Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Bard's Apprentice, Chapters 32 to 34

Chapter Thirty-Two

Fox could see the moon shining through the window. Only one sliver of it was visible, like a silver sickle. But the sky was cloudless, and white light flooded the room.

He started to rock in his bonds, knowing he couldn’t escape, but unable to stay still and wait for the blade to fall.

“Stop doing that”, said Swan, his voice becoming more firm. “If you keep it up I’ll cut this rope right now.” He lifted a knife that glinted in the moonlight, a thin knife with a jagged edge. Fox stopped trashing. He thought his heart was going to stop with fear at any moment.

“Now listen to me, Fox,”, said Swan, taking a step towards him. Fox stiffened. Swan was smiling, and his smile was so friendly that Fox thought, for a moment, that it was all some horrible prank.

“I don’t want to hurt you”, he said, and he extended a hand towards Fox. His fingers closed around Fox’s forearm. His grip was firm but not tight. “I don’t think you’re going to be hurt. I think you’re going to be just fine.”

Fox felt tears burning in his eyes. He blinked, and they rolled down his cheeks, hot and slow.

“This really is the only way to do it. From everything you told me, the power—the purple flash, the transport, the jumping spell, whatever you want to call it—seems to work best when you’re in danger. It’s worked at other times, too, but there’s no guessing those times. And it’s only when you’re in immediate danger of your life, too. It might have saved you a half-a-dozen other times, but it didn’t. It always left it to the very last moment.”

Fox looked up at the blade above him. It seemed to be balanced directly above his neck. He whimpered.

“And that would fit with what other people have said”, said Swan. Fox looked back at him. He looked pained, unwilling, but driven by some overwhelming force. “There have been tales of magical purple stones on this world, too. Not very many, and not for a long time, but they’re there. Buried under layers of legend, but there. And, when you’ve listened to as many old stories as I have, you get to telling the truth from the lies.”

Swan gazed into Fox’s eyes as if they were having this conversation over spiced wine, as if Fox had not been tied up and did not have a blade hanging above him.

“That’s why it’s got to be the blade, Fox. When I cut this rope, nothing could save you except for that wonderful power of yours. And, from all I’ve heard, the power seems to work for those around the...magical one.. too. It whisked away Grandy and Piper and the rest, didn’t it?”

Swan’s grip tightened on Fox’s arm with excitement. His eyes flashed.

“This is what I want you to do, Fox. You know how you were thinking of the pictures in my book, when the purple flash brought you here? That’s why I gave it to you, you know.” He smiled, as if congratulating himself on his cleverness. “I want you to imagine something else.”

He leaned over Fox, and Fox could smell the wine on his breath. He guessed he had not been to sleep, but had been drinking all night, getting ready for this drama. And what had he put in Fox’s glass, to put him to sleep so heavily?

“The stories tell of it”, Swan continued, getting more excited with every word. “A world, or a land, or a city—it’s not quite clear—called Luria.”

Luria. When Swan said the name, an extraordinary feeling passed over Fox. He felt that he not only recognised it, but that it was even more familiar than his own name. And yet, he was sure he had never heard it. The magic of the name almost quenched his fear, for a moment.

“The one thing they all agree on”, said Swan, “is a lake of purple fire. That’s the very words they use, without exception; a lake of purple fire. So imagine that, Fox, and all will be well.”

He saw a troubled look pass over the man’s face. It looked like guilt.

“I think fate brought us together, just like you said”. There was almost a plea in the words, as if he was begging the boy to forgive him before he released the blade. “You have this power, this miraculous ability. I have the knowledge...the knowledge that can guide you to that ability’s source. And I have the need to see it. To see its source.” He paused, and for a moment Fox could imagine an unspeakable weight pressing down upon the man. “I really do need to see it, Fox. It’s not a question of right or wong. It’s like air to a suffocating man. I hope you can understand that.”

Fox closed his eyes. He tried to imagine a lake of purple fire. He tried to think of nothing except that lake.

There was silence for a minute, two minutes. Every single moment Fox expected the sound of a knife slicing through rope. Then a knock came at the door.

It was a soft knock, but in the dead of night, it echoed through the room. Fox’s heart stopped, and then started thumping faster than ever before.

The knock came again several times, and then a voice. “Fawks?”. It took a moment for Fox to recognise it. It was the voice of the oldest maid, the one who had brought him to the library that morning.

She called his name a few more times, rapping even harder on the door. He heard her trying to open it. It was locked.

“I swear she’s half a witch”, said Swan, in the lowest and most agitated whisper Fox had ever heard. “Well, that does it. Think of the lake, Fox. Here goes.”

Swan’s grasp tightened on his arm, the maid outside began to bang loudly on the door, and Fox heard the whish of a knife and the snap of a rope. He didn’t see the blade fall, because his eyes were shut tight. He was trying, harder than he had ever tried anything in his life, to imagine a lake of purple fire.

Chapter Thirty-Three

And then it came, right on time; the purple flash, that had refused to appear when he was wandering on the streets of Arganth, cold and in pain.

But this time it was different. Before, it had been a deep, dark purple. Now it was dazzling. He had to close his eyes, and the darkness behind his lids was still coloured purple.

He could feel Swan’s hand gripping him still. After a few moments he felt him letting him go. But he was barely conscious of anything beyond that glow filling the universe, filling his mind. It inspired him with so many emotions that telling them apart would be hopeless; everything from ecstasy to horror, from excitement to the most profound peace. He forgot all about the blade that had been hanging above his head.

This time the flash did not pass in a moment, as it had on previous occasions. This time it lingered for what seemed an endless time. He felt like he had disappeared, and become nothing but his thoughts.

Slowly, the purple glow that filled all space began to shrink. Black edges appeared around the edge of vision, and grew thicker. The glow itself began to come...alive. It began to move and flicker. He saw what seemed like waves, or flames. The lake of purple fire, he remembered.

The vision came into focus slowly. It was a lake. It was a fire. One moment it was one, another moment it was the other. He still had little sense of perspective, but he could see that it was immense. It seemed to be perfectly circular.

Now it seemed that the centre of the lake seemed to be fire, the edges seemed water; both of them coloured the same rich purple. He was unable to see a point where the waves became flames; they simply blended into each other, absurd as it might seem. It didn’t look absurd. It was beautiful beyond description. Even the waves closest to him had something fire-like in the way they shone; the blaze at the centre of the lake sometimes looked like a mighty river’s waters.

He could feel the heat of that great fire from here, but it was too far away to cause discomfort. No, from this distance, it was an enveloping, tender warmth. He could smell it, too. It reminded him of a combination of smells from Jasma’s kitchen; steam and hot bread, along with a myriad of unnamed and faint and bewitching spices.

The lake held his attention for a long time, and made him forget everything that had led him to this moment. But then the darkness around the lake began to to come into focus, too. Reluctantly, Fox took his eyes from the fiery waters to see what sort of place he was in.

He was underground; that much was plain. An enormous rocky ceiling covered the lake of fire. It was not a smooth ceiling; it was uneven and craggy. The rock was dark grey, almost black, but with a faint red glow that seemed to come from within, rather than being a reflection of the fiery waters.

He was standing in a cave, but he could see many more caves—hundreds, perhaps thousands—studded in the rockface around the lake. He could see people standing some of them, but they were far away, and difficult to make out.

Suddenly he remembered the blade and the terror of the moment before. He looked to his side, to where Swan had been. He shuddered when he saw what was there now.

Swan was standing beside him, staring at the lake of fire. But he had been transformed. He was no longer a breathing being of flesh and bone. He had become a statue, formed of the same reddish-grey rock as the rest of the cave. There was a look of wonder on his frozen features. Swan had got his heart’s desire, and had paid the highest price for it. One arm still reached towards Fox, the fingers of the hand stretched open with surprise.

Fox hadn’t got time to wonder over this transformation. He heard footsteps from further in the cave, coming towards him.

His first instinct was to run, to hide. After the trap with the little girl, and after Swan’s betrayal, he expected hostility from all quarters. But a look around the cave showed him it was useless. There was nowhere to hide himself; the walls of this cave were as rugged as the great cavern outside, but there was no nook big enough to cover him. Short of jumping into the lake, whose furthest edges looked like they might be bottomless, he had little choice but to stand there and wait. He tensed, without believing for a moment that he could really resist whatever was approaching him.

The cave grewer narrower further back, until it became a passage, black with shadows. From these shadows stepped the form of a tall man. He was bald. He had a handsome face, but there was a deep scar across his it. He wore a light robe of black and amber stripes, over black trousers of some sort. He was looking at Fox, and he did not look happy.

As he came closer, Fox found himself trying to guess his age, but it was impossible. He might have been anything from thirty to sixty, but even this seemed wrong. He looked centuries old. Something in the way he walked made it seem as though his legs had carried him thousands upon thousands of miles. The light in his eyes convinced Fox that they had seen a hundred times more than most eyes saw in a lifetime.

And he looked disturbed.

“Not yet”, Fox heard him muttering when he came close enough to be heard. He spoke in the language of the Empire, to Fox’s surprise. His voice was deep, but his tones were cultured. “Too soon, far too soon.”

The man looked at Fox as though he knew him. He seemed upset but not all surprised.

“Where am I?”, he asked.

“I think you know where you are”, said the man, almost bitterly.



Speaking the syllables gave Fox a sudden strength. They seemed to make his spirit expand, like wind filling out a sail. But he still watched the man nervously.

“This is Luria”, he repeated, sounding resigned now “and my name is Kandorian. I’m sorry for my cold welcome. We weren’t expecting you for a long time yet, Fox.”

“How do you know my name?”, asked Fox, trying not to sound too confused, too lost.

“I’ve been watching you”, said Kandorian. Fox couldn’t decide what colour his eyes were. One moment they seemed grey, another blue, another green.

But always they sparkled with extraordinary brightness. He seemed both gentle and deadly at once.

“Watching me?”, asked Fox. “How?”

“The lake, Fox”, said Kandorian, waving his hand towards the water. “Just look, and pay attention.”

Fox looked back at the lake. All he saw were the flame-like waves he had seen before. The more he looked, the less like either fire or water they seemed, and the more like some kind of element that resembled both. But he still didn’t know what Kandorian wanted him to see. He had opened his mouth to ask, when suddenly he saw.

They were images in the water, or the fire, or whatever it was. At first they were blurry, but they sharpened the more he looked. It was just like seeing pictures in the fire, but they were much more than shapes that just reminded him of pictures. The pictures were there, perfect. It was just like looking through a pane of purple glass.

The image was that of the old maid who had been knocking at the door, back in Swan’s house. She was standing by the bed, looking at the blade which had fallen through thin air, landing on the mattress and slicing into it. The frown on her face seemed more confused than alarmed.

“I wish I could tell her what happened”, said Fox. “I wish I could tell her I’m alright.”

“I think she has a pretty good idea what happened”, said Kandorian. “Only fools use the term old wives’ tales as an insult. That lady knows plenty of old wives’ tales.”

“How do you know my language?”, asked Fox. “What is this place, exactly? And how come you were watching me?”. All of a sudden he felt frustrated, tired of being whisked from world to world, from place to place. He wanted an explanation. Realising that Kandorian wasn’t going to harm him made him brave.

Kandorian crossed his arms and smiled. Fox would have found it difficult to imagine a smile on that face a moment before. Now, he guessed that Kandorian smiled a lot. “And to think I expected you to be lost for words! Well, it does me good to be wrong from time to time.”

Fox flushed. Did he really think he could order this man around?

“Well, then”, said Kandorian, looking Fox up and down as if he was measuring him. “To answer your questions in order. I know your language because I came from the same world as you, many years ago. Though I know plenty of other languages besides”, he added, with a hint of vanity.

“As for what this place is exactly, I don’t know who could tell you that. Suffice it to say that Luria is the home of the Bards. And a Bard is what you are supposed to become, Fox. What I’m supposed to make of you.” He grimaced a little with these words.

“A Bard?”, asked Fox, wondering why the name Luria seemed so familiar to him when none of this other stuff did. “What’s a Bard?”

“Don’t you know your own language? A Bard is somebody who goes from place to place, reciting poems and telling stories and being paid with dirty looks and watered-down beer. The only difference is that the Bards of Luria go from world to world, and that we have a habit of getting mixed up in stories, as well as telling them.”

“Stories?”, repeated Fox, trying to make sense of Kandorian’s words and failing utterly. “Poems?”

“Isn’t that what you wanted when you went to Armala?”, asked Kandorian, raising his eyebrows.

Fox thought of the storyteller’s face, picturing it as it would sometimes appear in the light of the tamzan fire, like a mask made of gold. “Is Armala a Bard? Does she know about Luria?”

“She doesn’t know”, said Kandorian. “But she wouldn’t be surprised if she did. Armala is as wise as any Bard, Fox. Wiser than most, perhaps.”

Fox looked down. He was surprised by how ashamed he felt. He had begun to think of Armala as…well, almost as a foolish old woman. She was a guide who had taught him all she had to teach him, he’d started to think; he had grown past her. Now he realised how false that was.

“As for your third question”, said Kandorian. “Why was I watching you? That one is easily answered, at least. I was watching you because Luria has chosen you as a Bard.”

Luria chose me?”, asked Fox, feeling more confused with each of Kandorian’s answers. “Is Luria alive?”

“Certainly it’s alive”, said Kandorian. “Though in a different way from me and you. That purple stone that crossed your path was a piece of Luria, Fox. There are thousands of them, scattered amongst the worlds. They can go years and years without choosing anybody, and then somebody crosses their path who seems to fit the bill. Not always an obvious choice”, said Kandorian, looking at Fox a little doubtfully. “But Luria knows better than us.”

“How many Bards are there?”, asked Fox.

“Never more than twelve thousand”, said Kandorian. “Men and women, drawn from tens of thousands of worlds. They tend to die a lot, so there’s a constant stream of replacements. But a twelve-year-old apprentice...I’ve never heard of that before. Too soon”, he said again, though it seemed more to himself than Fox.

“Why—“, Fox began, but Kandorian raised his hand, warding off the question.

“Enough for now”, he said. “Bards treat the Lake of Fire with great respect, Fox. Chatting by its edge is not an example of that respect. Let me show you the rest of Luria, and you can attack me with your questions as we go.”

And Kandorian led Fox towards the shadows from which he had emerged, and into the depths of Luria. The thing that had once been Swan gazed out into the fiery lake, wearing the expression of amazement that it would wear for thousands of years to come.

Chapter Thirty-Four

The cave narrowed to a passage at its far end, just about wide enough to walk through. The faint glow from the rock was enough to see by. It threw a scarlet light over everything. Fox felt a great reluctance to leave the lake behind—it was like getting out of a bath on a cold day. There was something addictive about the fiery lake. But he followed the Bard.

“What made you come to the lake?”, asked Fox. “How did you know I was there?”

“When you’ve been watching somebody”, said Kandorian, from a few paces ahead, “you develop a connection with them. After a few decades of practice, that is.”

Decades of practice? A thought struck Fox, exciting him. “Do Bards live longer than other people?”, he asked.

Kandorian laughed, a laugh that was almost bitter. “Only in experiences”, said Kandorian. “We get plenty of those. But no, being a Bard doesn’t put years on your life, I’m afraid. Sometimes it drastically shortens it. I first came to Luria when I was seventeen. I’m fifty-six now. That’s a lot of Barding, I can tell you.”

“And how come you…”, Fox started, and hesitated, wondering what term he should use.

“How come I got you as an apprentice?”, asked Kandorian. “Put that down to the weird wisdom of Luria. I was gazing into the lake and I saw your image. That made you my responsibility. I’ve been watching you from the day you disappeared from your grandfather’s house. I didn’t expect to meet you so soon.”

“What age should I have been?”

“I was very young for an apprentice, at seventeen. Most are nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years of age before they Set Foot. Some have been sixteen. But twelve years old…” Kandorian’s voice was not admiring, or congratulatory. It was troubled. “That idiot Swan. I should have guessed what he was about.”

“What’s wrong? What happens if I’m too young, Kandorian?”.

Kandorian stopped, and turned to face Fox. The red glow from the rock made his face look eery. “Fox, a Bard’s most important training is done outside Luria. That’s when he grows as a person, when he develops his own powers of understanding. A Bard should come to Luria of his own free will, not be pushed there by another. Finding Luria is the most important part. That’s been taken from you, forever. You may never be able to overcome that loss.”

Dismay filled Fox at the sorrow in Kandorian’s voice, the worry in his eyes. But then, as if sensing the boy’s anguish, the Bard smiled.

“Well, nobody believed that I would live past my fifth year, I’ve been told. And they said that Josper Stronghouse would never rise in the world, with his fits and his bouts of mania.”

Josper Stronghouse. It was so strange to hear that name here, so far from Grandy’s “library”. “He had a fit before the Battle of Dead Man’s Gap”, said Fox, keen to display the knowledge he had taken from those precious twelve volumes.

“So I’ve read”, said Kandorian, not seeming in the least impressed. “Take my hand here, Fox, and look beneath you. There are pitfalls.”

They walked on for perhaps twenty minutes, Kandorian explaining the ways of the Bards as they walked. Bards spent as much time out of Luria as within it, it seemed. Once a day they stood by the edge of the Lake, gazing into its depths. If Luria wanted them to travel to a world, an image of that world appeared, and they stepped through there and then. Sometimes nothing eventful happened during their stay; they told their stories and their poems, picked up new ones, and Luria called them home when the time had come, just as it had pulled Fox from Swan’s house.

But sometimes there was more to it than that. Luria had a habit of sending its Bards into times of great commotions; revolutions, wars, conspiracies, disasters, discoveries. Often the drama would not involve nations or cities, but villages, or families, or just a hermit living alone on an island. It was not unknown for a Bard to be sent amongst birds or goats, to observe their wordless lives.

“Luria is pretty picky about where exactly it lands you”, said Kandorian. “Usually you don’t have any choice except to take a part in events. Like when it dropped me in the throne-room of a King Silvershower just as his enemies were surrounding it, swearing to kill everyone inside.”

“So what does an apprentice do?”, asked Fox.

“He follows his Bard”, said Kandorian. “Through thick and thin, through wet and dry, through disaster and boredom. He polishes his Bard’s boots, and saddles his horse when he has one, and lights the fires, and runs messages. After four or five years of polishing boots, he knows how to be a Bard himself. When in Luria, he spends a lot of time memorising poems and stories, and cooking, and spinning, and laundering.”

The passages were growing broader now. They had passed about a dozen hollows that seemed like cave-mouths, and firelight and voices had escaped from two or three of them.

“How many apprentices have you had?”, asked Fox.

Kandorian’s face stiffened. “Three”, he said. “One of them never lived to become a Bard. Now let’s put our mouths to better use than talking.”

Yellow light was flooding from the right-hand wall of the passage, and Fox could hear laughter. Thirty paces further down, he could see a narrow cave-mouth, and smell something that made his belly wake up.

“The Luria diet is simple, but wholesome”, said Kandorian, as they made their way to the source of the delicious scent. “Another of your duties as an apprentice will be food-gathering. There is a land called Garassia, in a world we call the Pantry World, whose farmers are the most well-entertained farmers in all the nations that we’ve visited. Centuries of exchanging food for stories have made them the most discerning audience in the Hundred Thousand Worlds.”

“There are a hundred thousand worlds?”, asked Fox, surprised.

“That’s just a term we use”, said Kandorian. “There are considerably more than that really.”

They entered the cave. The ceiling was high, so high that it was obscured by shadows and clouds of steam. It was difficult to work out how deep the cave was, either, since so many people thronged its narrow space. They milled around a long table, a table flanked by two benches that seemed to run its entire length. Kandorian pushed him onto an empty space, and sat beside him. The table was so smoke-blackened, so scratched and stained that it was impossible to tell what colour it had been originally, or what wood it was made from.

The Luria diet may have been plain, but it was also plentiful. Plates were piled with red meat, brown meat, white meat, potatoes, peas and many other vegetable Fox didn’t recognise. In between the diners lay plates heavy with thick breads, and jugs of various sauces and gravies. But the Bards seemed hardly interested in the food, though they were certainly wolfing it down. They were more intent upon their discussions. Each one of them was lost in some argument or debate, either with an immediate neighbour or the surrounding company in general. The thick scent of food and the excited babble mixed together in the air, and Fox immediately felt a surge of love. No place had ever felt more welcoming to him, though nobody seemed to even notice their coming.

Fox was surprised by how unremarkable the Bards seemed. There were at least a hundred along the table, and they could have been any hundred people he might pass on a city street. There were men and women, young and old, fair and dark. The only thing they had in common, on the surface, was that they all wore robes like Kandorian’s. But even their robes were of many different colours and patterns. Some were plain white or black or red, some were striped or hooped or quartered several colours. Some had insignia upon them, like the snake with angel’s wings on the chest of one lady across the table.

“What does the black and amber on your robe mean, Kandorian?”, whispered Fox.

“It means I like those colours”, said Kandorian, filling his cup with reddish liquid from something that looked like a teapot.

Two young men, who looked hardly older than twenty—Fox guessed they were apprentices, though they wore no special clothes, just the same sort of robes as the Bards—appeared from behind and set down wooden plates in front of them. The plates were already heaped with food. Only the choosiest eater would fail to find something that he liked in such a mound.

Fox realised that the two apprentices were staring at him, furtively. He looked around the table. He was the focus of more than one pair of eyes, more than one whispered discussion. People looked away when he met their gaze and pretended to be talking about something else.

“Nobody’s ever seen a child in here before”, said Kandorian, without looking up from his plate. He was cutting what looked like a hefty slice of beef. “You’ll be the talk of Luria tonight, you know.”

Fox instinctively strained to make out what people were saying, though he knew it was unlikely anybody would be speaking the language of the Empire. But, now that he listened to them, he realised that they were all speaking the same language. It was crisp, guttural, hard-edged to Fox’s ears.

“What language is that?”, he asked Kandorian.

Kandorian was chewing his piece of meat now, and it took him the best part of a minute before he could respond. He was not a dainty eater. Gravy dribbled down his chin “It’s Lurian”, he said. “And you’re expected to learn it, too. When I came to Luria, full of notions about poetry, I thought it was a very unpoetic sort of language. Now I realise there’s no such thing as a language that’s not poetic. You might as well talk about an ugly countryside, or a pointless animal.”

More Armala talk, thought Fox, and poured some of the red liquid into his own cup. He took a sip. For a moment it didn’t taste like anything much. Then he felt a tingling in all his veins, and a warm glow spread through all his body. He took another sip.

“Bard’s blood”, said Kandorian, nodding at the cup. “Not literally, of course”, he added, when he saw Fox’s reaction. “A mixture of berries found on five different worlds. The harderst part of an apprentice’s life is learning how to mix it.”

“Really?”, asked Fox, who was never sure when Kandorian was being serious.

“Maybe”, said Kandorian.

One of the apprentices appeared behind Kandorian, whispering him some question while darting an occasional glance at Fox. He wasn’t sure that it was a friendly look. Kandorian gave a quick nod, and looked towards Fox.

“They want to know what kind of a robe you want”, asked Kandorian, and when Fox only stared from the apprentice to the Bard, Kandorian took the fabric of his own robe between his fingers, rather impatiently. “Like this. What colour? What pattern? If you can’t decide, they’ll just give you a white one for now. Bear in mind that you might be wearing it a long, long time.”

Fox looked around the table. Every imaginable combination of colour and shape were on show. There was so much to take in right now, it seemed silly to worry over something like a robe. He was about to agree to a temporary white one, when an idea struck him.

“Give me one in a spiral pattern”, he said, addressing the apprentice, though he knew he couldn’t understand him. The apprentice, a hulky, pale fellow with white-blonde hair, glowered at him. “In green and red.”

When the apprentice had wheeled away, nodding curtly at Kandorian’s interpretation, the Bard said: “I understand the spiral, of course. But what about the green and red?”

“I like the colours”, said Fox.

Kandorian looked annoyed for a moment, and Fox thought he was about to scold him. Then his face smoothed out and he gave a hearty laugh.

“Very good”, he said. “But I’d be careful with the quips, if I were you. Most Bards consider they’re doing apprentices a great service by punishing any hint of cheek or self-satisfaction. A twelve-year old apprentice will be even less indulged.”

The woman sitting beside Kandorian asked a question, and the two Bards spoke together for a few minutes, watching Fox all the while. She was little older than the apprentices, and looked as fragile as the straw dolls Fox had seen in the shops of his own city. Her robe was halved orange and gold. Her black hair flowed over it a thick stream. The way she pressed her lips together somehow made Fox a little nervous of her. But when she looked at him, there was sympathy in her eyes. Too much sympathy for Fox’s liking.

“Why is she sad for me?”, asked Fox, when the fragile-looking woman was talking to the man to her left.

Kandorian did not reply for a few moments. He just chewed his food, and looked thoughtfully around the table, as if looking for the answer to Fox’s question in the faces of the other Bards. Finally he sighed, and turning back to Fox, said: “Because those years will never come back to you, Fox. A son of Luria is a son of Luria, and there’s no retreating from that. Most of us had a few years to be reckless and giddy and pleasure-seeking, before we came here. No matter how poor or war-torn the society they come from, most young people manage to have some kind of fun in it. But that’s not all. The rest of us chose Luria. You never had that choice.”

Fox had an image of Grandy grappling along a rope suspended between two second-floor windows, over a busy street. That had been one of the many youthful escapades he had told Fox about, over and over; of course, as Fox imagined it, Grandy was an old man even back then. Fox couldn’t see why anyone would bother with such capers; life was troublesome enough as it was. But he tried to look grave at Kandorian’s words.

The Bard frowned, as if he was reluctant to continue, then said: “I may as well tell you the rest now, as well. Fox, Bards can never have children. I mean, it’s not possible. When you pass through that Lake of Fire, you lose the ability forever.”

“I don’t care about that”, said Fox.

“Not now”, said Kandorian. “But one day you might care a lot.” He took another deep draft of Bard’s Blood, and gave an unconvincing smile. “Luria always thinks a Bard would no make no kind of parent. And Luria, as usual, is right.”

A feeling of unreality passed over Fox, but only for a moment. How strange was it that he was sitting here, discussing his future life with a man who he had never seen until an hour ago, in a place that was literally alive? What was even stranger was that it didn’t really seem all that strange. He had experienced too much in the past few months to be very surprised by anything.

“Is Luria…” he started to ask, and hesitated.

“Yes?”, asked Kandorian, as if Fox had distracted him from important thoughts of his own.

“Is Luria…God?”

“I don’t think so”, said Kandorian, who didn’t seem surprised by the question. “Nobody really knows what it is; whether it always existed, or if it was somehow created some unimaginably long time ago. Whether it has one mind, or many. But God—I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s a servant of God.”

“But it is…the centre of everything isn’t it?”, asked Fox.

Kandorian thought over this. Fox liked the way he thought over his questions. It made them feel worth asking. “It’s the centre of things for us”, he said. “In the same way that a small farmer’s fire is the centre of his world. But the Hundred Thousand Worlds don’t really have a centre, Fox. There are great nations and mighty Empires. There are peoples of legendary wisdom and virtue. But the most fabulous city is no more important, no more interesting than a labourer’s hut on a windswept hillside, in some unsung and lonely land. To be a Bard is to know that there are wonders everywhere you look.”

Kandorian spoke like he was reading from a book, thought Fox, swallowing another mouthful of a pale green vegetable whose name he didn’t know but whose taste he definitely liked. “And what’s outside?”, he asked. “What’s outside these caves?”

“Nothing”, said Kandorian, evently. “These caves and passages seem to go on forever. Nobody knows if there is an outside.”

“That’s impossible”, said Fox, feeling somehow irritated.

Kandorian shrugged. “I’ve seen so many impossible things, I hardly know what the word means anymore. Is your hunger satisfied?”

Fox had become so used to metaphors—Armala, Swan and now Kandorian hardly seemed to talk in any other way— that it took him a moment to realise that Kandorian meant the question literally. “I’m fine”, he said.

“Good”, said Kandorian, rising from the table and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Bards have to endure many trials, but I have to admit we can’t complain about the food. Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?, asked Fox, following him, aware of the eyes following them both out of the cave.

“Luria is a big place”, said Kandorian. “I’m going to show you a bit more of it. You won’t be seeing it again for a long time.”

“What do you mean?”, asked Fox, alarmed.

“We’ll get to that”, said Kandorian, and Fox thought there was a shadow of a smile on his face. “First, the grand tour.”

It lasted almost two hours, Fox guessed. (At one point he asked Kandorian how they measured time in Luria, but the Bard merely replied: “We don’t.”). The entire city—they called it a city—was made of the same red-grey rock, though its shade and texture differed in different places. In some places, it was as rough as the ceiling over the Lake of Fire. In other places, it was so smooth, it looked like it must have been built by men rather than nature. A deep silence hung over the whole city, a silence that seemed only deeper where there were voices and noise to disturb it. The temperature never seemed to change. Kandorian told him that the rocks themselves spread warmth.

He brought Fox through the long, long corridors lined with the Bards’ cells. They all seemed the same size, though for the most part he could only see the doors. The doors themselves, which were of as many different colours as the Bards’ robes, looked like coloured stone. He ran his hand along one, and it felt like stone.

“Ancient wood”, said Kandorian, watching him. “Instead of rotting, it seems to have hardened over the centuries.”

They went to Kandorian’s cell. It was smaller than Fox had expected. A man could walk from side to side in three paces, and from end to end in five paces. There was a hammock hanging from a frame that seemed to be made out of the same toughened wood as the doors. And nothing else.

“Don’t you even have books?”, asked Fox, anxiously.

“There’s no reading or writing in Luria”, said Kandorian, firmly. “It’s a hard rule, but a wise one. Writing is a wondrous thing, but Bards keep their stories and their poems here.” He tapped his head. “It’s amazing how easy it becomes to remember them when you can’t rely on writing them down. Don’t look so dismal, Fox. We don’t do much in our cells beside sleep. And it’s not like you’ll never read a book again.”

He took Fox to the kitchens, where ten or fifteen apprentices were working. It was difficult to see anything through the clouds of steam. Fox had never seen pots so huge. The oven, too—which was made out of stone, and looked as ancient as the cave itself—was three times as big as the oven in Jasma’s kitchen. But the kitchen itself was at least twenty times larger.

They saw the spinning looms, where the apprentice with the blonde-white hair glowered at Fox again. They saw the laundry rooms. They saw the bathrooms, which were formed from naturally-occurring hot water springs. They saw what Kandorian called a tavern. This was the first place in Luria that Fox had seen comfortable-looking furniture. The furniture looked like it had been smuggled from the world outside. The worlds outside.

Everywhere they went, the Bards and the apprentices were talking, talking; exchanging stories and poems, singing songs, and having debates that looked like they had been raging for hours and would rage for hours to come. There may have been no reading or writing in Luria, but there was no shortage of words.

They saw all this, and much more. There were many other kitchens and dining rooms and taverns than the ones he had seen, Kandorian told him.

A deep flush of pleasure spread through Fox’s soul. Here was home, at last. There would be no debates about abandoning Luria, no question of this city being destroyed or deserted. It had stood for untold centuries. It would stand forever. And it was his.

Finally they came to a ledge of stone that looked over a dark green pool. The pool was tiny compared to the Lake of Fire, but still so wide that one would have to shout to be heard on the other side. It seemed entirely still, and Fox had to peer at it to make out its gentle current.

“What’s this?”, asked Fox, when Kandorian had been staring into it for about a minute.

Kandorian seemed not to have heard him for a moment or two—he was still absorbed by the dark waters below—but then he said: “This is the first port of call for any apprentice. This is where you spend your first months in Luria.”

For a moment Fox thought the Bard must be joking. He scanned his face, but there was no laughter there.

“What do you mean?”, asked Fox, alarm rising in him. A part of him was thinking: Not again. Not again. He backed away from the ledge. The look on Swan’s face when they last spoke was a lot like Kandorian’s expression now.

“Don’t be afraid”, said Kandorian. “There’s no way to explain the Dreaming Pool, I’m afraid. You have to experience it for yourself.”

“Do you mean”-- began Fox, but that was as far as he got. Kandorian suddenly pushed him in the back, and sent him hurtling down to the dark waters below.

1 comment:

  1. Poor Swan. Interesting to see where this goes. Good work.