preview chapter #2 of The Golden City

Still working away on this project! But I wanted you to have a further look at what I’ve been doing, so here is the second chapter of The Golden City.


Chapter Two

The twins were both sitting against the nearest wall to the light-tube, their feet oddly spotlighted and their faces in shadow as they dozed against each other’s shoulders.

Moonlight, Sephir thought, looking at the blue circle that fell on the floor and their bare legs. The pipe was catching moonlight somewhere above them and reflecting it downwards.

Sephir drummed her palm on Elasha’ chest. “We need to go look for water,” she said. This place had been made by humans (or witches, a far-off voice murmured in her memory,) so there had to be water (but if the people had gone, maybe the water had too? said the voice.) She closed her eyes and rubbed a thumb between them.

“No we don’t,” Elasha said groggily. “There’s water down there.” She gestured with her thumb to the left branch of the hallway, continuing straight onward from the stairs.

“There is? Show me,” said Sephir sharply.

“Too tired,” Elasha muttered, and turned her face to her sister’s.

Sephir ground her teeth and walked past her.

Another door gave way beneath her fingertips, and she yelped. A constellation of the round openings that lit the crossing of the hallways stretched across the ceiling. Five pipes emanating light protruded from the stone vaults above, one so wide she could have climbed into it. Mirrors glittered in their depths and threw paler triangles of light across the floor. A huge ceramic stove hulked at the far wall; the dim light showed enameled patterns on its doors. A wooden gallery ran around the upper wall, reached via a ladder by the stove. She supposed it was for hanging things to dry, though no food was in evidence now. Boxes with doors and drawers hung from the underside of the gallery, and wooden furniture filled the floor just beneath it. She stepped down two small steps, walked to the center of the room, and turned slowly in a circle.

Other than the tables and cabinets, there was no evidence that people had been here in the last century. She tried to imagine her mother beating corn pudding into paste on one of the tables, or the head wife from the house with the lapis-tiled fountain dropping whole cardamoms into a pan set on the stove, or the cook from the basement kitchen cutting meat from the leg of a lamb in the center of the floor. But her brain rebelled at the strangeness of the room, the foreignness of the overpowering smell of stone in her nostrils.

When she finished her rotation, her eyes fell on a set of stone stairs that mounted to the wall directly across from the stove. They led to a blank wall; the top stair had a deep bowl carved from it, full to the brim with water.

Suddenly Sephir was so thirsty she thought her throat might burn up. She stumbled forward and bent her head to the surface of the water.

It was cool enough to refresh but not cold enough to shock her teeth. It, too, smelled like stone. She drank, and drank again, until her stomach hurt. The bowl refilled itself when she took her head away, and she realized that there was a hole in the bottom that pumped up water. When she had drunk so much she felt like she might throw up, she sat down on the steps and cried.

She didn’t know where they could go. She didn’t know how to get home, and she didn’t even know if her village or the girls’ village was still standing. She didn’t know if her mother or her grandfather or her uncles were still alive. It had been three years. She thought she remembered seeing smoke from behind the hills where her village stood as she was driven away; what if the raiders had burned it to the ground?

They had water but no food, and no way to get through the desert — except, possibly, to attach themselves to the next caravan which passed by — almost certainly more slavers, or men who would be all too happy to sell them when they reached the next city.

But. She had promised the twins there would be water and a place to sit down, and that, they had found. Holding onto that thought, Sephir went back to the hallway and curled up next to her charges. Her mind would be more steady in the morning.

***

When she woke the hallway was so bright it hurt her eyes. Well, if there was any proof that the light tube must go through the outside, she thought, squinting at the yellow reflections dancing over the walls. She rubbed her eyes and tried again to look at their surroundings.

Her gaze fell on something that had not been there the night before. A package wrapped in canvas sat on the floor of the hallway, a few feet from then.

Sephir swallowed hard. She had heard no footsteps. She had no idea how long they had slept.

She sat up and, equally dismaying, found a woolen blanket dyed in white and red sliding from her shoulders. She glanced behind her; a similar blanket was awkwardly draped over the twins, both still breathing deeply.

Sephir ducked her head back into the kitchen with stair-step basin. No one there. The hallway straight ahead was still shrouded in darkness, and she could not bring herself to go down it. The verandah at the top of the stairs was now lit by an aperture high above with opened shutters hanging from either side.

The girl went slowly down the stairs, wrapping her shawl more tightly around herself and thinking. Someone was here. Good or bad, they were not the only things alive within the pillared cube.

The canvas package held bread and three red fruits. She stared at them for a long minute, trying to convince herself that maybe they oughtn’t eat it because if it were poisoned, what then?

If it were poisoned, they’d be dead, and they wouldn’t have to worry about what to do next, she decided, and woke the twins by pulling on their hair.

“A fairy came in the night with food,” she announced.

Food!” Elasha said, then stopped. “Did you see the fairy? Was it a nice fairy?”

“How do we know it’s good to eat?” Graneja asked, yawning.

“What about the terrible warriors who you said would kill us?” Elasha went on.

“I didn’t say they’d kill you, I said they’d kill the slavers,” Sephir said. She picked up a fruit and took a bite out of it. Juice dribbled unexpectedly down her chin as her teeth punctured the surface, and she laughed; it was sweet and tart and had a hard stone at the center. “Look. Good to eat.” She wiped the back of a hand across her mouth.

The girls staged a brief battle over who got the more spherical and aesthetically pleasing fruit. Sephir lifted the bread with interest out of the canvas. It was not like the flat, flexible bread that she had rolled hundreds of rounds of in the basement-kitchen house, but an oval, compact loaf, with a dark crust and seeds like millet baked into the surface. She broke off a piece and chewed it carefully; the seeds were a bit gritty, but the bread was sweet and soft.

“It’s good,” she told the girls, both sticky-faced.

They ate, and she made them clean up in water from the fountain in the kitchen. Elasha found that the dark hallway between the kitchen and the stair to the verandah led to something that was unmistakably a privy. Sephir could not see the bottom of the hole that led down from the carved seat. It did not smell.

Uneasily, they mounted back to the verandah. Too late Sephir remembered the body lying in front of the doorway below — she did not want the girls to see what had happened — but the thin rays from the skylight above showed that the floor had been cleared and the stone urn set upright next to the doorway below them.

“What happened to the man who was chasing us?” Graneja asked.

“He got bored and left,” Sephir said.

The two girls looked dubious.

They turned the corner of the verandah. Far away down the next hall, another small light glowed. This became a light-pipe which lit another stair that wove between what would have looked like two different houses jammed close together, arched bay windows protruding so far from each they nearly touched the other wall, if there had not been some sort of roof always over their heads. Carved leaves supported each of these windows, and stone flowers and vines spiraled out across the surface of the walls in bas-relief. There was another fountain in an alcove on the stair, this one shaped like a flower with many petals and burbling gently. More pipes far above lit their path.

The stair passed a door and Elasha insisted that they stop to explore. It, like all the other doors they had passed, had no latch, and was burnished dark wood. It led to a tiny apartment, barely wide enough to fit a bed one way, but with a ladder leading to another floor and then another. The third floor in the tiny apartment held a stove and an enormous light-pipe. The middle floor was walled in cabinets with tiny drawers. They returned to the hallway that seemed to be the “street.”

At the top of the stair there was another hallway; another stair; another hallway; another hallway; another stair. Always there was a light, of the curious clear quality transmitted by the tubes, at the far end. Sephir kept expecting to emerge into full daylight, into the harsh wind of the desert out-of-doors, but they continued inside, like ants traversing the passageways of a giant nest. They passed by complicated mosaics of black and red tiles, patterned with knots and woven strands. They found more stone urns and wooden furniture but no personal effects — no clothes, no papers, no flowers, no jewelry, no cosmetics, no cooking utensils, no tools — in any of the doors they pushed through or any of the cabinets that Sephir could not stop the younger girls from opening. The carvings in the walls were not consistent; some of the geometric patterns seemed like they could have come from the wooden screens in the windows of the dry city, while others were far more whimsical, showing adults and children and animals cavorting among foliage. Sometimes these patterns punctured all the way through the walls bracketing the hallways, and they could feel breezes whispering out from the shadowed holes.

Always they went up.

She had completely lost track of how many stairs they had climbed when an upward spiral abruptly took them into full light.

The twins yelled. Sephir stared.

***

The top of the cube looked like a mountainous landscape, with a deep, asymmetrical crevasse of sharply terraced houses carving a deep diagonal slash into the interior just before them. They stood at the extreme northwest corner, looking down over hundreds of dark windows and pillars. From the “ground” below them, the ceiling of the cube, protruded the tops of hundreds — no, thousands — of light-pipes — bristling upward like hollow reeds of stone and glass —

— and gardens. There were trees up here, huge swaths of green plants, growing in window-boxes and furrows that followed paths and urns and wide beds on the roofs of houses. Some Sephir could recognize — acacia, oleander, jasmine, orchids– but many more she could not. She noted with awe that none of the plants passed the line of the great outer rampart, its edge smooth and unbroken. Some of the acacias had been pruned perfectly flat on top, so that not a leaf or a petal showed above the stone from the sands below.

The twins pell-melled down toward a lower courtyard. Sephir’s eyes found grooves, bowls, cups, steps carved in the stone outlining each new planted bed. No water ran now, but she was sure it did, perhaps in the mornings when it was not so hot.

She walked forward slowly, following a path that wound between bushes that released a wonderful, spicy perfume when her hands jostled them. Long clusters of purple flowers like a cluster of wasp-tails drooped toward her feet. The path dropped a few steps, and remounted into a grove of tiny olive trees planted in the terraces on either side. It crossed between two urns with flowering sweet potato spilling out in a great froth of leaves. Sephir stopped and breathed in deeply.

If we died here, she thought, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

“Sephir! Look! There’s more fruit!” one of the girls yelled, and pointed.

The small red orbs hung from another miniaturized tree, this one in a rectangular stone box. The box sat by a doorway set at the back of a small patio, other trees in urns at its corners and boxes with jasmine between them. The girls surged toward it, and Sephir found herself thinking of the sweet, tangy juice and hastening after them, when all three of them stopped abruptly.

Someone was standing in the doorway.

The person slowly emerged into the light, so alien-looking that Sephir could not discern if it was a man, woman, or otherwise.

Once, when she had still lived in the house with lapis-tiled fountain, she had been taken along to the slave markets to carry a basket of food and an enormous gourd of water. She hurried behind the master while he looked up and down the pens of human beings, in search of a male servant to tend his horses. Sephir had been completely absorbed in not dropping the basket or rattling the gourd, as the only times this owner noticed her were to clip her sharply on the head with his ringed hand. (There was a man who knew how to deliver an efficiently painful blow. She wished him arthritis and gout in all of his limbs.) She had barely had enough space of mind to lift her eyes from the two objects, and yet when she did she had been totally arrested by a woman, as pale as the sky or the slender porcelain vase the master had purchased from a caravan from the far, far, far away east, standing on an auction block. She looked like she had been dead for weeks, Sephir had thought in awe, and yet there she stood. The woman’s hair was strangely colorless and limp, a flat, pale brown like dust. Her features had seemed strange, too, too pointed and narrow, but another smack on the ear had returned her eyes to the unwieldy gourd.

The person before them was that pale, and paler, but the hair above the face was not colorless, but red. A red like fresh wet clay or the sun half-down or the blood of a just-dead goat mixing with the dirt. The person’s nose was so large it reminded Sephir forcibly of a crow’s beak with a knob at the end. Two golden eyes regarded them soberly before flipping downward.

The two girls had stopped and started to back away, and the person stepped to one side of the door, giving a wide berth to the tiny tree. It held its hands forth, as if to say: go on, take the fruit. It wore a strange but practical garment — a long, quilted tunic that came to the knee, worn over full pantaloons. The edges of the tunic were frayed and the left knee of the pantaloons was carefully patched in matching gray fabric.

The person gestured again toward the tree, palm held flat and open. The children looked at Sephir, looked at the stranger, and then dived to pull fruit off its branches.

The person spoke first when Sephir’s attention was focused on the children. “I don’t mean you any harm.”

The sound of a voice startled her so much she had grabbed an arm apiece of the twins and hauled them backwards before she could register what the words meant.

“Yes, then, what do you mean us?” she said, her heart beating very hard. “Begging your pardon — but we — we have not had an easy way.”

She stared at the face, but the person did not make eye contact with her, instead staring at a point somewhere off the left of her head. “I brought you the blankets and the food. I wanted to help. I wasn’t sure what you needed.”

“That was a good start,” Elasha said. She yelped when Sephir pinched her. “Well, it was!”

“Thank you,” the person said gravely. “I’m glad.”

“If you want to help, we need shelter,” said Sephir slowly. Her hands shook and she crossed her arms defiantly over her chest and tucked them in her armpits. “We need food. For — “ For how long? she wondered.

“Are you travelers?” the person asked. Their gaze switched to another point, this time one of the trees at the corner of the patio.

How much of the truth should they tell? Sephir wondered, when Elasha blurted, “We didn’t come on purpose. They caught us to sell us. One of the men chased us into this — block –” she drew a square with her hands and then threw them outward to encompass all that surrounded them “ — and we were hiding from him.”

The person interlaced its hands and stared at Elasha. “Slavery is not allowed in my city,” it said, so fiercely that its voice shook like Sephir’s hands.

Silence surrounded them, punctuated by the occasional rustle of the bushes in the wind.

Graneja finally spoke. “Does that mean we’re not allowed?”

“Oh, no. Oh, no,” the person said, sounding as embarrassed as any one human being could, all its fierceness suddenly evaporated. “That isn’t what I meant at all. I only meant — that it’s all right –”

Watching the person’s mouth move was making Sephir’s stomach churn faster and faster. The shapes its lips made did not match the sounds that went with the words. Not in her home language nor in the language could she reconcile what sounds that mouth ought to be making with what she was hearing. When Sephir tried to catch individual syllables, its voice bottomed out and became an indecipherable muttering in her ears; when she closed her eyes and rolled her head to one side, blocking an ear with her shoulder, the voice was just as clear in her head.

“You are not speaking as we speak,” she said, forcing her eyes down, interrupting a long, apologetic bout of murmuring.

“Oh.” The person stopped in the middle of the apology. “No. I am not. But I will learn your language soon,” this in tones that suggested it had found a large chunk of gold on the ground, “I always do.” Then, the joy dropping away a bit, “If you stay very long, of course.”

“Can you take us to our home?” demanded Elasha.

“Yes, home,” said Graneja, and the hunger in her voice made Sephir’s throat tighten.

“I would help you if I could,” the red-haired person said uncertainly. It sat on a bench next to the fruit tree and leaned toward Graneja. It was very tall, Sephir thought nervously, even when sitting, and it still did not meet Graneja’s eyes. “Where is your home?”

Graneja looked at Elasha, and then Sephir, her voice faltering. “I don’t — I don’t –”

“It’s away from here,” Elasha said.

“It’s two weeks walking and another week on a donkey and another week on a donkey and three weeks on a ship and a month walking and I don’t know how far their village is from mine so it could be another year, for all I know,” Sephir said sarcastically. “It’s so far away it might as well not exist.”

The person touched its face with its hands, covering its eyes, and spoke in a muffled voice. “Could you find your home on a map?”

“A map?” Elasha and Graneja said uncertainly, looking at each other. “What’s that?”

“It’s a — a picture, of how things look from above,” it said, before Sephir could. It took a handful of dirt from the tree urn and sprinkled it on the ground in one, two, three, four piles. “See, this is a map of how we’re standing right now. You’re just to the side of her, and she’s just behind, and I’m right here,” it said, pointing to each in turn. “It’s what a bird would see. It helps you find things.”

“That’s a good idea!” enthused Elasha, before stopping, equally stymied. “But I don’t — I don’t –”

“None of us could find it on a map,” Sephir said tiredly.

“But — if –” Suddenly the figure sprang to its feet and began to pace back and forth on the patio. “If you can remember what things you passed by — we can find those on the map — and I can look up your language in my books, maybe — we can work out where you came from –”

“– and go home!” Graneja said delightedly.

The red-haired person deflated slightly. “Well. I don’t know. I can’t cross the desert by myself. I’ve tried.”

“How do you get here, then?” Sephir asked.

“I was born here. This is my city,” it said. It looked at the younger girls, and then it looked at Sephir (still not meeting their eyes,) and asked, “Do you want to come inside? I can make you tea and biscuits.”

“What’s tea-and-biscuits?” Elasha asked, but went through the door without pause. Sephir sighed and followed her with Graneja.

***

Here, finally, were all the personal effects missing in the empty apartments below, and then some. Books crowded out of cabinets and sat in stacks on the ground, some of these piles as high as Sephir’s waste. Rugs crossed the floor and humped over each other, curling at the edges with use and damage. More plants sat in the light from the great skylights, tendrils of vines curling across the carpets and becoming indistinguishable from the twining paisleys of the textiles. A few battered cook-pots hung from hooks in a beam that crossed above another enormous stove with enameled doors. The person took one of these down with a very long arm, filled it with water from a stone bowl that sat just outside a window in a sort of arbor, and set it on the stove with a tarnished lid atop.

The fire must have been started before they came in, Sephir thought, because the water had barely been sitting for a minute before it started to bubble. Next to the stove was another of the cabinets they had seen made of dark wood with dozen of drawers and doors; the person squatted to look into it and pulled forth three or four wooden boxes, tiny silver spoons, cups, a teapot. The master and his head wife in the lapis-fountain house had drunk tea, but they had used a tall silver pot with a neck like a giraffe; this pot was short and squat and brown.

Biscuits turned out to be small rounds of hard, crumbly, sweet bread, with a faint aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg. Graneja and Elasha tasted them and then proceeded to eat sixteen out of the little wooden box. Sephir shot the person an exasperated look; didn’t it know you couldn’t just let children eat as many sweet things as they wanted?

“What are you called?” the person asked, ladeling hot water into the pot and adding a pinch of leaves from one of the other boxes.

After a bit of hesitation, the girls told her their names. Sephir did not, but asked. “And what are you called?”

“Elabel,” said the person after another long pause, sniffing the teapot’s spout and setting it down on the table.

The tea smelled like flowers and citrus, and with the hard droplets of sugar offered it was a perfectly pleasant drink, even in the increasing heat of midday.

Sephir remembered something and felt uneasy. “They might — the rest of the caravan might come looking for us,” she said slowly.

The person, who had sat on a carved chest and filled a large ceramic bowl with tea, shook its head. “I don’t think so. I pulled the door shut, and it’s hard to see from the outside if it’s closed. Usually the caravans don’t come as close as this one did.”

“Did you see the man who was chasing us leave?” Graneja asked, sounding worried. “He could be hiding anywhere! There are so many empty places here.”

Sephir tried to meet the strange golden eyes and shake her head as imperceptibly as she could, but the person still would not make eye contact. It looked at the girls, then looked at her, then looked at the girls again. “He’s not hiding. He died. I put his body back in the desert.”

“Did you kill him?” Elasha demanded, dropping a piece of rock sugar onto the floor in her earnestness.

“What? No. Why would you think that?” The person spilled tea down its tunic.

“How else would he die?” Elasha asked, reasonably enough.

The person paused, then gave a brief exhalation of laughter. “I think it was an accident. A pot fell on his head,” this in a grave voice, “from a very great height.”

Sephir’s shoulders sank in relief when the two little girls began to laugh.

The red-haired votive offered them more biscuits, and showed them the other rooms of the house set into the stone of the roof of the great city — a room with a narrow cot hedged on all sides by books; a stone lavatory; a food store with clay pots sealed over with dark wax on all the shelves.

“I can clean out the next house over for you,” Elabel offered, and gestured out the window to another dark doorway on the other side of the patio.

“Who built all these houses?” Sephir asked, her curiosity getting the better of her, as they all tramped into the next house. It was slightly bigger, with two big central rooms instead of one, and two bedrooms stacked one on top of the other at the back, the upper one reached by a small gallery running the length of the back room, but utterly bare and somewhat dusty. “Who do they belong to? Where have the people gone?”

Elabel scratched its nose (its indeterminate gender was beginning to bother Sephir enormously; was it her nose or his nose or some other possessive she hadn’t ever heard?) and looked confused. “What do you mean? They haven’t gone anywhere. They’re still here. Well, not here-here, but here all the same.”

Sephir exchanged glances with the two girls.

“Do you mean they’re ghosts?” Graneja asked.

Elabel didn’t seem to hear her. “I can bring a bed over — not a proper bed, really, but a cot like I have — from the other side — well, one at a time — and you can put them in these two rooms here, and maybe some blankets and things like that too — it gets very cold at night.” The lower of the two rooms had clerestories in colored glass around the edge of the ceiling to break up the expanse of heavy stone. Sephir ran her toe over the pink and green scatters of light they threw on the floor and felt some large emotion, because hunger and envy and wistfulness, rise in her throat. This was as fine a house as she had ever been in, including the house with the lapis-tiled fountain (sick-smelling from incense and the stench of the unwashed master) and the house with seven floors (where the plaster crumbled off the walls in the kitchen and rats hid in the cupboards.) The memories of her mother’s house had taken on an odd, granular quality, but it had been a small, dark place, only for sleeping, really; they had conducted most of the business of living outside in the courtyard.

Sephir tried once more. “How old is the city? When was it built?”

The head of red hair was bent over, showing the twins a wooden cabinet set into the wall by the door. “I don’t suppose there was time before it was built, was there?” came the response, echoing in the hollowness. Sephir gritted her teeth and decided that for the sake of her sanity she would struggle for no more answers today.

Elabel suggested that the twins might share the lower room, and immediately went to get a few rugs from the other apartment to make this a more palatable suggestion. Sephir went up the small stair at the end of the gallery to look at the upper room.

It was smaller than the room below it, little bigger than Elabel’s room filled with books, but through the wide windows Sephir could see that it projected above the surrounding houses to give a long view over yet another terraced rooftop garden, just at the edge of which the rampart could be seen. She could not see the rolling sands of the desert over the high wall, but she knew they were there. Another door led out onto another patio, this one with a modest few urns sprouting lavender flowers and creepers on either sides of a bench. This, she realized, must be the roof of Elabel’s house.

The great emotion crept farther up her throat, and she put her hands on her hips and tipped her head back to force it back down. In her mother’s house (though it felt mildly treacherous to remember this) she had shared the floor near the hearth with a half-dozen cousins and siblings. In the house with the lapis fountain, she had shared a closet-sized alcove with the ancient woman who kept the garden (until she died, abruptly, while eating a stolen orange. The master’s wife had kicked her corpse in fury, then had had the brilliant idea to take a strap to Sephir for not reporting the theft); in the basement-kitchen house, she had slept on the floor of the kitchen.

But this room was hers, and only hers.

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2 comments
  1. wheelswithinwheels said:

    Oh, that was lovely.

    • sgoch said:

      Thank you very much! 😀

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