I plan to continue with the short story and illustration project (life having intervened as usual) but I would like to share another project I have been working on with you — a chapter from a short fantasy novel, the first of four, entitled The Golden City.
A city stands in the middle of a desert: a single, enormous block of sandstone with passages and rooms cut away from inside of it, an ants’ nest of spectacular scale. In the very center of the city in the very lowest cellar there is a very deep well, and if one dives down to the bottom of the well one finds a passage in the wall, and if one passes through the hole and swims up the other side of the well one enters the same city in a different world.
Only one person has made this journey — the Empress, who rules her hidden land not just by law but also by pulling the very threads onto which reality is fastened — until an escaped slave with two rescued children finds her way into the city. Sephir, stolen from her village years before, wants nothing to do with the strange magic of the two-sided city, but the peculiar and lonely Empress is probably her only chance to return home.
I have been working on this idea for a long time, and I am excited to finally get it out where people can read it. I hope you enjoy the story!
They had been walking in the desert for so long. Sephir had considered trying to mark the days somehow, but all she had were her fingernails and the skin of her forearms. The caravan masters woke them two hours before dawn every morning, clanging a heavy iron bell and driving them from the night camp with whips and staffs. They continued walking until three hours past dawn, when the sun became unbearably hot and the masters feared for damage to their property. The canvas for the shelters was unrolled from the backs of the camels before the sun touched its zenith. The forty slaves huddled in their shade until an hour before dusk, when the bell clanged and they were driven forward again to walk for another four hours.
It had probably only been two weeks since they had crossed from the scrublands into the desert, Sephir thought, squinting across the liquid glare of the shifting sand. The first two days they had been chained together at the neck, but out here, where would they run? The sky was so clear at night that the masters could see eight miles by the light of the moon. A runaway would be lucky to survive a few hours during the day. All the water was in skins on the backs of the camels, protected by long knives and heavy muskets.
The twins had attached themselves to her in the last town before the sand started. Two light-skinned girls with sandstone curls, they spoke a northern dialect of her language, which the other slaves either ignored or could not comprehend. Sephir did not particularly want to be in charge of two terrified, distraught eight-year-olds, but neither could she bear to let them out of her sight.
Fifteen years old, she hated men as a general rule. She had been taken from her mother’s farm shortly after they had celebrated the harvest three years previous. Even at the age of twelve, the lineaments of her mother’s beauty were already traced in her body, a gangle of gazelle legs and long neck and night skin and luminescent eyes.
Things had not gone well for her after that.
After traveling for two months over grassland between her home village and the port used by the slavers, then another three weeks of ocean, Sephir had been sold in a market in a city with air so dry it snapped, under the cover of awnings and the watch of carved wooden screens in windows high above. Her purchaser was an old man with extravagant mustaches and a beautiful lapis-tiled fountain in the courtyard of his house. She was re-sold a year later. The head wife had come down with a persistent stomach complaint and decided that the new slave girl had brought a curse into the house.
Sephir, who had been spiking the wife’s tea for months with leaves from an oleander bush that grew near the beautiful, lapis-tiled fountain, was not impressed by this turn of events. Looking back, she supposed it was probably better that she hadn’t managed to kill the woman, even though the hag had hit her with a broom more than once.
Her next owner was a middle-aged man with extravagant mustaches and a luxurious beard, who had purchased her to work in the basement kitchen of his seven-story house. She had been sold from that house after a series of studiously accidental fires which destroyed forty-seven lunches. This memory still filled her with a joyous awe, a sort of sheer and unbridled adulation of the stupidity of men.
The last owner had sold her to the caravan going across the desert. She could not or would not remember the face of this man. In the darkest part of the night, when the wind whistled too loudly over the camp for her to hear the snores of the men surrounding her, Sephir stared intensely into the face of one sleeping child and then the other. Without their small features to wind her mind about, anchored from the wind’s buffeting, it seemed a very good idea indeed to mark all the days she had been walking into her arms, her face, her eyes.
Usually she and the twins were able to find a patch of shade at the very edge of the shelter during the midday break. Of forty slaves, thirty-two were men. They did not make space. But today Sephir and the children were the last into camp. The larger of the two children, Elasha, had cut her foot on a rock and needed to be piggy-backed over a mile and a half until it stopped bleeding. The smaller, Graneja, started howling when it became clear that she would not also be given a turn at piggy-back.
Sephir contemplated the relative moral merits of an open-handed slap. Firstly, did god or gods exist who could decide to smite her?; secondly, if they did exist, what was the relative likelihood that they were observing this exact square of the desert at this exact moment?; thirdly, if they did exist and they were watching, whether she would be considered a parental figure who had the right to slap her children, or if the twins were just on loan (theologically speaking)? By the time she had considered the cosmic impact of each alternative, Graneja had stopped sobbing, and they were half a league behind the rest of the caravan.
And now there was no place for them to sit that was out of the sun. Sephir drew to a slow halt, dismayed; the shadows of the two shelters were jam-packed with supine bodies, pressed side to shoulder to hip to head. The shade of the camels had been taken by the masters. They had already missed the first distribution of water from the skins; the next dispersal would be an hour before dark, before they started walking again.
Her heart dipped.
“I’m hot,” Elasha said, pulling at Sephir’s hand.
“I’m thirsty,” Graneja said, tugging at the other.
She considered the great spirit necessary to still bemoan one’s outraged condition after several months of bondage. She considered how quickly she had lost interest in her own discomfort while walking over the grasslands north of home. She considered what her mother would say to two such lively children as these. She considered what disorders would cause them both to lose their voices instantly and simultaneously. They were not done complaining when she was done contemplating.
“I need shade,” Elasha said.
“I need water,” Graneja said.
“That’s unfortunate,” Sephir said. “What do you think about elephants?”
“I think an elephant would make a lot of shade,” Elasha said.
“Elephants like to play in the water,” Graneja added.
“Not all elephants,” said Sephir. “Not . . . tiny sand elephants.”
This sparked a fierce argument about which thing elephants were more unlikely to do, live in sand or submit to the indignity of being miniaturized. Sephir lifted the edge of her shawl to her forehead and examined the landscape for a likely-looking rock. The last rock they had seen, well along into the process of being enveloped or worn away by the sand, had been yesterday. The rock before that had been three days ago. Or four.
But there was shadow on the northern horizon, she realized with a jerk like trying to step onto a nonexistent stair. And not just an indeterminate smudge, either, but a proper, dark square with hard edges. It didn’t look like the dozens of heat mirages they had seen, which spidered up into the sky like trees or mist or walking figures. What was it?
After ten minutes more of dithering, she gritted her teeth and walked to the nearest water-carrying beast, its master slouched in a pile of malignant robes in its shade.
“Water,” she said carefully. She spoke the slavers’ language reasonably well — she had lived in one of their cities for three years, after all — but she found the men generally reacted better if you pretended to be a little stupid and scared. She gestured at the two girls, who she had ordered under pain of slaps and hair combing to stay ten paces behind her. “Children.”
He snarled at being roused, and rose to his feet. She had picked one who was carrying a musket and not a long-knife; if he decided to kill her she’d have more warning while he jammed black powder and lead balls down into the barrel.
“The time has passed for water,” he spat.
She pretended not to understand, only cowering into her shawl. “Water, sirrah? Water?”
He backhanded her, and Sephir fell heavily to the ground. It wouldn’t do to stay on her feet when the man was trying to show how large his balls were, though the blow was sloppy. She’d be surprised if she even had a bruise the next day.
She thought of piggybacking the very heavy Elasha across another five miles, and conjured up some real tears. “Water,” she sobbed. “Children.”
The malignant mustache twitched. She waited. After five minutes he jabbed at her middle with the butt of the musket before unstrapping the clay cup that all the slaves drank from in turn and filling it from the skin. He thrust it at the children, and the sound of small feet crunching in the sand went by Sephir’s downturned face. She bit her lip and inhaled slowly. Just give them the water, she thought very hard at the dirty hem at her eye level. Don’t notice them. Don’t notice them.
Elasha had the good sense to beat a hasty retreat as soon as she had drunk her ration. Sephir heard the cup being filled again from the skin, and then Graneja’s slightly smaller, darker feet padded by her peripheral vision.
Graneja’s arm rustled by her shift as she lifted it to take the cup, and then the sound of the slaver seizing her wrist slapped at Sephir’s ears.
“Pretty girl,” he said. Sephir closed her eyes. Things were about to start not going well for Graneja. “Come back after the second march.” Very, very not well.
“What?” Graneja said, bewildered, not understanding.
“Say yes, sirrah,” Sephir ordered from the ground, giving her the last two words in the slaver’s language.
“Yesh, dirrah,” Graneja parroted. The man released her wrist and the girl gulped her water.
He kicked Sephir in the ribs. “Get up.” There was barely enough water in the cup he gave her to wet her mouth. “Bring the child back at night,” he repeated to her, gesturing slowly over her shoulder and wrapping his other hand around the musket. Sephir looked at her feet and backed away.
During their unshaded midday break, she had Graneja hold one end of her shawl and Elasha the other over their small curly heads. She shielded the back of her neck with her hands. Her mind whirred. There had to be a way she could put him off, hide Graneja, pretend she had died or suddenly transmogrified into a clump of sand, or . . .
They had to run, she thought numbly. Or she had to give up. Could she bury the children in sand and pretend they had vanished? Could she bury herself in sand? She could give them up. If Graneja survived this night, unprotected, alone, she’d never look at Sephir again. The older girl would have no small faces to anchor her brain to against the drag of the wind. She couldn’t give them up. But then what could she do?
The break ached and wrenched along, like a half-smashed beetle trying to escape a rotten apple. The heat dizzied her. They wouldn’t have shade after today, either, she thought, if they ran. What would they do? How would they survive? How far did the desert go on from here?
The bells clanged. Sephir bit her lip so hard it bled.
After they had walked a few hundred paces, she realized sharply that the riders at the head of the column were taking their bearing from the square shadow on the horizon. What was it? Was there water there? Maybe people? She fought her hope down. Probably it was a hundred miles away and they’d be no closer to it by the end of the day than they were now.
But the shadow kept getting larger. She couldn’t see what it was, but they were getting closer.
When the sun started to set over the column of stumbling slaves and plodding camels an idea slowly unrolled itself in Sephir’s forebrain. The column had started to bear west again, away from the shadow. They would pass by it and she would never see what it was.
“Graneja,” she hissed. “I’ll give you a piggy-back. Come here.”
The eight-year-old fixed her with a frosty glare. “I don’t want a piggy-back now. I wanted one this morning.”
Sephir narrowed her eyes. “Graneja, do you know what that man wanted?” she said very softly. They had already dropped behind the rest of the slaves.
Graneja shrugged, trying for defiance, but her eyebrows betrayed worry. “Why? Do you?”
Sephir suddenly realized she was not able to make herself say the truth, or any version of it, without bringing the face of the third owner back to her brain with all its attendant fear. “They’ve run out of meat,” she burst forth in an angry whisper, finally. “They’re going to start eating us. Smallest first.”
Graneja and Elasha exchanged horrified glances. “What will we do?” Elasha asked. Her voice was a little too loud, and one of the men looked back at her.
“Pretend your foot is hurt again,” Sephir snapped. “Hurry.”
“I want –” Graneja started.
“Too late!” Sephir said, and boosted Elasha up. Oh, all the ancestors and fishes, she thought, the child was going to break her back.
The man who had been looking at them curled his lip and faced forward again. Sephir did not have to pretend to fall behind; carrying Elasha was much like hauling a small water buffalo.
When the column had become very small in front of them, Sephir turned sharply to the right. The moon had come up and illuminated the sharp shadow, whatever it was, against the northern horizon.
The twins seemed to see what they were walking toward for the first time. “What is that?” Graneja asked sharply.
“Don’t know,” said Sephir. “Keep walking.”
“It’s probably the house of a lion who wants to eat us,” Elasha said gloomily over Sephir’s shoulder
“Probably,” Sephir said. “Keep walking.” She risked a glance toward the column, but a low dune had blocked them from view. She took a deep breath. “Elasha, you have to walk. We need to make it to that — thing — before they realize we’re not with the rest.”
“My feet hurt,” Elasha grumbled.
“Mine too,” Graneja added.
Sephir closed her eyes. Then, feeling the slightest twinge of guilt, she said: “There will be water and a place to sit down when we get there.” The aforementioned shape loomed larger and larger. She was sure it was taller than an elephant. It was taller than the houses that had looked down on the market where she was first sold. It was even taller than the house of the man who had had the basement kitchen with its seven stories.
“You just said you didn’t know what it was,” Graneja said suspiciously.
“I don’t. I heard the slavers talking about it.”
“Then why won’t they go there and get us more water?” Elasha pointed out reasonably.
“There are,” Sephir said, and took a deep breath, “terrible, ah, fierce warriors there, that will, ah, kill them. With swords and cannons. But we are small and they may take mercy on us. Walk faster,” she insisted.
“They have cannons?” Graneja asked, now interested.
“What are cannons?” Elasha asked.
Sephir stopped for a moment, her tongue entirely tied by exasperation. She had never actually seen a cannon, but she had heard of them in the house with the lapis-tiled fountain. They were very large, she understood, and men in armor generally didn’t care for them.
“They’re –” she looked around for inspiration, and at that moment saw a dark pile of malignant robes emerge from behind the dune where they had turned away from the caravan’s path. She couldn’t see if he had his musket, but he must have it –
“Go,” Sephir yelped. “He’s — they’ve seen us! Go to the — the block!”
The girls took off in a spray of sand, with Sephir panting and struggling to keep up with them. She looked behind. The wearer of the malignant robes was not running.
He knew he didn’t have to, she realized, and her stomach sank down into her heels.
If she had not been in the process of fleeing for her life, she would have taken a moment to gawk as their steps brought them around to the moonlit eastern face of the great mass. It was as tall as four of the basement-kitchen houses stacked one atop the other, as tall as fifteen houses from the village where her mother had been born. The walls of the mass were perfectly flat and it was almost cubical, the distance across the front only slightly greater than its height. In the moonlight, the stone shone a pale pink. At the two corners she could see, there was a great round pillar, bigger around than four elephants tied together around their middles, soaring toward the sky, until they broke off abruptly above the top edge of the — cube? roof? rampart? — as though they had been shattered. Otherwise the face of the rock was unblemished and smooth.
“There’s no place to hide,” came the man’s voice from far behind them, barely audible above the rising night wind. Either an epithet or an endearment followed; either way, it twisted Sephir’s stomach.
“What did he say?” gasped Graneja from ahead of her.
“Nothing,” the older girl said. In another minute they’d be close enough to the mysterious cube to touch it. Was there anything inside? she wondered furiously. Was it just a big solid block of stone in the middle of nowhere? Where could they hide? They had to look more carefully at the walls, but if they slowed too much they’d be caught.
The moon had risen high enough in the sky now to cast a dim light on both the northern and southern faces of the cube as well. Sephir and the girls, who had been running alongside the east wall, rounded the great column at the northeast corner and sped along the north wall. Elasha was beginning to flag, hopping and limping every few paces. The cut on her foot had probably opened again.
How far could she run? Sephir thought.
She couldn’t carry the child — she was too spent herself — and the wind had risen so high there was no way she could hear the footsteps of the man following them —
— and there. There, on the north face of the wall, barely visible in the thin light from the moon, was a narrow line of a shadow. It could be an irregularity in the stone. Or it might be an opening into the cube.
“We’re almost there!” gasped Sephir, but she wasn’t sure if the girls heard her. Elasha slowed to a stop. Without speaking, Sephir grabbed her underneath the arms and dragged her, until the girl yelled and broke free from her grip to stumble forward.
The shadow was cast by a slab of stone as tall as the three of them standing on each other’s shoulders, sitting at a slight angle to the face of the cube. Sand had blown up around the base of the intrusion, and they had to climb up a small hillock of grit to feel in the shadow and see if there was anything behind it.
Sephir’s arm pushed around the edge of the darkness into a void that was even colder than the night air. There was a way in.
“Go,” she whispered to the girls.
“What about snakes?” Graneja said, suddenly afraid.
“They’d freeze to death,” snarled Sephir. “Go!”
Both of the twins slipped into the darkness on the other side of the stone. Sephir glanced behind her, and saw the robes come around the column. He saw her, or she thought he did, because he started to sprint, as she turned away and passed through the door after the twins.
The darkness lay on them like a watery cloak. Beneath their feet the floor was smooth and gritty from the sand blown in through the door. They could not run but walked. Sephir told the girls to put their hands on the wall to their left.
“Hurry,” Sephir muttered. “He’s just behind us.”
“It’s dark,” a voice that was probably Elasha’s said.
“Ow! That hurt!”
“What is it?”
“It’s a stair. I want to sit down,” Elasha said petulantly. “You promised.”
“Go up them on your hands and knees so you don’t fall,” Sephir said urgently.
The sound of scrabbling and rustling answered her, then more scraping as Graneja followed her sister up the dark staircase. The stairs, smooth and slightly dipped in the center from long use, went up for thirty treads, took a sharp right at a landing, and then ended abruptly.
Before either of the girls could inform her tearfully that they were stuck, Sephir leaned over their heads and set both hands against the wall behind them. A shock went through her fingers; this was wood, smooth, light-feeling wood, still smelling faintly of forest. She found unexpectedly that she wanted to cry. Quietly, fiercely, she pressed both hands into its surface, and the door swung open.
Here at last was some grace: the hallway thus revealed was lit at the far end by a point of cool, clear light hanging from the ceiling. Sephir turned to close the door behind them. She noted with grim worry that there was no latch, though it fit into the space carved for it with a seam so thin she doubted she could get a knife between the wood and the stone.
The hallway ended in a cross: stairs up to the right and two more hallways ahead and to the left.
“Up the stairs,” Sephir said. She chanced a look up at the light source above the junction and saw that it seemed to be a . . . tube, of sorts, shards of mirror covering the interior surface, that twisted away before turning out of sight. Light glittered inside, like a whole constellation of stars had been fed down a pipe. She shook her head and ran after the twins.
“When can we stop?” Graneja asked at the stop of the stairs. She sounded close to tears, her breath sobbing in her throat.
I don’t know, Sephir almost said aloud. Where was the slaver? Was he in the hallway behind them? Had there been another way to go after the great door? What kind of shoes was he wearing? Would they hear him on the smooth stone?
“Just a little bit further,” she said, swallowing, and taking each of them by the shoulder. “To the end of the hallway.”
This hallway ended in another smooth wooden door, which opened soundlessly into a space that echoed like it was very, very large, but which was as pitch-dark as the hall they had entered in. Sephir passed in front of the two girls by a step and felt a rail at her waist. She kicked and found gaps; it was a balustrade. She reached her arms out above the rail; a balcony. Her foot accidentally dislodged a pebble from the edge at the base of the balustrade. A second passed before she heard it hit the ground below. They must be very high up by now. How many stairs had they climbed? She thought at least fifty. She whispered a word at the darkness and it echoed. Her hands found each of the twins’ heads and pressed a finger lightly to their lips. Go silently.
The balcony continued, more of a verandah. Would they reach a dead-end? Where would they go then? But as Sephir was thinking through this, a light appeared from below and showed the tracery of the railing. She and the twins hastily backed up and squatted against the wall. This was no cool, otherworldly light, but a warm, flickering illumination. Like a candle carried by a slaver.
Footsteps echoed up to them, and Sephir took the opportunity to examine their surroundings in the dim light. They were on a balcony in a narrow canyon of a room, maybe the height of ten tall men, the same length, and the width of three tall men lying on their backs head-to-toe. There seemed to be another balcony above them, though it crossed the room abruptly to the wall opposite halfway down its length. The verandah where they squatted, hiding behind the heavy stone balustrade, followed the wall and then turned at the corner, disappearing out of sight. An urn that would have held pickled beans at home and nothing at all in the house with the lapis fountain sat on the top rail of the balustrade which disappeared into another part of the hall.
The slaver had clearly not gone the same way they had; by peeking over the edge Sephir could see him below, made smaller by the distance. Another idea unrolled itself, quick and angry as a mongoose. She could see the single, dark doorway where the man was headed. The stone urn sat above the door, perfectly centered over the path he would take if he made for it.
It was a risk. But no more risky than giving him time to find them.
Sephir gestured for the girls to go back through the door. They had both seen the man and did not speak as they crept backwards. The older girl crawled forward along the verandah, as quickly and silently as she could. He was not hurrying – not yelling for them but hunting, his head turning back and forth like the hypnotizing undulation of a cobra. She rounded the bend in the verandah. If he looked up he might be able to see the movement behind the rail. But why would he look up? Her heart thrumming steadily against her eardrums, she stood, ever so slowly.
It had taken a second for the pebble to hit the ground. She watched his pace, his feet hidden under the robes, and counted. He took a step every two heartbeats. When he was four heartbeats away from her, she needed to shove.
It worked almost too perfectly; he heard the scrape of the urn above his head and paused for a moment to look up. Sephir had waited a second too long, but that delay put him perfectly under the urn as it fell. It was much heavier than she had imagined it would be, probably impossible for her to shift at all if the weight had not been concentrated in a high curve and ornamental lip. The top-heavy urn did not smash; it only hit the slaver with a crunch-splort that reverberated around the hall. The candle went out.
Sephir waited for a minute, breathing heavily through her nose, for sounds of the man rising to his feet. At first she had thought she’d need to figure out a way to get down to the floor below and cut his throat, or else flee so far into this maze that he’d never find them while he was unconscious. But when the reverberation died there was no sound at all.