Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Serial Science Fiction: Whisper from the Dust XI

“Will there be another Blooding? I’d like to return to the city.”

“That is where I plan to go. As for whether or not there will be a Blooding, well, that is up to the Blood. The Wells call no one ahead of time, Del. If not you, they certainly don’t tell me.”

“Why do you always say things like that?” I asked. “Whatever you think I am, I’m not. What the Blood does tell me, I never understand. I crave the past right along with all the rest of this backwards world, but I don’t even know what I’m looking for.”

Ryn chuckled. “It does not matter what I think you are. It matters who you think you are. It matters who the Blood of History knows you are. And you both agree on this: that you are not yet yourself. That is what you look for, Del Tanich. You are a word that does not yet know its sound. I would only help you hear it.”

“And that’s what you’re taking me for? I haven’t even eaten yet.”

“It is better that you do not. The smuggler’s gate is not for a heavy stomach. Still, I have bread that we can eat on the way. But we need to leave. It’s six hours walking from here.”

I nodded. During the day I had noted that Triske’s farm lay among the northmost parts of the Profuse River valley, in a crook of a hollow made by a splashing glacial stream. I stood up to go, in that hesitant but hopeful way one has when recovering from illness.

“Let’s go,” I said. “If I’m to open with the market at dawn.” Ryn looked at me, but did not say a word.

Our hike to the base of the plateau proceeded in some haste. We hurried toward an appointment. So far upstream, the River was narrower, and we crossed it on one of on one of those ubiquitous ferries for those few who do not wish to go all the way downriver, a simple slab of logs bound to a cable. Considering that we both wore our host’s apparel, if anyone saw us as the sun set and we poled across, they would have thought we were farmers off for an evening’s entertainment beside a still, or hunters or trappers scurrying from one copse to the next before the darkness fell.

Along with the moon rose the other four of those spheres called the Orchids, silent and ominous. Even Batyst was distracted for a moment. And I agreed immediately that they mean no good. They hang in the night like malice itself. They’ll not leave until they war upon this world, and the Historians teach that if loaded with personnel, such ships hold sufficient forces to occupy an entire world – but if loaded with weaponry, they can destroy that same world outright.

The smugglers awaited us on the other side. How Ryn had known where they would be, he did not say, and I did not ask him. Their manner invited little conversation and they engaged in none, save what would one flash another using the signals of their hands. I told myself to remember to ask Ryn if we might learn the same system; too many people know the urchin tongue, and I’m nervous now about the Temple’s spies. That last Blooding was entirely too close.

But the smugglers led us into the darkness of the trees without a sound, and I realized that those places where both river and trees came near the base of the plateau would be very few indeed. The smugglers were by necessity less crafty than I’d thought. And they walked a harder road, traipsing through the leafy woods in darkness complete without stars or moon or torches of any kind. Several times I stumbled, and only Batyst’s sure grip kept me on my feet. His voice jolted me out of my thoughts.

“You should know,” he said, “What I do for you is not conditional. It is not contingent on anything you say or do or think or feel. It has nothing to do with who you are right now. The Blood steered me toward a promise. I serve that promise, and so do you.” He smiled then, “Even when you do not know what it is. That is what I’m going to show you.”

The last of the smugglers turned back to us then, eyes flashing in the black. She motioned us forward, quickly. She didn’t care for us, of course – but the price of their guidance was that we carry sacks as heavy as anything I’d ever brought to market. I did not ask what was in them. Knives wrapped silently in wool, perhaps, for personal defense of the kind which the Historians prohibit, or the wet leaves of the plant that the Temple alone is allowed to use for the incense of its services. Tax-free flour, perhaps, underselling the variety the Baker’s Guild must officially use. To think of it, they might simply be seeds I carried slung across my shoulder, and I was undercutting myself by providing for one of those un-guilded vendors who furtively traipse the alleys of Ariel, going furtively from door to door hoping that no White or Green will catch them.

Whatever I carried, I collapsed outright in the clearing when we reached the cliff at the base of the plateau. We’d walked five of the six hours that Ryn Batyst had promised, and I supposed that meant that we had gone faster than expected. With a pair of oculars, the lead smuggler flashed signs at someone on the top, whose dim form I could make out in the light of the stars and moon and brooding, alien spheres. Those would be bad, I realized, for their trade. The guards would see quite further than normal in any night like this, clear of cloud and storm. So when it came my turn and Batyst awaited me at the top and the lead smuggler hissed at me to go, I grabbed the rope and only prayed there were no guards near.

To whom exactly I sped my thoughts, I of course cannot say. The gods of the Profusion, everyone knows, have quite gone, into the void beyond the void. It is their grace, and only their grace, that lingers – and will soon follow them entirely. But after I had pronounced one of the Temple’s oft-repeated forms, I gripped the rope more calmly nonetheless. I was fortunate that the smuggler going downward – for Ariel exports much, also, that is not sanctioned – was subtly heavier than me, so that a gentle hand pulled me upward. Though I’ve used it a dozen times, I doubt the smuggler’s gate is anything I shall ever become accustomed to. I’m always glad when it is over.

Batyst embraced me at the top and we bid our compatriots farewell. Doubtless, they wondered why we had not descended as Blooded normally would; it seemed unlikely that Batyst had told them. He certainly had not told me. And we did not turn west toward Batyst’s own street. Nor did he spare my street, by the shrine to the thirty-second Faith, more than a sidelong glance. We were traversing the city proper. While we waited in a shadowed corner for a patrol of Greens to pass – for we were long past curfew – I asked him why. He said only that it would make more sense as a surprise.

Still, when we stopped again to wait within the shadows of columns outside the abandoned Speaking Hall for a patrol of Whites to file past, the surprise became more apparent. And when we hurried over toward the center of the heart of Ariel and Batyst started reciting the words that Historians utter to wake their machines, our purpose seemed clear, though no longer sensible. The Healing Well had not been opened in forty years. Not even all eight Guardians or a full circle of Historians had been able to wake that Well again. There was no reason to expect that the chair of the Public of Guilds Public of Guilds and a newly-minted member of the Sower’s guild would do much better. Still, as we stood over it, our ears straining for any step of a returning patrol, I thought I knew the way.

From my mind I quieted those words that Historians use to fill the air. Instead I made myself as still and empty as I could, as still and empty on those nights when one stands before the call of the Wells of the Dead and nothing else can be said of any importance, as still and empty as a bank of fog. Indeed I recalled that strange white wind that had disturbed my vision within the Blood of History, though it now seemed like so many nights ago, as Adlasola Oso had not even known who I was. But I thought of that wind and of the woman, of the salvation of the world lying within the earth and soon felt the earth itself open up to me, a great crack in the pavement of Ariel’s crushed stone. I asked the mind of the Healing Well a question.

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