Since the wealthy rarely had a need to petition the Temple of the Architect for repairs, Irella was no stranger to slums. But despite her experience, the stench wafting through the riverside neighborhood she was currently traversing beside her Sovereign was… unique.
Irella wrinkled her nose. The towpath that bounded the Lysar River, which comprised the eastern "V" of the Nahrian Basin and was therefore one of the most important bodies of water on the entire Isle of Maehlorn. It shouldn't have been permitted to smell so bad. "You know how in Marna, the river runs clear enough to count the fish?"
Their guards remained stoic, but Eramepi, Sovereign of the brand-new League of Lysarian Cities, snorted. "Sure. There's nobody upstream of Marna to send offal our way."
By contrast, here in the capital city of Oruku, the river smelled like rancid fish and looked like liquid feces. Two cities lay between Marna and Oruku, and two more sat upstream along a tributary, but the real problem was all the people who had flocked to Oruku since the end of the Unification War.
"A clean harbor is going to sound great until people realize you want to dig up the whole city. The disruption to trade alone..."
Irella chewed her lip, wondering how much she dared say in front of her biladiyn. They were famously neutral when it came to Temple politics, but she was never sure how much to believe that sort of propaganda. "It's not really a question of want, mir-Eramepi. If you're going to insist on making Oruku the capital of the League, and you don't fix the sewers, we're going to wind up with bodies rotting in the streets. Trade would be the least of our problems, then."
"Not this again." Eramepi sighed, and then in a tone of extreme patience, said, "It doesn't matter that Oruku is old, and cramped, and filled with people who hate the both of us. It was the first Nahrian city to crawl out of the primordial mud and claim the mantle of civilization, and that makes it special. If I try to run the government from anywhere else, the whole system will collapse and we'll be back where we started."
Irella opened her mouth to argue, then closed it hard, her lips pursing with the force of her frustration. Despite her years of living in Marna, she was not Nahrian-born. Eramepi had rescued her from a raider's camp, but by rights he should have taken her back to the mountains and left her to try and make her way back to her people.
She had been eight years old when her parents brought her south on a doomed trading mission. Old enough that certain things about life in Nahria might never make sense to her. Still, surely even Eramepi could see that it would be madness to let thousands of people die because of tradition.
That had been the whole point of the Unification War, after all.
"I wouldn't have to dig up the whole city," Irella said finally, ducking under the ropes of an ox-driven boat.
"The Architect's power moves through you, and I've seen you work miracles, nin-Irella. But even you can't ask the Architect to help you repair tunnels you can't see."
Eramepi was right. There were limits to the power offered by her god. Still, she wasn't the only one with limits. "No matter what en-Avestur tries to tell you, we can't just keep building up and out and hoping for the best."
"You wish I'd chosen someone else to serve as the Architect's senior voice in Lysaria?"
Of course she wished Eramepi hadn't put en-Avestur in charge of the newly-united Lysarian branch of the Architect's Temples. Back in Marna, which until two years ago Eramepi had ruled as an independent city-state, she had been trained that the Architect was the god of cities. Cities meant population density, and as her mentors had pointed out, packing fifty thousand people together was easy. Keeping them healthy was the real challenge.
The Temple in Oruku was different. Avestur and the other priests here in acted like serving the Architect was as simple as building apartments and extending the city walls every generation or so. As far as she could tell, most priests in Oruku hadn’t worked hard for anything in a long, long time.
Before she could find a polite way to respond, a functionary in palace purple robes ran toward the pair. Immediately, their guards closed ranks around them. By the time Irella had stopped moving, her biladiyn Alem was barely a hair's breadth from her side, and Eramepi had stiffened, his face a mask of formality.
"With her apologies for interrupting your work, ria-Valentia bids me to tell you that her spies report that a group of renegade nobles have gathered an army and are marching to Pontero."
Valentia was Eramepi's sister, the velvet glove to his stone fist — though she was ruthless in her own way. If she was sending messages to Eramepi in the middle of his morning walk, the problem was urgent and she didn't expect it to be solved solved without violence.
Irella turned toward the Temple, Alem not even a step behind. "I'll get my gear and meet the army at the gate."
Eramepi held up a hand. "No. I need you here."
Irella stiffened. "But, if there's to be a battle, I—"
"If there's to be a battle, I expect I can win it the old fashioned way, nin-Irella. What I can't do is fix these sewers."
Without Eramepi in residence to offer his support, Irella wasn't sure she could either.
I got a better response than expected for the Sewers edition and I'll confess it inspired me a bit. Typically I only send y'all short, self-contained pieces, but I really wanted to share what I've been working on using the research from that edition. Plus, it's getting to the point where some of the context for things I write to write about in short pieces only make sense if y'all have the longer ones, but with starting a new job yesterday (orientation went well — I have a brand new, freshly-built classroom!) I'm not in a position to start mucking about publishing on other platforms in addition to writing this newsletter. So I'm going to start mixing some multi-part pieces in with the shorter works. If you really hate this, let me know, and I'll try to figure out how to segment things out so it's easier to opt out of the longer stuff.
As far as the underlying research for this one goes, this is basically a mashup of two issues near and dear to my heart:
- Infrastructure matters! In particular, sewers, which were the subject of a recent research deep dive. I know I talk about L. E. Modesitt a lot, but I always liked how many of his fantasy novels feature a character whose job it is to clean sewers with their magic. I'm pretty sure it's a minor plot point in Magi'i of Cyador and one of the Imager books as well.
- Ancient priests were useful! In particular. It can be tempting to dismiss ancient religious rituals as ridiculously pagan nonsense — and besides, when everything is ritual, is anything ritual?. It's even tempting to dismiss modern religion as superstitious nonsense. But historically speaking, priests were often experts who did very practical things for their community. I feel strongly about this, and it's not something I see come up often in fiction, so I thought it might be fun to tackle as a story concept, although this is hardly the first time I've done it; spider cheese for you and me also features a priest with very practical concerns.
If you have any thoughts about other books that touch on these themes, please do let me know, either via email or in a comment where everyone can see :)
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).