Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Sclesserax (part one)

I think the Sclesserax may be larger on the inside than on the outside. Flishel and I visited it today, and the rooms inside it have no end.

It was completely by chance that we ended up there at the same time. I walked through the first door I found - an ornate archway near the bottom of one of the pillars, covered in little clay snails with paper wings. The flying snail turns up a lot in Carvendrone architecture. I think it's their equivalent of the stone griffins in Rampastula or the cyclopean hammerheads in Cammerlan.

Anyway. The inside of the pillar was one enormous spiral staircase, sunlight shining through all the windows and lighting up the red and yellow chrysanthemums growing from the windowsills. They grow straight out of the architecture. Their roots emerge here and there from the clay walls. Late-blooming sunflowers and Winterthistle join them farther up the staircase, and mushrooms sprout beneath the steps.

At the top of the staircase was an entrance hall shaped like a beehive. Wasps flew in and out through the windows - I wondered how many of them even noticed the stairs - and there was Flishel, standing in the middle of the room and looking around with the same openmouthed awe that I'm sure was on my face. We greeted each other incomprehensibly and continued looking around. The room was lined with paper, intricately twisted origami shapes in gray and white that twisted down the walls and twined around each other on the floor. It was like a folded waterfall. Little crabs and shrimp in mottled clay peered through gaps in the streamers.

We were there all of two minutes before a hornet came to take us away.

I'm not really sure, any more than I am about anything in the Sclesserax, but I think she may be some sort of tour guide (or possibly someone entrusted with keeping random gaping intruders out of trouble). She buzzed up to us, landing catlike on the floor - her head was about level with my waist - and motioned with one claw for us to follow her. We did.

The hornet, whose name I probably heard but didn't recognize, took us on a convoluted route that must have passed through over a hundred rooms in the Sclesserax. We went through miles of twisting passageways, lit by sun or amphibious anglerfish or nothing at all. Wasps don't mind a bit of darkness, and it would be foolish to keep flames in a building that's half paper. We passed the kitchens, where wasps and various other insects were chopping and moulding a hundred different kinds of food I couldn't identify. I think a lot of it had once been fruit. There were cakes in pink and purple, flowers of sliced meat, sugar sculptures of wasps and cacti and giant squid, a towering construction made of layers of meat and green jelly. Whole roast cicadas left the kitchens in carts on their way to the nurseries. Larvae eat a lot.

Our route took us out onto balconies several times. Builder hornets were repairing the roof of the dome above one of them. Wasp-paper is famous for its resistance to sogginess, but pieces of the Sclesserax still get mushy and fall off every now and then. Most of the architecture is in large, sweeping curves and flowing arches, shapes that don't break easily. All the ornamentation is small. Flat floors are uncommon; they're just places to land. Rickety little staircases have been added here and there, for those who can't fly, but they're an afterthought. Most of the Sclesserax's residents don't need them.

We wandered through a library built by bees, with books and scrolls and unfamiliar paper things in folds and coils, all stored neatly in hexagonal wax bookshelves. Very little of the writing was familiar. I recognized the neat alphabet of Carvendrone, three-pointed letters based on the handprints of black beetles, but I can't even pronounce the sounds they represent. Most of the spoken languages were unfamiliar as well. The rest of Carvendrone is a mix of every chitinous species in the Railway Regions, but most of the Sclesserax is inhabited by wasps, the royalty and lesser nobility of the city, and they don't speak English. The language of Carvendrone (which shares the city's name) is an old one, dating back to prehistoric tribes of black beetles in the caverns of Mount Moler. I don't know how much of the constant buzzing and clicking is meaning and how much is motion. Maybe they're the same thing. In a language made largely of buzzing wings, flight can be poetry.

I recognized the occasional conversation in the almost-universally-pronounceable Sikelak, though I'm far from fluent in the language. The fact that almost anyone can speak it means that no one can do so easily.

Our guide kept up a constant cheerful commentary, in clicks and buzzes, on the rooms we went through. (At least, I assume that's what she was talking about. For all I know, she could have been reciting poetry or complaining about the weather.) Her segmented hands never stopped moving. We stopped by the throne room for several minutes, admiring the sculpted swarms on the door, but we never saw the inside. The Queens don't open their doors to just anyone.

Wasps have a reputation for being fiercely territorial. The Queens of Carvendrone are rare exceptions. Over a century ago, the Queens realized that they could create a hive, between the six of them, far larger than a single Queen could even dream of. A wasp can only lay so many eggs a day, after all.

More Queens have joined them since then. Every species of civilized wasp in Hamjamser lives in the Sclesserax - I don't even know how many. There are even a few colonies of bees and a reclusive hive of termites in the basement.

They have their own names for themselves, in the scissoring language of the nobility, spoken with wings and serrated mandibles. It's far more subtle and complex than anything else spoken in Carvendrone. I've heard that some of it is communicated by smell.

Vertebrates can't pronounce it. They call the wasp tribes by other names.

The hornets - such as our guide - are strong and catlike, with tough exoskeletons the dusty red-and-charcoal of bricks. The builders among them work in paper, which they make in their stomachs from chewed wood. The nobility have butter-yellow faces. All of them are sisters, daughters of the Hornet Queen who looms enormous in the depths of the throne room, but only the yellow-faced ones could take her place, trade their predatory grace for a size greater than most whales and the rule of all their sisters, become mothers to a thousand daughters of their own. Most of them don't live that long. Queens take their time dying.

The daubers are long and impossibly thin, blue-black with purple wings. They are constantly in motion. They twitch slightly even when standing still, their wings flickering in place. They prefer clay to paper. Unlike the hornets, they have no Queen Mother; they have small families of their own, like most of Hamjamser, and elect a small council of Queens. The males have made a few attempts to join the council, but they're always outnumbered by the dozens of Queens in their own and other species. Something usually distracts them anyway.

The cicada-eaters are massive and tiger-striped, far larger than anything in the city except the rickshaw beetles. They are mottled rust-brown around the thorax, black on the abdomen, with rippling yellow stripes like war paint. The roar from their enormous bronze wings is deafening. They fly as unstoppably as meteors. The towers of the Sclesserax are theirs, all of them, even the ones built by other wasps; the cicada-eaters perch protectively on the pinnacles, wings and legs delicately folded like dragons or winged cats. No one knows why. They raise their grubs in the lower rooms of the Sclesserax. The huge, boneless children of the cicada-eaters spend the first year of their lives wedged comfortably into clay and stone crevices, devouring half the cicadas raised in Carvendrone.

I'll write more tomorrow. We spent all day in the Sclesserax, walking constantly, and I'm currently falling asleep over my pen.

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