Sunday, 14 July 2013

In Which Saeed Comes To The Brink Of Forever

Saeed travelled alone across the Turnaround Bridge, through the rainbow mist, on to destinations unknown. The one thing he was reasonably clear on was that he was travelling on toward his final destination, a reconciliation with his mother, a chance to apologise for the wrong that he had done.

Obtaining the price the Keeper of the Way had demanded, the seal of Kalico, master of the Patchwork Market at Bridgetown, had been hard enough. Saeed had seen many things in the execution of his tasks, experiences he was storing away carefully within his head in preparation for the time when he would once again see his mother.

He hoped that this time would now be close at hand for, overall, Saeed felt that his mind was becoming very full indeed. If much more happened to him on the road there was a chance that he might forget things that had happened to him and that would not be a good thing at all.

The way across the Turnaround Bridge was long, the bridge itself was narrow at the start. As it continued out through the strange coloured mists that surrounded him the bridge changed in shape, until it was clear that this way was not a single bridge but, apparently, many bridges strung together through a vast, indistinct void.

The bridge continued on for such a distance that Saeed began to feel a little concerned. There was no indication whether the other side of the bridge was close at hand, or whether he'd even got halfway across. There was just the narrow path through nothingness, no end in sight.

Eventually the bridge broadened, a ramp carried Saeed up onto a wide suspension bridge. He still had not reached the opposite side and he began to detect other people wandering through the mist.

The people were dressed in a variety of outfits. Some Saeed recognised, some he did not. All were walking parallel to Saeed, across the bridge and on to the other side. Saeed did not see one person attempting to cross the other way.

Before long the number of people had grown quite large. Saeed could not identify himself as a lone traveller, instead finding himself enfolded within a shuffling throng, all walking in one direction, all looking about at their fellow travellers in some confusion.

"I was not expecting to meet so many people on this path," Saeed said to the closest person to him, an old man, a gnome sat upon his shoulders.

"Many seek Luminis," the man replied. "Few gain entrance."

"I know you will think this to be a strange admission," Saeed said. "But I did not know this path lead to a place called Luminis. All I know is that it is a place I must be."

The older man smiled.

"That is probably not uncommon," he said. "I am just acting as a guide for my friend here," he indicated the gnome. "He has lost his purpose. He must find a new one or return to the source."

"I think it's been time enough for Splinterflame," the gnome said cheerily. "I imagine that it is my time to return whence I came, beyond the Central City, into the heart of creation itself."

"I'm afraid I am not very educated," Saeed said. "I do not really follow what it is you are saying."

"Education does not matter," the older man said. "All that matters is what the gatekeepers decide."

"I see," Saeed said. "Well, I hope that they decide in my favour."

"All do," the man said. "There's really no way to tell until you get to the walls."

"Look!" came a cry from the front of the crowd. "There it is!"

The crowd instantly hushed, all conversation dying upon every tongue. Every one looked up and out towards the distant horizon, still wreathed in the indistinct lightly-hued mists.

Then, the mists broke, far in the sky the black shapes of tall spires became visible, the colour overhead went from a varied patchwork of different shades to a clear and brilliant blue. The heat of a bright sun washed over the crowd.

A few steps further on and tall walls of large dark brick became visible, a few steps further again and the party crossed the far side of the bridge, stepping from a wooden floor to a white brick path winding through an expansive green valley towards an enormous structure built into the dark wall up ahead. The spires that had been the first visible sign of Luminis were the only part of the enormous city beyond the dark walls that could be seen from the path.

A ramshackle settlement had been erected at the foot of the wall. None of the structures that made up this encampment looked permanent or particularly safe for the inhabitants. There were a few proper tents and permanent caravans but alongside this were poorly built shacks constructed out of loosely piled rocks or pieces of discarded wood.

As the crowd passed by, walking on towards the gigantic archway at the foot of the enormous gatehouse of Luminis Saeed looked about himself trying to assess what kinds of people lived in the settlement at the base of the walls. There were many people from the bridge crowding in all about him but Saeed caught glimpses of goblin traders and many people who looked like the beggars from the streets of Afsana where he had grown up.

As the archway loomed closer Saeed began to worry that he had not questioned where the Turnaround Bridge would send him, just that it would bring him closer to his mother. Of course, his mother had been taken by death. Was this a place of the dead?

Luminis did not look like any paradise that Saeed had ever imagined, and if it was, who were all those dwelling in the shanty town? Were they the sinful? Was that the judgement that was to follow? Would Saeed's own guilt at his thievery prevent him from gaining access to this celestial city?

Saeed found it hard to believe that he was standing before the entrance to paradise. Much aside from anything else why would the righteous have to walk past the wicked to cross the threshold to their reward? If they saw others suffering and did nothing then how righteous were they anyway?

Much apart from these challenging concepts Saeed could feel sun on his face, a slight breeze blowing in from the mountains to his left. He did not feel dead, he did not remember dying, so this could not be a land for the dead or a place of ultimate judgement.

Maybe Saeed was wrong but he believed that whatever Luminis was, it wasn't a land of the dead. He would have an opportunity to find out shortly, because he was about to pass through the arch into the gatehouse and out of the sun-filled valley.

On the other side of the arch was a huge courtyard with a gigantic polished marble floor. It reminded Saeed of the Caliph's Palace at Afsana but colder, the structure had a feeling of officiousness that he associated with the Patchwork Market more than any part of his home city.

All around the courtyard were a number of narrow doorways, standing at each doorway was a strangely dressed usher in a little round hat, a blue jacket, a white shirt and straight blue trousers. Saeed had never seen such an outfit before. The closest thing he had seen was Joshua's clothing but that had been more dark and serious. The bright blue and white of these uniforms made the ushers look a little like clowns.

Even so they motioned for members of the throng to come forward and step through the doorways, and people were going. As the crowd kept moving forward and out to the side so Saeed drifted closer to a doorway. As he reached the threshold the usher looked Saeed in the eye and said.

"Go along until you reach an open doorway, then go right inside, first one you see."

The usher reached out a white-gloved hand and guided Saeed into the passageway before he had time to object or ask any questions.

For the first time on his journey Saeed began to feel afraid. He had embarked upon his journey without fear, he now realised, because he had thought of his eventual goal as being fairly straightforward and obvious. He had seen his mother die, the angel of death had told him where to begin his journey, that step had lead to the next, had lead to the next, had lead... here.

This strange, long, cool, dark stone corridor, like so many he had already seen, with closed doors ranged against the right hand wall. In the distance he could make out the triangle of yellow light demarcating the first open door upon the route.

There were people already gathering behind him. Saeed stepped forward before he had the time to consider whether he wanted to keep walking forward or not. It occurred to him that the time to turn away had already happened at a time when he would never have considered it. He hadn't been allowed to back away for some time now.

Given no choice, his stomach yawning with a hollow dread he could not name, Saeed walked along the corridor towards the square of light. He reached the door quickly and peered over the threshold. Sat inside the room beyond the door was a young woman dressed like some of the more monied residents of the Patchwork Market, in a plain but elegant dress that came down towards the mid point of her calves, her feet wrapped in pointy soft leather boots.

The young woman's fair hair was gathered in a precise knot on the crown of her skull. She wore jewelled earrings and a single ring on her left hand. She did not appear to be wearing make up.

"Saeed Ibn Abihi?" the young woman asked. "Please, come in, sit down."

The woman motioned to a chair opposite her position. In between them, slightly off to one side was a tea set that reminded Saeed of Joshua's house.

Saeed stepped inside and sat down. The woman went over and gently closed the door, then she returned to her seat.

"Really, there's no need to look so frightened. This is just a little chat about why you've come to Luminis. If I decide entering the city would be in your best interests then there won't be a problem."

"I must say," Saeed said. "I did not really know that I was coming to Luminis. I did not even know such a place existed. I merely knew that this was a step upon my journey to be reunited with my mother."

"You believe your mother is here?" The woman asked. She picked up the tea pot. "Tea?"

"No, thank you," Saeed said. "I really don't know if my mother is here, the Keeper of the Turnaround Bridge took a price from me and when I crossed the bridge this is where I found myself."

"Have some tea, dear," the woman said. "It will relax you. You look like you need to relax."

She poured Saeed a cup of tea, then she picked up her own cup and sipped from it.

"So your mother might not be in Luminis?" the woman said.

"I think the Turnaround Bridge uses magic to determine the destination of the traveller," Saeed said. "I don't think it would have sent me here if I didn't need to be here."

"Ah but it's old magic," the woman said. "Deep magic. This whole place is the product of some of the oldest and deepest magic that exists. I think it is without doubt that you do need to enter the city. The question then becomes whether you should enter now, today."

"I am really just looking to apologise for a lie I told to my mother," Saeed said. "That is all I want in the world."

"And if you get all that you want in the world," the woman said. "What then?"

"I... don't know," Saeed said. As he sat, sipping at the tea he didn't want, considering questions he hadn't wanted to consider a great sadness reawakened in Saeed. He had diverted the pain, looking ahead to his goal but the woman's questions had brought to him a great realisation. When Saeed met his mother again it would be an apology and a farewell. Things would never be as they once had been.

"Then maybe you need to know," the woman said. "This is a place people come to learn, Saeed. A place they come to become what they must be to do the things they must do. Nobody has come here to deliver an apology. I am afraid I cannot approve your entry into the city. It has been lovely to talk with you though. When you're ready go through the door in the back corner."

She indicated a door visible over her left shoulder before sipping, silently, at her tea. She did not speak again.

Saeed didn't know what to do or say. Should he argue back? The woman's logic did not appear sound, what if his mother was in Luminis? What if this was the end of Saeed's journey and he was being turned away?

On the other hand, what if she was right? What if this was yet another step along the road, a road that may not include a stop in Luminis? The only problem with that was the thought of what to do next. Saeed did not know another way onwards.

"So," he said carefully, "when it is my time to enter Luminis I should come back to this place?"

"There are many ways to enter Luminis," the woman said. "Today this was the route chosen for you."

"Chosen by whom?" Saeed asked.

"By the source, the powers of the weave, the aspect of fate," the woman said. "That is how the Hall of Entrance works."

"Well," Saeed said, standing up. "Thank you for your time. I am sorry that my case failed to meet your expectation for entry to the city."

"There will be other days," the woman said. "You must understand that it is nothing personal."

"I do," Saeed said. "Thank you."

Saeed moved around the table with the tea set and out through the door at the back. The door lead into a corridor that stretched on for a long while before making a couple of sharp left turns and eventually depositing Saeed back outside the walls of Luminis to the rear of the shanty town.

"A thief I am," Saeed muttered to himself, looking about the shacks and mud paths that defined the shanty town. "So like a thief I must enter this city."

Saeed did not know if the young woman in the Hall of Entrance had intended to imply that Saeed could just walk outside and try to gain entrance to the city of Luminis by other means but this was what he had taken from her explanations. Saeed walked through the shanty town, instantly feeling more comfortable about his surroundings.

Looking about himself Saeed determined that, despite the modesty of the encampment, this was not as miserable a place as such dwellings tended to be. The wood and metal of the shack construction was usually quite clean, free from evidence of erosion by the elements. The doors to many of the shacks stood open and homey little spaces were visible within. These accomodations were sparse but not spartan.

Some residents had book shelves, others shrines, others displayed works of art or musical instruments. This did not appear to be a place of desperation, merely a stopping point, something like a travelling market or a festival encampment.

The people of the shanty town moved back and forth around Saeed, about their business. Eavesdropping upon their conversations Saeed determined that, rather than discussing hunger, poverty or hardship, their minds were occupied with matters of philosophy, aesthetics and mysticism.

This was a place more curious than the enigmatic city within the mighty walls beyond. A hastily erected community of intellectuals that sat below the mighty dark stone walls of Luminis. Presumably these were others who had come through the Hall of Entrance and been turned away.

Saeed was perplexed. He was a thief, he was reasonably confident that he could find an opportunity to steal into Luminis if he looked hard enough. These men and women were scholars, what was the purpose of their encampment? The young woman had told Saeed that all who were ready could enter Luminis via the Hall of Entrance. If you were not ready, according to the administrators, you had to seek another way in. Sitting in shacks discussing the nature of reality did not appear to be in anyone's best interests.

Before he could think further upon this matter the opportunity he had searched for presented itself. Saeed had learned long ago how to spot an opportunity. He had also learned that if you didn't take an opportunity as it came up the door could often close.

He could see a small fringe of the encampment was packing itself up. A man in uniform was shouting orders to a number of other men in uniform, of various shapes and sizes. They were packing up their dwellings and pulling sacks of clothes and supplies onto their back.

"The prince is waiting, he can't wait forever," the man was shouting. "His advisors have worked long and hard to lift the blockade and now he must enter the city with his guard protecting him. Hurry! Hurry!"

The men in uniform were too busy to pay much attention to Saeed as he moved through their encampment. They failed to question him when he located a trunk filled with parts of the guards' uniforms. No one cared when Saeed donned a uniform and then, dressed in black breeches and tunic, a fine mail tabard and a pointy metal helmet, began to assist in the packing of the encampment.

Before long pallets were loaded and packs were worn upon the soldier's backs. Saeed himself was carrying a heavy pack containing some kind of ground meal. The guards formed a column and marched towards the entrance hall, Saeed in their midst.

The process of taking the opportunity had occupied all of Saeed's mind for the time until the column of soldiers he had joined began their march into the city of Luminis. As the army marched to the right of the entrance hall and through a large opening that had not been there a few hours before Saeed had an opportunity for his own doubts and fears to catch up with him.

Before they quite could he spent some time scanning the rest of the shanty town for signs of others trying to breach the gap in the walls of Luminis. A few intellectual types stood by, watching the prince's guard enter the city, but no one seemed ready to cheat the system the way that Saeed was.

Of course, if anyone was cheating exactly the way that Saeed was Saeed would probably not know about it, that was the core of his plan. He had one final opportunity to wonder whether what he was now doing was for the best or not. He was a thief, his existence revolved around obtaining his desires by stealth, not always entirely in sympathy with the wishes of others.

Was this really how he should continue his life? What was he to do otherwise? At the moment his conscience was clear because his skills were in the service of a loftier goal, and his own personal code meant that, should he be asked, he could not help but be honest. As the young woman had said to him in the Hall of Entrance: what would come after?

Maybe going into Luminis was a mistake, he had been refused entry already. All he knew was that he had no where else to go and nothing else to do right now, so this was what would have to be. Maybe, he considered as he marched on through the breach to enter Luminis, he would have to think about some ways to change that.

This he did, among many other things that happened to him within the walls of Luminis, but all those are stories for another time.

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