Friday, February 26, 2010

219 - Exposure

Outside! Outside! Oh sweet, blessed Goddess, and fessas Goddess thank you, thank you, thank you! I did sink to my knees on the plaza stones, still weeping, once our party was drawn away from blocking the tunnel, and I could slide down from my wonderful, excellent, most calm mule.

“Sera Kaita?” The young Aitzas man between Kyriala and I, turned. “Is that one, all right?”

Such a polite boy, since he didn’t have to be kind to the fessas woman I am pretending to be. I kept my words to a whisper. “This one’s happy, ser, to be able to see.”

He laughed, a little raggedly, wiping his own eyes surreptitiously on his cuffs. “All right then,” and turned away. Gannara was there a moment later to offer me an elbow up.

“Thank yeh, boy.” I said and went to take Ilesias from Min-akas. I set my charge upon his feet and he clutched my skirts as though he were a much smaller boy, his eyes stretched wide, his bear clenched under his arm.

“I like seeing,” he said. “It’s good.”

“Oh, I agree, laddie-me-buck.” He giggled when I used the lower caste slang for little boy. I could see Ailadas inquiring earnestly of the innmaster about the cost, exactly as if he were the impoverished gentleman, careful of his chains.

The plaza was brightly lit, with far more lights than necessary. I had not noticed that on the other end. The inn was big and had enormous windows and many, many lights and mirrors everywhere. Expensive but so welcome. I think I shall have a lamp on when I sleep, for a few nights yet. I didn’t think the Coronet had taken a long-term fright from the Tunnel but I wished to be sure.

I had prayed, most of the way through the Tunnel. I had repeated the whole year’s cycle of prayers to Selinae. And what I could remember for Risae, for I hoped She would smile on my experiment of pretending to be fessas. I had repeated hymns behind my closed eyes and brought up the images of where and how I had learned them. At the very end, beginning to be afraid I might run out of things to think of, to help me stay calm and quiet, I had begun going over every embroidery stitch I knew, even some of the most elaborate and least used ones in my fingers’ memory. It had been enough.

Inn servants took our horses and we went toward the white stairs of the brightly lit building. It still felt wrong, as though it should be some other time of day than what it was, as if the world had been turned on its head and put back a trifle wrong. Like a glove put on a damp hand with the seams sticking and not settling where they should.

Most of people went to the inn straight away, for they had ridden steadily for long beads, ready to keep some of the quietude they'd learned in the Tunnel. The young men chose to stay in plaza, to find wine-sellers and Maskers, or other prostitutes pretending to be Maskers. Probably looking for the loudest bards and the wildest celebrations. Perhaps a fight or two. As young men do, when feeling threatened, they must prove to themselves and all around them, that they are alive.

Like my young man here, who had now sat down in the middle of the square saying “That’s enough! I’m tired. Go way! Leave me alone! I don’ wanna be good any more!”

“You’ve been very brave, Ili,” I said. As his nurse I could speak equal to equal. “Little brightness, precious treasure---“

He over-rode my words with his own howl. “—Nonononononono! Leave me alone! I’m tirrrrreedddddd! I don’t want you! I don’t want anybbbbbboooodddy but Miiiiiiiiiiiii----“

I slapped my glove over his mouth. “—nakas… yes, he’s right here, Sparkle-eyes… he’s right here…”

I beckoned Minis and he came back, took his struggling, howling little brother out of my hands, lifting him up, putting his hand over mine so Ilesias did not expose us in his tantrum. The little boy bit him, Minis yelped and Ilesias slid down, kicked hard with one of his flailing little legs and landed on the pavement, wobbling. “I wanna go back to the MARBLE PALACE! I wanna go HOME!” He kicked Minis in the shin again, threw Bear on the ground and ran, yelling.

I tried to catch him as he wheeled past me. I caught a flash of his frantic eyes. “You’re just as mean as a Mahid! I’m Coronet and don’t have to obey!” Minis straightened up and lunged after him.

“You can’t tell me what to do even if you are SPARK OF THE SUN’S RAY!”

“Ili!” Ailadas had joined the fray. “Stop pretending! You are behaving very badly, young man!”

Ilesias dodged around a plant pot by the bottom stairs and hunkered down in the crack next to the steps. Thankfully that muffled his words somewhat. “I’m tired of being someone ELSE!” He was speaking one down to Ailadas. Thank the Gods and Goddesses that most people here would never have heard the Imperial mode of speaking. It made his words less understandable, especially at a high shriek.

“You’re not my grandfather! You’re just Minis’s tutor! You're just a stupid Aitzas! Shut up Aitzas!” Gannara and Minis hauled him out of his crevasse and Minis thrust his hand straight into the little boy’s mouth, not caring that he bit him. At that moment an inn servant, obviously used to this kind of thing upended a bucket of cold water over Ilesias in Minis’s arms, hitting both Minis and Gannara as well.

Everyone stopped. “Children often meet the King of the Elves or Gnomes in the Tunnel,” he said calmly. “They come out believing all kinds of things.”

Minis leaned forward and whispered something in Ilesias’s ear that made him stop longer than the shock of the water. I am almost afraid of what he said, but by the look on his face, he means it and Ilesias understands.

Gannara went off to fetch Indispensible Bear and we entered the inn, hearts thundering, trying not to look around nervously, trying to laugh it off as Tunnel hallucinations. I think we shall be leaving tomorrow before dawn.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

218 - Weighed Down by Weight of Darkness

Ahem. Ahem. Light had a value, a weight, a sensitivity and a tangible existence. One imagines this place will not see the light of the sun until the mountains crack in two… from waystop, to waystop, a faint glow pressed all around by darkness. That glow would never see the view it reveal to hungry, grasping eyes, starving to be filled as no starving man's belly could be.

We were in a place banished forever from the light of the Sun and I wondered if my own light could endure through this darkness. Would I be as frightened as those others riding, who stayed awake fighting hard to conceal their fear with song, with talk, with chatter more and more idle and frantic to drive back the dark?

Ilesias slept and I understood that the very young and the very old – drawn along helplessly in carts and rickshaws – often slept. The very young, as if they were returned to the womb. The very old as if preparing for their own future darkness, the closing of all earthly eyes. One reason I rode. I was of that long-sleeping age. Those empowered would repeatedly strain the pace of the porters, eager for this walk into the abyss to be over.

Only the kadussas were tranquil here in their home -- no, their faces held little expression, since they could neither see those of their companions, or assume that their own carried any message and visible only briefly at the islands, the besieged puddles of light, that are the airshaft waystops.

They were the places where, if one is not in the honeycomb beds, twenty times a day the breath of the mountain pressed down upon one, demonstrating the weight and force and true presence of air as a substance with as much weight as gold. With as much weight as light and dark down here.

I had never breathed -- a funny phrase, that -- breathed a word of my relationship with air to a living soul. In these tiny, thin, constricted passages I was reminded of the time in my youth when every day, every breath, a subtle shift in the rock too small for the mountain to notice, would seal off the passages of air forever.

The breath of the mountain is a force and a power. But against the size of the mountain attempting to breathe it is small. A mouse’s lungs labouring to fill the earth with panting, trembling, trip-hammer gulps. And not even gulps. Sips. Thin tapestry threads of air keeping one’s suffering body held tight to life.

In that sense the air was like darkness. How often had darkness relieved the straining, overheated body, cool air finally relaxing the head-bursting, skin-pounding, full to the brim with boiling in the tiny veins in the head blood? And then. And then reached down into wrinkled, flabby, cooked lungs with sodden wet hands, filling every thread-passage full of thick moisture?

Darkness and air, dancing in my old lungs. My chest strained and opened once more. Then again.

Between Tal and Fasanian… in the dark… there was a massive creaking and rumbling. A roaring of water and an enormous, not yet stinking splash and spray. A waterwheel it sounded like. A secret groaning engine of the kadussas taking huge amounts of water that would otherwise collapse the tunnel and channel it to useful purpose, like allowing the mountain… and us… to breathe.

I did not ask for information as we were led by and the blind porter did not offer. I wondered what other things were down here in the dark, locked away from the fragile sighted. Things no one dared see, like the interior workings of the body, perhaps? Things that only a healer might bear to know? Not the mere conduction of people and goods from one side of a mountain to another, but a vast and mysterious operation full of arcane and fearful knowledge. One may imagine anything in the dark.

The walls might one day suddenly decide that iron is not what they craved to hold fast, but flesh and blood and bone and one might – one day -- find one’s self pinned helplessly, like that poor knight and his horse. Cuddled so hard to the wall of the mountain that oxen may not pull you free. Why not? If the Tunnel may decide it wishes iron, what is to say it will not change its desire one day?

Stupidity. A theorem spun out of darkness and thick air and seeing things in the dark. We are three quarters of the way through. My old mind will not crack, though I might dare to wipe the back of my hand across young Ser Itzan’s mouth if he does not close it once in a while. Ah. A young man’s fantasies. A young man’s knowledge of his own prowess at violence.

True violence is this darkness in its abundance and this air in its lack, thrusting their excesses into one’s mind. The violence of indifferent death and destruction that does not recognize the mind and understanding it kills. The unknowing destroying that which knows and darkness is its outrider, its spearman, its giant.

I should be glad to see the pin-prick light that I knew was coming at Safussifan. This was the longest stretch. The deepest, with the peak above us higher than the first. The weight of earth more pressing. I breathed deep, because I could. The last leg, thank the Gods, was shortest. It was very strange. A man who curses the Sun has never been in the Tunnel. A man who curses the Tunnel has never been enslaved under the Sun.


Up ahead, Ailadas coughed, a wet sound slapping against the walls and ceiling. Gannara rode just beside me and Ilesias was a partly awake, warm weight against my chest. I ground my teeth in the dark. I had grown to despise Itzan’s smooth, endless, prattle that he doled out carefully along every foot of the journey through as though he proceeded into a maze and might need to follow the thread of his words back to his starting point should his mind go astray.

The mountain’s breath had shifted after Safussifan, a life-line thread in my need, my urge to get through, get through, get through, striking toward light the way a swimmer strikes toward the surface. The exhale breath was at our backs now, instead of in our faces, the inhale fans drawing phantom outside smells to hook into our noses and draw us onward. Relief was coming. Our bodies could feel it though the dark was as unrelenting as ever.

The birds sang differently it seemed, the communication taps echoing back and forth between the porters sang more lightly on the ears.

“So, Gannara, how would I say “How much is that?” in Yeoli?”

“K…Ka…mya ess..sssa.” He said, stuttering a little, struggling to dig into his memory, around the massive blocks of pain the Mahid would have installed in his head, to keep him from speaking his own tongue. It would be good for him to teach me the simple phrases I was asking him. At least I hoped it would help.

“Kamyas essa?”

“Kamya essa.” He said more firmly, correcting me. It was the sort of thing that Misahis would have done to help him heal, help him get his language back.

Misahis, were you rescued? Are you home now? Safe from crazy Imperators and twisted Sparks? Misahis would have known how to ease Gannara’s remembering, what remedies would have made the loosening of his tongue easier. Selestialis save him from crazy Arkans who would hurt him.

I repeated the phrase he told me out loud once, and then again to settle it in my memory. I had my eyes closed because it didn’t make any kind of difference. The first leg of this Tunnel, I had noticed that I was seeing lights where there were none. By now I was seeing faces, the Marble Palace library apparently off to my left and people I knew I’d never met… but I knew them from their portraits. Ilesias the Great was frowning at me sometimes. And I could see Chevenga, smiling… that big grin of his, like the day I bounced in on him wearing my dog costume all those years ago.

I didn’t hear these phantoms speak to me and I didn’t try to listen. Over the long stretch in the dark I saw my older brother once or twice and he and Sinimas played kickball with the fat guy’s head all along the passageway. I knew they weren’t real but they looked real. So I started closing my eyes and that made everything go back to just random spots of light.

I hadn’t managed to sleep at all at the last waystop, opening my eyes over and over again, just to see the stone above my face. I’d reach up and touch it to make sure it was really there, the cool, damp stone hard against my fingertips because I’d pushed to make sure.

“Minakas, Gannara,” Kaita said quietly. “There is a fly buzzing around the ears of my mule.”

“We must be close,” Gannara said, just as softly.

“I’m keeping it quiet because I want to run screaming… I am supposing others would want to, as well.”

The mules were starting to bray and snuffle and push up against the lead line and the rear porter, riding a donkey, started hanging back to keep them from running over the front porter’s heels, stampeding over him. I reached around Ilesias and took up my reins, by feel, for the first time in the Tunnel.

“Hey! I think I see light!” Gannara hissed softly, and I snapped my eyes open. I wasn’t sure at first that what I was seeing was real light or more hallucinations. Vague shapes in the dark as though we were ghosts manifesting.

“I think you’re right, Gan.”

The kadussas kept us moving steadily so we didn’t run right over the party in front of us. They had started before us by three tenths and had been carefully kept at that distance, and to give our dark adapted eyes time to adjust, so we would not blind ourselves in our rush to get out. I took a breath and crushed the wild urge to cut loose from the lead-line, kick the mule hard and flee for the outside like fleeing hayel itself.

One of Itzan’s entourage behind me, began to yell, his noise turning words into incomprehensible waves smashing against our delicate ears. I turned, throwing my hands and arms over my head, one hand over one of Ilesias’s ears. He thrashed awake, his own hands over his ears so I covered both of mine. I couldn’t see what was happening but I think the boy tried to ride loose. It would cause a stampede. I don’t know how the porter managed to calm him, stop him before he injured someone ahead, but he did.

The porters stopped us, which hurt, but was very wise given how close we were to all breaking and running. “We shall sing,” the rear porter said. “Everyone together, if all please.”

The song was traditional, an ancient plea to an ancient God before the Ten. Everyone sang it and it evened our progress, put a rhythm to our procession. The light grew slowly, gentle as a lover’s touch. Our eyes were not assaulted with it and when we came to the Tunnel mouth and over the river bridge and out, we emerged in calm and good order into an evening plaza, brightly lit. I was amazed at how bright something as dark as a moonless night was.

For an instant I was afraid I had gotten turned around in the dark and just gone back, so similar was the plaza but on this end, but the great creature greeting us in glass and pour stone was a stooping eagle done in red and blue so it shone purple in the light and the sight of it was enough to make me weep. All of us were weeping. Something that happened upon emergence I was later told. No one cared that we showed our tears.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

217 - Tomorrow it will be Tal

Poor Minis. He needed to remember that he was supposedly fessas now and couldn’t be annoyed with Aitzas boys. The dark was odd. Very peaceful. I could imagine music based on the sounds in the tunnels. Perhaps, one day, after I was home, I would ask a musician to write something based on it. It was only the first leg of our journey in the Tunnel and the dark was starting to become a thing all its own in a way, and the light too.

I was so sleepy at the third rest stop, I switched from my mare to the ladies’ saddle behind Ailadas and once my feet were safely on the step I found myself leaning against my ‘uncle’s’ back, with my head on his shoulder. He smelled like a scholar, comfortingly of leather and books, even after we had been years away from the libraries and offices. I suppose it’s natural. People give off the scent of their spirits which is why perfume was always so thick in the Marble Palace. Nasty courtiers trying to cover up their own soul’s smells.

I wondered what we all smelled like to the porters, who had no choice but to use their noses and ears. Do the sighted smell different than the blind? They certainly are quieter, possibly because they do not wish to fill up their ears with noise when they need them.

But the dark imposes a kind of silence on people if they aren’t used to it, it seems.

“Kylinia?” I had to think and remember that this was my name for now. I was a little slow to respond.

“Yes, uncle?”

“Are you, ahem, all right my dear?”

“Yes, uncle, thank you.”

I thought that the dark was more oppressive on Ser Itzan than some people. He was trying to fill up the blackness with polite chatter. He tried singing, with not too bad a voice but the gloom smothered that attempt. He pushed his horse along faster till it almost fouled the line.

“If the honoured ser would slow down, ser. The honoured ser will only make himself more anxious, and this lowly one suggests, ser, that the exalted keep to the pace of this lowly guide?”

“Oh, yes, yes. Certainly, I didn’t realize.”

The kadussas was very calm, very polite, but he must have impatient, nervous people like Ser Itzan all the time. The sighted kadussas on the plaza had given us a little speech about some of the things we might experience in the Tunnel and how to deal with them. Perhaps Ser Itzan had forgotten.

I wanted to embroider a cloth telling what the Tunnel was like, but I would have to make it black thread on black silk and the only way to ‘see’ it would be to run one’s hands over it, take up the weight of it and wear it for a while. A Tunnel coat. That would be something to feel. I could not say ‘something to see’. Everyone should do this passage once in their lives. The dark changes you.

They told us there would be different things happening to us the further along we went. The next stretch, after Arno, would be the shortest time in the dark, but the wettest. I longed for Arno because sun-lights were allowed there, to give the sighted some relief.

I’d be able to see again and remember that I had eyes by more than feel. I blinked and could feel the sweep of my eyelashes, the smoothness of my eyelids over my eyes, but other than that, no effect at all. I imagined what I should look like with no eyes and shuddered against Ailadas’s back.


“I’m all right uncle, thank you for asking. Just a shiver.”

At Arno I wanted to touch the metal on the wall, seized by the urge to secretly take off a glove and really feel it, but of course I could not. I was insulated from the world by my life. A layer of cloth and a layer of propriety and a layer of space all around me. I was the centre of sheets of protective coatings to keep me safe but I was starting to realize that I hated them, even as I craved them. I could feel nothing through them, isolate. It was like the dark. I was cocooned in my safety, blind, deaf and dumb to the real world.

I loved it when Ilesias burst through those layers and laid himself on my lap. I understood more now, why Mama loved babies and children. They connect you to the world and I look forward to having my own one day. I remembered the look in Minis’s eyes when he gave me back my blessing box. He’s in love with me and doesn’t know it. He just thinks he likes me.

It was a little like taking his heart away from him. I carried it wrapped in my waist-scarf with the treasure. Just below my own heart. He didn’t want to release me. I don’t want to be released. But it’s the right thing to do. I got down from behind my ‘uncle’ by myself because I could see.

It was like being re-born. Ilesias, who had been sleeping, limp in Minis’s arms, woke up and stretched and complained and Kaita went to get him. He was getting so big, soon she’d have to get one of the boys to lift him up.

Minis and Gannara were unpacking our bags… just the ones Ailadas and I might need if we wished to refresh ourselves, and our animals were led to the stable cubby in the rock to be looked after.

We would be here several beads, just to rest the animals, and ourselves. Even though many could doze enroute not everyone could and a solid nap would help everyone deal with the dark. The dark inside our slumber is less frightening.

“Welcome to Arno, Sers and serinas.” A kadussas woman. For Kaita and I. She stood under one of the tiny sunlights, like fireflies, and my eyes found them very bright after the omnipresent darkness.

Frail sighted. We needed the light the same way we needed water. I’m not sure I have the strength to be blind. The rooms at Arno were low enough and big enough that they looked like slots in the rock, just barely cut for the tallest to not hit their heads and I was able to sit down on a chair that was not moving. The walls were rough and pink and gray and white and black stripes coiling around one another. Another kind of tapestry. I sat next to the rock and, surreptitiously, under the cover of the table, I slid off one of my gloves and tucked the hand behind me to touch the wall.

It was cool and rough against my palms and fingers, gritty and intense as a shock. I could feel the tiny angles and planes, a smoothness of some kind. I wondered if it was the flashes of flat stone that glittered like black glass I was feeling. The warmth of my hand sank away into the stone and cold seeped in. I pulled my hand away and tucked it safely back into my glove under the table. The feel of the stone stayed on my skin as if I had picked it up somehow and now held it inside my glove.

There was kaf and hot food, a simple stew. “How is it,” Ailadas asked. “That there is air to burn safely here, to heat food?”

The rest stop master, a thin man who looked less like a chef and more like an accountant, answered softly, as all kadussas seemed to. “The ser has it correctly. Dangerous air from fires may be safely guided outside here, on the breath of the mountain.”

The cubicles we were shown to were like a honeycomb in the rock. Tubes where people could lie down but not high enough to sit up. Not everyone could bear sliding into them and there were several bigger rooms where people could sleep, albeit with less privacy. I found it almost comfortingly close, like being wrapped in a warm quilt when cold.

I found myself reluctant to close my eyes on the lights, and slid into the bed with my head by the opening, so I could see them. I thought that drowsing part of the way here would make it hard for me to sleep but the dark somehow dragged my wakefulness away and my need for deeper sleep pulled my eyes shut.

I was awakened by two things. Ilesias, in the tube bed above me, singing a nonsense song to his toy and faintly, under that, a woman out at the hospice opening pleading with her husband.

“…don’t please. Don’t make me go back into the dark. Please, please. No. Husband… I’m begging you…” I couldn’t hear his response, just the soothing rumble of his voice and the murmur of the kadussas… more than one. “I can’t. I can’t… husband, please…” I heard her weeping, softly at first but growing louder.

“Sera, please, sit. Have a warm cup of kaf.” I heard someone say, and her weeping desperation growing softer. I remembered from the little talk… just a quick mention, that if one panicked part way through and either attempted to run into the dark, or go back, the porters would administer something to calm you. In extreme cases they would put you to sleep. I hoped they would do this for the poor woman. She needed to see light, not darkness.

I tested my own feelings, and closed my eyes to call up images of sunlit hills. I was all right, though I could imagine the enormous bulk of the mountain over us. I would rather this, than go through another pass. I would rather give my guidance over to a blind man than watch more men and horses slip and fall. I think Mahid would never like to take this route. They would have to give up too much of their control into another’s hands.

I slid out of my bed and found the kadussas woman there with a basin of cool water for me to wash. Today, or tonight, I had no idea other than the bead clock by the big main door, which it was. It didn’t matter. We’d head on to Tal airshaft next. It felt like night.

Then the Fisanian and the last Safussifan. It seemed forever. I would be a tiny grub burrowing through the mountain, crawling through the hair-thin needle hole in the bolt of cloth.

Minis wasn’t saying much, he was playing his part so well. He and Gannara had us all ready to go, well before Ser Itzan’s entourage dragged themselves out of the beds. I had no idea why those men insisted on speaking and laughing so loudly and I made myself smile at them, even as I wanted to kick them to make them all shut up. They almost hurt my ears. Being without my eyes for so long had made everything else more sensitive.

I had them put the ladies' saddle on my mare and insisted that Minis ride her and carry me. I don’t think he minded that much. In the dark I could lay my cheek, very properly, against his back and no one would see or comment, even if they could see. He smelled good. Warm. A little musky, almost like baking bread.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

216 - To Arno Airshaft

“Ahem. We will take the most modest route, my dear,” Ailadas said to Ky and she pouted.

“Can’t we afford to just sell these animals and take the Express Chairs, Uncle?” She was the image of pouting, spoiled Aitza.

“No, Kylinia! I have decided. You may wheedle all you wish but the answer will still be no! Ahem.”

She flounced in her saddle, as much as was possible to do so without setting the mare off and turned to me abruptly. Fessas, fetch me my other fan!” She pointed with her chin to the baggage mule. “The sweetwood one!”

“This ‘un’s glad tah serve, s’rina.” Gan didn’t bother hiding his grin but looked around as if it were the plaza making him smile, while I rummaged in the bag for her fan.

“The s’rina’s request fulfilled,” I said, handing up her fan. My eyes didn’t go any higher than her shoulder and hers, I am certain, did not go lower than the top of my head.

The line moved slowly as groups were shuffled together to be kitted out for Tunnel travel. Once the tolls were paid, a box on wheels was brought forward and all iron and steel that everyone had was accounted for and locked away. Most harness fittings were ironwood or brass so that was apparently all right. The whole party had a lodestone run over them to make sure, for their safety.

“Ahem. Apprentice. Recite. Do you recall the reason for this bizarre ritual?”

“Ay, sor. There’s places in t’Tunnel where no iron passes. It sticks tah the wall. There ‘s a suit of armour and the halter of a horse left illuminated at t’ Arno air-shaft.”

The animals were all fitted with bags under their tails and the Kadussas came forward to take the lead-rope of the forward animal. Most people stayed on their beasts, content to be led. The Kadussas had the straight-on stare and the tipped head of the sightless, his feet knowing every step to the start-line. The Tunnel Master, sighted, laid the lead rope into the outstretched glove.

Before each party entered, the Tunnel master tapped on a bar running out of the stone in the mountain, waited for a few moments, tapped again. At some interval, whose guiding I could not discern, he halted a group and waited. The fan whirled slowly to a stop, then slowly reversed itself until it was spinning a hard wind in our faces.

A storm-roar came up from the heart of the mountain, a hot, stale, ammonia-stinking howl, the trapped air being blown from the airshaft pumps deep inside. Everyone’s sleeves and hair flapped. Even though this happened more than twenty times a day and the plaza was swept clear every time, the dust whipped and forced us to close our eyes against it. The animals brayed or neighed and had to be held, but everyone expected it. The eagle banners all around the plaza cracked their wings in that wind with sharp pops and crackles.

Then it stopped and the fan as well, and the whole process reversed itself as the mountain inhaled. “Ahem.” Ailadas coughed with really effort once the exhale wind had died down again, except for the steady draw once more. “I believe we have just felt the, ahem, so-called ‘Breath of the Mountain.’”

I had thought we would be starting at the smaller tunnel entrance and so, walking when I had promised Ilesias he could ride on my back, but here we could ride. I took my little brother up on the saddle in front of me and tied his donkey to my mule. He tucked his Bear up in front of him making little growly noises.

We were put with another travelling party, a young Aitzas fellow and his entourage, with flashy horses and satins, even so soon after the war. He attached himself to Ailadas and winked at Kyriala who hid behind her fan, coyly. He and Ailadas were the lead behind our guide, then the women, then I and Gan and the rest of his hangers on.

Shien Itzan really showed himself as a finely turned out young man, wearing his blue satins as trail-gear without a second thought. I wouldn’t have thought of how hard it would be to keep those clothes clean on the road. My trousers were dark brown and dusty.

His horse was high-bred and skittish, the colour of a gold chain with white mane and tail. His hair was almost as white as the horse’s tail. And I rode a mule. A very good mule with a lovely foot who could walk that high-bred into the ground but I was seized with a sudden longing for Nasty. The big black war-horse would have had that stupid nag for breakfast.

Shien smiled at Kyriala far too often with his straight, shiny, white teeth, before the Kadussas led us past the fan housing into the mouth of the mountain.

The light from the plaza stretched its fingers into the mountain less than the length of our little procession and I, since I did not have to guide my mule, I wrapped both arms around Ilesias’s middle and he leaned back against me hugging Indispensible Bear just as firmly.

The darkness became everything. It pressed around and on and into my lungs pressing the air out. It became the only conversation, pressing down, erasing all competition. There was no abrupt line, only a gradually increasing twilight that became dim, it faded to a wedge of haziness, a slender pinpoint, and then only the solid darkness.

The light just failed, not like sunset but like the oppressive darkness we had felt and lived in the caves, only this time there would be no fire to light our cavern, no smokey torches. No torches at all. No candles, no lamps. Fires, and thus light, used up the air we would need. The steady flow of air at our backs, smelling faintly of the hot food vendors at the plaza entrance, and the fresh, clear mountains, was reassuring that the Tunnel fans were on, pulling in enough clean air for us to breathe.

In an Express chair… with the bearers pushing hard and breathing hard, and passed on one to the next at the air shafts… one could make the undermountain passage in twenty beads. We would be in the dark at our pace, for four days.

From up ahead, in the dark I heard the rush of water, and a liquid trilling of birdsong. “Good work, little one,” our guide called as if to the bird.

“Why would a canary sing—ahem -- in the dark?” Ailadas asked our guide.

“Ah, honoured ser. They are workers in the deep here with us, our little brothers. Should there be a pocket of bad air… they will give their lives and thus warn us of the danger. Should we pass and our feathered brother not sing, this one would turn us back until the extent of the dangerous air be determined or until the mountain’s breath cleans the road.”

“There –ahem -- must be a lot of them.”

“Yes, ser. There are,” he said, but no more. Their voices echoed weirdly in the dark as if you could feel the words on your skin more than hear them with your ears.

“If the serina becomes fatigued or frightened,” Itzan said from immediately behind Ky and Kaita riding side by side, but ostensibly addressing Ailadas. “I would gladly offer my assistance, ser.”

“Young man, I will, ahem, certainly keep that in mind.” I found myself grinding my teeth for some reason and unclenched my jaw. Kyriala wouldn’t be frightened you tit. She has enough courage for three of you. I deliberately turned my thoughts away from Itzan, thinking about the Yeoli column of letters that included the symbol for 'Che' instead. There were eleven in that symbol set if I remembered the drawings Gannara had made for me correctly. Let me see... 'Cha' is this symbol with the bottom hook turning this direction, and there's a classic 'Che' and a 'cho' symbol...

I tried to set my mind into the half-doze the Kadussas had suggested to pass the time. Since we had entered the Tunnel around sunset Ilesias fell asleep not too long after that. I could tell because he got heavier and more limp somehow. Something so trusting I had to smile at. I love you little brother. You’re safe between your Bear and I.

By the time we arrived at the first airshaft I’d gone into a peculiar dream-like state, that wasn’t broken by our stopping at the relief areas. Handing an invisible Ilesias to an unseen Gan, getting down from an indiscernible mule, feeling for invisible handholds and squatting over a pitch coloured hole in a tar black cubicle, and then reversing the process just made the whole experience seem more unreal.

And every bead there would be a peculiar set of taps along the bar in the wall and we would stop and brace ourselves against the mountain’s breath. The rhythms inside were hypnotic… the next trilling little bird, the taps and clicks in their various patterns communicating who knew what information, the faint rush of the deep stinking river carrying waste and powering the fans deep under our feet, the higher gurgle of the drinkable spring running next to us the whole way… it was as though I had descended to some odd mythical kingdom under the hill.

I kept blinking and blinking thinking I could see light, but it was merely my eyes playing tricks with me until, when a light did appear, I didn’t recognize it as real at first. A tiny alcohol lamp lit a patch of wall to our right and yes, there was a carefully oiled set of armour held to the wall, crushed almost flat as if a great weight pressed down upon it. Four horseshoes gleamed near the base of the wall and a bit next to a flattened gauntlet as well. All as if the knight and his horse had been picked up and smashed straight against the stone.

“The Tunnel loves iron and steel and keeps them if it can,” the Kadussas said. “An ox can perhaps shift that armour if one could find a way to secure it in such a way that the metal did not tear. It breaks and rips rather than let go.”

“Ahem, most interesting. Ahem. It implies the Tunnel has a will of its – ahem – own.”

“These ones think it does. Welcome to the Arno airshaft. The exalted ones may rest here before proceeding on with the next guide.”

Monday, February 22, 2010

215 - Two Slotted Spoons and A Green Dragon

We stayed in the inn for most of Jitzmitthra. I spent a lot of that time learning how to be fessas full time. It was very, very different than a few beads in my own rooms, or even a full evening with Antras. I hoped Antras was all right, in the Marble Palace. I felt a little guilty that I hadn’t thought of him but perhaps I could forgive myself for that.

I sat at the open window in the room we had at the inn with new books I’d purchased all the way back in the first village we ‘emerged’. The village was called North River. I uncapped my pen and made a note in my blank book. The book cart had been next to the tinsmith’s in the market and I had tried out my haggling skills when Gannara said I needed to learn. I was supposed to buy camp kitchen things and I did. Gannara had been watching me start and had gone back to talk to the horse man about some things we’d forgotten.

When I was done with the kitchen stuff, and he’d told me I was supposed to not pay more than eight copper links for the stuff on my list and I did that… almost. Then I went to the bookseller’s afterwards.

I’d found a nice very strange little poetry book purporting to be written by a Mahid, “Ravens in a Mourning Sky,” an abridged copy of ‘Great Men’ and… one of the better knuckle suckers from 1st Amitza’s library that I had never gotten to finish, “Sweet Breath on my Fingers.” It was wonderful. I looked at the copy of ‘Great Men’ and thought. It’s Jitzmitthra, maybe this once I can read the fun things first.

I picked up the knuckle-sucker and heard a noise from Gannara, who was re-organizing our packs since the next way-stop was so tiny there wasn’t even an inn, but a shelter where a party could rest under roof. Very much like the little cabin I’d started my life outside the city in. “Minakas!”

He sounded annoyed. “What? What’s wrong?”

“You bought two frying pans? Why on earth two frying pans?”

“Well the tinsmith didn’t have the tin kaf pot so I thought we could use it to boil water in.”

He stood up with the offending frying pan in his hand, looking at me as though I were an idiot. Perhaps I was, in this case, but it was good that he’d found out before we had to use it. “Did you make any other substitutions I should know about?” He asked.

I straightened up. “I thought I did really well getting all that! I got us the neat bundle of plates, those ones that are so nice and everything else on the list… except maybe one thing… other than the kaf pot.”

“And that is?”

“Instead of a dipper… he really didn’t have anything bigger than the wooden spoons except the slotted kind so…”

“You bought two slotted spoons instead of a dipper.”

“I thought you could kind of… off-set them so the slots were closed off…”

He snorted. “It doesn’t work that way, Min.”

“I did my best!” I protested.

“I’m certain sure you did.” He tucked the offending items back into the pack on top and came over to sit in the window seat with me. “After Jitz and before we leave we’ll see if we can fix that, or we might be without kaf till the next town big enough to have a tinsmith.”

“I’m sorry I don’t know all this stuff, Gan. I… it makes me crazy. I keep thinking I’m following through. Like the slotted spoon thing. I try thinking it through, practically, and it just doesn’t work!”

“Min… you’re about as practical as anyone raised in the Marble Palace could be.”

“That’s a good way of putting it. As practical as marble polish in the woods… here, let me shine up that rock for you!”

“It’s not that bad. But you have to let the rest of us do more. You aren’t ‘in command’ anymore… because of this stuff.”

“If I didn’t have you all I’d ‘uv made a mistake the first day and already be back with 2nd Amitzas being corrected for trying to escape.” The fessas cadences were starting to settle onto my tongue more automatically now.

Gannara shuddered. “Don’t even think of them, not any more. You’ve given up on their crazy plans for your life, haven’t you? You don’t need to keep thinking about them, or doing the weird shen stuff they had you doing, right?”

I pulled my knees up to my chin, wrapped my arms around them. “I… suppose but I don’t know what precisely the ‘weird shen’ stuff is. I mean… what part of what they taught me is useful for a fessas as opposed to the idiot who’s supposed to be the great general and war-leader and have a fanatic following? Aside from knowing that the fanatic teachers were nuts and that was pretty obvious.”

“Don’t worry about it so much, Min, we’re all here to help you.”

“Thank Selestialis.

He grinned and pushed my shoulder with his fist. “We’ll make sure you don’t buy more slotted spoons instead of a dipper,” he said. I pushed back and he grabbed the pillow I’d stuffed against the wall and hit me with it.

“Hey! Hey! No fair! I’m unarmed!” I laughed and swatted at him.

“So… take it away from me y’idjit!”

I lunged over my little pile of books and we wrestled for a bit and then I helped him put the rest of the packs in order so we’d be ready to leave… my wrong purchases laid on top so they didn’t get forgotten.

“So I wrestled you into submission, Gan, you want to practice reading? We can use the knuckle-sucker instead of the textbooks.”

“Sure. I know how to read… just not in Arkan.”

“Really? I should learn how to read Yeoli.”

“Sure. I can show you.”

“Yes, please.”


We were further away from the First Blind Tunnel than I had thought since there was a closer one of the set, but it was closed because of a ceiling fall and the Kadussas were busy digging it out. We had to go to the more major of the entrances and that was further south yet. Over the centuries, the Tunnels had been connected if they were close enough when according to legend they had once all been separate. That put us another eight day back riding around the shoulder of the mountain.

The valley we rode down was naturally angled away from the prevailing weather but the wind walls that caught the prevailing wind and channeled it as best they could into the Tunnel started quite a distance away, thin, high walls of panels of poured stone set into channels. Over the years artists had pressed designs into the stone or done glassworks.

One set of windwalls -- done over a hundred years ago by the artist Erinias Suras -- was so full of glass brick and chunks of glass pieces they looked like very thick, colourful windows set into pour stone.

Ilesias and Gan and Kyriala loved them because they showed mythical beasts and jungles with animals hidden in them that you couldn’t see until the sun shifted and the light shining through them changed the mosaic. I’d never thought to see them. I liked them too. That was one nice thing about being fessas. I didn’t have to be as restrained and reserved and proper.

My favourite was the last one by the plaza entrance where Tunnel parties mustered, showing a huge green dragon rearing up over our heads. Buried in his form were tiny blue and yellow lizards. The green came from the light shining through both colours. The artist called that one ‘Why Things Aren’t What They Seem.”

It didn’t matter what time of day or night it was, since it wouldn’t matter for the Tunnel travelers. “Ahem.” Ailadas coughed, in his ‘this is a lecture pay attention’ tone. “My young librarian, I promised that you would see this sight. The plaza will be lit with the torch bowls all around it and the queue will go on, day and night.” The glass dragon had a stone bowl set below it that was more like an alcohol lamp with five wicks inside a glass chimney. All around the plaza, that was full of people waiting their turn to be sent under the mountain, Kadussas workers filled bowls, trimmed wicks, and polished glass, beginning the process of lighting them all.

The beast-fair was off to one side where people sold off their draft or riding animals if they would not go into the dark. Some people simply decided not to find out, choosing to sell here and buy from people in similar situation at the other end, taking the cheaper route through since the toll for animals was more than for people. There was an express chair lane at the next Tunnel entrance. Express chairs only, very expensive.

At every entrance an enormous fan turned. Each one more than twice as tall as a man, filling that whole side of the Tunnel, taking the wind channeled down the valley and forcing the air underground.