xii. Exultate Justi

"You're finally up," From her seat by a smouldering fire, Zindzi called to Vari.

Vari sat on one of the larger logs around the firepit's edge.

"Looks I'm the first one up," she observed. Even the birds are asleep.

"It rained last night," the performer prodded at the tiny flames with a slender branch. "Almost nothing but smoke."

"Can't you make a flame yourself?"

"I did!" Zindzi exclaimed. She raised an eyebrow. "But a fire needs something to burn."

Vari crouched down in front of the fire. With every breath, the humidity in the air flooded her lungs. Fat drops of dew dripped from the leaves from last night's rain.

"What bark did you use?"

"From that tree." Zindzi pointed to a broad-leaved tree towering over them.

"It's too rubbery to burn," Vari said, running her fingers over its' surface. "Try this." She handed a roll of firestarter bark to the performer.

"Birch," she said, and turned it over in her fingers. She brought the bark to her nose and took a deep inhale. "Reminds me of home. Where is this from?"

"The woods near my home village. It's my last one. I was keeping it for good luck."

From her.

"Thank you," Zindzi smiled, nestling the bark into the flames. "You won't need luck when you're traveling with Rulo. When he sets his mind to something, it happens. Ah...why are you whittling the sticks?" Her earrings clicked about her head as she leaned in to get a better look.

"The bark gets wet in a storm, but sometimes the wood stays dry," Vari told her. For good measure, she whittled thin strips of the dry wood over the flames as they grew stronger. "Are there any trees with sticky sap here? It's usually flammable."

"I'm not sure," Zindzi replied, as if to herself.

"I have a book with me on plants," she said. "I can have a look."

"You're quite resourceful," Zindzi observed. "Rulo took you under his wing because of who he is. I can't explain more. But he's a good person."

"If he's a good person, what made the two of you distant?" Vari asked.

The bare-headed woman laughed aloud.

"Time and circumstance." Zindzi gave Vari's hand a short squeeze. "I'd ask you to travel with me after we walk this road, but you have something more important to do, don't you?"

"Did Rulo tell you?" Vari asked.

"It's been all over the news," Zindzi said. "Word travels. So do I."

The two of them shared a mutual glance. Vari's face grew warm from the fire pit.

She makes flame with her mind, but I make it with my hands and heart.

"Do you cook?"

"If I have to," Vari replied.

"No need, I can take care of it." Zindzi unfolded a wire metal frame over the fire, on which she placed a frying pan. "Would you be a dear and fill the waterskins?"

The smell of frying meat woke a tired Rulo and nearly comatose Galen. Zindzi brewed a strong pot of coffee for the men while Vari set to work feeding and harnessing the tarund. With their bulky bodies, broad antlers, flat face, and rounded shoulders, their appearance obscured the fact they were one of the more docile creatures she had met.

No grass in Opien. Otherwise I would have met them there.

"You don't have to be afraid of them," Zindzi had reassured her on the first day, rubbing the creature's nose. It bowed its head with a low purr.

"When I get this close to an animal this size, I'm usually trying to kill it," Vari explained. She put a hand up on its nose as well. Its' thin fur managed to stick out at every angle imaginable.

Then Vari needed to stretch her legs, she strode beside the tarun-driven caravan as the group told stories, planned routines, or played their instruments. Galen wound join her occasionally, but like Rulo, mostly stayed inside. When they stopped to water or feed the beasts, she would hunt. At night, she whittled wood by the fire. Sometimes the small trinkets and beads she produced would be serviceable enough to finish. In the mornings when she was alone, she boiled them with leaves and flowers to change give them colour, then string them through a leather strap. The Jatka wore them proudly among their other adornments. For Rulo, she saved the tooth of a cahtkr she found on the forest floor.

One night, during the second week of travel, Galen disappeared from the fire into the woods.

"Where's he going?" Vari asked Rulo.

"Who?" Rulo said, extracting himself from his in-depth conversation with Zindzi. "Ah, Galen - he's practicing Jol-lin. I'll bet if you speak with him about it, he might teach you a thing or two."

"If he wants privacy, I should give it to him," Vari said, uncertain.

But Rulo waved over to the bushes. "Go on. He leads a quiet life. He can handle a few moment's interruption."

Without further protest, Vari slipped into the bushes. She followed the outlines of his footsteps in the muddy earth, moved past branches with broken-off leaves. He hadn't gone far. He was by a small lake, on the sand, where trees struggled to take root. She waved at him, not wanting to startle him. Galen didn't see her. As she approached, she noticed the calm attentiveness in his body. While a light rain pattered around them, she stood and watched him.
"Galen."
Wet earth pressed between his toes as he turned to face her.
"Yes, Vari?" His brow furrowed.

"Rulo tells me you're practicing jol-lin."
"Yes. It's a Caftan style of fighting."
"We have something like it back home, from the looks of it." Vari loosened her knees, brought her arms up, and stepped through a few cycles of shikita ga nai. It was like greasing a machine that had been sitting in the back of her house for years. She'd learned the practice when she was younger, and kept telling herself she ought to keep it up. It's good for your spirit, she heard the elders say in her soul. Bone marrow's good for me, and I'm still not going to eat it. Besides, I can't imagine fighting someone with nai.
Galen paused for a moment, hesitant, taking her in. "I'd like to know more about your style," he replied. "It must help when you hunt, and perhaps when we go to war."

Vari laughed at this, returning to her regular pose.
"Hunter, yes. Warrior, however, no. I am much better at fighting animals than people, which is probably why Rulo thought to ask you to help me learn."
Galen narrowed his eyes. "Vari, you have a tendency to sell yourself short."
She paused. "What makes you say that?"
Songbirds warbled around them, giving their last efforts before the sun set.
"You balk at your own responsibilities, hurling herself headlong into other people's," Galen continued.
It was Vari's turn to narrow her eyes, confused this time.
"You've asked me to mentor you," the soldier continued, "Just as you've asked Rulo. What do you have to offer the world, Vari? You're not a warrior. You're a hunter, but so are many."
"I..."
Galen moved so quickly, Vari only realized what he'd done when she thudded onto the ground with a woof.
"Your first lesson, Vari," Galen said, crouching down beside her. "Humans have skills animals don't. Such as exploiting your weaknesses. Take heed of this next time you come to spar."

Vari did not return to Galen in the evenings, at first. She walked, hunted, and was alone in her thoughts.

Rulo worked with her on common phrases that would help her in the capital. While Vari had been given the gift of the Lurian tongue, the mage believed it was best to learn Pacifinean in case Vari's story was cross-examined more closely. As they worked together, similarities began to emerge.

"En-guim. It's similar to Gin-em," Vari observed. She felt her lips move around the syllables experimentally. "It means, Where are you going?"

She listened to the scratch of Rulo's pen as he took notes. "You know," he said, flicking his hair to one side as he glanced up at her for a moment, "I'm not sure who is learning more, you or I."

Vari shrugged. "I thought the Lurians learned our language when they first colonized the north."

The man shook his head. "They learned...enough. Which isn't enough. Now, let's go again, Ivy." He called her by her false name, by way of practice. The others followed suit.

"Yes, cousin," she replied, with a wry expression.

The first sign the travellers had reached the outskirts of the city were local foragers. They scoured the jungle in search of wild roots and berries they could eat or use in healing.

Like the man at the station in Opien, Vari thought. Their eyes and hair ranged from light or dark brown, to a rusted green, to gold, to a dark iridescent blue. They wore it short, long, braided and tied up.

The scientist was darker than me. So's Galen. I suppose it runs in their blood. They wore light canvas like Vari...Ivy, she thought again, and the others, but the patterns and colours embedded within their robes were more intricate.

The jungle and the foragers began to thin as the passed the first farms. Tall, golden stalks of grains rustled as the party walked along rough-hewn fences. The sunlight was no longer the dappled green of the forest, but instead shone a brilliant blue.

"What do you think, Ivy?" Zindzi asked.

"Of this?" Vari replied. The wind combed through her hair as she surveyed the scene. "It's beautiful, but...such a large space to grow things."

They took the land apart to grow it back again their way.

Orchards hung heavy with a spectrum of fruit, while fields teemed with grazing animals.

"Lurians don't let their animals roam free," Vari said to Rulo. "Here, they are prisoners their whole lives. There's is no sport in that...no respect for the animal."

Humans have skills animals don't, echoed Galen's words.

"They feed many more citizens that can be fed through hunting." Rulo replied.

Vari shook her head. "I suppose it's picturesque. A testimony to a nation of people working very hard to stay exactly where they want to be."

Perhaps, in time, I'll settle down myself, Vari thought, but even as it came to her she knew it would be very unlikely that she would fully embrace this lifestyle.

"Vari, look to windward," Rulo said, gently smiling. His raven hair ruffled around him as he rode his tarund. Nestled deep within two sloping mountains, Vari could just make out a structure glittering in the heart of the valley.

"That's the southwest gate of the city of Tiluri," Rulo said.

"It's enormous." Almost like a child's toy, seen from here.

"You should go to Undulair sometime," Galen said. "It's three times the size."

"It's not a contest, friend," Rulo quipped, and Vari stifled a chuckle. When they joined the main road, she understood why Zindzi had kept to the side roads for as long as possible. They joined the throng, the tarund muscling around the Lurians.

The south west gate soon loomed high above them.

It's alive. Gnarled branches twisted around each other in two columns meeting at an archway at the top. Each leafed branch had been painstakingly shaped and manicured into elaborate patterns.

"The archway took a century and a half to finish." Rulo replied.

Above, flags waved in the breeze. Vari recognized most of them. Tiluri, Caftan, Pacifos...Vari was somewhat surprised to see the flag of the Opien flying among them.

There should be an Opien ambassador and embassy within the city. I'll have to visit soon.

There was a flash of light above them. Vari recoiled reflexively, preparing to duck for cover. Rulo took her by the shoulders.

"It's fine, Vari! It's just a screen."

She looked up again. The letters shifted and moved over the surface of the immense panel mounted on the top of the archway:

TILURI

BY THE WILL OF THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE

"Luria has working screens," Vari whispered. She thought back to Sejourn's cave.

That lonely place, with ancient technology that these people have resurrected. I knew Sejorn could find help here...

"Gods," Vari swore to herself. She watched the panel transform itself, constantly shimmering like a rainbow trapped under a stream's surface.

A gift from those who came before us.

"Indeed," Rulo said. "They use electricity from human and machine generators. Part of this world, like everything else."

"She's fascinating," Galen said. "So competent in some ways, and yet - "

"That's enough," Zindzi snapped at him. "You act as if you've never felt wonder for something you've seen for the first time."

Their voices were the faraway echoes from a deep well, to Vari. She wanted to fly up, to touch the screen, perhaps to even plunge within its kaleidoscopic depths. What beauty, of a thing that could create anything with such ease. She reflected on the weeks she'd spent, carving away at woods and soapstone, and here was a thing that could create the image of such things in the blink of an eye.

"Let's we reach the gate," Rulo explained. "Galen, Va...Ivy, stay close to me. I'll do the talking."

"Where will you go?" Vari asked Zindzi.

"We're performing in the Earth district tonight," Zindzi replied. "Not a lot of profit in the big city, going up against the local talent, but it's good to visit. We won't be staying long."

Rulo motioned for the other two to put some space between them and the caravan.

"It was good meeting you," Vari said to Zindzi.

"Likewise," she replied with a smile, and gave a light bow. "Best of luck on your journey."

Zindzi and the travelling performers pulled up ahead while the three of them ducked behind.

"Up ahead, at the gate," Rulo explained, "They may search our belongings and ask questions."

Two guards stood on either side of the archway, clothed in garb so intricately embroidered that it was certainly of a ceremonial, rather than combative, function. They wore tunics of a light pink embroidered in hot red, their armor a deep blue shot through with silver. The older one was an elegant sort of stout, a thin beard etched over the lower portion of his chin.

"Citizenship cards," he barked.
"We're Pacifinean," Rulo replied, holding out the three passports, one of which was genuine.

"State your reason for entering," the guard commanded.

Rulo handed over a parchment scroll, a white spider extending out to a beefy paw. The scholar stiffened.

"My cousin and I are here to meet with the Queen Ardurace," Rulo said, his eyes dark as they met those of the head guard. "Our personal bodyguard will be joining us."

The man took the scroll, opened it, scanned it briefly, then snapped it shut. He remained stone-faced.

"Come, Dar'Arharte."

The guard barracks was a small structure of stone and thatch. Packbeasts strung up outside munched on grain, giving them less than an askance look. On the other hand, the moment they entered the door, each soldier had their eyes on them. Vari preoccupied herself looking at weapons hanging on the walls and hips of the armoured guards.

An abundance of metalcraft. Ornate swords and guns were strewn everywhere, almost carelessly. Every one of the dozens of guards had their own metal plate, with individual markings which looked similar to the family crests the Opien carved from stone. Neither Rulo nor Galen were making conversation, and so she took the same cue.

A slender middle-aged man with elaborately knotted brown hair, clad in gold and orange robes, appeared in the doorway of the stockade office. There was the slightest sheen of sweat on his face.

Somebody was riding hard to get here, but he doesn't want it known.

The man bowed forward slightly. Rulo rose to his feet, and returned the gesture.

"Scholar Scaerulo," he began. "Good to see you again. And a pleasure to meet your cousin."

"Likewise, consul," Rulo replied.

The man in robes turned towards Galen, greeting him with a bow, then finally to Vari.

"And it is a pleasure to meet you, Di'Arharte."

Vari bowed in kind, remembering just in time to grasp the sides of her short dress in a curtsy. What a cousin of the queen's scholar would wear, Zindzi had said.

It's not...me, Vari had protested.

Exactly, she'd replied.

"I am Consul Azhinga. I will accompany you to the palace, where we will further discuss the terms of your engagement with the Queen."

Pacifos had felt crowded. Tiluri was teeming, overflowing, spilling over at the edges. Every bit of space that could be filled, was. Stone multi-levelled apartment complexes teetered over the stone road. Artisanal stands competed for space on the sidewalks in front of boutique shops. Hanging gardens and scenic terraces bursting with thousands of flowers of every colour passed by, fountains spraying water into sunlight.

"These are the outskirts of the Earth District," said Rulo. "We should be able to see the temple soon."

"The temple?" inquired Vari.

"There are six districts in the valley. The four elements, life, and death," Rulo explained.

"I can only imagine the value of property in the death district," Vari scoffed.

Galen shook his head. "Death magic is about peace, rest and oneness."

"Why the elements? I thought attunement was more complex," said Vari. At least for those outside my clan.

"It's a historical relic," Rulo explained. "Some scholars still dedicate themselves to traditional specialization. It does strikes me as...misguided."

The Earth Temple peeked over a ridge as they descended. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. Unadorned, the temple was a sloped structured of roughly-hewn stone. Far more intricate was the carpet of vines and flowers, tumbling and twisting around it's exterior. Below the building, small figures in bright green milled about.

As they travelled on, it became clear the entire metropolis was nestled in the heart of the valley. In it's very centre, the Grand Palace glinted. On either side, two trees threatened to overwhelm the palace with the shade of their immense canopies.

"The Silvadorae," Rulo said. He had caught her staring. "Magic concentrates among their roots."

Trees live for centuries, through the ice and snow, the heat and rain. To them, we are a blink in time. How many blinks have these trees seen?

"Over there," Galen said from behind them. He gestured to an angular obelisk that resembled a half-sunken boulder. "It's the Archive."

"They keep the books there?" Vari asked Rulo.

Rulo nodded in reply. "The stories written of all lives."

As their vein of the road joined a bigger street, forges, mills, looms, and larger industries swept by.

How long it would have taken, Vari wondered to hew the sandy rocks, tow them into the valley, and stack them up, one by one, into walls and pillars and buttresses of the grand palace? How much did it cost to keep the obsidian trim in good repair, as brittle as the material was? And the glassworkers, delicately manufacturing little glittering, kaleidoscopic suns?

"The palace is the crown jewel of our empire," Azingho spoke up at last. "I will see to it the guest quarters are prepared. I hope you find them suitable."

"Will she be available this eve?" Rulo asked.

Azhinga smoothed his beard. "I have not yet been able to inquire, Dar'Arharte. Patience."

"How has she been?" The scholar's eyes filled with eagerness.

"Her studies are coming along well," Azhinga replied.

A sandstone arch passed by above. Wheels clacked on cobblestones. The driver slowed the beast, and the ambassador peeled back the curtain.

"We may walk from here," he said. "It isn't far."

Heat washed over Vari's face from the sun-baked stones. She drew her hood to shield her eyes from the glare.

"This way." Azhinga walking to the right of an enormous set of stairs. "To the staff entrance."

The walls of the sleeping quarters were painted a soft orange. Ruby drapes wheeled about a large window in the afternoon breeze. Their movements cast the floor in shifting hues from the setting sun.

Vari's bed was carved to resemble a winding tree. The pillows and blankets were the same red of the drapes. The crest of Royal Adurace family was intricately sewn upon them with thick black thread. The nearby desk was stocked with feather quills, parchment, and a mechanical device with buttons. A tub was set into the wall in the corner, with a silk screen for privacy.

In the mirror, Vari saw a stranger with light brown skin and coiffed black hair that almost reached her shoulders.

You should do your hair more often, Zindzi had told Vari as she combed and snipped. You almost look like him. Just tell them you've gotten a lot of sun.

Cousin of the queen's scholar, Vari repeated. Ivy Di'Arharte.

"We will see you shortly in the dining room," Azhinga's voice interrupted her thoughts. His voice reminded Vari of Rulo's, only softer and lower. "Rulo, your room is on your left..."

Before they disappeared, Rulo leaned around the doorframe.

"Have a look in the wardrobe before you come down."

"Which clothes should I pick?" Vari hissed, but he was already gone.

She knelt by the tub. Vari played with the knobs until the water was no longer freezing or searing. She splashed her face and watched the water circle down a drain in the centre.

My name is Ivy Di'Arharte. My name is Vari Kun, and have somehow found my way to this place. What a thing.

Vari's dark slippers moved with a soft swish as she made her way back down the stairs they'd come up.

"I was just about to call you. We're about to take our meal." Rulo had changed from his light-cut travelling robes to a darker, crisper uniform. Galen, similarly garbed, stared at her a little too long before dropping his eyes, busying himself with his lapel.

"Yes, I know," Vari said, hoping to break the tension. "It's not everyday I dress up like this."

I can't remember the last time I wore a dress.

Rulo was not as impressed. "If you call that dressing up," he replied, "I can't imagine what you'll think of the rest of the court once you meet them."

That stung a bit, but Vari couldn't be bothered trying to impress anyone with her fashion sense. She sat down. A white tablecloth had appeared, along with a number of golden dishes and utensils, that she immediately began to set to work deciphering.

While occupied, several women and men discreetly hovered around them, delivering dinner plates. Vari speared a piece with her fork and gave it an experimental chew. It was fruit, but with some kind of savoury herb, and salt. She frowned, then kept on.

"How have you all settled in?" Azhinga asked, dark eyes shimmering over steepled fingers, as the other two followed Vari's suit.

Rulo swallowed. "Excellently, thank you."

"I held council with the Queen as you were settling in," Azhinga began. "She wishes to meet you tomorrow evening. She would like to welcome you in the...proper atmosphere."

Tomorrow evening? Vari almost said it out loud. She looked down at her plate. The appetizer had been replaced with a stew. It was reassuring to see something she recognized . Scooped up a spoonful of the stew, earthy and salty flavours predominated her tastebuds.

Ru's is better.

"Queen Ardurace is holding a ceremony to greet a number of returning dignitaries," Azhinga went on. "Your cousin will be presented as well."

"Are we to be assigned an itinerary in the meanwhile?" Rulo asked.

"The Queen would like our new guests to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city," came the ambassador's reply. "I will arrange the stipend with you, Dar'Arharte. A guide will be assigned to you who will be able to provide suggestions on locations to visit."

Rulo shook his head, finishing a bite.

"We appreciate the gesture, Ambassador, however that won't be necessary. I can accompany my cousin. If you would arrange transportation, however, that would be most helpful."

Azhingho nodded. "Of course. Shall I tell the staff to bring out more?"

Rulo looked at the two of them.

"I'm fine," Galen and Vari echoed. "Thank you," added Vari.

Their plates were whisked away. Azhinga was the first to stand, followed by Rulo. The ambassador bowed to them one final time, then stepped down the hallway, disappearing out of sight as he rounded a corner.

That's it, then? We're alone for the time being? Before Vari could ask, Galen was the first to speak.

"They know who I am, right?"

Rulo raised a dark eyebrow. "Oh, yes. It complicates things for them, but I've made it clear that you are welcome here. I also hopefully made it clear you're vital to our mission."

"Well, that's a relief," Galen sighed. "They'll slip poison into my soup instead of locking me up in the palace basement for the rest of my life..."

"Hush!" Rulo snapped. "There're ears here. No one from Caftan knows you're here."
Rulo gripped Galens' hand roughly. "You're in no danger here." He straightened. "We could all use some fresh air and space. Why don't we talk a proper walk around the city before we retire for the night?"

As the sun set, candles and bulbs illuminated the city. TiLuri was transformed into a swarm of fireflies nestled into a long, sloping crag. Peals of laughter and roars of conversation echoed along the length of the road.

"So," Rulo began conspiratorially, "Where to?"

Vari leaned in to her companion. "Is he following us here? Azhinga?"

"No," he replied. "But, Ivy...we're known here. Best to blend in."

"We need to find out if Sejorn's been here," Vari rushed. "Mechanic shops, training academies of magic..."

"We can look for him, conspicuous or not," Galen added. "Our reason for being here is public knowledge."

"Hmm." Rulo stroked errant hairs on his chin. "Still, I don't think it's wise to open a directory and go shop by shop. We need a strategy. And I need a place to go and...observe."

"One of the temples?" Vari suggested. "There should be places for meditation where you won't be disturbed."

"Excellent suggestion," Rulo replied. He snapped his fingers and paced for a moment on the sidewalk. "We should divide and conquer, in that case. The two of you can go to the archives, they should still be open."

"What could we find there that would show us his location?" Galen asked.

Rulo shrugged. "I'm not sure. They would have found him already if it was that simple. But they'll have books on the companions, valuable information. Besides," he continued, "It's an opportunity for both you brave explorers to see a living, preserved ruin. Your first time is often...overwhelming."

"Are you sure we should split up?" Vari asked. I'd prefer to be the one actively looking...

"We're not far from the grand palace," Rulo said with a wave of his hand. "We all know how to handle ourselves. Best of luck."
Without another word, Rulo turned and blended into the throng.

"When that man gets an idea in his head," Galen scoffed. He straightened into a facsimile of Rulo's posture and tone. "'Of course, let's split up and have the two outlanders bumble their way across hostile territory."
Despite herself, Vari laughed. "You heard him, we can handle ourselves." She grew somber again. "I'm tired of waiting to find Sejorn, I hope we can get somewhere soon."

Galen gave Vari a concerned look.

"He might be dead, you know."
"I know," Vari said, and she had known the possibility deep inside her for some time. It didn't stop the acid feeling from dripping through her ribcage. "I still want to try, see if there's anything we can do. I wish you could have met him."

"Tell me what he's like," Galen said, gesturing for her to walk with him in the direction of the library. Lights flickered softly above them as they moved down the sidewalk.

"He..." I want to talk about him, but what about her? What about them? "When I first met him, it was as if he was a blank slate. All he wanted was to learn. From me, from others...he was gentle until he needed not to be. And funny, sometimes..." Vari paused. "He would ask the sorts of questions one ought not to."

"When I heard about the companions, when I was young..." Galen mused. "I always imagined them to be wise beyond all, calm, caring."

"Maybe he was once," Vari replied. "He doesn't know who he is. He lost all his memories."

"Except his name?" Galen asked.

"I gave him his name."

"You said he wasn't always gentle?" Galen replied, after a beat. "Are you talking about the time in the woods?"

Vari put a finger up. "We shouldn't talk about that here."

Galen nodded. "Fair enough."

The obelisk loomed in front of them. Unlike the rest of the district they had passed through, no buildings touched its' surface. It's purple sheen recalled the image of oil in a pond.

"I've never seen anything like this," she murmured.

Galen was silent, contemplative. He walked past the entrance, where a throng of lurians milled about, to the side. He placed the palm of his hand flat against its' surface.

"Neither have I," he replied. "At least, intact."

Vari placed her palm beside his. The metal was hard and reminded her slightly of the texture of leather.

"How many centuries old is this ruin?" Vari wondered. "And the books within?"

"Who knows..." Galen trailed off.

"They never found companions at this site?" she asked.

"Not according to the historian who found this place. He speculated there were never any human beings living here.."

Vari furrowed her brow as she looked at him. "You read Lurian history?"

In response, the man only shrugged. "Spend enough time with Rulo and some of it rubs off on you."

He trailed his hand along the obelisk as they rounded the entrance to the library.

"Names, please," the person at the entrance called out, dully.

"Ivy Di'Arharte," Vari said. "And bodyguard."

She felt Galen balk, but only enough that she hoped she would be the only person to notice it.

He does not like being thought of that way. To me, I wonder, or in general?

Remembering at the last minute to give a curtsy, the pair passed the threshold.

Her breath caught in her throat.

Screens. Dozens and dozens of them. Different sizes and shapes, panels into other worlds of full colour and light. Between them, twisting cables, black boxes, floor upon floor, spiralling up towards the peak of the obelisk.

"Ivy," Galen said. "We're blocking the entrance." He gripped her arm, and for a moment, she let him guide her to the side.

"I..." she began.

"It's something, isn't it." Blue light reflected on the surface of his eyes, played over his skin and beard. "This must be what the world looked like before the days of Forgetting."

Did they make the whole world like this? Did the trees bear witness, or did they come after?

"This...is how the ones who came before us did magic." Vari managed to speak at last. "They built vessels to channel its' power. Vessels to think, vessels to remember."

Like the Opien, who descended from them.

"Vessels to rule the world," Galen concluded, "At least for a time."

Vari stepped into the bathing glow of the blue light. She made out figures. Some were plugged into the black boxes, while others still meditated, eyes closed.

"Where are the books?" she asked.

Where is my book?

"I'll try and find a librarian," Galen suggested.

"No," Vari said. "If they try to find mine, they'll realize Ivy doesn't exist."

"Right," Galen said. "Well, I've seen similar terminals before, I'm fairly sure we could work though it together."

"Yes," Vari said. "A moment, please." She gripped the amulet around her necklace.

The world came to life.

Those meditating had a halo of light around them that descended into the wires and boxes around them.

The Opijurn, Vari realized. It spun its' web all around them here.

"They can access the aetherlat without the use of wires," Vari related. "Like the shamans."

"But others are using the wires," Galen said. "Come on, we can start there."

He took Vari's arm and guided her to a computer terminal. She hesitated for a moment.

"What's the matter?" Galen asked.

It's not the same when it's not a companion...I've never done this before.

"Nothing," she replied, and picked up the access filaments.

The man put a hand on her forearm. "I can do it, if you like."

"No," Vari said abruptly, "I'll do it. I have to."

She threaded the wires into her nose, felt the familiar prickle. Her vision of the outside world faded quickly, to be replaced by blue. White symbols populated before her.

WELCOME GUEST.

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO LEARN?

THINK AND IT WILL APPEAR.

Vari felt herself fill with questions. Her heart hammered as if the Cahtkr had appeared. Her mind flooded with ideas. Is this machine Lurian made? What information can I see? How did they connect with the ancient technology? Were they able to decipher its' secrets? How many of those secrets are going to be shared me?

WE BUILT THESE MACHINES. THINK AND IT WILL APPEAR. MANY YEARS WERE SPENT LEARNING ABOUT THE OBELISK. SOME OF IT IS OPEN TO US, SOME IS NOT. WE SHARE WHAT WE ARE ABLE.

We share what we are able? Who's stopping you from sharing more?

WE ALL HAVE A DUTY TO OUR QUEEN.

The queen, again, Vari thought. I want to know about the companions.

PLEASE SPECIFY.

Are there any remaining living companions in the world?

SEARCHING. THREE. ONE IN UNDULAIR, ONE LOCATION UNKNOWN. ONE IS HYPOTHETICAL.

Hypothetical? What does that mean?

OF, BASED ON, OR SERVING AS A HYPOTHESIS.

What is the hypothesis, then?

"How are you doing?" Galen asked.

"Getting closer, I think. Did you know there's a living companion in Undulair?" Vari asked.

"I...can tell you about her later." His voice came as a whisper this time.

MESSAGES ON THE AETHERLAT INDICATE A SIGN FROM A COMPANION IN THE UNKNOWN LANDS, COLLOQUIALLY KNOWN AS SIGNAL HILL. THERE ARE SEVERAL NEWSPAPER ARTICLES IN THE ARCHIVES.

I...but...what about the missing companion?

LAST RECORDED SIGHTING ON THE SOUTHBOUND OPIEN-LURIA FREIGHT AND PASSENGER. THERE ARE SEVERAL NEWSPAPER ARCHIVES AVAILABLE.

Nothing I haven't seen already. I...can I see my book?

YOU DO NOT HAVE A BOOK IN THIS ARCHIVE.

May I see the book of Scaerulo Arharte?

The white words dissipated, and in their stead, images appeared. The Luran logo, followed by a painted portrait of her companion.

"Ambassador Scaerulosot Di'Arharte is a half-pacifiean, half-lurian male born in 3013 of the year of Arduraces' Ascension..."

Wait. Stop. How do I stop this connection?

The filaments slid from her nose, and Galen came into view once again.

"Anything about your friend?" he asked.

"Nothing that hasn't already been made public," Vari replied. "...but there's something else..."