Paved with Gold
Adrios wasn’t a city you entered lightly. It wasn’t a city you came across by chance, and walked across the threshold only half knowing about it. Adrios was a city you went to by will, be fierce intent, because you’d lost something or found something, or needed something or needed to be rid of something. Adrios: the City of Witches, the City of Wishes. Adrios: a city where dreams could come true, and where a poor man might make wealth, where he might shake his rags off and shrug on a fur coat. A city where a rich man might find everything he’d ever sought, everything his money couldn’t buy him. And more.
It was a city a man could get lost in.
Or a woman.
It was a city that might refuse a man entry, and Rithny was afraid that might be what was going to happen to him. And then what? His trek across a stunted, poisoned forest had been a rough, dangerous one. The trek back across it was likely to be as bad. He’d watched while other travellers – who could so easily have been him – were robbed or butchered along the way. He’d seen these local inhabitants – only in glances, but still, even so – and he feared their savagery. He dreaded the cold nights and sudden storms.
Up ahead: the walls of this shining city, as tall as he would have expected, just as imposing, all smooth stone and impenetrability. This was not like an ordinary city where the insides might spill out past the walls and become their own fledgling suburb. There were a few folk encamped around the walls, clinging there for life, hoping to find a way in, but there was no community, no houses and roads and market stalls – it might be bliss inside, but it was all death and hardship on the other side of the wall.
And so. Tilted hat set neatly on his head; feather in his collar; silvered, polished buckles on his boots; Rithny approached the gate.
Its watchmen were uniformed and looked at him with a mixture of boredom and indifference. A good sign?
“Business in Adrios?”
“I’m looking for somebody.”
“Yes. Who isn’t? You want this person for kissing or killing?”
“I… neither. This person, she’s my sister.”
“And you think you’ll find her here?”
“I hope to.”
“Why should you?”
“She came here. You know, seeking her fortune.”
“And you don’t figure she’s dead out there in the woods?”
He refused to wince, he refused to let himself feel appalled at their unkindness. Even the city guard of Adrios should be better than ordinary, but his belief so didn’t change what was. And so: “I don’t. She sent word, last year.”
“Doing well, is she?”
“Come for your share of the goods?”
“Come… because she’s the only family I have left.”
Was there pity in these men after all? Or had they just grown tired of the game? It didn’t matter, since they were waving him through. “Welcome to Adrios. Weclome to Adrios.”
And so he stepped inside.
Rithny’s feet ached from walking. From the days and days out in the trees, and now along these paving stones that were not gilded, and did not have gemstones sown within the cracks. He was passing houses of notable grandeur, seeing buildings of design and construction such as he’d never seen before in his life. He had witnessed strange animals, and women with enormous hats, as wide as the streets themselves; and he’d stood at the feet of a magnificent tree, marvelling at the gnarled, red-yellow bark, and the colourful leaves, and the savage, convoluted twist of its branches. Nearby there had been a fountain, where he’d sat and dangled his legs, rinsing those sore feet in frothy, cool water.
An extra-ordinary city indeed.
But he’d seen other things, such as he’d never have expected of such a place. He’d seen poverty. And he’d seen crime.
He’d had nothing but a couple of foreign coppers to give to a beggar, and he’d watched barefoot children in ill-fitting rags go running about a marketplace. He’d seen one of them grab a red apple and stuff it into his shirt, not even slowing his pace as he ran beside his fellows.
And he’d seen a felon caged and shamed, with burn marks up and down his arms, his wrists shackled to hanging bars.
On impulse, he’d approached. “What, in a city like Adrios, could make a man commit a crime?”
The stranger looked at him as if he would laugh. “You must be new here.”
“I am. But is Adrios not a city of dreams?”
“Aye. It is that. And the dark side of the dream-coin is nightmare. You might do well to remember that.”
It was an encounter that troubled Rithny, but of course, even the grandest city must have an underbelly of sorts. Not all its folk could be wealthy and free, riding high on their success. Solshae had written to him of a happy life, surrounded by fine figures and dressed in the best Adrios lace. For all the stories of sorrow and failure, there were those, like his sister’s, of glittering success. Once he found her, the world would all fall into place.
But first, he would need a place to stay.
The place he found met none of his expectations. A strange building made up all of spherical structures that had been stacked up together, with series of winding stairs to connect them. They were built in part from green branches and canvas, so that the walls were a little soft, each room lightly squashed against the ones around it.
“Ah, well,” said the innkeeper, leaning out of a window, “that’s the way of things in Adrios. It calls forth all kinds from everywhere, and we all bring our strange and foreign ideas. You’ll see for yourself if you stick around.”
“Of course. Why would I leave?”
“Ah, well, people do.”
“Out there, through the wilderness? Why would anyone?”
“There are other ways to leave, if you have the coin.”
“But here. In Adrios. I walked my feet bloody, and nearly froze my toes off to get here.”
The man laughed: “Worth it?”
“I… I think so. I’m looking for my sister, I don’t suppose you know where she is do you? Her name is Solshae Giddingham. She came here three years ago, and she’s done well for herself.”
He laughed again, “Oh, my new friend, Adrios is a great big city. Unless your sister is famous, I wouldn’t know her. Do you have an address?”
“No. She… she isn’t expecting me.”
“This, then, will have to be your address for tonight.”
But it cost him twelve sildars, which was the better part of all he had left. The streets would be his address by tomorrow night if he didn’t find work.
“You’re in luck,” his host informed him, “the harvest is at hand, any able body is likely to be welcome.”
Rithny found his room a strange thing. There were chairs built into the walls or hanging from the ceiling, and a table that did likewise. There was no fire, but the walls were warm. And no bed exactly, but a cocoon-like object embedded in a far wall, filled to nearly overflowing with a kind of moss. He reminded himself that this was a strange, strange world, and he was in one of the stranger parts of it. He reminded himself that he had been prepared to see strange sights, had wanted to, in fact.
And when he crawled into the cocoon – which reminded him of a large, polished egg – he was surprised to find it exceptionally warm and comfortable. The moss reached out and caressed him, it snuggled in around him like a sleepless child, it moulded itself perfectly to his weary shape.
Rithny found that he could sleep almost instantly.
He dreamt of long roads and fire.
In the morning he could afford a breakfast of bread and some unidentified meat. After which he asked directions to the huge, subterranean gardens that supplied the city with food. He found that he could follow a crowd, that he walked with a host of strangers down sloping tunnels crammed with steps, while vendors huddled in concave inlets, offering up drinks and food to the sea of workers.
Rithny was accepted, and led through layers and layers of gardens – growing fruit, vegetables, grains; or grazing ordinary beside exotic animals. There were plants he didn’t know, many hanging from the ceilings and laden with produce. There was something in the rock, he was told, that provided something equal to sunlight, and something else in the underground rivers that nourished the gardens from within.
He was put to work at a vineyard, where vines were strung from floor to ceiling, and the grapes were picked by workers moving up and down ropes or poles. It was work for the strong and nimble, but Rithny was young enough, and he still had good health. He was pleased to find himself competent, and also to learn that the vintner didn’t mind if his workers ate a few grapes as they went about their day. Big, round, purple grapes – they had a deep, rich flavour, sweet and subtle. Almost too good to be made into wine – except that the wine made from such grapes would have to be a fine, fine vintage, probably better than anything he’d ever drunk.
His pay in his pocket, he went back to his weird lodgings.
Day after day he did the same thing.
As he lived, as he worked, he continued to look for his sister.
Adrios was massive, it was said to harbour more than a million souls, and his Solshae was just one soul amongst them. But he got lucky one day at a fish stall, when a girl said, “Sure, I remember Solshae, she worked with my sister at the mill for a while.”
“Where is she now?”
The girl hesitated.
“I mean her no harm, I’m her brother, you see.”
“It’s not that. She was pretty, your sister. In the right sort of way, kind of ruddy, and golden.”
Solshae, whose hair had been a soft yellow, whose cheeks had been pink and plump.
The girl wrapped his fish. “Well, she caught the attention of one of the Faceless. She agreed to go with him. I haven’t seen her since.”
“She’s doing well, she wrote to me, told me as much.”
“I’m glad,” she said, but there was a catch in her voice.
“One of the eastern peoples. They have a section of town, called the Hedges. I can give you directions. Perhaps you can find her there.”
Hedges was a worthy name for this suburb that was overgrown with foliage. They were believers in letting their hedges grow wild and untutored. They let them flower and crawl towards the sky, the vegetation obscuring their stone houses. Big, strong monoliths: beneath coats of leaf and flowers, their homes were solid, imposing, with small windows cut out of the stone, often barred, garlanded in flowering vines.
Rithny knocked on a door. One chosen at random.
The servant who came to the door was as faceless as the name suggested, a whitish-silver ellipse rested on a smooth, shiny body of the same colour, all rounded, no edges, no hairs or teeth or anything to break the surface. But this was only so for a moment – as she answered the door the woman took on the vestiges of a human face, it was ethereal, almost projected onto her, a shadow, a rainbow, an illusion. And not a complete face, so much as the suggestion of one.
“May I help you?”
“I’m looking for my sister, her name is Solshae?”
“Sol… oh, that’s three houses down. She works for the Omnion clan.”
Rithny thanked her and walked to another house, very much like the one he’d just visited, the individualisation coming from only the choice of plant life that decorated and obscured the building. Rithny found himself nervous as he knocked on the door. It had been three years or more, and a lot had changed for him, what more must have changed for his sister?
Another faceless servant, quickly donning the outline of a face.
“Solshae. Yes. May I ask who I’m addressing?”
“Her brother, Rithny. May I see her?”
“A brother. She’ll be so glad to see you.”
Rithny wondered if she’d recognise him, bearded now, and with scars on the left side of his face. In the event, it was he had to do a double take. It was he who found himself struggling to recognise her. His sister had grown a couple of feet taller, she was thinner now, and had a vaguely silverish tinge; her eyes just a little less blue, and her face, somehow stunted, some of the individuality of it leached out; in patches she was old, places where her skin creased and sagged; parts of her lip missing.
“Solshae…” he could barely speak.
“A … Faceless name…?”
“And you. What you’ve become…”
“Beauty is fleeting.”
“And this. What is this?”
“A home. A family.”
They hadn’t moved to embrace each other. Rithny wasn’t sure if he could embrace this not-sister in front of him. This patchwork of human and Faceless, of herself and not herself.
She said, “Let’s walk in the garden.” She said, as they walked: “My position here is respectable. I eat with the family, exactly what they eat. I have clothing and fancies, whatever I ask for, whatever they think might please me.”
“In exchange for your soul?”
She shook her head, “A face, a body, this is skin deep, this is nothing.”
“I barely knew you.”
“It’s true, I have changed.”
“If you like.”
He had imagined it differently, with hugs, and tears, and laughter; but now he thought that had been drained out of her along with her face and figure, with her identity. But he’d come all this way, he’d risked everything. And there was still some trace of shared blood. He told her, “Mama and Papa, they’re dead,” and he noticed that she didn’t seem to flinch, as if those feelings had leached away too, dissolved into another’s keeping, “the Congrindians came. They demanded a tribute, and you know our father, there was no way he’d accede to that. Even with the noose around his neck he wouldn’t, not even when they dragged our mother up in front of him and worked at strangling her right before his eyes,” he’d thought he might have to be gentle with the telling of this part, but now he saw he didn’t, that he could be as blunt as he liked, she was armour-skinned against this kind of pain, and against the other side of it, any kind of joy. “They burned the house once it was done. I was outlawed and you are too, if it matters here. I had nowhere else to go.”
“And here. This is a place you are welcome.”
It’s not a place I want to be welcome.
“I do believe I could find you a position. If you want it, of course.”
“I have work,” he mumbled.
“Ah, there is no work involved,” and she turned her head at that moment so that he saw the blankness of the right side of her head, saw the melted skin, her smooth, deformed ear.
“I’m happy to work.”
“In the gardens.”
“You don’t need to. I can help you with everything.”
Hadn’t he come for that? Wasn’t that why he was here? And yet…
They passed one of her employers. A girl in blue silk. She had a face like perfectly pitched music. Beyond beautiful. But it was a patchwork, there were parts of Solshae’s true face in there, parts of other faces of people he’d never meet or know. And as they walked by, and as Solshae nodded to her, the girl made a gesture with her hand that was all Solshae’s – exactly as she had, once - the old, fully human days.
Rithny fled the house.
He returned to his curved room, and his days bringing in the food. He watched the sunset on his way home from work, and wondered if he would ever visit his sister again.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work