Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Sclesserax (part two)

Our guide eventually took us up into the tallest spire in the Sclesserax, a twisting needle of clay and paper far higher than anything else on the building. There was only room inside it for a steep, narrow staircase, little more than a twisted ladder. The central column was corkscrew-shaped to make room for the steps. The builder was at the top (the current builder, anyway; the tower looks like it may have had several). He, or she, was a small dauber who added layers of clay seemingly at random. There were empty buckets all over the steps. They looked too large to be carried by a single wasp, with or without clay in them. I got the feeling that the tower was something of an obsession. It swayed in the wind. Other daubers wandered past occasionally and stuck little gargoyles on it.

On the way back down, we passed through a cloud of ichneumons. They were a colorful group of wasps, small and slender, with striped antennae that flicked the air constantly. No two were quite the same. They passed us in a whirl of shining colors, jet black and pearly white, gold and crimson, silver and tangerine and primrose yellow. One or two were violet.

Something had changed while we were up in the tower. The halls and corridors had been busy before, but now they were almost frantic. Wasps rushed past with pots and baskets and wriggling larvae. Daubers pulled thick curtains over the windows, casting the rooms into gray stripes of shadows. One cicada-eater blew past us with a gramophone in each claw. They were getting ready for something.

The only people standing still were little groups of musicians set up in corners and alcoves. Most of them did the odd wing-singing that's common in Carvendrone; wasps have a surprisingly wide range of buzzes. Others beat out rhythms on their own thoraxes or on large scarabs, chitinous drums that sat happily on the floor while the musicians pounded them.

I've never heard anything like the music they were playing. One would start a beat or a melody and gradually speed it up. This could go on for a long time; insect music can be unbelievably fast. There are people in Carvendrone who can actually sing Moldomer's "Flight of the Skitterfly." When one melody had reached the speed of a patter song, someone would start another one behind it at about half its speed. The two melodies would harmonize, fast and slow, speeding up gradually, getting faster and faster until the first one reached an impossible speed and exploded in a flurry of buzzes and trills. The second one would continue, still accelerating, and a third would start behind it. The result was a song that seemed to constantly speed up without actually getting anywhere. The frantic preparations going on were never faster than when they were near one of these choruses. I felt like running through the halls myself.

The guide rushed us through the last ten minutes or so. We practically flew through the corridors, passing wasps and bees and beetles pushing carts and carrying buckets and boxes and long streamers of red and orange cloth that whirled behind them like floating fire. Somehow, no one crashed into anyone else. It helped that hardly anyone was using the floor. We eventually reached the little entry hall where we had started. The hornet gave us what sounded like a brief, polite farewell, bowed neatly in midair, and rocketed off into the depths of the Sclesserax.

That seemed to be all, so we left. It was getting rather frightening in the corridors.

Outside, the streets of Carvendrone were much the same. The ground and air were full of rushing insects. Wasps flew by like diving falcons, roaches skidded across walls and roofs as if they were on ice, and rickshaw beetles became briefly airborne when descending stairs. It's an impressive sight, five hundred pounds of beetle passing overhead. Their passengers clung tightly to their seats. Even the millipedes were hurrying, as much as that's possible. Their legs went up and down like armies of sewing machines.

Flishel and I got back to the Train as quickly as we could and stayed safely in our compartment for the rest of the day. The sleeping passenger is still sleeping. Since boarding the Train, a month and a half ago, he or she hasn't woken up once. All the places we've been since then - Golgoolian, Skither, Jiligamant, Vanister, Scarloe, and now Carvendrone - have probably seemed like little more than dreams.

This morning, the reason for all the hurrying was clear. The temperature has dropped. The warm part of November is over, and Winter has arrived at last. The people of Carvendrone went to sleep last night; most of them didn't wake up this morning. They won't until next Spring. For the next few months, the small minority of warm-blooded Carvendroners have the city all to themselves.

It snowed at the station this morning as the Train was leaving. There were five people there to see it. The city has buried itself for the Winter.

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