0042 – Cap: Step Up, Part 2

Cap and Button had been waiting for some time now. F’Knah should have been back long ago. It wasn’t strictly necessary for Cap to be left with a guard – after all, he was in a cell with a perfectly functional lock – but Button felt sympathy for the boy, and wanted to keep him company.

They had gone over Cap’s story in considerable detail, and Button had reassured him that F’Knah would find nothing untoward about it. The boy was, after all, innocent.

This fact had been established some time ago now, and since then, the two had sat uncomfortably in silence.

Finally, Cap asked a question.

“Why do you speak like I do, and he doesn’t?”

“Because of where we’re from.” Button answered. “F’Knah is a Regulan, they speak English there. I’m from Sita, so I speak Agarthan, just like you.”

“Agarthan.” Cap rolled the syllables around on his tongue. He’d never heard the word before, even though it was the name of the language which had been, until very recently, the only one he had ever heard.

Button chuckled. “You Shrouders are really isolated, aren’t you?”

Cap had been in here for weeks now. He’d had more than enough time to formulate some nascent theories on the existence of race. That said, his understanding of just how substantially the outsiders’ anatomy differed from his own had been rather hampered by the fact that he still hadn’t seen one without half their face covered by a breather. This had led him to the erroneous conclusion that the occupying soldiers simply had different coloured skin and hair, although their strange masks kept him guessing.

“Shrouder is… your word for us, right?” Cap asked.

“Right.” Button confirmed. “People who live in the Shroud, this whole area full of mushrooms, with the spore cloud. Everyone who lives in here, not just your village, but beyond it too.”

“There are places that don’t have the spores?” Cap was clearly trying to imagine this. It was more or less impossible.

“Boy, why do you think I’m wearing this?” Button motioned to his breather. “The cloud kills anyone who isn’t a Shrouder.”

Cap tried to wrap his mind around this. “You mean… if you took that mask off… you’d die?

Button nodded. “Extremely painfully. I’d have lungs full of little mushrooms.”

Even Cap, a ten year old boy raised in a tiny hamlet with virtually no access to education, could see the potential flaw in sending in an army who could effectively be disabled with one good blow to the face.

“I see.” Cap stated, keeping his realisation to himself.

Button thought for a moment, then hazarded a question of his own. “You do know that you’re in Agartha, right? Technically.”

“What’s Agartha, then?” Cap asked.

What followed was a fairly intense crash course in subterranean geography. The Shroud, while decidedly on the continent of Agartha, was only on the extreme edge of the territory claimed by Agartha, the nation named after the city of Agartha. The unoriginal naming scheme made the explanation more confusing than strictly necessary.

“So Regula is the next country over?”

“It is now.” There was resentment in Button’s voice as he answered. “Now that Regula has taken Sita.”

“The place where you’re from?”

“Yes. We were a very small nation, part of Agartha – the country – in the cultural sense, but not the political. We were an easy target for the Regulans.”

“But you’re a Regulan now.” Cap pointed out. “Why did you join them if they did this to your home, too?”

“Citizenship. Conquered people are subjects of Regula, but not Regulan citizens. They don’t have an awful lot of rights.”

“But by joining the army, you can become a citizen?” Cap only half understood the word. The people of Dark Hollow hadn’t even seen paperwork until the Regulan invasion.

“That’s right. Twenty-five years service, and I’m a Regulan.” The bitterness in his tone was undisguised. “You can’t own land, or vote, or do lots of things unless you’re a citizen.”

“So….” Cap reasoned this through. “You lost your home?”

Button was silent. Through the mask, his eyes said it all.

Cap tried to imagine how that would feel. To grow up in a Dark Hollow in which he, who had lived here all his life, was treated like a lesser person. To have the house he shared with his mother, their little plot of land, their little garden, Clod’s old pen, all of it, taken away from them. To scrape and get by until he came of age, to join the Regulan army. To fight, to march, to risk death, to wear that black uniform, to march under that black banner, for twenty-five years.

He would be forty, he realised. Forty years old, by the time he had the power to take back their family home.

Assuming he could judge Button’s age the same way he might judge a Shrouder’s, the man could not have been younger than thirty-five.

“When was all this?” Cap asked, dreading the answer.

“Five years ago.” Button replied.

He would be well into his fifties before he saw his home again, assuming he survived.

“Am I going to have to join?” Cap asked. He couldn’t meet the man’s eyes anymore.

“No, not even when you’re old enough.” Button reassured him. “But most young men do. It’s the only way to get on in Regula.”

Enough. Cap spoke on instinct.

“I’ll never join.” He said. “I’ll never do it. I’ll find another way to get our house, our little garden, our village back.”

Button looked down at his hands. “I felt the same way.” He told the boy. “Sita is important to me. It’s my home. But all I achieved in dallying was to delay my citizenship. I only joined three years ago, lad.”

In that moment, Cap became resolute.

He would get out. He would find his sister. He would save his mother, his village, and if the boy was still alive, he’d save Grazer too.

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