Cast of Wonders 285: The Scent that Treason Brings (Staff Picks 2017)
Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.
This week’s episode is hosted by associate editor Amy Brennan.
The Scent That Treason Brings
by Holly Schofield
Wings tightly closed, Scarp bustled around the printing workshop. With smooth, sure strokes, zie inked the wooden blocks of type. The new formulation made from snail mucus and oak bark spread on smoothly. One of zir pincher-like tarsi gripped the printing press’ lever while both zir mid legs slid a sheet of paper over the inked blocks. The large screw creaked as zie lowered the platen and then raised it, releasing the paper. Scarp gave a brief twitch of satisfaction at the clarity of the text, then re-inked the blocks for the next blank sheet.
Slowly the racks of printed and drying pages grew higher. But not fast enough. Every minute counted if a bound copy of the Tract was to accompany each Second Molter on their journey. And Beld had been no help at all in preparation for this molting season. The Head Printer just puttered about in the backroom, working on some special project. What could be more important than the annual printing of the Tract?
Finally, Scarp couldn’t stand it any longer and strode over the cold slate floor to the backroom. Beld’s triangular head was bent over a workbench as she fiddled with some hardwood type. “Head Printer Beld? Can you possibly find time to help? We have dozens more pages to–” Scarp broke off when zie scented Beld’s pheromones. The tang of excitement overlaid by a stink of confusion. What could it mean?
Beld tilted her head toward Scarp and thrust a composing stick in zir face. “What do you think? Do these letters look damaged to you? It’s from one of the older type cases.”
Scarp obediently studied the carved type blocks that filled the stick, angling the letters toward the light, looking for flaws. Then, with a start, zie made sense of the stick’s actual words. Vers the Bold slaughtered the empresses, cleaving abdomen from thorax, one after the other, until all six lay dismembered on the chamber floor.
Scarp threw down the stick and scuttled up the far wall, antennae pointed outwardly in a defensive position. That was Beld’s special project? Printing the most heretical book ever written!
“Heehee, the scent you’re emitting! Don’t tell me you didn’t know what I was doing all this time.” Beld laughed, but that confused fog overlaid her amusement.
Scarp scuffled zir hind legs on the soft splinters of the wall. With Second Molt only two dozen days away, neither Scarp nor Beld had left the workshop in several six-days. Their rations were delivered by guards and the lonely tangle of bedding in the far corner sufficed for their short sleeps of exhaustion. Here, in the lowest levels of the clan’s tree, the bottom of the largest hollow bole in the valley, almost inside the roots of the huge old gumwood itself, no one would hear if Scarp yelled. Beld could murder Scarp and no one would know for days. And who cared about a junior print apprentice, anyway, especially a forever-infertile one such as zirself?
Scarp glanced back into the main workshop. One step into the hall corridor, a whisper in the ear of a guard, and Beld would be arrested. The ancient Head Printer would have her abdomen cracked and her wings plucked before dawn.
And, without Beld to help, the Tracts would not be finished in time.
Scarp rustled both wings in despair.
Scarp had started out the same as any other egg in the nursery of the Home Tree. A first memory of brightness as sunlight wound its way through cracks in the tree bark, the scent of torn egg casings and stinkrot, and a growing clarity as warm mash was placed near the nymphs’ greedy mouths. Once Scarp and all the others could unfold damp wings and stretch slender aching limbs, they explored the floor, walls, and ceiling of their chamber high in the tree. Servants, lowly undeveloped cruzics, fed them and groomed them and changed their communal bedding when it grew stale.
Then, the thrill of first Molt, the splitting and abandonment of the withered skin of youth, the growing awareness of self. Soon the elders allowed the Firsts to explore the mid-chambers of the great tree. They scampered along corridors, flapping their useless proto-wings, pressing themselves against the reeking moldy walls as guards thundered past.
Along with the other Firsts, Scarp was taught many things by patient elders long past egg-bearing stage. How to cook beetle grubs to a delicate brown for the Empress. How to weave rich grasses together with rushes to make sturdy yet edible pouches to be used by Second Molters on their day of launch. And, of course, learning simplified versions of the Tract, stories like that of Sert the Servant who cracked a tarsus weaving so many carry pouches that not even the tiniest Second had to do without. Or of Bandes the Guard who died saving the Empress from an attacking wasp. Despite little sleep or food, all the Firsts worked diligently on their studies after finishing their many daily chores. Scarp had been the best student in the class, reading faster than any of them, longing for Second Molt when zie would become female and receive a copy of the sacred text.
Then, one day, the most revered of the elders appeared on unsteady legs. She took the chattering group of Firsts away from their chores and ushered them up, up, up in the tree, past the wonderful, awful rooms where groaning Seconds squirmed, pallid and wet, from the confines of crusted skin and spread their true wings. Scarp lingered in the molting chamber’s doorway until an elder punted zir down the corridor. The pile of dead, unsuccessful Seconds who had succumbed to dampness and stinkrot and cold gave Scarp nightmares for months to come. But zir glimpse of the successfully molted Seconds– with their new hides already hardening into dark green like the leather cover of a Tract–was both terrifying and exhilarating.
Scarp could smell the famous ledge before they arrived. It opened out into a magical world full of breezes and vibrant greens so unlike the beige and browns of corridor, nursery, and food storage chambers. The air held the musk of far-off creatures and fresh leaves and a type of water from the air that the elders called “rain”.
“Wings against the wall,” the elder ordered and Scarp took comfort in the camaraderie of the Firsts clustering right to the ceiling, full of excited whispers and the scent of awe. Two Seconds, large and sleek, staggered in and over to the ledge. Scarp would have recognized the next Second as a young empress by her slower, lumbering walk, even if not by her magnificent size and beautifully splotched carapace. The two scouts looked around with dull eyes, then launched themselves from the ledge. The royal Second followed, soaring away on laboring wings until she was a speck in the greenery. That was quickly followed by the pounding of many barbed feet in the corridor and then dozens of gorgeous dark green Seconds burst in, their Tract-filled pouches already strapped to their thoraxes. They raced past Scarp and the Firsts, faces blank, and ran straight off the ledge, wings spread wide, riding the invisible scented path of the empress.
“What do our studies tell us about Second Molt?” the elder said, jutting out both antennae in a display of fierceness. She leaned forward at a precarious angle, her belly distended after many years of egg-laying service to the Home Tree’s Empress.
“It is a wondrous and joyous occasion,” said a turquoise First beside Scarp, by rote. “A time of happiness and beauty and instinct.”
“And so it is.” The elder tipped one antenna in agreement. “The Seconds’ confusion and loss of intellect will be completely regained by dedicated study of the Tract. But what else? What else is accomplished by their journey?”
“Complete understanding of the Tract and, thereby, attainment of wisdom in service to their empress,” the same First replied, preening one proto-wing.
“Smug little thing, aren’t you.” With a contemptuous sweep of a foreleg, the elder pushed the First off the ledge where zie fluttered down and away. The fall would not kill zir but wasps and other predators would be sure to attack on zir climb back up.
Scarp trembled and dared not move a tarsus.
“Self-pride is not acceptable.” The elder swivelled her head to glare at all of them. “What else do Seconds accomplish?”
No one spoke, and Scarp felt zie had to fill the silence. “They will increase the glory of our clan by the establishment of a new home tree,” Scarp said, careful to keep zir eyes and antenna lowered.
The elder tipped an antenna. “Picture it, young ones, picture the Seconds’ wonderful new home.”
Scarp dutifully thought about the new hollow tree: a vast chamber where the Seconds would spend the days producing eggs and finally be allowed to study the glorious Tract line-by-line, chapter-by-chapter, learning the collective wisdom handed down by empress after empress since the Tract had been born long ago in the light of the sun. The Firsts’ hard work was worth it for such an incredible and glorious result.
The elder’s voice grew reverent. “When you Firsts undergo Second Molt and are allowed to launch, you will soar like these burgeoning ones, both in the wind and–through reading the Tract–in your mind. The Tract is everything. The Tract is all.”
Obediently, they all repeated the one true phrase. “The Tract is all.”
“And then, once you have the understanding to appreciate the benevolence of the clan, you will spend your lives in worship to your new empress, bearing many egg clusters for the glory and growth of your new home. A life well lived.” The elder rubbed her wings together in a steady buzz and her bright eyes gleamed. Scarp’s mandibles clacked in anticipation of such service to the clan.
But, for Scarp, such service was never to happen.
Scarp’s group of Firsts all grew massive, soft bellies and their carapaces strained around them. Eventually, they laboriously crawled to the Second Molting chamber.
All but Scarp.
Scarp’s carapace remained green as a newly unfurled leaf, zie stayed slender, and zir wings remained only as long as zir thorax. Bravely, zie approached the gentlest of the elders, both forelegs together in a show of extreme respect. “Why am I not starting to molt. Why am I deficient, oh wise one?”
“Child, has no one told you yet? It is clear you are cruzic, non-egg-bearing. You will never molt again. Never launch. Never swell with eggs. Instead you will find fulfillment as a servant to more worthy members of the clan.”
The news was like a bolt of lightning through Scarp’s heart. Never to have the intense study of the Tract. Never to feel the thrill of flying with fully developed wings. Never to push out an egg cluster for the growth and glory of the clan. “How then can I show my respect and worship?” Scarp spoke in a whisper, already knowing the answer. Zie would never become a “she”. Zir life would continue solely within the confines of the Home Tree, doing menial chores like newly-emerged Firsts, sweeping up offal or discarded skin.
“Do not fret, little one. There are already special plans for you,” the elder said, “since you have shown such a grasp of reading. Have you never wondered how the Tract is made? How we print the magnificent words in such uniform fashion?”
“I have not, elder.” Scarp hung zir head. Zie was no better than an earthworm–worse, for they could reproduce by segmenting themselves. “I had thought the Tracts just appeared each year at the time of Second Molt.”
The elder laughed, not unkindly. “And that is why you never see written tales of any other sort? Like the vile stories of Vers the Bold? A good way to think of it, actually.”
That would bear some thinking about. But not now. Now was a time for shame and self-disgust.
“Come,” the elder said. “The printer, Beld, is getting elderly. She produced more eggs than most and then has spent her final years printing the Tract. She can use more help than younger Firsts can give.” She led Scarp to the printing workshop in the forbidden lower depths of the tree. Scarp had stood in the doorway for long minutes, fascinated by the odors and actions of the printing press and of Beld’s apprentices. Finally, the elder had left zir in the company of Beld, and Scarp had remained in the workshop for all the years since.
Being cruzic was not so bad, all in all, despite the poor rations and cold quarters. Scarp loved the gentle squeaks the screw-press made, the smell of the paste that dried into paper sheets, the razor edge of the shell that came from something called “clam” and was used to cut the paper to its proper width. Even the odorous tanning barrels full of rodent-skin covers and the hot glue made from animal bones flavored with clan pheromones had their own pleasures. Zie treasured them all because of the splendid result: the many copies of the Tract.
Best of all, Beld eventually allowed Scarp to fetch blocks of text from the storeroom. Zie was just supposed to carry them to the press but zie would pause in the dim storeroom light and quickly read the blocks of text, as if zie were a Second who had earned that right. Scarp’s guilt was overridden by zir awe at the clever homilies and oft-repeated proverbs the Tract contained. The writer of the Tract so many eons ago, The One Empress, had truly captured the wisdom of the clan–as proven by the establishment of so many successful home trees year after year.
And that was the purpose of the clan, of course. The underlings, the Firsts and the cruzics like Scarp, provided the needed labor and, efficiently, got just enough food and warmth to survive. The dampness and death among the Seconds gave the necessary attrition to keep launches–and printings–to a manageable size. The clan functioned just as it should.
But now, staring at the composing stick cradled against Beld’s chest, Scarp’s heart fluttered in shame. By wasting time printing a forbidden text, Beld had condemned this year’s Second Molts to failure. Without enough Tracts for them all, to give them guidance and direction in setting up the new tree, the Seconds would remain disoriented post-molt and would succumb to predators and cold.
By failing to spot Beld’s heretical actions in the back room, Scarp had failed the clan.
Scarp bowed zir head, antenna held low.
Let Beld kill zir.
Death would come as a relief.
“What is this?” Beld looked uncertainly at the composing stick. “And why are we in the back room, young apprentice?”
Scarp eyed the crazy old Head Printer. How many egg clusters had Beld produced? She had been old when Scarp was just an egg zirself. Was this the first sign of senility?
The words on the stick caught at Scarp again and zie burst out, “Head Printer, how could you be printing such vile things? The stories of Vers the Bold are heresy!”
“Is that what this is, Vers’ stories? Aye, but they’re not so bad. They’re simply tales of an interesting person in an interesting time. I thought perhaps this year’s Seconds could while away the hours in their new home by reading something else of interest beside the predictable nonsense of the Tract. Egg laying is so boring, you know.” Beld stroked the cracked and worn chitin of her abdomen.
The wooden door creaked open and the palace guard, a First Molter, peered in. “All okay here? I heard yelling.” Zir eyes swivelled back and forth, first at Beld, then at Scarp.
Scarp straightened both antennae, hoping they hadn’t given anything away.
“All is well, soldier.” Beld’s voice was dismissive.
The guard hesitated then closed the door.
Beld raised the composing stick high.
“I won’t tell. I’ll keep the secret!” Scarp whispered.
“Secret? What secret?” Beld turned away, lowered her foreleg and fiddled with a nearly completed form that held many lines of type. “Back to work, apprentice.”
Scarp stood there a minute on all six legs, uncertain. Beld’s senility was no longer in question. But to cause her death would weigh heavily upon zir conscience. Was there any solution?
Beld secured the line of type in the form, completing the new page of typesetting. “Go on, apprentice. We’ll talk later.”
But there was to be no later, for no sooner had Scarp returned to the main workshop than the guard returned with a dozen more. Scarp scurried to one side but the guard grabbed zir by a hind leg.
“Let this be the scent of what treason brings,” the guard said and nodded at zir deputy. The deputy reached over and slowly, deliberately, tore one of Scarp’s wings almost in two. Scarp winced. Although the pain was slight, the shame was almost more than zie could bear.
The other guards grabbed Beld by her mid legs, breaking one with an angry snap. As they pulled her toward the doorway, she caught Scarp’s eye. “Even a near-illiterate guard has recognized the name of Vers the Bold from twelve paces away. My mission is partly done!” She chuckled as they dragged her away.
A few hours later, a guard handed a missive to Scarp, the official seal from the Empress still warm.
Scarp’s mandibles almost cracked with tension as zie read the ornate writing, “You are hereby appointed to the position of Chief Printer.”
It seemed wrong that such a privilege had come about in such a horrible way. Sleep that night came late, despite Scarp’s exhaustion. But such events were the way of the clan and zie knew better than to question it.
It wasn’t until seven days later, when the dozens of pages of the Tract were all printed and binding had commenced, that Scarp found the secret cubby behind the racks of blocks in the storeroom. A fiber beetle had darted under the shelves as zie had been lugging in bales of folio paper still fresh from the paper-chewing beetles down the hall. Such pests could wreak havoc among the fine quality paper used for the Tract. Scarp crouched down and shoved the shelving aside. It resisted at first then slid easily. Too easily. Fresh grain-oil glistened under the boards.
A small wooden hatch sat in the wall; the tidy crafting of it signified Beld’s careful workmanship. Scarp eased it open, swiveling zir head backwards, watching for guards. Inside, a large chamber held several hundred forms stacked in rows, the wrong size and layout for the Tract. A slim greyish volume lay on the nearest block. Scarp scanned it quickly: Vers the Bold charged forward, wings fluttering, knives swinging, flying into battle like no other in the history of the … Sacrilege! Quickly, zie grabbed the volume and backed out of the room. Spiracles heaving with distress, zie closed the hatch and slid the shelving back into place even more tightly than before.
Covered in the soft dove gray of a tanned mouse hide, pages sewn together at the spine with Beld’s careful stitching, the book had no title, no embossed notation of the printer’s name, the date, or the contents. But Scarp knew before zie cracked it open that the first sentence would be “Vers the Bold was a small nymph, hardly growing during First Molt that spring… .” Those words were infamous but the rest–about how Vers grew to strength and power and evilness–was a mystery to zir.
A noise in the outer room as the latest new apprentice, Dalpa, slapped another completed sheet onto the pile. Scarp hastily hid the book beneath a proto-wing and, later, snuck it into the dampest corner of the bedding when Dalpa was distracted by a broken form. It could sit there until zie decided what to do about it. Or until it rotted with stinkmold like the sowbugs on zir dinner plate.
But, late that night, as Dalpa’s mandibles rippled with snores, Scarp pulled the forbidden book out and lit a candle. The book was sure to be fanciful nonsense, and as useless as the elders said it was but it drew zir all the same. Holding it near the flame, Scarp read one page, and then another.
Thrilling tales of derring do, of impossible feats and clever inventions.
Scarp gasped as the story unfolded. Vers was a hero, saving lives and preventing crises. Even more startling, the greatest hero of all time was non-reproducing. Vers was cruzic, just like zir!
And the book contained more. So much more.
Opinions on clan structure itself, on the Empress and her many needs. Why did the empress get the juiciest food and the driest chamber, far from the rank smell of stinkrot. Why did loyal and hard-working cruzics like Scarp get only enough rations to keep them alive? Why should Second Molters be sent off with only the Tract to learn from, rather than all the collective information and wisdom of the clan for the past several dozen-dozen years? Would the clan not be a stronger community if food and knowledge were shared more equally? The final page was as brilliant as the first.
Scarp huddled in the damp chill of the darkness, all six legs tightly bent, lost in thought until long after the candle had sputtered out.
The next morning, Scarp stuck zir head out the workroom door, startling the sleeping guard. “I am not to be disturbed if the Tracts are to be delivered on time,” zie said as haughtily as an elder. The guard bent both antennae right down to zir thorax.
The tiny cubby had grown dusty and Scarp sneezed as zie hauled out the first of the blocks, the first page of the tale that told how Vers improved the world.
Then zie called over the tiny apprentice, Dalpa. The young cruzic was as skinny and as terrified as Scarp had been the day zie had started, these many years ago. A poor diet meant zir carapace was dull and one eye twitched periodically. But zie was a good worker and had proved invaluable this past six-day, collating the necessary six dozen sets of printed pages of the Tract while Scarp mixed the binding glue and cut leather covers.
“Young apprentice, I have something I need to print for the launch. You must hurry in your collation and then bind the copies of the Tract as well.” Scarp said.
“But the launch is four days away, Head Printer.” Dalpa scuffled zir feet on the cold cobblestones. “It will take me two days to finish collating and then three days to bind them all. It’s not possible.”
“Do you question the Head Printer?” Scarp glared at the apprentice, rising up on zir hind legs.
“No, Printer, no.”
“We will work through the night, every night. Do you not think it’s important that our Seconds carry with them the wisdom of the Tract?”
“Of course, Printer.” Dalpa scuttled away and began to pick up page one, then page two, antenna quivering.
As Dalpa fluttered about, Scarp busied zirself printing page one of Vers the Bold.
Despite all zir efforts, by the time the stray streaks of sunlight across the cobblestones had faded, zie had printed just six dozen copies of the first page and just three dozen of the second. It would be impossible to print the entire book before the launch.
“Are you all right, Head Printer?”
Scarp must have made a choking sound. Zie held zirself rigid. “Dust clogging my spiracles. No fresh air lately.”
Dalpa nodded, forelegs trembling with fatigue. “Perhaps you should eat your rations, Head Printer, amid all this extra printing.” One eye swivelled toward the block in the press as zir antennae held steady at Scarp. Zie was clearly trying to make sense of Scarp’s strong odor.
Scarp’s glare sent Dalpa scurrying back to work. Realizing the apprentice was right, zie forced down the sow bugs, spitting out the bits with stinkrot, all the while thinking that the Empress probably had a heap of fresh ladybugs in her royal bowl.
Scarp’s plan had been hopeless, anyway. Even, if by some miracle, zie could finish making enough copies of all three dozen pages in time, stuffing a book into the Second’s pouches alongside the Tract wouldn’t work. The pouches would be too heavy and the Seconds would crash before reaching their new tree.
Perhaps zie could print just one copy of the Book and trust that one Second would relay it to the rest. No, to haul out each form from its hiding place to the press would take longer than the printing itself. And Dalpa was growing suspicious.
Scarp drew the small gray book from under zir proto-wing. What if zie shoved it in a random Second’s pouch? That, too, would fail. Like heat melting ice, the new clan’s subsequent study of the Tract would likely neutralize whatever notions a single Second could convey from Vers’s teachings.
Scarp stroked one antenna thoughtfully. If Vers had been up against this difficulty, what would Vers have done?
By the day of Second Molt, Scarp’s tarsi were sticky with glue and zir eyes didn’t focus well after four days without sleep. But, with Dalpa’s help, zie had completed all the Tracts in time!
Guards bustled about, tying the bundles of Tracts with string and marching them up to the ledge far above.
“I will accompany you,” Scarp told the nearest one and glared at her until she nodded.
Scarp needed both sets of zir midlegs and hind legs to climb all the way to the ledge. But zir strength returned as zie watched the new bunch of Seconds, an emerald sheen upon their newly grown skins, don their Tract-loaded pouches and step off into nothing, sailing over the bushes of the valley on and on until Scarp’s tired eyes were left squinting. They’d land, hungry and disoriented. The pouches, with the scent of rich grasses and the taste of last-year’s sun, would re-energize the Seconds as they gobbled them down and then opened their Tracts for the first time. They’d forge nursery chambers in the tree, and lay many healthy eggs, all the while reading the Tract. Learning would surpass instinct and trace pathways in their minds, igniting the complex and cultured thoughts of The One Empress’s wisdom.
Each Second would also eventually read the twelfth page in each Tract.
The twelfth page was not the prescribed wisdom of The One Empress.
Each was a different page of Scarp’s little gray copy of Vers the Bold, unstitched and redistributed in place of the Tract’s proper twelfth page during the binding process while Dalpa had slept in exhaustion.
As the Seconds read their Tracts, Scarp hoped they’d grow curious about the incomplete tales on page twelve. In time, with luck, they could work together to reassemble the book of Vers the Bold. They could study it and learn, as Scarp had, that there was a better way to run the clan.
And, in their new home, the Seconds would prevail. No cruzic would ever suffer as Scarp did.
Zie watched the last few Seconds fly away into the haze of forest, then turned toward the opening that led down to the printing workshop.
As zie scuttled along the corridor, zir envy of the Seconds’ life journey disappeared. As long as zie could operate the press and use the blocks in the secret cubby, zir work was here. In fact, there was no time to waste if zie were to have modified Tracts ready for the next crop of Seconds.
Mandibles clacking with pleasure, zie began to scurry.
About the Author
Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. She is the author of over fifty short stories, some of which are used in university curricula and have been translated into several languages. Her works have appeared in Escape Pod, Lightspeed, Analog, and many other publications throughout the world. This is her fifth appearance in Cast of Wonders. Watch for new stories soon in Analog, Brave New Girls, and The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide. For more of her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.