So I’ve got a new writing soundtrack. I’d forgotten how great the soundtrack to The Fountain was, and now that I’ve got it, it’s great to write to.
That said, here’s another excerpt:
The night train to Beh Ayin took Rhys southeast, across some of the most contaminated habitable wilderness in the world. Unlike the interior, much of Tirhan was vividly green and verdant, so full of color it hurt Rhys’s eyes. The abundance, however, was deceptive. The blue morning laid bare groves of giant, twisted mango trees draped in ropy clematis and pink-budded coral vine. Swarms of giant flying assassin bugs clotted the air above the groves, and though they were too small to see, Rhys could feel hordes of mites and scalebugs chewing at the mango grove, ladybugs and mantids eating at the pests, and more – mutant cicadas, wild locusts and wasps; giant, pulsing wasp swarms with nests so big he felt their heartbeat from the train.
As the second dawn swallowed the first, the train passed through the mango groves and into the sprawl of the jungle. Rhys watched the tangle deepen, the color of the wood darken, the light change as the train pushed on. The trees here were monstrous, three hundred feet high, and the world went dusky violet. He caught the smell of wet black soil and loam, sensed the stir of leaf beetles and mutant worms. Giant orange fungus, bleeding yellow pus, cloaked the bases of the trees, and the swarms here were vibrant, more alive than anything else he’d felt outside of a magician’s gym. It was a beautiful world, and dangerous. Nothing human lived out here. Not for long.
The train went on.
They pulled up out of the dense jungle sometime around mid-afternoon and ascended into the more habitable part of the southeast, up into mist-clouded hills shorn of their undergrowth. Rhys had never been to Beh Ayin, though he knew it was once a political and cultural center for the Ras Tiegans before the Tirhanis invaded and burned it out. The flat black plain of Beh Ayin was not a plain at all but the top of a low mountain, shorn smooth. The mountain was called Safid Ayin, after the Tirhani martyr who died there while trying to burn out the Ras Teigans. In the end, the last of the Ras Tiegans had thrown themselves from the sheer walls of the mountain rather than face death at the hand of infidels. Not so long ago, by Chenjan or Nasheenian standards – a hundred and thirty years before, perhaps. The city walls were fitted stone, no filters. Tirhani magicians were in short supply, and they did not have enough to maintain filters around most cities, even those prone to contagion like Beh Ayin.
The train moved into Beh Ayin from below, curving into the dark recesses of a smooth tunnel bored out of the mountainside. They ascended into the belly of the train station – an airy, amber-colored way post made up of delicate arches.
At the station, a thin Tirhani woman immediately approached Rhys as he stepped off the train. She introduced herself as Tasyin Akhshan, special consulate to the Minister of Public Affairs.
“And what exactly is it that a Special Consulate does?” Rhys asked.
Tasyin smiled, but her jaw hardened, as if she clenched her teeth. She was, perhaps, forty or fifty, difficult to say this far from the filters and opaqued windows of the cities. She could have been far closer to his age, though by the look in her eyes and the set to her shoulders, he doubted it. She dressed in simple, professional Tirhani garb; long loose tunic and loose trousers, pale gray khameez. But out here in the jungle, she wore boots instead of sandals. She wore a deep purple wrap around her dark head, and it made her eyes stand out all the more, the pale whites with dark centers.
“We spend too much time on mountaintop train platforms,” she said, “wondering why we’ve been sent a Chenjan for the translation of Nasheenian.”
“I spent six years in Nasheen,” he said. He was always a foreigner and a Chenjan, even – or perhaps especially – among the Tirhani. He’d spent his entire adult life proving that being foreign did not make him incompetent.
“Explain that to the Nasheenians,” Taysin said. “Come, it’s warmer at the hotel.”
The hotel was a squat, white-washed residence at the top of one of the city’s artificial hills. A rolling curtain of dark clouds obscured the sky, and the wind was high and cold. They passed through an old Ras Tiegan gate and up a cobbled way that dead-ended at the hotel.
Tasyin buzzed him through the gate and into the courtyard, a tangle-filled garden with broad palms and heart-vines dressed in leaves twice the size of his head. Giant yellow lizards scampered through the undergrowth. The house staff had prepared a late breakfast on the porch.
Rhys sat down with Tasyin and ate a light meal of lizards’ eggs, burst toast, and cinnamon squash while she explained why it was she needed a Nasheenian translator at the edge of the civilized world.
“You’ve done work with the Minister before, so I trust you are discreet,” Tasyin said. She crossed her legs at the ankle and stuffed a pipe full of sen. “I want you to convey my words exactly, and if that means it takes you extra time, fine. The client is sensitive, but I need to be clear about their intentions. Do you know anything about Nasheenian culture?”
Rhys considered telling her that he’d once spoken to the Queen of Nasheen, but thought better of it. “I’m familiar with several different strata of Nasheenian society, yes, and the social mores of each. Are they First Families? Magicians? Or a lower sort?” He was more comfortable with the lower sort. He’d been a member of the lower sort for eight years in Nasheen.
Tasyin cracked the carapace of a fire beetle and lit her pipe. “What do you know about bel dames?” she said.
Rhys choked on his toast. He covered with a mouthful of juice, and took his time recovering. Why were Tirhanis doing business with bel dames?
“You know something of bel dames, then?” she asked.
“I’ve known a few, yes,” he said, and drank again. More than a few.
“You do realize that bel dames are not representative of the Nasheenian monarchy? Your negotiation with a bel dame won’t be honored by the Nasheenian government.”
“We’re well aware of how the Nasheenian government operates,” Tasyin said. “This is a personal negotiation of goods and services.”
“Of course,” Rhys said. “I meant no disrespect.” Whatever he said and did would be relayed back to the Minister. Remember that you’re an employee, he thought. It’s not your place to question.
But there it was, tickling his mind, nonetheless: Tirhanis were doing business with bel dames.
“They’ll meet with us here for high tea,” Tasyin said. “If all goes well you should make the evening train back to Shirhazi. I’ll ask that you don’t make any calls or outgoing transmissions while you’re here. We’ll be filtering the hotel in an hour.”
They sat out on the porch for a few minutes more while Tasyin finished her pipe and Rhys finished breakfast. She had one of the house staff, a veiled Ras Tiegan girl, show him to his room. High tea was a Ras Tiegan custom, and generally occurred in the early afternoon. He had at least four hours. If he could not contact Elahiyah and the children, his time would be best spent working on some of his side translations for local merchants and friends of Elahiyah and her family. But Tasyin’s invocation of Nasheenian bel dames had put him on edge, and there was an old Tirhani city to explore. He wanted a mosque. A cool, quiet, mosque. Sanctuary.
Rhys exchanged his sandals for sturdier shoes and asked to borrow a coat from one of the house staff. He pulled it on under his khameez and walked back through the old Ras Tiegan gate and into the city center. The big red sandstone Ras Tiegan cathedral had been converted to a mosque, and much of its somber, image-heavy exterior had been defaced and resculpted into images of magicians and shifters, half-human forms.
It was still sometime before the next prayer, so he walked into the mosaic-tiled courtyard, across brilliant crimson and green figures of thorn bugs and fire beetles and glittering yellow farseblooms. He stepped into the covered promenade and then under the archway that led into the deep mouth of the mosque. Inside, the air was cool and dim. He waited just inside for his eyes to adjust. Before him stretched colonnade after colonnade, staggered like pawns across the sandy red floor. They supported a peaked ceiling so high and shadowed he could not see its end.
As his eyes adjusted, he began to walk further into the mosque. He saw light there, at the center of the forest of columns, somewhere just ahead of him. He followed the column of light, drawn to it like a thirsty man to water. The light fell into a small round courtyard, by accident or design, he wasn’t certain. As he approached, he saw water bubbling up from the center of a smooth layer of red pebbles. A single thorn tree grew there, scraggly and thin, clawing toward the bruised sky.
He heard the far-off scrap of footsteps on sandstone, the low whisper of the wind outside. But as he stepped into the light he heard another sound: the rustle of wings; a bird taking flight. He turned his head up, too late, to look at the top of the thorn tree. He saw no bird. Instead, he saw a single feather float down from the top of the tree there along the edge of the open roof.
Rhys watched the feather settle there on the crimson stones at his feet.
A single white feather.
Something inside of him stirred. Old memories, a place better forgotten. And there, somewhere deep – an old, aching, missing piece.
He reached for a pistol at his hip that he no longer owned.
“Rasheeda,” he said aloud.
And suddenly the mosque was dead stone, cold and dark. No sanctuary.
He knew who waited for him back at the hotel.
What he didn’t know was why it had taken so long for them to find him.