I nodded again when the baker drew near. “Everyone likes the days, with sun glaring off the buildings and the streets, all that crushed white stone, mountains soaring overhead. And not shadows, but vistas from every open corner. What a sight! They say the Profuse River looks like a silver serpent, shimmering north and west and south, through all those hamlets and fields.”
He looked like I was having him on - and perhaps I was. But I meant it, too. We kept walking down the temple’s broad jade stairs.
“But I prefer the evening. The sitars strum in the streets, lovers walk past them, hand in hand – not something everyone would notice. But the sun’s not been down an hour, so there’s no ugliness, no smugglers or gangs, no dealers fleeing white guards or courtesans fleeing guards ones.
“No, brother,” – I gestured to him – “this is our time, when honest merchants and craftsmen finally rest, walking home by light from the sentient torches, smelling dinner along the way – rice and beef and eggs. Just listening to our own familiar strides on streets worn smooth by centuries of those who’ve done the same, carrying nothing heavier than the coin in their pouches, and thinking nothing higher than the women in their beds. A beautiful evening – and our beautiful evening, too.”
From the corner of my eye I saw the man smile, genuinely moved. I was satisfied, though I will likely never see the man again. Ryn says that I should talk more often with the citizens.
There are a million such, they say, in this city and its surrounds. Though one could traverse Ariel in a day, one could never understand its contradictions. Even at its very core, arranged in a triangle of edifices stand the Temple of History, the Barracks, and the Speaking Hall. They are buildings in the grandest ancient style, with great broad sides, columnar vaulted spaces, and doors and windows that eight men could pass through abreast. And in them reside the Historians who make laws in their supposed wisdom, the Captain who speaks for all the veilmen of the world, and the Faith who, by consensus of the people, has the power to reject Historian laws outright.
By then we had finally left the Temple stairs behind, and walked toward that circle of stone which those three buildings quite intentionally surround.
“It doesn’t feels like ours, though, does it?” said the baker, when we reached it.
“Imagine the history. This is the Healing Well. It saved the first Faith, who saved us all from the Wars Between the Cities. The officials here have kept the peace for four hundred years. How can a man just walk through?”
“Because the Healing Well no longer functions,” I said. “And because the real soldiery, the veilmen, are not permitted here. In the old cities, nothing ever changes.”
I said no more - his sidelong glance indicated that he was not Blooded. If I told him that I would burn the Temple to the ground this very night along with all its holy men, he would not understand. We walked for a long time in silence.
“We should not be ungrateful,” he said, after we had entered the heart of the residential district called the Flats, on the western side of the city, where all the lesser merchants live. The shrine to the thirty-second Faith stands at the very end of my own street. We stopped together to consider his bowing, stony head. “One would hope the grace of the Profusion still infuses and influences everything.”
“Lingering like perfume,” I said, “to sweeten our health and salve our wounds.” I smiled sadly. Because I am ungrateful – all the Blooded are. One only ever can rebel against that which gives one everything, because there are no other candidates.
“Ah, look,” the baker said, pointing back over the Temple’s outline of dome and spike and spire, “Perhaps the exultants have heard our conversation. Isn’t that supposed to be a sign?”
I followed his indicating finger toward a streak of fire in the sky and shook my head. The street around us was filling with a dull whisper that deepened to a shriek as the fire came toward us from the south.
"No,” I said, over the noise. “You are thinking of a meteor, but those are smaller, and make no noise. This comes too close and fast.”
“Then what is it?” he asked. The trail of orange and yellow flame streaked over our Gidwinn Mountains and fell sharply toward the Fackablest, the vast boreal forests of the north. “Something from the gods themselves? Ha! Perhaps they’re returning from the void beyond the void.”
I shook my head. “No, but it is a relic of the Profusion – built on or near a world like this one. That plume came from the engine of a starship. The crews are long dead, of course. But their equipment still guides them to their destinations. When no machines help them here – and Thaeron’s ceased to work during the Wars Between the Cities – the ships stumble into the atmosphere and burn. The veilmen will find the wreckage soon.”
The baker looked uncertain. “Is that an omen, then, Initiate?”
I shook my head. “I’m no longer part of any Temple. But yes, it is an omen. It will only happen once or twice in our entire lifetimes. I have not seen one until tonight. Only, we should not try to guess its meaning. The Historians will debate its nature for a decade before they even begin to guess its significance.
He laughed and I nodded; we shook hands and blessed each other in the name of the Profusion. He walked away whistling into the night. I opened my doors and wondered suddenly if she might have seen the relic, too.
She – the artist that Historian Senre wanted me to name is Adlasola Oso. I found it signed in a branch in the background of her self-portrait, hidden. I stopped and looked at it again by candle. Why was she asking for the Blooded? What rumor has she heard? Nearly all are true: our secret rituals, our false names and confusions of identities, our revolutionary plots, our meetings like carnivals of darkness.
But if she has to ask, the Wells of the Dead have not invited her. I pray they never do. I pray she never finds a single Blooded or discovers what we want to do. I pray that she only keeps painting until we or the Historians are done, just as I pray that my own door has closed for the last time tonight. I pray she does not hear the call of the Wells of the Dead, because that call leads unto death itself. Though all the Blooded know it will kill us, we all answer nonetheless.