No Julius and Livia today! A couple of reasons. Livia is about to start berating Skylur, and that speech has to be just right, like Diakon Huang before the Assembly. Also, thanks to being bullied persuaded by readers to extend Julius and Livia to a novella, I have a second thread which needs to come in and which I haven’t developed, so there will be a week’s delay.
Instead, I’ve had quite a few messages about the comment ‘Afro-centric steampunk’, used to describe one of my back-burner writing ideas, so I thought I’d post a chapter to illustrate it. (With the warning this is very much on the back-burner, whereas Julius and Livia will tick along at weekends)
I am posting the world-building background and how the story came to be as comments below the post. Just one quick word about Zulu names. Where names start with ‘M’ or ‘N’ for instance, and are followed by a consonant, the initial letter is usually pronounced separately. So Nyanga in n-YAN-gah, and Mlungu in m-LUN-goo.
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The City of the Serpent
Hear me, you many hills and secret valleys, hear me. I am come. I am Nyanga.
Yes, I am named for the moon. The moon is my mother; her light shines through me. She is the source of my powers. She lifts the boundless seas with her beauty. She bears down the multitudes of men to sleep beneath her silver heel.
I anoint my brow with the cool air that she gifts to the dusty lands. I rise up to her song.
I am Nyanga, child of darkness.
Hear me; I am come.
My mother stood high above the gentle hills, wearing the aspect of the Great Buffalo, Nyathi: the bright, bone-white crescent of horns, carried on a black head as wide as the whole night sky, and dusted with stars. On those horns, she pushed the old year out before her, and dragged the new year in behind.
She moved at her own pace, as always, neither fast nor slow, but she did not stop.
As the worm-skinned Mlungu measure such things, it was about midnight on the southern winter solstice in the hills of the great Zulu homelands.
The seasons turned. Old ways died and new ventures began; the circle was unstoppable, whether I tried to slow it or not. I might as well try holding the broad Mgeni river in my hand.
Was it the night itself? It was not that cold, and the night holds few terrors for a follower of Ngoma; witch-doctors as the Mlungu call us.
Yet I trembled. For I tell you this; it is a fearsome thing to stand before the City of the Serpent under the uncertain light of the waning moon.
For the city is a living thing, and it should not be.
It moves. It speaks.
Its tales are of graves and death, the chill, bitter end of dreams, and the heavy yoke of duty. Its voice is the clink and clatter of many stones, striking one against another. Its breath is cold decay.
It moves like a blind and dying man, dragging itself along the ground. The whole city shivers and its walls writhe in the moonlight. Its grey arms reach out. Its dead, grey fingers tremble on the ground, seeking out its path.
Look up again and the bulk of the city has loomed closer.
It is the place all followers of Ngoma must come to learn their fate.
I am Nyanga. I am come.
But one does not walk toward the city of cold stones and lamentation. One stands in its path and waits, trembling.
My left arm hissed and chattered, which it does when I am afraid. I made a fist and moved my elbow in a circle to ease it. My mother’s light gleamed softly on her daughter’s metal arm. The gears whined and pistons huffed at the limit of hearing, and then they all fell quiet when I stopped moving.
The city crept closer, uncaring of my fear, and slowly, it revealed its true self to me.
It is a city of stones. They are grey and flat, those stones, and they are numbered like the antelope in the herds of the plains, like the stars in the cold, black sky, like the fish in the great rivers of this land. And the city moves because a boundless host of people crawl like ants over its walls. They take the stones from where the city has been and they place them where it will be, one by one. One by one.
Where the city passes, nothing but dust and ashes remain.
The people of the city walls do not pause. They are in rags, or naked. They are men and women, old and young. They are black and brown and white and yellow, but all skin shares the color of corpses in the light of the Great Buffalo moon.
I could see that, without regard to their heritage, there were roles and ranks within the undead congregation: there were those that carried and those that directed.
Hear me: this is the great humor of the City of the Serpent. Those that direct are blind; their eyes have been put out. Those that carry are missing a hand or foot, struck off at the joint. And they all must sing, so they all have had their tongues ripped out.
This I saw, as the city surrounded me.
And I tell you this, that you will remember, should your time of hearing come; it is a fearsome thing to stand as the City of the Serpent pulls you into its dead embrace, but stand you must.
Some of its inhabitants stared at me as they passed, whether they had eyes or not. And some giggled, or smiled dreadful smiles. Some without hands held their stumps out, as if to beg, or to stroke me with long-lost fingers.
They are the Dangele, the Sorrow of the Serpent, and such is the fate of a follower of Ngoma who breaks the laws of the City of the Serpent. Or runs away. Or fails at their appointed task. They are bound in their misery to the city forever.
But it was not for me to ease their torments; if I stumbled tonight, I would share them.
So I stood silently, and trembled while the center of the city, the Hall of the Ancients, swelled up before me, stone by impatient stone.
The building was a huge tower, conical, leaning in at the top, about a hundred paces wide at the bottom.
There was only one entrance, at the bottom of the wall facing me; low and narrow.
A thousand, thousand stones spoke all around me with their rattling voice.
Hurry, hurry, they seemed to say.
I knelt down at the entrance and started to crawl like a hunting dog.
The passage smelled like an old fire-pit, and it got lower.
How long was it? How thick was the wall? I could not see.
Lower. Until I had to squirm like a lizard, and my left arm shook. Until the very breath felt crushed from me.
And thus you come before the Ibandhla, the Council of Ancients: trembling, on your belly, with your face in the dirt.