Clarient lacked traditional inns and taverns. Everyone used communal beds and eating spaces kept separated based off who used it. The one for guests sat close to the West gate. Renovated buildings stretched in a continuous line of beds and resting quarters. Simple, thin walls separated some of them while most laid out in unbroken rows.
People ate at tables outside the sleeping areas, using Clarien pieces to secure their meals. Midday lunch meant plenty of diners. That, and a change of clothes, gave Athia some cover.
She sat next to a traveler that she’d met while scouting out the city’s exit. The man, Norrin, sported a hefty beard peppered with gray, a scratching inhale, and dark leather skin.
“They keep a good watch on the people here,” he whispered. “Keeps it all running smooth.”
Before, when they were alone, he’d told her that anyone might rat out a naysayer. Speak to those you trust, and trust no one.
“I can see that,” she replied.
Norrin’s people filled out the rest of their table, offering a little safety. They came from outside Clarient, certainly not loyal to the locals. Even then they kept their words low and their disagreements unspoken.
The trader covered her meal. He’d witnessed the incident and found it quite amusing.
Athia looked down at her thin soup, then up at the old trader. “I didn’t realize I had that much money. Why would Lerian soldiers be handing that out?”
On the street, two torchbearers dragged a hooded man towards the inner keep. His legs dangled, broken at the knees. No one looked at it for more than a moment. Any attention might pull suspicion.
“Roads have been very dangerous,” Norrin said. “A lot has been lost.”
Someone muttered, “lurkers,” and then said, “Shepherd guide us.”
“But into Lerian hands,” she said to herself. The thoughts tucked themselves away in the back of her mind, waiting for later consideration. For now, she said, “what brings you to trade here?”
“I like what they’re attempting,” he said.
The implicit, “but not how they do it,” hung in the air for a second before he continued.
“This place needs connections to the rest of Loiys. It helps the people, the only thing I can really do for my old home.”
He took a spoonful of his mush soup and forced it down. “Why don’t you join us? Won’t be hard to, eh, make you discrete.”
Athia shook her head. “You’ve helped me plenty, and I’ve got something I want to look in to.”
A bell tolled, signaling the end of midday lunch. The next lunch shift would begin in an hour and the locals on break all rose from their place. Another toll sounded a moment later, which Norrin said meant the Einarr
Revolutionary Council were to speak to the people.
That interested Athia. She gave Norrin her thanks, pulled her gaudy yellow cloak tight, and walked with the crowd. She let her hair hang loose to help hide her scar and adopted a flamboyant cloak because it was so noticeable that it was easy to disregard. Norrin sold it to her cheap, a quarter ren.
People, Athia knew, kept a terrible tendency to overlook the obvious in the search for something meant to be hidden. The cloak’s preposterous size also helped disguise her board, now strapped to her back vertically. She felt quite silly, but that was normal.
The Einarr came out the inner keep to stand on a raised platform overlooking the markets. Athia, who jogged much of the way, got a nice spot toward the front. That became far more apparent as the crowd grew and grew. All the sounds of work died, replaced by the beat of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of feet on stone. The majority of the locals, if not all, came out at the summons.
When the last few arrived, the crow held still. Just looking around made Athia uneasy as everyone else stared forward. It stifled her in a way she didn’t understand and made her want to shout to end it. But she didn’t.
The council came out in heavy white robes, which probably meant purity. Or maybe it meant bad taste. She was just guessing.
One of them stepped forward, bald and beaten by age. Two bright, amber eyes looked out over the crowd. He held a voice cone that projected his words. “Now presenting our guiding light. The Master has words for you all.”
Next came a man in his fifties, by Athia’s estimation, with hair to match his robe and dark rings under his eyes. The dinner table treated him far better than the years, but he wasn’t pudgy.
He took the cone and fixed the glasses on his face. His voice was like changing page in an old book. “It has been a long sixteen years. The remnants of Loiys have not been kind to us, but we persevere. The winter stockpile is large this year. If we ration well and stay strong, there will be plenty to go around.”
Torchbearers stood around the platform, blank masks holding their unyielding stares. No one got too close and Athia receded back, just in case.
“Our education initiatives are going well. We’ve secured scholarship from Closiah to shore up some of our deficiencies. While we don’t like taking those who learn under a crown, Closiah is still a sister in revolution. They broke their chains a century ago. While they have slipped further from freedom that spark remain.”
Athia glanced either way, wanting to pick an escape route if needed. She settled on a path that led to a lower, sloping roof. An easy way for her to get vertical. In her experience, verticality was her greatest advantage over those with more traditional skills and power sets. She planned her path, picking out the angles she needed and the backups she could prepare for if something went wrong.
On the podium, the Master continued. “In another generation, all the youths should be literate. In addition, we will continue to harness the powers granted to us by the new god of our undertaking, It of New Orders, seen in the newest star above Clarient.”
He looked up at the blues sky and said, “Szprikiztipian, we thank you.”
A star appeared above them, so bright event he clouds couldn’t hide it. It radiated down a dry heat for a few moments before fading back into the blue. Athia shivered, not used to feeling a god’s direct attention.
Using those names was taboo even before what happened with It that Watches. To hear it so casually and feel the influence was unnerving at best.
“He is granting us new powers, though we are yet to fully uncover them beyond the pact.” He moved to a new page of his notes. “Three more prisoners have taken that pact, they have agreed to move away from their selfish desires and toward the light under the guide of It of New Orders. They will be allowed back into the city without ill will after the next moon.”
Athia glanced around. Speaking of the new god, calling its name; it didn’t cause much an issue among the people. But when prisoners came up, eyes averted and postures lowered.
“In addition, we are working to end these lurker incursions. A deal is commencing with the mercantile states of the Western Kol River. With their help, we’ll gain a far better trade line to benefit us all.”
Athia’s mind went back to her Clariens. To the reaction they got, and their origin. That, with the “master’s” words, left her with one question.
How could she make some money off this?
She snorted at her own joke, earning nervous glances as she collected herself.
But really, there was intrigue here. And she wanted some of it.
The Master looked out over the crowd. He stayed quiet for a few moments, then spoke, “this place is yours. If you would like to speak, I grant you this moment to do so. Please, if you have anything to say or share.”
Silence stayed and the Master turned back, hands grasping at nothing.
. . . . . .
With the day growing late, Athia joined Norrin in getting their sails recharged. She gave him a half ren in exchange for the clarien pieces needed to pay for said charge. That half ren also included the tip for giving her some cover in case of prying eyes.
She played the part of his guard as they made it through the line. The few locals there stood out, at least to Athia, with their thin colorless outfits and skittish demeanors. Most of them perked up after getting their charges. Athia could relate, finding she could get hers recharged came as a big relief.
Her kite ran off a small device secured to the center. A complicated web of symbols and markings covered it, tiny but precise. Those made it work and inside the box sat its power source, a dark black stone with its own intricate symbols. The craftsmanship in them cost a great deal of money, Athia saved up over several jobs to afford hers.
When it got to be her turn, she stepped to the open window-counter of the symbolist’s workshop. She held her charging stone a man on the other side of the wall.
He spun it in a deliberate inspection, fingers marred with small scars from inscription work. “Local symbolism?” he asked in a low tone.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Very fine work,” he said. “Staying in this area?”
Athia nodded. If she wasn’t, she might need a different stone. The power of the symbols depended a lot on where they were. What worked in Loiys might not in Closiah, or the frontier. Some things stayed universal, and symbolists tried for standardization, but the task was slow.
He handed the stone to someone else. That person disappeared behind a thick curtain then came back a few minutes later. Athia paid and took it back. It hummed in her hand, warm and slick, as if damp while still bone dry. She put it back in the small box and gave thanks.
Norrin went next and gave the location of his sail carts and put in the request for his own recharges. Athia waited on him before departing.
“You’re leaving now?” he asked.
“Trying,” she whispered. “Thanks, I can handle myself from here.”
“Then do take care.”
Athia returned the yellow cloak. If things went wrong, she didn’t want anyone pointing fingers at Norrin. A ratty blanket took its place, something more discrete and unassuming. She smiled and turned to make her way near the main gate. Dusk seemed like a good time to sneak out, though she stretched the definition of sneaking when she came up with her plan. Still, it would work. Probably. Confidence was always her strong suit.
A poster caught her attention, due to the ugly rendition of her own face. She stood in front of it, scratching her chin and wondering what the point of drawing it was if it came out that bad. Maybe it was less about accomplishing something than it was about the message? Athia might not be the best judge of her own looks, but her face wasn’t pair shaped.
“Know that person?” a creaking voice asked.
Athia turned to see a torchbearer staring at her with blank mask. His eyes, whites visible, glanced at the poster, then Athia.
“Ugly, ain’t she?”
Athia held still, trying decide if she should be worried or insulted. “Yep, hideous.”
“If you see her, report it. There’s a bounty.”
“I’d be glad to get her out of my sight.”
The torchbearer continued on his patrol.
Athia scratched her head. Maybe she didn’t need stealth and planning. Only two guards could have gotten a good enough look at her to identify her. Some mental math said all was clear. Even if they checked her name, she didn’t give it to anyone but Norrin.
That meant she walked her way to the gate with confidence and eyes forward. No one could suspect anything was amiss with her. Why would someone being hunted brazenly stroll up to the gate, the easiest place for guard to corner them? Only an idiot would do that.
And that made it smarter than her more bombastic plan.
She took her place in line and adopted the anxious demeanor of everyone else.
Ahead, a torchbearer with a cracked mask gestured people forward after checking their names. Athia followed the flow, thinking on how she was going to approach this new mystery.
The torchbearer said, “name?”
He flipped through his page, then said, “you came this morning?”
She looked over at him. “Yes, I got fresh supplies.”
The man’s eyes locked on hers.
“YOU’RE THE ONE THAT FLIPPED ME!”
Athia pointed at her face. “Who, me?”
A cudgel flew at her head. Athia ducked. Her foot hooked around the man’s heel and she shoved, sending him sprawling to the ground. That got everyone’s attention. The surprise dispersed the crowd, but they could only move so far in the confines of the rubble gate.
Athia dashed forward, into a group of foreigners, then shoved through them as more torchbearers advanced on the scene of the scuffle. People at the front took the chance to leave before things got worse.
Athia tossed her blanket off and shoved her way through the crowd, picking up speed as she muscled forward.
“The tall one,” she heard the guard shout.
She got to the end of the gate and barreled out into open air. Her mind went to her kite and board, but if someone severed her line she’d be in trouble. Not to mention she’d stand out. Best to run with the crowd-
Athia spun, one spike shooting to her hand and extending to shortsword length. Her other hand moved behind her back as she parried a heavy cudgel.
The torchbearer’s knees tensed. Drilled instinct kicked in, she’d guessed right.
He vanished and she kept spinning as her secondary spike’s cord lengthened and wrapped around her body. At the same time, she swapped to an inverted grip of the other’s handle.
The torchbearer appeared behind her an instant later. With her reverse grip she parried across her body. Her second spike flung around her torso, so fast is hummed through the air. It impacted the man’s side and took him off his feet.
“Everyone who does that is so cocky,” she shouted as a spike embedded in the stone road. She retracted the cord and activated her momentum. Both feet slid across the ground with ease as she picked up speed.
Another torchbearer tried the same thing. A moveskip, allowing the practitioner to store and instantly execute a movement. Athia didn’t use it, but she was more familiar with it than most who did. She jumped.
The torchbearer appeared just beneath her, striking out at nothing with his queued move. One of her spikes clonked him on the head, just hard enough to disorient him.
She hit the ground, sliding away from the city. The other torchbearers stopped short, not willing to risk further embarrassment.
Athia waved to them, finally free of the city’s pressure.
“It was fun,” she called, “but you all need to practice more! Tell Mr. Mapper I wasn’t impressed!”
She spun, still sliding, and went for her kite and board.
“Oh. I didn’t give them my real name, did I?”