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In the end, the guardians of the City Before the World stood aside and let me pass along with Askuwheteau. Our steps were halted mere paces into the city gates, however.
It was a broad stone street, bordered by green plants and short, pruned trees. Surrounding these were the smaller homes, and narrow columns of smoke rose from them. I smelled cooking oil, fish, potatoes frying. People worked at stalls and the gardens and bought and sold, but many conversations slowed so that the speakers could watch the outsider pass.
Askuwheteau and I started down the broad way, with he pointing ahead to the step pyramid, explaining about the Council of Emissaries whom I would meet, their Skertah wizards who lived beyond the walls in the heart of the forest. I heard the pride in his voice when he told me about the crypts beneath the city, the stores of knowledge, the vaults and shelves upon shelves of scrolls and older things, graven tablets and pressings in brown clay.
We neared the base of the pyramid and turned onto one of the many streets that surrounded it, went alongside it between dark timber buildings with carved wooden heads of beasts and men and spirits, inscrutable combinations of features beyond imagining, beaks and brows and terrible eyes. And there, while we walked, Askuwheteau went on about the house where he had secured a room for me and I half-listened.
The street had emptied. No one shook out blankets or hammered at woodwork or chiseled at art. No children. Not even the shaggy dogs I had seen before. In his pride, Askuwheteau spoke on, unheeding. It was not his fault. He had much to learn.
While we walked, I observed. I sniffed and my ears sought. Even, the stories will say, the hairs of my beard quivered in changes on breeze, and informed me.
Footprints, all the freshest ones pointed away, into doors or between the houses and stone structures. Careful conversations, constructed, designed, behind doors or in upper windows. No songbirds, of which I had heard many. No crows. I caught the scent I sought – clay, smoke, wafting on the air.
I paused and Askuwheteau looked sidelong at me, then ahead. He took in a deep breath. “They wouldn’t dare.”
“Who?” I asked.
He moved behind me, his back to me so he could watch the path we’d taken along the street. His club rose to lay ready across his shoulders while I let my stick rest in my hand, its point out away from me on the stones of the roadway.
There we stood. No sounds came, nor any foes. We waited.
After a few breaths, we glanced at each other. I laughed, but Askuwheteau only scowled. “We shouldn’t have let them know we’d noticed them.”
I clapped him on the back and maneuvered him back to our path. “We’ve beaten them without raising a hand. How is that for following the Way?”
“I would’ve liked to have found out who was stalking us.”
“Does it matter?”
“It may,” he said. “There are some who wouldn’t have you in our midst at all. You’ll meet them presently.” He peered between the buildings and into garden plots as we passed.
“Presently,” I said. “You mean now?” He nodded, now observing the rooftops. I touched the rags hanging from my shoulders, my once-fine blue Serehvan cloth, now stained and frayed from weeks at sea, a shipwreck, and, most recently, a few days living in the forest. I smelled. It had been some days since I’d washed or combed. My beard was a nest, my hair a formless mass beneath the deep cerulean wraps upon my head. “I am filthy,” I said.
“You are you. As you are. They’re prepared now.”
“I wouldn’t go before a garbage-sifter dressed like this, let alone your Council of Emissaries.”
“You won’t offend them.”
“It offends me.”
“Too bad.” Askuwheteau grinned and guided us around another corner, then down a long street that ended at the base of the east side of the pyramid. A small group of people lounged or spoke on the steps, some of them seated on blankets, others standing, talking near the base. Most of them were dressed in draping robes or leggings and wrapped skirts, but some of them more stranger items; fur hats, unusual, iridescent cloaks. We stopped a little distance away.
“Raze,” he said. “We were stalked just now. Perhaps only to listen as we approached, perhaps only as a test, to see how observant we were, and perhaps with darker intent. Few of the emissaries will be friendly. Fewer still will agree to help you. I’ve made a few preparations, but…”
I rested a hand on his arm. “No, it’s alright. My task is my own. Sometimes one must fence with words rather than steel, and I’ve had a little practice.”
“You’ll find strong warriors here, if those are the weapons.” He faced the pyramid and, once again, the look of pride came over his face. “The men and women on these steps, and in the Listening Room, have led our people through many trials.”
“Through the greatest trials,” I agreed. I, too, faced the steps, and I adjusted my torn garments as best I could and thrust the stick through my belt. “How do I look?”
“Like a half-drowned seadog.”
“At least you’re honest with me.”
“I should lead us. A formality.” Askuwheteau went ahead and I followed two steps behind along the stone road between the earth and rock houses. They grew higher, with roofs of green moss. The stone was gray and veined, the earth dark. Ahead, some of those around the pyramid preceded us up the steps, having noticed our approach, while others stood back and watched. I wondered, as I passed, if any of them had stalked us in the street minutes before. None of them breathed heavy. No sheen of sweat shone on any brow. No fear did I see. They covered their emotions well.
Some of these were important folk, perhaps these emissaries, with entourages of warriors in leather harness and wolf or bearskins, their own style of formal battle-clothes. I had never had much use for dress uniforms or ceremonial armor. They watched me and polished steel glinted at their belts, their sides, and the teeth and horns and antlers of the beasts they wore shone white and gleaming. At the base of the pyramid, a group stood apart from the rest. They were dressed in dark cloth and armor and wore black paint on their arms. They glared as intensely as any others. First among them was an old woman, with gray hair in loops and coils, and a cloak of iridescent black feathers. She met my gaze as I neared, and though I held it and poured in my will, she stared back.
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