Dreams of the Dying - An Enderal novel Chapter 2: Chapter One - Golden Soil

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AMONG POVERTY, WARS, AND BAD WINE, Jespar had always considered low-hanging ceiling beams over beds one of the worst inventions of mankind. He was also one of those unfortunate few whose subconscious minds didn't remind them of the danger looming above them on their way up—which is why reality greeted him with an explosion of pain when he jerked awake and slammed his forehead right into thirty pounds of house support.
He cried out and fell back into bed, hands pressed against the point of impact. When the pain finally subsided, memories of his nightmare returned.
Again.
He had never been what one might call a sound sleeper—five hours counted as a good night's rest—but recently, things had gone from potty to shithouse. Jespar exhaled and massaged his eyeballs. They always stung when he had slept badly.
"I'm awake," he said. "I'm awake."
When his mind finally accepted this statement as truth, it realized something else: he had no idea where he was. He blinked again to ease the burning, then looked around.
He was in a stuffy room, one whose poor condition its owner had tried to conceal with an abundance of furniture. Somehow, each piece managed to look cheap despite its curvy design and red upholstery. Jespar's bed was no exception: though wide and with wooden snake carvings for bedposts, peeling paint and dried stains of dubious origin on the bedding thwarted any flair of elegance.
Where the hell am—
The door burst open. A mountain of fat and muscle in screaming green clothes stood in the doorframe, head ducking under the lintel.
"That the kazuum?" he asked someone in the hallway behind him.
Muttered agreement.
Jespar barely had time to get out of bed and raise his hands before the mountain was in front of him, and a fist came flying towards him. Instinctively, Jespar attempted a dodge. It might have succeeded if a headache hadn't decided to flare up that very moment. The fist sunk into his gut and hurled him back onto the bed.
Gasping, Jespar shielded his face and looked for the next blow, but it never came. Instead, the man loomed over him, his tree-trunk arms crossed over his chest.
"That was for scaring the girls with your godsdamned screaming." He held out his hand, palm open. "Now, pay up." His Inâl had the typical accent of his country: Stretching the vowels and softening the consonants. Pey awp.
"What—"
"You paid for an evening, not a sleepover... that's fifty sêr extra. Now pay up and get your face out of here before I stuff it up your ass, curl you into a ball, and make you leave through the window." Weenduw.
Girls? Jespar wanted to ask, but at last, things fell into place. He glanced at the stains on the bed. Noticed the sweet smell of ammoniac in the air.
Cringed.
"Okay," he said. "Sure, I'll pay." He rummaged his pockets for coins. Counted them. Thirty-two. "That's all I—"
The next punch knocked him flat.
Two minutes later, he was on his ass in the mud of an alley. Something splashed into a puddle beside him, spraying brown water all over his clothes. The door of the brothel slammed shut.
For a moment, Jespar didn't move. The alley was empty except for a woman carrying a basket, and a fat cat, both of which eyed him suspiciously. With a groan and as much dignity as he could muster, Jespar picked himself up and gathered his belongings. The woman cast him a pitying glance, then went about her way; the cat studied him a little longer.
"What are you looking at?" Jespar said.
If cats could shrug, this one would have. Instead, it scurried away.
"Right." Jespar sighed into the empty alley. As if headache and bruises weren't enough, an itch flared up between his shoulders. He scratched it.
"Right," he repeated.
Judging by the color of the sky, it would be at least two hours before the sun came up, and he wouldn't meet his employer until noon—plenty of time to get ready and explore this strange and wonderful city around him. But somehow, the enthusiasm failed to materialize. Why? After all, an adventure was what he'd come here for.
Wasn't it?
He wiped sweat off his forehead and looked up. Even from here, cramped between the buildings of a coastal town's alley, he could see the colossal white walls of his destination rising in the distance.
Uunil-Yâr. The Golden City, heart of the Kiléan archipelago, and richest metropolis in the Civilized World.
Jespar adjusted his blue scarf and started walking. In the half-light of dawn, the island slowly woke from its slumber.

***
After roaming the alleys for a while, Jespar finally found his way back to the marina. He sat down on an abandoned crate and took a moment to calm his post-inebrious headache and appreciate the view. The sun had just begun to rise, tinting the morning fog above the ocean a pale orange.
Pretty.
When Uunil-Yâr itself had denied Jespar's ship entry due to an overcrowded harbor, the captain anchored in Port Vaju, one of the coastal towns, nestled in an idyllic cove just a few miles from the capital. Though this was his first day in Kilé and he hadn't even reached the city yet, he already understood why Kilé found mention in so many stories and songs.
First, there was the landscape: White beaches that stretched for miles, speckled with palm trees and shrubs flowing into the jungle further inland; the turquoise ocean; Green mountains rising in the distance.
Second: the city.
Even from Port Vaju, what Jespar could see of Uunil-Yâr in the distance was breathtaking. The metropolis was built around its namesake, Mount Uunil, and while the walls obscured its lower parts, the districts built around the mountain's slopes spoke for themselves: masterworks of whitewashed stone, growing bigger and bigger as they scaled the mountain. Palaces towered around the peak, and though only four of them were on the side facing Port Vaju, Jespar knew there were seven in total. The ziggurats. Homes of the seven Magnates, the richest and most powerful merchants of the archipelago.
The writers and poets might have used more colorful descriptions to describe the distinct style of Kiléan architecture, but the term that came to Jespar's mind when he studied the buildings was "blocky pyramids." While the smaller houses simply seemed like differently sized blocks of stone stacked upon and into one another, the mansions further up the mountain and the ziggurats beyond were piles of square platforms where each story was smaller than the one below. Rows of pillars and greenery framed each stage, and gardens adorned the flat rooftops.
The Golden City. It was beautiful, no point denying it.
Jespar scratched his back. There was a foul taste in his mouth, so he took a swig from his water flask, gurgled, then spit it out. Down by the harbor promenade, three kids were playing some kind of game that involved tossing colored stones into a chalk circle they had drawn on the cobblestone. They were so tanned their brown skin was almost black.
Little by little, his memories of the previous night returned. He remembered fetching drinks with a couple of sailors from his ship, which explained the headache. He remembered a Kiléan betting game and a bar fight, which explained his empty purse and the bruises on his ribs that weren't the bouncer's doing. He remembered two whores, a young man with thinning hair and a woman with a heavily painted face, who had both probably looked better when he'd been drunk.
Jespar sighed.
Wasn't it supposed to be different this time? If that mysterious contact of his didn't turn out to be a fraud, the job would pay enough for him to afford passage back to Enderal and rebuild his life there.
Yours and hers.
A virtuous undertaking, no doubt. With moderate success, Jespar tried to imagine a tale starting with the hero getting shit-faced with two Kiléan whores.
He stood up and searched each of his pockets for coin. Thankfully, he found some in the inside pockets of his leather armor that the bouncer hadn't noticed. Twenty-one sêr. Just about enough for a breakfast, a bath, and a handful of nightflower leaves. The former two he needed, the latter he wanted. He decided to start with the bath.

***
As he sauntered down the pier in search of a bathing house, he let his new impressions of the city settle in. It confirmed many of the preconceptions he'd had about Kilé, but disproved others. As he had suspected, the contrast between the haves and have-nots was stark, even in a town like Port Vaju: While frescoes and statues adorned the Blue Islands Coalition's trading office, makeshift posts and scaffolding kept the back-alley houses from falling apart.
As he had suspected, no one paid him much attention, despite the color of his skin making him stick out like a pigeon among blackbirds. Just another traveler. On the other hand, he was surprised to see many people wearing copper rings around their upper arms, symbols of religious devotion—even though the Kiléans were considered godless by the more pious countries. When he reached the market square, he saw a priestess in orange robes kneeling in its center, in front of a statue that depicted a middle-aged woman in robes. In her right hand, the statue held a sheaf of wheat, in her left, a basket. Stone scarabs scuttled at her feet.
Morala, Jespar thought as the smell of burnt herbs wafted towards him. The Light-Born of Trade, Fertility, and Cunning, and the Goddess of Kilé.
Arms crossed, Jespar watched the priestess perform her ritual. While the wreath of herbs burnt away, she first touched her forehead, then her temples, then her heart. She sprinkled water over the wreath, remained until the flames had died, then finally stood and went about her way.
Interesting.
Despite being Endralean, Jespar held little love for the Light-Born. That hadn't always been the case; when he'd learned about them as a boy, they had enthralled him. How could they not? Seven mages had transcended their humanity to become gods and pursue the goal of uniting the fractured world Vyn had become since Starfall. As he grew up, he'd realized that the Light-Born faced the same problems most idealists do eventually: the world is a muddle of discord that doesn't necessarily want to be united. And even eternal life, powerful magic, and pretty scepters don't always cut it.
Yes, these gods did actually exist, observing humankind and passing judgment from a city in the clouds, led by Tyr, their eldest. Yes, each of them reigned over one of the Civilized continents. And yet, nowadays these gods were little more than symbols. Why? Two reasons. One, each of these gods relied on a mundane faction or sovereign to carry out its will, and, naturally, most of these factions or sovereigns had wills of their own. Two, they rarely ever intervened or showed themselves, and "rarely" meant maybe once in a hundred years. Even then it was mostly the Holy Order, their army which ruled over Enderal and dished out the beatings when conflict arose that was too severe for even the Light-Born to ignore.
Gods?
Or just immortal sovereigns?
To Jespar, the answer was clear. When he had voiced the idea to his tutor, wondering aloud if the Light-Born had perhaps grown bored of mankind's perpetual stupidity, the tutor had answered with a beating. Nowadays, he thought there was more truth to the thought than his morose tutor had been willing to admit, the man whose face always looked like he suffered from volatile bowel movements. If even the most steadfast of human souls wearied after decades of politics, why should the immortal mind be any different? Probably, young Jespar had figured, they had turned towards the more pleasant aspects of life. He knew he would have. Preferably those involving wine, food, and lots of naked skin.
What set Kilé apart from the other countries was that its rulers, the Blue Islands Coalition, didn't even bother feigning devoutness. Of course, they were all terribly afraid of Light-Born Morala's judgment, but even the most pious of minds couldn't deny that the latter shared her throne with at least seven other pairs of divine buttocks: The Magnates.
And yet there they were—prayer rings, priestesses, statues. Probably, Jespar decided, it was ultimately about making sure. You revered the Magnates and strove for their wealth, but said your prayers just in case the Light-Born did in fact have a say in your afterlife experience.
I confess, now pass me the wine.
Grinning, Jespar went on. The sun was now fully up, the last tinge of red gone blue. It was getting hot, and he really needed that bath.
When he arrived in the bathhouse, he was greeted by a porcelain-skinned young clerk with a daring chin beard.
"May you prosper, ma'sao" he said. "Have you come to indulge in the divine waters of our humble establishment?"
Jespar tried a winning smile. "Indeed, I have."
The clerk folded his hands just above his waist. "Very well." Veel.
Five minutes later, Jespar was back on the streets. Divine waters or not, thirty sêr for an hour was more than he could afford or was willing to part with. He decided to find a natural pond or river instead and went up to a vegetable vendor at the market square who told him about a natural pool two miles out of town. When Jespar offered him fifty caya, half a sêr, in return, the merchant declined. "Keep it, my friend. You'll need it."
"What do you mean?"
The merchant smiled, but his eyes remained empty. "You'll see, ma'sao. You'll see."
In the outer parts of town, the cobblestone gave way to gravel, the stone and wood houses to adobe huts. Half an hour later, Jespar walked down an unpaved path lined by bushes and palms, a banana plantation to his left, the jungle sloping down into the ocean to his right. Birds twittered, insects chirped, waves broke in the distance. Had it not been for the continuous worsening of his itch, Jespar would have marveled at the sight. Finally, the road forked, one way continuing along the shoreline, the other one flowing into a path that cut into the jungle. When Jespar finally heard the sound of a waterfall, sweat was streaming down his face in rivulets.
He stopped when he heard talking.
No, Jespar thought, not talking. Arguing. Down the path from the pool, several people shouted and hurled insults at each other. Hesitating, he walked on. The path wound its way through the jungle a little longer, then went down a steep slope. Jespar stopped.
"Wow."
At the foot of the hill lay a bright blue pool, nestled in a natural rock basin. Bushes and trees flourished on its terrace, where a river from the mountains poured over its edge in a curtain of water. Vines and lianas climbed down the sand-colored stone.
He licked his lips, uncorked his bottle, and drank the last of his water. The shouting went on.
Jespar began the descent. Only when he had almost reached the basin did he see who the voices belonged to. Four people stood on the shingle of the pond, two men, a woman, and a child. One of the men did most of the insult-hurling, which was directed at the woman. Her answers were calm but underpinned by aggression. The woman and the second man belonged to the Blue Guard, as their indigo-dyed leather armor testified.
All the way out here?
Jespar looked for a spot to observe the situation from afar and found it behind a large rhododendron bush. The shouting man, who appeared to be the father of the girl, had a broad back and dark skin and wore his salt-and-pepper hair tied into a ponytail. With his round face, broad lips, and bamboo-leaf eyes, he looked different than most Kiléans, but when Jespar saw the tattoos around his eyes, he realized the man and the child were Makehu—archipelago natives.
"...been using this place for generations," the man said. "Kweh, we have a right to be here!"
"Yuz, and no one is denying you that right, as we've told you ten times in the past fifteen minutes," the guardswoman answered. "Maybe I need to write it down for you? Or say it in your language?"
The other guard winced. "Veena..."
"What? He obviously doesn't understand Inâl."
The man's fists clenched. "This is because we're Makehu, isn't it? Some new scheme you Wakhem came up with."
The guardswoman rolled her eyes. "Don't be silly. The decree applies to everyone, Makehu, Kiléan, or unicorn."
"Look, ma'sao," the guardsman joined in. "We're sorry for the inconvenience, but we're just following orders. By the rules of the Golden Soil Decree, these waters belong to Magnate Vel'Nyx now, and she decided everybody who wants to use them has to pay. Makehu, Kiléan, outsider. So, unless you're able to do so, I suggest you—"
The man shoved him. Eyes and mouth wide open, the guard flailed his arms for a moment, then fell down hard on the shingle. The girl let out a scream.
"Fuck your suggestions!" the Makehu said. "Kweh, I was working for the Coalition when you were still shitting in your mothers' laps! Do you really think this godsdamned uniform gives you the right to order me around? You?"
The guardswoman drew her scimitar. "All right, you coinless piece of shit, that cuts it. You're going to jail."
The Makehu took a step towards her, jaw flexed. His daughter pulled at his woven skirt, but he ignored it. "Make me."
Even though a good ten arm-lengths separated them and Jespar, something about the way the man moved made the hair on Jespar's neck stand up.
Hatred.
Jespar could imagine the man's irises, fire blazing on a soil that had been sucked dry by years of drought and had only been waiting for the decisive spark. Just when Jespar considered intervening, the girl began to cry.
The situation changed at once. The peasant froze. His eyes flicked to his daughter, to the guardswoman, and back to his daughter again. The corners of his mouth twitched.
At last, his muscles relaxed, though the contempt in his eyes stayed. "Times are changing," he said. "Mark my words, ma'saa. Times are changing." He glanced at the downed guard, who looked at him with a mixture of concern and wariness. Then he took his daughter by her hand. She was still sobbing. "Come, vaota. We're leaving."
They left, walking right past where Jespar was hiding. He held his breath. Once they were out of sight, the guardswoman turned to her comrade, scimitar still in hand. "What the hell was that?"
"If you want to kill or arrest a man in front of his own daughter, go ahead," the guard said, patting dirt off his armor. "I won't."
The guardswoman stared at him. Then she slammed her weapon back into its sheath. "Whatever. I have to take a piss."
With that, she disappeared in the bushes. Her comrade looked after her, then sat down on a rock near the water.
Jespar seized the chance. The guard didn't notice him until he was on the shingles. A weary frown on his face, he stood up.
"I'm sorry, ma'sao, but–"
"It costs... I know."
"Huh." The guard tilted his head. "You're an outlander, aren't you? Where from, Nehrim? I can't place the accent."
"Enderal." Jespar nodded towards the pool. "So, did I understand correctly? This magnificent piece of nature is private property now?"
The guard averted his eyes, rubbed the bridge of his nose. "This 'magnificent piece of nature' and the entire eastern coast of the island, yuz. Magnate Vel'Nyx bought it two moons ago, right after the Coalition issued the Golden Soil Decree." He patted the embroidered crest on his armor, a scarab over two crossed scimitars. The symbol of the Coalition.
"In essence, the Blue Island Coalition put the entire archipelago up for sale. Every forest, every beach, every grain of sand that doesn't already have an owner can now be bought." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Such as this pool here. It's now Magnate Vel'Nyx's property, just like the beach further up north now belongs to Magnate Kuura."
"And this Vel'Mix decided everybody who wants to take a dip now has to pay?"
"Vel'Nyx is her name, and yes. That's why we're here, fulfilling our glorious duty to the Coalition by telling people who barely have enough money to feed their kids to go bathe somewhere else. I guess you overheard our little argument before?"
"Yeah."
"Well, I don't blame the man, you know? Our country has always been run by those with the fattest purses, but charging a working man for wanting to take a godsdamned bath or pick a fruit from some tree out in the wilderness?" He exhaled. "This won't end well, ma'sao. It won't end well."
The guardswoman reappeared from the bushes. Deep wrinkles on her forehead contrasted her soft face.
"Anyway," the guard said, patting a pouch tethered to his belt. "For only six sêr, you can splash about in the water like a mermaid. What do you say?"

***
After Jespar had paid, the guards went off for a patrol. Though he wasn't prudish, Jespar appreciated the privacy. He undressed and stashed his few belongings under a little precipice next to the waterfall. Then he walked waist-deep into the pool, cupped his hands, and splashed water in his face.
Divine.
Funny. Bathing was as mundane an act as it could get, but the little pleasures were always where Jespar felt the most at peace. A cup of water after hours of thirst; sun on his eyelids. A fire after a day out in the cold.
You're right, father, he thought. I've never been a true Dal'Varek.
Though it had been twelve years, he still vividly remembered his father's lectures about how it was adherence to principles that made a person, his monologues about injustice, righteousness, and the workings of the world. And yet Jespar had never seen him smile—not when he'd eaten the delicacies their chefs conjured up each night, not when he took his evening tea in his wingback chair facing the hearth, not even when Jespar's middle brother had used his entire savings to get Damean Dal'Varek a Starling hunting bow for his name-day.
Maybe that's just the nature of righteousness. It only comes with a steel rod shoved all the way up your ass.
Jespar waited for the ripples to calm.
Ma'sao Dal'Varek, he thought, you look like shit.
The face that stared back at him from the reflection looked worse than he had anticipated. His stubble, scarce on his cheeks, dense on chin and upper lip, was too short to pass as a beard and too long to pass as the dashing adventurer's trademark. Bags hung under his eyes, his hair was an unkempt shock of blond bristles.
And the grey had multiplied. He couldn't tell it from the reflection, but he remembered the whore from the previous night joking about it when he'd told her he was only twenty-eight years old.
"I like it," the balding boy had said, tracing his fingers up the inside of Jespar's thigh. "I bet he knows what he's doing."
To his inebriated mind, the comment had been the pinnacle of erotic banter. Now, he cringed at the memory.
He dove under the water.

***
Jespar left the basin feeling rejuvenated. His drowsiness had washed off along with the dirt and the sweat, and the rash between his shoulders—it was a rash, as he'd felt with his fingers—had also gotten better. Jespar gave himself a rudimentary shave with his dagger, using the water's reflection to guide him. Then he changed into his second set of clothes and, after a moment's consideration, put the blue scarf into his backpack. He returned to Port Vaju.
Two of his remaining fifteen sêr went to a washerwoman to clean his muddy clothes, two to a shoeshine to polish his boots, and four to a baker for breakfast. Around noon, he made for Uunil-Yâr.
There was no need to ask for directions this time. All he had to do was follow the great road that led to the city's gates, trodding along with the stream of travelers, peasants, and fortune-seekers. Trees lined the roadside, surrounded by waist-high grass and myriads of shrubbery. While the coastal breeze remedied the worst of the morning heat, Jespar wondered what it was like behind the walls. The picture of a basket full of crabs rose to mind, scuttling and sizzling under the tropical sun.
He listened as the people chattered about their work, their hopes and worries, and the latest news. While the Kiléan accent gave him some trouble, the Golden Soil Decree came up often, and it seemed the Makehu man at the pool was not the only one enraged about it. There was also talk of a new underground movement that claimed to fight injustice in the country, a trade embargo by Arazeal that threatened many jobs, and some nobleman who had mysteriously disappeared from the public eye. The people suspected kidnapping.
When Jespar reached the eastern gate, his clothes were again drenched in sweat. There was a queue in front of the gatehouse next to the gargantuan white gate that marked the city's entrance, where a burly man either waved the peasants through or denied them entry. When it was Jespar's turn, he braced himself for a volley of questions.
"Papers, pig-skin," the guard greeted him and extended a gloved hand, palm up. Jespar gave him the letter of passage that had come with the invitation. The guard read it a total of three times, his face changing a little more each time, from frown to confusion to bewilderment.
"Where ... where did you get this?"
Jespar started to respond, but he stopped. The letter had come with strict instructions: total secrecy.
"I can't tell. I'm sorry."
The guard eyed him a moment longer, then gave him a tense smile and returned the paper. He bowed deeply. "Thank you, ma'sao. Forgive me for keeping you."
You're scared.
Why?
Jespar smiled back. "No sweat." He tucked the letter back into his chest pocket and passed through the gate. From pig-skin to ma'sao, he thought. And all it had taken was a letter.
He was starting to get curious.

***
A sailor's song claimed that Morala was secretly also the goddess of beauty. It also claimed that the Golden City was her favorite mistress, and that it had been Morala's kisses that had transformed it into the wonder it was.
If that was the case, Jespar decided as Uunil-Yâr unfolded around him, Morala must have preferred some body parts over others. While the districts around the mountain certainly looked magnificent—lots of tongue—the city further down shifted its focus from beauty to function—a kiss on each cheek—while the outer rings seemed designed for the sole purpose of fitting as many people into as little space as possible. Peck on the forehead, let's just be friends.
The songs spoke of the palaces but left out the ramshackle buildings, fainted after the bosoms of Kiléan women but overlooked the beggars cowering on the roadside, rhapsodized over the city's unique scent of spices, perfume, and ocean water but failed to mention how it mingled with shit, sweat, and piss.
There were people everywhere, an endless stream drifting through the many streets, alleys, and plazas, people of all colors, shapes and sizes that melted and flowed like an ever-changing kaleidoscope. An incessant din of talking, laughing, and shouting filled the air, mixing with the sounds of shuffling feet, clanging anvils, barking dogs, and braying donkeys. And as Jespar maneuvered his way through the crowd, he came to a realization.
If the city was a lover, she was a volatile one.
One day, she'd be your wings to the sky, the next, the riptide that drowned you. Her promise was tempting, but her hunger voracious; her lips invited, but her teeth bit hard. There was simply something in the air, a sense of motion both intoxicating and invigorating—and Jespar liked it.
He also noticed something else, hidden in the details: how there were more patrols than there should have been in bright daylight, the way the guards' eyes darted about, or the peasants glared at them.
Tension. The city was a fabric stretched to the breaking point.
After getting lost several times, Jespar finally found his destination: the Great Bazaar. As the name suggested, it was a marketplace in the merchant's quarter, the so-called Steel District. A giant stone pavilion sheltered it, allowing the vendors and customers to do business without being cooked alive by the sun, which was now an angry, white disk bearing down from its zenith. Square openings in the pavilion's roof allowed air to circulate and light to illuminate the countless stalls and tables.
When Jespar finally succeeded in squeezing himself through the throng of bodies that clustered at the entrance area, he was stunned.
The assortment was endless. Farmers sold food, blacksmiths tools, and weapons, tailors a multitude of clothes with their trademark lurid colors. A woman with snakelike hair sat behind a table full of gems and pendants and offered to read Jespar's fortune; a bald man in a jade green tunic waved a bottle in his face and promised the concoction it contained would grow his manhood to inconceivable dimensions.
He was making his way down the main aisle when a voice cut through the din.
"Make way! Make way for Third Magnate Vel'Nyx!"
The people in Jespar's aisle obliged immediately and stepped aside to clear a lane in the middle. Jespar followed suit. An armed escort came into sight, at least fifteen Blue Guards protecting a blue and gold palanquin. "Make way for Third Magnate Vel'Nyx!" the front guard repeated unnecessarily, banging the hilt of his scimitar on his shield at regular intervals. "Make way!"
Necks craned and people stood on their toes as the palanquin passed them by, but since a curtain blocked most of the view inside the palanquin, all Jespar could make out were two people sitting across from each other. Judging by their hands and painted fingernails, both were women, one older than the other. When the escort was through, the lane closed as fast as it had formed and people resumed their business.

***
The meeting point was a sa'nuu in a hidden corner of the bazaar. Roughly translating as "tent of dreams," a sa'nuu was an establishment where customers could consume a variety of drogae, from tobacco to alcohol, from opium to nightflower. Screens covered with rugs dulled the noise and light from the market while blue and violet paper lanterns immersed the place in a dreamy gloom. For two sêr, Jespar ordered a pipe of nightflower and sat down on a chaise in a corner. As he waited for attendant to bring his pipe, he observed a young couple in the opposite corner kissing vigorously. The boy clearly lacked experience, which he tried to compensate by slobbering all over his sweetheart's face and passionately massaging her left breast. Jespar grinned.
The attendant brought Jespar's pipe and offered it to him, bowl first. Jespar smelled the petals, nodded. The attendant lit the coals and left.
Jespar took a deep drag. He reclined against the cushions and took another. When the droga kicked in, warmth rose in his chest, spread into his head and into his limbs. His sight blurred slightly, then sharpened again, the colors now stronger but softer around the edges, like an aquarelle painting. Jespar smiled and closed his eyes. He felt at ease.
An hour passed.
Two.
Jespar left the sa'nuu. Ate something. Came back and ordered another pipe.
Four hours.
When a man and two guards finally entered the establishment, Jespar was drowsy but serene. Both guards wore a full suit of armor fashioned from interlinked steel scales that emitted a subtle turquoise glow. Jespar recognized it as nuvium, an ore as durable at steel while almost as light as leather. Expensive, he thought. Back in Enderal, one of these suits would have cost more than a farmer would make in three years of work. The man they escorted wore sapphire robes, and something about his features and skin made Jespar think of a black fox. There wasn't a single hair on his face or scalp.
The man surveyed the room, spotted Jespar, and walked over. There was something slightly off about his gait, but Jespar couldn't put his finger on what it was.
"Ma'sao Dal'Varek, I assume?" He spoke flawless Inâl, without a trace of an accent.
Jespar stood and held out his hand. "Yes. You are—"
"Zagash Enkshi, Counselor of your employer," the man replied, ignoring the outstretched hand. "Show me the proof."
Jespar hesitated. Then he reached into his pocket and took out a coin.
When he had first been contacted in Nehrim, his letter had contained instructions to meet with another contact who would verify his identity. They had met in a tavern, where the contact harried him with a barrage of questions. After Jespar had answered to her satisfaction, she passed him an antique-looking coin, along with the letter of passage that had gotten him through the gates earlier.
Enkshi took the coin with a ring-adorned hand, scrutinized it, then dropped it into his pocket. He glanced at the pipe in Jespar's hand. "You were instructed to wait, not to ... indulge."
Jespar smiled apologetically. "I tend to miss that part."
Not even a chuckle. "Follow me."
Without awaiting an answer, Enkshi left. Jespar sighed, then took a last pull at his pipe and followed.

***
Almost immediately after they returned into the heat of the open, Jespar's rash flared up again. The air had cooled a little under the now westering sun but was still stifling. He cursed and scratched himself, which Enkshi observed with a frown. Walking at a brisk pace, he led Jespar through the crowd and several streets, until they arrived in a garden behind an imposing building of the Coalition. A palanquin stood in the shadow of two phoenix palms, backdropped by black and blue rhododendrons. It looked similar to the one that had carried Vel'Nyx in the Bazaar, only it was painted blue and large enough to carry four people. Gold ornaments adorned each side, and dark blue curtains separated the interior from the stifling heat. A uniformed woman with short black hair and shoulders wide enough to rival a woodcutter approached them. Like their escort, she wore nuvium armor.
"Counselor Enkshi," she said, bowing deeply.
"Sergeant Mâadira. Are we ready to leave?" he said.
No introduction. The sergeant gave Jespar an uncertain nod, which he returned.
"Of course," Mâadira said at last, signaling to four bare-breasted men and six guards lounging in the shade. All got up at once.

***
Since the sergeant walked with the guards, Jespar and Enkshi spent the next hours alone in the palanquin. The elegant man with the blue-black skin met every attempt by Jespar to strike up a conversation with one-syllable answers, so Jespar eventually wrote him off as a prick and focused on the surroundings instead. Lulled by the aftereffects of the nightflower and the gentle sway of the palanquin, he had to keep himself from dozing off.
A broad road connected the different districts of the Golden City, meandering all the way up to the top of Mount Uunil. According to the historian on the ship, it went by the name of Vûa Neya—Fortune Road—and was not just the city's main surface of transport, but also a symbol.
"Just look at your feet and you know where you're at," the historian had said.
It was true. In the Stone District, the outermost ring of the city where the laborers lived, Fortune Road had barely been more than a stretch of dirt framed by run-down buildings and shops whose colorfully painted walls did little to hide their poor condition. In the Steel District, where the middle class lived and the city slowly adapted its trademark blocky style of architecture, the dirt changed into cobblestone. As the bearers carried the palanquin through the ornamented white gate that marked entrance of the Jade District, the paving turned into flagstone.
The Jade District.
As they went further in, Jespar couldn't help but stare at the display of luxury. To whoever lived here, he concluded, "modesty" was merely seven strangely arranged letters. Even the smallest abodes were so lavish they reduced the sumptuous homes of the lower districts to puppet-houses, featuring multiple storeys, sweeping gardens, and frescoes that adorned the facades. Around every corner, it seemed, was a park with fountains and statues, some of Morala, some of other Light-Born, some of people who had simply reached the point of wealth where rubbing it in everybody's faces became part of the etiquette.
The poor at the bottom, the rich at the peak, Jespar thought. And Fortune Road leads from one to the other. Not a very imaginative concept, granted, but honest enough. On the Blue Islands, "working one's way to the top" wasn't just a figure of speech. It was reality.

***
As the escort proceeded further up the mountain, laughter and music became audible in the distance. Jespar squinted, but as the sun was setting in the direction of the noise, it was hard to recognize anything.
"A festivity," Enkshi said. "Magnate Vel'Tuul is celebrating his name-day."
Surprised, Jespar looked up. "Should ... I know him?"
"I'd be surprised. He's the least influential of the Magnates." Touching his upper lip with his thumb, Enkshi twitched his mouth. "Frankly, he's a simpleton who owes his position solely to his parents' hard work. Now that they're dead, all he does is waste their wealth on banquets. If the other nobles didn't enjoy this debauchery so much, I doubt he'd still be in the Coalition."
"I think I know the type," Jespar said, daring a smile.
To his surprise, the Counselor returned it, if only for a flicker. "Every country has its share."
There was a long silence.
Just when Jespar was ready to resume window-staring, Enkshi sighed. "You must understand my reservations, Ma'sao Dal'Varek. The mission you were brought here for, it's ... Well; it would be an understatement to call it important. I have gone over the reports on you and, honestly, fail to understand what it is that makes you better than any other contractor here in Uunil-Yâr." He studied his hands. "In fact, I don't see how a mercenary would be able to help us at all."
"For what it's worth," Jespar said, "neither do I."
Another pause. Again, Enkshi touched his upper lip with his thumb. Sunlight reflected on the gold ring that adorned it. When he spoke again, his voice was changed. Flat. Hard.
"Jespar Mitumial Dal'Varek," he said. "Born in Enderal, 8198 after Starfall. You're the last male heir of the Dal'Varek family, most of which perished in a tragic accident twelve years ago. Seven years following said accident, you left your homeland for Nehrim, where you spent the past five years, first as a day laborer, then as a mercenary." He leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees. "So, here's my first question. Why? According to my sources, the Dal'Vareks were highly respected. As their only heir, you must have had an excellent outlook in Ark's nobility, not to mention the wealth your father probably left behind. Why throw it all away for a life as a..." His nostrils twitched. "A vagrant?"
Jespar hesitated. "How do you know all that?"
Enkshi scoffed. "Did you really think we'd have hired you without checking your background first? Now answer the question: Why did you leave your life in Enderal behind?"
He thought: Because that godsdamned city would have smothered me if I'd stayed.
He said: "I just wanted to see the world."
"See the world," Enkshi echoed. "And that was reason enough for you to leave your own s—"
"Counselor," Jespar said, "would you mind telling me what my teenage years and my motivations for traveling have to do with this mission?"
For a breath, the Enkshi frowned. He evidently wasn't used to being interrupted, that much was clear. Jespar held his gaze.
Finally, Enkshi sighed. "Well, I suppose you are right, your adolescence doesn't concern me. What happened afterward, however, does.
"Over the course of these five years, you worked for a variety of employers, from private individuals to guilds and even entire governments. You also participated in the Nehrimese war between the South- and Middlerealm as a member of the Gallowmen—a mercenary corps hired by the Creator's Temple itself. Four years later, you left them without even collecting the money they still owed you. Why?"
Jespar sighed. Rubbed his throat. "Because I didn't agree with some of the things they did."
"Pillaging?"
"That and more. Look, Counselor, let me be straight with you: If you want me to tell you why someone as obviously influential as your master would ship a no-name mercenary like me all the way to the Blue Islands, I don't know. I'm many things, but I'm certainly not a hero. However, I'm also not a murderer. Yes, I did some things I'm not proud of, but nothing I can't live with—"
Really?
"—which, again, you probably already know, else I wouldn't be here. So, how about we skip the interrogation and you simply tell me what I'm here for? As long as it doesn't involve the kinds of things I left the Gallowmen for and the pay is right, I promise I'll do all I can to help."
Silence stretched out in the cabin.
The hard look on Enkshi's face disappeared, and he suddenly looked old and very tired. "Tell me, Jespar Dal'Varek: What do you know about dreams?"
Before Jespar could reply, a scream cut through the silence.

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