Art Pact 254 - At A Stretch


There were rows of houses stretching off into the distance, uniform flat-top domes. Melin had never seen a surface town so large, although it was nothing compared to the hives underneath. The other members of the caravan seemed less overawed.

"It's just a burb-town," said Fressa. "Houses and houses and houses and nothing else. No factories, no farms, nothing."

"How do they eat, then?"

"They're parasites!" Bryve said loudly, leaning over from her horse.

"What Bryve means to say is, they don't produce anything. They live there because the governor decrees it. All their food is brought to them from elsewhere, they don't really do any work themselves. A bit of art, perhaps, but nothing concrete. If the deliveries stopped, the town would be gone in an instant."

"They can't make anything themselves!" said Bryve.

"That's not entirely true. Some of them were farmers, some of them were artisans down in the hives. But there isn't the infrastructure, or the land. They wouldn't be totally helpless, but conditions would be terrible if they had to fend for themselves. The town wouldn't be anything like the size it is now."

Melin let her gaze drift over the ranks of buildings. She could see smoke issuing from stacks on some of them, and pointed it out with alarm, but Fressa reassured her that they were cooking or heating fires, the design of the houses here deliberately archaic.

"But what's the purpose of it all? Why have a town here when it can't survive."

"Prestige. It's all about the glory of the district governor. If the hive were poorer they wouldn't be able to afford such a waste of resources and manpower, but the hives here are - well, I'll admit it, they're not particularly rich, but they're not so poor that the governor risks a revolt at the amount she's pouring into these projects. The hives would be better off without it, but they're not so dissatisfied that they're willing to challenge it. Be prepared to hear a lot of grumbling, though."

As they rode closer Melin began to make out the subtle differences between the buildings. They were all of the same design - similar to the smaller tents and wigwams that they had seen other surface-dwellers use - but scaled up to twice or three times the size. They were arranged in rows, separated by five or six metres each from the next, and they were surrounded by grey wooden fences arranged in hexagons, so that the road between each row got thinner and then wider again as a traveller passed by each front door. A motif from the hives, Melin thought.

The caravan's trailers, moving at their fastest speed, were still painfully slow, so the anticipation of the town was drawn out to excruciating lengths. Melin could see that people in the streets had spotted them, because every so often a couple would stop, one pointing out at the approaching band, and have a little conversation. No-one came out of the city bounds to meet them, though, and so she had to endure the uncertainty of approach in silence, not wanting to appear too nervous in front of Fressa.

Eventually, though, they passed beneath a wire arch that seemed to mark the transition between wilderness and town, at which point the spell appeared to have been broken. Children playing in the gardens rushed to the edge of the fences, hanging over them with leaves in their hands as a temptation to the horses. Women in the street began to walk alongside them, peppering them with questions - what had they brought, were they from such-and-such a hive, did they have messages or were they just travellers, what was the weather like in the south.

"Why should we know that?" Melin asked, leaning over to Fressa so as not to trumpet her ignorance to the locals.

"Oh, they think we've come from there. They always think that - it's these carts. Don't pay them any mind. But equally, don't do what Bryve is doing." She rolled her eyes at the other woman.

"Sand storms a-plenty, goodwife!" Bryve was declaiming in her loudest voice. "Heading this way at this time of year, too! Keep your eyes to the horizon in a week or two. If you see a shadow there, you can remember my name and thank me in your prayers! My name, which is Lock the Weathermistress!"

Fressa shook her head and let her horse slow down enough that she could give Bryve a swift kick in the ankle, but she did not contradict the guard's story.

The town had no centre in a traditional sense - the rows of houses were identical and continued from one boundary to the other, but Fressa explained that by convention caravans and transports would stop in the middle of the middle-most row of houses - that being the main street as much as there was one, with the gates in and out of town at either end. With her usual attention to detail, the caravan scout called a halt to motion when there were five trailers west of the midpoint, five trailers to the east.

"So what happens now?"

"Well," Fressa explained. "If we have anything to trade we start trading where we are."

"Do we have anything to trade?"

"We do, yes. The question is, do they?" Fressa looked around dubiously. "Probably not, I'd say."

"Why don't we just keep moving, then?"

"Because we need a bit of food and water, and the governor keeps them supplied well enough that they can afford to be generous with their host obligations."

"That seems like even more of a waste," Melin said. "But I won't complain."

"The whole point of the place is to show off the district's riches, remember? If they were going to adhere to the letter of custom with their host duties and no more, people would assume that they were in trouble."

"It's not the district's riches they're supposed to be showing off," added Bryve, but she said so uncharacteristically quietly. "It's the gov-"

"Yes, thank you," Fressa cut her off. "Ears, soldier, ears. Melin, there's something else, though."

The scout took her to the fourth carriage, talking about wheels and replacement axles, which confused her, but Fressa made the little gesture with her hand that she'd made at the caravan meeting, the one that she now recognised as "play along", so she chatted politely and made concerned noises when it Fressa mentioned how the carriage was getting old, and that it might need repairs if it was to carry heavier loads. They climbed from their horses directly into the back of the wagon, and once inside Fressa held a finger up to her lips.

"Bryve's right, this isn't just a place for the director to show off the district's money. It's also to show off her power, and keeping the town going isn't all of it. It's also a checkpoint to remind everyone that comes through that they can't keep secrets from the district. Which is a problem if you're carrying one of the biggest secrets." She pointed down.

"What are we going to do?" Melin whispered.

"Play it cool for the moment," said the scout. "We've hidden things from them before. Not live cargo, I'll admit, but they haven't been particularly thorough in the past, there's no reason to think they will be now. But you'll have to be prepared for what happens if they do find her - it, I mean. And I think you'd better explain the situation to it as best you can."

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