Episode Eight: Ye Mighty
Ah, the Lesh. It seems as though no matter how deep you burrow or how wide you range, their influence in the Lowcity can always be felt in one way or another. There’s very little of importance that goes on in the ancient Lowcity without their knowledge- if not their approval. Despite their stature in the hierarchy of Lowcity politics, though, the Lesh themselves are not especially imposing- physically speaking. They are taller than a Skitterling or Grib, but smaller than the Fallen or Umbressi. In many ways they most closely resemble the Grib, though you would never want to say as much to either group. Like the Grib, they lack fur or feathers, instead having smooth skin- but they lack the diversity of colouration that many Grib possess. Their skin is bone-white without exception, with the primary distinction between individuals being a subtle pattern of stripes and striations which shows up most vividly under direct sunlight. For obvious reasons, most Lesh these days have very dull patterns indeed. Their two eyes are dark black, and wide, giving off the impression that they are always watching, always paying attention to everything that is happening- which, to be fair, they often are. It is taught to Lesh from a very young age that they must always pay attention to those around them: if they are among Lesh, so they can take heed of the myriad complex social requirements to which they are always subject. If they are among others… so that they can find opportunities to come out on top.
They are not conspirators though, on the whole. Most Lesh have no interest in the politicking, the grand plans for which the Lesh are notorious. They live normal lives- as normal as any can in such a place as the Lowcity- and spare little thought for why their lives are so much more comfortable than most others if they think about others at all. But the fact of the matter is that their comfort, their lives, are built on a foundation of Empire. Or, rather, the rubble of it. The Lesh do not remember the world before the Lowcity, the age when people lived on the surface and all was well. But they know that it was their world. There is a pervasive- but unspoken- sense in Lesh society that the Lowcity is a Lesh city, and that all other residents should be grateful to them- never mind that it was the Umbressi and Skitterlings who actually built it. The old world has been thoroughly mythologised, the scant details transfigured into epic tales of the Greatness That Was, the Greatness that was theirs. They know, or rather they Know, that the surface once belonged to their kind, in the time before the calamity that brought all that they had wrought crashing to the ground and sent them cowering below it. Back then, the surface had been the world, and they had owned it, and now the Lowcity is the world, and they own it.
Most other residents of the Lowcity are, at best, ambivalent to this attitude. Frankly, they have their own struggles to deal with, so if the Lesh want to take credit for what little prosperity the Lowcity can offer, well, at least they put some effort in. Few outside of the Lesh have much interest in the Lowcity as anything more than the place where their patch of dirt happened to be buried, but for the Lesh there is pride and nobility in treating the ancient place as the colossal organism made up of a million discrete parts that, in truth, it is. Even if, at the end of the day after day, it is the Umbressi who manage the infrastructure and the Grib who grow the crops and the Golnur and Skitterlings and Fallen who handle the odd jobs, it is the Lesh who hold it all together. Bureaucracy is not a dirty word in Lesh society- the only society where it really exists as you might recognise it- but a core around which the world is built. And around which, perhaps, Empire might one day be reborn in all its ancient lost glory. Not that many among the Lesh would ever admit that their star has dimmed over the centuries, nor that anyone else would bother to make such a comment. The fact of the matter is that, for as much as the Lesh obsess over maintaining their grand station at the top of the pile, it is a purely self-inflicted struggle. Nobody else really cares to know that the pile even exists. Which means that, when a Lesh finds themself at odds with someone, in conflict with another force, in most cases that other is also a Lesh.
There is a clash of titans occurring now in the Lowcity- or, at least, that’s what said titans would have you believe. Two Lesh who have risen to the top of one of the Lowcity’s most essential- and specific- industries: light. Most of the people who live in the Lowcity cannot naturally see especially well in the dark, and if there is one thing the Lowcity has in abundance even greater than dirt it’s darkness. The most commonplace tool used to combat the unending darkness is the phosphor lamp: canisters of chemicals which give off a sickly off-white glow not remotely similar to the forgotten light of the sun, but which use compounds found in abundance in the region and- crucially- give off minimal heat and fumes, two things which are naturally of great concern so far below ground. Incandescent light- that is, light created by thermal reactions such as fire- is far more rare, and is something of an odd class signifier in the Lowcity. Among the poorest, fire is the easiest way to heat their homes, light their way, cook their food- and for the most part, they simply have to put up with the smoke and try to dig out chimneys to manage it. Among the wealthy- who can afford such things- fire is a novelty, something extravagant and conspicuous but manageable for them. Instead of flaming torches, they have light globes. Instead of communal fire pits, they have ovens. This is not a dichotomy exclusive to any one race of the several who dwell in the Lowcity; class exists in all cultures, although certainly some have more dire struggles than others, and Skitterlings in particular tend not to favour flame- not least because they can see in the dark and eat their food raw. But the wealthiest of the wealthy, those for whom the greatest extravagances are created, are almost always Lesh. And so, too, are the two “titans” currently battling to be at the top of the lighting industry.
Sioun Chister is old money, even by the standards of the Lesh. Her stake in the Lighting industry goes back generations, each new heir to the Chister fortune holding a steady hand on the wheel of a famously stable ship: The Chister Light Factory. Businesses tend not to have names in the Lowcity, instead being referred to by their product and the name of the owner; in most of the city, this is because the businesses don’t have permanent premises and are instead performed in temporary or mobile sites. But for industry on the scale of Lighting, a factory is required, and those tend to last a very long time indeed. Even by those standards, it is quite something that the Chister Light Factory has endured for so long, for more than a dozen generations of Lesh, well past the lifespan of even the most long lived Fallen. Their business is solely in the production of incandescent globes- spheres of glass which contain an ever-burning alchemical light- ever-burning here meaning that they cannot be put out, merely covered, as the globes tend to burn out after about a year, after which their fire must be renewed at the owner’s expense. They produce globes in many sizes, with varying levels of brightness, but that is all they produce: phosphor lamps are, quietly, beneath them. The secret behind this enduring success is simple: they have cornered a market that is stable, evergreen and largely lacks competition, whether by other lighting concerns or by innovators in the space. There hasn’t been any real shift in the market since long before Sioun was born, and her sixty-seven years make her rather old for a Lesh. But in recent years, that stability has been rocked ever-so-slightly by something the Chister Light Factory has not had to deal with in a long time: innovation. Another Lesh, Møll Histing, has been attracting a great deal of attention lately with his claims that his new kind of incandescent globe can burn twice as long as a Chister globe can, if not longer, using materials that cost half as much to acquire. Møll has fashioned himself as an outsider, the disruptor that the industry desperately needs to take it beyond a manufacturer of overpriced baubles for the wealthy and into something more affordable, more accessible.
So, of course, the two are at war.
The first volley is fired by Sioun- unless you count the mere existence of competition to be an act of war, which Sioun certainly does- after her analysts tell her that a recent dip in profits correlates to the arrival of Møll’s new globes on the market. She has agents sent out into the city- mostly the burly and capable Fallen, along with some imposing Umbressi- to intimidate Møll’s employees and put off those who might come to work in his factory, whose location was yet to be determined. While most labour in Lesh society is done by automata- and, indeed, this is the path which Møll intends to take his workforce, eventually- said devices require very strict programming, especially when volatile components such as those involved in the production of the Globes is involved. Their commands must be accurate and complete to the second, or everything risks coming down in a disastrous domino effect, and improvisation is well out of the question. So, suddenly, Møll finds his factory woefully understaffed as a great deal of his workforce has fled in fear of what might become of them should they stay in his employ. However, he had anticipated some level of retaliation, and so his response is swift- and, similar to Sioun’s, rather subversive. Less than a week after her plan to starve Møll’s workforce went into effect, Sioun receives word that high-quality incandescent globes have begun appearing in surprising places. The Pinfeather Hospital, an informal clinic run by Fallen monks servicing the Lowcity’s most downtrodden, suddenly has its shabby halls lit by bright balls of flame more valuable than anything else in the building. A mid-sized market mostly frequented by Grib and Umbressi now has a handful of globes illuminating the most popular stalls, as well as a smaller globe permanently installed above a small plaque dedicated to some dead Umbressi. A tavern- allegedly popular, although Sioun had never heard of it- has received an especially large globe which now hangs in the centre of the dining hall, where it acts as both a functional source of light for patrons and a novel attraction for new ones.
Before long, word of Møll’s gifts has spread all throughout the Lowcity. Such a profound act of generosity is practically unheard of, especially with such apparent disregard of both race and class. Soon, Møll globes can be spotted in poorer districts- still not many, but greater than the absence they had been before. People who had never travelled to wealthy enough areas had never known what they were missing, and now that they had a taste of something better than a sickly phosphor lamp or a hazardous open flame they wanted more. The impact of Møll’s scheme was delightful for most; frustrating, for Sioun- but she hadn’t expected to win this war in one stroke. For her follow up, she tasks a number of more subtle agents with finding Møll’s factory and learning all they can about his process, his business, his weaknesses. Simultaneously, she has her publicity team begin spreading rumours that the strange new chemical compounds that power Møll’s globes have been causing health problems in those who buy them. Those who own them have come down with… all sorts of terrible symptoms, the agents were free to come up with on their own. Consistency wasn’t important to her goal of simple, unfocused confusion and doubt: Møll’s operation had already been harmed by her initial attack on his workforce, so every scrap of profit she could cost him would cost him dearly. But soon that lack of focus proves to be an error: most among the poorer parts of the Lowcity are, reasonably, unaware that there is even a competition at play, and think of all globes as being the same. Some, perhaps, refrain from purchasing globes as a result of Sioun’s smear campaign, but others think to themselves “well, those wealthy sorts in the upper city have been using these for years and they seem fine”, and purchase globes regardless- and they are certainly not paying for Sioun’s more expensive globes in that case. But it is the impact on Sioun’s regular clientele of wealthy Lesh, Umbressi, and some particularly well-off Grib merchants which really stings. In an inversion of what is happening below, these wealthy types are unaware that a new purveyor of globes has emerged- after all, they have little need of cheaper alternatives. So when the rumour mill comes round and the chewed-up remnants of the original story about the Møll globes reaches the wealthy parts of the Lowcity, in many cases the part about this being an issue with Møll’s globes is missed. Suddenly, The Chister Light Factory is fielding questions from both journalists and concerned customers about the supposed health concerns- which they themselves invented. By the time the whole situation is sorted out, Sioun’s company has lost a great deal- and nobody can even tell Sioun if Møll’s has lost anything at all.
Sioun is, by this point, absolutely furious. Private or not, she finds this whole matter to be utterly humiliating, without even counting the money she’s lost in the process. She has never met Møll, nor even spoken to him directly, but she now considers him to be her nemesis and it feels as though he has batted away her every attempt to destroy him with casual ease. But then, she receives word from the agents she sent to infiltrate Møll’s factory. And their report changes everything.
Most factories in the Lowcity are built relatively close to the surface, so that they can pump exhaust and other waste to the already-ruined surface with relative ease. This is part of the reason why so much of the industry in the city has calcified to such an extent: real estate in the more ideal locations has long-since been snatched up. Competition is bound to be scarce when new players can scarcely get a foothold, and yet Møll has managed to do the impossible and get a factory in working order. And now, Sioun’s agents reveal to her how he has managed this: Møll has not built his factory in the sought-after upper levels of the Lowcity. In yet another display of the subversive streak which has thus far served him well, Møll’s factory is located well below the near-surface layer where all other factories can be found. In fact, it is located below the Lowcity itself, buried in the bedrock where few others bother to dig. Its exhaust system is admirably efficient to make up for the distance it must transport the factory’s waste, but it has a tall task and little room for error. But that is not all that Sioun’s agents report to her, nor is it the most significant flaw in the operation of Møll’s factory. While they had known that the attack on Møll’s workforce had been effective, without knowledge of the factory itself they had been unaware of just how severe the impact had been. But Sioun’s agents had seen the factory floor where the upstart’s globes were being made, had seen the workers who still staffed his workshop. And, to the surprise of all, they were not “workers” at all: they were automata. The same eight-legged copper contraptions that many Lesh use for a variety of purposes are at this very moment working away in the Møll Light Factory on the new kind of globes that will- so Møll hopes- make his fortune, and destroy Sioun’s. As previously mentioned, while Automata are more than useful they are brittle in their programming, prohibitively specific in what they can do safely and consistently. For all of the money Sioun has put into research and development, her own factory does not make use of Automata for anything but cleaning and maintenance- and even then, they are forbidden from accessing the areas where the globes are made and the chemicals are kept. The ways of Lesh alchemy are too volatile, too unpredictable, for any Automata yet created to safely handle. Things can shift in an instant and require quick thinking and reaction times to navigate- neither of which are the specialty of Automata.
For a moment, as her agents describe to her the sight of a factory floor filled with Automata working away at the chemicals and glassware that are to become Møll’s wares, Sioun is speechless: her rival, this nobody who has managed to black her eye without effort, has somehow created Automata more advanced than any she has ever seen. Impossible, and yet… The increase in efficiency would be far greater than she could ever hope to achieve with her workforce. This was calamitous! Then, her agents reached the part of their tale where one of the automata had slipped with a beaker, and in an instant erupted into a ball of fire- to which it reacted not at all, instead pouring the flaming mixture into a container of other chemicals which had exploded into bright yellow and green flames of their own. At this point a handful of living staff- some of the very few the agents had encountered- rushed over with extinguishing devices and the incident was over as quickly as it started. But the meaning is clear: Møll has not discovered some secret to a new and improved Automata. He has just become so desperate that he is willing to use dangerous, inferior labour in his factory. And here, as Sioun is about to exclaim with delight at this development, her agents reveal the icing on the chemical cake: they saw all of this- the factory, the automata, the incident- not by the light of the incandescent globes that are Møll’s product, but by the light of phosphor lamps, in brackets on the walls. The globes that Møll distributed so generously to the less-fortunate of the Lowcity were not excess stock he could afford to give away: they were globes from his own factory, the light by which his labourers ought to be working. In order to give his business the possibility of a future, Møll has gambled the short term efficacy of his factory on the idea that good word-of-mouth will benefit him in the long run. Sioun almost respects the reckless greed of the manoeuvre. Almost. She spends many hours with her advisors, attempting to determine if Møll’s ploy can work, whether he will be able to wrangle this situation into a success. Some argue that, with all they have learned, they can safely assume that the threat posed by Møll was all bluster: his business is in no position to ever threaten theirs, even if everything works out precisely as Møll hopes it will. Most likely it is a threat that will… sort itself out, before too long. Perhaps, Sioun could even take advantage of her rival’s vulnerable state and buy his alchemical secrets away from him, or even hire him to work in her factory.
But Sioun is unmoved by these rationalisations, these suggestions. The Chister Light Factory has not survived for as many generations as it has by taking chances, by reaching for innovation and by doing so exposing their vulnerable underbelly. Perhaps negotiation with Møll would, in fact, lead to greater profit and prosperity for the company. But it is not in Sioun’s nature to deal in “perhaps”.
There has been a terrible accident deep in the lowcity. The ground beneath residents’ feet and above their heads shook terribly, bringing back unpleasant memories of the quake that had struck some months ago. But they subsided quickly, and the Umbressi in charge of monitoring such things quickly determined there was no quake: there has been an explosion. In the days that follow, word spreads that some off-the-grid factory was the source, that they had worked in some unsafe manner that had led to catastrophe. Inadequate ventilation led to a buildup of gas, then all it took was one spark- or something like that. Some hear that it was the factory of the eccentric Lesh who been handing out fancy glass lights, and most say that that sounds about right: crazy enough to give his expensive product away, of course he was crazy enough to get himself blown up. Some previous employees comment that they were lucky they quit when they did, and few give it any more thought than that. Just some silly high-stakes games being played with lives as the playing pieces: so typical of the Lesh. And life moves on.
But still, in the halls of a shabby little hospital, and in a tavern where friends meet after a hard day’s work, and above the memorial for a brave old Umbressi, the little globes made in Møll’s factory burn on and on. Before long, the eccentric circumstances under which they were acquired fades from memory, but the light itself shines on. A few more bright spots, battling on and on against the darkness that always encroaches, always attempts to engulf the fragile flame of the Lowcity.