By CS Miller
Copyright 2016 CS Miller
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The End as the Beginning
A brilliant mauve sky arced overhead, hemmed in at the bottom by a distant circle of gleaming creamy colonnades. An afternoon-thin crescent moon reclined lazily not far from the blinding golden sun, and the gentle crunch of feet on distant gravel paths punctuated the warm soft air like shallow breaths. A wisp of a breeze fluttered here and there and from somewhere indistinguishable, water trickled and chuckled happily.
Under the vivid loft an equally piercing green garden of perfectly-short and achingly delicate grass stretched for at least ten minutes’ walk in all directions. It was dotted with bushes and trees and criss-crossed by several white stone paths that converged on a wide circular path around the very centre of the lawn. The plain grassy area inside this circle was pinned at its centre by a smooth white stone dais, which emerged from the soft lawn exactly like the bottom end of a tall, thin cone that had been stuck into the ground by its sharp end.
The flat top of the dais was waist-high and wide enough that two people together could not quite join hands around it. Into the flat top was carved a deep semicircular depression, like a bowl, that was immaculately clean and starkly empty.
Just next to it, in a long-worn depression in the earth, sat a bright white and similarly smooth stone ball, just as pristine and gleaming in the bright sunshine like a star that had shrunk and fallen to the ground.
A step or two away from both pieces and equally distant from each knelt an old woman with a deeply bronzed and wrinkled face, her deep green eyes looking with an amused glint between the two objects. She was wearing a pale brown cleric’s robe as innocuous as it was shapeless, but the long curly silver hair draped carelessly over her shoulder was not a particularly clerical look.
She was humming quietly as if to herself, her voice smoother and fuller than might be expected given her age, and the amusement in her gaze turned to concentration. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and reached out with both hands towards the large stone ball, moving her fingers as if trying to find weak points in an invisible barrier between her face and the white sphere on the ground.
The air around her shimmered in response to her song and an iridescent sheen reached out from her hands and face and covered the ball, seeming to surround it even through the ground beneath. Her voice rose louder and her simple hum became syllables; bold, brash syllables with consonants that shook her and vowels that made everything blur at the edges.
The coruscating aura she was creating flashed and flowed with her dissonant and seemingly random song, and her brow creased with a well-worn frown of effort. She added more syllables to the pattern she was singing and made her voice louder again. The emanation responded dramatically, showering sparks of what looked like liquid light that sprayed out and was immediately sucked back. It seemed to be boiling in every direction but just about holding itself together, and a sickly-sweet smell began filling the immediate vicinity.
The ball shook gently, and lifted off the grass it was sitting on, showing a shallow black depression of bare earth beneath. It rose tremblingly and almost imperceptibly, but directly upwards till the aura surrounding it became fully visible underneath as well.
Flashes of red. black and purple began to suffuse the glow that surrounded her and her look of extreme concentration suddenly became a surprised grimace of pain; her nose was wrinkling and her closed eyes were clenching tight. Blood seeped from the corners of her eyes, her mouth twisted and contorted and then fell open as she cried out, and the sheen of flickering light covering both her and the ball appeared to flicker, then burst like a bubble.
Evanescent, fading droplets of light exploded in all directions, quickly curving back and splashing insubstantially onto the woman’s robes and skin, leaving no marks. The stone fell instantly back into its little hole and the thud of its landing could be felt all the way to the edges of the wide cloistered lawn. Heads turned, looking for the source of the thump, but only two people looked the right way quickly enough to see the old lady pitch forward and land, first on her own limp arms and then on her slack, lifeless face.
Her head bounced on the lawn, and then she was still, blood like tears already drying on her cheeks. From her robe slipped an oddly dull black pendant on a shiny black chain that she’d been wearing. Hardly visible in the sunshine, the aenimus which flowed from her still body was drawn to the pendant, and quickly disappeared into it, but her face looked somehow relieved, less aged than it had a few moments before.
The two who saw her fall reached her only a few seconds later. Both also wore pale brown, shapeless robes and both were dark skinned with cropped black hair. The man was tall and thin and his shimmering blue eyes were full of alarm; the woman was shorter but just as slender and she was wearing an oily-glistening metal circlet around her head. Her green opalescent eyes showed concern and as she reached the prone woman she knelt by her head and placed both hands gently and carefully on the woman’s neck to feel for a pulse.
At first, she didn’t notice the pendant, but at one point her fingers brushed the stone and her whole body seemed to flicker in the daylight. She gasped and jumped up, frowning, and frowned to the man intensely, pointing at the black object that was now lying on the ground under the prone woman’s chin.
‘‘What’s that?’‘ she breathed, shocked.
The man squinted to where she was pointing and shrugged. Then he knelt quickly down and reached for the pendant, hooking the chain with a finger. He shook his head. ‘‘Ugly piece of jewellery, and it .. it feels odd. It makes my eyes swim to look at it…’‘
He reached down to push the object back into the woman’s robe, then he pushed her over onto her back, straightening her legs and laying her arms flat beside her. He stood up again and shook his head sadly. ‘‘She’s definitely gone, hasn’t she.’‘
The woman nodded slowly, and knelt down herself, to hold the woman’s head for a few seconds with the balls of her thumbs in the eyes and her hands down each side of the face for an extended moment’s silence. She chanted a short and simple song, but stopped suddenly and frowned, standing back up as though something was bothering her.
‘‘She’s gone – every bit of her. Already. Very strange.’‘ She shook her head, sighing, and added, ‘‘Her name was Saiyali, wasn’t it?’‘
The man shrugged. ‘‘I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve seen her here every day for as long as I can remember but .. I’ve never spoken to her…’‘ he tailed off, feeling a deep and primal guilt that the closest he’d ever got to this person was checking if she was dead.
‘‘I didn’t know her well, either’‘ the woman replied sombrely. ‘‘I’ve seen her here before too, though – staring at these things for hours. What was that shock, that boom? Was that her?’‘
By this time a few more people had arrived, drawn having finally seen the figure lying on the ground and the two standing over her.
One man with earth-dark skin, not quite middle-aged but with short greying hair and violet eyes that glistened with a golden sheen, gasped and crouched down by Saiyali’s head, picking it up kindly and stroking her forehead with a shaking finger.
‘‘Saiyali! Oh my dear, what have you done?’‘ he sobbed, as tears began to trickle down his face and drip onto the dead woman’s, coursing randomly through the few wrinkles that remained on her sagging cheeks and dissolving some of the blood there.
‘‘You know her, Min’Ombeitra?’‘ asked the woman with the circlet, who had first discovered she was dead.
The grief-stricken man nodded, which caused a dripping flurry of tears. He self-consciously reached up with one arm to wipe his face with a sleeve of his robe, which was dark green and finer than the kind of pale brown robe which the dead woman was wearing.
‘‘Her name’s .. was .. Saiyali. She’s a Noviate here – but she should be a paragon! Should’ve been, ah—’‘ He broke off with a sad shake of his head, then went on, ‘‘She’s my friend. Was. Oh .. my dear…’‘ He waved a hand towards the pair of gleaming white stones that sat impassively next to him.
The circleted woman looked quizzical and asked rather officiously, ‘‘What was she doing here? Was she studying the Proving?’‘
Ombeitra shook his head, and sniffed, rubbing his eyes and clearing his throat. ‘‘She was registered at my library, Ma’Kerishni; Central Library of the Ancients’‘ Kerishni nodded understandingly, and Ombeitra went on, ‘‘She was quite convinced she could .. persuade—’‘ he sighed, ‘’—she was sure she could persuade it up, and into the bowl.’‘
There were a few others gathered now, who’d noticed what was happening and walked over. They were listening attentively as the man in green went on speaking, and as he did so he absently stroked Saiyali’s silver hair as if consoling a friend in despair or a sick child. ‘‘I kept telling her, it didn’t matter what aenimus she could make, a ball of rock still weighs what it weighs! Oh my dear old friend, perhaps you weren’t so wrong after all—’‘ His voice broke off sadly, and he growled impotently, clenching his eyes shut. Now the onlookers began to fidget and look down uncomfortably, realising that they weren’t going to share his grief because they really didn’t know this woman who had died, except in passing.
The circleted woman nodded understandingly and asked, ‘‘Is there anything I can do, Ombeitra?’‘
The man in green shook his head weakly and answered, ‘‘Only one thing, Ma’Kerishni – would you ask the Ground keepers to come and help me take her to her apartment?’‘
Kerishni nodded, ‘‘I will. I’ll do it right now, and…’‘ she glanced about pointedly at the other people standing there and nodded inclusively, ‘’…and I think we might all leave Min’Ombeitra in peace and quiet?’‘
There were nods of relieved assent and the small crowd dispersed in silence; Ombeitra barely noticed them leave. He’d already begun gently humming and recalling to mind what Saiyali had revealed about herself over the years – as well as what he’d learned elsewhere about her. The process of song-making would take him several days, but Ombeitra had known her for most of his life and was determined to do her proper justice at her Last Dedication.
However, long before Ombeitra had a chance to sing Saiyali’s song and tell the world one last time who she was, word of her death began spreading quickly; quite apart from anything else, people didn’t die in the Proving Ground every day. A rumour grew that she had in fact lifted the Ball off the ground with her own aenimus alone, and that she’d done it by using a voidstone, and as her family name Nashivaar emerged, rumours were whispered that she had even been a Shadow Sister. Others claimed she’d been an undercover lightworker for years, but nobody ever produced any proof of either claim and the gossips went unsatisfied.
She was certainly dead though, and there was nobody to answer for her; her entire family was already extinct. The Nashivaar family that she had – for so long unknown and unsuspected – once belonged to, had been one of the first targets of the lightworkers when they’d exploded in Obsidian City. They’d been dealt with swiftly and thoroughly at the very start of The Cleansing – of the city’s ancient and embedded corruption and decadence. What happened to them, later happened to thousands of others from dozens of clans – and at times the city’s streets literally ran with the blood of Great Families and their supporters.
It appeared – perhaps because of her adoption of a new family name, Ngyakiya – that she’d been absent from the wrong lists at the right time; later, when things had calmed down somewhat she’d left the city quietly and travelled to Holy City, to take up study at the Central Library of the Ancients. She’d registered and lived under her Marathy name Saiyali Ambon and for thirty years kept herself to herself and devoted her time to reading and research.
And it was as Saiyali Ambon that she was cremated three days later, her ashes according to tradition scattered in the wide Tzomzi river.
The Last Dedication was packed out with curious onlookers, and there was no way of telling who was a friend and who had simply heard one rumour or other. Min’Ombeitra performed the dedications, lit the fire and sang the songs, but he only recognized one or two people. It was clear that many were there merely with a breathless sense that Someone Important had gone and they had nearly missed it.
Ombeitra looked over the crowd of strangers gathered at the Last Gate, as the long cremation beach was known, and shrugged to himself, shaking his head disappointedly. Just gossips and blatherers, making sure the last Nashivaar is really dead…
 Finders Keepers
A low silvery sun glinted upon the waves that lapped the end of a tall stone jetty that curved into the sea like a graceful protective hand, and the reeks of seaweed and distant fish mixed with those of tar and salty wood on the chilly morning breeze. Hundreds of birds wheeled and cried overhead, and the sound echoed absently from the sheer faces of the dark imposing cliffs that towered high over the entrance to the western reach of the Bay of Jewels.
The sea was a cold green-grey in the barely-woken day; the sky was not yet bright enough to blue the water and the dark and mighty cliffs that reached up to block the southern horizon completely, always seemed to lend extra gloom to the sea whatever mood it was in. Dark and windswept was how many would describe Jade City; Forbidding, it had often been called; striking, perhaps – but never, not in its whole long history, had it been described in any written records as beautiful.
Above the cold, unwelcoming water rose large broken black boulders in spreading piles, at the feet of the craggy heights which leapt steeply and jaggedly upwards like a curse from the earth at the sky. The very easternmost peak was the western Pillar of The Gods, one of a pair of soaring, unscalable pinnacles of rock that rose high above the strait between them, whose name had long outlasted the gods they’d been named for.
Below the rugged mountains just inside the Western curve of the Bay, nestled under a huge rocky overhang a long, tall and deep cave that opened directly over the sea and spread westwards into the steep and rugged hills buttressing the high precipices above. The Bay itself curved away northwards and the hills undulated dramatically westwards; a well-maintained road ran above the shoreline at the base of the hills for as far as the eye could see.
Inside the gaping cavern and clinging on to the steep hillshides for some distance outside it, lay Jade City. It was said to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city anywhere, and while the name Jade City was relatively new – only appearing with the construction of the Jade Keep some 3000 years before – there had been a settlement in the cave system under these peaks for as long as anybody could tell. Even in the oldest stories, legends and myths, the cavern where Jade City now clung above the dark inhospitable water appeared repeatedly and was treated as somewhere antique and important, even by the ancients themselves.
The jetty was the easternmost piece of city construction and it protected the city’s so-called Underdock from the worst of the winds and waves that blew in through the straits. At its seaward end was a squat podium where a wide, bright blue gas flame burned in a polished glass ball, as a guide for anyone entering or leaving the port.
In fog, callers would shout through the clouds using special horns to warn boat pilots away but here, surrounded by mountainous precipices and so close to the open ocean, nothing tended to stay still in the air for long and fogs thick enough to be a danger were rare.
This morning, a solitary figure was standing at the end of the jetty watching a large ship with striking red and black sails heaving to against the wind and preparing to berth. Whoever it was had a long, dark red cape wrapped around against the early chill, but as the figure turned to follow the progress of the ship a second person, a man, could be seen walking purposefully along the jetty.
The figure at the end pulled its hood down to reveal a young woman’s broad face. Her dark-skinned head was covered in close-cropped hair that was dyed dark gold in several lines running gracefully front-to-back, and she wore a number of red-jewelled studs along the length of both ears. Her quick black eyes glimmered dark blue and she smiled with respect and pleasure as the man strode towards her, his face lighting up in its turn as he approached.
His eyes were shimmering with the same dark blue, his face was wrinkled but as broad and dark as hers, and he had a neatly trimmed and plaited beard and moustache. His hair was piled up and wrapped in a headscarf of the same dark green as the cloak that flicked and tossed behind him as he strode.
The woman spoke first, almost laughing the words out. ‘‘Uncle! Here you are!’‘
He held up his arms in a sincere but distant embrace, and hurried the last few steps to make it into a real one. As they parted he answered kindly, a glint in his eye and a smile of genuine happiness on his handsome and well-groomed face, ‘‘Suriya my dear, I’m delighted! You did come!’‘
She frowned, shrugged her arms up and grunted an annoyed little moan. ‘‘Huh! I’m pleased you’re actually here too, Uncle Benessi – I really thought it was a joke! What in all the seas and skies possessed you to want to meet out here?’‘
A gust of wind brought shouts from the distant ship as crew yelled instructions to each other as a burst of birds’ cries swept overhead and away again. Both the people standing on the jetty looked around once again as if checking they were still alone.
Benessi grinned and held out both arms dramatically. His long, baggy sleeves flapped in the breeze and he chuckled, ‘‘Whom can you see here with us, my beloved niece?’‘
Suriya looked around melodramatically at the vast expanses of rippling water and cloud-flecked turqouise sky, and up across the towering dark walls of the cliffs above. ‘‘Don’t be silly, uncle – there’s nobody here except for us!’‘
He nodded with satisfaction and answered matter-of-factly, ‘‘Exactly’‘, as if this were explanation enough.
It wasn’t; Suriya shook her head and snorted, ‘‘But why, Uncle? This is the Jade Keep – surely there’s a room somewhere in there that would be good to talk in! It’s the safest place in the world, and everybody knows it!’‘
Benessi nodded in frank agreement. ‘‘Yes – for keeping things in, there’s nowhere safer – nor will there ever be, I suspect. But storing things isn’t the same as talking! If there are ears to hear or eyes to watch, they can use them to listen, to monitor, to spy .. believe me…’‘ he tailed off, glancing about once again as if to make sure he really was at the end of the Jetty Wall and there really was nobody listening.
He shook his head sadly and reiterated, ‘‘Any ears, any eyes…’‘
Suriya frowned, genuine concern in her eyes. ‘‘Who? Who can listen with any ears? Are you alright, Uncle Bene?’‘
Benessi’s headshake intensified, and he looked annoyed for a moment. ‘‘I’m fine, girl! It’s the Spirits! They can hear us—’‘
Suriya was shaking her head sceptically and she made an irritated tsk tsk, ‘‘Uncle, stop it – you brought me out here first thing in the morning for this?’‘
Benessi was shaking his own head and holding up both hands in a gesture of conciliation. ‘‘I’m sorry .. sorry. I just .. I need to make sure that nobody hears what I have to tell you now—’‘ He paused and raised a brow to her questioningly.
A look of surprise appeared on Suriya’s face. ‘‘Secrets, Uncle? Really now!’‘ The surprise dissolved into a delighted grin, and for a moment she looked less like the half asleep and slightly annoyed woman she was, than an excited little girl.
He chuckled, amused and charmed by her glee, and nodded. ‘‘Yes, Suriya, secrets! So let me finish before you make any assumptions! This might seem like a job anybody could do, but it is most certainly not – it requires somebody who knows how to present documents and speak to Counsellors—’‘ he raised a brow meaningfully, ‘’—but more than that it must be somebody I completely trust. Which means you’re the only person I can ask.’‘ He smiled a helpless smile, and shrugged.
Suriya chuckled and nodded with interest, listening carefully now as he went on as quietly as he could with occasional gusts blowing his words here and there. ‘‘News came last night that a woman has recently died in Holy City; a woman who had something belonging to our family; a stone. I want you to go there and bring it here, where it’ll be safe!’‘
Suriya’s eyes narrowed and she regarded him with concerned curiosity. ‘‘A stone?’‘
Benessi nodded. ‘‘A stone. Stolen from our family a long time ago. It belongs here.’‘
Suriya raised a sceptical brow, ‘‘Now Uncle – be honest. Is this legal? I’ve told you before, I have my licences to consider, I can’t get caught up in anything .. dubious!’‘
Benessi laughed and shook his head, ‘‘Suriya, please! The paperwork is immaculate—’‘ Suriya frowned at him but said nothing as he went on, ‘’—and it will all be completely legal – I promise you.’‘
He was looking right into her eyes and she didn’t sense duplicity – though she did sense that something wasn’t right. She sighed and said, ‘‘Very well – what is it you want me to do?’
Benessi nodded and smiled confidentially. ‘‘Suriya, what do you know about voidstones?’‘
[ * ]
From a window high in one of the Seaward apartment stands that looked directly down over the Underdock, a pair of dark green eyes stared fixedly out along the Jetty Wall at the pair deep in conversation there, and narrowed in concentration.
The glass in the long, narrow windows cut out all sound and smell, and the scene far below – ship and dock crews shouting, birds shrieking, workshops scorching, melting, smoking, hammering, creaking, hissing and rattling – could be seen quite clearly, but it was accompanied by the crackle and sour reek of a newly-lit peat fire and a soft thump of a book being placed gently on a table. A woman’s voice sighed impatiently.
The young man at the window frowned, twisting his mouth doubtfully. His skin was the colour of dark wood, he was wearing a long indigo servants’ shirt and simple black trousers, and on his feet he wore soft black slippers that shimmered a little in the shadow under the windowsill.
What do you think they’re talking about down there, Ma’Hanne?’‘ he asked, attempting a casual tone but not fooling the woman sitting behind him, who was looking over at him with a slightly irritated expression on her face.
She was also dressed in indigo, but she wore instead a robe fastened at the ankles, and black slippers similar to the young man’s. She had a large, iridescent gold stud in one side of her nose, and several gold rings down each ear. She was bald, and intricate golden spiral tattoos of many shapes and sizes were interwoven across her head, neck and face, accenting every feature strikingly and continuing inside her robes.
Her skin was very dark, a noble blue-black, but it was smooth, waxy and without pores. As she spoke, the surface of her face stretched to allow her mouth to open, smile, call out – her forehead might crease in a frown – but in the end, at rest, it always returned to perfect smoothness, like the glossy, waxy face of a doll.
Her eyes were white and they had a soft internal glow but no colour or iridescence. She was smirking and as she spoke, her highborn accent made her sound naturally sarcastic. ‘‘Who, Semek? The deck hands and dockers?’‘ She thought to herself, Now he’s got my attention, let’s see how long he can keep it…
The young man shook his head and frowned, sure he should know better by now but replying in exasperation, ‘‘No, Ma’Hanne – Benessi Selenke and his niece the lawyer. You have seen them all the way out there, haven’t you? Talking together in full view, but where nobody can actually hear them.’‘ He snorted derisively and added, ‘‘he wants everyone to know he’s up to something!’‘
Hanne chuckled, ‘‘Semek, of course he’s up to something! This is Jade City – everybody here is up to something!’‘ She began laughing, ‘‘It wouldn’t even exist if people weren’t up to something, now would it? Look at us – hanging onto a cliff over the ocean, looking at the most boring view in the Empire, where everything costs a fortune because almost nothing grows here? Who would even stay here, if they weren’t up to something?’‘
Semek looked hurt, but Hanne was enjoying herself. ‘‘This place will take anyone who can bring in money, these days – they can’t afford to ask questions because if the cashflow dried up, everyone’d starve!
Semek shook his head thoughtfully. ‘‘They used to grow a lot of food here, they used to farm fish too. I read that in your old Jade Trades manual.
She shrugged dismissively. ‘‘Jade Trades indeed. Nothing like fish farming now, eh?’‘ she was grinning conspiratorially. ‘‘Like them – Benessi and his niece there .. they’re probably just fishing for something.’‘ She waved a hand, and added, ‘‘But whatever it is, if they’re talking about it out there where the whole city can see them, I wouldn’t expect it to be something they’ll actually do here. I think they’d be a bit more private about it, if that were the plan…’‘
‘‘Well .. that was my question, I suppose.’‘ Said Semek a little defensively. ‘‘What do you think they’re actually planning?’‘
Hanne frowned and made a thoughtful Hmm, answering, ‘‘I’m tempted to say who cares – but I shan’t scorn you any more this morning; I don’t want to spoil you for later…’‘ she winked at him. ‘‘so I think instead I’ll ask you what you think they’re planning to do – since it’s clearly playing so strongly on your mind…’‘
Semek shrugged, looked down thoughtfully, then nodded and looked at Hanne, quickly glancing out of the window as if to make sure the distant, glass-muted conspirators couldn’t hear him speaking. ‘‘I think he’s going to send her to Obsidian City to speak to lightworkers. She’s a known sympathiser, that niece of his. I think he’s going to try and make a deal with them. What, water? Maybe mining rights? Who knows. Lots of families have started doing it recently.’‘
Hanne chuckled. ‘‘Obsidian City eh? Have they finally stopped killing people, then?’‘ Semek shrugged as she added, ‘‘No way would Benessi Selenke risk sending any of his family there; they’re still at the top of the Lightworker’s love lists. Anyway, I from all reports things are still the same there – lightworkers still clamping down on everything and enforcing their new dedications, most people just trying to keep life normal despite the restrictions. Everybody afraid to form new Connectives because they keep getting sanctioned for promoting elitism or negativity. Not a Selenke’s ideal scenario.’‘
Semek nodded in agreement. ‘‘Fine, then – She’s being sent to Gold City. Not hard to work out what she’d be doing there, at least. What everybody does there – buy gold.’‘
Hanne frowned and shook her head. ‘‘In that case, why send his favourite lawyer? Anybody could go and do that, wouldn’t you say? Also, it’s common knowledge that he sends a coach there every week – so why have a clandestine meeting about it first thing in the morning?’‘
Semek laughed, ‘‘All true – so perhaps he’s embarked on a new venture with them, or he wants to change a deal he’s got with somebody there.’‘
Hanne shrugged and answered, ‘‘Well yes, that’s all very plausible – but hardly the stuff of intrigue. We might as well imagine that she’s going to Ruby City, or Opal City – but in the same way, why? It would need to be fantastically dull, since there’s nothing important he could need from them or anyone in them. All the treasures in the Bay of Jewels are already here in Jade City – and he already has the keys to them!’‘
Semek chuckled back, nodding in agreement as he glanced back out of the window. ‘‘Then perhaps he’s going to send her to Holy City for some reason. But do you have any idea why he’d do that? What would Benessi Selenke want there? He’s no fan of the Great Endeavour and its taxes – and I don’t even remember the last time there was an Empirial Visit to Jade City.’‘ He snorted sardonically and added, ‘‘In fact he’d probably even take us out of the Empire, if he thought he could manage it.’‘
Hanne nodded slowly her head and replied, ‘‘Indeed. But perhaps he does have business there – or, perhaps you were on the right track when you suggested he might want to begin talking to the lightworkers. On reflection, that doesn’t seem as unlikely as I first thought. It would serve Jade City very well indeed to be fully connected once again with Obsidian City…’‘
Her voice tailed off and she nodded for a while longer, a thoughtful frown creasing her perfect face just a little. Then it was gone, her eyes refocussed and she regarded Semek with a stern, questioning expression. ‘‘Now, enough blathering and on with something important. Is there any news about any of the dig sites?’‘
[ * ]
Suriya stared from the glazed windows of her express coach and watched the hills roll distantly and dramatically by. Her stomach growled and she sighed. She’d left the city without even eating breakfast and by this time in the afternoon she was beginning to feel properly hungry; it was reaching the point of being more than a niggling annoyance in her belly and she was planning how to get hold of something to eat when they next changed runners.
She knew it would take a few minutes to unstrap and re-strap them from the yokes of the coach, and the whole action would happen at one of the roadhouses. She’d been too deep in reading and thought to notice how many they’d passed so far and she didn’t remember if the runners had already changed. In any case, next time she wanted to notice. If she told them to wait while she ate, they would – but she hoped she’d be able to find something she could bring back and eat as they travelled.
The leather folder of papers she’d been given included a set of notes on the voidstone that had been condensed from a number of original sources, and she was finding it extremely interesting.
The stone was held by a pendant of black metal shaped like a hand, that had apparently originated in Jade City – though where the stone itself came from was shrouded in obscurity. Some people claimed they came from Marathy, but Suriya knew from her own studies of that strange and backward land, that voidstones were almost certainly not from anywhere in Marathy.
Ultimately, Marash was the more likely origin – but even though this idea was supported by one or two sources, they were still only mythological and therefore open to question. Indeed, very little about them was known for certain; even the material of the stone was unclassified – it was simply referred to as voidstone wherever it was mentioned – and although it was said to be very powerful, the exact nature of the power remained a mystery.
From what Suriya read in the folder, the available information on the stuff – rather like information on Marash itself – seemed to amount to not much more than speculation.
The stone had at one time been mounted in the Rod of Office of the Caretaker of the City – all three of the Bay Cities once had Caretakers who also held such a symbol of office. One by one they had disappeared – assumed stolen. One was rumoured to be in the possession of the Sisterhood of Shadows, another was rumoured to be held at the Empirial Inner Shrine. Nothing certain was known about any of them – but now, suddenly, this one had appeared in the Worldly Possessions of an old woman named Saiyali, of the Nashivaari of Obsidian City – a family closely-linked to prominent families of the Lenkesi over many generations.
Though its current whereabouts were unknown for sure, it wasn’t hard to guess that since the woman had no family – the Nashivaari had been completely extinguished in the lightworkers’ Cleansing long before Suriya had even been born – this Saiyali woman’s Worldy Posessions would likely be held by the Law Counsel, pending their assessments of her property and papers.
Except that the woman now did have some family; at least, for the purposes of her property. While it was being held by the Law Counsel, anybody able to present legitimate proof that any of the deceased’s possessions belonged to them could do so. If the proof was acceptable, the property would be turned over to them.
The other, thicker bundle of papers Suriya had with her not only listed and ratified a whole history of partnerships and legal bonds between the Nashivaar and Selenke families, but also proved that this item had in fact been the official property of the Caretaker of Jade City. It also documented in detail that the last real Caretaker had been Aralla Yelenke and that after the Empire’s Foundation, the stone had become property of the Jade Citadel. As the senior member of the Lenkesi and Jade Citadel’s Chief Counsellor of Keys, Benessi Selenke claimed legal and ancestral rights to keep the voidstone.
Everything was properly and correctly stamped, signed and sealed where necessary by what appeared to be several of the most powerful matriarchs and patriarchs in the Bay cities, and the claim was underwritten by a list of clerics so long that Suriya didn’t even bother to read it all. She thought it all looked very convincing but on reflection, something about her uncle’s nervousness was making her doubt that everything was completely above board.
Suriya yawned, and her empty belly growled again.
Shouts from ahead indicated an imminent stop, and Suriya grabbed her bag excitedly, closed the folder and shoved it inside, preparing to open the door as soon as the coach came to a standstill. She flung the door forwards just as the vehicle’s movement ceased, yelled, ‘‘I’ll be quick!’‘ and scrambled across the gravelly yard into the ugly, grey stone roadhouse building in one corner. It was so worn by the winds that blew across this bleak western end of the bay, that it looked not so much constructed as carefully excreted in a pile.
A couple of minutes later she was back with a small bundle that she unwrapped as the coach began rolling onwards and picking up speed with its fresh new runners. She imagined they might also be running fast just to get away from that desolate and dreary place.
Inside the paper roll was some cheap and chewy bread wrapped around meat of dubious nature, that cost more than it should have for what it was – whatever it in fact was – and a clay bottle of sweetened fruit water that was the only reclosable drink they sold. It tasted stale and she didn’t like not being able to see it.
‘‘Another three bloody days of this’‘, she muttered to herself in irritation as she pulled open the narrow window above her couch to let fresh air roll in. She sighed; this whole situation bothered her, the wretched food and drink was just adding insult to injury.
‘‘He’s gone mad…’‘ she grunted between grimacing bites and sips, ‘‘Totally mad.’‘
It was quite clear to her that something about this stone had done something to her uncle’s mind – but what that was, she couldn’t imagine. He’s usually so level headed! But now, he was ranting about being scanned by hidden ears and eyes; Iron City, Sapphire City and the return of Tuuria… What could make him think it was a good idea to send her to Holy City in an express coach to steal – Suriya really couldn’t think of any other word for it – to steal some dead woman’s pendant.
Whatever this voidstone was , it was having some effect on him, and she didn’t like it. She’d been surprised before at how stupidly people could act over owning valuable things, and this was more than simply a valuable thing, if what her uncle had told her was true. What she was going to do might be legal, technically – but it was taking advantage of loopholes, at best. At worst, most of the signatures and seals were forged; Suriya quickly tried to dismiss the idea as simple paranoia. No, surely not? Surely there’s no way he’s that bad…
Suriya had been Benessi’s legal assistant – one of a pair – since she’d finished her training at Jade City’s Law Counsel. As his niece, she also found herself the one occasionally entrusted with more personal matters; once, he’d asked he to forge a seal on a document and she’d done it very much under protest. Since then he’d never asked her to do anything illegal again – but this felt, if not illegal then certainly .. unethical, she thought, frowning at the bare grassy hillside rolling past.
Still, she was pleased to be getting out of the City again. It didn’t happen often, and she’d never been to Holy city before. Even the name made her smile, it always conjured up images in her mind of crowds of enlightened beings floating around a city of pale stone columns in a state of otherworldly bliss. She actually knew there were pale stone columns from sketches she’d seen and descriptions she’d read and heard, but she was already well aware that the floating enlightened people was her own ridiculous idea. She smiled at it, yet again.
The smile vanished as she took a final bite of the bread and meat thing, and swigged the last of her drink. As she chewed, that word echoed around her mind. Enlightened. She was sure there must be some enlightenment somewhere – just not in Holy City, by the sound of it.
She began singing to herself a gentle, relaxing song and quickly felt warm and comfortable. Finally, from the rocking of the coach she fell asleep and in her dreams she was being drawn inexorably towards a darkness she could feel but not see. It didn’t frighten her, it was a darkness more of mystery than malice; but something in it told her that before she could escape it, she was going to be dragged all the way into it.
All around was a darkness so complete it was like something solid. A drip drip drip of water danced brightly here and there in the untouchable velvety gloom, and muted voices rose in conversation from somewhere else, sounding dissociated and dull.
Gas lights flared briefly with a dry roar, then diminished a little and burned steadily inside their glass tubes. Their blue light cast stark, trembling shadows onto rough, grey stone walls that stretched off into a narrow, echoing distance.
A sturdy-looking door in one of the walls rattled with the sound of a key in a lock, then with a firm click and a quiet squeak, swung open smoothly. A white-haired man entered, dressed expensively in a dark red and black cotton jacket and pants, with polished brown leather shoes and belts. His eyes were opalescently green and he carried two books and a leather folder full of papers under one arm. His hair and beard were neatly trimmed and he wore gold rings in each ear.
As he entered he continued from where he had evidently just left off before opening the door, ‘’…because all this was installed about four hundred years ago, when there was a rash of excavations. Around the time of Nehmala Baba, people couldn’t get enough of Jade City history, and a new Connective even emerged, called Origins and Roots—’‘
Hanne, who had followed the man through the door, was nodding impatiently. ‘‘Of course, of course. And they did all this tunnelling themselves?’‘ She was peering expectantly down the long gas-lit stone passage before her.
The man shrugged as he watched Semek step down from the hallway above, and gestured to him to close the door behind them. Semek did so, and the man nodded curt thanks as he answered Hanne.
‘‘One assumes so, Ma’Hanne – though Nehmala Baba probably didn’t do it, at least!’‘ He seemed to cough several times, but the expression on his face made it clear he was actually laughing. He was obviously uncomfortable talking to Hanne, and his clumsy attempts to hide it only made it more obvious.
Hanne peered at him to one side and said with resignation, ‘‘No, Qurneqi, they may have had slaves do it for them. Did they have slaves do it for them?’‘ Semek looked down and smiled, amused that someone else was being mocked instead of him.
Qurneqi fumbled open one of his books and checked several pages. ‘‘It doesn’t say, Ma’Hanne; one might guess that slaves were involved somewhere .. but the digging was something of a sacred duty, at least the way it reads in the Origins and Roots Accounts it seems to have been. I would theorize that slaves were used for lifting and clearance of rubble, but not for digging or documenting.’‘
Hanne nodded. ‘‘That sounds right to me, Qurneqi. Anyway. Where do we go from here? This way?’‘ She was holding an arm out in the direction the gas lights led.
Qurneqi slammed his book shut and stepped smartly down the passage as he went on speaking, immediately warming to the subject again, ‘‘Yes, yes – as I mentioned, this excavation appears to be the most promising for onward progress. The Accounts list two others, and one of those is supposed to have been where most of the gem finds were made.’‘
Hanne sniffed and waved a hand dismissively. She was peering about as she walked, her milky eyes taking in every detail of the walls and floor. ‘‘If I wanted gems, there are easier and cheaper places to get them from. This is about history, not wealth.’‘
Qurneqi half-turned, smiled nervously and replied, ‘‘I’m gratified to hear you say so, Ma’Hanne. To me, knowledge is the greatest treasure there is. Mere gems can’t even compare.’‘
Hanne nodded in agreement. ‘‘Particularly to .. one such as myself. Wealth is not why I remain undying. Enriching myself is irrelevant. I have time – and time is what one needs when looking into such ancient mysteries; the world does not readily give up its mysteries, and patience is no good to the dead.’‘
Qurneqi’s soft footsteps could be heard echoing brightly off the hard walls, but Hanne and Semek’s steps were entirely silent in their dark, insubstantial slippers. The three of them were approaching an opening in the wall in the side of the passage they were walking down, and a little further in the end wall there was another dark reinforced door.
As they drew level with the side opening, Qurneqi turned into the large chamber it led to and as Hanne and Semek walked in behind him, Semek’s mouth dropped open. Hanne’s pale eyes glowed a little, even above the blue gas light. An aura like a silver bubble burst from her and faded in the air, but unlike Semek she kept her physical composure.
Qurneqi nodded and his smile was the smile of a man overjoyed that he’d finally got a chance to reveal a fantastic secret. He held out his empty hand and with a certain breathless excitement announced, ‘‘Ma’Hanne, the South Excavation Site.’‘
The cavern was enormous, two or three stones’ throw deep and even wider across. From the roof high above hung great stalactites, and huge monolithic stalagmites reached up towards them. Here and there, sparkling columns had been formed by the two meeting, and inside the entrance burned two gas lamps that sent dramatic, fluttering shadows across the vast space into the shadowy far side.
Hanne was the first to speak. ‘‘This isn’t excavated – this is a natural cave…’‘ She began walking further into it, gazing around her in open amazement.
Qurneqi nodded in agreement, his nervousness fading a little. ‘‘Yes, it is. Fascinating, isn’t it?’‘
Hanne turned in graceful ellipses as she advanced at the same time as trying to look at everything at once.
Semek simply stood where he was, completely overawed and whispering to himself, ‘‘I had .. no idea .. no idea…’‘
Hanne shrugged and held out both hands. ‘‘So if it’s a natural cave, where does it open?’‘
Qurneqi stopped and thought for a moment. He shook his head and answered, ‘‘I don’t believe it opens anywhere, I think it’s—’‘ He looked for the nearest lamp and then wandered over to it, opening his book again and flicking over a few pages. ‘‘Yes – they believed this was once part of the cave Jade City sits in, but that the deeper sections were cut off by all the rock falls. At first, because of all the digging they had to do to get here, some believed it was another cave completely – but in the end they all concluded it really is the same system.’‘ He thought for a moment before concluding, ‘‘Perhaps they simply never found another way out and they decided to stop looking…’‘
Hanne nodded and made an absent Hmm. She turned to face him again. ‘‘Very well, where exactly was the last actual excavation?’‘
Qurneqi looked back to his book and flicked over a few more pages, nodding. ‘‘The South Site is the last place named in the book, which means when they stopped, this will have been the last place any work was done—’‘
Hanne frowned and asked impatiently, ‘‘You mean you don’t know? I thought you said you’ve been down here before?’‘
Qurneqi blinked and coughed uncomfortably, answering hesitantly, ‘‘Ma’Hanne .. I have been here, but .. but not with such a .. a specific aim in mind. I’ve only seen it the once, and only to admire its beauty—’‘
Semek gasped, ‘‘Beauty, I agree!’‘ as he gazed across the cavern and its flickering shadows.
Hanne turned to him and snapped her fingers. ‘‘Down to earth please! I agree it’s very nice, but we have work to do!’‘
Semek blinked, smiled and nodded. ‘‘I know, Ma’Hanne – I’m just so .. surprised .. that this is right here, under the city .. and I never knew!’‘
The three of them spread out into the cave. The light from the lamps by the way in reached most of the way across the floor but areas of the walls were left in shadow, that deepened as they stepped further into the echoing space. A bright white light burst into life up over Hanne’s head as she raised her voice in a short, simple melody, and both Semek and Qurneqi edged gradually in her direction.
Suddenly, Semek saw across to his left what appeared to be a table and some chairs dimly visible in the light Hanne carried and walked quickly in that direction. Hanne noticed his change of direction and watched his path, finally also seeing the furniture.
‘‘Qurneqi – perhaps over there?’‘ She called out. Qurneqi turned towards her from not far to her right, and squinted in the direction she was pointing. He nodded and they both headed the same way as Semek.
When they reached him, he was peering around the mouldy, quite rotten table and chairs and shrugging. ‘‘Nothing here but .. an eating space, maybe?’‘ he offered disappointedly.
Hanne squinted and shook her head, stepping over to a set of blackened, stale-smelling wooden shelves that stood against the wall. There was nothing on them, and she sneered scornfully as she pushed the unit with two smooth, nail-less fingers. It collapsed into a heap, in a little cloud of grey dust, and she shrugged and looked about, her expression that of someone who doesn’t expect to be impressed.
A patch of shadow on the wall of the cavern not far from the ancient furniture appeared a little too dark in her light, and she stepped over to see how deep the recess was, that made the shadow.
It wasn’t a recess – it was a small passage that sloped steeply and purposefully downwards. Hanne smiled and her eyes glittered. She stepped smartly into it, and as she walked she grabbed the light above her head and threw it away in front of her. It floated slowly into the darkness and as it passed along the sloping stony tunnel it rose towards the roof, eventually sticking there. Hanne made a second and did the same with that, at a lower angle, and it stuck to the roof further down. She nodded in satisfaction and kept her voice humming as she stepped smartly down the lit way; the others followed behind her, Qurneqi flicking over some pages in one of his books as he walked.
He nodded to himself as he found what he was looking for, and as he emerged from the tunnel into a small open space, he looked up to see Hanne glancing about in evident delight, and throwing several small lights around the place.
They were in a little cavern – dug with picks, by the look of it – where the walls had been extended out from the bottom of the narrow passage they’d arrived down. The cavern was three or four times wider than the passage itself, but its strangest feature was its completely flat floor. Not only flat, but apparently made from some dull grey metal instead of the stone of the walls and ceiling. It showed a few small impact marks in the middle where it had been picked at, but apart from those it was so smooth that it glistened. Despite its dull hue, the lights Hanne had scattered were softly visible in reflection.
Hanne crouched and knocked a hand on it, then placed her palm flat against it, nodding. ‘‘It is metal. Fascinating.’‘ She stood and looked across the floor, raising her arms to make Semek and Qurneqi step back a little.
Qurneqi held up the book and said, ‘‘Ma’Hanne – here, at the end. Look—’‘
Hanne peered at the page he was showing her, nodded dismissively – and then caught herself and looked again, closer. She frowned and asked, ‘‘So, they believed this was the Bottom of the World? Am I reading that correctly?’‘
Qurneqi shrugged and nodded. ‘‘Ma’Hanne, that is what it says. What they thought they meant is .. well, I assume they sincerely believed it. But Nehmala Baba died around this time, which may explain why the work ended here. The Connective dissolved not long after, anyway.’‘
Hanne nodded in understanding. ‘‘Well – some of them at least must have known this wasn’t the bottom of the world! I mean – people weren’t that stupid, even four hundred years ago. It was probably an excuse to stop when the money for digging dried up after Nehmala Baba died.’‘
She paused, thinking, dropped her head to one side and then nodded, turning to Qurneqi and smiling. ‘‘Very well Qurneqi – This is where they stopped, so this is where we’ll begin!’‘
Qurneqi closed the book absently and looked appalled. ‘‘Begin, Ma’Hanne? Begin what?’‘
Hanne frowned and shook her head as if disappointed. ‘‘Digging, obviously! I mean – this clearly is not the Bottom of the World – so, what is it?’‘ She stamped a foot on the floor and even with actual force, her slipper made no more than a tiny flapping noise.
‘‘I’ll pay for everything – that is, the Connective will pay, but I’ll be the one to come to when you need equipment and wages. No slaves – and the workers must be discreet. No families, do you understand? I don’t want them talking about their work at the end of the day. This is strictly a quiet business, yes? Between us, only.’‘
Qurneqi was nodding apprehensively, and Semek was watching him carefully. Qurneqi felt the glare and glanced nervously towards Semek. Semek raised an eyebrow and Qurneqi redoubled his nodding. ‘‘Yes, yes! Nobody will know!’‘
Hanne nodded. ‘‘Come, then. Let’s get back – these lights won’t last much longer. We have plans to make and I always prefer to do that in comfort.’‘
The Law Counsel was in the North-Central Riverside district of Holy City, between the Grand Shrine and the river – and some considerable distance from where Suriya’s wagon entered at the South-Eastern stretch of The Outer, as the edge of the city was known.
Holy City was not built up all the way out to where its Outers lay, and on each road that approached there was a busy checkpoint with closable fences and living quarters for shifts of Wardens. The fact that it was the main home of the Emperor and Empress made Outer Security an important aspect of city governance – but it was not designed to keep people out, as much as to keep people in when necessary, to confine anybody who was wanted till they could be found and detained.
Suriya watched the city’s eclectic outer buildings slip past; this place was very different from any of the Bay Cities – for one thing, the sky here was a deep lilac-blue that was never seen in those lands of squall and bluster. The sun was as bright as she had ever seen it in her life, and she was well aware that if it were earler in the day it would be even brighter.
She was surprised by the number of temporary dwellings on either side of the road they were slowly rolling along. In the lots which were fenced off along the wide avenue were all kinds of different structures, and many easily-movable shelters and tents made from wood or heavy cloth. They were lovely homes for their inhabitants, Suriya had no doubt, but the combination of square, inelegant buildings and what resembled campsites or travellers’ yards made the city at first sight look improvised and haphazard.
As they came closer to the City Centre, though, the buildings began to show evidence that in the past more attention had been paid to detail, and little embelllishments began to appear on the exlusively stone buildings that made up both Holy City itself, and its inner suburbs. The buildings were also becoming taller. In the outskirts most were only a floor tall, few were more than two, but as they progressed along the wide and meandering South-East Avenue Suriya noticed that three-, four-, and even five-floor buildings were common – some taller still. Most had wide balconies with large doorways leading to inner rooms, and everywhere Suriya looked there were windows open high above the roads and alleys. She saw and heard people talking and yelling to each other from opposite balconies, and laundry was hung up on ropes between the buildings.
To Suriya, it all felt a lot more City than Holy, and the streets were becoming busier the further they travelled. There certainly weren’t any floating enlightened people – instead there were voices from left and right talking, bargaining, yelling, arguing, crying and laughing. Kitchen smells as well as the stink of drains, workshops, bathhouses and ever-present human and animal sweat drifting here and there. Eventually the wagon stopped and the driver knocked on the door and pulled it open.
‘‘Can’t go no further on the road Ma’; welcome to Holy City.’‘ He called down, and Suriya stood and stepped out onto the small platform between the door and the ground, looking about.
They were in a small coaching yard where vehicles of all sizes were picking up and setting down passengers. Garishly-dressed ticket sellers called out here and there, drumming up business, and roped slaves, uniformed runners, couriers and drivers stood about talking, resting, eating, drinking or simply catching a few minutes’ sleep under a vehicle. The heat in the yard was more intense than Suriya was used to, and she took a few deep breaths to steady herself as she stepped carefully towards the gate.
The yard’s gates opened onto a busy, wide boulevard that was bisected by tall dark shade trees and bordered on its other side with several pale yellow-brown stone steps leading up into roofed and cloistered passageways and alleys. Suriya looked left and right to take in the view up and down the wide avenue. It ran on in a wide, slow curve away in each direction, and on the far side there was no visible break in the steps up; for as far as she could see there continued the same five wide steps up from the roadway into one of the covered ways that led into the central areas of the City.
She trotted across the road and under the trees shading the patchy and scruffy central lawn, skipped up the smooth creamy steps with a spring, and entered the city across a wide piazza dotted with raised plant beds irrigated by constantly-trickling channels. Overhead, a slatted wooden roof gave some shade, and people dressed in robes and gowns of all shapes, colours and fabrics sat or stood around the square, talking or reading, and enjoying the balmy afternoon.
Suriya wove through covered ways and spaces like private gardens, around the edges of cloistered yards, up and down steps and sometimes what felt like underneath buildings. At intervals, sunlight made pools on a floor or a wall, and sometimes right above where she was walking she could hear voices or music. In quite a few places there wafted the sweet smell of aenimus, in many others the bitter tang of some alchemic work taking place nearby.
She was crossing the district which contained the southernmost of the three Great Circles, the Physic Garden. For a few minutes, she walked around a part of the edge of the gardens and spent a few tantalising minutes examining some of the plants, mainly so she could at least say she’d been there. Apart from the beds, groves and glass houses, there were several covered stone structures across the circle, and she wished dearly she could join in one of the groups she could see gathered here and there.
As she reluctantly left the Physic Garden and passed through several small squares with overlooking balconies where people read and talked and sang, the city finally began to feel more Holy than City. She could hear chanting and feel aenimus surging, she passed shrines and at strategic points people had set up chimes, singing strings and wind pipes; these that produced spontaneous random music from gusts that blew through the alleys and yards, and sometimes also activated drifts of raw aenimus that were caught on the breeze.
About an hour after entering the cool and elegant labyrinth of Holy City, Suriya emerged into a wide grassy square on one side of which was a column-fronted old building that made her think palace. The Law Counsel.
She presented the papers she had been supplied with, and made her request to one of the receptionists in the cool and opulent lobby. The receptionist took the papers and walked away, up a flight of steps further back in the hall. Suriya felt unaccountably nervous – No, she thought, I know why. Uncle Benessi and his bloody weirdness! She reminded herself to breathe, that all the details were seen to, that she was who the papers said she was and that all she was doing was collecting something for her family.
She only hoped it would all pass inspection and find a sympathetic eye, and she she kept breathing long and deep and humming inaudibly at the back of her throat – while outwardly trying to appear relaxed and even slightly bored. After what felt like an age, the receptionist reappeared and walked slowly back to her desk. Suriya wished she would hurry, and she wished she could tell from the woman’s inscrutable face what was about to happen. She breathed more carefully and allowed a light cough to clear her throat, and she felt a wave of aenimus pulse from her.
If the receptionist noticed then she ignored it as she stepped up to the desk and handed Suriya a sheet of paper – on inspection, a signed and stamped receipt for the papers she’d brought, which were all listed.
Suriya read down the list, and nodded as if well satisfied. She hadn’t expected them to keep all the papers and was a little disorientated – but at least they appeared to have accepted them. She made sure to keep her breathing soft and even, and looked back to the receptionist.
She managed a curt, ‘‘Thank you.’‘
The woman nodded back with a prim little smile. ‘‘Follow me please, Ma’Selenke,’‘ she intoned officiously.
Suriya was led up the stairs the receptionist had previously walked up, and into a quiet, luxuriously-curtained and couched room. A box was brought in by a porter and placed on the shiny, dark wooden table in the middle of the room. The lid had Saiyali Ambon, c/o Central Library of the Ancients printed on it in heavy square script.
The receptionist handed her a thin sheaf of papers. ‘‘The inventory. Please bring it back to me when you’ve finished so we can sign off what you take.’‘
Suriya nodded curtly and turned away sharply as the receptionist and the porter who had brought the box both left the room. She opened the box, moved a few things around inside, smiling absently and taking her time. Finally, she drew out a little black velvet purse on an elegant silver chain, that obviously contained something solid and heavy.
She peered inside, raised a brow then frowned and pulled the cord tight again. She replaced the box’s lid carefully and strolled smoothly back out and down the steps, to the receptionist. She placed the inventory on her desk with a generous smile and pointed to one of the items on the list, simultaneously holding the velvet purse out in the cupped palm of her other hand and effusing, ‘‘Thank you ever so much. We do appreciate your taking care of this for us.’‘
The receptionist regarded the purse and picked up the list, nodding and setting it back down to mark with a writing stick next to the line that read 1 (one) Black Velvet Purse Containing 1 (one) Hand-Clasp Pendant with Black Stone.
She answered as she did so, ‘‘Not at all, Ma’Selenke – we’re happy to help. The Central Library of the Ancients will be receiving the box when the Weeks of Waiting are over, and I’m glad you were able to come and make your claim in time. Are you happy for the Library to take care of the rest?’‘
Suriya nodded graciously but spoke hesitantly, ‘‘Yes – yes of course. None of the rest is ours anyway – only this piece. This is all I’ve come to collect, and I thank you for being so helpful.’‘
The receptionist bowed her head gratefully and answered, ‘‘Have a good journey home, Ma’Selenke.’‘
Suriya nodded back, a little confused that after all her worry, and after building the event up to monstrous proportions in her mind, it had passed so easily and was done. She had the stone.
I have the stone!
She had to remember to breathe normally as she walked back down the echoing stone lobby of the Law Counsel, and not to rush. She felt as if time were slowing and her legs growing shorter – the broad columned space seemed to be lengthening and taking the wide, bright square ahead of her further away with each step forwards.
She didn’t dare to stop, pause or hesitate – please, don’t let me do something wrong just when I’m so close to doing everything right! She begged herself, and for a few seconds she even convinced herself somebody was projecting tricks into her mind; just because I can’t feel it, doesn’t mean it can’t happen, she thought bitterly and concentrated on not showing a single moment of weakness or fear.
And suddenly she felt sunlight on her face, and she knew she could finally stop if she wanted to, and even lift her face to the sky and take a beautiful deep refreshing breath of air. Here, it was fine. Who wouldn’t?
She took another grateful breath, before heading as quickly as she could back to the yard where the coach was waiting.
Suriya had thought four days in a closed wagon alone was a long and uncomfortable experience; four days in a closed wagon with the voidstone was worse.
It started well enough, as they left the city she simply watched the suburbs drift past and wondered if she’d ever bother to visit this place again. It was on reflection, not much more than a kind of extended slum around a huge university-shrine complex. She genuinely wondered how the people here put up with it and was glad to be leaving, physic garden or no physic garden, she thought, and tried to doze off.
She couldn’t; her mind just wouldn’t relax. As time and farmland passed the more her thoughts were drawn to the voidstone, sitting in its black pouch somewhere in her bag. She was struck by a vague notion that she couldn’t remember what it looked like and perhaps she ought to take it out and just have a quick look.
It was very beautiful, wasn’t it?
She frowned to herself and shook her head, refocusing herself back on the view from the window and trying to regain her own train of thoughts. But she was suddenly struck by the idea that – what if I dropped it on my way to the coach?
A wave of cold panic hit her and she grabbed the bag, pulled it open and thrust her hand inside. She reached around inside for a second or two and then the horrified expression on her face melted away to be replaced by relief as she touched the pendant in its pouch. She nodded and closed the bag, leaning her head back again and watching the passage of some distant dots of colour. Farmers walking home, perhaps, or wind carts speeding along.
The evening was warm and still, and Suriya had her window open. She shivered from an unexpected cold draught, and closed it – and as she did so the light level in the coach dropped dramatically. She shuddered and opened the window again; light flooded back – but within a few minutes she was shivering from the cold.
She took up a little song she knew, that she’d learned as a child; a simple warming-up trick for cold winter nights. It worked, but it didn’t warm as much as it should have and as soon as she stopped singing the effect faded.
She frowned. That should have lasted longer. Growling to herself she closed the window again and the air was immediately warmer – but darker, more tenebrous even than the last time.
In the end she stopped pretending to herself that she didn’t know why this was all happening. Sighing, she opened her bag and reached inside to pull out the black pouch. The shadow in the coach intensified a little as she lifted it up, but as she loosened the band holding the pouch closed and pulled the pendant out with one crooked finger, the air cleared in an instant and everything around her looked and felt just as it had before.
Suriya shook her head, suddenly convinced that the effect had only ever been in her mind, and opened the window again. Warm agricultural air flooded back in and Suriya felt instantly grounded. In the light, she now held the pendant up in front of her face by its chain, and gazed intently at the stone, with a deep frown.
It’s .. not there! She brought it closer and closer to her face, and she could still see nothing – exactly that, it was like looking at nothing, a small lump of nothing. But it was trying to fill – with light, heat, aenimus – and she could feel it drawing her in; calling to something in her that was unable to resist its pull. It spoke to something warm and vital inside her mind; spoke of completeness, perfection, of forever; of inevitability.
And she in her turn found herself yearning to fill this thing, desperate to release herself and flow entirely into it, become nothing within its emptiness, to un-become and rest in the total peace of void for ever.
Later, she awoke shivering, and the stone was lying on the seat next to her, gazing at her with its blank, piercing eye of nothing, and she tried to put it away.
She lost count of how many times over the next three days she tried to keep from taking the stone out to look at it again; she could never stop herself for more than a couple of hours. What she wanted was to get out and walk; walk far, far away – walk in the opposite direction, to somewhere its darkness could never catch her. She wished she could just let the coach driver deliver the voidstone to her uncle, but she hated to think what might happen to someone without any mind training, if they got drawn into this thing
She sighed, leaning out of the window as another evening began falling around her, wishing the runners would speed up or the city would just be closer than it was when they left. She could see from their position against the mountains that they’d be there in no more than a few hours, but it was nowhere near soon enough. And only four days too late…
A ragged, dirty, golden-skinned boy of about fourteen lay barefoot in the bright afternoon sunshine, twitching and mumbling in uncomfortable sleep. He was sprawled on a dry section of a flat, dark grey rock at one edge of a huge convex valley almost enclosed by towering cliffs. Down one end of the valley crashed a mighty waterfall, and around him, roaring, thundering waters glistened and steamed. The air was filled with gleaming rainbows that spread in every direction across the colossal hollow.
The sky above was deep green from the iridescence and sparkling mist that saturated everything. Though the sun was not yet at its zenith, the light was already blinding in this bright cliff-bound bowl and the heat trapped there was turning the fine spray from the falls to drifts of vapour above the bare, dark rocks. Insects buzzed around lazily hanging ferns, frogs skittered over moss and lichen, and tiny silver fish jumped and splashed in some of the deeper pools between the stony banks and islands.
A bird basked in the sunshine near the boy’s head, its feathers spread and its head back, watching him carefully. It was mainly dark brown with mottled white feathers on its belly, a red band around its neck and white tail feathers splayed out behind. Its beak and claws resembled those of a bird of prey, and all were black. Its eyes were shiny bird eyes that glimmered green even in the sunshine.
The boy stirred, murmured, and scratched his face unconsciously, the tiny random movement passing insignificantly under the overwhelming and continuous noise of this booming, swirling, darting, humming, dripping, croaking, pulsating vale beneath its vivid sky. The bird squawked and hooted curiously at the boy, but there was no further response. It shook itself and turned its head the other way.
Suddenly, the boy gasped and sat up as if shocked, glaring around him with a look of terror on his dirty face. He blinked and his brow knitted in evident confusion, and he called out uncertainly, ‘‘Who’s there? Who was talking to me?’‘
The bird chattered again in a complex series of whistles and croaks, and the boy’s head flew around to face it, the look in his eyes was amazement. ‘‘How—? But you’re a—!’‘
It squawked brightly again and the boy stopped talking, simply looking down at it. It stared back at him levelly, standing only half way to his knees – but just out of kicking range.
Some instinct told him he definitely shouldn’t try kicking this bird. He shook his head and frowned more deeply. ‘‘Can you … can you understand me?’‘
The creature hopped a couple of heavy steps to one side and made more of its intricate whistling noises. The boy’s mouth dropped open and his head swayed as if he were too shocked to move even his head, and finally he stammered, ‘‘B .. but how .. how can I .. how can I understand you? You’re a .. you’re .. a bird?’‘
It danced a complex little flurry and flapped itself hooting into the air. The boy nodded obediently, ‘‘Alright…’‘ and sat there blinking as it flew off along the stony edge of the sparkling and gurgling pool, heading for where the waterfall’s leftmost edge streamed and billowed down the high rock face ahead. It flapped about energetically, trying to avoid the larger splashes and more forceful sprays of water, and suddenly disappeared right into the torrent.
The boy gasped, and stood up shakily, staring in disbelief at where the creature had flown straight under the massive waterfall but unwilling to follow it. His eyes widened to utter astonishment as from under the deluge walked a woman. She was small, but before his fearfully-wide eyes she was growing visibly, becoming taller than him as she came closer step by step.
His mouth dropped open in terrified wonder and he took an involuntary step back, fear now creeping onto his face.
The woman had dark brown, feathery hair that was lengthening as she grew, and feathers that tufted from her skin here and there were drawing into her body, making a soft crackling noise as they did so. She appeared to be completely naked but her long hair covered her like a cloak, and her limbs now had a downy covering of dark hair where the feathers from before had been.
After a few seconds during which the boy began trembling and seemed rooted helplessly to the spot, the woman opened her eyes, which glowed with the same green iridescence as before, and smiled. ‘‘Please, Amadli, not be too scared! I am the same as you were hearing in mind before, this is .. another shape, to speak to you easier…’‘
Before Amadli thought to reply, the woman was already saying what he was about to think. ‘‘Yes, you are very near to the place you would call Marash. We must speak – no, I must speak and you must listen.’‘
Amadli, to his surprise, nodded affirmatively; he suddenly didn’t want to open his mouth. He had a sudden idea he would be asked to speak when she had finished. He had a sudden idea that since she could obviously see into his mind he’d better just listen. He had a sudden idea – and he wasn’t sure if these sudden ideas were even coming from his own mind – that she would be very happy if he did that.
He suddenly felt tired, and sat down again on the stone where he’d been sleeping.
The woman remained standing, but a smile sprang across her dark angular face as she went on, ‘‘You’re young, and I mean you no harm – in fact, the opposite thing – I’m speaking to you now, for that no harm’ll come on you. I said before – you’re here at a place very few creatures come; not humans, not birds, not any creature from outside the Lands. It is not safe here for strangers.’‘
Amadli nodded but still felt inclined to say nothing. With a serious and questioning look creasing her brow, the woman went on, ‘‘I know .. I feel .. that you’ve come a long way to find this place – but I sense further, you don’t know exactly what you seek. You’re sure not the first to travel here—’‘ Amadli nodded again, but knew somehow that it was still not time to speak. She continued, ‘’– but the Lands do not welcome. Here are borderlands, and it seems to me you seek to enter. But you don’t know why, and for that I must prevent it. I’m sorry; it’s not safe.’‘ She did look apologetic, but resolute.
Amadli blinked, frowned, shook his head in disbelief and realised suddenly that he would be able to speak now, if he tried. One thought filled his mind and he spoke it, ‘‘Cannot? Who says? You say I’m near Marash, well – which way is it? Let me get there, and I can decide if it’s safe!’‘
The woman shook her head sadly. ‘‘No, no – definitely not. You cannot know what’s safe and what’s not, you cannot judge – and I do not want your death in my memory. You’re .. a child.’‘ She made a musical, birdlike Tsk Tsk Tsk and shook her head emphatically. ‘‘I cannot see a child walk alone into the Lands.’‘
Amadli sighed, shrugged and said simply, ‘‘Well then, will you lead me there?’‘
The woman shook her head and scowled, ‘‘No, no! You misunderstand! I’m on my way to somewhere else, I cannot lead you and I tell you, cannot go there. It is not safe! You must .. you must go back, back the way you came.’‘ She jerked her head twice, indicating urgency.
He stammered, ‘‘I .. I have to! I .. you .. you can’t say no – I’ve come so far .. Keyo is gone .. and I .. I..’‘ his green eyes were blinking uncontrollably and his mind was frozen by sudden despair. No further words would come and his mouth bobbed soundlessly a few times. In the end, though, his voice would not be denied and it rose from him in a great sob, followed by another, and another. He dropped to sit on the stone and mouthed inchoate words as his eyes, mouth and nose overflowed themselves and he shook and wept, a waterfall of his own coursing messily down his face and filthy clothes.
The woman watched, nodding slowly and breathing a slowly-growing, comforting ‘‘Ssshhh…’‘ but not making any move to touch him.
Gradually, his breathing calmed and the tears stopped. He wiped his face with one hand, and then looked, puzzled, for something to wipe the mess on. He settled on his trouser leg, then stood gingerly and stepped over to wash his hand in the river water. Suddenly, he rolled his eyes and sighed at his own stupidity. He scooped a few splashes of water onto his trouser leg and scrubbed at the patch of snot and tears he’d wiped there.
Finally, he scooped a couple of large handfuls of chilly water over his face and head, and scrubbed himself thoroughly with both hands for several seconds. When he stood up, his face looked not just cleaned but calm. His eyes were clear as he regarded the woman, who now seemed to him quite tall and thin but very dark and of an age he couldn’t guess – Really old, he thought.
‘‘Yes, I am really old!’‘ she laughed, and he gasped at his own shame for thinking it.
‘‘Don’t worry!’‘ she went on, ‘‘Really old is really good! So many people really don’t make it to really old .. and really dead is sure worse than really old!’‘ She laughed, an infectious birdlike hoot.
Amadli grinned despite himself, and couldn’t help laughing with her though he didn’t really understand what was funny. The woman’s laugh was funny.
Their laughter subsided, and Amadli suddenly remembered why he was speaking to her. He frowned, and looked straight at her. ‘‘Look, –’‘ and paused, shook his head and asked, ‘‘What’s your name?’‘
She laughed delightedly, ‘‘Name? You want a word to speak that means me, yes?’‘ She was indicating herself with a gesture, and Amadli nodded hesitantly.
She laughed again with a chirp, then trilled, ‘‘You should call me Tritwin for now.’‘
Amadli nodded and looked quite frankly at her, sure of himself and not in the mood to be denied. ‘‘Well look, hmm, Tritwin, I have come a long way and it’s been a horrible journey, my best friend has died and I can’t go back where I came from and we only came this far so we could go to Marash .. so unless you want to stay with me all the time, or pick me up and throw me—’‘
Tritwin grinned in a way that made him hesitate and slow down, ‘’—well. I mean, just .. what can you do? I’ll only keep going as soon as you leave me – under the waterfall, right? We read there was a waterfall – and I saw you go under there, before. That’s the Water Path, right?’‘ He grinned now, his cocky demeanour calmed a little but still exuding teenage confidence.
Tritwin sighed and shook her head. She screwed up her eyes for a moment in the way of someone having many thoughts at once and enjoying none of them. The sound all around never paused or diminished; the cacophony of thunderous water and the chorus of birds and insects continued. Tritwin muttered under her breath and her voice became part of it, as if she were in conversation with the place itself and the creatures there.
Amadli turned his head as if by looking and listening at a different angle he might see or hear something that made sense. The day was warming up and the musky, mossy dampness of the sun trap he was standing in was making his head feel fuzzy. The noise all about him was growing in intensity and he began to wonder if he should sit down. He realised he’d forgotten how to sit, and he thought he could even hear voices in the swarm of chirping, buzzing, twittering, tweeting, splashing and they were whispering, ssssiiiitttt… and it echoed in his head and he didn’t know which way was down or up and a blanket of roaring and warm mist and wild aromas smothered him and darkness fell…
He dropped like a fish stood up on its tail, flopping with a soft elongated thud to the rock beneath him.
Flying. Rushing through warm clouds over a vast forest of enormous trees. In the distance all around rose tall and jagged mountain peaks, biting viciously at the sky above them. He felt as if something he badly wanted to see was hiding from him as it pushed him away; he was being thrown somewhere and he knew he was not in control.
The mountains were growing, gnashing, slashing upwards as he sailed closer, his exhilaration from the thrill of flying was melting away and cold hard fear was crystallising beneath it. He knew the mountains were the monstrous teeth of some huge creature and would rend him into a thousand pieces .. and he was heading for them relentlessly. He realised that whatever was hiding from him was also trying to push him onto those craggy, spiky peaks; he wanted to cry out but in this place he had no voice, could make no sound. He felt in his mind as if he were screaming and somehow in his silence he knew he was being heard; whatever was drawing him simply stopped.
To his shock and amazement, he was instantly hanging motionless in the sky and he hung above the treetops, all sound faded into silence. Vapours floated past but he felt neither cool nor damp, and the rich earthy reek of the forest below had degraded into a vague musty staleness.
He felt watched – and then came a voice. It came from below and above, and all around and through his entire being. He felt it rather than heard it, and he knew whatever it belonged to could see him completely, through him and around him; and that it was laughing.
He felt himself turned upside-down and inside-out by the voice; shaken, exposed, examined – but not judged. The voice was overwhelming, but it contained no threat and it didn’t intimidate him; there was some comfort in its power as he realised it did not intend to hurt him and never really had.
However, it was not joking about its actual intent, and it spoke again, simply saying,
He had no way to reply, answer, or respond in any way. He wanted to scream that it was unfair, that he was a good person, that he meant no harm, that he wanted to learn and to know more, that he had been dreaming of the place people called Marash for as long as he could remember, that he belonged nowhere else and he had nowhere else to go…
He even knew the thing behind the all-pervading voice knew all this, and once again it spoke – though he felt it was softer this time, almost gracious.
This time, the Now kept echoing through the sky, bouncing up and down and around from every molecule of water to every other of air and the very space between them was resonating and resounding louder and deeper and becoming overpowering, saturating till suddenly—
Amadli’s eyes flicked open and he felt his left shoulder, knee and the side of his face bashed and aching. He groaned. Tritwin helped him onto his back and he turned heavily, groaning louder.
She reached into the pool and scooped out handfuls of water, splashing the water in several motions over the bruises and scrapes. As she splashed him, she sang a bizarre atonal chant that was nothing like anything he had ever heard from any healer; their songs were normally pleasantly harmonic and easy on the ears but this noise – this was not a sound that he ever imagined a person might make. It was rough and guttural and nasal, it sounded like Tritwin was clearing her head of blockages rather than passing her aenimus on to him – but as she went on he realised his body was tingling where it had been hurting, and the pain he’d felt before was fading quickly into a sense of nothing worse than a vague, unsettling tiredness.
She finished, and pressed his head to the ground in an insistent movement that told him he should rest a while. He sighed, allowing himself to sink into the rock which felt more yielding than it should, as if it were shaping itself to the bones and bumps in his hips, back and shoulders. He felt more relaxed than he remembered ever feeling and in his state of bliss he heard Tritwin speaking to him – though he wasn’t sure if the sound was in his head or in his ears.
‘‘You know that you cannot go into the Lands; they’ve told you to go, I know they have. But I know you’ll not turn back if I leave you alone here – nowhere else, neither.’‘ She gave no actual sigh but she did pause as if frustrated, and when she went on speaking her annoyance was clear. ‘‘Therefore you must stay with me, and if you wish to accompany me into the Lands when my task is complete, I’ll agree to show you a way. I may even speak for you, if you do well.’‘
There was a longer silence, but before Amadli could formulate an answer he didn’t even know if he could give, the voice continued, ‘‘If you really do mean to travel to the Lands then this is the only way you may achieve your goal and remain alive. So it’s up to you. When I leave this place, you must come too; now you know that if you travel into the Lands alone, they will eat you.’‘
Amadli heard this from far away and yet the sounds and smells all around him still touched his mind.
They will eat you. Those words repeated in his mind in that strange, scratchy, ancient voice and he saw a thousand faces saying it to him from all around, again and again, They will eat you. Tritwin said it as a woman, as a bird – and there were other birds, insects, frogs, fish – they will eat you – trees, vines, ferns, grass, moss – they will eat you, they will eat you, they will eat you…
He woke up some time later and it was getting dark; he awoke shivering and tense, partly from the evening’s chill but mostly from the dream from which he’d just escaped. He’d been absorbed in something that had smothered and choked, something that dripped with bloods, green and red and old and bitter. But then the sense of his own separateness again as he slid back into his waking body sent a shudder creeping down his back and over his scalp.
He sat up, rubbed his face, head and shoulders, and gazed with relief into a fire Tritwin had evidently made while he was sleeping, close to one of the mossy walls and away from the water’s edge. She was crouched on the far side of it, and the roar of falls was still all around, under and through the dusk chorus of calls, tweets, chirps and croaks.
He edged towards the water, scooped out a handful and sloshed it over his head and face, rubbing it in and snorting from the shock. Then he took another handful and drank it, then another.
Tritwin watched this with a strange smile on her creased, craggy face, and when he’d finished, she held out a hand, inviting him to the fire. He nodded gratefully and stepped over to it, crouching down onto his heels and holding out his hands towards the warmth, then rubbing his arms with his hands as if pressing the heat directly into his skin. His stomach growled.
Tritwin nodded at something she evidently agreed with herself about, and with a thoughtful Hmm, she reached behind her and picked up a small bundle that was a leaf folded neatly around a handful of something. She passed it to him, saying, ‘‘Even if the dreams be bad .. especially if the dreams be bad – you must eat. Here—’‘
Amadli glanced guiltily at her but she merely held the bundle out with a flick of her head to show he should take it. There was no judgement in her eyes and with a sniff, Amadli took it, opening it carefully. Inside nestled a few fruits from the trees growing on the slopes above the river. He ate without saying anything for a while, and Tritwin let him.
Finally, with a mouth full and in an offhanded manner, Amadli muttered, ‘‘I’ll come wi’you.’‘
Tritwin hooted her odd laugh again. ‘‘I knew you wouldn’t refuse,’‘ she chattered, and beckoned him to stand, ‘‘You’ve many years yet to get yourself eaten, no need to go jumping in so young.’‘
Amadli continued eating in silence till the contents of the leaf were gone. Tritwin seemed to be listening intently to the slowly quieting animal and insect noises all around, that as as night’s darkness deepened were drifting away as everybody settled for the night.
Everybody but the two humans with their fire, which crackled and pinged softly just under the constant and unvarying blast of water falling into itself. The dewy, leafy freshness of the cool night air was tainted a little by the acrid smoke, but the light and warmth made up for it, as far as Amadli was concerned. Dreams of being eaten and suffocated had taken the wind out of him somewhat and he was feeling reflective.
Tritwin may have sensed this when she suddenly asked with her creaking, scratchy voice, ‘‘Why did you come to enter the Lands?’‘
Amadli sighed again and shrugged. He suddenly felt small and helpless, and he nearly sobbed. His voice caught in his throat, and he found the hiccup made him pause, then the pause stretched out as he found he had no answer that would come to mind.
Tritwin smiled. ‘‘Nothing, hmm?’‘
He shrugged, shook his head, sighed, held out a hand as if to beg for time to think, shook his head and sighed again, then finally answered, ‘‘It .. it wasn’t just me. I didn’t come alone – I mean, I set out with someone. He—’‘ he hesitated, then added, ‘‘I don’t know if I can—’‘ He closed his eyes and grimaced painfully.
Tritwin frowned and coughed and Amadli looked at her questioningly, then pleadingly. ‘‘Please, don’t make me say it, not right now. I’ve said I’ll go with you and I mean it. I don’t want to talk about .. about Keyo—’‘ He shook his head and clenched his eyes and mouth tightly, trying not to cry.
Tritwin sighed a soft Sshh, and ended with an almost whispered, ‘‘I did not ask you to tell me fearful things, only why did you come here?’‘
Amadli shrugged and sighed, ‘‘But it wasn’t just me – it wasn’t just my reasons – it was us, me and Keyo. We –’‘ he groaned and buried his face in his cupped hands, rubbing his fingertips into his eyes and muttering inaudibly.
He looked up with a flash of power in his eyes and managed, finally, to find something he was able to actually say. ‘‘I .. we .. we just wanted .. to know. To know what was here, that stopped people from coming back. What it was nobody had anything to tell about, that we could understand. We wanted—’‘ He paused and squinted in concentration, then shrugged and repeated, ‘‘We just wanted to know, it’s all I can say.’‘
She stared at him, nodding as if in recognition, then raised a curious brow and asked, ‘‘But there is more, isn’t there? Not only to know – what else?’‘
Amadli was nodding and squinting across the fire at her and remembering that she could see into his mind – and discovering that he was comforted and not frightened by the idea.
‘‘We wanted to be free. We thought Marash meant Freedom.’‘ Tritwin was nodding with a broad smile and Amadli couldn’t help chuckling, ‘‘Freedom—’‘
She replied, ‘‘Well, one who calls himself Amadli, most of those who come are seeking the same. They believe there is freedom beyond their ignorance. And they fail, almost all. Almost all. They get lost, get eaten, get killed. They do not believe what they know, they pretend things are not as they are then they surprise like stupid when all is as they knew it would be.’‘
Amadli frowned. ‘‘So you mean, the stories we read – they’re true? All of them?’‘
Tritwin shrugged and chuckled disdainfully. ‘‘No idea to me – your stories, not mine. But if they tell that people coming to the Lands will die and disappear then yes, they are true. Because that is what happens. Nobody should be surprised about it!’‘
Amadli thought about this for a moment, frowning. ‘‘But .. but that’s alright with you? That so many die, just for going to some place?’‘
Tritwin shrugged. ‘‘Of course – why not? There are warnings, people read them – you did, did you not?’‘ Amadli nodded resentfully and she went on with barely a pause, ‘’—and it’s very difficult to find any way into the Lands. This is another thing well known.’‘
Amadli nodded slowly and a scowl twisted his face in the flickering fire light. Tritwin was still talking though, and in turn raised her voice in a sudden rash of anger. ‘‘We don’t ask for visitors! None here mean to provoke or encourage curiosity in strangers. What can the Lands do for those who anyway develop unwelcome curiosity, except truly be dangerous and hard to come to? Some will always ignore what they know to be true, and prefer to believe instead what they like the feel of. It is a way of things.’‘
Amadli sighed, and Tritwin gave him a sympathetic look. ‘‘But if freedom includes the freedom to ignore warnings and do whatever you want regardless of the consequences – even if the consequence is death – then the Lands do offer freedom, sure.’‘ She paused, shrugged and added offhandedly, ‘‘Anyway, for now you have another freedom – the freedom to choose.
Amadli’s brow creased with a look of confusion and he cried, ‘‘What choose? I already chose, then you appeared to stop me doing what I chose!’
Tritwin answered, as quick as a flash, ‘‘No, I did not! I am not! You may still walk on, into the Lands, get eaten as they have promised you that you shall. You can still choose that, nobody and nothing has taken that choice away. Or, you can choose to go back where you came from. Or, you can choose to come with me. You can choose anything – where before, you were set on one thing only. No?’‘
Amadli scowled. ‘‘I think you’re playing word games, it’s not fair. You’re talking as if my choice before – my choice to go to Marash – the Lands, you call it – you’re talking as if that choice should just be discounted. As if it’s not real, not important. As if now, by taking that choice away and over-ruling what I want, you’re really offering me more than I had before!’‘
Tritwin held out both hands briefly, as if appealing to some deeper understanding that she wasn’t certain he possessed. ‘‘But can you not see that’s just what I am doing? If I let you just do what you wanted, as you say, you’ll be gone in a few days, and you’ll never understand what you seek. Travel with me and you’ll have more time, you’ll see more than you’ve seen, you will understand, later—’‘ she shrugged and interjected, ‘’—perhaps, anyway—’‘ Then took up her cajoling tone again, ‘’—but you will have many further moments for making many more meaningful choices.’‘
She paused, and he looked thoughtful, as if an idea how had never considered before was germinating somewhere deep in his mind. Before he could express whatever it was though, she went on insistently, sensing how nearly he was convinced. ‘‘Here, I don’t need to take you with me – it won’t make easier the thing I have to do. But what I must do, is try and stop you from stumbling blindly after what you think you know—’‘ She looked at him intently and intoned with a more resonant voice that echoed deeper in his mind, ‘‘Which I can tell you – even if you do not believe me – you do not. Few, very few strangers really know what matters, in these lands or anywhere – but with me, you may learn. If you choose to.’‘ She stopped speaking, and nodded at him with a significant and serious glint in her eyes that glimmered dull green in the night.
There was a long silence during which the fire began to shrink. Tritwin wandered off, returning a short while later with an armful of sticks which she broke with loud splintering cracks, and placed carefully on the fire. It bloomed in surging orange licks and its heat pulsed outwards once more, waking Amadli somewhat.
He yawned and groaned with it, but at the same moment thought, She’s right…
He knew she was and he didn’t mind admitting it to himself – even if he resented admitting it to her yet. He understood from what he’d felt in today’s desperate and terrified reveries what would happen if he stubbornly kept going against her advice; what even Marash itself seemed to have told him. He realised with a sinking feeling that the fact nobody returned from Marash was not the challenge he and so many others had imagined, but a warning. He thought again, She’s right, and he felt immature and embarrassed.
On the other hand, he felt sure this strange, ancient person was not only doing him a favour – that much was quite obvious – but perhaps even doing him an honour by offering to let him go with her, even though she knew nothing about him.
Still – where? And what for?
As he had this sudden thought, she looked directly at him and her shiny, softly glimmering eyes peered keenly into him, jerking him backwards. He managed not to stumble, but had to look away and shake his head, and straighten his shoulders deliberately.
But he felt his head being held as if by warm hands, and when he looked up again Tritwin was simply staring at him. She spoke, and her voice once again sounded louder and deeper than it should have. ‘‘Where, is across the sea to the place once known as Lamka, now called Holy City; what for is .. this—’‘
She reached a hand out with her gnarled fingers spread as if she were trying to catch some delicate drifting thing. Her voice rose in an almost inaudibly low hum that Amadli was certain did not come from her own throat, but from all around. Still, she was focussing whatever it was, and in her outstretched hand a shadow congealed. It shimmered and glittered with some unfeasably dark opposite of sparkle and Amadli thought that it was not so much there as not there at all; it was as if a hole had opened in Tritwin’s dark, furry hand. But through the hole was not visible her fire-lit body – instead it was as if he was looking into sheer blankness; he could see it in the same way as the overwhelming darkness in a deep cave can be seen.
His eyes felt open but in the middle of Tritwin’s hand was simply a lump of nothing to see. All around it, Tritwin’s entire body scintillated darkly and Amadli wondered if the fire had become hotter; its haze was blurring her shape and making him feel faint. He could feel himself being pulled from inside his own mind and sudden panic caught his breath. Tritwin’s hand flicked in a complex gesture and the low rumbling hum stopped abruptly. The thing in her hand was gone, and Amadli felt himself held for a moment longer, then she blinked and sighed, and he was released.
He blinked and panted slightly, shaking his head. ‘‘What was that?’‘
She nodded. A voidstone, you might call it. I’ve spent many years growing it, to help me find another one, a real one. That’s what I’ve to do, and I hope you’ll be a help and not a hindrance; if I succeed, you’ll have a good reason to enter the Lands with me.’‘
Amadli swallowed. ‘‘And if you don’t succeed?’‘
Tritwin shrugged and said nothing. The fire crackled on, the stars slowly slid overhead and the water thundered on, vast and pauseless.
Amadli sighed. This was all becoming more complicated than he had expected and for a moment he had the idea of simply going home – but a rush of scorn and pity rose in him and he snorted to himself.
Why did I come here?
He knew the truth was – adventure. He and Keyo, together, had been looking for a great adventure. They truly had considered the accounts of Marash a challenge, and they hadn’t considered the true nature of the dangers they were aiming for. Their leaving home had been necessary and the risk had been irrelevant to them; they’d had to keep going because returning was not an option.
But Amadli was facing the consequences alone, and he found he wanted to be ready, just as he knew he really wasn’t. He wanted to be worthy of Keyo, not be frightened away – but more than that, he wanted to survive. At the beginning with Keyo, they’d been reckless together, egging each other on. Later, Amadli had pushed himself forward simply because in his grief he hadn’t known what else to do. Now he realised he once again had choices, and he found himself wanting to truly experience what the pair of them had only ever guessed at.
He resolved to take this strange creature at her word. He felt sure there was more to be gained by trusting her; he only hoped he could live up to his own ambition and confidence.
Tritwin interrupted his grim internal voice with a curt ‘‘You must sleep, soon.’‘ Amadli took a moment to understand what she’d said, and when he did, he stared apprehensively.
She shook her head, smiling gently. ‘‘No, you won’t dream tonight – you need to rest. When there’s light enough to see the way, we leave.’‘
Down, down, down. The winding mountain path they were following was only a path while they were descending; in the other direction it would involve some hazardous and unlikely climbs and scrambles.
‘‘We’ll not return the same way!’‘ called out Tritwin after a dizzying slither down a slope of rough scree, in which boulders loosened by their passing had nearly smeared Amadli across the mountainside as they bounced and smashed their way down.
Amadli caught up with Tritwin, who was leading the way, and they looked back up the vertiginous slope they’d been jumping, walking and sliding down since just after dawn. What looked like the top was visible far, far above – but that was not the actual top, which was concealed even further up, behind the wild, rough spires and craggy promontories overhead.
‘‘Impossible—’‘ panted Amadli with tattered panic from the near miss – and Tritwin laughed. He glared sharply, frowning in annoyance as he bent to lean on his knees and get his breath back.
She simply said, ‘‘Impossible on two—’‘ and nodded meaningfully at where his hands were clasped tightly onto his legs.
A question formed in Amadli’s mind but just before he could open his mouth to speak it, Tritwin had turned with a curt ‘‘Onward’‘ and leapt away towards a gap between two huge rocks.
Amadli took a deep breath and ran after her. For the next few hours the way was reasonably easy, even resembling a proper path – though the steeper sections still needed care. Tritwin kept well ahead, turning to gesticulate periodically but moving off before Amadli could reach her and never letting him get close enough to ask whatever it was on his mind.
The sun was far down beyond the peaks behind them when Tritwin finally stopped. She came to a halt below Amadli, where a cluster of black and wind-bent trees grew against the cliffs behind them, lining the inner edge of a wide, grassy shelf. The gulley’s spring flowed across the shelf and around and among the trees, making made a small marsh whose overflow ran over the long cliff edge. The wind was strong and there wasn’t enough water to fall straight through it; all the little cascades were being blown away as brownish spray on the gusts that roared by.
Amadli squelched towards the gnarled old trees and lifted a hand, beckoning Tritwin to listen to him. His mouth was already open to speak when the wind that had been cut off by the gulley walls suddenly gusted over him and made him look away from her, to the view she herself was gazing at.
The Ocean stretched out far below them, flecked with white foam and undulating slowly, shades of turquoise and blue and mauve all the way to the horizon where it blurred hazily into the grey and distant sky. Heavy white clouds drifted here and there but none looked heavy enough to drop rain, and the sunlit evening glinted on the immeasurable swell of waves. Everything appeared far away and inconceivably vast.
Amadli had seen the sea before, but never the wild open ocean – and never this much of it at once. He was astonished beyond words, he’d completely forgotten what he wanted to ask Tritwin, and in his shock he began shivering uncomfortably. The evening was darkening and chilly, where the high mountains had been blocking the sun out since mid-afternoon. The gusty breeze exaggerated the chill and Amadli folded his arms and hugged himself to fend off its bite. But the cold was deeper than simply the temperature of the air; he was terrified of the vastness before him – as well as the immense drop below him.
‘‘Here we should stop for the night,’‘ broke in Tritwin with satisfaction. ‘‘Alone, I’d have made more way, but this will do for one day. The view here is—’‘ She didn’t finish, just smiled and turned to him, winked, then beckoned for him to follow as she made her way back up the gully, out of what remained of the wind. She stopped again at a place with a flat area of scorched rocks where a spring emerged, and the enclosing cliffs were so tall that the wind was completely cut off.
She searched under an overhang in the cliff and from a recess removed several large rocks, finally taking out a bundle wrapped in dry leaves. Placing it on the ground she unwrapped it and took out further leaf-wrapped little parcels. She passed one to Amadli, who unwrapped it to find a small pile of old, dry and slightly musty nuts and seeds.
He raised a sceptical eyebrow, picked up with a finger and thumb one of the little kernels cupped in the leaf in his other hand, and placed it carefully in his mouth. He closed his eyes, expecting something vile, and bit down on it. There was a crunch, and a second crunch, and he opened his eyes and nodded, chewing and swallowing, and replacing the first tiny mouthful with another, larger one. ‘‘Not bad. Thanks!’‘ He spat through splintering grains. ‘‘Nice to have food just waiting for us!’‘
Tritwin nodded to him, ‘‘This is a Meeting Place, all such places have a store. It’s for those who arrive with nothing, and later we must come back and replace what we take now.’‘
Amadli nodded and reached down to take a handful of water from the spring that bubbled past, then with a gratefully rumbling stomach he continued eating. Tritwin strode back down to where the marshy copse made its own shadow in the dim evening, and a minute or so later strode back with an armful of twigs and small branches.
She made a small pile on the blackened stone floor, crouched close over it with her hands cupped onto the sticks themselves, and sang a rough and sultry scale with throaty murmured words – if those were words thought Amadli to himself – that made a small flame spring up inside the little stack of dry wood. She blew on it and murmured more of the same chant, added a few larger pieces, and the fire was soon hissing and snapping, its warm orange flicker brightening the bare stone walls that rose up to each side.
But gusts screamed over distant ridges and between the branches of the gnarly black trees not far away, and beneath it ocean waves roared, breaking over rocks and into each other. As Amadli listened to the unimaginably powerful grandeur and majesty of it all, he found himself feeling weak and vulnerable. Despite the fire, he realised he was shivering again and he finally lay down, exhausted. He drew his knees up into his chest, pressed his back firmly against stone, and rested his head on one arm. Then he stared into the flames and tried to imagine that he wasn’t actually lying in a crack in a cliff, halfway up a mountain above the cold abysmal ocean.
He didn’t notice Tritwin staring at him keenly, but he did feel himself drifting into sleep. There was a question lurking somewhere in his mind, but he found himself too tired to be bothered finding it. Tomorrow there will be time for talking… he thought – and he wasn’t sure if the thought came from him, or from somewhere else. But then, he didn’t care because it was a true thought.
And then, he was oblivious.
He woke to pale morning sky above his head, and no Tritwin to be seen. The fire was mere embers now but there was wood left beside it, he lay some carefully onto the tinkling charcoals and blew till little flames danced. He added more, and built the fire back up, then lay back in the place he’d been sleeping and closed his eyes again.
The wind still rumbled and blasted, and as he sat there watching nothing but the darkness behind his eyelids, Amadli imagined once again the view from the lofty shelf not far down from where he was sitting. This time, though, he found himself not frightened but exhilarated by the vast openness – and in a moment he felt something pushing him towards the high cliff where brown water dripped and was tossed away on the wind.
But this time, he wasn’t scared; somehow he knew that he wasn’t going to fall. As he came to the lip, instead of dropping he rose, soaring high on wings that he suddenly just knew he had, up towards the billowing clouds that floated above. He wheeled around and saw the trees in their little bog, and the hollow of the gulley running back up along the massive cliff on the side of one mountain. Above and behind that, yet taller peaks leapt skywards and as he curved around to the left he saw the route they had scrambled down – all the way from the pass where they’d begun their descent across these wind-scorched tumbling outcroppings and rubble slopes.
He followed the lines of the rocks below, and began sinking against the sturdy updraughts, resting on them and letting himself carve elegant circles ever downward. He was trying to guess where their path would take them onward from the Meeting Place – when he remembered he was actually still sitting up there in the gulley. He smelled himself despite the wind, and he knew that if he opened his eyes he would truly be back in the little gorge before his little crackling fire.
But he didn’t want to find himself there; he wanted to fly, to glide, to soar and to swoop.
Then, he felt a presence beside him and turned his head to look. There, managing to keep an exact and perfect distance from him, was a sleek bird of prey – dark brown with shiny green eyes and a cruel black beak that appeared to be smiling at him with a look of enormous satisfaction.
Why don’t we fly there? he wanted to laugh at her. Why don’t we stay in the sky for ever? he wanted to scream ecstatically; Why would you ever walk again? he wanted to demand.
The bird beside him simply smiled more intensely, and seemed to wink at him. They were turning and rising on a thermal, curving back around towards the mountainside and climbing back towards the dark fissure that ran obliquely down the enormous wall ahead. They rose over the edge and over the trees, and floated gently up the gulley till Amadli saw himself sitting by the fire, eyes closed and smiling in utter delight.
At the shock of this, he gasped and his eyes flew open; with a rush of sadness he found himself once again inside his own body looking at Tritwin, who was standing in front of him, smiling. He knew he ought to be shocked but at the same moment he also knew this was where they had both been the whole time.
She said immediately, ‘‘You want to know why I don’t just fly across the sea? I’ll tell you.’‘
Amadli was still lost in the euphoria of the experience, and could do no more than listen as she went on, ‘‘I might be able to fly so far, but it’s tiring – and you sure couldn’t do it! So what I plan to do when we reach the shore, is to call my .. my friend, Hirassi. He can take us across the sea, in his boat.’‘
 Full Moon
It wasn’t a city in quite the same way as other cities were; though hundreds of thousands of people did live and die there, families and homes grew and broke there, fortunes were made and lost there. But on certain days and times, some of the convocations that formed at the main shrines were as large as crowds of shoppers or tourists or sports fans in one of the more down-to-earth cities. Holy City had been called so since long before the Empire it now headed was even conceived, and its attraction was different from the industry or wealth or culture that drew people to Obsidian City or Gold City or the Bay Cities.
Among the three Central Circles – Grand Shrine, Proving Ground, and Physic Garden – the city proper comprised the dozens of libraries devoted to different disciplines, the countless laboratories and workshops, meeting rooms, offices, and the smaller, dedicated shrines used by different groups. It was a vast and bustling metropolis of intellectual and emotional experimentation, effort, learning and understanding, where songs and aenimus were shared, tested and explored, ideas and knowledge of all kinds were collected and passed on.
Ombeitra was known by most as Min’Ombeitra, the Min’ being an honorific title reflecting his responsibilities and status in his library. Most residents of inner Holy City lived there only to study, and had to find ways to pay for food and drink and clothes, as well as a bed to sleep in each night. Some who had over time gained both personal insight and the respect of others might be given occasional or even regular tasks to perform by one of the Elders of the Inner or one of the Outer Counsels, related to whatever skill had drawn attention in the first place. Duties might be compensated by a bed to sleep in, regular meals or in some cases even an actual stipend, and many of those chosen this way would eventually go on to be selected as members of the various counsels that ran the city and ultimately, the empire.
Ombeitra enjoyed no such status; he merely looked after one of the libraries near the Proving Ground, in the western district of the inner City, and his area of expertise was History, specifically Ancient History. On this particular night, he was busy checking and re-arranging the library’s inventory, needlessly and apparently at random. He was muttering ominously and his movements were clumsy and distracted as he took items down one by one from here and there, checked each in one or another of the ledgers laid out on a table, and either put it back or replaced it somewhere else. Nobody else was in the library with him; he was so behaving so strangely and with such agitation that everyone else had left hours before. He hadn’t noticed that he was alone, though, so caught up he was in his inner turmoil.
Likewise, he didn’t notice when he suddenly wasn’t alone any more.
The Central Library of the Ancients was in a great round chamber, sectioned by dozens of long, high shelves, equally-spaced, that ran in sections from the walls in towards the centre of the circle. At the centre sat a ring of large Reading Tables, lined inside and out with plain wooden chairs and lit from above by an enormous white crystal light array.
‘‘Excuse me—’‘ began a smooth, cultured Obsidian City voice whose resonance made the light crystals overhead flicker.
Ombeitra was caught between searching a shelf and checking something in another book, but the voice and coruscating light caught his mind immediately. He blinked and whirled around from the shelf where he stood, glaring towards the arched doorway where he imagined the voice had come from. Instead, he nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw a tall figure covered from head to toe in a flowing, deeply hooded dark blue robe, standing completely still, only a few steps from where he himself was standing.
He stifled a cry of alarm, and managed to stammer, ‘‘Wh—? H—? How did you—? Who are you, creeping up on me in the middle of the night?’‘ As he spoke, his initial shock began turning into anger, and he went on emphatically, ‘‘Uncover yourself, and state your business immediately!’‘ He slid the book he was holding back onto the shelf and stepped in an arc around the robed figure without saying anything more, heading for a nearby table.
Whoever it was turned as he came to a halt near the table, and from under the robes the voice went on as if it had never paused, ‘’—my name is Esuin. I’ve – I’ve heard that a certain Saiyali Ambon died recently in the Proving Ground .. trying to outdo gods, or so it seems. I’ve com to this place because I know that she studied here for many years.’‘
Ombeitra frowned. The anger he felt at being interrupted was inflamed by this stranger’s intrusive flippancy, but despite the rush of emotion he managed to recall where and what he was. He took a deep breath and replied, as courteously as a Junior Paragon of a major library should, ‘‘Nobody knows what she was doing, our most welcome Esuin. At least, I knew how she felt about the Proving and what it meant, and maybe she was trying to outdo something. But gods? She didn’t believe in those.’‘ He shook his head sadly.
The man answered with a chuckle, ‘‘No – she didn’t. She even laughed, when I told her people once did.’‘ He paused, and Ombeitra regarded him with a stern and quizzical look.
He sighed hard and held out both hands imploringly. ‘‘Look – it’s late and I’m not in any mood for games. Will you tell me who you really are, and what you really want, or shall I call some wardens for you to tell?’‘
But before the figure could answer, Ombeitra had a sudden thought and waved both hands in front of him as if to dismiss the previous questions, as he protested, ‘‘No, no – more importantly than that – how do you know about Saiyali?’‘
As Ombeitra corrected himself, the figure was nodding beneath the hood, and as he finished his last question the figure’s arms rose and grabbed the hood from inside loose long sleeves. It dropped and revealed a man’s long, dark face, with lustrous, waxy skin. His strangely tall eyes were pale, glimmering with a soft inner light, and he had no hair anywhere on his head or face. He had no other marks either, and Ombeitra was struck by the strange idea that this individual was made of gently polished wood.
But the smooth face suddenly smiled, skin stretching tightly over the bones beneath and snapping back into place as he spoke. ‘‘You’re right, Min’Ombeitra—’‘ Ombeitra couldn’t withhold a gasp as this stranger named Esuin spoke his name, but had no time to say anything as the man went on, ‘’—It is too late, far too late, and I’m sorry. I was a .. close associate, friend even, of Saiyali – once upon a time, as we might say. I wish I could have come sooner but the news of her passing took time to reach me. I have come as quickly as I could, though. I’ve come for her voidstone.’‘
Ombeitra’s mind spun, his face screwed up in confusion and his head fell to one side. He stammered, ‘‘H-How – How do you know ab-about that? She never told anyone!’‘
Esuin nodded and answered softly ‘‘I know that she kept it a secret – but I was there when she took it from Saliki Nashivaar, and I knew her for years afterwards, till—’‘ he paused and smiled wistfully, then added with a resonance in his voice more like song than speech, ‘’—till our ways parted.’‘
He smiled a gentle, vulnerable smile and went on in the same voice, which made tendrils of aenimus dance about his eyes, ‘‘I’ve known she’s had it all these years, and I’ve come to see you – as a Paragon of the library where she was reading – to tell you that she promised it to me, and to ask for your help in getting hold of it.’‘
Ombeitra frowned and nodded thoughtfully, not replying for a moment as several conflicting thoughts passed through his mind. One thing was for certain – this man was Undying, and they weren’t known for practical jokes. The ..man? Creature? Man.. was taking a huge risk even being here; the Undying Connective was outlawed within the Empire. Even if they were tolerated on rare occasions, they risked arrest and destruction at any time if someone decided to report their presence to a warden.
Ombeitra himself had nothing against the process of undying or those who undertook it, and this particular individual was talking about his – till recently – closest friend. He’d already decided not to call a warden, and not only from curiosity; if this man had known Saiyali, just talking to him brought her back in some strange way. Ombeitra didn’t want to spoil that, he wanted to cultivate it, treasure it and take comfort in it. But was this individual to be trusted? That was the question he could neither answer nor put aside. He frowned, recalling who and where he was, and in the end he began carefully, ‘‘Well .. Esuin, I have to admit that Saiyali never mentioned you to me—’‘
But Esuin interrupted gently and politely, and his voice was strong and piercing. ‘‘No, she wouldn’t have, and I’m not surprised to hear that. In fact I’m quite relieved, now I think of it.’‘
He gave a frank and unabashed look and held out both arms, draped in their soft, expensive indigo cloth. ‘‘Look, Min’Ombeitra, the fact is that I’ve a lot more to lose here than you have – and not just because I’m Undying, believe me. But please also believe that I mean no harm – not to you or anyone in this city. So please, will you trust me to answer any questions you have – after you’ve answered my questions? I’m the visitor, after all…’‘ he let his voice tail off into a smile and gestured appealingly once more before dropping his arms and regarding Ombeitra with a strange smile. The look was clearly meant to be winsome, but from his waxy face and shimmering pale eyes it was an expression both discomforting and intimidating. Ombeitra had to look away.
Despite his unease he remained too curious to do anything but accept, and he nodded and sighed, ‘‘You are indeed a visitor here, and as I understand what you’ve told me so far—’‘ He coughed sharply and raised his voice into something bolder and more official, to continue, ‘‘It seems to me that your stated questions fall within this library’s purview, I therefore offer you refuge here till such a time as they are all answered to your satisfaction.’‘ Then he added in a lower voice, ‘‘I’m allowed to do that, for research purposes, because I’m a Paragon here—’‘ at which he winked and sat down, gesturing that Esuin should do the same.
He did so as Ombeitra went on, ignoring every question apart from one. ‘‘But Saiyali – she should have been a Paragon herself. Even when she began her studies here she knew enough about aenimus songs to fill a book of her own—’‘ Esuin smiled happily at this, but said nothing as Ombeitra went on, ‘’—and I remember thinking what an old lady she looked like and wondering why someone so old would be only just starting to study.’‘ He looked Esuin in the eyes and added confidentially, ‘‘We started here in the same week. I was fifteen.’‘
His face was suddenly suffused with the warmth of a memory and he smiled wistfully, going on, ‘‘I thought she was beautiful, even with such an age difference between us. No—!’‘ he shook his head and corrected himself, ‘‘Not thought – she really was beautiful. She was even beautiful not long before she died, even at her ancient age—’‘
Esuin nodded in agreement and added softly, ‘‘—I have no doubt at all—’‘ but didn’t intend it as an interruption and merely went on nodding and regarding Ombeitra sympathetically as he continued relating, ‘‘Anyway, we got on well straight away. She was interested in the same stories I was, and we found ourselves sharing books here quite often, finding things for each other, and eventually even writing together. We made our first Story Song together, the one which got me on the way to being a paragon myself – though it never got her anywhere.’‘ He sighed again and shook his head, adding, ‘‘Because she was Marathy.’‘
Esuin nodded again and said softly, ‘‘If it’s any consolation, she probably never wanted to be paragon of a library anyway.’‘
Ombeitra frowned and glanced sharply at him with annoyed suspicion. ‘‘She always said she didn’t want that, but to hear it from someone I’ve never met is .. disconcerting, Esuin. Worrying. Frightening, even.’‘ He shook his head and went on frowning as if a great deal felt wrong.
Esuin seemed to reach out and touch Ombeitra’s arm, but when Ombeitra looked down, no hand lay on him and Esuin was still sitting exactly where he had been – though his edges were shimmering softly – or is it the lights? Ombeitra couldn’t decide, and as he tried to focus and be sure, he heard a soft voice asking, Did you love her?
He wasn’t certain if he was hearing it in his ears or his mind, but before he could answer or even retort, Esuin’s voice went on, I did. I loved her. I still love her. It’s clear that so do you—
‘‘It isn’t .. It wasn’t that kind of love—’‘ interrupted Ombeitra thickly, struggling to speak through the pressure of thoughts, and looking back into the strange, pale eyes across the table.
But Esuin had let go with his mind, and spoke his reply out loud, ‘‘It wasn’t that kind of love between her and me, either. But look at me – do you really think I’ve come to see you for jealousy and passion?’‘ He was smiling now and he continued, ‘‘I’m far more keen to hear about what she was studying, or what you were studying together. I wrote to her once, but she never replied. So I never wrote again, and I still don’t exactly know what she was doing here—’‘ His eyes sparkled and those bright pinpoints exploded softly from him as Ombeitra tried to pick out some insight from the jumble of grief and shock his memory knew as Saiyali.
‘‘She – we used to have a lot of fun working out how some of the most fantastical old stories could be more than simply stories; how they might be actual history, couched in metaphor and symbolism.’‘ He shrugged, ‘‘We were like kindred spirits, we both enjoyed letting our imaginations run and leap on the strangest flights of fancy, but we somehow had the ability to keep each other tied into reality without annoying each other.’‘ he sighed, then gestured with one hand so as to emphasise with it as he continued, ‘‘But Saiyali always came back to facts, what she could verify and what she knew. She never confused her inventions and suppositions with what she would call true. I always loved and respected that. I always aspired to it myself; actually, I still do.’‘
Esuin nodded sombrely and made a gentle Hmm that was neither statement nor question nor barely even comment, more a reminder that he was listening. Ombeitra went on with a slow shake of his dark head and a frown in his golden violet eyes, ‘‘But she always had this fascination for voidstones. Like an obsession really, and in all the time I knew her I never really understood it. From the first time we talked, I think she mentioned them somehow in every single conversation we had.’‘ He regarded Esuin and added dryly, ‘‘I’m not really even joking.’‘
Esuin frowned and nodded, but said nothing in response as his attention was drawn by a noise elsewhere. He turned his bald head this way and that, then flicked his long hood up over his head just as Ombeitra finally heard a couple of voices approaching from the cloister outside, echoing from pillars and walls. He nodded to Esuin and stood up, walking quickly across the stone floor to the wide arched doorway off to his left, and Esuin’s right.
On the walls inside the doorway hung an array of small glass bells, and Ombeitra blew a single sung note at each one to set it ringing, and when he’d sounded all of them on both sides of the arch, a shimmering haze appeared inside the archway. He nodded with satisfaction and turned back towards his seat as two figures appeared in the doorway, saw the closure and walked away again, their words and actions obscured from view by the aenimus.
But as he walked across the chamber, he snapped his fingers with a sudden recall and darted across to another shelf, where he pulled down a large brown book. He carried it cradled in his arms across to the table where Esuin still sat with his hood up, and as he walked he said with a smile, ‘‘Saiyali came here first of all to study this, the Refuges Cycle. The library’s closed now by the way, you can get comfortable again.’‘
Esuin pulled down his hood again and sat up with a grateful nod, and Ombeitra laid the heavy tome gently down, taking his seat and going on, ‘‘It’s got quite a few famous and popular sections, some have even been abridged and children read them as bedtime stories. But this—’‘ he laid a gentle hand on the shimmering leather binding, ‘’—this is the original manuscript – at least, it’s the oldest copy there still is. Well, actually this is only the second volume – the first and third are over there on the same shelf.’‘ He gestured in the general direction, adding, ‘‘And a box full of maps, charts, diagrams and notes we keep in the storage chambers, that go with them.’‘
He smiled to Esuin, who chuckled as Ombeitra added, ‘‘All thousands of years old – and yet not old enough. None of it’s an original account of anything, it’s all been copied from somewhere else at least once over – though ironically, it also contains the original map of Marash, the one all our maps of the place now are still based on. There are bits about Marathy, too, that people even now believe are the actual truth about the place.’‘ He nodded and added, ‘‘Those were the bits I think Saiyali was really caught up in, even if she always said it was about voidstones. It was – but then again, it wasn’t.’‘
Esuin nodded sombrely and this time added, ‘‘I think she always wished just to go home, but each time she tried to find home in Marathy, she failed. I think she just felt lost.’‘ He shrugged. ‘‘Maybe these stories were Marathy filtered into something safe, that she could consider without pain. A sort of comforting lie, like some might tell a worried child so it can sleep.’‘
Ombeitra nodded sadly and sighed, ‘‘I think you could be right, even if she kept it well hidden inside all her talk about voidstones.’‘
A silence stretched out and the library seemed to Ombeitra to shrink and darken around him. He desperately wished for the sound of Saiyali’s voice, calling him to hear some brand new insight or discovery, and he wondered what she’d have made of this individual, who claimed and certainly seemed to know her so well. Would she have welcomed him? Would she have sat here like this discussing private secrets like old friends – or would she be insisting he leave, would those bright green eyes of hers be flashing and glimmering in that way they always did when her anger rose?
He sighed, and shook his head slowly. ‘‘Esuin,’‘ he said quietly, ‘‘Please don’t think me rude, I do want to discuss the histories and mythologies Saiyali was so keen on; after all, it’s my life path too. But before I can lay any of my own trust on you I must know something – I need to ask a question.’‘
Esuin said nothing, simply nodded and his pale eyes shimmered expectantly above his enigmatic smile.
Ombeitra went on, ‘‘Of course, you already know what I want to ask – but I’ll say the words anyway, because I like things to be done properly and because honesty should earn honesty in return. So tell me, visitor-friend Esuin, how did you know Saiyali?’‘
A full moon was rising over the Grand Shrine’s central dome, and from a certain angle it appeared to be resting just exactly upon the spike that topped the roof, like a pale, scarred head staring dolefully down on the gathering below. It was when the moon appeared full that the regular lines said to be structures from ages past could be seen most clearly, as they were wrapped partly around the moon’s left side, opposite the large, deep crater under its right side.
Most people believed that the lines on the moon were structures from ages past; in fact it could be clearly seen with skyglasses and lens projectors that was indeed what they were. The only debate was between those who believed they had been built there by people – a minority – and people who believed they had been built there by visitors from another world, somewhere among the stars. That was the prevailing view, but everybody agreed whoever built them, they did so an extraordinarily long time ago. Generally it was thought practically impossible to go to the moon; it was one of the mythological journeys alluded to in a few ancient stories, but even the brightest and best were at a loss to explain how it might be achieved in reality.
Most people though, weren’t really interested in the moon. Most people, it might be speculated, have never been really interested in the moon, in itself – and as for the huge crater, well – the moon was covered in craters, after all. Who cares?
What this particular group of people did care about on this particular night though, was the spectacle drawing to a close before, over, and all around them.
It was a Full Moon Dedication, but the only thing the moon actually had to do with it was its name; the full moons marked when the dedications took place and the dedications were the point, not the state of the moon itself, which was really only a reminder.
And the point of the dedications was to share energy; to activate the aenimus of all attendees in ways and to extents that no individual could have done by themselves, or even in small groups. Dedications at the Grand Shrine involved songs, chants, dances and evocations designed to manifest as much aenimus as possible and make it quicken and grow. It would be passed around in patterns that flowed and resonated through the Shrine in different ways – then at the right moment all the power would be retaken by the participants, stronger than before, and the cycle would begin again.
The shrine amplified sound perfectly at every frequency and would subtly respond to changes in the voices echoing in it, as the ceremony itself excited more aenimus by voice and movement. Between them, aenimus rose and spread and energized every participant. It carried senses, feelings, cares, worries, joys, hopes. What was felt was shared, quickened, and understood.
Attendance at Full Moon Dedications was obligatory for all officials and nobility of a certain rank or position in the state hierarchy, who were in Holy City at the time or who lived there all the time – as the most senior officials all did. What really made the Full Moon Dedications unique though, was the presence of the Emperor and Empress. There were dedications, ceremonies and rituals of all kinds held all over the empire all the time – but the Grand Shrine was where the Holy Empirial Couple performed their most important ceremonial duties, moon after moon, year after year. Tonight their task was, as usual, to generate and direct a huge amount of aenimus; but also to focus the sense and feeling that emerged as the ceremony unfolded and waves and pulses of energy washed through the crowds.
There was of course a symbolic purpose to it all; the same purpose behind the presence of Empress and Emperor and the occasion of the Full Moon. It was the creation of a sense of Moment, of something particularly special and important taking place. In a Great Moment like a dedication, individual and collective aenimus quickened all the more powerfully when what was happening was considered truly momentous. Each participant’s individual will was then manipulated into growing their presence, and each one’s fuller presence gave more power to the whole gathering.
But it wasn’t all symbolic – the practical purposes were manifold. The energy realised by a large, dedicated crowd through ceremonies of this kind, at the right moments and around the most subtle and resonant shrine in existence, was more than enough to keep the Empire and its clerics, wardens, officers, merchants, farmers – even its slaves – strong, focussed, cohesive and unified; enough to make them believe, but at the very least enough to obey.
Tonight’s song was nearly at an end and the aim of the dedication was almost achieved; aenimus manifested by everybody present had been circulating and amplifying, augmented substantially by the Emperor and Empress’ own efforts at the centre. They were almost exhausted and it was visible in their black, dull and swollen eyes. They were back to back in the very middle of the shrine, holding hands and singing one of the holy songs only they were allowed to lead, and both their voices were beginning to wear out.
Both as dark-skinned as all the most high-born were, they were dressed in pure white robes. They also had their long locks wrapped in white, but whereas the Empress had her hair sculpted to form an intricate mandala above her head, the Emperor’s hair was all wrapped in individual bundles that hung over his face and his body as far down as his ankles. They were both perfectly beautiful, with finely proportioned features highlighted by immaculately-trimmed hair and perfect golden tattooing.
In the inner circle of participants, just outside the shrine itself but at the centre of the crowd, were the most senior state officials. Behind them, other members of the nobility, government staff and advisers, counsel members from other important Counsels – and anybody who had ambitions for social or political advancement. All were singing solemnly, the final notes of the chant begun by the Empirial couple an hour before. A strong sense of both potential and completeness pervaded the gathering here, eyes were bright and aenimus was shimmering in hands, faces and between individuals like spraying, sparkling webs of liquid light. These individuals would be overflowing with energy for days – some who were expert practitioners would benefit for longer still.
Beyond them though, were the great mass of Holy City citizens; they were there to give of their own aenimus and receive in return something that they felt had been blessed by the occasion. aenimus shared, amplified, held and quickened by the Holy Couple, sanctioned and sanctified by the Empire itself – most never even realised that what they got back was considerably less than what they gave, because what they got back felt so vital and exhilarating. Those who did know didn’t care; they were just delighted and honoured to share aenimus with the Emperor and Empress. Some felt it was a social duty to contribute personally to the wellbeing of the Empire, and some just enjoyed the rush and the sense of belonging.
But just like the beloved couple at the centre of the crowd, all were tiring by this stage; the web of aenimus between most was becoming thin and faint, and as the final notes faded and the final glittering edges dissipated into the suddenly silent night air, a few even wavered on their feet and had to be caught by those close to them, then helped carefully to sit on the ground.
This was normal, but what happened next was not. A dramatic shift of energy always took place as the last voices ended the last note, and those voice were always meant to be the Empress’ and Emperor’s. As expected, the crowd fell into dutiful and devotional silence and the very last sound echoed from inside the shrine, where final glistening threads of aenimus popped into mist and both voices stopped simultaneously.
Absolute silence and stillness hung briefly, and what should have happened was that the Empirial Couple stayed in place, still holding hands and facing away from each other as the crowd gradually dispersed.
But what actually happened was that the Empress gasped, with a sound of surprise more than of pain, and then collapsed as if the bones had gone from inside her limbs.
Ombeitra sat heavily back in his seat, a look of understanding dawning in his glistening violet eyes, and a reluctant smile creeping across his face as his head shook in astonishment at his own outrageous lack of insight. ‘‘I should have known! I should have known – she was so interested in the Sisterhood of Shadows – origins, history, all the myths where their name cropped up. I should have realised .. and the voidstone .. it all makes sense now! I – ahhhh…’‘ Words failed him and he simply sighed in annoyance at himself, shaking his head.
Esuin smiled and shook his own as if denying Ombeitra the right to be so embarrassed. ‘‘No, please understand – It was something none of us would ever, ever admit. I’m only telling you now because – well, because it’s too late anyway. They’re all gone, all dead now. And you’ve offered me refuge here. And you might have guessed about Saiyali – but who would ever want to really think a friend of theirs is .. that?’‘
Ombeitra’s slow headshake of annoyance became a quicker one of firm denial. ‘‘I wouldn’t denounce you. I’m a historian – to me, that’s .. it’s fascinating. The Sisterhood of Shadows, I’m really quite .. quite amazed—’‘ He had a sudden thought and added, ‘‘Maybe .. maybe you’ll let me interview you .. one day?
He chuckled and answered after a moment’s thou ght, ‘‘Let’s agree on maybe. But for now – do you think you can believe me?’‘
Ombeitra shrugged, laughed and answered, ‘‘Well – if you are lying then it’s the most outrageous lie I’ve ever heard. But there’s something – I don’t know, serious about you .. and there are a few things I remember about Saiyali, now they occur to me – and then too, you knew Saiyali. I do believe that.’‘
Esuin bowed his head gratefully.
Ombeitra was shaking his head again slowly, and shrugging. ‘‘But now would be a good moment to admit that in truth, I can’t help you with the Voidstone. It’s been taken.’‘
Esuin’s pale eyes blazed and a frown passed lingeringly across his brow. His shiny skin wrinkled sharply, his thin lips pressed tightly together, and his eyes half-closed, making them appear even brighter for a moment. ‘‘Taken?’‘ He whispered hoarsely.
Ombeitra looked concerned, and nodded in response, regarding Esuin keenly and seeing horror on his face. He answered gently but firmly, ‘‘I’m sorry, but yes. When I retrieved Saiyali’s possessions from the Law Counsel they told me some relative of hers had come to claim the stone. Of course they handed it over, it was evidently someone named Suriya Selenke, from Jade City.’‘
On hearing the name, Esuin’s expression relaxed quickly and he even raised a questioning brow, wondering aloud, ‘‘Selenke? From the Jade City Selenkesi? Well – that is interesting. Disappointing, definitely, but yes – interesting.’‘
He looked up vacantly as if searching for something in his mind, and Ombeitra felt the same way; something, some association was nagging at him but he couldn’t quite grasp it. Something about Selenkesi—
Esuin finally nodded and snapped his fingers, face lit with victory. ‘‘The Nashivaar Matriarch, Saliki – she was related to the Selenke family. She claimed the Voidstone belonged to her by blood right, Saiyali told me that.’‘
Ombeitra nodded slowly, sighing with his lack of insight and murmuring reluctantly, ‘’…because the Selenke family control the Jade Citadel and a voidstone was famously stolen from there—’‘ he shrugged and held his hands out in appeal, adding, ‘’—except that it can’t actually belong to them, because it arrived from somewhere, and that place is Marash. They all came from there.’‘
Esuin nodded in agreement, but some thought startled him and he stared intently at Ombeitra. ‘‘They all did? What do you mean, all? Surely there’s only the one voidstone?’‘
Ombeitra shook her head. ‘‘No, no – there were four – at least that is according to the Voyages of Hieros. ‘’ He gently patted the large brown tome on the table and added, ‘‘That’s one of the story cycles in volume two, which is why I brought it over here. You think there’s only one of those stones, but look—’‘
He pulled the tome to him and sang a word at it. Its shimmering outline faded and he reached to open it, carefully. As he gently turned crackling pages, he explained, ‘‘Hieros is a pirate, seducer, hero and villain. One of his Voyages is to a land where animals talk, plants walk, and everywhere is haunted by evil spirits. The spirits send some of the crew mad with riddles, kill others in various tests, but they never fully reveal themselves.’‘
He reached a particular point in the book and turned it to Esuin, pointing with a finger to a section of the text. ‘‘You can read it here. It’s set in a land he calls Ma Rashal Kharabesh Ankatha, which he explains is the name used by one of the spirits. He says it means The Place Where Fire Rains Down.’‘
Esuin was looking at the page, but he glanced up at this and made a gentle, curious Hmm.
Ombeitra went on, ‘‘Well, it begins when Hieros and his crew are wrecked on the savage coastline and in order to escape from the deadly place, they travel over mountains and through a land where—’‘ he pointed again at a specific line and recited, ‘—fires of every colour flowed like water and the earth bubbled with light.’’‘ But they can’t get out of the lands – every way they go they’re confronted by hostile animals, and the spirits haunt them constantly. They’re dying off slowly, when they meet a witch who offers to help them get out of the lands – if they agree to steal from the spirits some precious stones which grow in a lake of light.’‘
Esuin was no longer trying to read, he was just listening to Ombeitra’s version of the story with a look of fascination in his glimmering eyes. Ombeitra shrugged and explained, ‘‘Anyway they agree, but then they trick her – escaping with her help but keeping the stones for themselves. She chases them of course, more of them die as they get away, and they end up with only four stones. But those are believed by some – I and Saiyali included – to have been the same four voidstones that ended up here way, way back in ancient times.’‘
At a quizzical glance from Esuin, who had been once more looking over the faded pages beneath his face. Ombeitra nodded and explained, ‘‘Three of them ended up in the symbols of office of the Bay cities, and the one in Jade City was kept in use the longest – so that’s the one that many believe is the only one. Even you, it seems.’‘ He smiled the smile of an expert, confident he was about to amaze.
Esuin smiled a sly smile, nodded and asked, ‘‘But you know better – right?’‘
Ombeitra winked and inclined his head affirmatively. ‘‘Well – two voidstones are mentioned in other literature. One’s in another section of the Refuges cycle, in volume three. The piece is called Things Natures, and is extremely challenging to read. I’ll not get up to fetch it, you can look later if you like.’‘ Esuin shrugged and gestured for Ombeitra to go on.
He nodded, and chuckled as he added, ‘‘Well, something for a cold night at home maybe.’‘ He waved a hand. ‘‘What it is, is a very confused, first-person account of a traveller calling him-or-herself Bazaly who kills a merchant for a voidstone. But he-or-she gets possessed by the stone and travels under its spell to Marash, where he or she gets killed by wild animals – but later wakes up, able to transform into different animals. Most of it is delirious ramblings that the writer – whoever that was – claims are from the minds of different creatures.’‘
He smirked with amusement as he went on, ‘’‘So that stone disappears from the record with poor Bazaly, and another appears in the Song of Maseliu’s Curse. The stone’s set in a circlet that the hero Maseliu gives his wife Eniki as a wedding gift. Forest creatures come to steal it and he fights them – but they beat him and they escape with it. He’s disowned by his family for losing the jewel, and rejected by his new wife for not protecting her honour on their wedding night.’‘ He shook his head and sighed. ‘‘Anyway – Maseliu spends the rest of his life wandering the world looking for the jewel he lost and he never finds it. So, that’s two gone.’‘
He smiled again. ‘‘You know, usually I say it’s vital not to get mythology and history confused – but with voidstones it’s hard not to. They appear so rarely that it’s very tempting to assume that – even if the names and places aren’t completely accurate – that these two stories do tell about real voidstones. After all,’‘ he shrugged, ‘‘If these stones in Things Natures and Maselliu’s Curse aren’t two of those stolen by Hieros in the Voyages, then where did they come from? There are no other mentions in literature of voidstones. Not one, not anywhere.’‘ He stopped, shrugged again for longer, and the expression on his face challenged Esuin to make an alternative suggestion.
Esuin shook his head and answered, ‘‘Ombeitra, that all makes sense to me, and I don’t know enough about the stories to argue. So let’s say that two of your original four are accounted for in stories – and of course the stone Saiyali had, that’s been – reclaimed, let’s say – by whoever Selenke—’‘
‘‘Suriya.’‘ prompted Ombeitra.
Esuin nodded absently, ‘‘As you say, Suriya Selenke—’‘ Esuin went on, ‘’—so let’s say that stone is the third—’‘ he was nodding encouragingly now, and Esuin smiled as he finished, ‘—the third of four – and that the fourth must therefore be .. missing?’‘
Ombeitra snapped his fingers and grinned mischievously, pointing at Esuin with a dark undecorated finger. ‘‘Exactly, missing. At least, it was – but actually after all, I think it isn’t.’‘
He pulled open a draw of his desk and lifted out a plain brown paper envelope, that had Min’Ombeitra Taklemsi, Ctrl.Lib.Ancients written on it. Esuin immediately recognized it as Saiyali’s handwriting, and his eyes burned brighter as he watched it rise towards him through the air in Ombeitra’s fingers. As he offered it to him, Ombeitra observed Esuin’s pale eyes carefully and couldn’t help wondering what exactly he was so moved by.
Esuin took the envelope and flicked it open. He read the paper inside at first with a smile, and a chuckle. He looked at Ombeitra, nodding. ‘‘She knew what would happen, hmm?’‘
Ombeitra kept his eyes on Esuin as he went on reading. Disbelief was dawning on his long, smooth face, and at the same rate a smile spread across Ombeitra’s own. He couldn’t help himself, and he laughed, ‘‘Ha – right. I can see you know the place…’‘
Esuin’s pale eyes flicked up and then back again to the paper in his hand. He dropped his hand as if it had been weakened by a shock, but he shook his head and raised it again to check what he’d just read, with a dramatic squint. Finally he frowned and asked, ‘‘And you think it’s still there?’‘
Ombeitra shrugged. ‘‘I’ve no idea, but you’ve read what she wrote. I wasn’t even planning to go and find out because I’ve too much to keep me here and I just don’t care enough about voidstones to give all this up. But I thought that some day someone might turn up asking after Saiyali’s stone. Actually, someone was bound to, especially once it was stol—’‘ he chuckled, ‘’—reclaimed by the Lenkesi. As you say, she saw that coming.’‘ He sighed. ‘‘It’s a shame I only got it when her papers were released by the Law Counsel – after they’d already given her family their property back.’‘ He laid on heavy ironic emphasis as he spoke.
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Once there were four, but now there's only one: The Voidstone. For centuries kept secretly by the Sisterhood of Shadows and passed from resolution to resolution, by most it was considered as mythical as the sisterhood itself. But when the last Shadow Sister dies conspicuously in Holy City - Trying to Outdo Gods, it's said - the stone's appearance attracts the attention of three quite different creatures with three quite different motives. One claims it as ancestral property and a badge of office. One claims it so as to keep a blood promise to its final keeper. One claims it in order to heal her lands, and break an ancient curse. But the dead woman was not the last Shadow Sister - and hers was not the last voidstone. Set against a backdrop of massive social upheaval, Voidstone takes the reader from the smoky cliff-bound chambers of the Jade Citadel, where the great and the good conspire to seize an empire for themselves, to the sun-drenched Grand Circles of Holy City, where that empire's death throes finally begin. We see Obsidian City since its gutters ran with the blood of the great families and its palaces burned; we pass by North Shore where the Undying Connective do their awful and awesome experiments; and we walk the lands many call Marash, from where travellers do not return. We glimpse the past that makes their world what it is, at a point where very different futures are being born. We follow several people whose lives are changed irrevocably by the voidstone's passage. Suriya, a young idealistic lawyer whose ideals are betrayed by her experience. Esuin, an old assassin who remains undying so as to make one final resolution. Amadli, a teenage boy lost in the wilderness who slowly learns the importance of paying attention. But we also meet Lightworkers, Sentinels, the Undying Connective, the Empire's Rulers, and the Emperor himself. We also glimpse what it was that Saiyali and Esuin did after the end of Shadow Sister - to which Voidstone is a sequel. The third story in this set, Wanderer Returns, will be available by early 2017.