Monday, November 17, 2008

A Hive in Terraces

I walked around Carvendrone today, seeing some things for myself that the mantis shopkeeper had described to me yesterday. The city is a maze of oddly shaped wood and brick. The houses are all domes, or rippling towers, or strange little tapering things like timbered pinecones. Most of them have extra doors on the roof for visitors from the air. Everything is on terraces; nearly half the buildings in the city are underground, dug out of the fronts of terraces with other buildings on top of them. Every road is the roof of all the houses on the next terrace down. The people climb stairs or ladders or simply fly from one layer of city to the next. The air is full of clicks and buzzes and the rattle of transparent wings. Spindle beetles walk the streets next to mantises, bipedal grasshoppers, black beetles, and a thousand other species I can't even name. Wasps and giant butterflies drone or drift through the air overhead. Millipedes pick their way along the streets, their colonnades of legs moving in elegant waves, gathering the city's trash and eating it. Scarabs and roaches pop in and out of tunnels - there are miles of them inside the mountain - through little arches in terrace walls. Caterpillars ripple sideways along the walls to avoid being stepped on. (The people of Carvendrone always watch the ground in front of them, but newcomers aren't always so careful.)

The mantis shopkeeper - his name, he said, was Grchx-spakkkl, but I could call him Fred - had paid me half a dozen Train tickets for repainting his shop's sign. (It was written in three languages. I couldn't understand two-thirds of it, but the calligraphy was lovely.) I spent one ticket and a few tuppenny gears - leftovers from my stay in Cormilack last year - on lunch, a speckled brown curl that turned out to be a sausage grub, with a sort of honey pastry for dessert. The spindle beetle I bought them from seemed to like the gears. I don't think Cormilack coins reach Carvendrone very often.

Rickshaw beetles hurried past every few minutes, trundling along at a surprising speed for insects the size of a walrus. Their black shells gleamed in the sun. Most of them were waxed and polished, even shinier than usual; others were painted in abstract designs, swirls and geometric patterns, or had writing in the tidy alphabet that appears everywhere in the city. A few had seats strapped to their backs, but most pulled the little carriages named after them. The ones without passengers gave me inquisitive looks as they passed. (How a beetle can look inquisitive, I don't know, but they did.) I didn't take a ride on any of them. I wasn't going anywhere in particular, just wandering. I spiraled my way gradually up through the city.

At the peak of the city, and the mountain it's built on, is the Sclesserax. It casts intricate shadows on the terraces below it. Builder hornets are constantly adding onto the hive-palace,* the home of the Queens of Carvendrone and the Vespid nobility, an impossibly huge construction of wasp-paper and sun-baked clay that has long since outgrown the peak on which it was built. It bulges out over the rest of the city like a patchwork thundercloud pinned to the ground. Layers of thick wasp-paper, striped in gray and brown and white like layers of sedimentary rock, are mixed with lumps and patches of clay in every shade of brown. There are sections of wax honeycomb here and there, startlingly geometric in rigid hexagons amid the curves and whorls of wasp architecture. The wasps far outnumber the few small colonies of bees. The spires and domes that make up the Sclesserax grow constantly, built up in rippling layers by the claws and mandibles of its ever-present cloud of workers. The River Glom doubles in width below Carvendrone; the banks recede daily as the clay is flown up and added to the Sclesserax. Pillars and stalactites of chewed architecture stretch down from its edges. Stones and pieces of old machinery are embedded in the walls here and there for decoration. Windows that are also doors speckle every wall with holes, seemingly at random. They're filled with the in and out of wasps and bees. A few non-insects live in the Sclesserax too - there were one or two avians overhead, and I think I saw a day bat at one point.

Seen from a distance, the building is slightly similar to a hornets' nest or the little mud-cases made by daubers and potter wasps, in the way that a plumpkin is similar to a pea. I plan to explore the inside tomorrow.

Oh, yes - apparently, the spindle beetles have not given up on Captain Tamarac. No less than fifteen of them stopped me on the street today to ask where he was. They didn't ask anyone else that I saw. Just me. When I asked them who Captain Tamarac was, they just gave me blank looks, as if I was speaking nonsense.

I'm starting to get rather curious about the Captain's whereabouts myself. If this goes on much longer, I may have to join the spindle beetles in asking random strangers about him.

* "Sclesserax" is a vertebrate mispronunciation of the Carvendrone word for "hive." To wasps, the word means a bit more than "that little buzzing lump over there" - the meaning is closer to "stronghold" or "citadel."

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