(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)
“Bartolio! Why are you not enjoying yourself?”
“I am the host, Praet.” Bartolio Milicara bowed his head and clapped his hand Kidina’s shoulder. The gilded edge of his silken red robe whispered against the floor. He was a study in contrasts with the other noble. Beneath his robes were a simple set of trousers and a tunic of good fabric, hiding a fit body leaning towards middle age. Kidina wore layers of silk woven with as much gold, silver and precious gems his corpulent body could manage. “Guests always take precedence. Please, enjoy. After the fight…”
“… we have earned it.” Kidina raised his wine gobblet. He drank a little, and poured the rest down the body of the half-naked pleasure girl in his lap. She giggled convincingly and pretended to enjoy the wine soaked through her white shift. Kidina dragged his chapped, broken across her wine-soaked clothes.
Bartolio swallowed bile and smiled. He hated these events, and hated hosting them more. But they were expected, especially after a victory against Praet Irtolus conservative factions in the city council. Another roadblock to newer merchants establishing themselves removed, and only hundreds more to go.
But as wine flowed, and it washed away inhibitions. Decorum decayed. He gradually replaced his normal serving staff with pleasure servants of both sexes. They were trained and well compensated for their services. His staff worked hard and the meaty caresses of one like Kidina was no reward.
He hated these events because, sadly, they worked. A mix of young merchants and first generation nobles mingled and talked. The merchants interested him the most. He spoke to the nobles every day at council. Like him, they were once scholars, traders or political operatives who were gifted with land, title and responsibility by the Lady Protector. But the merchants either recently acquired homes in the permanent markets, or were long-time residents of the constantly shifting bazaar on the city’s west side. They fought and scrapped for every piece of respectability they could get.
Bartolio saw fire in their eyes as they talked of the future. They hoped their children could live better lives than they did. New Sun preserve them, the city needed the fire if it was to survive.
Bartolio touched the sun blossom pendant under his robes. Warmth filled him. He returned to his guests, seeing to their needs.
His home felt alien. Its previous occupant found himself at the wrong end of the Lady Protector’s justice. At trial’s end, she ennobled Bartolio and gave him all of his predecessor’s possessions – a public reward for the private work exposing the old Praet’s crimes.
He did his duty, and followed the Sun’s teachings, and was rewarded. Bartolio tried to make the place his own. He preferred classical Gallatian styles, with their emphasis on pure geometries and harmonious ratios, to the more ribald later period, or the more extensive scrollwork and buttoning favored by the old Praet.
There was not much he could do with the explicit stonework in some rooms of the house but cover it with cloth and tapestries until the masons could get in.
It was in the library where he spared no expense. Here his scholarly roots blossomed into a garden of delights. Volumes and scrolls on architecture and design filled the rear wall of the library. He decorated the honey-comb like shelves with images of great buildings from across the known world. Sciences, histories and travelogues dominated the left hand side of the library. A rare map of the known world on lizard skin centered the collection. And on the right were the more creative works: folklore and legends from across the world, magickal treaties, and books on art and light.
A thickly woven rug from the Suzerainate covered the floor, inscribed in unique spiral and diamond patterns. Two chairs, thickly padded and slightly angled, sat beside an octagonal table tea table. Light streamed from a rune-covered dodecahedron. It collected sunlight in the day and streamed it out after dark. On cool nights, he could step into the library and feel the warmth of the day on his face.
Bartolio expected the library to be empty but for the mug of mint tea he left there before the party. But he found one guest there.
She held a book in her lap and a cup of tea in her hand. She wore woven shawl, decorated with brass coins, over a simple red robe with black trim. Black leather sandals wrapped her feet, worn but attractive. Her hair, dark as ink, curled under a simple headdress which covered her forehead and flowed down her back.
Bartolio coughed, politely. “Lady Davia, I hope your needs are being attended?”
N’Talle Davia lifted her head, startled. Her bright green eyes glowed in the sun, a sharp contrast to her terracotta skin. Shemarked her place in the book with a strip of cloth, and cradled it against her lap like a newborn.
“Oh, I beg your pardon. Yes, thank you, I am very well attended.” She touched the teapot beside her. “The mint tea is just perfect.”
“And how are you finding Umbero’s treatise on material strength and weight tolerances?”
“Amazing!” N’talle re-opened the book. “The tests he used to determine the flexibility and strength of objects and materials are so simple. Yet, they are repeatable and accurate. And then there are the composites he discusses…”
“This was the first book my mentor gave me when I first studied architecture in Urkur.” And back in Neffalio, before the grand exile. He suppressed memories of his father bundling everyone in blankets and rushing out of their childhood home. “I have this book to thank for my initial successes. Without it we would still have rickety walls protecting the neighborhoods outside the walls and sink-holes in the southern sections of town because of bad rain drainage.”
“All crafters owe a debt to those who studied and explored before us.” N’Talle bowed her head. “And I thank you, too. Without your efforts, I would have lost two of my best fletchers to the law. My business would be crippled.”
Bartolio raised his hands. “You directly contribute to the Guard and the city’s defense. You helped show how proposals such as this weaken the city as a whole. This is your victory.”
“A victory. There’s still more to do.” She sipped her tea. “And I thank you for all you are doing.”
“You are most welcome for any assistance I could provide.” He bowed. “Now, what else can I offer?”
“Praet, you have given me a library, warm mint tea, the single greatest reading light constructed and a moment of peace.” N’Talle smiled. “You spoil me.”
Before he could respond, one of his staff, Tiri, entered the room. She shivered and covered herself. Soaked to the skin in spilled white wine, her practical shift was as translucent the courtesans’ clothes.
“Sir, Praet Vadello entered the kitchen and found issue with one of the vintages. He asked to speak with you on this matter.”
Bartolio hid his clenched fist behind his back. He bowed to N’Talle. “My apologies. This needs attention.”
N’Talle bowed her head, touching her forehead with two fingers. “Please, do not let me keep you.”
“Thank you. Tiri, please, lead the way.” Bartolio touched his amulet in prayer.
Part way down the hall, Tiri stopped. She raised a finger against her lips, and looked up. “He is here.” She whispered. “He wishes to see you in the usual place.”
Barolio nodded. He made the sign of the Sun over Tiri’s forehead. “Thank you for your faith and patience. Please, rest for the remainder of the evening. I know dealing with him is tiresome.”
Tiri smiled, clutching her soaked clothes for a scrap of warmth. “Thank you, Praet.” She ran down the hall to the servant’s quarters. Bartolio walked up carefully hidden stairs to the master bedroom.
When he moved in, the bedroom puzzled him. Settled at the top of the house, it was built with two rings of supports around a single master pillar. The outer room, decorated on columns and chairs and gauzy curtains, showed the whole of Ivre. Chairs dotted the inverted balcony space. One could imagine many long discussions here, with the old Praet pointing to the city as if he owned the buildings and the people within.
The interior room felt cavernous. The ring design continued, creating massive amounts of space, only broken by the firepit and flue, and a sunken bed. One could lie in the bed and see the bathing tub, designed for at least four, without obstruction.
Bartolio’s first night, he felt open and exposed. On the second day, he ordered and installed several decorative privacy.
But then there was the central column. It did not bear any loads or connect to any supporting structures on the floor below. The design of the final floor used the outer ring of columns and the roof structure so all weight was evenly distributed. There was no need for an interior support.
Then Bartolio touched one of the carved stones on the central structure. A door opened. Within was a small room, big enough for three to sit comfortably, and watch everything.
Of course, he was waiting in the room when Bartolio arrived. He sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, bathed in the light from the viewing crystals. Cut with powerful runes and filled with magickal energy, each of the great crystal slabs mounted on the walls in the room tied to a smaller one hidden within the house. No space was unwatched. Glance to the left, and you saw the kitchen larder. A look to the right, and you saw the private room, were two guests were fumbling for their clothes.
And in the center of it all sat Evericus.
“Sun’s light shine on you, Praet.” He had no accent. His face was unremarkable, framed by thinning hair. Pale brown eyes watched the crystals with no particular sign of interest or excitement, just the calculated gaze of a predator studying potential prey.
“And with you, Evericus.” Bartolio sat down. He followed Evericus eyes to a specific crystal facet. It spied on the library, where N’Talle still read. “Did you find nothing of value from the other guests?”
“Nothing the Church does not already know. But finding the sins of the powerful is easy.” He leaned forward and pointed at N’talle. “It’s finding the sins of one unaware of power which requires more work.”
“Perhaps she has no sin to find?”
“She is a heathen, without the light of the Sun. She carries sin. It is a matter of finding it and using it.”
Evericus sighed. “Let me guess? ‘We do what we must, for the good of all?’
“Indeed. The enemy presses at us. Evil literally sits at our shores. We must defend the faithful. We cannot do so through good living alone.” Evericus rose and touched one of the crystals. The image rippled, and reformed. A young girl, naked and vulnerable, knelt beside a small shrine to the New Sun. She prayed to the tiny figure within, its golden arms wide, backed by a sunburst. Bartolio paled. Tiri.
“The faith must be defended.” Evericus made a starburst across his chest. “We will ask for forgiveness afterwords.”
“I assume you’re not here to lecture me.” He walked up and blocked Evericus’ view of Tiri’s room. “What would you have me do?”
“There was an attack on the caravan bringing wood from the south.” Evericus crossed his hands behind his back. “You’ll hear of it soon enough. I need you to make gestures to Haunud, as well as N’Talle.”
“Hanud? He’s funding the opposition.”
“Thus why showing concern for his business, as well as that of your allies, will make you seem magnanimous.” Evericus walked to the exit. “Remember your place, Praet. It’s a small request. Follow it and I’ll try to keep future requests… small.”
Evericus opened the walls and stepped out of the room. When the door sealed once again, Bartolio fell into one of the chairs.
He watched N’Talle read, playing with a lock of her hair, toe still wrapped in a sandal strap. On the other crystal, Tiri tried to wash wine from her hair. She had another set of clothes laid out, ready to go back to work.
“You’re right, Tiri. Time for all of us to get back to work.” He sat up, straightened his clothes, and pushed his face into a smile as he ventured back into the party.
“Damn the bitch. And damn the desert dweller as well. I hope the sea’s devoured them.” Girad spoke the words like a prayer as he rowed. Jasbel focused on not losing his makeshift oar. Together, they pushed a remnant of their ship,Orhalcion, towards the glimmer of shore.
“If you’re going to damn anyone, damn the captain. He opened the box. Against their advice.” Jasbel looked up, searchig for stars. The unnatural mist which poured from the wreck of their ship followed them. It blocked any chance of proper navigation. So they focused on the shadows of land they saw through the darkness.
“We never would have found the wreck if it was not for the desert dog’s eyes. And the captain never would have opened the box if he was not attempting to impress the bitch.” Girad gripped his timber in salt-cracked hands. He begged for splinters to bring feeling back to his fingers. The waters remained unnaturally cold. He suspected they moved away from shore, into the deeper ocean, but said nothing. They needed what hope they could scavenge.
“If you say women on ship are a curse one more time, I will club you over the head with this plank, Girad, cousin or no cousin.” He glanced to the canvas and crossbeam remnants they rigged as a sail. The wind tugging the cloth faround, but he felt nothing against his skin. Jasbel whispered another prayer to the seas. Forgive my cousin’s vengeful heart. Please take my prayers in stead and see us to safety.
“I do not say all women on ship are curses. Captain Selia runs a good ship, for example. I only say this woman was a curse.” Girad looked up at the horizon and stopped rowing. “Oh, gods be merciful, please look ahead and see what I see.”
Jasbel looked, and his heart leapt. The dark shadow of solid ground filled the horizon. Even from this distance, he saw rocky outlines. This was no illusion of hope, it was land. “I see it, Girad. Now row, dammit, row.”
“Aye, cousin.” They dug into the water, hope fueling their efforts. The shore grew more distinct. Jasbel never thought the cliffs of eastern coastlines would bring him joy.
“Rocks. Low rocks. This means we may be close to Ivre!” Girad laughed. “If she survived, she would be there. I could find her…”
Jasbel gritted his teeth. “You need to actually reach land first, now row!” Driftwood, sea fronds and scraps of barnacle covered detritus bumped against their legs. Their arms and backs burned with exhaustion.
And then the tip of a rock grazed his toes. The moment Jasbel’s foot hit solid ground, he laughed. When oar hit rock, he wept. Girad yelped and hollered. Together, they pulled themselves onto the black stone.
“We can’t dally.” Jasbel hauled the makeshift raft further up the broken coast. He stumbled. The ground wobbled under his feet. “My legs feel like jellied eel.”
“Don’t mention food, for gods’ sake. The tripe crawling along the shoreline looks good right now.” Girad fell against their chunk of hull. “Stop, cousin. We’re away from the shore. Let me rest.”
Jasbel panted. “Aye.” He sat on a flat rock. Water lapped on the shoreline, a mother’s lullaby. He watched the mist from his breath mix with the foggy air.
“The fog has followed us.”
“It probably covers the coast, Jasbel.” Girad levered himself up on his oar. “Let is see how far we are from the cliffs. Maybe there’s a path up.”
“Give me a moment.” Jasbel braced against his own oar. The ground shuddered. He almost lost his footing against the wet rock. For a moment, it felt like a ship turned into the tide. It would be a while before his land legs returned.
They walked inland. The sharp rock beat sensation back into their icy feet. Jasbel looked for any sign of high rock walls, which marked the coast of Ivre. Nothing but flat rock greeted him.
“Did you feel that?” Girad spun around. “Something sticky touched my leg!”
“Pinpricks. We’re half frozen. Keep an eye for any dry driftwood. We will need a fire soon.” Jasbel shivered. He grabbed a handful of his hair and wrung it dry. When his hand came away, he felt sticky webbing caught against his fingers. He looked at his palm. A thin line of silk, gleaming white even in the darkness, crossed his palm. He rubbed at it with his thumb.
“Oye! You!” Girad waved his arms and ran into the fog. Jasbel cursed, hefted his makeshift oar, and hoped his cousin had not chosen this particular moment to go mad.
But soon, he saw the figure, too. A man, wreathed in the fog, waved them forward. Jasbel hissed to Girad. Fog parted, and saw the terrain for the first time.
No rough scrub or other plants clung to the rocks. There was nothing but a white spider web, woven into the earth itself. Light filtered into the air. White crystals, quartz pulled from deep within the earth, glowed like oil lamps set behind milked glass. He stopped. The ground continued moving beneath him.
This was not land. They were still at sea. This was a ship.
“Jasbel, it’s Kerr!” The light grew stronger and he saw the figure more clearly. It was indeed, Kerr, the ship’s boatswain. He wore layers of odd cloth, scraps from a hundred different outfits woven together, and a hood. “Gods, Kerr, why did you not say anything? Where did you find that?”
“You. You are – Girad. Yes?” Kerr’s voice creaked and snapped. “Yes. Girad. And Jasbel. Cousins. Shipmates. We remember you.”
Jasbel held his oar as a club. “Back away, Girad. It is not him. Listen to his voice, it is not him.”
The creature who looked like Kerr nodded. “He, Jasbel, is correct. We thank Kerr for the use of his form and his mind. We are glad he is familiar to you. We seek help.”
The hood dropped away. Kerr’s face, narrow and sharp, rested atop another man’s body. Thick, glue-like thread stitched the two together. A chunk of ocean-blue crystal replaced his skull. Thick, finger-like protrusions stretched the face in a parody of natural speech. Hunks of rock, driftwood, metal and other garbage created the neck and part of the spine. All was lashed together , like a puppet built from the sea’s leavings.
“We seek your help.” As the creature spoke, the mechanisms behind the stretched skin clicked and chittered.
Girad lowered his oar. Eyes wide, chin quivering, he hauled breaths between his teeth. “Kerr? Gods…”
“We seek your help,” repeated the thing wearing Kerr’s face.
“Seek death, demon!” Girad howled. He drove the oar into the creature’s skull. The blow tore Kerr’s face free. The delicate mechanisms holding the mouth and neck in place shattered. The creature stumbled backwards.
“No! Stop!” Jasbel yelled in vein. Girad spun around and took a second blow. The flat of his makeshift club crashed against the creature’s ruined neck. It’s skull tumbled down onto the rock. The body collapsed, a puppet without strings.
“Why?” On the ground, the skull cracked and unfolded. The thick fingers became a multitude of legs. From under the face’s remnants a tiny crystal hermit crab appeared. Wide, alien eyes and a broad mouth stared at him. The small pincers where one would envision arms clicked. “Now the soldiers and builders must act. We are sorry.”
The earth moved. Tunnels of webbing and rock pushed up from the ground. Doors like the valves of a great heart opened and spilled forth more crabs. From the mist came a clanking noise. Jasbel saw armored forms, covered in urchin-like spines, rise from the ground.
Crystal crabs encircled them. The one who once wore Kerr’s face looked at him, blue eyes wreathed in sympathy.
“Forgive us. We had hoped we could speak. But time and sympathy are short. We need more information. We need to know about Ivre.”
The chittering and clicking grew. Thick, dripping strands of white silk drifted from the gauntlets of the armored dead, twisting into sticky whips. Jasbel lashed out, but the glue held fast, wrapping around him in a thick cocoon. The other creatures clustered around them. Blue energy drifted from their tiny pincers. The rocks and crystals a their feet turned to clay, wrapping up along their legs and rooting them into place.
“There will be pain at first. But the pain will cease when we have disassembled your nerves. Please forgive us.” Tiny legs ran up along their legs and chest, taking positions on their skin. Tiny blades of blue light formed at the tips of their pincers, poised.
And then one began cutting into Girad. He howled as it peeled away a long, thin strip of skin, like an orange rind pulled away from the pulp.
“Oh, Girad. What have you done?” It was all he could say before he began screaming. He only stopped when a small blue pincer disassembled his voice box.