Part I: Pressure
In the trees, it was always twilight. Even in the middle of the day, when the sun burned the land and roasted everyone’s eyeballs, the trees kept hold of the night and wrapped him in it. The smell of burning iron and fuel that fed the Engines of the town stopped somewhere at the borders of the cold blue and green boreal forest. If he left his house early enough and stayed late enough, he was kept clear and clean of the town. The soil and mud and salt of the natural world was his shield and his armour.
He only came back at night because he knew his Father’s sense of duty kept him from willingly leaving him in the wilderness. The one time Cyril tried to spend the night in the trees, their Father had sent Myrelle after him, and she had not been happy at all to have to stomp out into the crud and drag back her little brother. Cyril felt the house simmer for three days while he was kept inside and made to behave like one of them. No matter how much he wanted to stay amidst the trees and the blue-green canopy of the north woods, he did not want to go through that again.
So when the colours got darker and the breeze picked up, he climbed down from his perch and trundled his way in. They lived close enough to the edge of the town that he could avoid most of the people coming home from the reclamation factories and the mines and the farms, what farms they had. Since they liked to avoid him just as much, it wasn’t hard to do. Sometimes, they would suddenly have something to check in their toolbags, sometimes they would see friends across the rough dirt road and dart off to see them. He had no problem being antisocial because nobody ever wanted to talk to Cyril the Fool anyway. He just walked pointedly, directly to the house… the quicker he got home and shut the door, the less he would have to smell the iron and steam and dirt of the town. If he could have walked through the town blindfolded without breathing or hearing or feeling anything around him, he would have.
When he walked inside, he got caught in the threshold. He’d expected to see everyone around the dinner table, talking about their day and what they were about to eat. He might not have liked all the people around him at suppertime, but he did like the things that came out of his Mom’s kitchen, so he put up with it. (Plus, his Dad had several kinds of conniptions whenever he tried to sneak a plate of food back to another part of the house.) Today, though, everyone was in the front room talking over each other, and ‘everyone’ this time included his Uncle Karis. If the people in the town were loud and annoying, but tolerable, Karis was half like them, and not the good half. He had spent his life roaming the countryside, spreading the law of the Czar, and breaking the skulls of anyone who wasn’t interested in following those laws. Any day that he came to visit was a day he spent slapping Brand’s shoulder and telling him how he was a born soldier, pinching Myrelle’s cheek and shouting that they’d better marry her off soon before he up and married her himself, and long, long pained looks at Cyril. He usually made a point of how much the effort to be polite to his youngest nephew strained and bothered him. (When he’d had a little much to drink, which was more or less every time he stayed over, he devolved into ‘sparring’ with Brand until he was bloody and limping, slapping Myrelle’s ass whenever he didn’t think anyone was looking, and moaning to his brother that he should have left Cyril on a cliff the minute they knew he was going to be a Fool, because he sure as hell wasn’t getting to be less of an embarrassment now, was he?)
At least tonight, though, no one had seen him walk in, so he was able to edge over to his corner of the sleeping room and avoid getting grabbed, poked, and prodded. Of course, he could still hear everything, but that was okay. He liked to listen to everything in their regulation three-room house without being involved. Also, his Uncle had lungs the size of a bull’s and the others tried in vain to keep up and be heard over him.
“I’m telling you, Vlad, my brother, this is going to be huge. Bigger than when they made the boilers. Bigger than the junk factories, and there’s been nothing bigger than those for a hundred years. This is going to change the world, Vladdi. Gonna make things better for us, and going to make them pretty damn miserable for the Smallheads over the river, no doubt. Mark my words. The Czar’s going to change our world. Again!”
“But no one’s found one yet, right?” Cyril’s Mom said. Karis didn’t even bother to look at her.
“Not yet, but he will, Svetlana. He will. If the Czar ordered it, it will be done.”
“But what if no one can figure it out, Uncle Karis?” Brand said. He looked more excited than anyone about… about whatever it was that his Uncle was raving about, but he was the middle child, and he was closer to their Mom than he would ever admit.
“It doesn’t matter, boy, it doesn’t matter. When the Czar wanted power in his castle, he got the steam boilers working and got power. When the Czar wanted to stop the Smallheads from taking over our land, he got the new weapons, right? Now… the Czar wants to fly like a bird, so he told everyone to make him a flying machine. And what the Czar wants, the Czar gets. Period. Else…” and here, he hit Brand’s chest a little harder than what was polite, “he wouldn’t be the Czar.”
“But… but Karis, what if no one can do it,” Mom asked, again. “It’s been generations since anyone flew, you know. Longer. Maybe we just can’t do it anymore.”
Cyril saw his Uncle’s fist clench, but then he picked up his vodka glass with his other hand.
“Svetlana, what the Czar wants… the Czar gets. If the people who say they can make one, can’t, why, then, he’ll execute them and get some who can. He’s the Czar.” He turned and ruffled Brand’s hair. “You’d like to do that, wouldn’t you, Brand? Soaring over the Smallheads in a flying machine? It’d be the best way to be in the Army, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, Uncle Karis. They’d really let me do that?”
“Of course! What use is a new wonder if you can’t make a weapon out of it?” He swatted at Brand again. This time, Brand was smiling, and Cyris could see his smile going deep inside, deeper than anyone else could.
“So you see, Vladdi, you can’t stand in Brand’s way, now. The new military will soar over the heads of everyone. The things he’ll be able to do are things no one’s done in over a hundred years.”
Cyril’s Father took a long drag on his pipe. Tobacco was rare, something brought out on holidays or special occasions, so if he’d brought it out now, he was definitely worried or excited.
“Now, Karis, you come in here talking about soldiers flying around and dropping fire on the enemy, trying to get my son to run off with you, telling these grand tales. But no one’s invented the thing yet.”
“But the Czar declared that it would be invented, so it will be. Either his engineers or one of his subjects will do it.”
“The Czar also ordered everyone to grow twice as much corn just so he could feast everyone for his older daughter’s wedding. You remember how well that turned out?”
“That was because some people didn’t do what the Czar said to do, Vladdi. And not a one of them didn’t learn their lesson. Hells, we made sure their families learned, too. And some of their neighbors, too, just in case.”
“If that’s what you call it, I guess.” He tapped out his pipe, and picked up his mug of tea. “Listen, Karis, I know you want my son to follow you into the Army. And I know he wants to go, too. But he’s not out of his apprenticeship, yet.”
“That doesn’t matter, Vladdi. Any apprentice can cut loose by joining the Army. It’s the law.”
“Not in my house. He needs a trade. He’s going to stay until he has one. After that, he can do what he wants, and he probably will. But what happens to him if he joins and someone hacks his leg off?” Cyril’s Mom gasped, but Vladdi went on. “No trade, no Army… what will he do then?”
“No one’s going to hack off this man’s leg,” he said. “As big and strong a leg as it is? Besides, unless the Smallheads have their own flying machines, they won’t be able to touch him.”
“And what if they do, Karis? You said the Czar sent out this proclamation to everyone in the land…”
“Is sending, Vladdi. Is sending. No one else even knows about it yet. That’s why Brand can get in the new units now, before the rush.”
“So the Czar sent out this proclamation, saying that if anyone can give him a flying machine before his engineers do, he’ll get a share of the country’s wealth, a noble title, and who knows what else? Don’t you think the Sarks are going to hear about it?”
“So what if they do? The Smallheads aren’t eligible for the prize. I’d like to see one claim it.”
“That’s not what I meant, Karis. I mean if the Sarks know that we’re doing this, they might try to make one of their own. Did you think about that?”
Uncle Karis set down his glass of vodka and spoke like he was speaking to Cyril or another idiot.
“Then… we’ll… take it, big brother. Sheesh. Do I have to do all of your thinking for you?”
Vlad stood up and turned toward the kitchen. “Let’s eat, okay? And let’s not talk about it again, at least until after we’re finished.”
“Vladdi, you’re letting your son miss out on the best opportunity of our lifetime. Let him join, and they’ll tap him to fly the new machines. I will make sure of that, and you know I can do that. I never knew you for a stupid man, even if you have a Fool for a…”
He turned away from Vladdi’s glare and saw Cyril standing in the middle of the room. He had left his corner to come out for supper, but he didn’t like walking past his Uncle, if he could help it.
“Well, hi, Cyril,” he said, speaking even slower and louder than he had when he was mocking his Father. “How are you today?”
“Uncle Karis? You said the Czar wants someone to make him a flying machine? And anyone can do it?”
“Of course, but no one expects anyone but the engineers to really do it. That’s just the Czar’s way of lighting a fire under their bums.”
“Do you think they will be able to make one?”
“Of course! They don’t have a choice. Not if they don’t want their heads in a basket.”
“But anyone can try to make one?”
“Of course. Anyone can try.”
“I think I will.”
Everyone in the house shut up for a moment, a brief moment, just to process what he’d said. Then, the room erupted with howls and giggles.
“You do that, Cyril,” Uncle Karis said, when he could breathe again. “You go right ahead and do that. But I think when your brother is flying his own machine, it will be one the engineers made, and not a boy. And definitely not a fool.”
* * *
One of the best things about being his family’s ‘Fool’ was that they often forgot that he was there. His parents had seen him slip behind the curtain into his portion of the sleeping room, had said ‘goodnight’ to him, and everything. But then an hour or two had passed while his brother and sister and Uncle went about and did their own things before bed, and his parents cleaned up. By the time everyone was back and tucked in and the lamps were darkened, his parents had completely forgotten that he was even there. It used to annoy him that they did this until he realised that nothing happened in the house without him noticing, as long as he paid attention. And that, he did. Plus, since they rarely talked to him (and because he rarely ever wanted to talk to them, anyway) he sometimes only felt a part of them when he did this. It was an unusual feeling for him to have, but sometimes, he liked it.
“He’s going to be gone in the morning, you know,” his Mom said.
“My brother? I hope so. Now isn’t a good time for us to have guests. You’d think that he would have been able to figure that out.”
“I mean your son, Vlad.”
His Dad didn’t say anything. Svetlana prodded him, asked him a few more questions, but he kept quiet. Finally, Cyril heard him roll over. He started speaking again, but his voice was half-muffled by his pillow and it was hard for him to pick up every word.
“I think you’re right, Seva. I think… pah! What can I do? I show him the value of good work, I set him up with a good master in a good printshop learning a good trade that he likes to do, but always his eyes are wide-eyed for adventure.”
“It’s your brother putting those stories into his head.”
“It’s not just him. Oh, Karis doesn’t help, but he’s a bullshit artist. He barely knows what he talks about. Battle? Glory? Except for the Harvest Riots a few years ago, he’s never seen a single bloody day outside of his desk at the recruiting office. I guess I can’t fault him for what he says to Brand. He is just doing his job.”
“But what about this ‘flying machine’ he was talking about? Doesn’t that worry you?”
“Of course it does. But not because I think our son’s going to one day soar over the ranks like a bird. I think it’s just another one of our crazy Czar’s crazy schemes. Flight’s just one of those things that isn’t going to happen again, not with what we’ve left to work with. You watch. In a year, we’ll have another purge, and then the stories will start… the Czar’s government really did figure out a way to fly again, but he didn’t think we were ready for it, yet. Then they’ll break the heads of a bunch of poor engineers who were doomed the moment they declared this ‘new wonder.’ That’s their favourite way to cover up their incompetence, you know… tell one person that it’s a conspiracy, and then everyone runs around giving the Czar credit that he doesn’t deserve. And then us poor mujiks stop looking because we think there’s no point.” He cursed into his pillow and rolled over again.
“Are you going to say goodbye to your son, at least?” she asked.
“I did, already. He played dumb, but I think he understood. I hope so.”
They said a few more things to each other, but it was nothing that Cyril was really interested in hearing. He’d had a long day, after all. There were other things that he wanted to listen to before he drifted off on a dream of airships and flying and seeing new forests.
* * *
The first surprise of the morning, of course, involved Brand. He was downstairs drinking tea and dressed for work in the printshop. Vlad and Svetlana acted like they weren’t surprised, Cyril could tell they were. Still, they were happy that he hadn’t slipped off in the night, so when Uncle Karis came in from his early morning mission to the baker’s, they were much more polite to him than they usually were. From the little corner that Cyril claimed at the far edge of the table, he could see what actually looked like a happy, normal extended family, and this lasted for an entire five minutes.
The second surprise wasn’t nearly as nice, and that one exploded when Brand came back from their sister’s partition and told everyone that she was gone, along with her bedroll and some of her clothes. All heads swiveled onto Karis, but he threw up his hands in despair.
“Why would I know anything?” he said, actually looking honest for once. “It’s not like I can recruit her into the Army, right?”
Vlad glared at his brother for a hard five seconds. Then he turned to Brand and the look in his eyes was enough to boil tin.
“Where is your sister, Brand?”
“I don’t know.”
“Someone in this house knows. What, should I ask your idiot brother? Hey, Cyril!” he said, and he dropped down on his knees and looked him in the eye. “Hey, do you know where your sister is?”
“She left with her boyfriend last night.”
The coals in his eyes burned hotter. His Mom was so shocked that she forgot to wail. Brand started edging out of the room.
“How do you know this?” his Dad asked. “Did you see them leave?”
“No. I stayed in bed. But I heard Brand say goodbye to them.”
“You did, did you?” A peculiar feature of their family was that their Dad could yell without saying a word. No matter how hard Brand tried to stay on the other side of the house, his gaze drew him right back.
“I’m… I’m sorry. I saw Rupert last night after supper, and I told him what the Czar said. So he’s going to try for it. Both of them are.”
“So you just let your sister run off with your friend?”
“He’s not his friend, Dad, he’s her boyfriend,” Cyril said. “They’ve been seeing each other since summer.”
“Did anyone ask you, Cyril?”
“No. But you made a mistake. So I said…”
“Shut up, please.” Then he turned to Brand and said, “You’re going to go find her. Correction: we’re going to go find her. You and I… and no one else… are going to go look for her. You had better hope we find her.” Then he got up and walked over to the pantry, since Svetlana was still in shock.
“Wait a second,” he said, after staring into its depths. “I know we had more food than this. Does anyone know…”
No one said anything. Finally, he looked over at Cyril.
“You seem to hear everything. What do you know?”
“She said she was taking some food because she was worried about the baby.”
Now his Mom started wailing. It only lasted for a minute though, since she shut up when the Czar’s soldiers burst in.
Cyril didn’t even like the crowd of his family; seeing another four men wearing battered helmets and piecework armour sent his brain into a screaming loop and he ran back to the sleeping room, hoping that he got there before anyone saw him. At least his parents didn’t… they were too busy trying to run from the soldiers. Not that they had anywhere to go, of course. The soldiers did this kind of thing a lot, and they had it down to a science. When it was over and done with, each was held onto a chair, arms pinned behind, burlap sack on their heads. Cyril didn’t risk peeking out, but he could hear well enough what was going on.
“Did you really think you could say what you said last night and get away with it, Vladdi?”
“Because I said you couldn’t take my son, Karis?”
“Oh no, no. Would that I could arrest everyone who said that. It would make our job a lot easier, wouldn’t it?” He slapped one of the other guards on the back.
“You said there were three of them, Karis,” the guard said.
“Ah yes, I’m sorry. But my noble, honorable niece left. Like a bird, she spread her legs and flew away.” He laughed, and then slapped his brother’s sack-covered face. “No, Vladdi, I heard what you said last night about the riots. About the press gangs. About my job. About how the Czar can’t get what he wants. That’s treason. If you’re lucky, you’ll just go to one of the junk fields for a few years.”
“Karis,” he tried again. “If… if Brand really wants to join the Army, I’ll let him. But it’s up to him, okay?”
Karis hit him again, hard. Cyril heard something wet splash on the floor.
“Too late for that, big brother. He’s already coming with me… aren’t you, Brand?”
“Y… yes, Uncle Karis. It’ll be fun.”
Cyril knew enough of his brother’s voice to know that his eyes were popped out, his legs were shaking, and he was only saying what he had to say in order to keep his skin free of holes. That was a skill Cyril the Fool never learned, himself.
“Though, depending on what the Czar thinks about what you did, Vladdi, I may have to lie about his name.” He laughed again, quickly, brutally.
“Sir?” one of the empty-handed guards asked. “I thought I saw another brat run away.”
“What? Oh… the fool.”
“Want me to go get him? This place ain’t big.”
“No, leave him be. A retard like him won’t hurt anyone but himself. Saves us work, doesn’t it?”
Cyril heard some more shuffling and dragging, and he heard his Mom yelp once, like she was in pain and horribly offended at something, but that was it. A moment later, he felt a curtain of silence descend on the house, and he knew he was alone.
* * *
Cyril spent the morning by himself in the kitchen. He had helped his Mom cook once or twice, but when he stared at the pantry, he couldn’t think of what to do with anything in there. Plus, Myrelle had taken the bacon and the other dried meat, so all he really saw in there were a couple loaves of old dark bread, a wheel of dry yellow cheese a little larger than one of his hands, and a bunch of carrots. Myrelle loved fruit more than anything; the two apples that she’d left behind didn’t even look fit for the worms that were living in them. He did find the tea, at least. And maybe her boyfriend had water bags with him, because she hadn’t taken a single one. He grabbed all four of them and took them into the living room.
He wasn’t sure where he was going, or what he should do, but he knew he had to leave, and soon. For all he knew, his Uncle could change his mind and decide that he needed his Fool nephew anyway, and he was not going to spend any time with him if his Dad wasn’t telling him he had to. Maybe he would just go up into the trees. He knew how to live with the trees, no problem, and they would take care of him as best as they could. Still, he kept getting distracted while he was packing, and kept getting stuck on things like wondering which lantern would be best, which knife was sharpest, how many cloaks he would need. He was still standing over his bag in the front room, half-stuffed with things, when the door flew open and two metal-clad men walked in and saw him before he had a chance to run.
He smelled them, and couldn’t help but notice that they smelled differently than they were supposed to. It was like the town had walked into his house, and not one of the dirty, sweaty soldiers from this morning. Their breastplates and arms gleamed with oil and smelled of steam, ozone, and iron. He needed to run, but he couldn’t stop looking at them.
Then he heard a voice behind them, a voice rich with the accent of the Capital, and he knew that one of the Czar’s men had come back for him after all.
(Part II of “Fool,” “Time,” will appear in Issue #4 of Way Too Fantasy in January 2014.)
C.J. Casey is a writer and musician. Originally from central Michigan, he spent twenty years in the US Navy and now lives and works in Atlanta. His musings can be found at http://www.cjcasey.com