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04:14:14 PM 02/27/20
The anti has been raised!


03:57:55 PM 02/27/20
Felicity would pay 400k If someone pulled that off. Just sayin'.

03:13:30 PM 02/27/20
.. damn, tips must be good at the Tin Tankard. where do I apply ?

02:43:42 PM 02/27/20
....payment from Felicity. Apparently she has the most money, other than Lianna...

02:32:08 PM 02/27/20
Tin Tankard will sponsor the event, 100k to whomever kills Kallista and throws her into Blackrock Prison.

Must be a prisoner to collect, no fake kills.

02:03:34 PM 02/27/20
That's just cruel!

12:46:29 PM 02/27/20
I predict explosions

11:27:38 AM 02/27/20
It's a very early GMT morning.

11:02:27 AM 02/27/20
Oh... yea.. 18 hours and the fact that it says 06:00 GMT+1 in the post. Didn't notice that untill you asked now. I'd say it's a morrning session for us GMTers. A shame I have to get to work.

10:13:53 AM 02/27/20
Wait, is that 6 as in 06:00 or 18:00?

The Island of Thain :: Forums :: Off-Topic :: Music, Books, Films and TV
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Author Post
05:29:26 PM 03/18/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 499
Past: Dedication [Pt.1]

Saiyali arrived at the Eastmar Community Circle just as a break in the clouds was passing overhead and a few minutes of afternoon sun beamed down. Unexpected rays illuminated the clearing and the hundreds of people already there. She stopped at the corner of the road she had arrived on, just where it opened into the main clearing, and her eyes scanned the place for familiar faces; specifically for Walim.

The Community Circle of Eastmar, Heart of Wood, was an important place and looked it. It was one of several main clearings in this part of the vast Marathy Heart Cities, among the hundreds of smaller clearings connected by dirt roads. The more important roads were wider and surfaced with small stones or wood chips, and between clearings the stretches of forest were carefully managed. In these areas, people often built tree houses connected by high walkways, but due to the impossibility of growing food and keeping animals up in the trees, most permanent homes were on the ground and in clearings.

Clearings varied greatly in size and shape. Some were simply homesteads, or small communities with half a dozen homes and food plots. Some were enormous, full of large two- and three-floor public buildings or workshops with wide tracks between, and gardens filling the undeveloped space. Some clearings had Fire Towers taller than the tallest trees, and there were always fire wardens high up, watching across the forest canopy.

The roads that connected the clearings were often lit by slow-burning wax candles in glass pots hanging from low branches of trees. Near some of the larger clearings such as the Community Circles, the light pots were raised above head height, hanging from tall poles, and each evening volunteers from local Community Halls walked the roads placing a light inside each pot.

The Eastmar Community Circle was extremely busy this particular afternoon, and extra light-poles were already being raised here and there, especially at the western end where a long, wide track led eventually to the Central Circle – the greatest central clearing at the heart of the great forest city. Across the Community Circle, she could see balls of faceted, polished glass being hung from long cords strung tautly between the tallest roofs. They would hang there till Spring Equinox, providing extra light during the long winter nights. They looked lovely in the sunlight; when the clearing became lit by myriad tiny candle lights after nightfall, they would look astonishing.

She began walking vaguely towards the middle of the Circle, aiming for the main Halls. As she walked, she called her brother's name a couple of times while scanning the murmuring crowds of passers by for his shape or his face – but there was no response except confused looks, and no sign of Walim anywhere.

In the centre of the clearing there were several large rambling buildings surrounded by a set of communal gardens – beautiful lawns of grass, punctuated by fragrant bushes and trees and flowers of all colours and shapes, sweetly scented.

Three roads crossed the Circle, and these roads ran between the buildings and met at the very middle, where there was a central fire place; the main Community Hall stood to the north of the fire place, three floors high with a central vault that rose well over five floors high. Its front entrance was framed by three massive, brightly-painted wooden beams, and from the sides and back of the building extended low, wide annexes which contained rooms for meetings and events, and where people lived.

Next to the Community Hall on its northern side stood Reading Rooms, and Saiyali walked around and through them, still seeing no sign of her brother. She made a circuit of the high balcony so she could look into the whole space, but nobody there remotely resembled him. Between the dozens of stacks filled with thousands books, scrolls, boxes, and folded materials, written on by countless hands and stored in an order she had never bothered to find out, people were reading, writing or looking over the long shelves. None were Walim.

He'll be here later, Saiyali nodded to herself hopefully, and headed down the stairs and out, across to the main Community Hall. She hopped up its two wide steps and in contrast to the still and studious atmosphere in the Reading Rooms, she was immediately assailed by noise and bustle.

Massive clusters of wired-together glass globes which usually hung high in the roof space were being filled with candles. All of them were down near the floor, and there was a small crowd around each, polishing the faceted glasses and placing candles to be lit later. Where the roof rose into the vault stood a row of columns – each a single massive tree trunk – holding up the vault with spreading branches across the Hall. When the enormous front doors of the Hall opened wide, their huge frame was in line with these columns.

Dozens of large tables filled the floor, the most central sitting in gaps between columns, and the rest filling up the two wide arcades which spread beyond the central vault. Most of the people arriving had brought food and were stting it out on a table for all to share as they worked.

Saiyali wandered into the vast space, turning slowly and looking about at the whole spectacle with a look of wonder on her face. She was suddenly grabbed from behind in a tight hug, and a voice cried out laughingly, ''Ah! You're here!''

She turned, her face breaking into a huge smile. ''Suwara! There you are!'' her delighted grin quickly faded. ''Have you seen Walim today?''

Suwara frowned in return. ''No, why, what's the matter?''

Saiyali shook her head. ''He was meant to come to my and Nana Indraya's house this morning – he's going to move in to our house!'' Suwara nodded as Saiyali shrugged and went on, ''But he never came. He said he'd be at the Reading Hall anyway, but I couldn't see him there. Anyway – he knows where I'll be all day!'' She grinned and added, ''So have you got the costumes?''

Suwara nodded excitedly with a giggle. She pulled Saiyali's hand and started walking away towards one of the side rooms. Saiyali played at allowing herself to be led for a moment, then caught up with Suwara and hooked her friend's arm with her own.

They walked across the great open space and Suwara pointed out the new items and additions for today's dedication. The massive glass chandeliers were as old as the Hall, but the vast hangings being draped down the walls and across the roof were fresh from the weavery and a couple of the people who'd helped make them were munching fruit at one of the tables nearby, looking extremely proud.

Suddenly, there was a count from the opposite side of the hall, from a crew leader standing between the columns just over to their right, and on three! the crews high in the vault allowed more hangings to unfurl. With the lightest hiss imaginable and a breath of air to match, long silks flicked and rolled down from the roof. They stopped slightly above head height, and the entire room broke into a spontaneous round of clapping and whooping. More people rushed in from outside to see what was happening, and when they saw the glistening silks hanging down from the vault in hues of red, pink, orange and yellow, they too began cheering and applauding.

There was a rush for food straight away, and the girls took the chance to get out of the main hall and into their changing room, which was already busy. The whole place was a chaos of clothes and costume pieces, material of all kinds and colours, shiny jewellery with real gems or glass. The smells of face paint and perfume were so pungent that they ended up thick and bitter in the mouth.

Suwara led Saiyali over to a table with three empty chairs. On the table sat a large, thin wooden box which had already been opened. Saiyali glanced up. ''In there?'' Suwara nodded excitedly and Saiyali sprang over and thrust her hands into the box.

She pulled a costume from inside, checked its label and threw it over a chair, then dived back inside, fingering through the stack till she found the one labelled with her own name. She tugged it out, held it up and stepped back to look from arms' length.

''Wow!'' she gasped, and glanced to Suwara, who just answered, ''I know, right?'' and the two of them stared in admiration for a few moments.

The costume was mostly dark yellow silk lined with coloured glass and golden thread; the overall effect was of overwhelming brightness and clarity. The glass pieces ranged in yellows and oranges from almost white to a nearly red, glass and thread running together in complex parallel spirals.

Saiyali held the arm of the costume against her face and stepped across to look at herself in one of the long mirrors standing nearby.

''I have to put it on!'' she exclaimed, and immediately did just that. She stepped out of her rough canvas clothes in a moment and slipped the golden gown over her head just as quickly, adding ''I just want to see it—'' and staring again into the mirror, mute with excitement.

The decorations ran up and down and around the garment in such a way that the wearer appeared to be glowing from the centre and fading darker to the edges. The design was such that the effect was the same from any angle, while the colours would appear a little different in each aspect. The lines of gold and glass and the outline they created accentuated her body's natural shape in a way that made even her own heart race. Her skin was darker than the silk, her thick black curls darker still, and it appeared as if a bright golden light was emanating from her core to be framed by hands, feet and face.

Saiyali finally found words. ''It's incredible – are they all like this, Suwara?''

Suwara nodded with a grin. ''The only difference is in the sizes – each fits perfectly—''

''Where is everyone then?'' Saiyali laughed, an impatient edge in her voice.

Suwara beckoned as if desperate, pleading, ''Come on, Saiya – take it off. We can't ruin them! And I guess everyone's on their way, like you were till ten minutes ago!''

Saiyali sadly took the costume off and pulled her own rough clothes back on. Suwara shook her head and smiled the smile of someone who can never win the game they are enjoying and knows it; she laughed, ''Saiya, even in those rough old clothes you still look amazing—''

Saiyali shrugged and waved the compliment away with a shake of her head, saying ''Come on, let's go and eat something. Look – here's Yija!''

She waved as a third girl ran into the room and across to them. The three embraced and Yija also had to admire the costumes, though she stopped short of actually trying hers on, since the other two were already harassing her to come and eat. They all walked back out to the main hall and sat at the first table they came to.

As they ate, they talked over the details of the dance they were going to perform and the music to be played, and the other girls arrived in ones and twos till twelve of them were sitting around one end of the table and there was no food left in any of their bowls.

Saiyali was first to notice everyone had arrived, and she stood with a wide grin gleaming onto her face. ''Well, we're all here, so! Here we go! What's the time? How long do we still have to get ready?''

A couple of voices called out at the same time, ''Three hours!'' and one called out ''Four hours!'' and Saiyali made a show of being scared and then relieved. There was laughter all round and one voice called out ''Aww, come on – you're the best dancer, Saiyali! How do you think we feel?'' and there was more laughter.

Saiyali shushed and slowly the voices and final whispering faded. She spoke mock-formally, as if making an important announcement but keeping her face comically twisted in confusion, ''So here we are, Sun Dancers of the Heart of Wood! Are we ready?''

There was enthusiastic cheering all round, and almost everybody in the hall also looked over, some joining in the cheer as they realised who it was for. A voice from somewhere called out, ''Sunnn Dancerrrs!'' and there echoed scattered laughter.

''Everybody loves us, see?'' Suwara laughed. ''Let's go and get ourselves ready!''

* * *

Later towards evening, things had changed. Inside the huge central hall decorations were finished and the huge chandeliers were again high in the vaulted roof, each a blaze of sparkling candlelight. In contrast to the brightness falling from above, the floor itself was subdued. Most people had gone outside, and those left indoors were sitting quietly talking in groups or silently clearing the tables, ready for the evening's feast.

Outside in the Circle, the candles all twinkled high up in their glasses, and someone had built a small evening fire around which people were beginning to gather, talking and laughing with an anticipation that gave the air a resonant tension. People were drifting towards the Hall from across the Circle, and music was emanating from musicians warming up in groups.

The tune which floated around in loose forms from group to group was a jaunty, dramatic piece. All the instruments were rising and falling through their various scales, and percussion players were having a hard time keeping consistent rhythms and tempos in the noise of the unconnected playing around the space. It wasn't loud – the hum of conversation was clearly audible – but it was insistent and chaotic, and it heightened the expectancy of the rapidly growing crowd.

Suddenly, the main doors of the Hall were thrown open, and all noise faded quickly as musicians and audience began making their way inside. People took seats and the hum of conversation rang with laughs and shouts of greeting and celebration; the anticipation in the air was slick with aenimus, and a few large bowls of burning incense pervaded the air with complex and intoxicating fumes.

Some of the people who came inside went straight away to the kitchen, and soon the tables were once again full, this time with mostly hot food, the smells mixing with the sweet spicy aromas of the incenses smouldering here and there. Barrels of drink were set out on each table, and people began filling cups and toasting. Noise exploded again through the space.

The troupe of Sun Dancers stood in an outward-facing circle in the middle of the room. The brightness of hundreds of flickering flames sparkled off each gem and every thread, and the yellow sheen of the silks made a diffuse glow all around them; like twelve small suns together making one great ring of light.

As everybody ate and drank and the space began echoing with hundreds of conversations, the dancers began humming a gentle melody. They began subvocally and raised their voices so gradually that as the feast continued nobody even noticed. The melody itself was half improvised so they hit the odd uncomfortable discord; knots of sound reflecting the ebb and flow of energies in the gathering.

The eating slowed as appetites became sated, and the conversation became more subdued; now the dancers began to raise the pitch and the volume of their song. Their voices began harmonising more closely and musicians spread around the edges of the hall began joining in, turning from plates and cups towards instruments. Cymbals crashed, bass boxes boomed, and along with the tune started by the Sun Dancers, everybody began singing the same old songs they knew so well.

As the sun gives me light
As the earth gives me food
As the air, water, wood and stone give me life
So I pass this song on
So I pass this wish on
So I pass myself on
What I feel what I think
How I help how I harm
What I do what I leave undone––
For another cycle
For another year
While I still can
While I'm still here
For the now I truly am!
I am! I am! I am still alive!
Still feeling, still breathing,
Still here yet, not leaving!
Till one day, one day, one day––
And this day's that day and all days
Ever and again around the Sun
And as we live and die
We become one––

The melody repeated, repeated, around and around. The Sun Dancers broke their circle and began moving in spiralling arcs throughout the hall, carrying the song with them and everywhere it became louder and more complex as more of the people in the hall joined in with their own voices.

Eventually, everybody was giving some dedication of their own, some even singing their own words, words that perhaps only made sense to them; some people sang words in another dialect, some even sang in normal Talk. Even the tune didn't emerge identically from each voice; some sang harmonies, some dissonances, some just spoke or yelled or roared or whispered, eyes closed.

Slowly, there grew nearly as many dedications as there were people and as the noise mounted, the Sun Dancers began spinning through the hall faster, no longer singing but concentrating their whole energies now on their dance. They spun and jumped between tables in a fantastically complex interweaving knot of light. The glow blooming and sheening from their costumes left trails across the air as its resonance was amplified by the singing and the harmony and discord all around. People began dancing and the Sun Dancers incorporated matching movements into their own performance, occasionally taking a partner and spinning off somewhere, to swap partners and spin back.
Eventually the whole assembly was making some noise some movement, and the effect was utter cacophony. The vastness of the space had become a blur of light, sound and smell, but the song was calming now, the rush of chaos settling into simpler, more melodic resonances. The original melody gradually became clear once again.

The Sun Dancers too were slowing, and returning to their circle in the centre of the hall, weaving around each other but more tightly now and singing a new and even more complex melody than they'd begun with. As they coalesced they all picked this new tune up, and as their voices rose powerfully together the glow around them brightened with the aenimus which by now saturated the air in the hall. As they sang louder it swirled through and between them and they became submerged in the bright but insubstantial pool.

Then as if on a signal, they stopped moving.

The musicians stopped playing at the same moment, and the whole community inside the hall also fell silent and still. The moment could have lasted a second, a minute or a year, but as suddenly as they had stopped, the dancers clapped their hands up into the cloud of aenimus as the musicians struck the first note of a new melody.

As the tune unfolded and was taken up by others, the Sun Dancers once more began circulating through the hall, this time trailing aenimus with them and casting it about as they danced their light mandala around the whole space. This time, many of the crowd simply stood quietly simply humming or chanting with their eyes closed, waiting to receive the dancers' touch.

As the cloud of aenimus dispersed through the room, the dancers came back together at the centre. They raised their hands, linked fingers and dropped their voices, as the musicians let their final notes draw out.

Silence eventually crept up as the Sun Dancers remained where they were, heads back and singing upwards fading slowly to nothing. As their voices softened and disappeared, the stillness echoed densely through the transcendent hush. The moment stretched out as everybody basked in the glow from the collective aenimus settling in glistening mist over the entire gathering.

Finally, and all at once, the whole hall erupted in screams, cheers, whoops, yells, shouts of joy, of love, of recognition, of familiarity. As it died down, the hum of talking took its place and people began leaving the hall to make their way to the Central Circle. The mist of aenimus drifted with them like the slow resolution of a haunting, complex chord.

The Sun Dancers remained motionless, like statues of light, as the candles above their heads began to die. The hall slowly fell into darkness and still the dancers remained motionless in a circle, facing outwards and upwards with their hands joined.

The very last candle was in the chandelier directly above their circle, and as it winked out the dancers broke simultaneously from their trance. At the moment the single flickering light went dark, the twelve of them all gasped at once as if they had been holding their breath. The huge space swallowed up the noise with barely an echo, but when the girls began whispering, each making sure the others were alright, assuring each other they were, and giggling with relief and pride, there were sharp echoes from the floors, hard wooden furniture, and distant walls.

Their feet pitter-pattered across the floor. In the dark came light and a squeak of a door opening as eleven figures filed through. The twelfth, Saiyali, turned to face back through the door and gave a bow and a whisper of thanks; then came the door bang and return of darkness, along with a strange half-silence where the only noise came from outside, far off and disconnected.

* * *

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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04:56:07 PM 03/19/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 499
Past: Dedication [Pt.2]

The noise outside was fading into the distance as the revellers made their way towards the Central Circle. The noise and crowds there were growing, multiplying by the second as people from all four Heart Cities arrived and spread out, finding friends and family and calling out for others. Everybody was fresh from some dedication feast or other, and each individual brought extra energy with them; the air in the Central Circle was sweet and slick. It shimmered with clarity, every leaf on every tree rang and fluttered as the space filled with thousands of men, women and children, whose collective aenimus spilled and burst with every word and gesture.

At the centre of the vast round lawn of the Central Circle stood a huge stack of specially-chosen wood, soaked in scented resins and woven together in complex spirals designed to spout long, curved jets of flame. Pyremancers had lit small fires at the bottom of the stack and were slowly coaxing the flames higher, and a slowly-building accompaniment rose from the masses of musicians and percussionists, also fresh from dedications.

Aware that the start of the ceremony was near, all eyes were fixing on the troupe of pyremancers – sixteen men and women representing Community Counsels from throughout the City. They worked rhythmically, matching the music's tempos and metres; occasionally a flash of new fire would blaze on a crescendo, and the enormous huge crowd were turning more and more towards the fire.

The music continued rising and falling for some time, voices from everywhere joined in with harmonies and extra rhythms. Bodies began moving, the pulsing rhythms and ebbs and flows of chord changes acting hypnotically on everyone.

The fire was growing, and the pyremancers were now chanting and moving, singing and gathering raw aenimus to direct into the fire. Its waves of heat were beginning to energise everybody; blood and fire were heating up and voices were rising with the temperature. Movements were becoming wilder and feet were stamping harder, as the rhythms in the music rumbled and pressed into every ear and every mind. The flames went on growing and pulsating, their flickering reflected in a sea of bright eyes that mirrored the glittering array of stars overhead.

The cosmos seemed to have shrunk down to this circle, these sounds, this heat. This song was all there was, forever – this dance the only movement that could be made in all eternity. Like atoms and molecules that move and twitch and hum according to laws they do not control, so the dancers and singers at this growing fire were being drawn in and drawn out by raw aenimus and the vibrations of voices, in ways they could not have described. They felt themselves coalescing around the heat and light, melting together into something greater, something perfect and whole.

Then suddenly everybody stopped; dancing, singing, chanting, stamping all ceased as if on command. The pyremancers lowered their arms and stepped back from their now roaring bonfire. They turned outwards to the people encircling the fire, and the whole gathering burst into a vast, screaming, whooping round of applause and cheers. It went on for some time, till the lead pyremancer – an extraordinary pale man with long, dark orange hair – called out for quiet.

''Beloved brothers and sisters – welcome!'' His strident voice was clearly audible across the clearing because of the saturation of aenimus in the air. He went on, ''This day, as we know, darkness and light are equal to each other. Tomorrow though, darkness will again be greater! So let's turn this night into blazing day – let's join, this night, with all who sing the same songs and dance the same dance. Let's again remember – together – that we are one! That however cold and dark we feel, we in truth remain warm, and alive!''

This last word was whooped and in response came hundreds of screams and cries of delight, then the music began again as suddenly as it had stopped. The pyremancers again started chanting, they swung their arms left and right like pairs of pendulums swinging around. They increased in speed for a while then all at once stopped and clapped their hands with loud calls and a final scream; as if on cue, the bonfire collapsed and sent huge showers of sparks flying upwards with a blast of intense heat and a roar like some fierce living creature come back to life.

People stepped back reflexively as the rush of heat engulfed them, and as the sparks flew up and cooled and disappeared, another roar grew; of delight, from the entire gathering. Percussionists began beating in time with the last section of chanting, and after a few beats the pyremancers themselves began yet another melody which was immediately picked up by voices everywhere.

It wasn't long before the glow of raw aenimus could be seen even against the raging firelight. The pyremancers began to flick fingers towards the fire. Small spots of aenimus flew into the flames and splashed on the wood beneath. Sparks flew up from the splashes and the dancers began gathering and throwing more at a time, so the splashes became even bigger and more complex. Aenimus began rising in threads and splitting into thinner, mistier filaments; the pyremancers began calling different colours as they threw, and new patterns emerged with the rhythm of the song. From oranges and yellows into reds, purples, blues, into greens and back through yellows to oranges.

As colours began splashing in and out of the huge fire, voices in the crowd yelled, cheered, yelped, screamed, sang, and the rhythms became stronger, fiercer. The ground shook from the great mass of bodies jumping, stamping and dancing, and the colours from the fire ebbed and flowed in the rush and swell of voices. Everything was speeding up imperceptibly and gouts of coloured flame were rising higher to splash back kaleidoscopically.

The gyrating, bouncing crowd was saturated in deep and diffuse illumination, fed by the whirling dance and powerful chants of the pyremancers. Motion everywhere was guided by the percussionists, bass beaters, horn blowers, wire bowers, ringers, stringers and others – as well as thousands of voices raised in harmony and dissonance. The hiss and crack of flaming aenimus flying, falling, fading and flowing was a kind of white noise underneath the wash of music and voices. The song wove through the pounding rhythms, trails of multi-hued fire rose far above the crowd, and all felt this moment had always been, would always be; that there was nothing but this.

* * *

Saiyali sat with her friends Suwara and Yija on the lawn, some way beyond where the main crowd sang and danced. They were enjoying the fire show, simply taking it in, more than satisfied with their own contribution to the night's festivities. Some of the other dancers were in the crowd, kicking up a fury and encouraging people to sing louder, dance larger, spin faster, stamp harder, be still more present and connected. They were using their own skills to funnel aenimus through the throng and keep the energy flowing dynamically about.
As the three at the edge reclined though, bathed with everyone else in vast sky lights of ever-changing tone and colour, they became aware that they themselves had an audience. Standing nearby were two young girls of perhaps eight or nine years old, dressed in softly sheening yellow dresses, decorated with orange and red flame-shaped silk pieces and lined with sparkling, reflective buttons. Saiyali beckoned them over with a smile and patted the ground. They sat and huddled next to each other, shy but clearly overjoyed to be invited to sit with the Sun Dancers.

The small group watched the slowly growing fire show for some time, as the occasional ''Oooooo!'' and ''Aaaaaa!'' and burst of clapping punctuating the otherworldly scene. The serene knot of girls lying and sitting so relaxed upon the lawn contrasted with the saturating floods of colour and the riot of noise and movement exploding from the crowd.

The two young girls found themselves staring not at the fire show, but at the sun dancers watching the fire show. They were captivated by the smooth resonance of even their simple exclamations of surprise and delight, by the short graceful way the sun dancers would clap or make some gesture of joy or surprise as the noise and light went off all around. And then, every sound or movement any of them made caused aenimus to bloom and fade in shreds towards the crowd.

Eventually, after another noisy collapse of the fire, that drew screams from across the clearing, one of the two younger girls moved away from the group. She stood for a while gazing up at the aenimus coursing around in the air as she searched for her own rhythm and melody. Her body began to sway as she let herself move with the pulsating, intertwining sounds. Her arms rose from her sides, hands already moving as if shaping some harmony inside the cloud of noise. She began also humming – a simple melody similar to what many others were singing – and as her voice and movements grew, an aura glimmered around her. She began trying to pull it and keep it on her hands, but each time her hands drifted through the aenimus without even disturbing its flow towards the fire and the crowd.

She slumped, looking despondent, and turned back to sit down again. Saiyali saw this and jumped up, going straight over and taking the girl's hands in her own. The girl looked up at Saiyali, and it was clear she was ashamed. ''I can't do it! I love dancing, but I can't do it right!'' She seemed about to burst into tears, and Saiyali took her hand gently and shook her head in consolation, her own eyes welling up too.

She didn't seem to raise her voice yet she was perfectly audible through the cacophony, ''Sshh, It doesn't matter! Keep trying, that's all! That's all any of us did – keep practising, keep trying!'' She patted the girl's back and held her out at arm's length as if examining her. ''What's your name?''

''Sinaya, miss'' She pointed to her friend ''And she's Aliu. We saw your dance in the Hall, it was wonderful!''

All the sun dancers smiled proudly, and Saiyali did a little bowing curtsey to show how honoured she felt. ''Why, thank you Sinaya. And may I say how nicely you moved just now – and can I add how beautiful you both look in your fiery dresses!'' She beamed at them in turn; Yija leaned forward to feel Aliu's dress, and inspect the buttons admiringly.

Sinaya now looked like she wanted to burst with pride. ''I made them! Well – Aliu helped, and so did her sister Neriia – but I had the idea and I did most of the sewing! It took days!''

Aliu stood up and twirled herself around, the silken flames stood out and fluttered convincingly, and the Dancers laughed and clapped. Yija stuck her fingers in her mouth and wolf-whistled, surprisingly loud over the raucousness of the music and singing. The girls exploded in a fit of giggles and Sinaya's beaming face was a picture of joy.

Saiyali's face went serious. ''They're lovely dresses, Sinaya. Did you like ours tonight?''

Sinaya nodded eagerly. ''They were amazing!''

Saiyali gestured to Suwara who was still watching the light show with a happy smile. ''Suwara here – she helped to make our dresses. That's right, isn't it Suwara?'' She knew exactly what Suwara had done with the dresses, and winked just out of the young girl's view.

Suwara smiled as she sat up a little and spoke. ''True, I did. You should come sometime and help us, more hands are always welcome!'' She winked conspiratorially, and Sinaya grinned in delight.

There was a brief silence as a piercing series of flashes passed from reds to greens to purples to yellows to blues to pinks in quick succession. The girls all looked up and about them, stunned, but the crowd didn't pause for a moment; when it happened again there was an enormous cheer.

Sayali was still standing and Yija now jumped up to join her. They began nudging each other and giggling, doing some silly, whimsical little stepping dances, hooking each other's arms and circling left, then turning and going right. As they swung around right, Saiyali hooked Aliu's arm gently and stepped around her to the left. When they'd turned, they swapped and went back the other way and by this time Aliu was smiling and dancing herself.

Saiyali made a couple of simple moves with her hands and fingers and made as if to pass them on to Yija, who knew them well. Yija repeated the movements and made a show of passing them to Aliu. Aliu grinned and repeated them well, passed them on to Saiyali, and the game went on. Their movements became more elaborate and they began clapping in turn, adding rhythms of their own to the cacophony they felt immersed in. A small pool of aenimus began to glow between them, and Saiyali reached out and expertly flicked it up and over towards the fire.

Aliu couldn't help herself, she grabbed for the glimmer apparently expecting her hands to pass straight through. But it was as if her hand slapped a ball of glowing liquid that hung in the air; splashes flew in all directions and she screamed in shock. Her hands flew to her mouth, and she watched the globs of glowing aenimus fly away and diffuse into smaller and smaller beads that drew mistily towards the fire. ''Oops!'' she squeaked, then burst out laughing.

Then the others all did the same, and Saiyali laughed so much she had to sit down again. ''So can you call it, too, Aliu?'' She asked. Aliu nodded, trying to look meek and embarrassed but failing and just looking pleased. ''That's great!'' replied Saiyali, ''I could, at your age. Suwara too—'' she gestured towards her friend, who smiled and nodded, then Saiyali added, ''So how did that feel to you?''

Aliu's face folded in a frown as she tried to find the right words. ''Umm – well that just then, was like splashing water – but not wet?''

Saiyali nodded approvingly. ''I thought so too, and it definitely can feel like that – how does it feel when you sing by yourself?''

Aliu thought for a moment longer ''Well, sometimes – especially if it comes when I'm dancing – well, It's like being pulled along – but like I'm pulling. No! Ah, how can I just say what it's like?'' She looked frustrated.

Yija grinned and clapped her hands. ''No, that's exactly right! Like – stepping on paths of light – but the light is coming from inside – except it's all around. Ah, no! That just contradicts!'' She frowned and thought for a moment, then had a sudden idea. ''Like, I know I'm the one dancing, and I'm in control – but I feel aenimus pushing me at the same time, and when it comes from everyone together, it's – it's – '' She sighed and frowned again. ''Ah, it's really hard to put it into words!''

Suwara was bursting to speak again and as soon as Yija hesitated she was off, eyes sparkling. ''It's like – juggling, but in mind because the thing you juggle is only half-there in the hand!'' She grinned, ''Mind you, anyone can call it, I mean – look at that!''

She pointed at the edges of the huge crowd, and they all watched as the swirling, bouncing, yelling, chanting throng stepped and circled in complex patterns around each other. A mist of light infused the air around and between the people in the crowd; bright tendrils flashed out towards the girls and others sitting or standing at a distance, watching the spectacle. Everyone could feel the song was nearing its climax, the air was slick and a dreamy sweetness filled every breath. Everything seemed to be buzzing, humming, resonating, ringing, still more just beyond sight, sound, smell and the slickness that slithered on the skin.

Saiyali screamed suddenly, and laughed wildly, her eyes wide and her arms reaching up, fingers outstretched. ''But we dance! We sing! We call the aenimus out – well most people do, but mostly by accident and mostly not so strong because that takes practice! Most don't have time, don't have patience, don't really care enough – most think it's easy, ha! Then a few people do it well, go off on adventures, and never be seen again!'' She laughed and pointed to the streams of fire flying over their heads like ribbons, flashing and trailing sparks and filaments of glowing mist. ''Or be a pyremancer, ha! But we—'' She gestured to the other girls, ''We're Sun Dancers!''

They cheered just at the same moment a huge shout went up and a luminous fountain shimmered into the sky. Saiyali went on, her own excitement and animation growing with her voice. ''We dance, and we're the best, like the Rain Dancers, Moon Dancers, all of us – we call for hundreds, for thousands – for everyone! We're knots in the web! We're clearings in the woods! We hold the energy, we spread the feelings – we're the channels for community to commune. And not just in talk – ha, no – we call the aenimus and the feelings all at once – we turn it from, I don't know, some cloud that follows through days, into a net, a web that connects! It lets us feel, feel each other, know who feels what so we don't just have to guess! Can you imagine always having to guess what people felt?''

The girls all shook their heads; the looks on their faces needed no words; the very idea of that kind of empathy blindness was dreadful. Even at that moment, horror at the idea was growing between them and not separately in each of them, and comfort in this shared feeling softened the unease as quick as it had flared.

Then came a huge rush of sound and light as the pyremancers reached their finale, and over the heads of the gathered throng, nameless colours flashed and gleamed skyward as one last mass cry of delight rang out, long and loud. Musicians kept whatever notes they were playing and every noise became continuous for an indefinitely long moment. A dense polyphonic cloud strained longer and further till there remained not enough breath to keep holding – still it held. And then, just when it felt it could never stop—

It stopped.

The clearing rematerialised from inside its enrapturing haze of illumination and reverberation, and once again brightly leaping but simple orange flames glinted on shiny eyes and exhilarated faces all around. Silence fell; there was no more screaming, cheering, no roars of appreciation.

The pyremancers stood facing the fire heads bowed, and from every pair of hands rose wispy glowing residue and heat haze. They rested, allowing energies to return inside as the crowd did the same. All breathed in the moment and let muscles relax as conscious thought retook its slippery place in every mind. People began embracing, rubbing arms and backs, resting on heads and shoulders and enjoying the sudden peace.

Applause when it came was muted compared to the earlier screams of joy and delight at the dedication in the Hall; but in truth, the cathartic intensity of the dance and extra-sensory experiences meant nobody wanted or needed to scream or shout. By now each mind felt connected on a level that words could only hint at, and after allowing the feeling to linger a while the crowds slowly dispersed.

Most people began making their various ways home, or to one or other of the Community Halls where they would eventually sleep. The pyremancers remained where they were and would do so till the sun rose. The girls began getting up and dusting off loose grass. Sinaya and Aliu waved goodbye with promises of practice in the next few days. Yija told Suwara and Saiyali that there would be music and dancing all night at the Hall where she lived; Suwara said in that case she was coming along too.

Saiyali shook her head as they walked away holding their hands out to her and pleading, and she called back ''I need to know what happened to Walim, I need to see what Nana found when she went to his house. I'll come over tomorrow!'' She grinned and waved and the other two trotted off noisily, seeing friends in the dispersing crowd and running over. Their voices made the charged air glow as they ran, and trails of aenimus hung in fading wispy tendrils behind them.

Saiyali decided to head home but as she made her way she approached the main fire; till the heat of the embers still redly coruscating stopped her. The pyremancers remained bowed towards the centre, silent and still holding a web of pulsating energy between them. She watched them for a while, humming a simple calming song and reaching out to touch the circle they held. She felt welcomed even as she sensed their fatigue, and she expressed her gratitude and admiration in mind; she felt them wish her a beautiful day, and with a contented smile she made her way home as quickly as she could.

[ Edited 05:01:02 PM 03/19/19 ]

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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07:19:54 PM 03/20/19

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OOC Note .. let's try a whole chapter at once!

Present: Impediments

Saiyali thought it was thunder that woke her, but it was only raised voices.

The wagon was bumping as it shook and rattled, and rolled slowly through the rain blowing from every direction and finding endless improbable ways inside. The canvas roof was sagging again under the weight of water pooling, and it was beginning to drip onto the floor and splash her. She looked across at Bethifika wondering if she would push the pool up and out once more, but she appeared to have fallen asleep. She looked around the other passengers in the wagon to make sure nobody was looking her way before she did it herself.

There was a sleeping family, a little boy curled up on his mother who was in turn leaning back across her husband, all three covered with two rough wool blankets.

There were two men playing War – a board game with named pieces that each had different functions, in which the aim was to outmanoeuvre the opponent's pieces and surround the Baba or Mama piece; the best wins being when both got penned in simultaneously. Saiyali knew how to play War quite well, though she'd rarely won a game because she'd found the consequences preferable when she let her opponents beat her.

She found herself fascinated, watching them destroy each others armies on the board whilst looking at each other with barely-concealed lust which seemed to intensify with each move. When one of them took out three of the other's pieces at once, Saiyali could see the one who lost pieces was almost overcome with desire. His eyes flashed and shimmered, his nostrils flared, he bit his lip and his breathing became clearly audible; Saiyali felt like an intruder and made herself look away.

Across from the two players and their weird private game, two women and a man were having a loud conversation and she realised this was what had woken her. But at that moment, nobody was looking in her direction and she got up, reached one hand carefully upwards with her fingers slightly splayed, and pushed the wobbling bulge till she heard water gush down the sides of the wagon. As she lay back down and slipped her hands back inside her sleeves, one of the women talking was becoming quite animated.

''But there are tasks which need to be performed in a properly-run Empire, that are simply not appropriate for Citizens, if the status of Citizen is to mean anything at all.''

Her accent was very highly cultured Obsidian City and it was an accent Saiyali knew well. She sounded vexed. ''Take our driver, for example. He's a slave, because his life involves no more than sitting up there, driving wagons backwards and forwards on these roads of ours, day in and day out. What free person would choose, given the endless variety of choices life offers, to do that? I understand travelling, but backwards and forwards on the same road, for years, in any weather? Why would someone free do that with their time?''

She was beginning to sound like her point was well made and Saiyali had to agree with her so far. She would never have done what she'd had to do – any of it – unless she'd been obliged by her own servitude and unable to disobey what she was told. She yawned and turned onto her back, bunching her blanket up again cosily and stretching her legs out.

The man's voice cut in, and he didn't sound angry as much as frustrated. ''But Keriya, there are citizens driving wagons – I've seen them. Citizens charging money from passengers and paying drivers with it, whom they employ. I asked one of them why he did such a thing and he said it was cheaper to simply pay a driver for some work, than to own slaves and have to feed them and house them. It's spreading, Keriya – it's not that slaves want to be free, it's that more and more citizens want to be free of slaves.''

The woman whose name was evidently Keriya snorted derisively. ''Bah! They shouldn't be allowed! They should be made to sell themselves, if they want to do such work. They are deliberately flouting the distinction between slave and citizen, and it will end with everybody being dragged downwards, don't you see?''

The second woman joined in now. Saiyali could hear her voice was more nasal than the other woman's, and her accent wasn't Obsidian City, Saiyali thought perhaps Gold City, but uncertainly.

''Keriya, do you no' understand that the effect of such a – how should I say – unslavement – over time will be to make more people rich and make almost everything cost less. That must benefit more people, and Sages ever agree that most benefit for most people is most best—''

Keriya snorted again and the sound of the man Hmming in agreement was lost beneath it.

''Rinisha that's absurd! What do most people matter? What matters is that the Citizen remain free from the indignity of menial labour, the burden of what – some kind of waged slavery? Quite ridiculous!'' She sniffed and went on, ''After all, what matters is culture, knowledge, insight and social cohesion. Citizens must be able to spend their time doing whatever they wish, they should not need to toil. Some choose to, of course – but in some cases this is acceptable!''

She paused and both other voices began speaking simultaneously, objecting to the double standard, but she shushed them impatiently.

There was a rustling sound and a gentle clinking of jewellery, and Keriya went on vehemently, ''Look – there are artisans who train and do what they do for love and for pride in creating beauty; the smith who shaped and joined these delicate strands; the polisher who carefully chipped the wild curves off the stone and gave it these faces that glitter and sparkle. There are those who love the outdoor life and growing things, and they spend their lives out here, doing what they love. But who on this fine world wants to spend all their days in drudgery and boring repetitive slog when there are wonders to be done, songs to be sung, love to be made and stories to be said?''

There was a pause in which someone tutted, before the man answered, ''It seems as if some people don't mind it, Keriya. It seems as if some would rather do the work themselves. They say it gives them pride and makes them feel a part of something bigger than themselves.''

Keriya sucked her teeth hissingly and it sounded as if she hit something as she retorted, ''Pride! Pride in behaving like a slave? Ridiculous notion. Pride in what, Mereku? Something bigger than themselves? What, don't these people have families?'' She made more disgusted noises.

Saiyali turned quietly back onto her side, facing Bethifika across the floor space between them, and wondered if she was really asleep or if she was also listening to this polemic. She herself had heard this kind of thing before, and only considered that the fewer slaves there were the better it would be for those people who were or risked being slaves. In what it meant for Mamas and Babas she wasn't the slightest bit interested.

Rinisha interjected, ''But I also said, What about prices? They'll go down if growers and makers do no' need to keep teams of slaves fed and housed. Lower prices must mean happier people!''

Now the voice of Keriya rose in a low grumble. ''Blackmailing the citizenry, it's so – base. In any case there is no low price – we say low price when we pay only a little for what we get. But somebody, somewhere is still paying the rest. At the moment it is slaves. This ring again – it's white gold, inset with sapphires. The gold was dug by slaves, smelted by slaves. The artisan who owned them put it all together, certainly – and that's what makes it expensive. But fruits and vegetables are cheap because slaves grow them and transport them. Glass is cheap because slaves mine it and cut it up. Why should we sully the title of Citizen by allowing such toil? They think prices will come down, but they will pay more than the difference back again in their own labour, time, health and peace of mind.''

She sighed now, finally running out of steam and adding almost as a coda, ''It's all been heading this way since the purges. The common citizenry have been getting their way too much and we're all going to regret it one day, you mark my words.

At the word purges, Saiyali couldn't suppress a sigh and she was most relieved when the Driver called out ''Evening Rest!''. The energy in the wagon changed instantly. The conversation ended with grateful, impatient exclamations of hunger and stiffness, the boy and the mother both woke up at the same instant, and the War players were getting themselves urgently ready to escape as soon as the wagon stopped.

Bethifika yawned melodramatically, stretched and squinted at Saiyali ironically. ''Morning or evening?'' she asked to the masked face before her, then chuckled, ''Never mind. Let's eat something shall we, Sister?''

* * *

Another evening stop, another bland meal, and another damp night rocking along the bumpy road. The worst problem for Saiyali was boredom. Not being able to talk to anybody – even Bethifika, unless they were alone together at one of the rest stops – was mind-numbing. Particularly when the weather was bad and the walls were up – and it had been like this now for days.

Even when the sides could be lowered, the country they passed through was unspectacular; the idly undulating, green-brown farmlands of the vast Obsidian Garden and the occasional settlement, town or village that all looked alike – whitewashed or grey stone houses of various shapes and sizes, with green and brown palm thatches, netted down. This far from the ocean, some of the buildings in the towns were constructed from great tree logs cut from the woods and plantations which stretched periodically off into the neatly-sectioned distance.

The state of the road varied, depending how close to a town they were – near settlements, the road was often paved with large flat slabs of grey building stone. In the centres of the larger towns, which had important-looking buildings and busy streets, some roads were even coated with a mixture of dry pitch and gravel, and had drains running along either side. These drains fed any rain that landed on the roads into underground pipes and out into the irrigation system.

Saiyali had never visited any of this before and it blurred day by day into a continuous stream of fields, woods, gardens, briefly houses, streets, squares, and then more gardens, fields and woods. Fishing lakes and fruit groves and pastures and tree plantations and finally yet another town – or a village with only a bridge over a canal, next to an empty, silent shrine. She decided she didn't care that she'd missed it all till now, and if she ever had to travel here alone she would just get hopelessly lost. Eventually, the only thing that still held her concentration for more than a few seconds as they passed, were those wonders of engineering – the pyramids.

She was fascinated by them, the black pyramids made from the dark, natural glass that gave Obsidian City its name. In fact, they were themselves quite fascinating and it was said also ancient. She thought if that were true, then the fact they still worked was a miracle – hundreds of the things remained intact and they stood across a huge area; almost all were still in use.

Saiyali also knew that the pyramids were the reason the Gardens could grow so much food. Each pyramid sat at the junction of two or more irrigation canals and heat from the sun made the water move around inside the them, and this action made them into hundreds of water pumps that kept the canals flowing around the fields and plantations.
But even knowing this, she still found their appearance vaguely intimidating and sinister. The first few they passed near surprised her by being smaller than she expected; from a distance the things looked massive, but up close it turned out they weren't more than three or four floors high. There were always at least one or two visible in the distance, nearer or further away, and over days she found herself less threatened and more impressed by them

One day the rest stop happened to be at a travellers' yard right next to one, and she'd been able to walk right up to it and touch it. She'd been surprised that even though masses of water must have been flowing through the narrow channels inside – layer upon layer of them, all the way in from the warm surface to the cooler centre – there was no noise from inside the structure. All she could feel, even with her face pressed against the outside and her eyes closed – concentrating hard – was a vague trembling which was almost comforting.

* * *

It was only two days after this that the call came for a cleric. It was mid afternoon and word came from behind that a young boy had fallen from the wagon he was riding in and broken his arm. Voices were raised along the train, and eventually Bethifika and Saiyali heard. They looked at each other doubtfully but knew they had no choice. They jumped down onto the road so they could wait for the wagon where help was needed.

They stood for a minute, watching the wagons roll by, and Saiyali noticed a look in Bethifika's eyes that she hadn't seen yet from her, but recognized as anybody might. Bethifika was panicking, and it was obvious to Saiyali that she was trying to avoid eye contact. Saiyali reached down, took Bethifika's hand, and when she turned, shocked, Saiyali squeezed the hand and widened her eyes, the only part of her face that could be seen.

She whispered, low enough that nobody in the passing wagons could possibly hear, ''Have you fixed a broken arm before?''

Bethifika nodded, and whispered back ''I've done all sorts of patching up. But I don't know how I'm going t'set an arm without calming whoever it belongs to! There's going t'be screaming–''

Saiyali shook her head. ''I can deal with that. Just – you do the arm, I'll keep him quiet. Trust me.''

She squeezed Bethifika's hand again and winked.

Bethifika's eyes boggled out of her head, and it was obvious she had a hundred reasons Saiyali was wrong just waiting to tumble out of her mouth. But there wasn't time, and as she was about to speak, the wagon where the boy was sitting rolled up and they had to step and jump on before it passed them.

Bethifika swung herself up, and turned to offer Saiyali a hand. Saiyali took it, and in a second she too was standing at the back of the wagon's interior. The last few spaces closest to the door were free, and they both sat down. Inside were seven people – four adults and three children, who seemed to be two families.

One man in a creamy yellow cotton robe was reclining in a far corner on a large embroidered cushion, reading a book and only looking up to greet Bethifika and Saiyali with a slight nod of his head. On another cushion on the floor between his legs sat a pretty little girl aged maybe five or six, with coloured beads woven into her braided hair that matched the blue and purple of her dress. Opposite the man and girl sat a woman who looked like she must be the girl's mother – her hair was braided and beaded in exactly the same way, and the cut of her dark red dress clearly the one the girl's was based on – though hers was more intricately-folded and the stitching and lining were a creamy yellow colour, similar to her husband's robe. She was holding a stringed instrument that she had obviously just stopped playing as the new arrivals jumped up. She smiled in greeting and began strumming again gently. The alternately harmonious and dissonant chords were soothing and fascinating, and she herself gave the impression of deep relaxation as she played.

Closer to Bethifika and Saiyali sat the other two adults – again, clearly mother and father to the two children sitting with them – including the boy with the broken arm whose dark face was covered in pale dried snot and tears, and who was cradling his arm in pain. He was about ten, and his mother was trying to comfort him – but he was pushing her away, and her husband was trying in turn to distract and comfort her. They were both less well-dressed than their travelling companions – the man was wearing simple garments of grey and brown hemp cloth, the woman was wearing a nicely-made but plain cotton dress of pale blue, with her hair wrapped in a blue and green scarf. A girl of about three was sitting next to the mother and trying to hug her each time the boy pushed her away, but failing each time her mother leaned forward yet again.

Both the parents looked at Bethifika imploringly, and the mother said simply, ''Please, sister–.''

Bethifika had slipped down onto the floor of the wagon to sit close to the boy and Saiyali followed suit, kneeling on Bethifika's left side with the boy in front of them both. She turned to face across Bethifika's front, and bowed her head as if concentrating.

Both the mother and the father visibly relaxed, and sat back, holding hands and watching. The father passed over from the seat on his other side a canvas bag, which he opened to show a bundle of cotton pads and bandages, some thin glass pins and a glass blade, and a few small jars.

''There's pain medicine in here, but he's too young for it–.'' the father sighed, and the boy sniffed as if in agreement.

Bethifika glanced at the medical kit, nodded, then lowered her head to try and catch the boy's eye. He reluctantly allowed her to, and even smiled back a little when she smiled at him. She reached for his arm, and he shook his head, clenching his mouth and twisting his lips around, looking very uncomfortable and conflicted.

''Hurts ah?'' Said Bethifika, and he nodded quickly, and sniffed.

''What's your name, boy?'' Bethifika asked gently.

He looked at her for a second before answering, ''Malik''

His mother tutted ostentatiously before also answering, ''His name is Memaliku'' and giving the boy a reproving look.

He shrugged, grimaced from the unforseen pain of the shrug, and looked stubbornly back at Bethifika. ''Malik!''

His mother sighed and leaned back, reaching for the little girl who grinned and was finally able to climb up onto her, snuggling down happily.

Bethifika nodded to the boy and held her hands out towards his arm again. ''Y' got t' let me look, at it, Malik. I'll need t' put a splint on an' wrap it up, so I need t' get a proper look. Can I?''

The boy hesitated, but after a few seconds he let the hand holding the arm drop, and with a slight groan rolled up the sleeve covering the bad arm. His round, handsome face looked sad and vulnerable. The arm was completely broken, forearm bent in the middle, and the dark brown skin of his arm was beginning to show yellow and purple iridescence around the bend. Still, despite the complete break there was no blood, and no bone visible outside his skin.

Bethifika frowned, and nodded, and looked to the parents. ''Got anything I can splint with? Couple o' spoons even?''

The father nodded and made a gesture to his wife, who reached behind her and brought out a leather bag. She passed it to him and he opened it, pulling from the inside a handful of smooth wooden drum sticks. He handed them to her and she nodded in surprised approval, taking them.

''Drum sticks ah? Great – y' don't need them?'' The man shook his head slowly as she went on busily, ''Because y' know, when y' get t' city this can be re-done by someone wi' clay – but till then these need t' stay on—''

''Fine, fine,'' broke in the man in a rich, deep voice, gesturing that she should continue. ''They're not as important as my son's arm!'' He couldn't hold back a sob, and he stroked the boy's head tenderly, looking into his eyes and nodding proudly. ''It'll be fine, Malik. You'll see. Relax, brave boy—'' He pushed the boy back to a reclining position and nodded to Bethifika, then sitting back again and watching intently.

Bethifika nodded back and turned to Saiyali, murmuring, ''Sis'?''

Saiyali took a deep breath, steeling herself for a performance; putting someone to sleep in mind was easy, making it look clerical was something else. She'd never seen a cleric work, but she knew she'd be expected to manifest raw aenimus. What she was going to do with it she wasn't sure and she hoped she could come up with something convincing.
She looked to Bethifika, to the mother, to the father and to the boy, then let her voice hum a single note and held it to allow resonance to set in. A slight glimmer in the space between her and the boy began, and the glow pulsated gently as Saiyali kept her voice up.

She looked to Bethifika, to the mother, to the father and to the boy, then let her voice hum a single note and held it to allow resonance to set in. A slight glimmer in the space between her and the boy began, and the glow pulsated gently as Saiyali kept her voice up. Aenimus resonated with her voice like the sound of someone beloved and familiar, but far away across a dark landscape; blown hazy by the winds of time between her and the last time she sang her aenimus out loud.

She withdrew her hands from the sleeves of her robe and passed her fingers through the middle of the glow – and gasped as she felt its warm tingle on her skin. It stuck to her hands but not because she did anything – she didn't know what to do – it stuck just because she knew it would.

She reached into the glowing air with both hands, humming again and adding a second, then a third note which made the raw aenimus shimmer excitedly. She still had no idea what to sing, so she repeated the same few notes back and forth and twirled her fingers in a way she hoped looked expert. Malik was mesmerised; he at least was prepared to trust her.

As Saiyali reached down with her shimmering, overflowing hands and placed her left gently on his forehead, he closed his eyes obediently. She kept her hand there, allowing the aenimus to flow over his face and head, and reached into his mind with her own; she'd never done this to a child before and knew she must be gentle. As she went on singing only the simple, hypnotic melody she felt his mind withdrawing and fading. When she felt him darken and fall asleep, she placed her other hand on the broken arm and gently enclosed the break in a sheen of raw aenimus. He barely stirred and she nodded to Bethifika to show he was ready. Bethifika reached into the medical bag and pulled out two long rolls of cotton bandage.

Saiyali tried some words. She knew words were expected but she didn't know any real ones; she intoned something that felt vaguely appropriate, and hoped nobody would care.

''Breathe – Breathe – In – Out
This arm – so soft
Breathe – Breathe – In – Out
No pain – this arm
Breathe – Breathe – In – Out
So strong – so warm

The boy was breathing slow and deep, completely unconscious and more relaxed even than normal sleep would make him. She didn't push him any deeper, just kept his mind wrapped in her own like a blanket, kept up her strange improvised chant and went on bringing aenimus to his head and his arm till Bethifika tapped her on the shoulder.
''On three I'm going to straighten the break, alright?'' Her face managed to convey both worry and confidence, and Saiyali squeezed her hand as she moved her own up to keep the boy's head cradled.

Saiyali nodded and counted with Bethifika in her mind. On two she pressed firmly on Malik's closed eyes and hummed the next notes louder. On three, Bethifika bent the broken arm back straight and felt gently around the break to make sure the bone was centred. Malik's body stiffened at that moment but quickly relaxed again as Saiyali's voice kept him wrapped in hypnotic restfulness. The boy's mother and father both gasped, and the father sobbed again, instinctively grabbing his own forearm in sympathy.

Bethifika placed three of the sticks equally far apart around the broken forearm, and carefully wrapped a cotton bandage tightly around all of them, then another, then another – making sure to keep everything straight and solid. In a minute or two, it was done; the bandages covered the splints completely and thickly, leaving nothing that could catch or snag. She then made a sling out of another sheet, placed the arm carefully in the sling and adjusted its height so Malik's hand would point slightly down when he stood up.

As she placed the arm gently on the boy's belly and sat herself back in her seat again, Saiyali let his head go and rested it softly back on the cushion. She remained kneeling, and gathered a few more handfuls of aenimus to spread carefully over the bandaged arm, only ending her last note when it had all soaked in. She fell silent and dropped her head, pulling her hands into her lap, amazed at what she had just done and yet ashamed to look up at the people around her. She felt they must see through her act and she had to force herself to look up. But she saw eyes simply full of wonder and gratitude, beaming at her and Bethifika.

Bethifika was doing well, addressing them like the expert Saiyali knew she wasn't. ''He'll prob'ly sleep till morning, an' when he wakes it'll still hurt, but less than now. Get him a medical cleric soon as you can, this aint my – our speciality—''

She looked quizzically and disbelievingly at Saiyali, who simply nodded back – then to Malik's mother and father. She sat herself up on the seat she had started on, hands back inside her sleeves, head bowed. She looked the epitome of meek devotion, but she really just felt drained – as well as utterly confused and overwhelmed.

Manifesting raw aenimus with her voice was something she had never dared to do. She'd always kept her energy inside, only even letting it touch someone else when she knew they were too distracted or intoxicated to notice. Doing it in public in full view felt wrong, and she was confused by the rush of fear and shame which clashed with her natural relief – and then also some pride; for the first time in her memory she'd helped heal someone – a child, too.

When, a couple of hours later, the train stopped for the evening rest and meal, she and Bethifika were able to wander away from the other passengers for a while. Bethifika almost dragged her away from the wagons and they sat under the edge of the serried nut orchard which surrounded the travellers' yard, well out of earshot. Bethifika was almost bursting with anger and excitement, and though she tried to keep her voice to a whisper it came out all in a hissing rush.

''Saiyali, I'd no idea y' could do that! Why didn't y' tell me?''

Saiyali placed a hand on her arm and looked into her eyes, and Bethifika's voice faltered.

''I did tell you, Fika'' Saiyali said quite calmly. ''I told you, I'll keep him quiet – and I did, didn't I? I just – well, I made up a song and it worked!.'' She looked deep into Bethifika's eyes and grinned sardonically as she added, ''Trust me. I'm trusting you, so return the favour eh?''

Bethifika could only see her eyes but it was enough. She burst out laughing, realised how loud it was and stopped herself, glancing over her shoulder quickly to make sure nobody was looking. Then she shrugged and cried, ''Ha! Why can't a cleric laugh? We saved a little boy's arm today!''

She clapped in delight and laughed again, and Saiyali herself couldn't help chuckling as well. Deep inside her something hopeful and joyful was growing; she could laugh if she wanted, she could dance if she wanted, sing and shout and speak and move around how she wanted. This is freedom!

Nearly, anyway.

And now, lying once again on her bed of sacking in a swaying, bumping wagon in the rain, she reminded herself that they were nearly there, they were on the right side of the river, and between her and Mama Nashivaar was now only a couple more days, and a couple of gates.

A couple of gates. Sounds so easy–.

* * *

Grey, grey, grey. The yard was grey stone dusted with grey sand. The wide coast road with its interlocking paving stones was grey. The low rocky, craggy hills across the road were grey, flecked with patches of mossy yellow, and scattered with dark scrubby bushes. Saiyali and Bethifika grabbed a blanket each from the wagon and trotted across the busy road to walk onto the nearest rise. They stopped a little way up in the shade of a large grey boulder, and looked northwards towards the city and the estuary.

The buildings were mostly grey, the sea in the Broken Harbour was grey, and though the yards and small fields lining the road all the way to the New South Gate were mainly green, on such a heavy day even these muted, off-season greens seemed greyed and dull. Clouds sulked overhead and blanketed everything in gloom, and the odd breath of breeze did nothing to soften the weight of the air.

Saiyali sighed hard, mouth open wide; her breath was visible, just. She shivered and pulled her blanket tighter. Even westwards from where they were sitting, out to sea, there was no sign of the evening sun through the clouds that stretched to the horizon. Coloured sails could be seen on ships arriving and leaving, and across the estuary in the North Harbour itself there were a thousand flashes of colour on banners, sails and flags. Everything else looked monotonous and wintry.

Saiyali's heart sank as she peered out across the sea of roofs, trees, spires and towers, and the wide, bustling river mouth spreading into the actual sea. She sighed once more, long and deep. As impressive as it was, she had hoped never to see this place again.

Obsidian City was really two cities, one on each side of a river. It had once been a single metropolis, built in a wide semicircle across the engineered and straightened Rindja river, with a huge semicircular harbour at the estuary that had room for hundreds of ships and thousands of small boats. In the very centre of the harbour, directly out from the river mouth and exactly halfway between the harbour's two Outer Points, was an artificial island with a high light tower on it, and anchorages for craft too large to berth at the city docks.

The island and the North Harbour were still there, still intact and still used by the innumerable boats and ships which brought people and goods and wealth into the city. The main city markets were in the Northside, and several towns stretched off along the roads that passed through the three main Northside gates, equidistant around the quarter-circle of the Northside city wall – a distance it might take all day to walk.

The Northern half of the city was more or less the same as it had always been, century after century. Almost all built from stone, this part still most like the original city was what people usually called Obsidian City, sometimes called City of Millions – and even though it was literally half the city it had once been, this name was still true and had stuck. Over four million people made their homes in and around the northern half of the city, and it was the biggest conglomeration of humanity in the Empire. This was the case without even considering the more sparsely-populated southern half – also strictly Obsidian City, but locally called Southside.

Southside was the broken remains of the southern half of the original Obsidian City. The city pre-dated the Empire by some considerable time, as did the huge earthquake in the area that had shattered the southern half and sent it crumbling it into the estuary and the ocean. Tales of the time existed in ancient writings; Saiyali had once heard a reading of an ancient poem describing the terrible night it had happened. Even after the earthquake, huge waves had battered the city and its coasts for days. Millions had died, and when the weather stopped pounding and the earth stopped trembling, two-thirds of the southern half of the city had collapsed into the sea.

Around the southern half of the city still stood some of the wall, over six floors high like the wall around the Northside. However, the remaining gate towers had been dismantled with open spaces and parks installed in their place, so that people entered and left Southside freely. A New South Gate and New River Gate were built as checkpoints for people coming and going on the main roads, but actual gates were never hung. These like the Farmers Gate were large open squares where Wardens checked cargo and papers, and traders, importers and couriers paid tolls and taxes.

Most of the Southside was owned by the Nashivaar family, who had grown wealthy after the Great Fall by acquiring more and more of the inaccessible and unwanted land south of the river, till they owned almost all that was left of the Southside and its immediate hinterland. Now they owned farms as far as the eye could see, and were one of the most important families in the west. They produced most of the food and wood the city needed – as well as spices and cloths and gems and ten thousand other necessities and luxuries they shipped in on a fleet of black and yellow sailed ships.

Nashivaar Town – as most called the main Nashivaar estate – ran along the remains of the river's south bank, behind a section of old wall that had been left intact. The rest of the Southside was like an extended collection of villages, with many old streets and stone buildings intact but among them vacant areas where buildings had once been. Here people now lived and worked in newer, wooden buildings, or even tents. There were also plenty of parks, and the whole Southside was dotted with small groves and gardens. It was no paradise, though – most inhabitants of the Southside were poor, labourers, transport or cargo workers, even farm workers, and there were plenty of slave compounds too; even Northside families and enterprises kept slaves in Southside dwellings. Just about everybody paid something to Nashivaar for something – or they worked for the family.

Most of that work was in the farmlands, on the sea, or in the City proper across the water, so thousands of Southsiders travelled each day to where they worked. There were dozens of bare earth tracks leading out into the southwestern farmlands, and hundreds of moorings along the whole water's edge, for people to travel to the Northside. The trip across the Broken Harbour – as the bay left by the Great Fall was called – was dangerous, and the risk was high of running onto jagged pieces beneath the water. Enormous numbers of people crossed every day, though, and there were even rumours of entire buildings intact beneath the sea, still containing the valuables they collapsed with. A few foolhardy individuals had dived down and later shown off gold or jewellery they said they'd found there. Some had announced an intention to dive down treasure hunting, and had never been seen again. Most people were not stupid, and treated such stories with the healthy scorn of the survivor.

The breeze had changed direction, and brought with it the all-too-familiar smell of the city – a sickly-sweet cocktail of fish and rotting seaweed, backed by a million fires burning, kitchens cooking, rubbish rotting and people sweating. The ever-present sound of gulls crying came and went with the gusts and Saiyali shook her head, reluctant to move even one step closer to the place she had spent so many miserable years.

Bethifika seemed to sense this and clapped her hands together, then rubbed them together noisily and purposefully. ''Right, here we are! Welcome home us both, ah?''

Saiyali scowled. ''I thought I'd left it well behind. I can't believe I'm back! Will I ever, ever be able to leave this bloody place? Even the birds sound tragic here!'' She spat on the ground. ''That, a thousand times!'' She did it again, and stamped a foot ineffectually.

Bethifika shook her head sadly. ''Y' forgetting one thing – it's not th' same place, not f' you – y' not a slave any more. An' believe me, 's a different place when y' free.''

Saiyali grunted with disgust. ''When I've got my Paper again, maybe.''

Bethifika nodded. ''Come on then. Let's get in there an' get t' where we're going. Be dark by the time we get t' New South, an' dark's what we need. Come on!''

They made their way down the slope back to the road, and joined the slow procession of people and vehicles heading into the city. As usual on the busy roads in and near the city, everybody passed each other to the left, and the faster wagons and even faster runners and riders passed in the centre of the road. The sides of the road were for the slow and heavily-burdened, and Bethifika and Saiyali had to walk more slowly than either of them was happy with. Saiyali was desperately wishing she could get rid of the disguise, she had a feeling that in the city, with people passing close and many eyes on her she wouldn't be able to keep up her pretence.

Bethifika was also wishing she could ditch the robe, but she had to be even more careful. Some of the wardens knew her face, and she had no idea who would be on duty where. On the other hand, she also had one or two friends among them, and all she needed was to be overlooked for a few more hours.

As they approached the high stone walls and the large square where the road continued into the city, they passed stalls selling food, drink and travel essentials, offering porters and message runners. The food smells were pungent and delicious, and noise came with them. People were shouting, calling out what they had to offer, others calling back what they needed, still others calling directions. Fires and braziers behind stalls and booths filled the whole scene with clouds of pungent smoke, then along the road into the gate square, gas lamps shone in glass boxes above the road, illuminating everything with a trembling pale blue light. These lamps lined both sides of the main road and a whole cluster lit the square itself. This meant even at night everybody could be clearly seen – by runners and riders, of course – but also by the wardens.

Bethifika and Saiyali came up to the gateway walking slowly, and as they reached the wide space between two ends of the old city wall, with its square of brightly-lit and specially-widened roadway, Bethifika led them around the edge to avoid the worst of the crowd. In addition to travellers, dozens of wardens stood and wandered about, dressed in highly visible white and silver clothes. Some also wore leather and glass armour pieces, fastened around arms, legs and torsos, and each carried a long shiny wooden stick hanging from his or her belt. Others – the tax and customs enforcers – carried flat wooden boxes which held papers and doubled as writing surfaces.

All wardens wore long black, white and silver headscarves wrapped around their heads in a symmetrical back-and-forth pattern and tied at the front in an intricate knot. Some wore white feathers in their headscarves, indicating seniority; a few had one, fewer had two. Bethifika could only see two who were wearing three feathers, and both looked busy, surrounded by juniors. Other wardens were searching or checking inventories in boxes and bundles – informing or arguing or directing or questioning. Bags and cases were being opened onto wide low tables spread around the edge of the square, papers were being checked and filled, money was changing hands.

Most of this was for tax purposes; Bethifika well understood its other function in catching criminals entering and leaving the city. She didn't know one person who hadn't had trouble at a city gate at some time, though it was also true the Northside gates were worse. She took a deep breath and kept stepping evenly and slowly.

As they strode carefully under the palm trees which lined the square and cast bizarre layered shadows in the many shimmering blue lights, she noticed a trio of wardens standing next to one of the checkpoint tables who were staring, hard. She decided the best was not to break step at all. Saiyali noticed the guards staring, but knew she must only do what Bethifika – her senior, as far as it appeared – told her to do. She kept walking at a steady pace, face apparently downwards but eyes trying as much as possible to keep looking around through the holes in the mask.

The three wardens turned and spoke together, the senior one – two feathers in her headscarf – pointed them out to her two companions, and whispered something Bethifika couldn't discern. The other two – both men, one extremely tall and large – nodded.

The senior warden began approaching quickly, a serious look on her face and one hand reaching inside her chest plate, the other held out.

''Sister!'' she called out to Bethifika, ''Stop, please!''

Bethifika's heart sank. She had no choice, she had to stop and eyeball the woman. Luckily she didn't recognize her or the two men who were walking up behind her – but the longer they stood in the light, the more chance of being seen by someone who did know her. She looked up into the warden's eyes and smiled kindly. ''Yes, child, what can I do f' you?''

The woman smiled triumphantly and gestured to the other two as she said proudly, and loud enough for people nearby to stop talking and turn to look, ''Got you! You are under arrest, Bethifika Kalfiya, for thievery, burglary, smuggling, dealing in stolen goods, and generally being a despicable rogue who needs to lose both hands! Sunu – bind that one!''

The third guard withdrew a long shiny black stick from a holster on his belt, and rested it on his shoulder; he lounged casually, weight on one foot. The leader herself immediately spun Bethifika around and tied her arms with a length of reinforced white binding cord from inside her tunic.

As she tied it, she laughed, ''We knew you'd be back – we knew you left! You were seen, but no point following you who knows where for who knows how long. Not our problem when y' not here, are you? But every Gate House company, every dock crew got a picture of you – you probably even know the picture, it's a good likeness eh? Thank you for arriving on my watch, I got to say. There's a bonus in it, brothers!'' Both the men laughed, and Sunu continued tying Saiyali's arms tightly.

As flexible as she was, Saiyali quickly realised she wouldn't be able to escape his hold without putting a shoulder out, and decided to stay still. When he finally released her, she also had her arms bound tightly behind her back – she assumed with the same white cord. The guard, whose name was evidently Sunu, held Saiyali's right shoulder tightly with his left hand and guided her towards a wide doorway in the old city wall through which could be seen a few more white uniforms. The senior guard held Bethifika's arms and pushed her through the same door. She was beaming with pleasure and winking at colleagues who were cheering her, and they walked down a couple of passages to a heavy wooden door in a plain stone wall.

Saiyali's first thought as she stumbled into the cell, was that it wasn't the worst place she'd ever been. As Bethifika was pushed roughly in beside her, Saiyali was already wondering curiously if anyone famous had ever been locked in it.

Bethifika was simply racking her brains, trying to think of a way out, as the iron door clanged noisily shut.

[ Edited 07:23:53 PM 03/20/19 ]

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[A page under Shingle]

North Shore

Most visitors' first sight of Marathy is North Shore. Called by many the ''Gateway to Marathy'', North Shore is home to thousands of gas workers, foresters, miners and fishers. It's primarily an industrial town and if we're honest (at the risk of alienating the great and the good of the place) it's not especially beautiful – though the coast path from the centre of town up to the Sea Beacon has a certain rugged charm, and the all-round panorama from the top is well worth the climb to get there. North Shore is not without its attractions, then.

First and most important, North Shore is an excellent place for the first-time explorer in Marathy to base themselves as they journey into the mountains that rise above the town and stretch far inland and along the coast in either direction. The paths are well-maintained and signposted, yet the landscape is wild and unspoiled. If you're able to visit in the off-season, any discomfort caused by the cold weather is more than repaid by the stunning isolation of the high passes.

Second, the fish. Marathy is of course well known for the fact that its natural resources regenerate, and this is as true for the fish in the sea as it is for plants and animals on the land, and the gems and gas under it. The fish in North Shore is quite simply beyond comparison, and though it's occasionally possible to find marathy fish for sale in Obsidian City or at some markets and Kitchens in the Bay of Jewels, most people will never get a chance to taste it. A trip to North Shore guarantees you can; here, it's as cheap as any fish anywhere.

Third – and linked of course to the delicious fish and regenerating ecosystem – anybody who takes study of aenimus and its various uses really seriously will very likely be drawn at some time to North Shore to visit the Undying Connective, whose main Convocation resides there. It is worth pointing out of course, that the reason the Undying Connective reside in Marathy is that some of their practices are proscribed within the Empire itself, and most readers will already know this.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we feel it is our duty in presenting a Guide, to make sure visitors to North Shore who don't already know about the Undying Connective should arrive properly informed. We think it is important not only for the traveller's own peace of mind, but to be fair to the Connective itself; particularly since North Shore was essentially founded by them.

Their founder Mama Tamaralla is also remembered as the founding mother of the original North Shore Colony, and the Undying Connective's early estate was some of the first land tamed in Marathy by the Empire – as opposed to that which had been settled already by the few individual Tuurian chiefs who considered it worth the effort.

The main difference, of course, is that while the old Tuurian settlements were intended for materially exploiting the regenerative properties of Marathy's land and its lifeforms, the Undying Connective was founded to study those properties and learn from them. It was inevitable, though, that once there was a permanent settlement in Marathy of people coming and going regularly from the Empire, that trade and exploitation would follow; when seams of gold and gemstones were discovered in the Goldcap Mountains, the town of North Shore sprang up practically overnight.

There have been several attempts by moral crusaders and life-as-life advocates to shut down the Undying Connective in Marathy, but they have always failed. It's said that the Connective itself is one of the main voices still arguing to maintain Marathy autronomy, for this reason.

One of the most controversial aspects of the Connective is its promotion of what they call the Long-Form Life; put simply, postponing death indefinitely. Life-as-life supporters argue that nobody's lifespan should exceed its naturally-allotted duration and that extending it beyond this by means of alchemic and quickenings is exploitative and vain. Proponents of the Long-Form Life believe that Undying gives the practitioner a chance to pursue chosen interests for far longer than a natural life can allow, and it's certainly the case that many useful insights and inventions have been conceived and developed by members of the Undying Connective in the centuries since their founding.

The museum at the gatehouse of their estate is open every day from sunrise to sunset, and contains plenty of fascinating information and items which many people do not know originated from the Connective and in many cases are now taken for granted. Do not forget, however, that food of any kind is forbidden within the estate, as is any drinkable liquid except water. One of the many sacrifices necessary for Undying is abstention from any other form of sustenance but pure aenimus and the various alchemic preparations which are necessary. The Connective prefer their estate to remain free from temptation. Naturally, no food or drinks are on sale there.

It is their Quickenings – often rumoured to involve children – that provoke the most curiosity and moral indignation from opponents. Over the centuries, prominent members have been accused of

[page ends]

[ Edited 01:57:26 PM 03/21/19 ]

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Note: whole chapters, too much! Halves from now on, maybe even thirds...

Past: Sold and Resold [pt.1]

The first thing Saiyali remembered was something like the smell of a filthy toilet, or a sewer; worse, in fact – not just the stench of excrement but of fear, sweat, and rot. It smelled like a place where bad things happened, and its pungent sourness made something deep inside her panic and want to scream.

She felt heavy and dull, and only slowly became aware that the pain throbbing inside her was separate from the stink, and that it was in her head. She dared to try and focus her attention away from that jagged shard pulsing painfully inside her, and it felt as if her head was itself lying on a hard surface. Then she noticed the rest of her body too; her back was sore, but not as sore as her head. She felt as if the world around her was shaking and rocking. She was hungry

She heard a voice whimpering but decided it must be somebody else's as no noise was coming from the body she was connected to. That body felt unbroken – except for the headache, which was horrible. Somewhere, through a wall by the sound of it, she could hear voices talking – three, or maybe four of them. All male. The whimpering came again, and somewhere else nearby the sound of someone breathing long, deep breaths. Asleep. There was a rumbling and squeaking all around, strangely comforting and so at odds with the foul stink around her that she couldn't place it.

That smell! She hardly dared open her eyes. She knew she wasn't at home, or anywhere she'd ever imagined – but she knew that simply not looking wasn't going to stop her from being there. She tried to move an arm and found to her surprise that it did move. She took her other arm in the movable hand, and pinched it hard. Ow! She let the arm fall again, not sure if she felt better or worse now.

At least wherever I am – it's not a dream.

She counted down, five-four-three-two- - - one! and opened her eyes.

It was dark, and she was definitely indoors, in some kind of wood plank building. Then she realised why it was rocking – We're moving!

She turned her head away from the wall next to head and in the darkness she could just about make out three wide, empty shelves up the opposite wall. Facing this way, she felt cool air brushing her face and she reached out along the wall behind her head. She felt a narrow gap where the air was coming in and realised it must be a door. She dared to try and stand up; she swung her legs out and let her feet fall to the floor, relieved that they didn't hurt. With her feet on the floor she twisted herself around and allowed the weight of the legs to anchor her as she raised her head and shoulders off the boards and heaved herself upright.

Her head hit something and the pulsing splinter in her head exploded in a shower of agonies that spiked through the inside of her skull and sank back inwards like a hundred tiny fires.

She must have cried out, because a gruff voice came through the wall ''Oi! Keep quiet in there!''

Then came the whimper again, now clearly coming from above her. She lay still, trying not to be sick, waiting till plain old darkness and rocking came back.

Eventually she made herself sit up again and this time made sure to lean outwards as she brought her head up. She sat up straight and let her neck rest on the boards behind her. She closed her eyes and tipped her head back, rubbing her forehead and temples with her fingers and humming a simple, comforting tune. As her aenimus circulated the headache faded; at least, she managed to cloak it somewhat and its nagging faded into a kind of background screech.

She dug her thumbs into her eyeballs and rolled the orbs a little in their sockets, and took several deep breaths; it woke her up as it always did, but as she relaxed she heard whimpering again – this time from directly behind her head.

 Standing carefully and turning around, she squinted in the gloom, rocking her hips to stand steady on the moving floor, which immediately made her feel a little better.

There were three shelves against this wall too, she'd been in the bottom one. On the one above was the source of the whimpers – someone lying on their side, facing away from her. And on the top shelf someone else, silent and with closed eyes.

She reached out towards the figure on the middle shelf, who was obviously awake and unhappy, but just before her hand made contact, a woman's voice came from the shape. ''Don't – don't touch me, please.''

Saiyali frowned and withdrew her hand. The shape rolled over and wet eyes looked at her in the gloom. Sayali could see a young woman's face – older than her but gaunt, frightened and ashamed. She spoke again. ''I'm sorry – just not now.''

Saiyali nodded, and remained silent as she sat back down on her own shelf, facing the opposite wall again. The rocking room rumbled on and the barely-audible conversation went on outside. Finally, she plucked up the courage to ask the question uppermost in her mind. ''Do you know where we are?''

There was a long silence, till finally came back a barely-audible mumble that Saiyali nearly missed. ''We're in a slaver's wagon''

It took several seconds for her to understand. A slaver's wagon? How did I—

Memories flooded back with an intensity that made her gasp.

She'd gone home after the Dedication, and great Ma'Indraya hadn't been there. She'd rushed to Walim's to see if she was there instead but nobody was there – except—

She nodded reluctantly to herself, dreadful recognition biting at her mind. Someone was there! But not great Ma', and not Walim either. Not even Yoreini. The house had been empty – but there'd been a funny smell like animals – and then something had hit her on the head.

And now! I'm in a slaver's? Wagon! She felt fear and panic rising again and she had to breathe deep, and concentrate to make it sink back. She decided to risk another question as a distraction.

''Do you know how long you've been in here?'' She asked in a voice flat from fear.

It took a while and she was near to asking again when the answer came back, ''I've been in here six days. You've been here since this morning, they put you in when we stopped for food. I don't know where that was – and I don't know where we're going, in case that's your next question.''

Saiyali nodded, sighed, and lay herself gently back down on the shelf.

* * *

She woke up again in confusion because the room she was in was much lighter. Must be daytime. The wagon had stopped. Maybe that's what woke me.

The wood of the walls and shelves was dirty, streaked with some dried, dark stuff she didn't want to recognize. The floor was equally foul and splattered, and there was a wooden bucket against the wall furthest from the door, between the bottom shelves, where she now realised the worst of the smell was coming from.

Outside were calls, bangs, the shuffle of feet and a couple of sharp lashes were accompanied by yelps and a roar of ''Shut it! Just get out!''

There were a couple of thuds like bolts being drawn, a rumble and squeak as something heavy moved aside, then the door banged down and sunlight flooded in.

A gruff voice yelled ''Stand up! You at bottom – stand up an' face me.''

Saiyali stood herself up reluctantly and turned. The glare from the doorway was stopping her seeing the face of the man talking to her, but he smelled of animals. She stepped towards him and he slapped a a rough hand on her chest.

''That'll do.'' A heavy rope hobble on leather cuffs was fixed to her ankles, and the man stood to one side. ''Out!''

She was yanked roughly towards the doorway and pushed outside. She staggered down a wooden ramp leading from the door to the ground.

They were in a clearing in the forest. It could have been anywhere near her home, but she somehow knew it wasn't – though it was at least still Marathy, to judge by the lush bush and trees all around. Several wagons were roped together, and at the front stood four huge furry beasts with horns, who were evidently the power moving the wagons. Tied up at strategic points were a few large mean-looking creatures with fierce sharp fangs, which would growl and roar if one of the slaves came too close.

Saiyali had never seen animals like them before, and she gladly kept her distance.

Each wagon seemed to contain a few people, and there was quite a crowd of miserable, dirty, tear-streaked, grim-looking individuals milling about squinting in the morning sun and avoiding eye contact. Everybody shuffled about awkwardly on their ankle ropes, and to Saiyali they all smelled filthy and frightened. A table had been set up at the head of the train and a steaming black glass pot was sitting on the table. The hobbled people were filing up to the pot where food and a drink were being doled out.

Nobody was talking.

Saiyali joined the queue, and shuffled forwards with the others towards the table. She saw the whimpering woman from her wagon stumble out after being shoved, and a few seconds later a man – obviously the man whose breathing she'd heard. The side of his face and his chest were covered in dried blood, and he was walking with a limp. Saiyali felt sorry for him, and only looked away because a voice behind her called out sharply, ''Ah, girl – move!'' She turned to find herself at the food table. A wooden bowl full of some kind of soup was thrust into one of her hands, a wooden cup full of water was shoved into her other. She waited, expecting a spoon, but the server just stared at her and indicated with a jerk of the head that she should go and eat.

She shrugged and walked slowly back towards her wagon, where she sat herself on the ground in the shade. The soup was grim-tasting and she wasn't sure what was in it, but it was filling; the water was clean too. A few minutes after she'd eaten she felt better, though she was still hungry. The whimpering woman sat next to her as she was eating, and even her weak, reluctant smile helped Saiyali feel a little less alone. Once she'd finished her bowl she said simply, ''My name's Saiyali''.

The woman flinched as Saiyali said her own name, but nodded back and said simply ''Janaa''.

In the daylight, Saiyali could see Janaa was at least ten years older than she, and her skin was rather darker. Her eyes were the same green though; one had a dark yellow and black bruise around it. She also had finger marks on her neck – Saiyali saw them and stared at first, wondering what they were. Then as she realised, she looked away, embarrassed and afraid.

Instead, she stared at the ground, till the leather cuffs on her ankles caught her attention. She lifted the heavy rope off the ground and let it drop several times, then drew lines in the sand around it, till Janaa had finished eating. As soon as Janaa put her drained cup down, Saiyali gazed earnestly into her eyes and whispered, ''What's going to happen to us?''

Janaa's own expression flickered and faltered, and she sniffed awkwardly. ''I don't know—'' She looked as if she wanted to say more, but could think of nothing comforting or reassuring.

Saiyali looked down again. ''I don't know why I'm even here. I was in my brother's house, in the middle of Eastmar. Someone hit me and now I'm here. It doesn't make sense!''

Janaa frowned, shocked. ''Your brother's house?''

Saiyali nodded and shrugged. ''I don't remember being anywhere else. But I don't know how, or why I'm here, it doesn't make sense!''

She was becoming animated as shock and hunger faded; she suddenly had enough energy for anger to bloom. She frowned, stood and picked up her bowl and cup, then marched as smartly as the hobble would allow towards the food table. Three men in plain dark cotton clothes, wearing clubs and knives on their belts, stood behind it talking quietly and pointing at one or other of the hobbled figured sitting around. Two of them were obviously Marathy; one considerbly darker and a little shorter than the other, but both with cropped black hair. The third was taller and older. He was wearing a thick leather jacket with horn buttons, and his hair was piled in long locks on his head and wrapped with black cotton. Saiyali had never seen anyone from the Empire before, but she knew straight away this man was.

As she approached, all three of the men watched her, and the two Marathy grinned lasciviously, looking her up and down as if they might bite her in half. The older one just looked at her coldly and impassively. She had thought for a few seconds that she was going to dramatically slam the bowl and cup down on the table, and make a huge indignant scene with demands, but something told her this man would not play that game.

As she reached the table she lowered her gaze and placed the bowl and cup down gently. ''Thank you for the food. Can I ask a question?''

The older man remained silent but one of the others sniggered, ''Y' can ask me a question, lovely.''

The man with the keys held up a hand and spoke. His voice wasn't deep but it was gruff; a voice clearly used to shouting. ''What's y' question, girl?''

She bit her lip and furrowed her brow. ''Well it's, like, how am I in a slave wagon, when the last thing I remember is being at my brother's house? I – I don't get it. I don't like it! I don't—''

The man was nodding as she spoke, and he soon broke in, ''No, I understand, I get what y' mean. Must be frightening an' confusing so I'll explain – just calm y' self. What's happened is, y' ma sold y'. So now you're a slave, an' y' belong t' me. And I'm taking y' t' market so I can sell y'. Does that make sense enough?'' He didn't smile, just nodded as if he at least felt satisfied with the explanation.

Saiyali's heart sank and she couldn't help a gasp of disbelief. Sold me? Then she said it out aloud. ''Sold me? My mother sold me? My mother's dead! Who sold me?'' She was now beginning to sound as indignant as she hadn't meant to.

The man squinted, apparently not sure why this girl was asking more questions. Then, he appeared to remember something, snapped his fingers and reached inside his leather jacket, taking from somewhere a long leather wallet. He untied it and thumbed back a couple of papers till he found one he was looking for. A flame of hope rose in Saiyali's heart as she realised he was looking for something to give to her, and as he handed her the paper from the wallet she almost began smiling. She unfolded it and read it and the smile hung bitter and frozen on her lips as her eyes flicked across the paper.


You once told me to sell myself and go and live in the Empire. That hurt at the time but I've recently come to see what a wonderful idea it actually was. Have a nice life.

Yoreini Mama

Saiyali looked up. The man was smiling now, and unhooking his club. She was mouthing blank words ''B – B – But—'' as he walked around the table towards her, still smiling. She found herself rooted to the spot, though everything in her screamed at her to run. He stopped right where he towered over her, and held the club up with a silently raised brow. Then without a word thrust it between her legs and brought it upwards hard, lifting her entirely off the ground.

Saiyali squealed as an ice-cold shard of pain shot up through her middle. She felt her feet leave the ground, and she was rising, then she was toppling over and falling. She braced herself for an impact but it never came, instead she felt the leather cuffs dig sharply into her ankles and her feet slam together, sending a jolt of pain through her feet and legs. And then she was hanging upside down from the rope which was hooked over the man's club, and he was holding her up to face his knees. She squinted her eyes shut tightly.

He laughed. ''I told you – y' mine. So, stay quiet and behave f ' th' next few days an' y' don't need t' get hurt. I don't want t' hurt you – marks on such a pretty thing 'd cost me – but I will if I have to. So be nice, ah? An' we can both come out o' this better not worse. An' believe me girl – worse f' me is a bit less money but worse f' you is way, way worse 'n that – see?''

He raised her a little higher and moved her closer. Her nose touched the front of his trousers, and she recoiled, wincing. He laughed, and flicked the club out and down so that she dropped to the ground, rolling and landing a little way away from him.

By the time she looked up, he was back behind the table and the club was back on his belt. He was pointing at her melodramatically. ''That one, boys – do not touch her, right? I'm telling y' now. If y' want some fun – pick another one, see?'' The two men nodded, reluctantly.

He tossed his head and pointed at the paper she'd dropped, indicating she should take it with her. She crumpled it up as she grasped it, then she got up and staggered back to where she had been sitting.

Janaa was still there and as Saiyai sat back down with her arms pressed between her thighs to salve some of the pain, Janaa raised a brow and spoke softly but without sympathy, ''You asked me what was going to happen to us? Well, now y' know.''

Saiyali nodded grimly, uncrumpled her paper and passed it to Janaa, who read it impassively. As she handed it back she gave Saiyali a momentary sincerely sorry look – then was blank once more.

Saiyali read it again herself, then again, shaking her head and clenching her teeth as her eyes glimmered dark even in the sunshine. She began tearing the note into tiny pieces with her fingers, humming to herself almost inaudibly as she did so. Tiny wisps of something like pale black fire rose from the disintegrating paper towards her eyes, and for a few moments the shade under the wagon was drawn towards her.

Janaa noticed this with alarm, and poked Saiyali with her foot – but Saiyali was too lost in herself to notice. Janaa finally sighed and shook her head. She muttered, ''Your life, sweets—'' and stood to return her bowl and cup to the table.

The gang leader had kept his eyes closely on Saiyali from the moment he saw her get up and walk towards him. He knew what some Marathy could do with raw aenimus and he was certainly ready to deal with a little girl. But while everybody else sitting near Saiyali was too caught up in their own misery, and fearfully anticipating the order to stand up and get back in their wagons, he watched the shadow gather around her with the delighted, predatory smile of a man who'd stumbled on someone else's hidden treasure.

* * *

''At least in the wagon we don't have to wear the rope.''

It took a few seconds before Saiyali registered the man had spoken, his voice was so soft. She sat up, stood up, sat down again on the opposite bottom shelf to look up at him. It was daytime and there was light coming through gaps in the wall boards, enough to see quite clearly. The smell was the same though, day or night.

''Do you know where we're going?'' Saiyali whispered. Janaa rolled over onto her back, awake and listening silently.

The man replied, ''I expect they're taking us to Mud City.'' Janaa nodded to herself.

Saiyali squinted, almost giggling. ''Mud City? Weird name! It's not a real place, is it?''

The man sat up on his shelf and stared at her shaking his head and chuckling. The dried blood had been cleaned off and he looked almost normal again; his eyes were some kind of yellow but his skin was dark like red earth, and his teeth glinted in the darkness.

''What do they teach the young these days?'' He sighed, then added earnestly, ''It's really not a place to laugh about. Its real name, if such a place can have a real name, is Central Camp. But everyone calls it Mud City, that I've ever heard talk about it. I've been there before. It's like a slum around a bridge over the river in the middle of a swamp. Mud everywhere, you won't believe it. We won't be there long though I don't expect.''

''Why not?'' asked Saiyali, feeling relieved that someone was finally telling her something useful.

''Well – it's where Marathy slaves get sold on. Not the only place – but one of the main ones. A lot of Empire traders buy there, I expect we'll be taken to work somewhere in a mine or a forest. Or off to the Empire and then who knows?'' He sighed and shook his head, leaning forward to rest his head in his hands.

Saiyali frowned. ''So hang on – this Mud City place – Central Camp? Why is it there in the middle of a swamp? How is there a town so nasty, why don't people live somewhere else?''

The man chuckled, ''It's the only bridge over the river, outside of Stoneport, so everything from the south of Marathy passes through at some point. It's all cheapest there. People come to make a lot of money, then they move on – and there are always more arriving to take their place. Always.''
Saiyali looked askance. ''What were you there for, then?''

The man sighed. ''Money – what else? Gemstones. Diamonds the size of your fist. Rubies, emeralds. I bought them and I took them to Gold Bay to have them cut and sell them on. It all went wrong, and – well, I suppose it's why I'm here, on my way back to Mud City. Other side of the wall now, though.'' He sighed. ''I remember looking at the people in the market and feeling sorry for them. Now, I'll be one. I wonder if anyone will feel sorry for me?''

Saiyali felt herself beginning to shake, and tears welled up in her. She was bursting with sadness; for him, for herself, for them all. It's not fair! She could feel for a second or two some energy building inside of her that felt warm, comforting, and strong—

But Janaa snorted and laughed a bitter laugh, ''Ech, Feel sorry for you? Ha! Well, I bloody won't. Nobody'll be feeling sorry for me, not even me. Whatever happens and wherever I go, I'll be free again as soon as nobody's watching. I've been put in ropes before and got out. I'll get out again.''

Saiyali gasped, her uncontrollable plunge into hopelessness suddenly checked. ''How? Tell me!''

Janaa chuckled and turned to look at her. ''Run and hide, girl – run and hide! And don't be scared to hurt anyone who gets in the way!''

* * *

[ Edited 04:38:55 PM 03/22/19 ]

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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07:32:12 AM 03/24/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 499
Past: Sold and Resold [pt.2]

Alright – I can see why it gets called Mud City.

The sky was huge. It was all the more huge for being reflected everywhere by the waters of a wide marsh that glistened as far as the eye could see. Three roads, each on its own levee, met on this low island in the vast wetland – the one they came in on, which had been running alongside the slowly-widening river Kaatii for several days; another, wider road leading off to the south where in the distance low hills could be seen. And a third, wider road that faded downriver into more tussocky, watery, brown and green marshland.

Then she saw the bridge. Since hearing about in she had imagined many kinds of bridge but none had looked like the thing did in reality – a wide, mud-encrusted wooden pier on countless great piles sunk into the deep, sticky river. The broad, gravelly roadway was lined with a low wooden parapet along each edge and she thought with vague amusement that there couldn't possibly exist a less impressive structure. It was almost invisible under its covering of mud; only the constant boom and thunder of feet, hooves and wheels crossing its length made the bridge's presence even noticeable.

Across the lumpy, watery land could be seen high jagged mountains, the tops wreathed in heavy, fluffy white and blue clouds, and covered in pale blue snow. Saiyali couldn't discern if the snow on them was really blue or if it was a trick of her eyes from everything neatby being so brown. Even the air smelled brown, peaty fumes from the rotting bog land drifting about in every direction.

The cage where they were all locked on arriving at the town – if a town is what Central Camp could be called – was separated into two spaces, one for males and one for females. There was a barred window in each half that gave a good view over the wooden shacks and stretched canvases, rough thatches and tented wagons that made this place so important.

Buildings of various shapes and sizes made with all sorts of materials stretched down a long, shallow and haphazardly reclaimed slope; a few structures at the very edge of town stood on stilts in the muddy water. There were hardly any permanent buildings, and the fifty or so slaves who'd arrived in wagons occupied one of those – the slavers' warehouse, right on the junction of the three roads. North of the warehouse along the wide southern bridge approach, a number of scruffy workshops stood opposite a tall building with a sign at its front that read HOTEL.

They were only in the holding cells for a few minutes before the men came and began choosing people to take away. They were taken in groups of three or four and though it was clear there was some pattern, Saiyali couldn't work out what it was. She watched as the cages slowly emptied, and in the end she was alone; she was alone for quite a while. By the time the door opened again it was getting dark.

The tall slaver entered, and behind him came an old woman dressed in simple but elegant dark red robes. She had her nose, lips and ears pierced with ornate gold hoops and her hair was wrapped in a red and gold headscarf, though she had no long locks under it. Her skin was smooth and oddly shiny and her eyes, Saiyali noticed, were milky white – she was also wearing smart red leather boots, which were splattered liberally with mud.

She approached the cage, and Saiyali turned fully to face her. She began moving towards the woman but the trader held up a warning hand and she stopped. The woman herself stopped right by the cage and looked Saiyali up and down appraisingly.

She turned to the trader. ''And she hasn't been violated? You're certain?''

The trader was shaking his head scornfully as she went on, ''—because if she has, she'll be useless and I'll be coming back for a refund. And if we need to do that, it'll be unfortunate. For you. I know you understand.'' She smiled coldly.

The man nodded and held up a pacifying hand. ''She's got what y' like, Karam the man can spot 'em anywhere. This one's got power, exactly what y' want. Delivered as per. Thank y' kindly.'' He grinned and tipped his head to one side with a wink.

The woman nodded, satisfied but clearly scornful of the man. ''Fine, Karam. I'll take her. Our people can make the – you know—''

Karam the Man frowned – then realisation dawned and he roared with laughter. ''Hahaha! Oh no no – you know, Mama – you want t' take her, y' pay before y'go. Easy!''

''Very well, very well—'' snapped the woman, irritated, and turned to leave. Karam the Man followed her, and the door closed behind them.

Saiyali sank to the floor as the realisation hit; I'm being sold – and what was that about me having power? She frowned and pulled her knees up to her forehead, held herself tightly, and waited. She thought she ought to be screaming, crying, something – but all she felt was cold, as if it were happening to somebody else while she watched numb from behind the eyes.

It wasn't long before the strange old woman was back with Karam the Man, and he was unlocking the cage. Saiyali's hope flared, but he stood back and said ''All yours, Mama.''

The woman glared at her and gestured for her to follow. Saiyali hesitated. The woman sighed and gave a stern look to Karam the Man, who reached down and grabbed Saiyali roughly by the shoulder to pull her out of the cage. As he squeezed she felt her bones grind together. Then he snapped, cold and callous, ''This Mama owns y' now, y' hers. Follow her.''

The old woman had already walked to the door and thrown it open, and was waiting just outside. Saiyali followed, feeling unable to do anything else – and feeling Karam the Man close behind her.

Outside the warehouse stood a large painted wagon with six tall wooden wheels of spokes inside hoops. Harnessed to the front were four tall, muscular running beasts with long hair down their heads and backs. The old woman pointed to a small door low down on the wagon and said simply, ''Get in.''

Again, Saiyali hesitated. This time, the woman walked over to her and took one of her hands quite gently. She looked directly at her and the strange milky eyes bored heavily into Saiyali's mind. Saiyali felt herself shrinking and melting under the ferocious, shimmering gaze, and as she teetered on what felt like the edge of a terrifying fall she heard the woman's voice, though it sounded bigger than it had before and came not so much from her mouth as from somewhere concealed that Saiyali did not want to see.

Slave, hear me now – when I say I'm going to do something, it happens. This is the only warning you will get. So – get into the wagon, or I'll pull your finger off— The voice faded and the eyes shrank and Saiyali suddenly became aware of her littlest finger being strained agonizingly. She whimpered and crouched, and swung down towards the doors. Moving changed the angle her hand was being held at and the pain abated as she stepped into the dark space.

It was lined with rough wool blankets and there was just enough room to lie down but not stretch out, and to sit up but not straighten her back. It smelled stale but not foul, and as the doors closed over her the woman's voice came through them, ''If you need to relieve yourself, there's a hatch in the bottom. Do it out of there.''

Saiyali felt around on the floor and found a handle. She pulled it and a small section of floor slid back to leave a hole that was only just too small for her to fit through, with the roadway visible an arm's length below. She growled to herself and closed the hatch.

The wagon began to move and after a while the rocking of it told Saiyali they must be travelling very fast indeed – she opened the hatch and watched the blur of roadway flash by for a while till it became too dark to see.

She slept fitfully and kept opening the hatch to check whether it was light or dark.

They stopped once, the following day sometime in the morning. The door opened and a wooden flask and a wooden box were passed in to her by someone she couldn't see in the glare. She only got a vague impression of dull blue-grey sky before the doors were closed and they were moving again.

In the box were dried fruits and nuts, which she wolfed down – and in the flask some water sweetened with fruit. Each mouthful and sip tasted delicious after days of gruel and water, and as she ate she could feel strength seeping back into her muscles and bones. She felt warm for the first time in days, and she soon fell deeply asleep.
She awoke to the sound of voices, and the wagon stopping. The doors were again thrown open and a woman's voice called, ''Out!''

Saiyali struggled out awkwardly into the light of late evening – she assumed it was the same day but had no idea for sure. The rope was taken from her ankle and she suddenly had the idea of running, right then – but as she looked about she realised what a waste of effort it would be. The road they'd arrived on passed out between two wide gate posts, and huge gates were slowly swinging closed even as she watched. The low wide house in front of her was covered in strangely-arched windows that glimmered with an unfamiliar blue light, and outside were arrayed a dozen identically-dressed people doing nothing but standing in silence. Saiyali turned to look the other way and saw the outer wall continue around the great yard and garden to join the other end of the massive house some distance away. There was an enormous gate there too, and it was closed.

Someone came up behind her as she was looking about and, before she could even react, fastened a glass collar around her neck with a heavy click. She turned in surprise and discovered that the collar was attached to a thin, glistening cord which was being held by a tall dark woman with shaved hair and eyebrows. She had golden patterns painted onto her brow, lips and chin and she was barefoot. She also wore a glass collar, with no cord attached – and she wore a plain dark red robe. She turned smartly and began striding away and Saiyali felt herself jerked forwards.

She stumbled and nearly fell but just about managed to keep up, though it was difficult – and she kept being distracted by voices, gas lights, strange new smells – and the numerous slaves they passed. The woman suddenly stopped and turned smartly, frowned at Saiyali straight in the eye and said, ''Stop looking around, girl, just follow.''

Saiyali frowned, and the girl made a sucking sound in her mouth and shifted her balance to the other foot. She yanked the cord to get Saiyali's attention, took a step towards her and straightened up, speaking quietly so that nobody else would hear. ''Now you listen to me, girl. I've been with this Mama longer than you've even been alive so you give me your ear now, this is for your good. You need to forget what's going on in there—'' and at this she tapped Saiyali painfully hard on the forehead with three loud cracks. ''You need to forget about looking at things, about thinking thoughts and having ideas, about how things were and how they are now, and how you might want something else? Well you need to stop that. You keep on it, you'll die.'' Her eyes were piercing and Saiyali could feel her voice in a place deeper than her ears. ''You need to remember you're a slave now; whatever there was before, you hear me? Whatever you think you are or were or might be – finished. Over. Now – you're a slave. How many times shall I say it while we stand here like we're asking to get beaten?''

She almost hissed, a desperate look coming into her eyes. ''Slave! That means, you do what you're told, and nothing besides. Not even thinking!'' She yanked the cord again. ''Thinking will get you killed quicker than running!''

Saiyali regarded her defiantly and just shook her head.

''Fine – you want to die. I get it. Then we'll go back to the wagon so Mama can kill you. Come!''

She began striding back, pulling Saiyali after her but Saiyali grabbed the chain and pulled back, struggling and whimpering, ''No! No!''.

The slave stopped again and stamped her foot. ''You don't want to die? So you want to live, then?''

Saiyali growled and stamped her own foot. ''Yes! I want to live! I just want to know where I am and what's happening!''

The slave made a low Hmm of realisation, and slowly shook her head, regarding her at last with deep sadness. ''No, girl – you don't. Just come, ah? You'll find out soon. Till then, we'll make you feel better.'' She smiled encouragingly, and Saiyali could only nod meekly and trot after her.

They walked around the side of the building and down some steps, through a wide door and along a bright corridor busy with people, then up a wide staircase to a smaller, curtain-lined room which smelled of oils and fresh clothes. She was led to one corner of the room and the woman leading her bent to fasten the end of the cord to a rope loop fixed into the floor. She then walked smartly out, closing the door behind her.

A wide table ran along one wall where bottles and boxes of liquids, powders and brushes stood in neat groups. There was a long mirror above the table, and Saiyali saw herself for the first time. She looked a mess – dirty, tangled hair and a tear-and-mud smeared face was just the start. Her clothes were torn and filthy, and in this clean room full of scented finery, she could finally smell herself. She looked down, ashamed, just as the woman came back with a deep, wide glass bowl which she placed on the floor next to Saiyali, before leaving again.

''Take your clothes off'' She directed as she walked out, and Saiyali was only too happy to obey. She kicked away the stinking rags she'd been wearing, and as she did so, the old Mama who'd bought her entered, followed by two more slave girls who each carried a huge glass jug. Then came back the one who'd led her here, this time carrying a dark stone box.

One of the jugs was steaming vigorously and the steam smelled sweet, Saiyali thought from both spices and aenimus. Water from each jug was poured into the bowl and soon the room was suffused with delicious steamy funk. Saiyali felt she might even smile if this went on much longer.

The Mama said, ''Shave her first''. The three girls nodded and set about cutting all Saiyali's hair off and shaving her head gently but firmly. Saiyali decided not to struggle; having two pairs of scissors and a razor moving near her face was all the encouragement she really needed to stand still.

''Step into the bowl.'' directed the Mama as soon as they'd shaved the last bit of soap from her scalp. Saiyali did as she was told. The two slaves began washing her with hot water and scented soap from head to toe.

She turned to the Mama and asked, ''Where am I?''

''Don't talk.'' was all the Mama answered, as she turned and began sorting through some boxes and jars, choosing a few and separating them from the rest. The slave who'd led her in glared desperately at Saiyali, almost imperceptibly shaking her head.

Saiyali missed the look and spoke again. ''But Mama, I just want t—'' she began, but as soon as she started the Mama spoke over her, to the slave who Saiyali now realised had been trying to warn her.

''If she speaks again, sew her lips shut.''

The slave nodded ''Yes, Mama'' and shot Saiyali another glare that this time she didn't miss.

Saiyali stopped talking abruptly with a shocked, terrified breath, and said not another word. But as they washed her and dried her, she couldn't stop herself shaking. The Mama ordered, ''Slap her if she moves'' and the slave slapped Saiyali hard. In her shock, she stopped trembling for a few seconds, and looked imploringly at the slave – who now just stared impassively back. When Sayali shivered again, the slave slapped her again without her expression changing at all.

After this Saiyali made herself breathe deep, and did her best to steady herself and still her body. She felt tears of helpless shame rising and she turned them back, down, breathing deep and pressing her aenimus inwards, finding suddenly that it filled her, warmed her, calmed her. She caught some clarity in her mind, and began to understand she couldn't change what was taking place; This is happening and I can't keep on wishing it wasn't!. She concentrated on her breathing, eyes closed and still as a statue, as her skin was oiled and painted with pungent, itchy patterns all over.

When they had finished, opalescent marks wound from the crown of Saiyali's head down her body, spiralling in complex, glittering knots at points that Saiyali knew corresponded with the main energy points in her body. She felt them paint her eyes and face, too – then her throat, chest and belly – where they traced a large triple spiral – then down her legs and also up her back, again marking pressure points. Another set of circles was painted along each arm, and she was left to dry.

She could see herself in the mirror and she was amazed – she looked like a jewel with arms and legs, a sparkling gemstone of every colour at once. She felt submerged in a shimmering haze that faded at the edges and left only the triple spiral on her belly in sharp focus. She could feel herself buzzing and vibrating to her very bones, and she knew there was more in the body paint than just a sparkle. She closed her eyes, suddenly feeling that if she tried to think clearly she might just collapse.

She waited, trying to keep her mind at rest but finding herself drifting off each time she tried to concentrate. She lost track of time; she felt herself floating lost in a spicy haze, wondering where—

''Come!'' It was the Mama's voice.

The cord had been unclipped from the floor and she was tugging at it. Saiyali opened her eyes and stepped automatically towards her, noticing absently that she was now dressed in flowing, wispy red robes. The slaves had gone.

The Mama led her out, along corridors and up stairs, till they arrived at a pair of wide, dark wooden doors that swung open as they approached. Saiyali felt like she was stepping through a dream; her mind was fraying and fading at the edges and she was finding it more and more difficult to focus. She simply went on drifting, carrying some vague hope that she was on her way to somewhere nice.

Through the double doors she came into a flat, circular space surrounded by low, red-carpeted steps which led to wide raised circles around every side except where the door was. On this raised outer ring stood a number of people – Sayali tried to count them, failed, then forgot and tried again, only to fail again; there weren't very many, at least, and they were all dressed in dark blue.

Maybe it's just dark—

She squinted, or thought she did, but it didn't help. She couldn't see anyone's face, or any detail that explained what was going on. And that sounnnnnnnnnnnnnnd—

Whatever the reason she was already feeling so dreamy and insubstantial, the sound in this room wasn't helping – these indigo figures were humming a single, densely complex note and it was making her mind move on a different path across the room from the one her body was following.

She swayed on the spot for a moment, disorientated, and was amazed to suddenly find herself standing on a low, white-covered table on a raised platform in the middle of the room. Her arms were being raised above her head, by two women wearing floaty robes similar to the other Mama's red robes, but one in blue and the other in yellow. They had the same smooth waxy skin and milky eyes as she did, though, and all three smelled of scorched sweetness. Ropes that hung down from the hidden darkness of a vast vault were being tied around her wrists.

She realised with a kind of abstracted amusement that she was now standing, painted and smelling like some weird cake, on a table in the middle of a dark room and people were singing to her. She started laughing but felt the laughter shaking her loose from her body. She panicked – she felt as if she needed to to cling to the inside of her skin but it became slick and slippery so she couldn't hold on. She was falling, and she could hear voices getting louder all around her and the voices' harmony breaking up – and as it broke up she felt herself being split into ten strands, twenty threads, a hundred filaments – too many!

Pulled in every direction here, there and away, one at a time and all together, she felt aenimus ringing – not in her veins or in her nerves but in the spin and vibration of her every tiniest mote; It was coalescing and she could feel a strange prickle growing in the lines where she had been painted, along the meridians of her body. She was slipping through her own pressure points, she wanted to scream but at the last moment she had the idea that if she raised her voice, she'd scream herself into mist. Then she realised she didn't know how to breathe.

The three Mamas were moving frantically around her, singing their own words in the polyphony of the song which filled the space, and reaching for her, following the painted patterns with twitching fingers that sparked aenimus through Saiyali and between the three of them.

Saiyali suddenly had the idea they were trying to take her aenimus from her and she clenched her eyes shut as she felt herself expanding like a seething, corrosive bubble. She was being drawn agonizingly from her own core through the three spirals on her belly. She wanted to struggle but she had no grip on herself, she was overflowing and couldn't breathe – then with a supreme effort she finally let out a yelp of fear, anger, despair—

But as her voice rose and shook her from inside she felt rising with it a shattering explosion of raw aenimus that in an instant surged and streamed onto and through every participant. The women in their chanting were frenzied now and though their eyes were gleaming Saiyali could no longer tell if they even had real bodies. She felt their swirling presences channelling her aenimus through the llines on her skin, then ecstatically through themselves and beyond to all the others, who now appeared to Saiyali as flickering, glittering shadows all around.

Finally, as she realised with a flash of terror that she she'd lost the struggle to remain inside herself, Saiyali felt the final lash of her own aenimus tear itself away, and its recoil flung her mind into some senseless distance.

* * *

She thought she opened her eyes, but it was too dark to be certain and her body was in an agony so dense it confused all sensations.

She itched all over, and she felt torn and mashed and smashed and shredded from her chest to her knees. Her legs felt as if they were attached to some bag of burning liquid which in turn hung from her shoulders. She looked down at herself hesitantly but could only see a round white shape. Her arms and legs wouldn't move.

Am I dead? Is it my funeral?

Her skin was crawling and something smelled sweet but she faded before another thought could come.

* * *

She opened her eyes. Definitely awake now. Tummy hurts.

Her lower body was throbbing and aching, but it at least felt solid. There was still an itch but now it wasn't all over as much as moving around at random and making the pressure points of her body twinge and pinch convulsively.

She looked down at herself and saw she still resembled a white lump. But now she could see it was a tightly-wrapped sheet that covered her arms too. No wonder I can't move.

She wiggled fingers and toes; everything worked. She turned her head and saw blank stone walls on each side of her, and a small barred window above her. At the end of the bed was a wooden door, also with bars in a small window.

As she looked, a face appeared in the window, caught her eye, then disappeared.

She tried to move her hands and arms, but found the sheet was so tight around her that she couldn't budge them more than a little. Her arms all the way to her shoulders were held – comfortably but relentlessly. She quickly found her legs were also held firmly from her ankles to her thighs.

She let her head fall back to the bed, and at that moment the door opened.

In came the Mama who had bought her before, followed by a man with skin so dark it was verging on a shade of blue, who was dressed in yellow robes and had long hair piled up high and wrapped in a matching yellow headscarf. He wore only one, large and important-looking ring, and his long-nailed hands were smooth and perfectly manicured. His eyes were large, almost completely black but coruscating subtly with shades of gold, and his face was almost too handsome to be the face of a real man – each feature was perfectly balanced, and his long beard and moustache were trimmed and plaited perfectly. He examined her, turning her head gently but firmly back and forth to see her profile, and nodded with pleasure.

''Yes – she is very, very fine. Will the mark be permanent?'' His voice was rich and subtle, and a shimmer of aenimus flickered here and there around him as he spoke.

The Mama shook her head and smiled. ''No – as a matter of fact it's fading more quickly on her than I've ever seen before. By the time you get her home she'll be as good as new.'' She smiled indulgently at him and he chuckled in amusement.

''Let me see the rest of her''

The Mama clapped twice and two slaves trotted in. She gestured to them and they pulled the sheet off Saiyali in one perfectly co-ordinated sweep.

She instinctively moved to cover herself but found she was unable to do so. She strained against the force holding her as the man inspected her up and down, stroking her here and pinching her there, finally nodding and fixing the Mama with a skeptical regard. ''And you say she cannot conceive children. You're sure of this?''

The Mama closed her pale eyes and nodded firmly. ''Absolutely certain.''

He nodded again and thought for a few long seconds before answering, ''Well then, I'll take her.''

The Mama smiled delightedly and gestured again to the slaves, who pulled the sheet back over Saiyali. Then, quickly as they'd arrived, everybody left the room and the door banged shut.

Saiyali lay in shock, and the ache in her belly flared to a sharp stabbing pain. Cannot conceive children? What did they do to me? She wished she could hold herself where it hurt but her arms were still pinned by a force she now knew, was not the sheet. She strained again but it would not budge at all and the effort sent new stabs of burning pain through her middle.

Gasping with the exertion, she allowed herself to relax once again, and took a clear, deep breath. She made her voice rise in a soft hum, and the aching inside as well as the itching on her skin both rose too, in protest. She had to concentrate hard so as not to be overwhelmed by fractured, horrifying memories of being smashed and ripped and disintegrated.

She felt the edges of herself seeping gently beyond the force that held her, and as she allowed herself to melt into it she found she could even move her limbs a little. It took a supreme effort not to strain and slowly her limbs seemed to drift through of their own accord; as if they were oozing out between the fibres of a fine mesh.

Suddenly, her arms and legs flew up and out with a jerk, and a spasm of churning, twisting nausea burst from the very marrow of her bones and flashed outwards, instantly releasing her. She gasped for breath and sat up, her body and mind a choir of agonies from her core to her surface but one crystal-clear spark of a thought flashing in her mind before she collapsed back from the exhaustion of the struggle:


Then everything went dark again and she drifted into a deep, dreamless void.

[ Edited 07:37:30 AM 03/24/19 ]

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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03:35:18 PM 03/26/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 499
Present: Southside [pt.1]

Saiyali sat alone in the cell, completely despondent. She'd lost track of hours in the dark, and Bethifika had been gone a very long time. She didn't know exactly how long, but she'd had four food trays delivered and taken away so she thought at least two days. The food was disgusting and she hadn't eaten it, and she didn't understand why they hadn't killed her as soon as they took her mask off. They knew immediately that she was a slave, and she in turn knew there was no point in trying to explain – even to speak at all. None of the guards would listen to her, and unless Bethifika could pull something amazing out of her bag of tricks, Saiyali was certain she would die soon.

She wondered how many people had waited to die in this cell over the centuries. How many free men and women had become slaves after a stay in this cell – and how many slaves had been hung up on the wall outside after trying to become free?

She knew the Southside judges were known to be relatively lenient to poor people trying to dodge a little tax, and to impose gentler sentences on criminals guilty of minor crimes where nobody got hurt. But this was only relative to the Northside judges – and anyway, for professionals like Bethifika, there was no mercy they could give. And for an escaped house slave who actually managed to get out of the city, there was only one punishment.

She wished she could tell someone who she was, and what had happened. Surely if they knew, they would understand?

But how could they know? And what could she say, when she would only be slapped silent for even opening her mouth? Despair took her again and she tried to focus on the fact she had survived a storm, and a shipwreck, and got this far – so close!

Surely this can't be the end of me? After all that?

But such thoughts faded in the end, and she was left with the gnawing sense of despair and an if only itch she couldn't scratch.

Suddenly the key rattled in the cell door, which swung open with a squeak. The two-feather Warden was standing there looking directly over Saiyali's head. Saiyali tensed and tried to take a deep breath, but it caught in her chest and she coughed chokingly.

''Out!'' the guard commanded, and stood to one side to allow Saiyali to leave.

Saiyali stood instinctively but something made her hesitate – she stared for a moment, unsure why no other guard was coming in to bind her arms. She opened her mouth to speak, and the guard shouted again, ''Out! Now!''

Saiyali didn't wait to be told again, she knew the next command would be hard, and directly to her head. She walked quickly and obediently out and turned down the passages as the guard pushed her shoulders right and left. She was marched out of the door she'd come in, and pushed roughly and silently towards a closed wagon with barred windows that was waiting just outside in the square. It was night again, but the air was cooler and drier, and the square was not so crowded. She guessed it was much later at night than it had been when they arrived – but she knew it couldn't be the same night.

She suddenly felt very strongly that she wanted to know what day it was and asked as quickly as she could, ''What is today?''

The guard slapped the back of her head hard, and grunted, ''Quiet!'', but added as Saiyali stumbled and caught herself dextrously, ''It's Moonday. Three bells. Get in the wagon''

Saiyali climbed in and the door slammed behind her. Immediately the thing started moving, and faster than she expected. She looked about, but she was alone inside. She watched out of the back window as the warden turned, shaking her head, and began walking back to the doorway she'd come from. As they rolled forwards, Saiyali's view of the square quickly grew to encompass the dozens of trees and the lights above, then slid back away from her, turning and twisting as the wagon crossed and into the main boulevard running around the inside of the old city wall. Finally, the lights from the square were cut off by the end of the wall itself.

She sat on the bench that ran along the inside of the wagon, next to the door with its window so she could see what passed by as they drove. Im the middle of the night not much was moving. The regularly-spaced blue lights illuminated tents, trees, gardens and buildings of both stone and wood. There were animal pens, and small enclosed spaces with wooden structures where animals or slaves slept. Everything was still apart from a little bird song and the hooves and wheels on the road.

In the distance, the clamour of Southside's centre could be heard, the sounds of large-scale carousing and huge music that said it was Obsidian City, and not just any old place. Avenues leading towards the centre passed at intervals and Saiyali even found herself naming them silently to herself. They were rolling through an affluent district with houses in enclosed yards and gardens, instead of long old city blocks. Suddenly they came to a wide open expanse, dark except for the lights mounted along the perimeter road that made silhouettes of huge trees. The air cooled considerably and Saiyali knew they were running along the edge of Outer Park.

She turned and nodded to herself as she saw the brightly-lit square which formed the main Farmers Gate entrance to the City; it was similar to the square she'd just come from. She turned back and crossed to sit sideways on the other bench of the wagon, better to feel and smell the fresh verdant open space they were passing. They were still driving along the wall and as the went she wondered with a flash of recall if they were indeed heading, as they seemed to be, towards the Nashivaar estate.

Suddenly she knew what must have happened at the gate. Fika told them I'm a Nashivaar slave, and they're taking me back there!

In Southside, no warden could afford to annoy the Nashivaari; Saiyali felt a sudden rush of relief but her heart was pounding and she had to calm herself with deep breaths. It appeared that after all, she was going to be free. Again – finally!

The wagon was slowing.

She looked out of the side window and nodded to herself. The moment of truth was approaching; they were definitely arriving at Nashivaar. This road was unmistakeable from its smell; lined with all kinds of fragrant trees and bushes, it was known as Scented Way. She breathed deep and easy, allowing herself to relax and smile, and to hope that whoever opened the wagon door would be friendly.

Eventually they turned into the main yard of the estate and slowed to a stop. The wagon shuddered one final time and was still, the stamping and whining of its animals the only sound left.

Feet crunched on both sides of the wagon and the door opened sharply.

Saiyali waited to be called, but nobody said anything. A figure appeared outside the wagon door and held out a hand, offering to help her out of the carriage. She recognized Keeper Bediyeh as she hesitantly stood and stepped down from the wagon, looking up and about at the all-too-familiar sight around her. The yard was brightly lit with flickering blue-white gas lamps as if a party was on, and the tall, many-windowed stone walls of Mama's house looked down more welcomingly than Saiyali had ever seen them.

So this is what it feels like to arrive like a real person!

There were even a number of slaves waiting for her, and Bediyeh bowed low. Saiyali shook her head in surprise, and regarded Bediyeh for a long moment, partly enjoying the novelty but also frightened in case it was a trick.

Keeper Bediyeh finally spoke in the polite and welcoming tones she only used for guests and friends. ''Miss Saiyali – welcome home. Please, allow me to escort you to your apartment. A bed is ready for you, and there's hot water if you wish to clean yourself. Come.''

* * *

Saiyali woke up and for a moment was surprised at the softness and warmth of the bed she was in. After days and days on the road, sleeping in a cold damp wagon and lumpy travel lodge beds – not to mention a cell at the city gate – she'd got used to waking up stiff, cold, aching, shivering and sore. Waking up feeling refreshed and cosy was strange, and for a few minutes she just lay with her eyes closed, wriggling her feet inside the soft sheets and stretching her hands and legs out between the quilted cover and the cool mattress, enjoying the rich freshness of unused bed around her.

It wasn't a dream then.

The enormous bed had an upright post at each corner from which hung a white net for keeping the insects off in the night, and through the net Saiyali could see a large bedroom, all vague and paled.

To her left was a clothes cupboard, ornately carved from sweet-smelling wood. Next to that was a wash stand stocked with soaps and oils, wash cloths and large soft drying cloths, and a black glass bowl full of cold water. Opposite the bed was a large window covered with dark blue drapes and she knew that the window was an enormous arch in five parts, each framed by a delicate palm-shape whose leaves were framed separately and painted with a transparent green varnish. Across in the corner of the room, a wide arched doorway was covered with another dark blue curtain and she knew that beyond was a small reception room with large, comfortable cushions around a low wooden table. She knew that on the ceiling above the insect net was a painted relief of a scene in an ancient book of love called the Hundred Paths to Joy, and she knew that in the clothes cupboard there were fresh clothes that would fit and suit her.

She knew all this because this was the very same room where she had stayed in the days after Mama had freed her, only a few weeks earlier. She found it hard to believe that was all so recent, it already felt like the memory of another person entirely – and yet here she was, back in that person's room knowing everything in it had probably even been left alone since then. She suddenly had the strange idea that her return had been planned all the time and that her room had been left alone because she'd been expected. She tried to banish this thought but it lingered.

She shook her head and chuckled at her paranoia. She knew Mama Nashivaar was well-connected, but she doubted she was quite able to plan everything that had happened since she left. Also, whatever had happened to bring it about – whether chance or expert planning by some mind greater than her own – Mama had saved her life; and if she brought me home as a guest she's probably planning to let me go again—

In one smooth movement, she threw the quilt aside and turned to sit up with her feet on the floor. She walked over to the drapes and pulled them aside. Sunlight streamed in – it certainly was late, afternoon already for sure. She sniffed and wrinkled her nose. Time for a proper clean! It would be the first decent wash since – since the last time I was here?

She shook her head and sighed. So much for freedom, when you can't get a decent bath anywhere. She glanced about, and shrugging nonchalantly grabbed a dry robe from a hook next to the doorway. She slipped it on as she padded lightly through the outer room, then down to the wet rooms.

She passed several slaves on the way and all of them stopped and bowed to her as she passed. She didn't like it much, but she still thought it was better than having to bow. She hurried on her way to make the ordeal shorter and she arrived at the hot room hoping she would be alone. She wasn't.

''Eh, Saiyali! You've finally woken up! Good – I knew you'd come for a sweat before you did anything else! You must have had a terrible time – come and sit!'' Mama Nashivaar was smiling and beckoning eagerly.

Saiyali was stunned. She froze, panicked and then fell to the floor, all semblance of nonchalance gone. She dropped to her knees, head to the wooden floor and hands flat downwards, and spoke quickly and pleadingly. ''Thankyou Mama for calling me here and saving my life!''

Mama Nashivaar made a long, disapproving noise with her lips and teeth and broke in emphatically ''No no no, Saiyali! You're no longer a slave, you're here as my guest. I'm sorry you were arrested – get up, please. Please – come and sit with me.'' She sounded sincere.

When Saiyali looked up she saw enough kindness and sympathy in the opalescent indigo eyes that she rose and stepped towards them, nodding gratefully. She sat on the hot wooden bench and Mama sat back beside her, reaching to her left for a clay cup and jug. She poured from the jug into the cup and handed it to Saiyali, who sipped gently, then deeper as she realised it was mashed fruit mixed with chilled water and was delicious.

The hot room had a sweet-smelling wooden floor and two tiers of fragrant wooden benches in a pair of concentric octagons. The walls were lined with aromatic wood panels painted with a detailed and vivid panorama; the one directly opposite the entrance was a view across the Broken Harbour towards the Northside, from an imaginary spot high above Mama's house. The other panels made up the rest of the scene – a full-circle view of the surrounding city and river-lands from the same impossibly high vantage point – and at this time of day with sunlight streaming in through the large octagonal ceiling window directly overhead, they were lifelike and absorbing.

Saiyali had appreciated them all plenty of times but on this occasion they barely registered on her eyes. She was far more concerned about the fact that her old owner was behaving like a long-lost friend; she wasn't sure how to respond and decided that without too much submissive bowing she might get away with calling her Mama. ''Thankyou, Mama'' she managed to say, and to her relief Mama Nashivaar didn't insist on being called Saliki. That would be too much—

Also to her relief, Mama Nashivaar led the conversation. ''Saiyali, first of all I want to say I'm so sorry your ship sank. We all know it happens, but I'm truly sorry it happened to you. I had assumed you too were lost, and I'm very happy to see you were not.'' She smiled, and again it looked sincere.

Saiyali nodded. ''Thankyou for saying so, Mama. I was amazingly lucky, I think. I washed up on some beach near – Salt Marsh, it was. Some children found me and a cleric called Yakiya looked after me. I owe her my life, really.''

Mama Nashivaar looked amazed, then coughed and swallowed, as if some insect had flown into her throat too far to spit out. She blinked and seemed to be having trouble finding her thread again.

''Salt Marsh, you say? Well – I mean – yes, Saiyali – that was extremely lucky, you're quite right. Only four of the crew have turned up alive, and apart from yourself no other passengers have appeared. It was a – a tragedy.'' She looked distracted and thoughtful but suddenly shook her head and asked, ''So, I imagine that you lost everything you had with you?''

Saiyali took a long sip from her cup and smacked her lips with delectation, but answered with a disappointed nod. ''Everything, Mama.''

Mama Nashivaar made a low, serious Hmm and nodded sympathetically. ''Well it goes without saying that everything you left here when you departed last time is still yours. Will you sail again for Marathy? I can have a cabin booked on a ship as before, you can probably leave tomorrow if you wish. Of course, I'll gladly cover your travel expenses again—'' She hesitated and frowned as she noticed Saiyali shaking her head.

''Mama, thank you but – well, I owe somebody for helping me get back here and I have to make sure I pay her.'' She had a sudden idea. ''Mama, could you have her released? That would certainly do good for her, for what she's done for me.''

Mama was shaking her head now, her frown deepening. ''I know who you're talking about; her name was attached to yours when I heard you'd been detained. Her name is Bethifika Kalfiya, and I've heard it before. Did you know she robbed me once? Well – one of my tax offices at least. She's famous – infamous. Notorious, even. And wanted, by some very influential people. I don't know if I can do anything to help her—'' She paused, then snorted a bitter laugh. ''And honestly? I don't know if I even want to. This city would be a better place without her. Take my advice,'' she admonished maternally, ''Avoid such characters. Associations like that can only lead you to ruin, I warn you.''

Saiyali's mouth dropped open in disbelief before she gathered herself enough to stammer, ''But – but Mama! Even Baba—''

Mama Nashivaar inhaled dramatically and her sudden sharp and withering glare felt to Saiyali's like a cold, hard slap in the face. She dropped her gaze to the floor where she wished a deep hole would open. None did, and eventually Mama Nashivaar, shaking her head now but still glaring intensely, whispered ''We shall not talk of him, nor of his – chicanery. Is that understood?''

Saiyali nodded again and replied as obediently as she ever had as a slave, ''Yes, Mama.''

Mama Nashivaar's face brightened as if a cloud had evaporated to uncover the light in her eyes. ''Now, tell me what you plan to do. Whatever it is, I'll help you. It's the least I can do, eh?''

Still, Saiyali didn't know, and as they sat and sweated in the hot room and talked through a few possibilities it became more and more obvious that whatever she did do, she couldn't stay here at Mama's house. For herself, she would never feel like a friend of Mama Nashivaar's – even less a child of hers – and for Mama, it was clear Saiyali simply reminded her painfully of Baba. Even a short conversation was almost impossible for them both, and when the chill of the cold pool had soaked in, Mama Nashivaar left Saiyali alone with instructions to come to her main office in an hour.

Saiyali spent most of the hour repeating the hot – cold cycle and trying to work out exactly what she should do after she left the estate this time. She was noisily emerging from her fourth round in the cold pool and wrapping herself in her bath robe, when she remembered with a rush of joy, My stash!

She scampered to her room to dress, and then to Mamas's office with new energy – partly from the hot-and-cold session but now also from recalling the happy fact that she was now rich. As long as it's still there–

She couldn't imagine why it wouldn't be.

Mama was still in her own bath robe but looking busy as Saiyali entered the bright and spacious stone-floored room Mama called her Office of Affairs and Interests.
It was a grand name but if the name was grand then the room deserved the name. The ceiling was high and a large rectangular glass pane allowed sunlight to flood in. The central space under this glass was surrounded by several square columns climbed by plants, and in the centre there were six wide, leather-topped desks for sorting and completing various kinds of paperwork. Four were currently occupied by Writers working scratchily. Mama's own even bigger desk was to the left, and around the walls stood hundred of shelves and cabinets in what appeared like a small library of books, scrolls, bundles and boxes.

Mama looked up as Saiylali entered, and she smiled. It was still quite genuine but Saiyali already knew how quickly it could turn into an equally genuine snarl. Let's make this quick, she thought, and smiled back – an honest, grateful smile with a nod of respect instead of meekness; she was trying her best to be not Sai but Saiyali, who wouldn't remind Mama so much of the past.

Mama Nashivaar, with a satisfied grin, held out a large folded paper envelope. ''Here – I'm glad to have been able to write this twice. As a matter of fact I've also made four Small Copies for you. They're inside with the original.''

Saiyali took it with a smile and happy ''Ahh!'' She flicked the envelope open and taking out one of the embossed cards which was a small copy of her freedom paper, and reading it out loud, joy and relief quite evident in her wavering voice.

''This seal identifies
Saiyali Bilandu'te Saliki'we Nashivaar
and holds her to be free
– today this Moon-day –
third day – eleventh moon
2-2-8-8 and ever.
So Swear I:

Saliki Ngishava'naa Wisheleku Gramak Nashivaar Mama

Mama Nashivaar nodded gravely as she listened, and added after Saiyali had finished reading, ''I've also had word sent out among wardens – and other people who matter, South and North – that you are my adopted daughter and that you do have my blessing to travel and work where you wish. That includes Marathy, if you do decide to return. In any case you won't need to come back here ever again, if you do not wish to.'' Mama Nashivaar's smile became warmer than ever as she added ''But I hope you do wish to, Saiyali. I hope I will see you again.'' and Saiyali was again unsure whether to be sincerely happy, or just awestruck at her dissembling skills.

She simply nodded silently, not trusting herself to deceive Mama with words. She could only speak honestly, she knew – though she did manage to make what she said seem brighter and more enthusiastic than she actually felt.

''Thank you, Mama. This is all I really need. Now, I can live! Thank you!''

She slipped the small copy back into the envelope, kissed that and slipped it into an inside pocket, rubbing the lump through the material for a second as if to make sure it was really there.

Mama Nashivaar watched her with a nod and little decisive sniff. ''Well then. You'll be wanting to leave. Of course you can take any boat or wagon you wish and, well—'' She searched awkwardly for the right words and Saiyali realised she had never seen Mama Nashivaar hesitate before. She knew she might never see this again and it was a memory she wanted to hold on to – but eventually Mama found the words she wanted, ''—I hope things go better for you, this time.''

Saiyali smiled, truly grateful, and Mama Nashivaar's face softened to match perfectly. Saiyali decided that even if it was false, she still preferred the smile to the alternatives, and as a note to part on, it would do. She realised there was no more to say, and she simply nodded one last time, turned, and trotted out.

Mama Nashivaar watched her leave and the look on her face dropped into a thoughtful, introspective expression. She pursed her lips, and with a sigh reached for a fresh sheet of paper.

* * *

[ Edited 03:37:03 PM 03/26/19 ]

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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07:08:02 PM 03/29/19

Registered Member #1273
Joined: 09:56:54 AM 03/23/08
Posts: 499
Present: Southside [pt.2]

Saiyali didn't go back to her room, there was nothing she needed from there. She was wearing the only clothes she wanted to take from this house – but there was the question of the wealth she'd abandoned when she left last time, mainly because she hadn't needed it. Now though, she did. Now, she had nothing left – and she didn't want to ask for anything more from Mama Nashivaar.

She was relieved to discover when she got there, that the stone in the dark corner of Baba's deep cellar hadn't been disturbed; and in the hole behind still lay the waxed leather satchel which had kept its secret prize faithfully and silently so long. She took it with a whisper of gratitude to nobody in particular, replaced the brick neatly and made her way back through the house to the front lobby. The house was still dark and silent and she knew why; Mama Nashivaar certainly never came here, and she doubted anyone but staff would ever live here again till Mama was gone. Saiyali didn't like it either and she hurried back out and away, from the memories that haunted every step inside Baba's house.

She didn't want to take a boat or a wagon, either, and by the time she reached the main gate of the Nashivaar estate on foot, the Sun was sinking out of the purple evening sky and the roads into the city were all covered in long shadows. Sunset across the Pleasure Park had always made her smile, and tonight's was particularly sweet, flavoured as it was with the excited certainty that life was just beginning.

As the Sun sank, though, the night's chill began congealing in the air. The gas lamps lining the roads were being lit and while the sky was still pale with dusk, the dim, flickering shadows cast by the lights were disorientating.

Saiyali decided that her first task must be to find out what was happening to Bethifika, and that would need a trip back to the New South Gate. To walk now, or find somewhere to stay?

She glanced about. The wide avenue she was standing on led southwards and she knew that if she took it then in an hour or so she would arrive at the Broken Market, Southside's main marketplace; Broken because a large section of the circle was resting under the water of the harbour. That wasn't where she wanted to go but for now this road was safe and it led roughly in the right direction – and if there was transport to be found at this time of night it would most likely be somewhere central.

Fine. Walk it is. She took a deep breath and began stepping down the avenue.

Evening fires from all around were as always filling the clear cool sky with the pungent aroma of burning wood – indoor fires were smoking from chimney stacks on huts and houses, and outdoor fires with families gathered around were burning here and there on the empty plots where the people lived in tents or wagons, all manner of shapes, sizes, and colours, depending on wealth, taste and ingenuity. The wealthy though, lived in houses; the most prominent and important, such as the Nashivaari, kept stone-built mansions on large landscaped plots. Others lived in sections of original city blocks that still stood, some of which had been extended with wood and glass sections. The Southside of the Obsidian city was known everywhere for its eccentric and occasionally insane architecture; collapses were rare and most people tended to put this down to luck rather than intent.

One of the oddest examples of the unconstrained freedom in Southside construction styles was dead ahead of Saiyali now, and she was marvelling at it not for the first time, again shaking her head in disbelief and tilting her head to try and make sense of its confusing perspective.

It had once been a Temple – in the days when such things existed and were used for worshipping gods. It had been half-demolished by the Great Fall, and then after the Proving – as with a lot of the old Temples – a Shrine had been built in it. In this case, it had been a Shrine to Trade and Commerce and had attracted such wealth and crowds that eventually the walls of the structure had been removed for space, leaving the Shrine covered by the roof held up only by its outer columns. Still later, trees had been planted next to each column; over the centuries their branches had been trained up and outwards so as to add more space to the top of the building, and the extent of each new floor increased as higher levels were formed out of the trees' new top growth. Underneath this, the ground floor was still wide and open with plenty of room for devotees to attend the shrine; the second floor was not a floor but simply the top half of this space, which opened into the roof vault and arched up another floor again. The chamber within was huge and the shrine was an exquisite black glass structure which at night was lit with hundreds of candles placed by local residents.

Outside though, things became spectacular. The lowest limbs and branches of the great trees stuck out to form a framework for a third storey with its own floor and walls. The frame inside was filled with panels of wood and rendering to create separate rooms around the outside of the original roof. The outer frame was filled with perfectly-shaped slabs of clear obsidian, that gave every third-floor room a large, many-panelled window from floor to ceiling, angled a little downwards. Above the third floor, the higher, thinner branches were similarly trained into the frames of reinforced walls and floors of the top level. These rooms had lower ceilings, created by the topmost leafiest branches being interwoven in spirals to form a roof over each space.

At the very pinnacle, the building's own spired roof poked out in the centre of a wide, gently-sloping canopy of leaves. From the ground, the whole effect was of a vertical forest which simply had no business standing by itself. It was a real puzzle for the eyes and it was one of a number of buildings around the city whose design attracted many admirers – and critics. Pllenty of both had stayed over the years, since the upper floors were open to guests.

Saiyali shook her head as she walked past, trying not to get lost in following its bizarre lines and trying to convince herself she didn't need to stay the night – convenient and impressive though the Leaf House was. All she really wanted to do was get as far from the Nashivaar estate as she could.

It wasn't long before she found herself at a major intersection. From her left came Farmers Avenue from the Farmers Gate, heading directly to the main Southside market and docks, off to her right somewhere. If she had any sense, she felt she ought to walk straight there and board the first boat for Marathy. She had her freedom paper now, and a satchel full of valuable jewellery.

Why not?

Part of her was screaming, Go! Go now! What are you waiting for? She knew if she travelled across the sea, nobody would ever find her there and no debt would ever have to be paid. It was the obvious thing to do, she even felt Bethifika would understand if she did it.

But there was another part of her, still resonating with the groans and crashes of that dreadful night, still terrified, shivering and drowning, still choked with cold salty water, still clinging for life on tossed flotsam, still cramped and crying in chill despair just wishing for death to be quick—

She wasn't ready to get on another ship and she knew it. She would have to approach it slowly, and meanwhile she couldn't just leave Bethifika locked up – though there was always the chance she was already dead.

And then what? What if she is?

She had no idea, but she wanted to know – even if she could do nothing about it. Then again, being in the Nashivaar house had shaken her and left her feeling weak, ashamed and vulnerable. She realised she didn't feel like sleeping in another strange bed tonight and was happy walking through the darkening streets, watching the evening unfold, greeting whoever looked her way.

Just because I can! And she slowly remembered where she was. Far from being the strange place her awkward arrival had made it seem, it was still the city she had spent most of her life in. The smells were the same, the voices the same, the ghostly blue street lamps were the same.

It hasn't changed – but I have! The idea came with a rush of clean, cool relief in her mind, and she strolled the rest of the way to the New South Gate with a great spring in her step, grinning inanely at all and sundry. What finally stopped her both walking and grinning was the scene she met when she finally arrived at the square she'd been taken from, not quite a day before.

The gatehouse where she and Bethifika had been locked up was now blackened and burned by what had obviously been a massive fire. Thin tendrils of smoke were still rising from the windows, and a huge pool of black ashes and chunks of wood spread out from the main door. The whole corner of the square was cordoned off by dozens of gate wardens, all armed to the teeth – not just with the usual shiny batons but many with long or short glass blades, some also had slings and pouches of glass bullets hanging from their belts.

Saiyali stopped a good distance away, outside a large white canvas tent with a sign outside that read AARISHA – SET MENU. Judging from the smells and noises coming from under the canvas, both the food and the drink there were excellent and Saiyali stood for a while as if deciding to go inside – while she watched what was happening in the square.

The wardens looked angry and tense. As she watched, a blackened body was carried from the burned out doorway by two more wardens, both wearing cloths tied around their faces. They were followed by two more carrying a second charred corpse. Judging from the chorus of shouts and growls that came from the assembled guards, these were wardens' bodies. Saiyali waited a while longer, but nothing more was brought out and nobody went back inside.

She shook her head, unsure what to make of it all but certain she wasn't going to find Bethifika here. She turned quickly and walked away. The sight of the burned bodies had put her off the idea of eating, and she had no reason to linger at the gruesome scene.

She walked for a while wondering what had happened and if she would actually ever see Bethifika again, when she realised she was now heading directly towards the docks. She hadn't meant to, it was simply the opposite direction from the gate, but as she sauntered past neglected buildings and tatty tent and wagon circles on their plots, a thought struck her. She wanted to know what had happened to Bethifika – especially after seeing the state of the guardhouse – but why stay in the Southside? All her life she'd been looking at, hearing and smelling this half-slum, half-camp, and she would never find a nicer part of it than the one she used to live in. As she'd said to Mama Nashivaar, so she felt it again in herself – Now I can live! It's time – to have a life! So then why not go to the Northside – the true Obsidian City that she had never got to know. The legendary City of Millions.

Why not? Why after all risk dying a second time in the sea? I'm rich – again. And free – again! Obsidian City was good to rich, free women – she knew this for a fact because she had been part of that good for plenty of rich free women.

I don't need a boat across the ocean – I only need a boat across the harbour! Suddenly, she realised it was exactly that easy. Her pace quickened and her smile broadened.

* * *

By the time she'd walked to the dockside, dawn was breaking and a thin fog was puffing lazily in from the sea on the finest of early breezes. A loud horn moaned through the haze, followed by a second, far out in the middle of the harbour on the island, and finally, faintly and far away a third, from the far point on the north side of the bay. The sound made her yawn.

At this time in the morning, the quays were dotted with crew hands loading and unloading quietly, calling to each other from time to time but mostly working in silence. The clunk and rattle and thud of loads landing, the squeak of hoists lifting and voices calling were all muted in the dim morning light by the gently billowing mist.

Smells of fresh and stale fish and seaweed, tar, grease and smoke filled the air – that filthy but industrious aroma belonging to every harbour, everywhere. A gull cried somewhere in the fog, and the foghorns honked again; one – two – three.

The sea was hauntingly still, rippling only from the to-and-fro of boats being rowed. Nothing with a sail was moving, but as always ferryboats with with rowers were crossing even with no wind.

Saiyali walked up to the closest one as she arrived at the harbourside. It was a long, white skiff with an eight-legged wooden roof that covered it exactly. The roof was high enough above the deck for people to stand comfortably underneath, but there were benches stretching from one bulkhead to the other, all the way from the bow of the vessel to just past its centre. Behind it was a platform with a large seat, where the pilot sat, and under that a lower section where the rowers pulled.

As Saiyali peered into the boat she saw four men wrapped in blankets sleeping between the benches they sat on to row, and to which she could see they were tied. she watched them for a while, trying not to feel guilty that she was able to stand freely and be a passenger on the boat they were forced to row. She felt sadness welling inside her, amplified by the exhaustion from walking all night without sleep; but as she felt it rise there came a bang behind her from a door being slammed open, and a gruff voice chuckled lewdly. She swallowed, sniffed, coughed, dabbed each eye with a cotton sleeve and turned, letting a smile light up her face in the split second it took her to do so.
She wasn't surprised to see a man who was obviously the pilot striding slowly towards her, wiping his hands on a dirty cloth and wearing a wolfish grin on his dark, weatherbeaten face. His clothes were blue canvas and cotton, with golden stitching here and there and useless shiny buttons clearly meant to make him look more like a gallant ship's captain and less like a dirty, slaving ferryman. Still, he was smiling, and he at least stopped a polite distance from her before looking her up and down lecherously. His eyes were lost in nests of creases but they still sparkled as he spoke to her in his hoarse and cracked old voice.

''Ah my old eyes, girl – y'must have been sent to start my day right! What in sea an' sky's something like o' you doing here this time o' day? Don't tell me – y' not here to ask ol' Mataleh for a ring, ah? Y' actually want to cross Northside? Ah, my heart, so broken!'' He roared with laughter, and Saiyali couldn't help smiling.

She tilted her head winningly and raised a brow, and spoke as a daughter of Mama Nashivaar ought to speak, keeping her head up and her shoulders back, and a half-amused smile on her face.

''Actually I do need to cross but you know, all I've got is a bag of jewellery. Would you perhaps accept a small ruby in return for taking me across the water?'' She blinked a couple of times exaggeratedly, and her winning smile finally won.

The old man exploded with laughter. ''Y' what girl? Ha! A small ruby, y'say? Haha! Of course, Maamaa! Nah – second thoughts, make it an emerald like your eyes, an' y' can 'ave m' whole boat!'' He bowed, still laughing, then winked. ''Nah, 's alright. F' that smile, miss, y' can keep y' ruby – just keep it turned my way while we cross, ah?'' The lecherous look was back for a moment, then it was business as he added, ''But y'll be waiting till th' boat's full, right? So I'll get y' something warm t' drink.'' He grinned again and slapped the gunwale of the boat noisily with his leathery palm. The noise made even Saiyali jump, and she'd seen it coming. ''Wake up boys, it's breakfast time!'' he yelled gruffly. ''I'll be out in a minute t' unhook y' for a wash so up and about, and don't bother the lady!'' He laughed raucously, and the rowers began stirring.

Saiyali backed away from the boat; she didn't want to watch slaves wake up and wash. A thought occurred to her as she watched the pilot watching his slaves to make sure they actually got up. She asked, ''If they're tied in the boat, what happens if it hits something and sinks?''

He turned away from her, spat, then turned back to look at her and shrugged. ''If th' boat goes down, they drown.'' he said, matter-of-factly. Then he grinned and added, ''No good f' anyone, that! So 's best all round if they row her straight. Ah boys?'' This was louder and addressed to the slaves as they stood up; two of them yawning, one scratching his head, one shivering and rubbing his arms. All looked miserable and bitter, and none were paying any attention to Saiyali.

Satisfied they were awake, the ferryman nodded and strolled back over towards his shack, still laughing, ''Small ruby, ha!'' He opened the door and stomped inside, letting it bang shut behind him.

Saiyali shrugged and wandered a little way down the dockside to a spot where she couldn't see the rowers, and sat on one of the wide pilings that lined the quay. She looked back at the pilot's shack, where he stood grinning delightedly through the wide window of his shack as he poured water from a hot pan on his stove. It was for the slaves to wash with, she guessed, but he was also making her a drink for nothing – at least, for no more than being pretty early in the morning. She began to have an idea that staying in the city might work out well enough. And she would find Bethifika, if she was still alive – and pay her too. Got gold and gems now, Fika! she thought, happy she could now afford whatever she was asked for.

And as she listened to the slowly multiplying cries of unseen gulls keening out on the foggy sea – a noise that for so long resonated with the grief and sadness she felt for who and what she'd never had the chance to be – she thought that this morning they sounded different.

Today they seemed to be calling out in triumph, in victory, perhaps even in joy.

[ Edited 06:25:50 PM 05/19/19 ]

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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07:15:49 PM 03/29/19

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[A Page Floating in the Sea]

Bay of Jewels (Averaged)

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The Bay of Jewels is known for its chilly, wet winters, but the summers are considered by many to be the best weather anywhere at any time of year. Spring and Autumn are ideal for cloud-watching from the high peaks around the bay, and the summer wind has made the Bay Sail famous for centuries. Take Waterproofs in any season.

Gold City

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Gold City's climate is hot all year round, but in summer the heavy rains never stop. The city's social life invariably takes place under cover, in the intricate network of interconnected buildings and roofed streets beside and beneath which run the golden waters of the Tzomzi River. Come for the gold, the locals say, but leave for the rain.

Holy City

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Holy City gets its weather from the mountains and it has always been a popular location for those recuperating from illnesses. Hot and dry in summer and cold and dry in winter, it's almost always sunny, almost never damp or gloomy. Holy City's climate is invigorating and healthy, and it's well-known for its benefits in encouraging proper breathing.

Obsidian City

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Obsidian City is hot and dry almost all year round, though it does become quite pleasant in the winter when the wind more often blows from the sea. Its dry climate is compensated for by the highly advanced water supply which pre-dates the Empire and ensures that the city is full of fresh running water that flows from its distant reservoirs.

[ Edited 07:18:51 PM 03/29/19 ]

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02:34:06 PM 03/31/19

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Posts: 499
Past: Vanities [pt.1]

Saiyali had never been on a ship before, and she didn't like it.

Even when the weather was good it felt as if the whole world would not stop rolling and shaking. She found it impossible to stand or sit without wanting to throw up and she found herself lying down on the floor of her cage till every bone and muscle was sore from the hard wood, and she had to stand a while, and allow the sickness to wash through her like the implacable, incessant waves of the ocean.

Each morning her ankles were roped together and she was allowed to walk once around the deck of the enormous wooden vessel. A couple of days were pleasant, sunny and fresh, with gleaming sparkles across the dark, shimmering sea and wisps of high cloud in the unfamiliar mauve sky.

Other days were like a riot of grey and white chaos, with lashing wind and driving salty rain, the whole ship rolling and plunging, and a sense that she might at any moment be thrown into the black abyssal deep and sink forever. When it was like that she didn't walk anywhere, but simply stood under an overhang of the deck above, hanging tightly on to a railing and forgetting herself in the weather's tumultuous frenzy till she was pulled back inside the ship and locked into her tiny cage once more.

The food was fine. She wasn't very hungry, but once when she didn't eat what was brought because she'd been sick for a day and a half, slaves came in, held her down and forced her to eat. After that, she made herself eat whatever food appeared, and allowed whatever wanted to escape afterwards to do so. At least nobody forced her to eat it a second time.

Something that struck her unexpectedly and kept nagging at her was the cry of the large white birds that followed the ship's white foamy path and sat preening themselves on its rails and arms. It was like nothing she'd ever heard before and it came all day and even sometimes at night. It seemed to reflect perfectly the way she felt, lamenting, plaintive, bereft.

For a day or two she could have convinced herself they were crying for her as sadly as she wished she could cry for herself, but as self-pity wore into boredom she noticed the call which had sounded despondent now just came across as squawky and aggressive, and that each was too similar to all the others for any of them to be truly touching.

Their voices began to remind her of the barks of the guards who came and went and brought food, and sometimes dragged someone away. Anyone dragged off like this would be brought back later, ashen, pale and stony-faced – or once or twice, sobbing and bloody.

Nobody touched Saiyali, though.

Three days into the voyage, a woman came to her cage. She was plain-looking and surprisingly pale, and her head was shaved. She was covered in tattoos on every visible part of her body, including her face, and once she was inside the cage with Saiyali, she opened a bag she was carrying with her and took out a bundle of sharp wooden sticks and two bottles of dark liquid.

Saiyali watched fearfully. The woman noticed her trembling, and she smiled and shook her head kindly. ''I'm not going to hurt you – well, not much. I'm going to tattoo you.'' She held up her densely-patterned arms and raised a brow. ''Draw on your skin, like this – see?''

Saiyali narrowed her eyes. ''Why? What if I say no?''

The woman shook her head and her smile vanished. ''If you say no then I'll have to call guards, and they'll hold you down. It'll take a lot longer and be a lot more painful. I'd rather you just sit there, turn around and let me get it done. It'll only take a few minutes, if you let me work in peace.''

Saiyali considered this, realising her choice really wasn't between having and not having this done, but between having it done quickly and quietly or having it done humiliatingly. She sat down on the floor, facing away from the woman, who said a quiet ''Thank you'' and began marking out a pattern on the back of her neck. After this, she began pricking Saiyali with the wooden pins in the same pattern; Saiyali found it uncomfortable but not unbearable.

During a pause, Saiyali asked ''So, why am I having this mark on me?''

The woman answered, ''Because you belong to Mama and Baba Nashivaar. Look – this is the mark I'm making on you–''

Saiyali turned to look at a mark on the woman's own neck that she was pointing to. It was a plain design of six interlocking circles which vaguely resembled a six-petalled flower. Saiyali nodded reluctantly and the woman continued working, saying ''Be glad it's not a brand. Baba wants you kept beautiful so he sent me to tattoo his mark instead. Most of this lot here will just get branded.'' Some of the people nearby who were watching and listening began looking uncomfortable on hearing this, and several of them sat themselves further away in fearful silence.

There were plenty more slaves in the other cages which lined the bulkheads, but she was alone in hers. Occasional whispered conversations could be heard, but most people said nothing to anybody. Perhaps, like her, they didn't really want to know exactly what was happening – or perhaps they did know, and just didn't want to talk. Saiyali was beginning to feel the same herself. She spent a lot of time asleep; she felt drained and powerless. Humming was just a sound from her throat that did nothing but make her itch all over. Deep breaths didn't quicken, they merely filled her lungs with air. As if her aenimus had been squeezed out through every pore of her skin, she felt thin and weak, insubstantial, yet unaccountably heavy and burdensome. She wished she could float free of her body, but felt stuck in it in a way she'd never known before. She seemed alive but without agency, as if her body functioned and she herself were merely a passenger; she didn't fill it to the edges, she wasn't pushing it. She felt like a witness to her own actions; lying down, standing up, eating, relieving herself, and doing as she was told because it was easier than directing herself.

She felt purged and absent, as if only an idea of her remained in a shell of flesh and bones. She at least recognised that on some level she was that idea, and she still remembered everything that had brought her here – but it felt disconnected, like it had all happened to somebody else and been told to her in pictures. She recalled things, but the closest memories were too horrible to hold in mind and as if through a haze, earlier memories had already become dim and abstract. In the end it was easier just to stare at the wooden boards overhead, breathe in and out, and count the sunrises.

She'd counted eight by the morning nobody came to take her for a walk. After a while came voices shouting, till a while later the vessel bumped and shook several times, then was still.

Saiyali felt activity explode all around her, and not long afterwards the cages on her deck started being unlocked, the people inside led out and roped up one by one. She was the last to be removed, and as she came out onto the deck she gasped in awe at the sight all around her.

Birds wheeled in great flocks above her head, the sky they sang and danced in was a dark shade of blue she'd ever seen before, and the sun was almost directly overhead. Its light was fierce and resonated intensely in her mind, the heat of it hit her like a hot blanket on the face. A sharp hand in the middle of her back told her to keep moving.

She began stepping carefully forward in the direction she was being pushed, and she squinted through the light across a great wide bay of gently rippling blue water. There in the distance lay the edge of an unimaginably vast city; countless grey buildings covered in dark and sparkling windows lined the water's edge at the other side. Beyond this long, glinting grey wall, she could see towers, domes and spires rising even above the tallest buildings, and here and there on the highest fluttered flashes of many colours. A pall of yellowish smoke floated above the whole horizon, and Saiyali must have slowed again as she stared because she felt another rough shove on her back.

She picked up her pace and looked about closer, across a profusion of boats of every size scattered upon the waves – then, suddenly frantic to see as much as she could she brought her focus closer still. She finally noticed hundreds of jagged rocks sticking up above the lazy waves on her own side of the water, some even reaching as high as the deck she was walking along. As she was grabbed and thrust around a corner of the ship's superstructure onto the gangway, she saw an even closer pile of broken grey rocks and black glass, covered in patches of green and yellow lichen. It looked to her like a gigantic collapsed building.

Her surprise at this was overwhelmed by utter amazement, as beyond this she now saw another massive city. This one wasn't grey stone buildings – though she could see some of those too, in the distance. What she saw directly before her was mostly green and brown; there were tall trees and tall wooden buildings, even some with what looked like steep, Marathy-style roofs. But as she finally stepped down the gangway, the buildings on the quayside blocked out her view across the hazy townscape, and her attention was brought hard onto her immediate surroundings.

Ships dressed in complex rigging were anchored in a line along a wide dock, where swarms of people ran about unloading boxes, sacks, crates, bundles and bales and passing them down lines of dock hands to orderly stacks on the quayside. As she followed the other slaves off the bottom of the wide gangway, she saw the quayside stretching off to her right with wagons being loaded; then further, she noticed others vehicles rolling out through a wide gate in a high wall.

She began following the shuffling towards a holding pen where they were being led, but a voice called out, ''Not her! She goes to the house, right now!'' Someone grabbed her shoulder and turned her around, and she was led to a small cart, the back was flipped down and she was picked up and thrown like a sack onto the dusty wooden floor. The gate clicked up again and the cart began rolling forwards, driven by someone whose face she couldn't see.

They passed along the quay and through another gate into a wide, wooded garden. Across the garden in the distance she could see a long rambling house. They reached its nearside in a minute or so and rolled around into a courtyard at the back. In the yard, there were other buildings of different sizes and shapes, and people were coming and going here and there, their footsteps crunching smartly on bright white gravel. A section of the house continued all the way around the yard and some way off there was a second, further house that looked identical to the nearest.

Her view was interrupted as she was pulled down from the cart and dragged across the yard to a side door. Through more doors and up several flights of stairs she stumbled and gasped, and eventually she was shoved through a plain wooden door in to a warm yellowish-painted room with a brown rug on the floor and a single barred window. There were several mattresses piled up in one corner and through a doorway in one wall was a small bedroom with a comfortable looking bed inside. On a table in the middle of the larger room was a wooden flask and a large plate of various fruits, and a brand new candle in a glass holder. Her ankle cuffs and rope were removed by a shaved slave whose face she forgot to look at, then the door was closed and she was alone.

She walked over to the window and put her head right against the bars to look out, down at the roadway she'd arrived on. Further away, she could see a wide lawn stretching to what looked like a sandy beach and beyond that, far across the wide blue water she could once again see the grey walls, hazy domes and shadowed spires of the city. To her right, she could see part of the second house, and it appeared even further away from this height. She was on a high floor, far too high to jump – and in any case the window bars were too close together.

She turned away, sighing to herself, and decided to try and sleep. She pulled a mattress down from the pile in the corner and dragged it to what looked like the shadiest spot in the room. Then she lay down and closed her eyes, trying to remember the details of what she'd seen on her way here but had barely been able to look at. In her memory she looked again over the vast blue bay and lingered over the hazy city spread out around her, and marvelled at it. As her wonder faded into the carelessness of sleep she felt a little excited, for the first time she could recall.

* * *

Saiyali woke up and immediately remembered where she was.

It was dark but outside it sounded as if birds were calling. Her mattress was comfortable and she almost sobbed with relief when she rubbed her stinging, itching ankles and remembered the cuffs weren't there any more.

She turned over. From the sounds of breathing she could tell there were several other people in the room now. She assumed they were also slaves, and this was probably going to be her bedroom for a while.

 At least it didn't smell like a toilet.

She sat up and looked around the dim room. Four shapes slept under blankets on the floor, and a dark curtain covered the doorway in the opposite wall; it sounded like someone was asleep in there too. Saiyali was touched that one of these people must have laid a blanket over her in her sleep.

The window was uncovered and through it she could see a bright half-moon and some stars. She was amazed for a moment that they looked the same as they had at home. She got up and crossed to look out at the night sky and found herself smiling with pleasure when she even recognized some star shapes. She also stared in wonder at the glittering vastness across the now dark water, where every colour imaginable sparkled inconceivably bright, like stars fallen down to Earth. She stared for a long time, wondering where she could possibly be that was lit like this during the night time, while behind her the night candle burned low in its little dish.

Finally she yawned and turned to lie back down; again she luxuriated in the soft mattress, clean blanket and room to stretch out. But even as tired as she still was, she found sleep wouldn't come back. For a while she just lay listening to the sleepers breathing and revisiting in mind the incredible cityscape laid out just outside; then she decided she needed to pay attention to her full bladder, and she remembered there was no bucket in this room. For a moment she panicked, wondering what she should do. Nobody told me where to go—

Then she remembered with a gasp of relief that the room's door wasn't locked. She jumped up and padded across the cool stone floor, picked up the night candle and unhooked the door latch; the door swung open with a little squeak. Outside was a short corridor lit with a single small gas light about halfway along. To her left it ran to a carpeted hallway and she crept along the corridor to the end, where she could look up and down the hallway. There were more doors in each direction, as well as dark arches like other passageways leading off. She turned away in disappointment – and then saw directly opposite the bedroom door, another door made of glass.

She shook her head and stepped back down the short corridor to push at it; it swung smoothly open into exactly what she was looking for – a large wash room. The floor and walls were covered in dark sheets of glass and a row of glass sinks ran down the middle of the room. On the far side there was a long wooden lavatory bench with holes in it, and at each end of the bench was a low, wide bowl for washing afterwards.

Along one end of the room stood a wooden table covered in glass jugs and bowls, and two glass pipes with pump handles stuck out of the wall next to it. Saiyali pumped a jug full of water – it was cold, but she was so grateful for it that she barely noticed. As it flowed she sipped handfuls of the stuff just because she could, giggling and splashing, gasping as the spots of chilly water landed all over her.

With the jug full, she relieved herself on the lavatory – so comfortable after weeks of buckets – washed herself all over with the cold water – there was even a cupboard that she found in one corner which contained bottles of perfumed soap, and clean drying cloths. It was like a kind of heaven, and Saiyali found herself humming an odd melody that to her surprise made something in her mind warm and soften a little and made her skin tingle in a way that set her heart racing.

Suddenly the door banged open, and the nightlight flickered and died in the draught. Saiyali stopped moving and singing at exactly the same moment, and the burgeoning warmth inside her faded immediately to stony chill. She stood motionless in the dark, looking at the shape silhouetted against the light from the corridor.

It spoke. ''What in sea and sky is happening in here? It's not even fifth hour, who's making this outrageous noise in the middle of the night?'' It was a woman's voice, cross but not cruel. Whoever it was reached to her left and pulled the fine cord on a gas light that Saiyali hadn't seen; the flame rose, blue and bright.

Saiyali squinted in the sudden glare and saw the blurry shape of a tall, dark woman with short-cropped hair, dressed in a blue night gown. Saiyali dropped her hands to her sides meekly and let go of the wash cloth in her hand, and stared at the floor. ''I was – washing – Mama. I woke up and couldn't sleep.''

The woman sighed, ''Hmm? Well now you woke me too, so let's have a look at you eh?'' She stepped towards Saiyali and peered at her, sniffing. ''So you're the new one, hmm? Pretty, yes. What's your name?''

Saiyali opened her mouth to say, ''Saiyali, Mama'' but her name caught in her throat. She suddenly realised that of all the people she'd encountered and been encountered by in what felt like forever, nobody had even asked her name. The thought was like a blow to the belly and all the breath went from her. She stammered for a second, then her legs gave way and she had to grab the sink she was standing at to stop from collapsing.

The woman moved to catch her, and softly let her sink to the floor. The cold hard glass was a shock that jolted Saiyali back into herself, and she sat up, shaking her head to try and clear it.

''Are you alright, girl? Are you sick?'' The woman appeared genuinely concerned, but Saiyali's head shake continued as she answered.

''No, no – sorry Mama, just that – nobody's asked me my name since – since—'' She couldn't go on and her voice choked and died and she finally sobbed tragically. The woman held her head and blew soothing noises into her hair. After a while she woman loosed her a little, stroked her head kindly and said, ''Come on, stand up with me – can you?''

Saiyali nodded, sniffed, and together they stood up.

''So – your name? Mine's Eiv. I look after the Body Girls – so that makes you mine, as good as. Might as well meet now as any time, eh? So tell me girl.''

She smiled, then frowned as Saiyali kept her eyes fixed firmly on the floor and whispered ''Saiyali'', hoarsely and without conviction.

''Saiyali? Is that right?'' Eiv asked, emphasising the question with a quirk of one brow.

Saiyali flinched as Eiv said her name back to her, but nodded affirmatively.

Eiv sighed and regarded her a moment longer. ''Well, Seems like you don't like that name much – how about we change it? How about I call you – Sai? Anyone ever call you that before, Sai?''

Saiyali shook her head, not minding the sound of Sai at all. She felt she didn't want to be called Saiyali, or even Saiya – Those names belonged to a girl from another world who had loving friends and
a family. This wasn't home and she had no friends here; this was not normal and it certainly wasn't nice. She felt she needed to be someone new, someone different from before, someone who might be able to deal with this nightmare. Sai could well be that person.

She replied, ''Sai is alright, Mama Eiv'' and looked up at Eiv gratefully; her breath caught once again as she did so. With her cropped hair and dark skin, her high, sharp cheekbones and long chin – not to mention the fact she was about fifty years younger – Eiv looked nothing like great ma'Indraya, except that she had the same yellow eyes. Sai hadn't expected that and she liked Eiv immediately.
Eiv frowned and tutted. ''Next thing then – don't go calling me Mama – I'm just Eiv.'' Then she laughed gently and added, ''Stay here, I'll be back—''

She disappeared through the door and came back shortly after with a cloth bag. ''Soap and oils. I can wash while we talk.''

She began filling a jug with water from a pump but Sai went on staring at the floor. As Eiv turned from the pump she saw this and frowned. ''It's alright – carry on if you want.''

Sai smiled hesitantly and picked up the cloth she'd been washing with. ''I'm sorry Ma— Eiv.'' She shrugged. ''I'm so scared of saying or doing something wrong!''

Eiv was nodding ''Yes – it is like that at first. I don't know how you came here and I won't ask, don't worry. But now you're here you'll probably find you can relax a little. This estate isn't the worst place in the world. People always say what a welcoming and cultured place it is.'' Sai shrugged and began washing again as Eiv continued. ''Baba and Mama Nashivaar own it, and all of us. They're not so bad, you'll see. And you'll learn quickly what to do and how to behave. You already know, probably, right? Stay quiet, don't look at anyone, and do what you're told straight away. You won't be doing anything difficult – though sometimes it might not be very nice.''

She paused and fixed Sai with an appraising stare, to see how she reacted. ''Do you know what a Body Girl is for?'' she asked, keeping her eye closely on Sai's face.

Sai looked down shamefully. ''I don't exactly – know – but I think I can – guess.''

Eiv nodded. ''Yes – I'm sure you can. Have you ever had anybody before?'' Sai shook her head quickly, and Eiv seemed surprised. ''Well – we'll talk about that later, then. But you'll learn quickly – like I said, none of it is difficult. Can you dance?''

Sai's face lit up as she smiled again and nodded. ''Yes Eiv – I can definitely dance. But maybe not dancing like – like I might have to do here. In Marathy, dancing is – special.''

Eiv nodded, looking stern. ''Yes – and I saw you before, when I came in. There can't be anything like that here.''

Sai looked at her quizzically. ''At this place – this Nashivaar place? We can't do things with aenimus here?''

Eiv shook her head. ''Not just not here, new girl – not anywhere. It's a death sentence – slaves must not, ever. Ever. I'm serious. Be very careful with that.'' Sai looked appalled, and just nodded in meek and fearful silence. Eiv went on, frowning. ''But – I'll teach you other dances, that you'll probably enjoy – and that will give you another kind of power.'' She smiled gently at Sai, who looked up at her doubtfully. She nodded and went on, ''Yes – it's not worth a lot, but it's something you'll feel in here—'' she patted herself on her belly, ''—and it won't set you free, or get you home, or make you happy for ever and ever. Or stop anyone doing what they want to you – well it might, if you get really good. But it will make you feel strong – for a minute, or a second. And believe me Sai – you'll come to appreciate those minutes and seconds.''

Sai nodded thoughtfully, and went on washing in silence. Eiv carried on talking as she washed herself. ''Anyway, today just follow me. Watch. Listen. Do what I tell you, and just pay attention. Remember, as long as you do what they want, and do it as well as you can, you'll be fine.''

Sai wasn't sure how to feel about any of this. Her heart was terrified, but this Eiv with the yellow eyes was so kind that she even managed a little modest smile as she went on staring at the floor, saying nothing.

Eiv watched her, nodding and giving a sad smile of recognition. ''Don't worry, Sai – with a look like that you'll be alright – trust me.''

* * *

[ Edited 02:35:57 PM 03/31/19 ]

In-game: Neverwinthefights
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