The Living Tower
A living tower outlined before him, breathing steam far into the sky, and dirtying the blue with greens, yellow and browns.
Tig had not left the top deck since they neared port. The sight engrossed him, captured him. Kura was no island nor was it a whale constantly on the move.
It was a tree. One that seemed to grow from the sea. Three great lifts powered by distant ticking gear assemblies hoisted a slew of travelers to the higher branches, while stacks of pipes that curved from the trunk let out massive plumes. That steam intermingled with the green of the cascading bushels which covered much of the oaky trunk. Tig squinted at that wooden base. The tree was both incredibly wide and stubby or, as his eyes drifted down, monstrously tall and skinny. He shivered at the thought. If it was tall, perhaps it grew from the bottom, and no one knew how deep the ocean got.
“Fascinated are we?”
He recognized Webly’s voice now. It was a warm tone, discerning yet calm and It lacked what he expected, suspicion. He didn’t know. Remy had not told him. Tig became distracted by that, consumed even. It was strange after the first day, curious on the second, and concerning upon the third. His eyes fledged to the passing waters. Remy had every reason to let him know, yet she did not. Yellow lines streaked the blue neatly.
They came from a thousand lit windows scattered along the trunk and lit up upon the pagodas that pierced the green bushels. There were dozens of the tall strangely layered towers, perhaps more under the cover of leaves.
“Those towers you see come from sky whale architects, but they’re influence stops short of the very top. Look there.”
Tig followed the man’s outstretched brass digit and stopped short of the massive peak of the tree past the main braches. It was carved in the likeness of a totem. The visage of an eagle sat on top of a lion. Small collections of green stuck out from the cracks of the carving and various birds swarmed around it. It reminded him of chitik designs but he knew they were not. This was of the people who conquered all twelve seas.
“A mark of the empire, always placed at the highest point to illustrate their authority, much to the displeasure of the investors from the Land Above. I believe the Viceroy lives there.”
He tensed at the word, “There’s a viceroy here?”
“As there is in every island colony.” Answered Webly. “Now as for our terms. I will see to it that your friends are all well and good before departing.”
“Then you’ll all stay here? Including the Pr- drunk you captured.”
“Curious exception.” Hummed the man. “But yes, it includes our prisoner.”
Shadows swept by as faster ships came into port. Webly’s marble eyes seemed fixed on the boy and his cane echoed against the planks.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said leading back, his voice growing louder. “Prepare to port! Cover the bodies, we’ll move directly to the wards!”
“Why hide them?” muttered Tig aloud.
The answer came the moment they docked. Flocks of various full turns blocked their path asking arcane questions that matched their hats.
“What edition is your clock engine?” peaked a grey hat.
“Total use of imperial funds?” asked a yellow one.
“I see half turns, injuries?”
Tig pulled his black coat tight and tugged on the satchel that carried The Observations of Mechanization Vol. 1, the most verbose and hardest to read of the five issued books. There were white hats among the flock, but instead of tools he expected common place for practitioner’s these few held note pads.
Webly leaned by Tig as his men cleared them a path, “The turns here hunger for knowledge. Anything they know not they wish to. It is the only way to go deeper.”
“In there.” He said gesturing at the trunk. “If you truly wish to become a doctor this may be your path.”
“I do not envy it.”
Webly let out an affable puff, while the surrounding scholars fell away and the end of the docks balanced into view. Something cold pressed against Tig’s back. He tried to glance back but Remy’s voice made him still in all but his steps. Remy was close. Too close.
“I’ll give him a tour, Sergeant.”
“You’ve been here before, Ricci?”
“I’ve read of it. Better he travel with me than a contingent of blue hats.”
Webly nodded. “Excellent thinking, it would alter his repute here.”
The cold touch grew more present but Tig could not place it. He reached back to feel what had jabbed him.
It was a round column that led further down to something of leathery then a hand... gloved?
The object pressed harder and he skipped a step. He caught the distinct glare of his murderer to be and straightened.
“Right.” He said. “I’ll go with her.”
It was a horrible choice on his part, though to say it was a choice was blatant fabrication. Her tour was a rushed one, leading him from Webly’s sight and the far back Timebender before the boy could even muster a word.
The opening to a tunnel grew incredibly large until its shadow passed over head. There were a few shops and narrow entry ways between almost all of them. Those paths had stairs that led either up or down.
They walked for minutes before Remy directed him to a particularly abandoned hall.
She pushed him away and the cold touch vanished. He heard a click.
A silver barrel centered in his sights when he turned.
Her voice was a secondary thought, “Our understanding ends here.”
“What understanding?” croaked the boy.
“Isn’t it obvious? About you keeping quiet to keep me quiet.”
Tig fixated on the gun. It was a balance that decided the weight of every life. Viceroy or vagrant. True Trimbly or fake.
With what little sense he could muster he pieced her claim together and summoned the name.
The gun waved, “Yes, him. There are two options for you. Keep quiet and travel back with us to Verace or keep quiet for now until we leave.”
“That appears to be one option.”
She steadied the gun.
He lowered his chin, “I’ll stay.”
Her rasping grunt made him flinch.
He chuckled fretfully, “And keep quiet of course.”
The pistol sheathed, “Good.”
Tig kept his eyes on the weapon, even as she turned from him and studied main road. That gun had him obsessed. Not because it could have killed him a moment a go, well there was that, but mainly due to how it helped her fight blow for blow with Vene, a feat indeed. Even without firing it, its presence commanded fear, an unparalleled strength. It was strength he needed. Five assassins were after him. Even if he wanted nothing to do with fighting them, perhaps a gun would warn them off.
And not just them. He narrowed his eyes at Remy. It gave him a notable option that, right now, he sorely lacked.
“How much is a pistol?” he asked her.
Remy flipped back instantly. Tig gulped. Did she consider him a threat? Was asking her another trigger? Remy withdrew her pistol.
Tig took a breath.
“Depends.” Started the girl, “Are you looking for accuracy, distance, maneuverability or reload ability?”
Tig blinked, “What?”
“Well the standard issue silver series offers both long range and a built in revolver.” She tapped the side of the gun just above the trigger and a revolver rolled out. “Multiple shots. It also depends on what ammunition you use. Some bullets have a spin to it so you’d need rifled barrels. Though those don’t last as long. Red Rots are terrible for that.”
“You… like your guns.” Noted Tig.
The smile she had that had miraculous spawned upon the topic faded.
“No one will sell a half turn a pistol.” She finished.
“But you have one.”
She narrowed her brows, “I made Carter.”
“You named it?”
A frown, “We’re done here.”
“Wait, I’ve no idea where to go.”
She shrugged and turned the corner, “Get lost on your own, Trimbly.”
Tig pressed, louder this time, “Didn’t you tell Webly you’d give me a tour?”
Some onlookers stopped to gawk at where his voice came, only to leave as Tig waved at them.
Remy’s head popped back over the wall, “Fine, but insult Carter again and he’ll shoot you.”
That was a claim he had little doubt over. Instead he chose to follow Remy at a comfortable gap of ten paces. It was close enough to see where she went, yet far enough to duck away if she changed her mind. Tig nodded to himself. Yes that would do.
After sometime, he realised ten paces gave him another benefit. It allowed to observe her actions unperturbed by his own presence. The strangest being how she’d duck out into an alley, appear seconds later, and continue on.
During the third time she did this, he chose to follow her there and found her hunched over the wall, with one hand held out to steady herself and puffing. Beads of sweat rolled off her forehead and sunk into the wooden floor.
“Not a word.” She snapped when she saw him.
He nodded fervently. He knew that if he asked any question it would be Carter that answered. So they continued, even further into the long and narrowing hall until they were forced to take one of many descending stairs.
Those steps were even narrower with scarcely any light. Any wandering students heading up would make them hug the walls to let those few pass.
The halls split into more halls, and those paths led into plazas with further halls connected to it. They had been wandering for hours when Tig asked the inevitable.
“Are we lost?”
Remy froze up ahead. Her shoulders slumped.
Tig sighed, “I knew it. Let’s ask for directions.”
“Only if they’re soldiers.” She echoed back.
“But I haven’t seen any blue hats around.”
“We’ll find them… eventually.”
“Why not ask that man back at the plaza?”
“You do it.”
“You heard me.”
Tig dropped a brow and lifted the other. She had other stranger habits which he had only realised after hours of staring at her as she walked. For one she seemed extra careful to not ever contact any others. She always walked with her head lowered and the moment any voice was seemingly thrown her way, she instinctively reached for Carter.
Tig dared a guess, but to test it directly was too much of a risk. He nodded at her and spoke as he spun, “Alright.”
A devilish grin ticked up his iron jaw as he made away. His vengeance proved nigh.
Minutes past before Tig reassumed the pathway Remy had fled into. Only now he was not alone. A man in a grey hat accompanied him. He was tall, slender, and with a mix of copper and silver for skin.
He approached the girl without a word, making Remy take a step back.
“Well hello, good niss, I was told you needed assistance?”
Remy tried to speak but her words stammered, “C-c-c-cadet Remy Le Ricci.”
She saluted him briskly, “I am a soldier.”
“Yes… I see that. Do you need directions?”
Remy nodded, her hands wavered furiously. Tig snickered in the back. He knew it. The test proved what he had rightly assumed and his day made immeasurably better. He leaned coolly against the wall as it played out.
“Come again, niss?”
“I s-s-said c-c-counten… hic… r-r-road.”
“Countenance Road? Ah, the navy infirmaries I take it. That’s up from the main hall not down. Here, let me write you directions.”
She bowed a number times and the full turn gave her an easy smile, scribbling on a paper as he spoke, “I know there is a large populace of above landers here, but we don’t exactly practice their customs. You need not bow, niss. Here.” He handed her a sheet, which she snatched and fled back in lightning speed.
The full turn seemed fairly distracted by that as he made his way down.
“Is she ok?” he asked Tig.
“Oh splendid.” Puffed the boy.
As the man left, Tig focussed on Remy who perched against the wall and puffing. She seemed to ‘hic’ after every second breath.
“Not... hic… a… hic… word.”
Tig smiled. He would not dream of it, instead opting to follow her up as the sound of her ‘hics’ made more and more glance her way, undoubtedly making terrible affliction all the worse.
They made quick work to the main hall then trekked up one of several upper paths. By the presence of blue hats, Tig knew that had gone the right direction.
What’s more, Remy seemed to calm around here. He had almost taken to jotting notes about her. He would title it The Observations of Remy Le Ricci Vol. 1 perhaps his finest work.
“So you’re calm around soldiers?” Questioned the writer.
“Soldiers ask little questions and deliver what needs knowing. They remind me of machines.”
“We’re all machines really.”
She spun on her heel and puffed, “If only that were true.”
“You’d rather everything be born mechanical?”
“Yes.” She shot back with little delay. “My curse was being born fleshy. Of being expected to do what fleshy things do.”
Her wording recalled memories of a deep chamber with four distant, golden eyes always locked upon him.
“What exactly does that mean?”
She sighed heavily, “You are no soldier, Trimbly. You ask too many questions.”
They entered the main plaza and the numbers of questions he had only doubled.
It was a cavern within the tree, the pipes he saw earlier were wide curving things that ran from the wooden floors to large cuts in the room that lay open to the outside. There, just at the edge, he saw a lift raise and click and several soldiers file out.
He formed a twitching smile, “We could have taken the lift.”
“Yes…” whimpered his murderer-to-be. “We could have.”
The rest of the cavern was none so grand. Bulbous lights ringed the top of it and an expansive lawn covered much of the bottom. Oaks and olives and shrubberies dotted it. A wooden path slightly above the lawn led to a singular building white and wide that formed the central structure of the plaza. It had two stories with curving eaves that mimicked the design of pagodas. The black tiled rooves seemed grey in the noon light.
There was a mark on the infirmary, large and red. It was a cross that Tig knew to be the emblem of the Fourth, the patron of health.
As the two of the made towards it, Tig noticed rounded wooden tables in the distance and a steaming food store somewhere on the far end, no doubt selling oily treats for full turns.
Remy pushed open the door and peaked back at him.
“So ends the tour.” She groaned, stepping inside.
The door swung shut.
“Right.” Said Tig. “Tour.”
Inside he saw his future. It was a busy, bumbling place. White hats ran about with clipboards hugged to their chests. Robes seemed to become blurs that sped past into various halls and rooms.
A cart skated by him and a stretcher nearly missed him.
Rows upon rows of seats were filled before him, most of bloodied half turns and their guardians.
A hand tapped him on the shoulder. It was Charles, observing the sight with same repulsion he had losing his face a few days ago.
“Glad you made it, master Tig. See this? This is the work of the Trimbly’s.”
He flinched, “Are they close?”
“No, I doubt they could breach this place, but the chaos they’ve caused as of late is irreparable. I’ve spoken to some here. Normally these navy infirmaries are for us blue hats, but with the viceroys of islands being targeted one after the other, well even the shortest lack of governance proves damnable. Someone will always get hurt.”
Tig took a step towards them. The Observations of Mechanization Vol. 1 felt heavy at his side.
“Am I at fault for this?”
Charles scoffed, “You? Why you are just one of many injured Tig. Which reminds me, while you’ve been gone with Ricci we’ve found suitable arrangements for your companions.”
“You must be Tig.”
The white hat who approached him was short and bronze skinned man. He had green glass eyes and overly large specs..
“This is Dr. Meratmarrag.” Said Charles. “He’s the one who had that flower you were searching for.”
The doctor nodded, “Yes, the Zanae Kara. That Timebender of yours is quite the physician for knowing of it. Though I take Nister Cantinio had a word in that.”
“Cantinio?” coughed Charles. “Did you say Cantinio?”
The good doctor laughed to that, “I see his name proceeds him.”
“Are they cured?” asked Tig.
“Not completely.” Sobered the doctor. “It’s enough to nullify any short term effects but you need more if you are to completely cure them.”
“I see. So you administered the cure. That means…” Tig started with a whirl, “They’ve awakened!? Which way?”
Charles hesitated before he pointed to his left with a step charged towards the boy, “Third room down.”
The man held him still before he could run off.
Charles narrowed his black eyes, “To say they’ve awaken isn’t quite right. Perhaps it’s best if you waited.”
The boy shook off the man’s grip, “No. I need see them.”
Charles called after him, “There is nothing worse than seeing those close to you in pain.”
“Then I have already seen the worst of it.” Clamoured the boy, already halfway down.
Charles lowered his hand and tipped his hat, “No. No you haven’t.”
Tig stumbled against the doorway side when he got there. He had ignored the several soldiers who tried to warn him off, easily shaken off their stumbling grasps.
Now he barely stood with the Timebender besides him.
Gemjo and Franco were sprawled on their respective beds and convulsing at dizzying speeds. Their cries proved a strange conglomerate of static and whistles. Tig took a step, the Timebender’s raised hand stopped him still.
“What you see now,” began the Timebender, “is the cost of slowing a living thing.”
“In immense pain yes. Every fibre, ever bit of their bodies is buzzing in phenomenal speed, uncontrollably, hungrily. It is both euphoria and torture. A horrible harmony.”
Tig covered his jaw and whispered into it, “Vene did this.” His jaw tightened. “I did this.”
He smelled lavender and cinnamon. Webly spoke behind him, “We’ve kept our bargain, Nister Tig, but it appears you haven’t been entirely honest with us.”
Tig’s expression dropped. He snapped to a nearby Remy who gestured to what Webly had thrust to the side of him, cluttering his view.
He saw his own iron jawed visage captured neatly upon yellow parchment.
“My men found these on a wanted board shortly upon entry. I realise this not the best time to inform you, but it cannot be avoided.”
“Yes it can.” Hummed the Timebender.
Webly relinquished his grasp.
“You mean to protect him?” prompted the sergeant.
His master nodded.
“And his companions?” asked Webly.
“I could care less.”
The man clicked his head to Tig in mechanical order, “I’ve agreed to train and protect you, not them.”
Webly gestured at a nearby man, “I recognise the girl as the wanted Gemjo. The man, however, is only suspect to being this ‘Franco’. Call for confirmation.”
Webly’s marble eyes fixed of Tig’s chocolate specs.
Charles had just finished his approach when Webly spun to the man then another more rounded figure, “Charles, Pratchet, you two will be assigned to watching the boy.”
“Why always us?” said the oncoming Charles.
Webly smiled, “You’re the best at it.”
“Right right,” continued Charles, “so we’re the best at dusting the cabins and swabbing the decks to?”
“Charles.” Stressed Pratchet.
“Oh shut it, Pratchet, you’re half the reason we get stuck in this mess.”
A few of the other soldiers snickered.
“And you’re the other half, Charles.” Finished Webly. “Go, you have your orders. And Nister Tig, or should I say, Tiguak Trimbly?”
That drew worried breaths even from the soldiers Tig knew to have glanced at the poster.
“You’ve erred horribly in committing any crime with that name. But, I know that drunk coaxed you into it. Between that and the guard you’ve acquired, I shall have you freed of your charges.”
“Sir!” snapped Remy.
“Not now, cadet.” Webly’s brows lowered to Tig. “You’re family’s complicated is that right?”
Tig half smiled, “If only ‘complicated’ did it justice.”
Webly gave him a nod, “Sven, Tobias, Ricci, I’ll have you three contact Navy headquarters. Use General Tat’s authority to have Tiguak Trimbly cleared of his crimes. That includes all the wanted posters pulled off from this city. Am I clear?”
Two slender men in the back and Remy saluted.
“I-I don’t know how to thank you.” Started Tig.
“Try avoiding crime,” answered the man. “And perhaps, become a doctor, a good one.”
“Then pray the next we meet be in better terms Nister Trimbly.”
Webly gestured forward and his contingent followed leaving only Pratchet and Charles behind. Pratchet was a round full turn, stone faced with several dark striations curving around his left eye. Pink quartzes formed his eyes.
“Hold on.” Began Pratchet. “If he is cleared of his crimes, why should we watch him?”
“Well those two aren’t.” said Charles with a white chin thrown at the shaking duo.
“So why not have us watch over them.”
“Unlikely they’ll act on their own. The problem is whether he should collude with them.”
“I see.” Hummed Pratchet.
“Those close to me are suffering.” Said Tig with a tilt back at Charles. “Nothing worse than that, correct?”
“Well listening to you two bicker just might be.”
Pratchet and Charles shared a glance and awkwardly shuffled.
“Right, sorry about that.” Said Pratchet.
The silence did not seem to help. Gemjo and Franco remained shaking in unnatural speeds. For moments it seemed silent, despite the ever present roll of cars and calls of white hats.
He felt a harrowing chasm in his chest. It happened because they followed him. Nothing more. Right now he was the opposite of a doctor. In fact he had been since he was eight. A curse. A blight. He was a poor fool whose only crime was being born. And the only criminal who made others pay for him.
His satchel shook as he did and he felt The Observations of Mechanization Vol. 1 bump against him. He peered at it. Perhaps he could change. Unbuttoning the tannish cover, he took out the book and flipped through it.
He nodded to himself. Even if it was the most difficult thing he ever read, he would conquer it. He had to start somewhere.