A young boy, an old man, and a vicious rider, all searching for what they cannot name.
The Feast of the Harvest had begun. As the shadows under the eye of the sun grew deeper, more villagers congested the streets with celebration. Clotheslines hanging from rooftop to rooftop carried paper-thin lanterns with yellow velvet light, like fireflies. From the eyes of a villager hurrying towards the town center, the sky appears simultaneously dark, clay, and blue.
The village was hemmed in by the trees on one side and the long shore of Vorda’s Lake on the other. Old and nameless, the village was remembered by visitors for its fortitude: a hardened gem buried in the recesses of the woods.
There was little to celebrate there. Quiet but for the weekly messenger and tradesfolk, villagers kept amongst themselves, and few poked their heads in. Life played its harsh melodies, but happy tunes were rare. This was one of them. Not a soul was left inside; all had taken to the town center, crowding around the bonfire that seemed to darken the still bright land and casts sparks in the eyes of the villagers.
But to Sartore, who watched from the far window of his bedroom, rough patches of warmth from the fire carried to him by the breeze, the crowd was a faceless mob of pretty colors. Sartore wasn’t sure why he hadn’t left yet. His parents had reminded him to when they had gone together some time ago, but there was a tinge in their voice, as if they knew. He watched them walk, their shadows reaching towards the fire with their backs to sun, and then become little more than additional bodies to him.
Sartore’s parents loved their cottage. It occupied the largest corner of the village, and outfitted it with hunting prizes of his father’s and decorations of his mother’s. It sat where the village ended, and the trees tapered off to the grassy hill. Behind the house was their own cut of the shore, and a beautiful view of the lake. Sartore had looked at it, sometimes for long stretches, but never seen it. Sartore liked the house less; it was the furthest from the heart of the village, and made his seldom appearances all the rarer. Harder to find friends from that angle, Sartore thought. But he didn’t complain.
A knock came to the front door. Sartore jumped, his feet filling with prickly heat and his heart acquiring the same skip, but he approached the door nonetheless, through the grayish brown wood and the large, empty hallway, that seemed to echo his thoughts.
At the door was a young blond boy of Sartore’s age. He was grinning before the door had opened.
“Stop trying to hide from me, you know I’ll find you,” Liam said. Sartore laughed, although a small fraction of him was hurt. “They’re starting to hand out food, and if you don’t come I’m going to take yours.”
“Hey!” Sartore whispered, trying to frown, but failing. Liam stretched his lips even further, turned, and ran. Sartore, as far as he could determine, had no choice but to follow.
It would have been obvious to anyone paying attention. The tremors of a hundred thousand hoofbeats against the earth, the many flocks of birds like one dark tapestry in the sky, or the shaking treetops in the distance. Any one of them would be cause for concern. But, buried in the voices, the music, the crackling and the food, there was no chance of finding it. Sweet aromas and fiery light had cut the rest of the world away.
Liam found the crowds more tolerable, but equally dispensable. He skirted around the town center with Sartore at his heels, collecting other kids their age as they were spotted. Although Liam spoke happily to all of them, Sartore kept his mouth shut to all but him. Otherwise he remained quiet in the back. As the hodge podge crew went door to door, waiting in line to be gifted some of the food at stands at the front of various huts, Liam would always take the lead, and Sartore would stay at the back. Sartore could hear Liam chatting with old man Carrobrim as he picked up his golden biscuit, but Carrobrim regarded Sartore with little more than a dismissive glance.
With their delicious morsels in hand, the gang curled around the side of the town, falling into a pocket of grass field, occupied by other children. Toys and wooden games had been left there by any adults who’d managed to find them. Liam pounced on one of them, a fur ball that he kicked out of reach from a baby a decade younger than him, and kicked it to Ramma. Liam righted the now crying baby and patted him on the head, then turned back to the game.
Sartore didn’t like to think about it much, but it was true: he was a bad shot. His kicks curved, flew, fell short and swung far, disobeying whatever commands he’d requested.
“Sartore still can’t play!” Trass shouted, running for another wild shot of his and kicking up a cloud of laughter in the others. Trass passed the ball back, and Sartore caught it with his bare heel.
“Hit it here,” Trass said, crouching down and putting his hands on his knees, licking his lips. Another round of giggling. Sartore furrowed his brow and looked at at Trass’s face, then tilted his head back down to the ball. Sartore wound back his leg and launched his foot into the ball. It went wide, back into the center. Even with Trass’s pounce he couldn’t catch it. Another round of laughter arose, and Liam chief among them. As Trass retrieved the ball once again, he shook his head in Sartore’s direction without looking at him, and tossed it to someone else.
The games ceased when Flachen, one of the town elders, raised his voice. Simply by rising from his chair, the crowd turned to him, as though he had already requested their attention—which they gave readily. Even the young boys stopped. Behind him was a long table draped in white silk, with silver and white plates of food atop it, covering every possible inch. Upon seeing it, his nose, and consequently his stomach, was alerted of the various smells that wafted from there.
“The harvest is ready!” Flachen shouted. All bowed their heads, and repeated him in hushed tones. “Tonight, we will eat together with our true faces to each other.” All nodded.
To Sartore, the voice was dim. While the other boys watched and listened with gleaming eyes, Sartore turned his back and looked down at the field of grass. It appeared strange to him. The grass was shining, almost; he could see the different colors in every blade. Each patch became clear, as the wind carved out different sections that caught it differently.
But past it, was the sun. The large bulb, painting the sky yellow and red. Each wave that stretched from the shore to the opposite end of the lake was colored with crescents of white over the dark, translucent blue.
Another voice spoke up, and muddled the rest. There was no reason to search for its source; Sartore knew where it was. It came from the furthest corner in the back of his head. A chill ran up from his tailbone to his spine. Everything made sense now, Sartore thought. As the rest of the world to his back receded, the world in front of him stood to attention. The whispers were inarticulate, a warbling and incoherent chant, but they were enough. When he walked towards the water, and from there to the back of his house, he followed no map, and no instructions. He felt like he was following his own footsteps a second before he made them.
Between the hill of grass and the muddy sand of the shore was a short stone wall that rose to just above his knees. He followed it its end, where it tapered off into the woods, just behind his own house. He didn’t recognize it. He sat on the stone wall, turned to the lake, and watched the sunset. When his eyes set upon the sun, the voices rose again and cleaned his mind of things.
Falchen’s voice faltered. The villagers were distracted. He could tell why: although there were no storm clouds in the sky, the sound of rolling thunder was unmistakable. It must be on the other side of the trees, Falchen thought, regaining some of his bravado. But nothing caught. More murmurs and upturned heads.
Then eyes pinned to the forest wall, over Falchen’s shoulder. He followed their eyes. The trees were being shoved apart, almost torn from the earth. And in a second, whatever force was doing so would be in the village.
Falchen saw only one figure at first. He was well ahead of the rest. He rode a dark-colored stallion with a gray streak in its hair. The man who rode it wore large, dark gray armor, with longsword drawn in his hand. Behind him, he seemed to be leading an army of infinite shadows.
Sartore was in a waking dream. Voices chanted and sung melancholy hymns in his head; the ballooning sun hung in the reddening sky. The rest of the world was behind him. The sound of the breeze against his skin and of the water lapping at the shore under his feet came from the other side of the earth. Time moved at a curious pace; hours compressed into moments, and moments stretched into hours.
The discord in those voices was haunting, each one calling for his full attention, and all getting none. But underneath that asynchronous mass of guttural noises was a cord that kept them in an invisible unity. Although impossible to focus on, it set him in a trance nonetheless. When those voices hit the same note together, as infrequent as it was, it sent a warm shiver down his spine. After enough time had passed, he could only feel a hot numbness, his flesh a shell to his surroundings, but his body soft and warm, his soul rubbery.
Every wave merged with the next, until finally releasing quietly into the sand. The breeze skimmed over the surface like a skipping rock and pressed against him.
And the sun grew. Its bottom had just touched the trees across the lake. It was enormous and yellow, and the further it descended, the larger it became. The sky, all scarlet, shimmered around it, as though a mirage.
And then it locked. Just over half of it remained over the horizon. It was now so large that Sartore felt the sun bearing down on him, an enormous beast only a few inches away, snarling at him. The silhouettes of the trees had shrunk to black grass. Then, the voices bound together and sang in unison.
Another voice emerged from the others, this one a whisper; but it was much closer than the rest. At first it was impossibly quiet, should a rustle in the leaves, but the whisper rushed towards him, his heart rate rising until his vision swam—but it stopped when the whisper, so close that it sounded like his breath when he plugged his ears, at last, spoke:
Find the sun.
And the dream ended. The sun was well below the horizon now, the glow of a pot of gold still visible. Although faint, there was still enough light to move. Although fresh in his mind, the memory, like any other dream, faded quickly.
A cold shiver rocketed through his back and tensed his spine. For a second Sartore thought he could feel each individual muscle there. The last of that comforting heat had all but faded away. He hopped off the stone wall, noticed the awkward pain it had left on his butt, and turned and started up the hill. By now, he thought, the festival must have ended. There was no noise uphill, neither voices nor footsteps, and no smoke rising from the town center. The light of the street lanterns were dim—missing. There was a concerned peep in the back of his head, a different corner, worrying that his parents might be searching for him.
When Sartore topped it, he noticed that his own house seemed empty. The lights were off, and from the back window, he saw his parents’ bed, made and untouched. Sartore rounded the corner and nearly stepped on a plank of wood cracked at both ends, but flinched back when he saw it. He looked up. The village floor had flooded with a sea of wood and dead bodies. Sartore heard that same small voice gasp in the back of his head, and draw further into its distant corner.
Under his feet, the wood creaked and snapped, some shedding off smaller pieces. Much was rotten, bugs crawling from beam to beam, or beam to body. Only a few houses still stood; the rest had been demolished. Their foundations, stripped of their walls, now formed many sets of jagged wooden teeth.
Not far from the house were Sartore’s parents, both face down and part submerged in the planks, their backs each curved far out of shape. Another muffled cry. Further down, as Sartore stepped over the bodies of his neighbors, he noticed Liam, head twisted to his back like an owl’s, his cheeks spattered with splinters and dust. The rest of his body was tucked underneath a large slab of wooden wall which had split when it crushed him. His eyes still gazed in terror, but there was no spirit in them.
Only Falchen’s body remained above the devastation. He was outstretched on the tilted remains of the feasting table, sliding off in small increments. Small coins, difficult to make out in the remaining light, spilled from Falchen’s jacket pockets and onto his chest. Sartore grabbed handful after handful and slid them into his pockets, an act always accompanied by a quick succession of short plinks.
Sartore returned home, stopping to pilfer each body he passed. As he crouched over them, Sartore noticed hoofbeats in the dirt underneath the ruins.
Find the sun. His mind burned red hot where the thought had been forged. He turned to the lake, savoring the memory of the sunset.
Find the sun.
After emptying his parents’ pockets, he tested the door knob at his front door: unlocked. It was pitch black inside, with a faint light entering from his parents’ bedroom. He grabbed the lantern hanging beside the doorway and stepped in.
The hallway was large and quiet. The lantern could only guide him a few feet at a time, but left a ghostly outline of the many accessories hung on the walls. In an open room near the front, the dinner table sat, unoccupied, a cold plate of food waiting at his seat. His footsteps sounded large in their echo. He passed over his own room. In his parents’, he saw the last glimpse of the sunlight, a fleeing aurora, at the horizon. He paused there again, imagining the red painting sprawled over it.
His father had a small knapsack which he kept in the corner of the closet. It jingled with more coins when Sartore picked it up, and he dropped his own in along with the rest.
Find the sun.
Sartore walked back into the night. At the other end of the village was a dirt road. Sartore had never left the village, but he had heard rumors of the cities beyond this one. To the right, deeper into the trees, lay another village like this one. To the left, much further down, was a city by the harbor, where one could travel overseas, and across the world.
Find the sun.
He turned to the left, and in the night, followed the path.
Deep in the forest, light was nearly absent. The sun had set long ago, and whatever moonlight remained was blocked by the branches and leaves overhead. The path ahead was muddy and tinted blue, the overlapping shadows only becoming real vegetation from a few feet away. Roots that had grown over the path brushed against moving feet, and the long and crooked arms of the bushes caught travellers unawares.
But Taramiel, and the band of men behind him, were untroubled atop their horses. The path was narrowing, straightening from their former bent position as grass flattened by a footstep rises, but Taramiel drove through the path as easily as he had sprinting through it the other way. The taste of spilt blood was still fresh on their tongues, but they were satisfied for the time being, and returned to camp at their leisure.
Each of them wore a suit of silver armor, a mix of loose chainmail and metal plates that could crack a poorly-swung blade; and each horse wore a coat of various shades of silver. Taramiel’s was jet black, white a white man streaking down its back.
Voices had picked up behind Taramiel. Usually a battle would leave them quiet, enjoying the wind and the songs of the animals, but that night’s adventure had been a massacre. Many of those voices belonged to riders younger than Taramiel, he thought to himself. Unfit to lead. He should’ve been, too, as he’d been reminded frequently, but those complaints had ceased quickly.
The dark fog was lifting. Some of the camp’s light must’ve reached them, accompanied by drunken shouts. The men were elbowing forward now, hooves stepping on each other to push the next rider forward. The light began piercing through the trees, and in a minute they were close enough to hear the crackling of the fires.
And with a turn, they had arrived. Soldiers sat on dirt on fresh tree stumps with a campfire at their feet and buddies by their sides. Swaths of pine needles acted as makeshift carpets. Tents, cots and hammocks lay nestled between the surrounding trees. The clearing now made an open-roofed dome where smoke obscured their vision of the night sky.
Half-conscious cheers rang out from the crowd before their producers returned to drinking. Taramiel dismounted, pausing to let the other soldiers run past him, and guided his mount to his tent, tying its reigns around the trunk. He slipped out of his armor and chains in the partial darkness. Some hadn’t even bothered with the formality, and took long drafts with only their helmets off, rolling out of reach like the severed head at a guillotine.
Taramiel wore a gray linen outfit when he rejoined the circle. He first moved towards some of his old soldier friends—since rising to general, he saw them rarely—but he couldn’t refuse the raised glass of beer from the other huddled generals, no matter how much more bitter its bottom would taste.
He sat down beside them and grabbed the drink from general Vexin’s hand. The general smiled at him, dropping his hand back into his lap, and rocked back and forth, staring into the fire.
“Find any ladies in the woods, general?” Vexin added. Taramiel let out a smile that he’d wished to suppress. Taramiel smiled, but wished he hadn’t. He drew the drink to his lips, mostly to hide his face, and drank away the top third. From over the brim, Taramiel could see general Armund staring at him.
Armund had a long beard colored like fresh ash. His eyes were set deep underneath his crown of a brow, and he wrapped a black robe around his waist. Taramiel could see the same bitter taste in Armund’s eyes.
“Like the ale?” Armund said, tightening a smile over his scowl.
“I’d take it over soldier’s piss.”
“It is Soldier’s Piss,” Armund replied, taking his own half-drained mug and pouring the rest into the fire. The flames bobbed for a moment, then returned to their previous blaze. He withdrew a flask from his robe, wrapped with black leather, and opened the nozzle with a twist of his fingers. “You should have something good to drink, no boy’s fare. I wager you’d even enjoy it.” He brought it to his lips and took a short swig.
“Your piss is about as good as any others, I’ll stick with mine.”
Armund laughed, and rubbed his nose. “This stuff is worth more in coin than you are to the Sacredate.”
Right, those raids were useless trifles,” Taramiel said.
“You do cattle-work.” Armund’s scowl had returned, and it seemed as though his mouth had grown wider, and his teeth sharper.
Every head turned to the tent at the back of the clearing. The fires seemed to shy away from the shout. A man wearing a black cloak folded the cloth door back, his head bent through the entrance, staining the soil in front of it with yellow light. Taramiel wished he’d had more ale. His heart began to pick up speed, although he knew there was no need. He always reminded himself of that, but it never helped.
“The Sacredate requests your presence. Come now.”
Armund smiled, but resheathed his teeth. Taramiel rose and stared at him as he poured the rest of his drink into the fire, extinguishing it. Now Armund was expressionless. Before he left, Taramiel noticed Armund examining the remaining suds in the large glasses, and sighing.
It took longer than Taramiel had hoped for the camaraderie and the fires to pick up again. Drunken laughter and shouts had returned, but even the half-conscious were watching him approach the tent. Not until he was hidden within would it return to normal. Taramiel walked up to the Black Guard at the front, a head smaller than he was, and walked in when the Guard bowed and stepped aside.
Gloss sat inside. Despite his gray hair, and the weary slump in his back, his skin was soft and absent of wrinkles. Part child and part old man, but nowhere in-between. He sat on a wooden throne of sorts, wrapped with leather straps, decorated with studs. Gloss’ visit with these portions of his army had drawn into their fourth month. Long stays were rare, but, as Gloss liked to say, any commandment delivered to him by the gods would be followed.
Signs of illness were prevalent. Gloss sniffled constantly, licked his lips. His skin was pale, and his hands trembled.
“Taramiel,” Gloss whispered, rising and steadying himself against the back of the chair. His black and purple robes dragged against the dirt floor as he approached.
“Have you been true, Taramiel?” Gloss asked. His amber eyes peered and narrowed into him.
“Did you leave any of them alive, Taramiel?” Gloss’ voice had gained an edge.
“Are you certain? The gods will not tolerate dissidence.”
“Yes. Nothing left alive. We levelled it.”
Gloss stepped back and drew a weak smile.
“Was there any good food there? I think I saw them cooking a delicious pig in my sleep.”
Taramiel chuckled. “I wasn’t paying attention to that.”
“You should’ve been,” Gloss said, sitting back in his chair. “Villagers savor their goods. A village feast is the beast meal you’ll ever have. In a city, every meal could be of those same delicacies, so they eat worse shit than the villagers do.”
Taramiel nodded, and waited for Gloss to continue. Instead, when Taramiel looked at him, he saw Gloss with his forehead cupped in his palm, eyes shut tight and brow and nose wrinkled. After a second, a new face appeared, teeth bared and bent forward. Taramiel thought briefly that Gloss was coming for him, a punishment for some unknown crime, but instead Gloss walked past him and out the door.
“WHAT INSANITY IS THIS? PUT OUT YOUR FIRES AND END YOUR REVELRY. WE HAVE NO TIME, NO EXCUSES FOR YOUR PATHETIC SLACK. CLEAN OUT YOUR DRINK AND INTO YOUR COTS. THERE SHOULD BE NOTHING LEFT IN THE CLEARING NEXT I STEP OUT. GO!”
And Gloss stepped back into the tent. He sat back in his chair, rubbing his temples. Two of the Black Guard tapped Taramiel’s shoulders and ushered him out, where he was greeted by the stumbling feet of the drunk, gathering their things and slipping away with burnt logs and empty glasses in tow. Taramiel sighed, walking through the chaos to his tent and falling into the dark.
“Something’s been moving around in the bushes.”
“Farrin, if you want to stop one more time I’m going on without you.”
“No, honest, something’s been following us for a while, by the road.”
“They’re just rabbits. Rabbits. Maybe a raccoon.”
“This isn’t just a rodent, Toledo, it’s big, s—”
“There aren’t wolves or coyotes in these woods. The scariest thing you’ll find is a bird giving you the funny eye, and trust me, you deserve it.”
“Stop for a second, just for a second, and we’ll move on.”
The two horse riders stopped, the first turning to see between the wagons strapped to each of their mounts, the second rubbing his face and looking up to the treetops.
“Did you hear that? Something touched the wagon, I’m begging you, something isn’t right—”
“A damn branch fell from a tree, you better cut it out now, we have work ahead of us and if you don’t keep your mouth shut the sun’s going to rise before we reach the village.” The second rider opened his mouth to say more, but shut it and rode on. The first rider turned around again, watching the wooden box push past him, and he jumped forward himself before letting the other rider move too far, driving his foot into his horse’s side and being met with a resistant grunt.
“Hear anything from the village lately?” the first rider asked.
“No. Not surprising though, place’s small, they don’t have anyone worth writing to.”
“You think Gloss made it to these parts?”
The second rider laughed. “Yes, and we’ll get there and find everybody’s already his slave, and then they’ll nab us too! Maybe one of them’s been following us the whole time, and you were right all along!” The second rider laughed again when the first turned his head to check. “To be honest, Farrin, I wouldn’t mind seeing one of them. Change of pace. Hell, maybe we should just turn ourselves in. The city’s going dry, and I heard they’ve got their hands in some big pots of gold.”
“I don’t think it would be good to associate with those kinds of people. I don’t want to be robbed and tortured.” The second rider chuckled and shook his head. “The king’s good, they’re talking nonsense anyway,” the first rider continued.
The second raised an eyebrow. “King’s about as wise as this horse. Last time he said something that made sense this horse could do the same thing.”
“Well, things are okay here. We’re not broke. Things are safe.”
“Ah, yes, Gloss the friendly trading partner, we get along fine.”
“You said we were safe, Toledo.” The second rider rolled his eyes.
“Look, things are good enough here. And no, Gloss isn’t very friendly. To be honest, I don’t know what, or who, keeps things and the king running, but it happens. Still. Gloss made a point, and it stuck.”
The first rider turned again. The second had his eyes fixed to the road, his shoulders slumped, and a faint frown on his lips. His eyes were drooping.
Unbeknownst to him, the first rider’s wagon was unlocked. As the cart rumbled on, the door had creaked open, and two apples bounced out of it and rolled into the dirt. They took no notice of it. Soon enough, they had left the spot far behind. And when they did, Sartore emerged from the bushes, brushing away the bramble and thorns that scratched at his arms, and grabbed the apples off the dirt road, carrying them to a river a short distance from the path.
After maneuvering past an obstacle course of roots and branches, he found a place to sit at the water’s edge. Through the canopy, the moon shone like many spotlights on the earth, granting silver illumination to stretches of moss and grass. Where the light glinted against the water it seemed like white silk, but the rest was transparent. The stones under the water looked like python flesh.
Sartore washed the apples. He held one up to the partially obscured white sphere in the sky, saw it through a drop of water that hung on the apple’s surface; it reminded him, in some way, of the raging sunset he had seen a night ago. But the colors were different. The thought started an itch in his chest that, for now, was easy to suppress. Sartore took a bite, savoring the sound of his teeth cracking the apple’s flesh. Some small animals scurried away, jumping from branch to branch or hurrying against the dirt floor. The noise didn’t concern him; instead, he closed his eyes and ate, slowly. Sartore knew he was hungry. He felt like the space in his chest was getting sucked out of him or devoured. But it didn’t bother him much. He dropped both cores into the grass, dipped his hands in the water and splashed some in his face. His cheeks felt warm. Sartore walked back to the path, listened for anymore travellers, and hearing none, continued down the path.
The trail continued flat between the walls of vegetation. Most animals kept their distance, but a few brave ones crossed his path. A rabbit with a light gray coat sprang to him from a bush, and Sartore kicked it away. A raccoon approached him tentatively, and Sartore brained it with a rock, leaving its carcass in the middle of the road. Despite their absence, though, the animals kept his company. Owls perched on tree branches and crickets hidden in the grass kept the night alive.
The further Sartore walked, the more he wanted to lie down in the dirt and close his eyes. But sleep seemed far away. The bend of a root was the wrong place to get some rest. The city came first, Sartore thought.
The dirt road had an end. It was at the side of a brick-paved street, where other other similar roads ended like ribs connecting to the spine. The moon shone through a small part in the trees.
Sartore heard horse hooves and wagons. He hid behind a thick tree trunk, poking his head out to watch. A small armada of people emerged, many drawn from different paths, and travelling forward. Some had large carriages strapped to their horses, the wheels creaking noisily under the pressure; some had mules to carry their luggage. More still carried their belongings on their backs, and a select few, mostly children, but a few vagrants, carried nothing. A few conversations sparked up in the bramble, but burned out to ash. With their coming, the chirp of the crickets that had carried him forward had disappeared, and left for him that eerie silence.
Sartore returned to the road when the travellers had long passed, and the sound of them no longer reached him. He skittered to the corners whenever any others passed, often in long stretches as long chains of people moved, but there were enough pockets of space to keep him moving.
The sun began to rise. There was a dull blue tint to the sky, and soon to the earth. Sartore could see the many colors beginning to stretch out above him. A deep itch settled in his heart; he needed to see it. He dashed forward, following the winds of the street until he could see the city on the horizon.
And it was beautiful. There, shining from behind the buildings, came a golden glow that cast the structures in the same light. Whatever rough edges should have been there were gone. It came with the small sound of a choir, although Sartore wasn’t sure if that part was just in his head.
Sartore knew he’d chosen right. And towards the light he went.
The city was alive by sunrise, the streets packed with horses pulling carts, soon to be shopkeepers setting up camp and crossing the busy stream to their usual hideouts. Even from under horse hooves and trampling feet, everything Sartore thought he saw had beauty to it. The gilded path ahead of him was clear; a line drawn between those early travellers to the docks. Sartore hopped onto a range of white wooden boards, relishing the cool breeze, then hopped onto the wide railing that stood over the dock.
And there was the ocean. His little lake from back home could fit in what he saw many hundreds of times over; and the water continued off the horizon, and pouring out to nowhere. The dark and azure scales of water surface shifted infinitely in every direction all moving at once, beckoning to one harmonious force.
Sartore imagined seeing a large sea creature, like the one fabled to live at the bottom of the old Lake, leaping out of the water and falling back in with little disturbance. Sartore went a step further and imagined a leviathan that better fit the size of the ocean, but panicked a little at the thought.
And the sunrise—
—had already ended. Like someone turning out the lights, the golden shading disappeared. The small, white and murky circle of the sun already hung up in the clear blue sky. He’d missed it. An even deeper panic set into his heart, like the feeling of a memory just out of reach, on the tip of the tongue, but despite the shock, Sartore could breath a little easier with a word of solace: Find the sun.
“Get out of here, rat!”
Sartore scrambled back, teetering on the railing. A bald, burly man faced him with gritted teeth, brandishing his mop. Sartore’s heart was beating in his head, chest, and every vessel.
Get out of here, or I’ll swat you off and scrape you off the docks!”
Oh yes, Sartore thought. The docks. Now that the aggressive man mentioned it, the docks themselves were pretty far under him, twenty, maybe thirty feet below.
“Get!” The man said, swinging the mop at Sartore. Sartore leapt off before the man could connect and ran down the wooden boards.
Sartore emerged on the other side of the rushing stream of people a few moments later. There were a few closed shops and an array of dark windows that watched the sidewalk. Sartore turned and watched the old man, mop in hand, hobble down the pier.
While the sudden panic had gone, the tremors in front of him remained. It was, he discovered, a lot of people rushing past him now, more than he’d ever seen. The largest gathering he’d ever witnessed would have been the feast—
What feast? Sartore thought. His mind blanked; but the street and its people continued to roar, and his heart stuttered.
But the wisp of a smell gave him some comfort. Somewhere on the left trailed the scent of fresh bread, flowing from the front door of a shop with the name “Saveli’s” hanging over its door. Sartore drifted there, pulling down the knapsack from his shoulders and pulling out some cash—
—but it was gone. Gone for some time now, he realized. He felt for the missing strap on his shoulder and turned to it, but nothing appeared. Somewhere in the woods, he thought. The city’s exit seemed awfully dark to him now, a verdant, many-toothed maw. And no matter how close they were, the blur of the faceless mob spat at him. Sartore found a small corner large enough to crouch in beside the bakery, and sat there, legs pressed against his chest.
And soon enough, even the memory of the knapsack faded.
Sartore could hear the crowded chatter through the walls, and the sound of steam rising over it all and fogging up the windows. The sweet smell of dough came in waves whenever the front door swung open. Those leaving would only afford a quick glance at Sartore before walking away with a spring in their steps. The occasional human would break off a corner of bread or confectionary and drop it into Sartore’s lap; Sartore looked dumbly at the crumb, and waited to eat it.
As the sun reached higher into the sky, so too did the shadows grow darker. The streets cleared soon enough, and to replace the constant shuffle came dark silhouettes emerging from the corners. Disgruntled characters with too many layers of clothing, young and old, carrying all of their belongings on their backs, the shadows long on their faces. They spat, shuffled along, scratched at their wild beards.
“You could be doing a lot better, kid.”
Standing a foot from Sartore’s corner was exactly one of those figures. He wore a faded green jacket that dropped to his knees. His beard looked like dirty black cotton candy. Sartore could tell everything in his eyes: greedy.
“I’m doing fine right here,” Sartore replied, taking a small bite of one of those bread crusts. The figure’s eyes flashed, and he gave his best attempt at a comfortable smile.
“You see all these people?” he said, waving his hand at the others. “Each of them would’ve made a lot more in bread if they were in your shoes. Do you know how easy it would be? All you had to do, all you had to do, was look up at the rich folk passing by and pout a little, beg a little, just for a little food, and they would’ve given you their hearts and souls. But instead you’re sitting here letting your opportunities go to waste. And they walked right past you like you were a mangy cat!”
Sartore considered the words briefly, then turned back to the man, expressionless.
“Oh you damn child! You’ll have to pay for that.” The man stepped forward, and Sartore realized that he had few avenues to escape—although no panic accompanied the thought.
“What do you want?” Sartore asked. The man considered the question for a moment.
“Give me your shoes.”
Sartore untied them and handed them to the figure’s outstretched hand.
“These are nice. Good material, I think. I think I can sell them for a good price. But you were gonna keep wearing them out like the brat you are.”
Sartore said nothing.
“I’ll leave you be. Disrespect me one more time, though, and I’ll have to take everything else.”
And the figure left.
And sometime shortly thereafter, as the street became mostly uneventful, Sartore fell asleep.
He knew only that his dream was some sort of memory, but not one he could remember. He stood in front of what must have once been a village, now uprooted and flattened. Bodies lay half-buried in the wood. Beside Sartore was the only house that remained intact. That one in particular rang some sort of bell, but the noise was quiet. He began to cry, hoping for something or someone to free him from this prison.
That time was still to come.
Sartore awoke as the sky began to darken, dried tears on his cheeks. There were more city-dwellers shuffling about now. The fog of sleep still clung to him, and kept part of him, the old part of him, in perpetual slumber. He rose, stretched his back and rubbed his eyes, and looked out at the shore.
This is it. Finally. Here. The sun.
Sartore walked to the same place he’d sat before, and watched. But as the sun descended, so too did his spirits. There was a brief flash of colors, and then a darker, milky blue, and then night. And the night was cold. The tears might return soon, Sartore thought to himself, but there was one thought that would satisfy him, as far as he could be: there would always be tomorrow.
Find the sun.
But there was nothing to find here. Perhaps on the horizon, but not here. Not—
The City Library always opened at the same time; and Maisero would always be waiting. He waited on the granite steps, cut into the hill that the Library topped, and looked out at the city; in the mornings, smothered by golden sunlight, it seemed tolerable to him. But only like that.
“Good morning, Maisero,” Natasha, today’s librarian, said. She carried a large golden key around her neck, and stooped forward to unlock the large gate. Maisero pursed his lips and carried himself forward as Natasha held the door for him. No matter how old the librarians would get (although they tended to get younger first), Maisero would always be older. He nodded a silent thank you to her as he passed.
The morning hour was the most comforting time he could find from beyond the high walls of the library. Too late for the poor to terrorize him, too early for the mindless knulls that packed the shelves of this city to burst forward and make their usual commotion. And so he took the morning route this way, at this hour, as he had for the last five decades. The commute home, as the library closed, was an adventure filled with cowardice and fear, but at least he would last. Once in the library, everything was okay.
Maisero sat at a table behind one of the tall bookshelves. He tended to switch sitting location as every project of his ended. He dropped his black briefcase on the table and peeled open its leather flaps, removing from within a pad of paper, a bottle of ink, and a pen. His one complaint when he had started spending his hours here was that the high-rise windows gave little clarity to his work, but his eyes had adjusted.
He’d invested much of his time in new research for the library: examining flora and fauna on the banks of the waters, collected by other librarians on his behalf; translations of other works in various languages in the library basement. Art, literature, science, all here, all found and rediscovered by Maisero himself—though few, if any, knew his name outside the library walls.
The shore of the city looked back at him now through a small square of glass beside him. The water glinting up at him, almost gleefully. It was terrible to behold. Who would ever want to step onto those docks, or even worse, sail into the neverending expanse? He had interacted with more than a few lousy sailors, and wasn’t ready to take the same position again, not till the day he died.
“Hello Maisero,” one of the library attendants said. She was standing on the other side of the table, with a book held to her chest. She was new to the library, fresh out of one of the nearby universities. “How are you doing today?”
“Fine, fine, all as usual.”
“That’s good. Listen, I know you finished something a few weeks ago, and we got a new shipment of books from overseas just yesterday, so I thought some of them might be a good place to start a new project. I brought one for you in case you were interested.” And with that, she held the volume out to him like an elementary school award. A Study of Fontanus. Maisero grabbed the book, felt shreds of the felt binding rubbing onto his hand.
“Thank you, Delilah, I appreciate your regular recommendations. I’ll—I’ll take a look, I’ll make sure to.”
A flash of a smile appeared. Maisero thought that, even for her, it was a poor attempt.
“Of course. I hope it serves you well.” She nodded to him and returned to her desk, around the corner and past some of the shelves, just in sight from his angle.
Maisero held the book up just a few inches past his nose. The gold letters of the title embossed on the cover were already peeling off, and the cover itself bent too easily in his hands. Better to hide the book away, he thought. It would fall apart in the clumsy, ravaging hands of regular library-goers. Besides, it was of little use to him. Of what diagrams he found flipping through the pages, all seemed to be of different flora, and such fancies were of an older pastime. Better to save the volume for a few generations—let somebody else find a purpose for it. For fontanus.
In the meantime, Maisero could find no words to dig up on the page, and his incessant staring only gave him a headache. A good book, he thought, would relieve some of the tension. Maisero hobbled down one of the aisles, passing through Delilah’s line of sight, and searched for a new title on the spines. Many names had been ground away, but Maisero no longer needed them: he recognized most of the novels on sight. It always hurt his spirit to find pages torn out or loose in a book’s quarters. It would likely never be opened again, and would be given no funeral.
He found more new material at the back. Most of them were novels. Maisero pulled them out from their neighbors, making sure the other books remained in place, and carried his treasure to one of the cushioned seats in the library corners.
And from that seat he passed the day. The books that caught his attention were the most tolerable, and helped spin the wheel of the sun as it turned; but most were deadening. Some pages passed without a memory; other pages took ten minutes and a dozen reads to finish. There was something else on his mind, something in front of him that never appeared. It was no use trying to read while that distraction, whatever it was, hung over his head—but he did it nonetheless.
The light dimmed; people came and went. A few stopped by to drop off books, others came to browse through the collection and take some out. A few hours before the library closed, Delilah walked around through the library with matches and lit the only lamps the library had. All in all, Maisero thought, it had been a quiet day.
Maisero left just before the library closed, slipping into the dark.
The marble steps were barely lit, small balls of light at their sides that barely spanned a few feet. Maisero kept his head down. He knew the way back to his old apartment, but had never looked up to see the path. In the dark, it was too frightening. Never mind the alien shapes of the run-down buildings—he always saw the figures that crept at their underbellies.
The only place worth turning his head up was the water. Maisero couldn’t help but watch the waves move, even for a second, before fear struck his heart and he scurried away.
But this time, something else caused him to stop. A young boy, standing at the cliff and watching the water, his back straight, open to whatever winds blew his way. The boy was raggedy, sure, but there was something else drew his attention to him. The same obnoxious whine from the library, although perhaps a little more pleasant now. Maisero walked towards him.