Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Civil River

The largest and the longest of the three rivers that find their end in Jukai Bay is the Or, or 'Civil River'

'Or' for its colour, which is gold, and 'Civil' for its Parliaments and laws.

An Empire once tamed the Or. No-one knows which one, the Or flows a long, long way, through canyon country, through the Forest of Rhodopsin with its purple leaves and prehistoric trees, through the Phyrrous Plains and great ravines thereof, through the stormlands where the trees burn every other year and the banks of the Or become sheets of red flame reflecting from its golden sheen, through the Catastrophic Woods, dense black tangles of hate-hardened wood where the grey leaves cover pin-dogs in their multitudes, still unexplored, and beyond that, somewhere it originates in the Radula Mountains, seat of the Snaegleborg, peerless, heaven-piercing ever-receding, centrepoint and only ever-stable point in this Uncertain World.

These lands held many Empires over time, the Phyrrous Plains are known for their ruins and the legends of the Cities of the Plains and how they warred against each other long ago. The Catastrophic Woods must hold the source of some terrible event, no-one knows what, the Canyon of the Sun is vast and the few who have survived its rapids claim they see ruined cave-cities carved into its rock like black eyes.

It was likely the Aurulent Empire that tamed and organised the Or, it seems like the kind of thing they would do and it's certainly the ghosts of their tax inspectors that loom out of the water after mass lightning-strikes, riding huge pale crabs, carrying silver lanterns and muttering to themselves in Ancient Aurulent.

For the river has order. It floods and recedes on time each year, every year, accurate to the day, expanding and contracting to exactly the same place each time. Its savage whirlpools are more regular than clocks, more fixed than stars, its deadly sandbanks that suck down ships are all charted, as firmly set as foundations, they never move. The Or is predictable, at least, in those ways in which a river is usually not.

The fauna of the Or are organised. The river has no non-social species. Even animals that would normally be non-social, or barely-social, like Alligators or snails, either live in groups or congregate regularly.

Each group has a hierarchy, each hierarchy has a head, each species has a parliament with local sub-councils. Somewhere there is a Senate of the Or where the leaders of each species meet to somehow agree the laws of the Or, somewhere, perhaps, there is a King.

The animals of the river are not necessarily any more intelligent than their equivalents elsewhere and they do not necessarily do anything fundamentally different than their equivalents elsewhere. The small brass crabs like coins still behave generally like crabs, the black eels with golden eyes still drift like policemen outside bars, the dark blue manatees still chew the golden kelp, the saw-mouth dolphins still hunt with ultrasonic whines. The purpose of an animal is to be an animal, but in the Or, this happens on schedule and the schedule is fair. The water snails walk in lines, the fish move in formation, predators chase their expected prey who flee in the expected way, until an hour turns or a chase enters a protected zone, in which case the chrome gharials simply turn away from the escaping fish.

When animals congregate they do not 'speak' in any comprehensible way. They are certainly doing something but exactly what or how is hard to tell. The heads of the parliaments may be intelligent, or not, the 'kings' of each species may be intelligent, storybooks certainly say they are, or they may not. No-one has ever confirmed encountering one.

Sometimes animals are found executed, forced out of the water to suffocate in air, or be eaten by land animals, or by man. The places of execution are well known and small villages of human beings sometimes make their livelihoods by acting as terrestrial leviathans who consume the criminals of the Civil River. The fishermen of the Or are few, and very very careful. They say the river always takes back what it gives. Exactly.

Golden fish are their officials. These slim, rapid bright fish are sometimes seen darting back and forth in the Or, to no particular pattern. They are never predated on by river-fauna, or even by man, local tribes and groupings refuse to touch them.

The colour of the Or, a golden sheen that makes it look like a necklace dropped on the velvet horizon when seen from the towers of Jukai at dawn, comes from some unknown impurity which seeps into the river somewhere above the stormlands and becomes more and more prevalent as it works its way towards Jukai. (It's not gold, curious alchemists have made exhaustive tests to look for that.) No-one can quite be certain what it is but several of the animals of the Or have a somewhat-metallic sheen to them of different kinds. Zenithal suggested what she called "a kind of anti-gargantuan organism, as indiscernible as the sky yet upon the opposite scale of size.

The water of the Or is slightly ferric and it summons lightning. Any storm passing over the river which might possibly discharge a bolt will do so directly into the water rather than onto the tops of nearby trees or mountains. When a large storm passes, especially in the stormlands upstream, tens, or even hundreds of lightning bolts can crash down into the Or, making it look like a wall of bright light stretching across the plains, upholding the dark pillars of the sky. Ships that trade on or explore the river carry iron lightning rods on top of masts to deflect likely strikes.

Most of the creatures of the Or seem to have found some way to survive these storms. But, after a significant storm an unusual event takes place. Should it be night and should the air still be heavy with static, huge pale crabs will idle out of the river and walk about on land. These crabs, (the size of ponies) are ridden by the ghosts of tax inspectors of the Aurulent Empire. (They wear the three-buttoned hats and signifying robes of those bureaucrats.) These ghosts then wander about on their crabs holding silver lanterns which give no visible light but which seem to define the limits of their sight, muttering ancient aurlulent, peering at things and clicking the mother-of-peal beads of their abacuses back and forth, they are followed in the darkness by a train of black electrified eels with golden eyes who move after them like a shadow, and of which they seem utterly unaware.


  1. The mention of crab riding tax collector ghosts left one of my nearby coworkers speechless in his confusion.