This fantasy short story takes place on the planet known as Armillaire, the Tangential World, where time doesn't flow as it should, human civilisations are older than they seem, and magic is born out of disturbances in the very fabric of reality. This might serve as an introduction to this strange, self-contained place.
Candles danced in the living room. A cloth had been spread above the sofa, under the palm trees. On it lay a twenty year old woman. Her face was bloody, scratched and injured by a recent sandstorm. A veil covered her hair. Crow checked her pulse. The young woman’s heart was still beating, but he had enough medical knowledge to understand that she was dying. The man turned towards the young pickpocket who had brought the wounded wanderer to Hecate’s house, against a promise of payment.
“Where did you find her? Answer me, you damned thief, or my demon will curse you for the rest of your life.”
“By the ruins of the old aqueduct. Her horse was dead. She had already passed out, I just brought her back to the city. I think the sandstorm got the jump on her. She came from the northern road. No desert clothes, no training of any kind, I’m not surprised she almost died out here. And that’s not all!”
The pickpocket removed the woman’s veil. Her hair was white as mountain snow. Crow widened his eyes.
“A weaver? What are you trying to involve me in, thief?”
“Hey, hey, now, I only brought you this lady because I know you and your mistress often take care of the diseased and wounded, but I swear, I have no idea who she is! Look at me, do I look like someone who’d try to bring trouble to your house?”
“You mostly look like an imbecile. Here’s Hecate. Get out.”
The thief vanished without further ado. Crow sigh and slammed the door shut. Outside, the wind howled. The empty streets were swept by sand, sharp as an army of knives. An ageless woman had entered the room in a rustle of velvet and silk. Her wrinkled face was strikingly serene and she wore the brown tunic of an alchemist. Hecate leaned over the young woman and put a hand on her feverish forehead. Crow crossed his arms.
“Did you see what he brought us?”
Hecate shook her head.
“That young woman is called Kalisa Shanxi. She’s my granddaughter. Come on! Stop staring at me! Go get some water! Lock that door shut! Help me bring her upstairs!”
Kalisa opened her eyes. The light was burning. The air flowing through her lungs felt like liquid ice. Her mind refused to work. There was an owl, perched on a palm tree above her. She closed her eyes. Opened them again. The owl was still there, its yellow eyes wide open. Kalisa’s brutal headache only allowed for basic thoughts. Owls are night animals. Owls don’t live in a desert. What the hell was this one doing here? Then, she noticed it didn’t feel like it was a hallucination and her mind started assembling the puzzle. The creature was artificial, a minion given life by a combination of enchantment and mechanical prowess. Kalisa wanted to pet the owl, but her sight became blurry, and her arm rested motionless on the bed. Someone was watching over her. Dark skin, long black hair, deep, calm eyes. A low-pitched, yet young voice.
“Hey. Don’t move, please. You’re still weak. I have something for you. Normally, the ingestion is deadly, but it appears weavers aren’t made like the rest of us.”
A bowl appeared in front of the young woman. It was filled with a yellow-ish beverage that had a bitter scent. She mustered the strength to grab the bowl and swallow its contents. The beverage felt like some sort of jelly, neither liquid nor solid, and it almost made her puke. She would have preferred poppy or black weed, but she knew that a weaver’s wounds wouldn't be healed with the first remedy sold by an apothecary. Her host smiled.
“I have to tend to other matters. I leave you the owl. He needs to sunbathe.”
Kalisa nodded, weakly. The owl gazed at her, clapped its copper beak, then flew to the window and gorged itself in sunlight.
Late afternoon. For a few hours, Kalisa had fallen asleep, lulled by the sound of water flowing in a clepsydra. She had tried to dream, but nothing surfaced in her sand-filled mind. Through the window, she now saw nimble flights of swallows, darting in the city sky. Crow had left dried figs for her to eat. It was the only nourishment she had had since her entrance in the desert — since she had fled. Her sight, burned by the sun, was still blurry, but she could make out the details of her room now. The walls were made of beige Salicandrian limestone. There were almost no ornaments, save for a few coloured cloths, hiding the cracks in the old building. The windows opened on a sea of rooftops, stretching from one hill to another, interspersed with mosques, churches and temples. The moon was high in the sky above the great pantheist mosque of Sophia. Kalisa closed her eyes, feeling the sudden presence of that grandmother she had never seen, but who had haunted her dreams for years. Her voice rusted like the leaves of Salicandrian sycamore trees.
“How do you feel?”
“Like a woman who just crossed half a continent and a sandstorm. Did you get my letters?”
“Not all of them, alas. But I know what you came through. You have your father’s eyes.”
Hecate had striking emerald pupils.
“Or my grandmother’s.”
A rustle started filling the room. From the windows came voices, music, and the distant echoes of a traveling party. Kalisa sighed.
“Please tell me it’s not a wedding.”
Hecate closed the window, muffling the sounds.
“No, it’s just a pantheist feast. A caravan just arrived this morning and the merchants are celebrating. No wedding in sight, only a few courtesans and warriors.”
“Oh, I have nothing against courtesans. Just weddings.”
Hecate took Kalisa’s hand.
“You should try to get some more sleep. Don’t worry about anything. My home is safe. Oh, maybe Crow will visit you. I’d trust him with my life. He knows I can read his soul.”
Kalisa woke up in the middle of the night. A shadow leaned over her. Instinctively, she reached for the underside of her pillow, looking for a dagger, but she was thousands of miles away from her old home, and no blade welcomed her. The man kept staring at her, visibly worried. He wore a black, short-sleeved tunic. His arms were that of a rapier or spear-yielder, judging from the musculature. His hair was longer than Kalisa’s.
“Are you alright?”
“You screamed in your sleep.”
She didn’t even remember her nightmare, or perhaps she remembered it too well for it to appear as one. The man stepped away from the bed, checked the window, then the roof, before walking back towards her. His hand rested on the pommel of a dagger.
“And what’s your name?”
“Sorry for waking you up.”
“I don’t sleep at night.”
“May I ask you something?”
“Give me a mirror.”
He obliged. Kalisa untied her bandages. Her cheek was striped with red marks, albeit they were already receding. It was almost elegant, in a way. Crow departed the room and Kalisa opened the window, knowing she’d have trouble finding sleep again. The wind carried nightly echoes to her room. Olive and cypress trees undulated in the breeze. Hoofs stepped on the pavement as a caravan went through the southern gate. A felucca whispered as it sailed on a canal. A fountain flowed. Marauders ran on the rooftops. A few arrows darted in the night in response. In the street below, a handful of passersby conversed under a ring of torches. And all of that was the song of Salicandre. An orange moon had risen in the sky, casting the intermingled silhouettes of a pantheist mosque and an incarnist church. Kalisa closed her eyes.
Here she was. The city of her books, the refuge of her dreams. An ancient city, without queens or masters, a city of crime, license, art and freedom.
So far, yet so close to the Septentrion, too close to keep the bad dreams at bay. She took a deep breath. Of course Salicandre was too close. In Hecate, she had sought respite, but also protection. To her, the old weaver was a strange family figure, never seen, yet ever-present. But to the people of the North, Hecate was a sorceress, the archetype of the weaver; she cast fear, and Kalisa wanted to warp herself in that fear.
The young woman leaned over the parapet. Men-at-arms walked below, chainmail shirts reflecting the moonlight. Salicandre had no city watch to speak of. These ones probably belonged to a rich merchant family, offering safety to this quarter in exchange for a local tax. Thus was Salicandre; a city where everything boiled down to careful negotiation.
Lulled by the scents and whispers of the city, Kalisa fell asleep once again.
When she emerged again, the midday sun peered through the criss-crossed windows. Crow had left another bowl by her bedside table, filled with the same substance. Hecate entered the room, the mechanical owl nestled on her shoulder.
“How do you feel, daughter?”
“Better. What’s in your remedy, exactly?”
Hecate had a motherly smile.
“Ah! An alchemist never reveals her secrets! At least not in Salicandre. All I can say is that my brew is made of eternal flowers. You know, this little yellow flowers that live in sand dunes.”
“They also exist in the north, though I didn’t know about their medicinal use. To me, they are but aromatic plants.”
“Southern eternal flowers, albeit similar in shape and color to their northern brethren, do not actually belong to the same species. Yours come from the Panthalassa, the great sea in the north. Ours used to grow on the shores of a sea, too, but that sea is now lost. In its stead came the desert. The eternal flowers survive by drawing water from the sunless aquifers. They are directly linked to the ancient history of the world. Their relation with the sadness of a dead sea makes them toxic, but, for some strange reason, they are a remedy for weavers.”
“Are they rare?”
“Very. A single bowl can take decades of harvest.”
“Do not worry. I have all the time I can dream of. Do you feel capable of using your powers?”
“I have nothing to lose.”
Kalisa breathed in, then extended her left hand and put her palm towards the sky, aligning it with the mosaics on the ceiling. She called to the world around her, and a small sphere of orange light spawned right above her hand. A sweet sensation of warmth irradiated through her fingers. Above her, the stars briefly shone in the midday sky. Aldebaran, the red, and Deneb, the white. Kalisa clenched her first and the light disappeared. Hecate nodded, smiling.
“Ooh. Looks like my flowers were a great idea.”
“Because you weren’t sure of that?”
“Well. What is the fate of an alchemist, if not the endless succession of doubt and triumph…”
A few hours later, Kalisa felt healthy enough to climb down the stairs towards Hecate’s inner garden. It was organized around a source of water, in the image of Salicandre in its entirety. Instead of a fountain, the weaver had built a miniature replica of the karez, the underground aqueducts that had once supplied the lost districts with water. The precious liquid didn’t come from the river that irrigated the city, but from the springs in the hills. Collected by a large basin at the exit point of the karez, the water then flowed through small ceramic tubes, dispensing miniature raindrops to the plants. The apparatus was technically advanced, which contrasted heavily with the rest of the house.
Crow tended to a patch of medicinal plants. Their flowers bore colours Kalisa had never imagined could belong to the vegetal realm, though a few of them looked familiar. There were squares of rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, garlic, and even a small date palm, watching over a miniature oasis.
“Sorry for last night,” he said, “didn’t want to startle you. Hecate is so used to my presence she lets me come and go without asking any questions. I easily forget you’re not her.”
“Who are you exactly, Crow? A servant?”
“I guess one could define me as such, though it might not be the best word. Some think I’m a slave, but that’s equally wrong.”
“Does slavery exist in Salicandre?”
“Nominally, no. In the south, there’s only the city-state of Hadar to practise slavery, and we don’t have serfs either, unlike you.”
“The north is where I was born. It’s not my nation.”
“Oh, didn’t want to be rude. But anyway, I’m not a slave. I work for Hecate, she pays me, but I’m more than a servant. I’m at her service because I find her fascinating, nothing more. Most servants in Salicandre aren’t much more free than slaves, in the end. Either they put up with their employer, or they starve. And trust me, the masters take advantage of that.”
“People can’t just leave?”
“And where? It’s not easy to escape Salicandre. To the east and the south, a desert made of sand; to the west and the north, a desert made of rock. Ah, of course, when Salicandre used to be a harbor, it was different…we’re all in the same boat, now. The joke wasn’t voluntary. Ah. Maybe I shouldn’t talk to a weaver like that.”
“Well…because you’re a weaver.”
“Kind of a weak justification.”
“Yeah, I agree. But I’ve always been afraid of witches.”
Hecate appeared out of a bush off small cypress trees. Her apron was stained with sulfur and saltpeter.
“Kalisa, are you trying to intimidate my gardener?”
“He started it!”
“Come on now, I was joking. You are really nervous…just like your father when he was your age.”
“Are you done bringing me back to my family?”
Hecate had a joyless laugh.
“Well then,” she pointed at a bucket, “show me what you can do with water.”
“I am not certain it’ll end well. I haven’t been doing that for years.”
Kalisa spat, as if to get rid of an unpleasant taste at the tip of her tongue.
“You could do it in your sleep.”
The weaver started at the bucked and focused her thoughts. Thus was the foundation of a weaver’s art. Not the call to a higher power, unlike sorceresses and enchantresses, but an appeal to inner strength. Control over oneself, then control over the world. Certainty and pride, without arrogance. A thin line, upon which she had instinctively replaced herself. The water simmered, then a thin sheet of ice appeared at the surface. Phase change. Kalisa turned her palm towards the ground and the ice started propagating downwards. She clenched her first. The ice burst in six shards. Kalisa spread her fingers, as if bringing something back to her, and the fragments of ice rose in the morning air. With a scream of anger and relief, she extended her arm, and the shards exploded against a wall.
Kalisa breathed out. She felt at ease. Serene. The bells rang, all over the city. Hecate stroked her hair.
“The energy of youth! Good. You’re skilled, Kalisa. What a waste you were in the north.”
It was late at night and a cold moon filled the sky. Crow stood at the entrance to the balcony, arms crossed, facing Kalisa.
“I can keep that up all night, you know.”
“I know, but I also know that I can’t let you go out. Hecate forbid it.”
“And I have to stay inside a while longer, I’ll become mad. And you don’t want to know what a mad weaver can do.”
“You’re too impatient. Look at what this journey did to you!”
“What? I’m just a bit thin.”
“You’re a skeleton.”
“I can walk!”
“I see that, but if I had to get extras to be the undead in one of Hecate’s plays, you’d be quite high on the list of candidates.”
“Jokes aside, what’s the risk?”
“Northern mercenaries entered the city this morning. May be after you.”
“As if I was important enough. Decorative weavers are replaceable. Listen, Crow. Do you have an honor code, or something?”
“No, but I like to do what I’m paid for. Is that a familiar notion to you, Kalisa?”
“I’m going to hit you.”
“Look. I go out. With you. That way, you watch over me, I take a breath outside and everyone’s happy. Or are you afraid of having to protect a poor young woman?”
“You’re exhausting. Poor young woman…Hecate’s granddaughter…I have heard better jokes.”
He rolled his eyes and opened the window. A faint breeze swept over the rooftops. Kalisa hoisted herself on the tiles. Four minarets surged in the night sky, across the street. The moon lit up the white, salty surface of the desert beyond the walls as it swirled towards the lost shore.
It felt like she had entered a carving in one of her old books. The city blossomed in the vast circle formed by its remparts. Seven hills amidst the desert, inside which emerged a river from the sunless oceans below. Six districts that the night melded in a moonlit watercolor. The dunes cast silvery shadows on a temple in the distance, as a last echo of Salicandre’s past imperial glory.
Kalisa suddenly felt someone in front of her. A woman, whose dress floated in the night. She didn’t seem to have any sort of legs. No face either, hidden under a veil. The creature was rather chilling, but Kalisa was too surprised to recoil. Besides, she had instinctively identified the arcane nature of the apparition, and to her, magic meant safety. Crow, however, didn’t share the same sentiment. He dashed towards Kalisa and put himself between her and the creature. The lady shifted back and Kalisa saw that, indeed, she had no legs. Or body, for that matter.
“Crow, that creature doesn’t seem very dangerous.”
“A cobra doesn’t look dangerous either, when you don’t know what it is.”
The creature spoke, softly.
The weaver could feel that there was a kind of enchantment, perhaps a spell, in that voice, but she was insensitive to it. Hecate spawned on the balcony, emerging from a secret door. Her eyes gleamed in the darkness and the apparition murmured an insult before retreating on the rooftops, jumping down in the street and disappearing with supernatural agility. Crow pointed at Kalisa.
“She insisted to go out.”
“Coward,” hissed Kalisa.
Hecate silently told Crow to leave them. The gardener didn’t insist and vanished through the bedroom’s door.
“I see you didn’t sleep.”
“An old weaver doesn’t sleep much. Kalisa, I can understand that you want to leave that bedroom, but you’re still weak. I’m not speaking about your body, although you could pass for a beggar, I’m talking about your powers. The art of a weaver is like a flower. If you don’t maintain it, then it will wither away. A weakened weaver is a great prey for some of the creatures that dwell here. Like this thing you came across, and that I should really take care of one day.”
“What was it?”
“Does it matter? Just an old thing, seeking for someone to haunt. Don’t think Salicandre is all-peaceful just because I live here. It’s merely more polite than the rest of the world.”
Seen from the sky, Salicandre was an eye in the dunes. Two walls, two eyelids. One for humans, one for the desert. The iris was the central valley of Sanctuary, covered in vegetation alongside the banks of the river spawned by underwater aqueducts. It came from the valley of Kadesh in the west, contained by distant fortifications. The north of the city was an organized chaos of streets and markets, where the three great districts of the Iron, the Septentrion and the Empire gleamed under the sun. The south contained looser, better spaced quarters, the heart of the old town and the center of power in the city. The Three Ways and their temples, the star district and the Eye of Salicandre. The Sultan’s gardens, even greener than the valley of Sanctuary, were a dark emerald. In the south-east, finally, the desert had won. Dunes had pierced the wall, covering the forgotten quarter, its ruined bazaar and the desiccated karez. City dreams haunted that place.
Kalisa had finally been allowed to wander in the streets. After ten days stuck in Hecate’s house, it was but a vital need. The alchemist’s house was located at the edge of the Three Ways, in the south-east of the city. The district’s name came from the simultaneous presence of the city’s three great religions, with a pantheist mosque, two polytheist temples and the incarnist church of Saint Eulalie. It housed a colorful, diverse population made of merchants, pilgrims and local inhabitants. Crow accompanied Kalisa, as Hecate had forbidden her from going alone. He had exchanged his brown tunic and chainmail for a white shirt and baggy pants, which Kalisa found very well-suited to his slender frame. As she crossed the street, Kalisa noticed that no one paid heed to her white hair, that a veil only covered partially. Though weavers were as rare in Salicandre as in the rest of the world, they weren’t remarkable at all. To be fair, thought Kalisa while walking through an improvised market, she was in a place where a vaguely masculine person wearing a bird-shaped mask could sell what looked like fried locusts without anyone minding to, so a white-haired woman wasn’t that extraordinary.
She immediately corrected herself. What a stupid thought. Bird Mask Man only appeared strange in contrast. A Salicandrian finding themselves in the north would have been equally baffled at the sight of a dryad selling her wares in the street.
The young woman gazed at the nearby mosque. The four minarets had been carved in white limestone from the city’s quarries. They were bright candles in the azure sky, watching over lapis-covered domes and what Kalisa assumed to be ochre dust, directly inserted in the stone. She had read quite a lot about the great mosque of Salicandre, especially in Nataly Draven’s Cartographer’s Compendium, but any written descriptions paled in comparison to the real building. The world’s second largest mosque was a flower in a sea of rooftops, and its minarets echoed the vast nave of Saint Eulalie’s cathedral. Kalisa couldn’t see the polytheist temple of the Cypress, that keenly hid behind two aqueducts.
Crow gently pushed her to the side in order to let a carriage pass through. The driver yelled at Kalisa in a language neither her nor Crow were familiar with.
“Daydreaming in a street, bad idea.”
“Contemplation is not daydreaming.”
“Saints! I am escorting a tourist.”
“Good, I needed a guide.”
“I don’t know half of what Salicandre holds. A life wouldn’t be enough to exhaust the marvels of that city. A human life, at least. I heard weavers can live for hundreds of years? Hecate once said to me that with weavers, you get all the advantages of experience and none of the inconvenients. Though I think she was talking about her lovers. Not her own wisdom.”
Crow accompanied Kalisa alongside a paved street that swirled between flat-top houses, towards the market of the mosque. The temple walls cast dancing veils of colours on the pavement; blue waves that echoed the ghost sea. Lost amidst a crowd of merchants speaking in dozens of tongues, out of which only a handful were even remotely known to her, Kalisa surprised herself doing something her past northern self would have never even envisioned: wandering in a market, not a silver in her pocket, purely for her own pleasure. Passersby barely considered her, and for those that did, it was her slenderness more than her white hair that drew attention. She was a scholar, built like a beggar.
And then, the sun filled the world, and she passed out.
Kalisa woke up in a bed, watched over by Crow and a thaumaturgus from the mosque. It took her a second to understand where she was. Date palms sprung through a series of white arches; ceramic aqueducts gleamed between the walls; arabesques and calligraphies drew sequences of sacred geometry on the ceiling. She was inside the great mosque, in the aisle where an order of healers offered its services. The mosque welcomed nobles and beggars equally. By doing so, it integrated itself in the complex system of gifts and counter-gifts Salicandre was built upon.
The thaumaturgus considered Kalisa with a keen eye, stroking his gray beard. His tunic wasn’t white but emerald green, a great way to rest his eyes after the sight of blood.
“It has been quite a while since I welcomed a weaver. My latest was your mistress, if memory serves. Third degree burns. I hope she got a new pyre.”
Crow seemed worried.
“What does she have?”
“Oh, don’t worry too much. A simple sun stroke. She’s not yet acclimated to our lands, that’s all.”
“She seemed quite delirious.”
“That’s a side effect. I’ll give her a few marjoram seeds. You’re quite nervous, Crow. What are you doing with that blade here? Expecting trouble?”
Crow promptly hid his dagger in the folds of his shirt. The thaumaturgus order considered blades as tools, not weapons. To bear a sword or a dagger in their presence was nigh-blasphematory. Suddenly, Kalisa sprung on her bed, waving towards the door, fifty meters away. She had caught the glimmer of sunlight on chainmail, worn beneath a linen doublet. Two sellswords, wearing wolf-themed heraldry. An older man, with a strong frame, and a blonde woman with eyes of tempered steel.
“Crow. Northern mercenaries. Wolves of Rena, that’s the company name.”
“Maybe they have a wounded comrade?”
The thaumaturgus shook his head.
“I haven’t had any northerner in my care for weeks.”
“And I don’t think they’re here just for a friendly visit. Crow, I’m out.”
“What is going on, exactly?”
“Dame Shanxi has a complicated relationship with the north.”
Crow clenched his firsts. Kalisa had put her veil back on, and her hair was hidden, but the illusion wouldn’t hold to scrutiny. He scanned the room. There were a handful of diseased and wounded under the arches, separated by white curtains. Six thaumaturgi helped them, two mistresses and four apprentices. Entering the mosque with weapons and armor was already a sacrilege. Crow had good reason to think they wouldn’t stop there. They probably believed in the personified god of incarnism and the mosque was pantheist. It had no religious value in their eyes. The fear of blasphemy that protected the building would have no power over them. Crow himself believed in other gods, and had alway had trouble taking these laws seriously. He whispered to the thaumaturgus.
“Can they force patients to come with them?”
“No. But if they draw their weapons, we won’t be able to do anything. If I may, what’s the feud between them and this weaver? Did she break a law?”
The question was without any ulterior motive. The healers helped everyone, without distinction. First because their divine law didn’t make any difference between humans. And, more importantly, because even criminals were a part of Salicandre’s system of gifts and counter-gifts.
“She may have broken the northern law, but not ours.”
The northerners were too close for Kalisa to slip away unnoticed and Crow decided to step in. He walked towards the old combatant, who seemed to be the head of the duo. He looked like a knight, was probably one. Many people were knighted in the north. It was kind of a past-time, in Crow’s eyes. What would bring such a man to Salicandre? Money, probably. Crow knew that the northern nobility was all but ruined.
“Sire,” he said with a smile, “how do you find our city of Salicandre?”
The north spoke low imperial, a language Crow was mostly fluent in. The old knight looked surprised, yet he answered.
“Too much sun, too much sand, too much dust. Who are you?”
“They call me Crow. You?”
“They call me Reinhardt.”
The knight had grabbed the pommel of his sword but Crow read no hostile intent and his eyes, merely caution. The gardener, however, couldn’t help but feel observed. The knight was gauging him.
“I would like to see this woman,” he said softly, waving towards Kalisa.
“It’s not a great idea. She only has a few hours left to live and I don’t think she can even hear us. She’s dying of yellow fever. A disease brought by swamps and dead waters. It carries you away in a few days with fever and dysentery. Not only would you waste the last moment of a dying woman, but you’d also catch the disease. It is highly contagious.”
The knight sneered.
“A scholar, I see. But as far as I know, the yellow fever is only contagious once, and I already caught it when I was a squire. Thus, I can see that person. I insist.”
Corbeau came closer to the knight.
The northerner strengthened his grip on the pommel of his rapier.
“I know you are no believer, but it would be a grave mistake to draw your blade on sacred soil.”
“And who will stop me? You? The city watch? All I saw was a bunch of indolent men and women, better suited to watching over the houses of fat merchants than anything else. And your…deity is powerless. Do you pantheists even have one?”
The knight stepped forwards. Crow unsheathed his dagger with unparalleled swiftness. The tip stopped a millimeter away from the knight’s neck, right against the chainmail gorgerin it would have had no trouble penetrating. The other mercenary reached for her rapier but did not unsheath it. The knight remained undisturbed.
“And your laws?”
“I believe in demons that have no place in here.”
“Thus here we are, two infidels on sacred ground.”
“Correction, knight. Two infidels on sacred ground and one of them holds a dagger to your neck.”
The knight sheathed his sword, gestured his comrade to leave and, finally, walked away as well. The thaumaturgus clapped his hands.
“Come on everyone! Back to work! people are dying here, and you’re watching like idiots!”
The man with the green tunic then grabbed Crow by the shoulders, as the gardener sheathed his dagger.
“Crow, it’s the last time you step foot in here. Whether you are wounded, diseased or bleeding out, I do not care. If you cross the door of my aisle once again, I’ll have you beaten by my apprentices. Is that clear?”
“You know, I have an alchemist at home. Never came here because I needed it.”
“And bring this weaver with you. I’d happily keep her here under my protection, but I see the people who are after her have no regards for the sanctity of this place. And next time, tell Hecate to handle her problems herself!”
Under the parvis of the pantheist mosque danced golden glimmers from the sacred geometry on the walls. Even outside the mosque, the vast building reflected the main principles of the old faith. The world was the divine. The divine was the world. The mosque wasn’t a place of worship but of revelation; a temple that magnified the beauty and order of the world. Crow didn’t seem to worry about the disturbances he had brought to this order. He glanced at the crowd instead, looking for the northerners.
Then Kalisa patted his shoulder. She had caught a glimpse of chainmail, amidst the veils and tunics. Corbeau ran to the side and down a flight of stairs. Kalisa followed. Behind them, she heard rustling, muffled shouts and heavy footsteps, as the nords tried to barge through the crowd.
“Follow me!” Yelled Crow.
Kalisa considered she had no real other choice. Crow ran through the Three Way plaza, then took a detour to the right, then left, following the narrow streets that ran alongside the parvis. The weaver could see they moved in the general direction of Hecate’s house, but the mercenaries were hot on their heels. They knew the city. Perhaps the old knight had visited Salicandre in his youth. Crow and Kalisa moved under the arches of an old market. The old knight tried to intercept them through a nearby street. Kalisa summoned a spark right in front of him. The knight recoiled. Crow grabbed him by the hips and pushed him against a wall. As they traversed a crowd, they stumbled upon two guards in black vestments, lightly armed, busy with tax collection. Crow hailed them. They seemed to know each other.
“Hey! We’re being pursued! Help us!”
“How much do you have and how many are they?”
“Lots of silver. There’s two of them. Nords.”
“Sod off, you damned bird!”
Hecate’s companion cursed them and pressed on. Kalisa and Crow took a bridge over a canal and kept running on the other bank. The street widened. Two passersby fell, pushed by the knight. The other sellsword dashed forwards through the opening, rapier in hand. Corbeau shoved Kalisa to the side, inside a covered alleyway that connected to a nearby plaza. The weaver fell, rolled on the pavement, and when she stood up again, the blonde sellsword had her rapier pointed towards her legs, ready to cut her tendons.
“Stop right here!”
The weaver grabbed a bucket of water lying around and threw its contents at the sellsword. She sneered at the paltry attempt, then her smile froze as well as her face when Kalisa snapped her fingers. The mercenary howled in pain, the weaver pushed her against the wall and outran her, Crow following right behind. The knight had come around and blocked the exit to the alleyway. Crow unsheathed a small knife and threw it. Such a weapon was better suited to a bar fight than anything else and the knight’s chainmail intercepted it easily, but it was enough to put him off-balance. Crow finished the job with a punch and caught up with Kalisa. The old knight, dazzled, was lagging behind. The blonde sellsword, however, didn’t give them an inch. She moved in the crowd and between the walls with staggering agility. She was more lightly equipped than Reinhardt, and her way of carrying both a rapier and a dueling dagger wasn’t that of northern combatants.
Crow told Kalisa to go right, in the last street that separated them from Hecate’s house. The sellsword intercepted him. She had climbed up an entire wall to get to him, a physical prowess Crow could admire if she had not been attempting to pin him with her sword in the same move. Kalisa’s ice attack had burst the sellsword’s tear ducts open; blood ran down her cheeks. Crow unsheathed his rapier. The blades met. He recoiled, outmatched. The knight was slowly getting closer, impaired by the crowd. Kalisa considered the door on the other side of the street. It was their only escape. She shoved it open. Crow broke contact with the sellsword and followed the weaver. The door led to the inner courtyard of an abandoned merchant house. Thieves had already plundered the place; while the lock was broken, Crow managed to barricade the door with the beam used to block it from the inside. The mercenaries started hacking at the door to break it. Kalisa looked for a way out. A flight of stairs went towards the first floor. Crow moved to climb it, but Kalisa stopped him.
“Wait. Do you have something to write?”
Crow threw her a stick of khôl he used to adorn his eyes. Kalisa quickly drew a sigil on the door in multiple, short, vicious strikes, then she followed Crow upstairs. The door broke open. The sigil exploded in a cloud of shards, showering the mercenaries in shards of wood. The fugitives traversed the dusty house, found a window that opened on the street. Crow broke it with the pommel of his sword and they jumped down. Kalisa felt something snap in her ankle as she made contact with the pavement.
They found themselves facing the ornate door of an old noble house. A peacock was carved in a bronze panel, overseeing the empty street. From the other side of the house, they heard groans of pain, but also the swift footsteps of the dagger-armed sellsword. Crow knocked on the door. Nothing. He opened it and slipped inside with Kalisa. A spiral staircase went down in the darkness of Salicandre’s underground. The weavers snapped her fingers and conjured a small sphere of light, just enough to light the path ahead. She grimaced. Her ankle hurt as if someone had put a dagger through her leg. Crow had to grab Kalisa to prevent her from falling. After a few minutes, the door barged open. Kalisa clenched her first, dousing her arcane light.
“Are they inside?”
“Can’t see anything.”
“That place is too dangerous. They must be familiar with these tunnels.”
“And we don’t have a numeric advantage either.”
“We need torches.”
“And where are we gonna find them? That district is a ruin.”
“I don’t know. Go search for a market or a guard house. I stay here.”
The door closed again. Kalisa let her light go again.
“Is it true that you know this place?”
“No. There are hundreds of kilometers of tunnels under Salicandre and I barely know the ones that radiate from Hecate’s house. We need to find an exit.”
They kept descending. After a while, the staircase stopped and led to a large underground room, perhaps an old cellar the thieves had thoroughly emptied. Kalisa raised her hand.
“Stop. I need to rest.”
She sat on the pavement. Crow untied her right shoe and examined the ankle.
“It’s a bit swollen, but I don’t think you’ve broken anything. I don’t have anything on me to help with the pain. Can’t you do something?”
“I don’t know. You’re a weaver.”
“Right. Crow, did Hecate tell you about the way our abilities work?”
“Not really. I’m more familiar with Hecate as an alchemist rather than a weaver.”
“Each weaver has her own way of interacting with the world, her own formulae, her own secret codes, her own rituals. There are no schools of magic or similar, because if magic could be explained and rationalized, then it would cease to be magic. Every weaver develops her own magic. When I was serving nobles in the Septentrion, I was forbidden from using the occult on myself, and thus I am ignorant of a lot of methods my sisters in weaving use. I don’t know how to heal a strained ankle, for instance.”
“Why forbid this?”
“For the same reason a serf cannot marry someone who doesn’t have the same liege without the authorization of their overlord. It’s about exerting control on the low-born. Creating dependency. A court weaver that can control her own body is dangerous. For instance, she can decide never to have children.”
“Oh. Sorry if I hurt a nerve.”
“I’ll be fine.”
They pressed on. The room became wider, to a point Kalisa’s little light couldn’t cast the shadows away. She could make out, here and there, the arches of a storage area. Old, broken barrels were visible in the corners. They smelled like vinegar. Crow examined one of the least damaged barrels and found a property mark on the iron rings.
“Broken circle, that’s the symbol of the Azul family. Wine traders, when that quarter was prosperous. Followers of the Great Peacock, just like me.”
“Don’t your traditions forbid you from drinking wine?”
“Drinking, yes. Not tasting or making it.”
“What happened to the Azul?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary for Salicandre. They forgot the city’s first rule. We are not a democracy. Salicandre is not fair and its laws are malleable, but you can always negotiate. The Azul ended up thinking they could do away with that.”
The door, up the stairs, slid open. Kalisa and Crow moved deeper in the darkness. A grill separated the cellar from a flight of stairs going to the surface, linking the tunnel to the old Azul villa. Crow failed to open it. Kalisa found another passage, which went further into the night. They walked through a long alleyway, filled with water seeping from a multitude of cracks in the walls. The stone had changed. It was older, from a bygone age of the city.
The alleyway opened on a vast underground trench, as large as a ship-worthy canal, at the bottom of which they found dark, stagnant water. The air was still and smelled like dust.
“The old karez…” whispered Crow.
“What is it? Some old underground aqueduct?”
“Yes. In the distant past of Salicandre, the old queens built an immense underground aqueduct that brought water from a desert oasis, some fifty kilometers away from Salicandre. Centuries later, the oases dried out and the current karez, by the lake, was built. I don’t know which arcane powers were used to build that canal but mathematically speaking, it’s a marvel. The slope was calculated so that it would remain constant over fifty thousand meters.”
“You seem to admire the old architects of Salicandre.”
“Eh. Do you know why some in Salicandre say our Great Peacock is a demon? Our people has a proud tradition of mathematicians and builders. The architecture of the old karez is our work, even if we did not build it. The old weavers called our god a demon, because they thought we were a threat to their social status. But as time passed, that name became a source of pride for us. In old Salicandrian, a demon is named djinn. It is neither good, nor bad. Right. The karez flows east to west. If we follow the water stream, as weak as it is, we’ll find Hecate’s house.”
Kalisa wanted to take the stairs that led towards the bottom of the karez, but Crow stopped her.
“Wait. Some old houses still dump their sewage in the canal. Cholera may inhabit these waters. We’ll be better off using the architect’s bridge. They run parallel to the canal, above the water.”
Kalisa limped behind Crow. A few meters later, the darkness revealed a fragile-looking bridge made of imputrescible wood that stood parallel to the slope of the karez. In ancient times, it had probably been used to inspect the karez and oversee repairs, though Kalisa. She briefly pictured the flowing waters, when the district had not been yet ruined. The streams coming from the distant desert, and the ceaseless rumble accompanying them. The bridge was narrow, but two railings of rope made it somewhat usable — at least much more than the slippery banks of the canal. The longevity of that rope was intriguing, and as Kalisa grazed it she felt golden shivers run up her veins. If the occult sigils used to carve the soil open had since long dissipated, the minor signs employed to prevent the bridge from rotting remained still. Kalisa had always been fascinated by the persistence of the works of ancient weavers, more so than by its power.
“I might need to tell you what happened in the north. After all, it’s my fault if we are here.”
“You don’t have to, Kalisa. I’m not only a gardener, as you may have noticed. I already fought for Hecate, and trust me, it was often for very minor things. I once almost lost a finger for a single eternal flower…”
“It’s still more honest that way. I come from a family of low-born peasants. A combination that doesn’t make it easy to seek the protection of a city and its charter. However, I was a weaver too, and a noble family found me to its tastes. The dukes of Embruine. One of the last truly powerful fragments of northern nobility. I quickly understood they mostly wanted an ornament to put on a shelf, and then they tried to have me married. The problem being that a woman with occult powers is a woman you want to have children with, for prestige and in the hopes of having a weaver among your descendents. And…”
“You can’t have children?”
“I’m asexual, Crow. It’s not that I can’t feel love, or desire, or even a form of sensual pleasure, it’s just that the sexual act itself leaves me completely, utterly indifferent. And I can’t force myself to do it, even to give a child to someone. I’m not…frigid or anything. That’s just how I am. The Embruine knew that from the start, but they thought I was just a naive girl they could easily convince.”
“I think I can understand. I can only feel desire for men, for instance. I assume that, if I was expected to give a woman a child, I’d feel absolutely awful. That’s just how the Great Peacock made you. There’s nothing else to say. And so…you left?”
“With a healthy dose of self-loathing and like a thief, yes. I really hate myself for having been lured like this by the light of nobility. What was I doing here? It wasn’t my world, nor my place.”
“And what is your place?”
“If I had found it, I wouldn’t be crawling in a karez like an idiot.”
“Could be worse. You could…”
Crow heard a rustle behind them. A dancing flame appeared in the darkness, far away in the karez. Kalisa doused her light again and put her veil back on so that her white hair wouldn't catch a glimpse. The knight moved towards them, cautiously, rapier drawn. Where was the other sellsword?
A shadow appeared in front of her. It unfolded, revealing a sword, a dagger, and face covered in dried blood.
Crow drew his sword. Kalisa stood up to the northerner.
“Tell me. Why go to such lengths? This is not the first time the Embruine lose a future mother. What justifies sending two mercenaries all the way to Salicandre?”
“Where is the child?”
Kalisa raised her hand, as if to school the mercenary, then froze and had a nervous laugh.
“The…you lot can’t be for real…there’s no child. The union with my companion was never consumed. You’re here for nothing. I left the north five months ago. My belly was as flat as a plank. If I had had a kid, I’d be visibly pregnant by now. Do I look like it? Just, go the hell away. Come back home and tell the duke he can search for another weaver, because this one is done.”
“Kalisa of Embruine, you…””
“That wasn’t a question.”
Crow used his free hand to take Kalisa’s arm, discreetly pointing at the ropes of the bridge. The sellsword spat on the ground.
“And I wasn’t going to answer you. Follow me, or I cut your tendons and I carry you all the way back to the north.”
“It’s quite the obsession with you, isn’t it.”
The sellsword drew closer. With her rapier, she kept Crow at bay, while her dagger followed Kalisa’s movements.
“Very well, Kalisa of Embruine. I’ve been paid to bring you back, but the contract never specified that you had to be intact. I’ll cut your tendons, break your bones, I’ll make sure you can never walk again, that you can never flee again.”
Kalisa breathed in. She pictured the world around her, like an infinity of layers, piled on top of each other. She was a pin, linking them all together.
“My name is Kalisa Shanxi, daughter of peasants and witches, granddaughter of an alchemist. You can threaten me to your leisure, I walked five thousand miles, I faced wolves, brigands, retreating armies, storms and rain and you can think that, even for a second, anything you can say has any importance to me? That I haven’t heard these threats a hundred times already?”
The ropes and wood started freezing in time and space in a concentric circle. Thus was Kalisa’s world, thus was the way she exerted power. The pin was in the center, she was the pin, and as it moved an inch, reality unraveled.
She signaled Crow. He stepped back, as if gearing up for an attack. Kalisa clenched her fist. The rope snapped. The bridge trembled. The sellsword lunged. Crow parried. Kalisa ordered the rope to swing back like a whip and the northerner lost her balance. She slipped on the bridge and fell in the shallow water, without a sound. Something cracked. Her neck broke and she remained there, still and silent, eyes open on the ancient ceiling.
Crow and Kalisa started running forwards, as the bridge became more and more unstable. Behind them, the torch stirred like a feverish insect. In front of them, the karez suddenly became wider, revealing a large underground hall. Kalisa waved her hand and the walls responded to her presence. Thousands upon thousands of bricks, surrounding a vast pyramid-shaped structure, emerging from a silent lake of dead water. Kalisa’s ankle was a searing blade of pain.
Crow shook his head.
“I don’t know. Perhaps a water treatment chamber or…something else. I don’t recognize the symbols on the stones. Perhaps the marks of stone-cutters.”
“Or the sigils of the weavers who built this place. I don’t know what kind of power was used to open that well and keep it from crumbling, but I can still physically feel it.”
“We should press on.”
“No…I can’t. My ankle is too painful.”
Crow contemplated the pavement around the pyramid. Under Kalisa’s steps, the stone took a dark red colour, like the still-warm embers of a fire. Flames in the night — then heavy footsteps, and the old knight entered the chamber. He was battle-ready, a helmet on his head, chainmail reflecting the faint glow of the bricks. He held a two-handed sword in a low guard stance. Crow turned around to face him. Right next to him, Kalisa leaned against the pyramid, gathering her hands above her solar plexus. A small sphere of flames appeared between her digits. Kalisa closed her eyes. The power of Salicandre’s ancient weavers ran through her. The pin with which she would unravel the world was still here, but it was way older than Kalisa. It was the concrete expression of a power that belonged to other women, to other weavers, that had curbed stone and earth into submission to open the karez. Thus was her place in the world, she thought. She was yet another stone on an endless path opened by thousands, maybe millions of her ancestors across history, dispersed to the four corners of the world by the randomness of nature. Some of them had been empresses, architects or war-mistresses, deconstructing and reconstructing the world to their will. Most, however, had never escaped obscurity, and yet each one of their lives had been a miracle. They had helped fields grow, they had been gifted artisans, they had healed the diseased and the wounded. They had, everywhere, everytime, worked towards making the world a little bit brighter, a little bit sweeter, a little less hostile. And suddenly, Kalisa felt something new. Confidence.
She spread her arms, palms skywards. Her feet left the ground, and she levitated in absolute silence, stabilizing herself a few meters above ground.
“Reinhardt! Look at me! I am a weaver. I belong to the people who opened that canal under the earth, who kept the dead walls of Salicandre from crumbling for a thousand years. I belong to the women that forged the world to their liking, be they empresses or farmers! And you come here to satisfy the petty desires of a disappointed duke and betrayed son. Look at me. Look at me, and despair at the stupidity of your quest!”
The old knight removed his helmet and let go of it. He looked exhausted. His gray hair was drenched in sweat. He was resigned, fully accepting of his fate.
“I know it’s meaningless. But I don’t have a choice. I went too far.”
He took another step forwards, raising his sword in a higher stance. Kalisa’s eyes gleamed like barely contained suns.
Crow stepped in.
“Wait. Reinhardt. Who was this woman who accompanied you?”
“Her name was Auriol. Just an associate. Nothing more.”
“You must have a family, right? Children, or maybe some lands to fund? One doesn’t cross the continent and run after a weaver for nothing. Whatever your reasons, I understand. You can’t run back home with empty hands. And you do not have to. I serve a powerful woman. You are a well-trained warrior and a courageous man. Accept her protection.”
“What guarantees do I have?”
“You have my word, sworn on the Great Peacock. My god contributed to the construction of this karez. Their name is as strong as the stones, and as old as the aqueduct.”
The weaver gathered her hands again.
“I do not want to kill for a second time. The Embruine are not worth it.”
Reinhardt looked up to her.
“Very well. I do not know if I am a man of honor, but I am sick of walking. I am sick of being the Embruine’s rat.”
Then, with an exhausted smile, he let go of his sword.
The sun was about to set when Kalisa, Crow and Reinhardt left the Salicandrian underground. The weaver limped back towards Hecate’s house, leaning on the gardener. The alchemist sighed with relief when she saw them. Having not seen them come back, she was about to venture outside, weaving a powerful enchantment around her. The old knight bowed.
“Lady Hecate. My name is Reinhardt of Peyruise. The Embruine tasked me with finding Kalisa and bringing her back to the north. I broke the contract and want to place myself under your protection. Would you agree?”
The alchemist smiled and took his hand.
“Of course. But I would like you to repair some of the damage you made first. Do you trust me?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Hecate closed her eyes and whispered something in her own secret tongue, the language of her magic. Reinhardt staggered and grimaced as a large wound appeared alongside his arm, while Kalisa’s wounded ankle reverted back to normal.
“Stand up,” said Hecate, “and go find a room in a tavern. I will summon you whenever I have need of your services. My mark is on you, knight. Do not betray me.”
“You have such misconceptions about northern people…”
“Then, prove me wrong.”
He saluted and left. Hecate took Kalisa by her side and they climbed the stairs together, towards the balcony. The city shimmered under the setting sun. Temple bells rang in the twilight. Mosques and churches blended together in the cypress trees. Oh, thought Kalisa. To the eternal city, to the lost sea.
Art by Dean Spencer. Used with permission, all rights reserved.
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