Lumps of spine stood out on the old woman’s bent back when she pulled the cloak tighter around her. Her filthy toenails jabbed through her worn leather shoes, which barely separated her soles from the pitted, winding track, and didn’t separate them at all from the muddy snow. There were faster ways to get to Lion’s Reach, she thought, feeling a familiar resignation. Doing it as a younger woman would have been chief among them.
She gained the crest of the hill and stopped to heave and hack a bit – all for show, a show with no audience she could see, but someone was always watching. The eyes that took in the bleak, frostbitten hills were cloudy, and should have appeared vague, but ate up the view with youthful hunger. For a moment her spine straightened, and the knotted stick in her hand hovered an inch above the ground, forgotten. Then the old woman bent again, shriveled up again, and plodded on into the foothills.
At the start of this road the shivers had been half window-dressing, but by the time she passed the first guardpost of the Reach the snow had begun again. She had never been this far north in her long, long life, and she wasn’t dressed for it. That was all right. She would freeze awhile. Warm clothes would come, along with a fire, and maybe a place to sleep. But in their order. The old woman was good at waiting for her cue.
She suspected the guards were nearby long before she saw one. As fallow farmland turned to the sprawling outer mess of a city, other travelers joined her on the track, coming and going. They were ordinary enough – farmers with carts, peddlers, hunters, mercenaries. The guards didn’t have anything in particular in common; there was no uniform, no insignia, not a weapon in sight. But the old woman had worn others’ faces too long to miss the way a man moves when he plays a role, the unconscious consciousness of being watched. A wild impulse rose in her, to reach out and twist the wrist of the sloppy young man with his foot up on the fencepost she was passing, to see how quickly and from where he would produce his blades. She swallowed the urge, only offering him a vague smile when he looked her way. She felt him assess her and quickly forget her, and was warmed by pride. The Kumani, too, could be fooled.
Stone underfoot made the going less painful, but more treacherous. Several times she slipped and staggered, or had to jab her stick into the crevice between cobblestones to keep from toppling over. Pretending to break a hip would take time out of her day, but she’d do it if she was clumsy enough to make it necessary. She paused in the shelter of the inner gate, and retreated into a corner to fumble a crumpled scrap of paper out of her cloak. The guards’ eyes were on her – much more obviously now, and these young men and women did wear uniforms, green and grey and gold, and shining weapons that would probably prove far less effective than the hidden ones. But her destination was not one of the many things she had to hide, and her other secrets would keep themselves, or not. There was nothing to do about it now. Once you got out on stage, you carried on with your chin up whatever happened, and never mind if your garter’d come undone.
She mumbled through the directions just loudly enough for the sharp-eared fellow behind her to hear, and his scrutiny slackened, though it never entirely faded. The sense of being watched was everpresent. The other citizens seemed to feel it too – this was not a city where one strolled, or promenaded with one’s head held high, although that might have had just as much to do with the vicious weather as anything else.
“North on Basilica Street, down to the end of the western atrium, then south before the last shop door…” She shuffled off. Great limestone walls surrounded her and hemmed in passers-by until the heat of their combined commercial exertions melted the falling snow at shoulder level. The shopkeepers offered the same blandishments as anywhere else – clothes, candies, gifts for your lady – but these clothes were clotted with fur, and these ladies liked knives for gifts. The old woman thought some of the candies might be poisoned. At least one of the shiny lumps of sugar she was offered had a fat black spider entombed in it.
Basilica Street became, at some indeterminate point, an actual basilica, the mottled grey sky giving way to arches and lamplit naves. At the intersection of the atria she stopped and looked up. She wasn’t the only one doing so – other newcomers stood to gawk, and others also had to lean on their sticks to keep the sudden vertigo from toppling them. The great central spire of Lion’s Reach was a spiraling shell of mezzanines as tall as the mountain that supported it. Here oil-burning lamps gave way to cantilevered constructions draped with cables, and at the end of each cable, a clouded orb emitting steady light. Far above her, she saw a thin man climbing across to service a flickering globe, and when he reached it, he cupped the air around it and whispered to it until it began to behave. Magic and mathematics… the major exports of Lion’s Reach, when you left aside skullduggery.
Shop doors siphoned off portions of the crowd down the western atrium. She smelled sausage and gravy and beer, hearty northern food that made her salivate. She couldn’t afford to get much fatter, but a pound or two of insulation wouldn’t go amiss. The shops declined sharply in quality as she neared her destination, and the browsing first became cursory, then ceased altogether. The old woman nearly missed the alley pinched between a bar and a blacksmith. No one followed her when she turned down it. No one visible, at any rate.
The Basilica had an almost geological way of blurring the line between indoors and outdoors. The alley became a series of storerooms, with the old woman shuffling along a clean track through inches of crates and dust. The storerooms became staircases that threatened in earnest to break her hip. Her fingers followed the groove in the wall that served for a banister, and found ice there. It was two sharp doglegs before she came to the first light, a greasy lantern leaking an amber streak down the stone. Then two more flights – must be descending into the very heart of the mountain, here – and an arch guarded by a pair of guttering braziers that failed even to melt the frost at their feet. Following her directions closely, but not aloud any longer, the old woman made three turns past forbidding halls – but what hall was not forbidding, in this place – and then the black stone opened around her.
The air was wet and chill, cavelike, and she raised her head to follow the natural rise of the ceiling into a towering cavern. It was as if the spire above were mimicked in the earth below; as if the entire mountain were hollow. Pale, cold lights adorned a complex built of black glass, or so it appeared. A cascade of water fell from the darkness into a glowing lake, which itself poured off a cliff’s edge into unknowable depths. And there were people here now, moving silently on floors that reflected the soles of their shoes. They looked at her as she came among them, with curiosity but not much concern. She looked in return, carefully. There were still no visible blades. But as well as she knew her cues, she knew that she had come to a place she would not leave. Either she would earn her place here, or she would die. The thought, and the environs, suited her mood. She was glad to be cold, glad to be frightened. It had been a long time.
The library tunneled into the cave wall, and for the first time in this city she came upon a closed door. Air like the breath of a forge struck her in the face when she turned the knob. Scholars bowed over books, surrounded by braziers much more carefully tended than those outside. So much fire so near to such a mass of ancient parchment… but better than the cave’s damp. She could see a handful of dark-clad soldiers in the war against mold, shuffling and airing old volumes. And near one of several enormous hearths, she spied her contact, if the description was to be trusted. She closed the door firmly and tottered into the warmth.
Her hand fell on the shoulder of the young woman by the fire. Pale as milk and skeletally thin, the very hand of Death, it looked a fright on the girl’s dark skin. A habitual scowl was raised to meet her greeting, and the elder smiled inwardly. This was the right soul, indeed. There couldn’t be two here wearing a black stone in place of one eye.
“This is a private guildhall, ma’am!” the girl snapped.
“Al-Akir, yes?” the old woman said. “Did you not invite me?”
The girl first stared, then cast her eye around the library to squelch any other stares with a curled lip. “Lin al-Akir, yes.” She bounced out of her chair and offered a small brown hand. “I’m the Speaker here. You must be Keshena; I’m sorry, I was expecting…”
Again the touch of that withered hand, cold as the stone and trembling very slightly. “Go on,” Keshena murmured, stepping closer. “What is it that you expected?”
Lin pursed her lips. “I don’t mean any disrespect, ma’am, but our discipline and training requires a great deal of physical activity, and –“
The claw tightened on Lin’s fingers with sudden, startling force, and the old woman’s eyes crinkled along well-worn seams. “Try me before you dismiss me. If I surprise you, I’ll surprise your enemy, hmm?”
With an uneasy frown, Lin tightened her own grip. “…Who are you, old one?” she whispered.
Keshena’s colorless lips stretched around a grin, and for a flickering second the eyes went pale and sharp – and then the clouds of cataracts rolled in again. “You may never know, dearheart,” she whispered.
Shock kept Lin still, both hands clasping the old woman’s as one would cup a live moth. Then with a blink, surprise retreated, masked beneath reserved courtesy. “Right. Feel, ah… free to sit, if you wish.” She took her own seat again, folding her legs beneath her, and leaned over the arm to retrieve a small lute from her satchel. Keshena took the nearest chair with clear relief that was only half feigned, and watched the girl’s fingers travel the strings aimlessly.
The meandering music calmed Lin’s nerves, and at length she found her way back to her usual line of questioning. “Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Keshena let the question lie there for a moment. She kept the smile off her face, but amusement bubbled up inside her – the privilege of age was to inconvenience the young, and she always enjoyed it. “Ah… Blackwall. Once upon a time.”
“Blackwall?” Lin gasped. “Gods, that must have been… it was before my time. My father claimed he grew up there. I hardly believed the city was real.”
The old woman sat almost unnaturally still, her tremors gone with no fidgets to replace them. “It was stinking and cold,” she said. “I lived there a long time… kept pigeons on the roof. Then the plagues came. When the downstairs neighbor died, I thought I’d best get out ahead of it, hmm?”
Confusion returned to Lin’s eye. “But that was just a story – the plagues and all that. It was a war, wasn’t it?”
Again the rattling laugh. “Hard to say what’s a story anymore. So let it be a story, then. In this story, I kept pigeons on the roof, and a plague killed the old ladies and old men when I was… I was… forty? And I left. And then there were swamps and ruin where the city had been, and my house was gone.”
“There has to be more, then. I mean, with all due respect, ma’am, I can’t see what would make you come up north. This climate – and this city…” Her tone became detached, respectful by habit but dubious by nature. “I mean, it’s clean here, and very lovely, in a dark sort of way. But the people here, they’re as filthy as the pictures of Blackwall in books.”
Keshena rolled her shoulders with a creaking that sounded as if she might need putting back together afterward. “We all have our reasons, Miss al-Akir. Perhaps we’ll trade sometime.”
The touch of a hand on her arm caused Lin to look sharply after the old woman’s, but both were in plain sight and behaving themselves.
A young man held out a sheaf of notes, nearly striking her in the nose with them as she turned. Snatching them out of his hand, she spread them across her knees, keeping her good eye half on Keshena all the while.
“I feel as if I should be asking about you, but I don’t know quite what to think,” she confessed to the ancient.
Keshena tilted her head. “Why’s that, d’you think?”
“It’s sort of my job.” Lin turned over another page, frowning. “But you… it feels rude to interrogate you.”
The old one closed her eyes, her thin lips bending slowly. “You’re too young for your job, and I too old for mine. You needn’t hesitate, girl. I barely remember my first century, so you couldn’t intrude there if you tried.”
A page fell to the floor, sending the student to his knees to save it from the fire as Lin gaped at the old woman over his head. “Gods…” She clapped a hand over her mouth, her cheeks coloring at her own rudeness. “I-I’m sorry, but… how old are you?”
Keshena eyed her with deep amusement for a moment. With sudden clipped precision she said, “One-hundred ninety-three years old.” Then in her former wandering tone, “Or… thereabouts. Give or take. You know.”
Lin shook her head slowly, stammering with exaggerated courtesy. “Well, we have few near your venerable age in the guild, ma’am, but I’m honored. The guild, that is; we are. I, ah, hope you like it!” The student fumbled his notes back into her lap and she scrambled to gather them as Keshena rose laboriously to her feet.
“Like it already,” she answered. The words it would have taken to stop her from straying away were one too many things to hold onto. A practical creature, Lin kept her grip on the pages in her hands and the comprehensible world, letting the ancient novice totter toward the door with only a speculative glance to chase her.