river which had carved the canyon into the soft stone. It was not imposing like these buildings, the hills around the canyon allowing no hint as to the existence of the dying city below. He missed his home.
The causeway was well made and sturdy. It was in nobody's interest to see the cargo disappear into the marsh; the officials wanted to tax it and the traders wanted to sell it. In part, these taxes paid for the upkeep of the structure and it was constantly updated and repaired; another portion of the same taxes paid for the upkeep of the councillors themselves.
Dhinal noticed the smell first, even before the noise.
The city still had some docks, those which had been manufactured in stone, the wooden structures long since vanished and cannibalised. These tall, jutting fingers of masonry gave the first hint of what was to come. Riotous paintings and graffiti-coated every visible stone, tarps covered market stalls, nets were strung between structures to deter avian theft and potentially entrap more produce to sell. The scent of cooking, of old tar, of sweat, of damp straw, mould, vomit, alcohol, and smoke of half a dozen varieties all mixed with the unholy din of the crowds and the animals. After a month at sea, Dhinal felt uncoordinated, confused, and still a little sick.
He had gone on ahead to find them a guide and was already regretting the decision.
In the confined space of the ship, the others had grated on his nerves, incessant squabbles testing even his patience. He had also found he could not wait to set foot on a surface which did not roll from side to side, or up and down, or all seemingly at once. He was not made for the ocean, nor was he really made for these damp lands, but he had little choice.
Aishah-Zaya had made it clear to him that, to find his destiny and save their tribe from extinction, he should find the Red City. The old shaman, both his mentor and mistress, had given him a map showing the way to the hidden city from the Amethyst Mountains. The only problem was she had no idea where to find the mountains. A lost city, yes; three giant purple mountains, no. Every question about his belief system could be answered with this one statement. The shaman was a guide; but a local guide, not a legendary Longtraveller.
For three years Dhinal had wandered from nation to city-state, temple to town, caravanserai to port. Each a new experience, new sights, new wonders, new dangers. Rumour and guesses were easy to find, but it had taken many months before he had discovered anything approaching a solid lead. Along the way he had somehow picked up a strange group of fellow adventurers, some clearly joining him solely for supposed riches, others for different and perhaps more shadowed reasons. He did not really trust any of them.
The last to join their group, the woman calling herself Strings, had suggested Eastsea as a good starting point to find a guide to the mountains. She had told them of the tales she had heard when she had passed through five years earlier, tales of the Amethyst Mountains. Strings did not really want to return, but the promise of enough money to stop running was lure and whip both.
Dhinal sighed and moved toward the gates, ready to face the usual barrage of questions from the guards and excise staff. He would be lucky to find a guide amongst the tens of thousands of inhabitants and visitors before everyone was either deep in prayer or inebriated. It would be a difficult few days.
Strings waited for the others to unload their baggage from the hold. For a small group, they seemed to carry a lot of stuff. She had learnt early on that stuff slowed you down, stuff got you killed. She wore her blankets and carried everything else she needed on her rope belt or in the haversack slung over one shoulder. When she had first run she had only the contents of her pockets and belt pouch. How she had survived that first winter, she still did not know, but her mother would have said there was a God smoothing her footsteps and placing her feet. She was not sure she believed in Gods.
Looking to the west she could just make out the raised ground of the original shoreline, beyond low scrub and tall reeds. The city of Eastsea loomed above all, the Tower district high and imperious from the sea. She knew that up close it was old and worn and dangerous.
She did not want to be there any longer than she had to. Eastsea was ten days north of the small village she had escaped. Strings had covered the distance in four. It was unlikely the hunters were still looking for her. Why would they? Too much time had passed and she was not worth a large bounty. But a careful woman was a live woman, and live was how she intended to remain.
'Hurry. We are wasting time,' she called, not for the first time.
Dhinal had left before the first rope had been affixed and she now wished she had departed with him. They had much in common, beyond their ability to travel light. Dhinal was different from anyone she had ever met. He called himself male, yet was obviously female in body, if not in mind and soul. No one in her village had felt like that, at least not openly, and it had taken a little getting used to. At first, she had felt slightly embarrassed, but then she had got to know him and realised not only did it not matter but that she was drawn to him in ways that would once have made her uncomfortable just to think about.
'We're coming. You could help, you know, Strings?' The voice, speaking a language she had never heard until a year ago, belonged to the tall and heavily muscled Bab. For a large man with big and impressive arms, he certainly spent much of his time asking for help.
'You know the rule, apart from supplies, we carry our own stuff. And we haven't bought any supplies yet.' She replied in the same tongue. Bab struggled with anything else.
'Just this once, can't you shut up about the rule?' Bab called back.
'No, I didn't make it, did I?'
'No, you didn't,' Chimal shouted back, sounding exhausted after a month of doing nothing. 'But some of us have more to carry than you. These bottles are heavy.'
Chimal b'Arngli professed to be a magician of some repute. Strings had never seen him do anything more impressive than throw some dust on the fire to make it crackle, spark and change colour. He did not know she had seen the dust and the others, Dhinal excepted, all seemed in awe of his mighty power. She hoped he had something more useful in the pair of chests he carried or the dozens of small pouches he wore.
A month at sea, trying to teach her language to a group of idiots.
She wandered over to where the wagon and team waited patiently, the driver standing over by the dockside, fishing.
Behind her, she heard more bickering from the others. Sometimes they were like her children. Only, her fellow travellers were still alive and Tais, Tjia and Tabes were dead. The head fever had arrived in the village and a little time later they had been taken away from her, their bodies burnt to prevent the fever spreading. No grave to visit, no mementoes to remember them by. All burnt. Only later had she learnt Tais and Tabes had not actually been dead when placed on the pyre. She would say their names every dawn and every dusk, but she could no longer really remember their faces.
She looked at the driver’s expression, who shrugged his shoulders back at her, rolling his eyes and sighing loudly, then returned her gaze to where Chimal was struggling with one of his chests. She raised her voice to carry over the other dockside noise,
'I'm going to set off walking. Meet me on the road or at the gate. If you take too long I'll meet you at the Mounting Pony.'
She did not wait for an answer. She hoped the inn she had told them about was still in business, but then she realised that she did not care if she never saw them again, as long as she had not lost Dhinal. She walked faster.
Many thanks for reading.
Head to the introduction and contents page here.
Go to the next issue here.
The Crow's Nest is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts, whether chapters of serialised fiction, news on works in progress, notes on the writing process, or essays on a variety of topics, please do consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.