Cyclopaedia Chapter Ten: Old Town
Old Town wasn't designed like the rest of the Capital. It wasn't designed at all. Once it had been the center of the city, when it was little more than a village, the streets had no plan, the buildings weren't grouped in any utilitarian, civic pattern. The streets of Old Town weren't level, and in the winter most were too small, too winding, and too difficult to clear. In the warmer months the entire area bloomed with generations of stink from poor sanitation, mildew, and rot. Yet perhaps in spite of this, or precisely because of it, Old Town was a busy, vibrant, crowded place. While poorer citizens tended to live in Old Town, almost everyone else came to it at some point for the Bazaar, and a few for the black market, and a few others for more illicit activities.
Lamps which once burned with Ice-Whale oil, now burned with cheaper crude. The cobblestone streets were rough, with gaps like bad teeth. Buildings, made from gigantic trees now rarely found in the Grønn, had been painted and repainted hundreds of times, rippling and cracked as if they were covered in an ancient skin. Manure collected along the curbs from horse traffic, although a few Engines carefully made their way through the neighborhood. Most Engine owners tried avoided traveling here. People crowded the main street during the day, crossing wherever they wanted, haphazardly, occasionally getting knocked down by wagons that rushed by to deliver produce or labor.
Occasional impulses to improve Old Town were universally acknowledged as futile, Old Town would exist indefinitely as the dirty, ramshackle congregation of miscellaneous industry and crime. This disarray was unlike the rest of the Capital which felt comparatively large, wide, and culturally icy, created during a relentlessly rational age to which Old Town was an embarrassment. Old Town had survived being razed by this newer city more than once.
At night the lights from a multitude of windows, none of which were the same size, highlighted the texture of Old Town, a greasy black, its outer shell, and its nightly transformation into a maze of vice.
Compiler Hedvin kept an unofficial office here. It was not provided by the Cyclopaedia, it was his own place of occasional residence and frequent business. A Compiler's Oath prevented them from seeking profit, it was a core principle. And yet Hedvin believed he wasn't profiting. Any gains he made were redirected into the broad aim of a competing Cyclopaedia, an alternate Cyclopaedia. A new and more perfect structure, that upheld the original precepts, long since perverted. Vermilion was part of this, financially—but it was radically more important for the common perspective it provided. Other gains came from bartering information. He wasn't the only Compiler to do this. The activity was an enduring but highly illegal occupation. It persisted, as it had since the beginning, because the world desired the information, and in Old Town certain parties would pay for it.
Hedvin and the Compilers he considered his allies, who took Vermilion, were part of a loosely organized group that called themselves Hallen. It was an old word meaning the lost tree. This group had existed since the beginning, they believed. Apocrypha claimed that Hallen was created at the same time as the Cyclopaedia and the Order, that it was a necessary instrument for the oversight and correction of the Work.
Their numbers were unknown. They operated in cells that communicated through obfuscated channels. There was never any formal declaration of membership. There was never any vocalization of intent. The Hallen existed through a series of stories and assumptions, the network of Compilers organically coalescing into actions that gravitated to the leadership.
They believed the original aim of the Cyclopaedia was to provide universally accessible information for the advancement of civilization, that there was no original intention of gatekeepers for the Cyclopaedia. It was purely because of an early affiliation with the University that it developed into a powerful machine which could be used for status, and wealth, by the people who were allowed access. They felt the Cyclopaedia had preoccupied itself with a false Index, one made politically, ignoring the real structure of the world. The authority of meaning, the meaning of Things around them then was determined by a select powerful few, and this was contrary to the original purpose of the Work.
Hedvin thought that Compilers themselves were at the root of this problem. They were gatekeepers whether they intended to be or not. They controlled the incoming flow of information, but they also, to a degree, controlled it flowing out. The clients of the Cyclopaedia, the government, other institutions, legal entities, the big trading houses and companies, interfaced with Compilers because of their expertise with the complex systems involved. Hedvin imagined an interface that required no expertise. He imagined a second Index that was complete and not purposefully occulted. Expertise should be unnecessary. Complexity for the sake of control would also be unnecessary. Instead of replacing the current authority with another one, such as the Master Compiler, there would be no authority because there shouldn't be an authority.
Hedvin walked up the crooked staircase, reluctant to grasp the handrail because he worried it would fall off the intermittently crumbling wall. At the top of the stairs he unlocked his door, set into a frame that wasn't at all square, and patched together with pieces of wood that marked the passing of time. He installed a lock in this door when he rented the place. Imagine a place where nobody needed to lock doors, he gruffed. The office space beyond was long and thin enough to produce a disquieting, suffocating sensation. Like the rest of Old Town nothing was at right angles, if it ever was. There was a tall, curved window at one end, and a tiny window, largely painted over, in the back that allowed noise and smells to drift up from the alley below.
Expecting anything elegant in Old Town was a mistake. Yet his office was better than most spaces here. He had a few pieces of furniture, not many, and a large rough-hewn cabinet in the Southern style in the front room. He reflexively opened it to make sure his Vermilion mask he'd brought over from his Compiler apartment was still on the shelf. Since the visit by the Inspectors he'd decided it would be unwise to keep anything of value in that apartment. He doubted they would understand what the device was if they saw it. Regardless, he was positive they would be planning to search there, and they had the power to take away whatever they wanted. Compilers had their subversive means of financial recompense, Inspectors had their own. Given his abrasive relationship with Ove he wasn't surprised he'd become a suspect in Ove's disappearance. Naturally Inspectors follow the easiest path, and that meant focusing on him.
Of course Hedvin had no idea where Ove was or what had happened to him. He didn't particularly care. And he wasn't sure it actually mattered. He'd become involved in the Master Compiler project before he'd started taking Vermilion. He'd hoped that Ove's project could lead to changes in the Cyclopaedia, but over time he'd seen he was wrong, it would bring no meaningful changes. He didn't tell the Inspectors his participation was his choice, he'd lead them to think it was involuntary. Perhaps, he thought, if the Inspectors dig deep enough they'll see how many layers make up the Cyclopaedia. If they do, their careers will be in danger, maybe their lives.
His decision to work with Ove had been his own, but once he was involved it brought the attention of the Sovereigns, and by extension the Garde, who had a hand in everything, who knew everything that happened—they certainly had their eye on Ove's project.
His first visit from a Garde was shortly after he started working at the laboratory. Garde didn't habitually announce themselves or declare their intentions. The experience was bewildering. Garde were effectively above law, most laws anyway, and they could negotiate or exploit the rest. Reputation was a sufficient motivation for cooperation. Their tailored suits were strangely outdated by fashion standards, lacking details but unique enough to be recognizable. You could spot a Garde in a crowded room, although a crowded room is the last place a Garde would operate. No, they preferred conducting affairs face to face.
As much as any Garde could be said to have a face. Those rare moments when more than one Garde were seen together was fearful event—more than one Garde meant enforcement or correction. Years ago he'd witnessed two Garde dragging a bloodied merchant out from his shop, flames crawling up the walls of the building behind him.
Maybe they killed Ove, Hedvin wondered, it wouldn't be impossible, although he couldn't imagine why. Ove worked hard, he made progress. Finances? Some aspect of his outside life? Maybe. A man with connections like that was bound to get into trouble. You'd get boxed in like that.
Hedvin had his own relationship with the Garde to worry about. The visits were infrequent, but the Garde wanted reports about the Master Compiler, progress, impressions and so on. Compiler Hedvin had been forthright. He wasn't disparaging, he was honest, this seemed to be received well—as far as Hedvin could tell. No doubt the Garde had plans inside plans. Weeks after he'd returned from the mountains with Vermilion there was another visit, and somehow the Garde already knew about it. Hedvin had a few confidants, a few that knew about Vermilion, so one of them must've tipped off the Garde. Hedvin knew he was the first to visit the village in hundreds of years, the chances the Garde knew of the village or had any contact with the village was ridiculous. But it meant that one or more of his confidants were informers. It forced him to wonder who he could trust. Although this was a common concern among many citizens in the Capital.
If he could maneuver the situation to mutual advantage, the Garde would be a powerful ally. But if he did anything to sabotage that balance then they would be the most dangerous opponents imaginable. Once the Garde knew about Vermilion, they wanted some. He knew they could've taken it, but they offered him money, to keep the arrangement objective the Garde had said. Hedvin remembered this phrase, how much it implied. The money was a token, the amount of money itself was inconsequential. It was a signal that meant he worked for the Garde, and for the Sovereigns.
Today he was meeting the Garde again. He tidied. Although no Garde would care. He didn't want to overlook any detail. It was an empty gesture of mental preparation. He was sure the Garde would bring up the timing of his next delivery of Vermilion. Hedvin always stressed that he couldn't make frequent trips to the village otherwise it would appear suspicious. The Cyclopaedia kept track of these kinds of things, he explained, and while he wouldn't have been the first Compiler to conduct illegal trade, he didn't want to be one that got caught. Then he would have to live out the rest of his life as a Former Compiler, eking out a living trailing merchants and traders. The Garde routinely seemed unconcerned by this possibility when Hedvin brought it up. They were above those dangers. Who knows what contacts the Garde had with the upper levels of the Cyclopaedia, the Ministry, and so on. It was Hevin who took the risks. Hedvin knew that he was being used as an underling, an employee, and that this Garde would never tell Hevin everything, or what he planned.
But Hedvin believed he had an advantage. He knew this Garde was using Vermilion now too. And Hedvin had never revealed the location of the village. He wondered how long he could maintain this edge. Also the shared perceptions of Vermilion provided Hedvin with some confidence that the Garde's loyalties might not be binding. Once you perceive the world in the ways Vermilion provided, most of these social machinations became transient. Fox jumped over hedges, dug below walls, circled the woods.
He heard footsteps on the stairs. There was no need for a Garde to sneak. The Garde was whistling casually, it echoed slightly, this too, his signaling, letting people know, initiating fear. Hedvin opened the door, left it open, then sat down. The Garde entered breezily, closed the door behind himself.
"Compiler Hedvin, a pleasure," he said.
Hedvin tried again to make out the details of the Garde's face, making sure not to stare, or rather, not be caught staring. Like other Garde, the specifics of his face were frustratingly impossible to discern. How did they do it? He wondered. A subtle trick on the minds of observers—could it be a combination of their reputation, intimidation and body language? Or some older skill. If Hedvin were asked what features this Garde possessed, the shape of the face, nose, eye color and so on, he would only shrug. While he was looking, he believed he knew, he had the sensation of knowing. But then the face dissolved. It was clouded by a fog. The voice he knew, he thought he knew, was it possible he'd never met the same Garde twice? It was possible, he wondered.
"My my, Compiler Hedvin, I have heard some things." The impossible to describe face somehow smirked. "You've had a visit from a couple of Inspectors?" he said.
"That's right. Ove is missing," Hedvin replied.
"How long has he been missing?"
"About a week I guess. The Inspectors asked very routine questions. I suggested to them that he was hiding, working somewhere." Hedvin wanted to add as little information to the conversation as possible. Also, he wanted to avoid the behavioral speculations he brought up with the Inspectors. Garde wouldn't be concerned with this anyway, as much as they were adept at reading and anticipating a person's actions, it was with completely different motives and intentions. It was for control, not assessment.
"Was Ove taking Vermilion?" The Garde asked, in a way implying he knew the answer. Hedvin had no way to misdirect or avoid the question.
"Yes. For several months. He made a lot of progress on the project using it. It helped him."
"Now, Compiler Hedvin..." The Garde crossed his arms and legs, the glare somewhere in the foggy patch, where his eyes should be, felt more intense. "Don't you think you should've told me about this in our last meeting? Didn't you think this was pertinent?"
"I didn't. And I'm positive it has nothing to do with his disappearance. He was helped by it. His work was helped by it," Hedvin said.
As Hedvin finished speaking he heard the Garde sigh, disapprovingly. Hedvin looked over, focusing on the Garde's cane. Had the Garde come in with a cane? Why hadn't he noticed this. The cane was elaborate. Its rich, wooden center was covered, or entwined by the metalwork of a snake, scales etched, wrapping around and up to the top of the cane where the handle made up the snake's head, two red jewels for eyes. Why hadn't he noticed?
Snake, Fox thought, how could I have let Snake in? Snake's grin was clear to him now, the vapor that was his face evaporated and he was left with the face of Snake, a grin, with the flickering tongue, and eyes that would never blink. Fox froze.
"Let's discuss some necessary changes," Snake hissed. Fox could not move. He was in danger, he knew he was in danger. "First, nothing will be left out," Snake said, "You will tell me everything. About Ove, about Vermilion, about the Inspectors and the Cyclopaedia. Second. We need to double the amount of Vermilion in the next import. You might not appreciate how much interest this has generated. None of this is negotiable. You will be paid well for your work. If you choose to use those resources to support the Hallen, that's your own business." Snake stared at Fox who was stone still, captured. "So, where is Ove?" The mouth of snake flickered, the mouth of the snake's head on the cane flickered too. Fox stared. He couldn't take his eyes away from them. Of course Snake knew about the Hallen, it was ridiculous to think otherwise. "Fox," Snake said, "don't fuck this up. You're in a position to do well. Where is Ove?"
"I don't know. I really don't. Maybe he killed himself. Maybe he was kidnapped. But that doesn't make any sense. The Inspectors seem to suspect me in whatever happened because we argued. Maybe he lost his mind. Maybe he understood the futility of his project. I don't know. None of these explanations make any sense. In a way it's almost like he just stopped existing," Fox said, taking a deep breath.
"Now, the second point." Snake shifted, coiling and uncoiling. What was that sound? It was like slowly constricting muscle.
"Yes, we've discussed this before. My activities are monitored somewhat, like all Compilers. To double the shipment I would need to increase the frequency of my visits. This would appear suspicious," Fox said.
"You won't have to worry about that anymore. This has been taken care of," Snake said succinctly.
Fox's eyes darted. Fox thought, if I leap forward, biting straight at the neck, I might be able to kill Snake. Snake seemed to sense the impulse to attack, and laughed. "Don't struggle. You should just accept all of this, it will be better for you if you do. You need to play along. Who else knows about the village?"
"I'm the only person who knows where the village is. I'm sure of it. I'm the only person who's been there for hundreds of years."
The tone of Snake slithered. "I will let you keep this valuable information for the moment. Be aware though, I'm not the only Garde, and I'm not the only one who may want this information. You should be careful, Fox."