Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Umbrella Crystals

Another caravan came through Thrass Kaffa today. They had heavy cargo and were moving very slowly. In wetter parts of the world, wagons this heavy would be driven by oxen or pushpigs; in the Golden Desert, they're pulled by tortoises. Tortoises, in fact, are the favorite slow animal in the Desert. They're slightly less stubborn than mules and far less vulnerable to heatstroke. They pull carts and carry people who don't need to get anywhere quickly. (Camels are faster, but a little too unpredictable for day-to-day use.) Nothing speeds them up, and nothing slows them down. A tortoise might take hours to get to town, but it will move just as quickly - or just as slowly, rather - whether it's carrying tiny children or pulling three tons of umbrella crystal in a cart.

That's exactly what these had. Behind the tortoises, sturdy wagons braced with steel rumbled along under the weight of at least thirty umbrella crystals. They were rolling mountains of honey-colored stone; even the smallest crystals were taller than I am. The smoothest ones distorted everything on the other side, squashing houses into narrow towers or inflating them to bloated yellow mansions. Children walked alongside the caravan and made hideous faces at each other through the stone. So did quite a few adults. Umbrella crystals are rare in the Golden Desert, and practically nonexistent everywhere else. They're some of the only stones in the world to be created by plants.

Umbrella palm trees get their name from their leaves, which are the same shape and just as watertight as an umbrella. The divert the water of the Desert's infrequent rainstorms directly onto the ends of a tree's outer roots - which are often nowhere near the trunk - and keep the base of the trunk dry. That's where the trees grow their crystals. The inner roots absorb sand and cement it together into massive stones, anchors against the relentless winds of the Golden Desert.

Nor surprisingly, the crystals have become incredibly valuable all across Hamjamser. They grow at the same speed as their trees, which - while still slow - is still much faster than any crystals that form by ordinary geology. Most of all, though, they're valued for their size. No gemstone on the planet can rival the size of even an average umbrella crystal. Queens and Emperors have had entire sets of dining room furniture - chairs, tables, dishes, even the knives and forks - carved out of a single crystal. The Sultana of Fasra Koum, according to legend, lived in a palace carved from a single stone. It's not hard to believe. The oldest crystals in the Desert, the ones that no one found or harvested before they grew too large to move, are at least large enough to make a respectable mansion. The wind and rain have eroded them into strange, fluid shapes. On some, they've eaten away at the hieroglyphs of long-dead civilizations. Archaeologists make pilgrimages to them with rock-climbing gear or lifter giraffes. They've found whole mythologies carved into a single stone.

Most of the time, though, the trees are cut down when their crystals are still small enough - just barely - to be moved. Most of them don't live that long anyway. Being the only tall things in many parts of the Golden Desert, umbrella palms are frequently struck by lightning. The branching twists of fused sand left by Desert lightning end up stuck to the bottoms of the crystals when that happens, as if the crystal had grown roots. Until only a few centuries ago, most scientists believed that the crystals grew by themselves, like giant stone turnips.

It doesn't matter much when they're harvested, though; the sale of even a relatively small crystal can keep a small village supplied with everything it needs for a whole year. The keepers of umbrella groves guard their locations as fiercely as compass makers guard their twigs. Stone farmers take their jobs quite seriously.

Healthy umbrella palms grow clear, egg-shaped crystals the color of honey; unhealthy ones (much more common in the harsh Desert weather) produce stones full of bubbles and the elegant black traceries of dead roots. In one particularly old and enormous crystal, a group of explorers found the skeleton of a dragon. It had been preserved like an insect in amber, the bones covered layer by slow layer over the course of decades. It's currently in the Museum of Antiquities in Karkafel, where I saw it on my last visit. The skeleton looks like it's sleeping.

I have yet to find a way into Karkafel on this visit. I've caught a few glimpses of it - vague, shimmering towers in the distance - but all the alleys I've tried have simply led me back into Thrass Kaffa. I'll try again tomorrow. I'd rather not have to find my way there through the catacombs again.

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