Author Topic: Chapter 8  (Read 9534 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 8
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:02:45 AM »
Chapter 8

It was a lovely day on the open fields. The sun was shining down brightly on them from above, and there was no sign of frost anywhere. Grass surrounded them on all sides, stretching out for leagues in every direction. Arico sat on the blanket and looked across the game board at his friend.

Odjes wasn’t looking back. His brooding brow was furrowed as he looked down at the board and contemplated his next move. The noise of children playing behind them beckoned at Arico’s ears, and he glanced in that direction. A little boy and girl, both of them less than three years old, were playing tag on the grass. Laughing, running, rolling and wrestling, while their mother looked on from far away.

“Your move.” Odjes tapped him on the shoulder.

Arico returned his attention to the game, but the pieces were… unfocused. Difficult to see, much less move. He sat back up and crossed his legs on the blanket. “Haven’t we played this game before?”

“Of course we have,” Odjes answered easily. “Almost every day for years now. Don’t you remember?”

Now that he mentioned it, Arico could vaguely recall this experience. Sometimes in a palace, surrounded by servants. Sometimes by the Waters, or on a boat anchored in the Waters. Sometimes atop the city walls, surrounded by silent armed guards obsessed with their protection. Sometimes at Durhu’s farm, while the children played with Tula and D’tor’s cows instead of just each other. In each case the people were mostly the same. Arico, Odjes, the two children, and their distant mother. Sometimes he knew what it meant, and sometimes he didn’t.

Odjes pointed down to the blanket. “That looks like it hurts.”

Arico followed his gaze. Blood was soaking his side, seeping down through his clothes and into the cloth below. The little boy was bleeding as well, though he didn’t seem to notice it. Concerned, Arico put a hand to his side and stabbing pain shot through his midsection-

-With a gasp, Arico sat up in bed.

He nearly cried out in pain, clutching at his side. Only long years of training and practice kept him silent (and he still had to bite down on his tongue) as he instinctively tried to figure out where he was. It was dark, mostly. He could see candlelight flickering from across the room. With a breath of relief, he realized he was in the Hideaway.

The pain in his side was fading. It looked like one of Endu’s dressings, which was a comforting thought. At least he wasn’t bleeding in real life. His sha’haln dream was fading, though. We are such stuff as our dreams are made of, Durhu had once told him, which meant that Odjes was probably just a version of himself. No wonder they got along so well.

Arico could hear breathing to his left, slow and steady. Further to the left, the faint whistling noise that his mi’he made when he snored. Arico laid back in bed with some relief. At least Durhu was all right. He remembered… passing out on the grass, right next to the threads. The woman—Jaas—must have gotten help. If they were here though, it meant that Tellek patch wasn’t safe anymore.

Arico groaned. That was his fault. The Sustained guards had seen him navigate! If they were searching Tellek, they were probably searching every other patch as well. The Hauld would definitely not like this.

“Are you all right?” A voice softly asked in dwarven. The candlelight across the room seemed to split in two, and the other candle was carried over to him by Jaas. She must have heard him wake up.

Her normally curly hair was a bit disheveled from sleep, but she looked otherwise unhurt. At least she hadn’t been shot as well. Arico gave her a curt nod. “How did we get here?”

She grimaced. “A big bald man wearing a red uniform brought us.” From her tone, she didn’t think well of him, but her expression changed back to curiosity quickly enough. “I want to talk to you about that, actually. About that white… emptiness I keep on seeing when I pass through the barriers.”

Arico hesitated. Everyone in the city had at least a basic idea of what the inside of the threads looked like, so either this woman was really, really committed to her cover story of being from the Outside, or she… actually was.

He shook his head. “That’s, uh, very complicated to explain. But don’t worry. Now that we’re somewhere safe, I can take the time to tell you everything. As for the man who brought us here, his name is Alzhi. He’s strong, loyal, and reliable, but he’s not the most personable of people. Try not to hold it against him.”

Jaas gave a derisive sniff. “I’ll do my best,” she said with just a touch of sarcasm. “Anyway, it’s good to see you awake again. I was afraid for a while. Durhu kept me company, catching me up on some of the things that have happened in Vasiriah over the past few hundred years.”

Arico stared at her. “Wait, you can understand him?”

“Well, not at first. Now I can, mostly.”

“How long was I out?” Arico wondered aloud.

“About a day and a half. That Alzhi person picked you up and brought us all here just before dusk.”

“You learned a new language in one day??”

Jaas gave a brief shrug. “I’m not conversational yet, if that’s what you mean. The fact that he could understand me was a big help, too.” She leaned back in the small chair, looking contemplative. “When it comes down to it, languages are really just patterns with a little memorization here and there to fill in the gaps. I’ve always had a gift with recognizing patterns, so languages come easily to me.”

“I’ll say.” Arico shook his head in wonderment. “You really are from the Outside, aren’t you?”

“You mean you still don’t believe me?” She gave him a wry smile.

He raised his hands in protest. “It’s… not an easy thing to wrap my brain around. I am sorry, but in my defense, no one’s ever come from the Outside before! Some people have told stories over the years, spread rumors that they’d seen someone from the Outside, but nothing ever came of it.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, listening to Durhu’s quiet snore and the faint flickering of the candles. Arico still felt weak, and not just from the blood loss. It… had happened! Terres had been right. For the first time since the Threading, someone had actually come here from the Outside. The Harbinger was actually here!

He’d never really believed in the prophecies, and he was still having difficulty with it, even when she was right here staring him in the face. A great many others would believe it, though. He sat up in the makeshift bed and immediately regretted it as the muscles in his midsection protested. “Careful!” Jaas admonished. “That healer woman said you need to take it easy or those… stitches in your side may come loose. Or that’s what Durhu told me, anyway.”

Arico grimaced. “For once I’m not arguing,” he said through gritted teeth as he tried to find a more comfortable seat.

“So how do you get through the barriers—uh, I mean the threads?” Jaas asked quietly into the darkness. “How does that Alzhi person? How do you bring people with you, and what is that white space with all those streams of light?” She peppered him with questions, and leaned forward as she spoke. Her breathing had quickened, and she licked her lips with excitement. Apparently this information was particularly important to her.

“I could ask you the same thing,” he countered, stalling for time. He was finding it a bit strange to talk like this with a living legend. “How about we alternate questions? You asked first, so I’ll start answering first.”

He waited for her to nod and then took a deep breath, trying to arrange his thoughts. “For as long as the threads have existed, there have been a small number of people who can navigate them. It’s been more than three hundred years since the threads first appeared, but no one’s exactly sure how long. No one could tell time very well back then; it was before the New Day cycle began.”

Arico bit his tongue slightly. She hadn’t asked for a history lesson! “Anyway, some of us are born different. We’re called navigators, and if we’re close enough we can see the threads when we close our eyes. We’re the only people who can pass through the threads safely or take people with us. As far as I know, the Waters are the only exception.”

It felt strange to explain this to her. After all, everyone in Patchwork knew all of this from childhood. And most of them had been lied to about it, too. The Council had gone to great lengths to make sure they were in control of as many navigators as possible.

Jaas pulled out a roll of parchment and a quill from the pack by her bed. It took Arico a moment to recognize his own quill, from his days learning to read and write. Durhu must have let her bring them. She dutifully started taking notes on what he was saying with practiced ease… and excellent penmanship despite the dim candlelight, he noticed with a bit of jealousy.

“All right. It’s actually been three hundred and four years, now. I did a lot of research on this place before coming here.” She sounded particularly proud of that. “Let’s see here… so you and Alzhi are called navigators?”

“He is.” Arico clarified hastily. “He’s working undercover for House Miller right now, hence the haircut and uniform. Very few people know I’m a navigator.” He paused at that. “Well, very few people knew. Now I guess everybody does. I pulled you into the threads in broad daylight. My secret’s out now,” he realized aloud. It was frightening, to suddenly be so exposed.

Jaas seemed to catch onto his tone and glanced down at his bandaged midsection. “Thank you for breaking me out. You said it was a risk, and you were right. I still don’t know exactly what you gave up to save me, but I won’t forget it.”

He smiled tightly. “Glad to help.”

“Anyway,” she said, suddenly back to business, “so what exactly makes someone a navigator?”

It was his turn to ask, but he let it slide. She was the one with more to learn, after all. “We’re not actually sure. What we do know is that it’s a family trait. If your parents are navigators, then you’re much more likely to be one, but it’s never a sure thing.”

She glanced back at Durhu. “So your father can navigate as well?”

Arico hesitated. Some secrets were greater than others. Durhu probably wouldn’t care if he told her, but the Hauld certainly would. Still, she’d been open with him so far. She deserved the same treatment from him.

“Durhu… isn’t my father, actually,” he said aloud for the first time ever. “I mean, he is my father. He raised me, and when I think of my father, I always think of him. But we don’t share any blood. He can’t navigate any more than you can.”

He cocked his head to the side, “or at least I assume you can’t navigate. It’s my turn to ask you something. How did you get into the city in the first place? The threads on the outer edges of the wall don’t have any exit points. I’m a very powerful navigator, and even I can’t get out, so how did you get in?”

Now it was Jaas’ turn to hesitate. Her hand dropped to her left side down by the floor, for apparently no reason. Just like his, though, her hesitation didn’t last long. “I… took a risk. I really wish I had my pack so I could show you my research, but basically my assistant and I studied the barriers for a long time. We saw that fish could swim in and out of it, so I figured the river was the key. Water is a universal conductor, after all.”

Arico found himself leaning back away from her. This conversation had suddenly gotten uncomfortable. “You used the Waters to get here?”

“Well, yes.” She looked at him curiously. “Is something wrong?”

“Sort of,” he said evasively. “Tell me, have you heard of Aquun… or the Shemra?”

She sat back, apparently thinking hard. “Shemra doesn’t sound familiar, but Aquun does. The name’s from Old Vasiri, I think. Some kind of water spirit?”

“Not anymore,” he clarified slowly. This was dangerous ground; he’d have to explain it very carefully so she wouldn’t get into trouble. “From what the penets tell us, she’s the guardian spirit of Patchwork. She protected us and kept us alive after the gods themselves cursed us. She still does, or so the people believe.”

Jaas scribbled down what he was saying, quickly and easily. Arico wondered briefly if they had enough parchment here. “So these penets, they’re your priesthood?”

He nodded. “They preside over all the rituals in the city. The Ritual of Rejoining, the Ritual of Waters. All bondings are performed by them, and all funerals. The Plague Test, as well,” he added with a sour note. Rituals, like people, could be good or bad.

Jaas only smiled. “I look forward to learning all about this… new religion. I’d bet it’s nothing at all like the ones I’ve studied elsewhere.”

“You have to be careful, though,” he urged her. “People all over this city have a great respect for the Waters. If you ask about them, or talk about them without the proper reverence…” he trailed off.

“Of course,” she answered quietly. “Don’t worry; I’ll watch what I say.”

-.-

Eventually Arico could see cracks of light just starting to show through the makeshift door to the Hideaway. He was surprised; they’d been talking most of the night. She had a remarkable gift for organization and a relentless ear for details. “Did Alzhi say if he’d told anyone about my injury?”

“No. He just transported us through the threads to the ruin above, helped us open that rolling door of yours, and then left. Charming, really.”

Arico gave a rueful chuckle. “It’s his way.”

“So,” Jaas moved to a new line on her parchment. “Durhu said that this place was your Hideaway. You dug it out yourselves?”

“Mostly.” He could faintly make out the edges of the bridge now. “All we really had to do was clear out the stones from beneath the collapsed bridge. The rest of the weight above us is evenly distributed. Durhu sealed the cracks here and there with pitch and gum rubber, so it keeps air in as well. During winter a single fire can heat this whole place.”

Jaas gave him an amused look. “So,” she held up a hand and started ticking off fingers one by one. “You’re hiding your status as a navigator, you have combat training and a friend who’s acting as a spy when he’s not busy helping you, and you have a super-secret reinforced hiding spot. You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?”

Arico didn’t know what to say to that. “I… try to live an interesting life,” he said evasively. He spread his hands in a placating gesture. “Look, I’d explain everything to you, but I’m not sure how much I should share yet. I want to talk to… some other people first.” The Hauld would definitely want to talk to him before giving her any information about the movement. The very fact that she knew Alzhi was a spy was already a huge deal, and the Hauld wouldn’t like it at all.

She gave him an evaluating glance in the dim light before eventually nodding, if still a little suspiciously. “Of course, whatever makes you comfortable.”

Only wincing slightly, Arico slid his legs off the bed and slowly stood up. Thankfully Jaas didn’t protest but she did stand up next to him, probably thinking he might keel over. “Come on. We’re going outside.”

“Aren’t they looking for us? Will it be safe?”

He shook his head at that. “They always search the empty patches first, and then move on to the more populated ones. By now they’ve already been here and gone.” Arico had a sudden idea and pointed to the wall by the door. “Grab that rope, would you?”

Jaas retrieved the rope without question, and then helped him up the inside stairs. “You sound as if you’ve been through this before. The city-wide search thing, I mean.”

She was kind enough to roll the door aside for him. From the inside it was gum rubber and stone. From the outside it looked like a broken paving stone. It made perfect camouflage for the Hideaway. “Once or twice a year, usually,” Arico grunted as he rolled the paving stone back in place. “They do a census every once in a while to make sure that no new children are left unregistered. Sometimes they do an unscheduled search, like now.”

The sun was rising over the ruined bridge behind them. They were in a long shadow, but all around them blue skies spread out. Or at least the image of blue skies did. He pointed to the south. “The nearest threads are that way. Follow me.”

It felt good to be up and about again. Endu’s herbs were helping with the pain and his muscles were still sore, but at least he was able to maintain a reasonable pace. As far as gunshot wounds went, it seemed he’d been quite lucky. Jaas followed, trying and failing to hide the concerned look on her face.

Before long they arrived at the threads, and Arico held out an arm to stop her. There was no redline here, because this patch had been abandoned so long ago. “Close your eyes. Can you see anything?”

She shook her head, eyes scrunched tight. Arico took a deep breath and closed his eyes as well. “I see a wall in front of me, filled with tendrils of white light. They’re the same tendrils you saw after I was injured, and again when you were brought here. They spread out to both sides, out of sight, and they’re all moving, intertwining and twirling around each other. They’re always in motion, but they never come any closer. I’ve been able to see them like this ever since I was little. Here, keep your eyes closed and lean just a little bit closer. Do you feel that breeze?”

Jaas nodded. “Yes, I wondered about that. The exterior barrier doesn’t do anything like that. No wind, nothing.”

“Nearly everything that enters the threads, even dirt that slides into them from underground, is threaded. Powdered, I guess you could say, into pieces so small you can barely see them.”

“Disintegrated,” she breathed, opening her eyes in amazement.

He’d never heard that particular word before, so he just shrugged. “That powder is then transported randomly to the other threads, all across the city.”

Jaas thought about it for a few seconds. “So, that breeze is actually air being pushed into the other threads, and randomly coming out here? And if… a person were to step through, they would be shredded and bits of them would end up coming out of all the threads in the city?” Her voice fluttered a little while saying that. This kind of danger was nothing new to him, but he tried to remember how Balter and Veles had reacted when they were told as children. No wonder she sounded afraid.

“Sort of.” He tried to find a way of explaining that wouldn’t scare her but would include all the facts. “Let’s say… an animal was forced into the threads. All of the Waters in its body would arrive on the other side, and just splash onto the ground. The rest of it would be threaded, though. The animal would die instantly.”

Jaas nodded, obviously trying not to let her fear show. “But you and I made it.”

“Navigators can pass through, along with any objects they’re touching. Well, sort of. I’ll show you.” He extended a hand into the threads briefly, and from their perspective it seemed to vanish completely before he pulled it back. He grabbed the rope and looped one end of it around his waist before tying it off. “Every navigator who’s been properly trained can take objects along with him, but there are limits. Here. Hold one end of this rope until I stop moving, would you?”

Jaas took the other end and held onto it, as Arico moved into the threads again—this time his whole body and not just a hand. He kept walking for a few more seconds on the other side, until the rope went slack and started trailing behind him. Without bothering to pick it up, Arico just turned around and walked back to her, dragging the rope as he did so.

“Do you understand it now?” He asked once he was back in the same patch she was. The rope had been cut at about twice his height in distance, and the other bit was still in her hands.

Jaas paused, apparently thinking about it as she picked up the length of rope still tied to him. “So… as long as you’re touching an object you can bring it with you, but if it’s bigger than say, the size of a wagon, part of it gets left behind?”

“That’s right,” he nodded encouragingly as he untied the rope. “But the distance changes from person to person. Some navigators, even with training, can only bring items that are barely within arm’s reach.”

“And others can bring more than you?” She persisted.

Arico shrugged, a bit uncomfortably. “I… don’t know anyone stronger at navigating than I am. Alzhi comes close, though.”

Jaas smiled slightly, and he looked down at his feet. He’d never been particularly comfortable talking about his navigating strength, nor at accepting praise. Thankfully she seemed to sense that, and changed the subject. “What about bringing people through the threads? Do the same rules apply?”

He shook his head. “People are the exception. No one knows exactly why, but as long as a person is touching a navigator’s skin—an arm, a foot, a hand, it doesn’t matter—they come along for the ride. And anyone touching their skin comes along too. And anyone touching theirs, and so on and so forth.”

“Magical current,” Jaas responded automatically. He gave her a confused look, so she explained. “One of the first things I learned in the Academy was that every living being has a faint form of magic running through our bodies. The threads must tap into that for navigators and anyone they’re moving. Or at least that’s my theory,” she amended quickly. “I’d have to do more studies to confirm it. So… that white emptiness I saw… that’s the inside of the threads?”

Arico nodded again. “Think of it like stepping over a crack in the ground. I can step from one side to the other through the threads without any effort at all. But if I want to, I can fall into the crack—the threads—and move side to side, or even up and down. With enough practice, navigators can even exit the threads somewhere else in the city. Just as if I’d jumped into the Waters and used the current to swim somewhere else.

“Because of that, any navigator can go to any patch in the city, just as long as they end up next to one of the threads. It’s even possible to be in two patches at once through the threads, but that takes a lot of practice.”

“So that’s how we ended up on that hill!” Her right hand twitched, as he’d seen several times before. Arico realized that she must be wanting to write all of this down, but they’d left the parchment and ink back inside the Hideaway. “In the outside world, we call that teleportation. I’m impressed: only a handful of people in a thousand have learned how to teleport out there, but in here, you can just use the threads to get around!”

Arico shook his head. “I don’t know anything about… teleportation, but navigating through the threads isn’t as easy as you make it sound. It takes months to train new navigators how to do anything more than just walk through the threads, and even longer for them to learn how to bring anyone or anything else with them.”

Part of him wanted to ask more about her magic. Could she really just disappear somewhere and appear somewhere else? He decided against it for now, though. She was fascinated with all of this, and he didn’t want to interrupt her thoughts. He’d have plenty of time to ask about Outside magic later on.

She nodded, still looking intently at the thread. “What about this illusion, though? I know that what I’m looking at is not real, but how long does it take for an image of the other patch to appear? I didn’t see your hand on the other side, and I didn’t see you when you stepped completely through.”

Now it was Arico’s turn to be impressed. She was seeing all of this for the first time, and understanding it almost immediately. Children in her position often took years to grasp that what they were seeing through the threads wasn’t real. “What you see in the threads is what the neighboring patch used to look like. In this case, about two and a half months ago. It changes—updates itself, really—every three months at the next New Day.”

He sat on a pile of bricks nearby to rest his side. “Before the New Day cycle began, everyone here—all our ancestors—lived in complete darkness. No one knows how or why the threads started showing us the sunlight again, but we would probably all have died a very long time ago if they hadn’t. That’s what makes the New Days so special. For a whole day everything happening around us is recorded, and then repeated again and again every day for the next three months.”

She stood in silence for a while, absorbing that. Arico decided on a different tactic and propped himself up with some effort. He held out a hand to her. “Here. It’s better if I just show you.”

-.-

When Arico reached out to her, Jaas thought about refusing. She’d already been bombarded with so much information that her first instinct was to ask for time. Time to absorb it all, and to write it all down. But there was something in his expression she couldn’t quantify. Somehow she knew she could trust him. He was still a little pale from his mysterious injury, but he smiled, apparently confident that they would be in no danger. Hesitantly, she took his hand and he reached out for the nearby barriers—or ‘threads’ as he called them.

Instantly everything changed again, just as it had back in the river, and again when the big lug had transported them to that hiding place. But this time, instead of a tiny bird next to her, or the boar that she’d seen during Alzhi’s trip, Arico was there holding her hand. “It’s all right,” he assured her, as he looked around. “This is second nature to me.”

He was standing tall now, and there was no sign of his injury. He smiled as she examined his side curiously. “Take your time, Jaas. We’re perfectly safe in here.” His smile slipped a bit. “Well, as long as I stay awake, anyway.”

Now that there was no hurry, Jaas took the time to study this new environment. She couldn’t see the ground, and yet she wasn’t falling. She couldn’t feel any air around her, yet she could breathe just fine. It was clearly some kind of dimensional pocket, but unlike any that she’d studied before. Those, in contrast, at least followed the basic laws of the universe.

“The threads are a realm of pure thought,” Arico explained, uncannily matching her own observations as he looked around as well. “Most non-navigators have a hard time understanding this, but I think you can figure it out quickly enough.”

“Pure thought…” she repeated slowly. “You mean our bodies aren’t actually here?”

“Exactly,” he nodded at her. “As long as we’re inside the threads, we will never get hungry or thirsty. We don’t need to eat or drink anything, or even breathe. Your lungs are filling themselves right now only because of habit. And I can let go of your hand here,” he let go immediately, “because it’s not really your hand. Or mine.”

“It’s just what our minds tell us our hands look like,” Jaas completed the thought for him. “Amazing!” Arico laughed easily as she studied her… thought-body… for a moment. It certainly looked like hers. But if her body wasn’t real inside the threads, could she alter it?

A memory suddenly clicked. “That little bird I saw earlier. That was you, wasn’t it? And the boar… that was Alzhi?”

Arico nodded again. “That’s how we look here when we’re not trying to look normal. It’s my natural appearance inside the threads.” As he spoke, his body dissipated into an intangible mist, and then coalesced into the turquoise bird. “See?” The bird’s beak opened slightly as he spoke, and it cocked its head to the side, looking up at her. Shape-changing from the mind’s eye only, apparently.

Jaas closed her eyes and tried to do something similar. When she looked down again, though, her feet were still there. Come to think of it, Durhu had still looked like himself when they’d gone into the threads together.

“Don’t worry about it,” Arico said encouragingly. “It takes time to get a handle on just what you can do when you’re in here.”

“What if someone sees us in here, though?” Jaas realized aloud, looking around in concern. “We’re… a little exposed out here.”

“You don’t need to worry about that either,” Arico responded confidently, his voice just as loud coming from a tiny bird as it had from his human form. “It’s another little quirk of the threads. No one can see or hear us in here. Unless someone’s touching you when you enter the threads, you’re completely invisible to them. In fact, you could even pass through someone and not even know it. Remember, it’s a realm of thought. And I guess thoughts move like this.”

Jaas gave him a wry glance, and the bird fluttered up and down before ‘landing’ again. She guessed it was his form of shrugging. “Unless you have a better explanation,” he said lightly.

She didn’t, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. “Show me how you move in here,” she said, if only to change the subject.

In answer, Arico ‘shifted’ them forward in the empty space, past the white streams of light. After only a few seconds, a circular window of sorts appeared right in front of them, showing the view from the edge of the Hideaway. She could see the buildings on the other side, and Arico continued to move them to the left, so the view changed accordingly.

Based on what she saw, movement inside the threads was similar to walking, at least in speed. That made sense, actually. Moving normally also depended on how fast you could process what your eyes and ears were telling you. Moving by thought would follow similar rules. If you lost sight of where you were, it would become necessary to stop and regain your bearings.

But then the window changed views entirely, and instantly. It was much higher up now, and showed a tower looking over the city. “I’ve been here many times,” Arico explained as Jaas tried to figure out where they’d gone. “That makes it very easy for me to just zip up here on a whim.” Without warning, they rushed forward into the image, and gravity took hold of Jaas again as they stepped out onto the tower.

Jaas gasped at the sudden change, and tried to get better footing on the tower’s roof shingles. She swayed a bit with the sudden change in view, but Arico kept a steady grip on her hand until she got used to it. Thankfully she was still holding his hand, despite having let go of it inside the threads. This whole ‘thought travel’ method would take a lot of getting used to, it seemed.

“It’s all right,” he assured her quietly, as she tentatively looked over the edge. “This tower is old but still sturdy. We won’t fall.” He waited until she slowly let go of his hand before continuing. “This is where I like to sit and watch. It’s the tallest point on the walls, so it gives the best view. Other than the view inside the threads, of course.”

That was something of an understatement. From here, Jaas could see for leagues in every direction. She’d studied pictures and maps in the Academy archives, but none of them really did it justice. This time she could see almost clear across the entire city! Right in the middle, though, a multicolored mess caught her eye. Right… where the Crystal Palace was supposed to be. Instead of a massive angular structure like the one she’d seen in drawings, though, it just looked like a pile of crystal shards. Huge ones, to be seen from this distance, but still just pieces.

“That’s where the Emperor used to live,” she pointed it out. “I read about the palace when I was at the Academy.”

Arico nodded. “But it wasn’t just him. From what Durhu taught me, the entire Imperial family lived there, as well as his generals, advisors, court lords and ladies, and a host of servants. Hundreds of people in all.”

Jaas could only shake her head at the hubris of it all. “Was it destroyed during the, uh, Threading?” She had to remember the unfamiliar word. It was their term for the disaster that had started all of this, three hundred and four years ago.

Arico took a somber breath. “It and a great many other buildings, yes.”

She’d suspected as much. “The Vasiri used unique rituals to make their buildings invulnerable and infinitely load-bearing. As soon as the magic disappeared, a structure like that would have just come apart under its own weight.”

“Durhu thought so as well,” he agreed quietly. “When the gods abandoned us, they took their magic with them. The city has never been the same since.”

Jaas wished she had a spyglass. She could see everything, but none of it very clearly. From up here though, she could make out red brick walls lining many of the patches, always facing east or west. She remembered the red brick walls right on the edges of the threads that she’d seen just after arriving. And the brick cell they’d thrown her in. “Did the Sustained… wall off the river?”

“Their ancestors did,” Arico’s voice took on a grim quality. “They didn’t want anyone who wasn’t born in Sustained territory to see what it was like, so they put up walls on the east and west edges of nearly every patch that touches the Waters. Virtually no one outside the Sustained has ever seen the Waters for themselves.”

So they couldn’t know what they were missing, she realized. Something else caught her eye, less than a league north of the ruined palace. “That wasn’t on the maps I looked at,” she said, pointing out the absurdly large tower near the wrecked palace. It was hard to tell at this distance, but it looked like the structure was right in the middle of its own patch.

Arico grimaced. “That’s the Spire. It’s a symbol of the Sustained Council’s power. The first Lord Ascendant started building it hundreds of years ago, and it was finished long before I was born.”

“It seems a bit extravagant,” she commented, as diplomatically as she could. Obscenely overstated might be another way to describe the Spire.

“Well, Sevvas patch is like the capital of Patchwork. The leaders of the Sustained Houses have formed a special Council that meets inside the Spire, and the Lord Ascendant lives in his own manor nearby. It’s where the Aquunites built their temple as well. But that’s not what I brought you here to see,” he gently took her by the shoulders and turned her around.

The sight outside the city was equally impressive. The Endreach mountain chain to the north, with Wyvern’s Claw peak at its summit. And down below were the vast Telius plains, once home to huge numbers of trade routes running in and out of the Vasiri capital. To the west and running south of the city: the Sea of Storms, covered in mist and gathering rain.

“We can’t see outside the city from the threads,” he said softly. “There are no endpoints to look out from. That’s why I come here: so I can see what it used to look like.” Jaas could see why.

“Down there,” he pointed to the tallgrass outside the city. “Wait just a few moments.” For some reason he closed his eyes and kept his arm stretched out. As she watched, a slow ripple of wind pushed the grass to the side, sweeping across the plains. As if painting on a canvas, he moved his hand along with the ripple, keeping his eyes closed.

“And there.” His eyes still closed, he pointed out a bird in the sky—the first animal she’d ever seen through the threads. His hand followed it precisely as it flew north, out of sight. Jaas felt her jaw drop.

“And last, over there.” He swept his arm out to the sea, and after a few seconds, jabbed a finger, just as lightning arced between two of the clouds.

He sighed and opened his eyes. “Most people can’t see it that clearly, Jaas. They don’t have the same view as I get from up here. But everyone can predict at least some things from the day. This is what we’ve become in here.”

“Because you’ve seen it again and again for months,” she whispered, and he nodded.

Jaas felt a little intimidated. How many times had he sat up here and watched the outside world, in order to gain such a deep understanding of what was going to happen in the images he was seeing? There were no clocks in sight of the city, certainly. The fact that he was able to predict natural phenomena so accurately was either impressive to the extreme, or deeply depressing, as she glanced back at him.

He looked so, well, sad wasn’t really the right word. Resigned, perhaps. Jaas grabbed his arm and pointed it up to the mountain. “On the north side of that peak, Wyvern’s Claw, there’s a monastery. They call themselves the Circle of Peace. I only spent a little time there with my father, but they’re wonderful people. They spend all day in prayer and meditation, contemplating what it is to be alive, to breathe and exist.”

She pointed his arm back to the plains. “About twenty leagues to the north right near that fork in the riv—uh, in the Waters, there’s a trade post with an inn called the Rusted Blade. The innkeeper is named Pelios A’zal, and he makes his own wine from a vineyard behind the inn. His little girls, Ani and Tupo, play with dolls they made themselves.” She slowly let go of his arm. “I can tell you much, much more about the Outside, if you wish.”

“Can you tell me what it feels like?” Arico asked slowly. He was looking down at the plains, but Jaas could now see anger in his features. “What it’s like to stand in a city where you know no one? To walk in one direction for days on end and never run into the threads once?

“What is it like to stand on that peak up there, and feel the rush of the wind? I see trees out there, bending in the wind, but all I ever feel is the faint breeze from the threads. Can you tell me how it feels to stand on the deck of a ship in the middle of a storm? To feel rain all around you, the ship moving beneath you? All I’ve ever felt is the rocking of a small boat floating on the Waters. Because of the threads we don’t get rain either, because clouds can’t gather above the city.”

His voice continued to gain intensity. “Can you tell me what it’s like to walk through fresh-fallen snow? We don’t get anything more than frost on the grass in the winters. From up here, I once saw a deer do that. How does it feel to leave a trail behind you as you step? Can you pick snow up? Is it soft? What about a blizzard? Have you ever been unable to see more than an arm’s reach in front of you as the wind howls and blows snow all around your face? I didn’t even know that the wind howled until I read about it in a book! Can you tell me what it feels like?

Despite his words, there was no tone of accusation in Arico’s voice, just resignation. When he glanced back at her, he hastily wiped at his eyes for a moment. With a grunt, he took her hand again. “We should get back.” She didn’t have any words for him as he reached out into the threads again.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 03:31:11 AM by Daen »