“By day, the common,” she said, her knuckles still pressed against the frame. I could hardly see more of her, that hand alone being lit by that strange white fire of the sentient torches.
“In truth, the people,” I replied, still somewhat breathless from the walk.
Then she stepped out into the street, and I said no more. She wore only a simple taught wrap precisely the color of furrowed earth and a coal gray chemise snug beneath – and was more alluring than I dare express. Her pale round face shone in the moonlight, and her hair in the night could have been painter’s red itself, though I knew it much lighter by day. She has the eyes of a child both in roundness and in life, though her expression in that instant was of someone twice our age – and I guess we are very close in that. Her cheeks hold the high thin bones of a waif, but are fuller now than they must once have been, and the effect is as though she is always starting to smile about something she isn’t ever going to tell you, but is all in good humor anyway.
Of the rest, dear reader, I tell little, because her effects must be particular to me, else she would have been taken up into the merchant houses long ago. But suffice it to say that the wrap showed that, far from emaciation, she curved precisely as a woman ought to curve – and if she overshot the mark, it was stylishly so, her form all of one accord. Her beauty is not, I should take care to note, obvious, but rather natural, undeniable, and infectious, the sort you find yourself thinking about much later.
More specifics, dear reader, I must leave to your imagination, if for no other reason than that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her stand quite still. Her self-portrait turns out to be quite accurate: she is quite the opposite of any possible pose.
She crossed the street and took my arm in hers. “It’s the best a girl from the farms might wear, yes? You can walk me home, I think. We are leaving the plateau? I suppose we’ll take the Portage Stair.”
I nodded. “We usually don’t, but tonight we will, yes.”
We started walking south; the call of the Wells of the Dead increased to that point that feels an itch inside the skull. I decided that I absolutely could not let it be distracting.
“Then how do you possibly descend, without the guards noticing?” she asked. “Is there a tunnel?” Her eyes glimmered merrily. “Or is it perhaps a secret stair?”
“The smuggler’s gate,” I said, averting my eyes from a patrolling guard walking in the opposite direction. “They hide rope, hundreds of feet of it, all throughout the city. Boats come up the Profuse River each night, past the docks, to prearranged points around the plateau. The smugglers hammer a pulley into the cliff and tie off one after the other to carry up and down. A big crew and it’s done in less than a watch, the wares in a fence-house, the men in taverns, the rope recoiled, and nothing left but the little rock-hole the pulley made.”
Though all this we kept walking; I was glad to see when our steps fell in time together. “And of course,” I said, trying to anticipate her questions, “any petty criminal worth his salt memorizes the routes of the patrols.”
“The Blooded are brigands, then?” she asked. “Marvelous!”
“Some of us are, yes,” I said. “Enough to know that you shouldn’t leave your door open when you’re in your place alone.”
“Was it?” she asked, and I looked at her to see if she was serious.
“Yes!” I said, seeing that she was. “It’s dangerous. What were you doing in there?”
“Waiting. Not for you – how could I have known? And I think I don’t stay alone every night. But waiting. Do you ever listen to the city? Simply sit with it and listen?”
We neared that circle that marks the center of Ariel, the locus of all its power. It was of course nearly empty, with the great ashen doors of Speaking Hall closed to public petitioners after dusk, the Temple services of Dusk and Night’s Watch long ago concluded, and the White’s barracks not yet changing out the guard for those that specialize in vice and theft. Only some few pedestrians walked coupled just as we were, and two solitary petitioners made prayers over the Healing Well.
“I believe,” I said smiling, “that I more often smell it.”
She laughed, and this quite naturally was my reward. “No! I mean, we all do that, though the Faiths have been quite clever, channeling down through the rocks. Thank the Profusion for indoor pipes! Though perhaps the River does not thank us. But I mean: the people in this city live nowhere else, and work happens that is particular to here. Each city has a tone that is utterly unique.”
I frowned. “I have never been outside this city.” We had crossed the circle and were walking through that desultory district that comes between Ariel’s center and the Portage Stairs. The Gates, citizens call it, because it is there that Ariel welcomes its visitors with moneychangers and taverns, taxmen, customhouses and brothels, inns and the houses of the bondsmen who for a fee might orchestrate a friend’s release from prison.
She turned to me, her face all a mimicry of a sham-prophet’s shrewdness. “You will, young man,” she said. “You perhaps will go very far from here. And old I think! You will endure much longer than anyone has ever thought to live. And wisdom, good sir! Travel and great wisdom will you gain!”
I laughed. “Well done! But no Blooded expect to live so long, or even leave this valley.”
“Yet you are so cavalier! You say such serious things and then you laugh about them. One wonders if perhaps you do not believe, or if you are not honest with yourself.”
We reached the top of the Portage Stair together; it stretched far away from us on either side. “It is, I think, that we feel more sadness than anyone else could hope to imagine, and we’ve grieved for so long that it all becomes frivolity. I’m doing you a great disservice by taking you.”
She grew quiet at this and we paused, looking out over the valley. The moon was bright and shining on the lake the Profuse River makes at the docks, and on the snows of the peaks and on the glaciers of the mountain passes – and, far overhead, yet looming very near, on the twinned silver spikes of the Needles, which I have not yet introduced. I’ve neglected to include those incredible towers, perhaps, precisely because they are so inescapably apparent, from every street and corner of Ariel. But these are not buildings in the sense that humans make them. Our edifices bear faults of caulk and seam, evidence of mortar and wear and flawed or rough construction.
But the spires that stand atop the cliffs of the gap where the Profuse River slides southward through the mountains – their artifice shows no fault at all. The Needles are remnant towers of the Profusion, crafted by the gods themselves. They rear like great slivered fangs from either side of that gap for thousands of feet, meeting in height even the peaks of local mountains, and their tips, the Historians say, are no wider than a finger. Yet their great round bases, broad as the Temple itself at sixty strides across, are so much a part of the cliffs that one wonders how they might ever have been separate, that the Needles did not spring wholesale from the mountainside. They have no sides, because their bases and heights are circular, to what the Historians say is geometric perfection. And on all the thousands of such Needles scattered throughout the continents and seas of Thaeron, no one has ever found so much as a solitary crack.
One truly wishes that someone knew what all of them were for.
“Did you hear,” I said, lest Aldasola not be entertained, “that the Faith went up to wake one today? To wake a Needle.”
“What?” she laughed. “That’s absurd. They choose the Faiths precisely because they can’t wake machinery at all. They’re why Profusionist technology’s prohibited here, and why the city’s sacred. And why, in all the Profusion, would the Faith go up and wake something that no one knows how to actually use?”
She took the first step down, and I followed. There were eight hundred more, the Portage Stair being, besides the Needles and the Speaking Hall, the great outstanding feature of Ariel. They span nearly fifty paces, with a great broad ramp running up the middle between two sections, for the teams of oxen and bullocks to pull their carts. And all, of course, in the smooth crushed and polished white stone of Ariel, quarried up out of the Profuse River’s bed. It is a stone unique in all Thaeron – not even the jewel city Kasora can claim to have it – and the stair was built to be Ariel’s great welcome to the world.
“Oh, you should hear the rumors,” I said, to her delight. “The Faith went up to contact the great fleet that relic ship fell away from. The Faith went up to ask the Needles why the High Temple in Kasora does not answer his inquiries. The Faith went up to ask the veilmen what precisely it is that Needles do! How could you have missed all that?”
Even going down the stair we stepped as though we were one soul, though I feared I could not take her where she wanted.
“Well,” she sighed. “I’m afraid I am quite bored by politics.” It took me a long time, even after that, to make up my mind, and longer still to speak it.
“You can’t follow me,” I finally said, when we had reached the bottom of the stair and strode along the boardwalk that joins them to the docks. “Not the whole way. Not yet. I have not spoken with our master. The Blooded will be suspicious. Your presence would disrupt the ceremony. But observe, and you’ll see more of the ceremony than I will, though I have not told you enough to understand it.”
I led her to the left along the quay, and toward that long stretch of shore that squeezes between the Dock Lake and the base of the southern Gidwinn Mountains; in some places, it was barely broader then a cart. But just before the base of those cliffs upon whose tops the Needles stand, the shore flares out again into a peninsula, where there grows a dense copse of trees. From there, the Blood of History called.
“Well?” she asked, when I suppose my silence had gone on long enough. “What are you all about? What is it that the Blooded actually do?”