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Garudas swooped by, engaged in city patrols, while cats looked up from walls in response to their fast-moving shadows.
One of these bird-sentries landed on the top of the inner wall of the city, and faced the dawn. The weather made the ambience, was the ambience, because the city forever changed its mood according to the skies. These days, there was little but gray.
The sentry was attached to Villjamur. He admired the citizens who were its fabric, from the slang-talking gangs to the young lovers who kissed under abandoned archways. All around were the signals of the underworld, discreet and urgent conversations in the dark. It was the only place he knew of where he might feel a nostalgia for the present.
His precise vision detected another execution taking place on the outer wall. Didn't remember any being scheduled today.
"Anything you wish to say before we release the arrows?" a voice echoed between the stone ramparts.
The garuda looked on with dull satisfaction from his higher battlement. He ruffled his feathers, shivered as the wind built up momentum over the fortifications, a chill quietly penetrating the furthest reaches of the city, a token of invading winter.
The prisoner, some distance away, wore nothing more than a rippling brown gown. He looked from left to right at the archers positioned either side of him on the outermost wall, their bows still lowered to one side. Down at the city-side base of the wall in its shadow, people marched circles in the freezing mud, staring upward.
A thin, pale man in green and brown uniform, the officer giving the orders, stood further along the crest of the wall, as the prisoner opened his mouth cautiously to answer him.
He merely said, "Is there any use?"
A girl screamed from the crowds gathered below, but no one bothered to look down at her except the officer, who said, "A crime of the heart, this one, eh?"
"Aren't they all?" the prisoner replied. "That is, of the heart and not the mind?"
A harsh rain, the occasional gust of something colder, and the mood turned bellicose.
"You tell me," the soldier growled, apparently irritated with this immediate change in weather.
Some sharp, rapid commands.
As the girl continued her wails and pleas from the base of the wall, the two archers nocked their arrows, brought their bows to docking point, then fired.
The prisoner's skull cracked under the impact, blood spat onto the throng underneath, and he buckled forward, tumbling over the city wall, two arrows in his head. Two lengths of rope caught him halfway down.
A primitive display, a warning to everyone: Don't mess with the Empire. State rule is absolute.
It was followed by a scream that seemed to shatter the blanket of rain.
The banshee had now announced the death.
With the execution over, the garuda extended his wings, reaching several armspans to either side, cracked his spine to stretch himself, crouched. With an immense thrust, he pushed himself high into the air, flicking rain off his quills.
He banked skyward.
Villjamur was a granite fortress. Its main access was through three consecutive gates, and there the garuda retained the advantage over any invading armies. In the center of the city, high up and pressed against the rockface, beyond a latticework of bridges and spires, was Balmacara, the vast Imperial residence, a cathedrallike construct of dark basalt and slick-glistening mica. In this weather the city seemed unreal.
The refugee encampments pitched off the Sanctuary Road were largely quiet, a few dogs roaming between makeshift tents. The Sanctuary Road was a dark scar finishing at Villjamur itself. Further out to one side, the terrain changed to vague grassland, but well-trodden verges along the road suggested how the refugees never stopped hassling passing travelers as they sought to break away from their penurious existence. Heather died back in places, extending in a dark pastel smear to the other, before fading into the distance. There was beauty there if you knew where to look.
The garuda noticed few people about at this time. No traders yet, and only one traveler, wrapped in fur, on the road leading into the city.
Back across the city.
Lanterns were being lit by citizens who perhaps had expected a brighter day. Glows of orange crept through the dreary morning, defining the shapes of elaborate windows, wide octagons, narrow arches. It had been a winter of bistros with steamed-up windows, of tundra flowers trailing down from hanging baskets, of constant plumes of smoke from chimneys, one where concealed gardens were dying, starved of sunlight, and where the statues adorning once-flamboyant balconies were now suffocating under lichen.
The guard-bird finally settled on a high wall by a disused courtyard. The ambient sound of the water on stone forced an abstract disconnection from the place that made him wonder if he had flown back in time. He turned his attention to the man hunched in furs, the one he had noticed moments earlier. A stranger, trudging through the second gate leading into the city.
The garuda watched him, unmoving, his eyes perfectly still.
There were three things that Randur Estevu hoped would mark him as someone different here in Villjamur. He didn't always necessarily get drunk when alcohol was at hand, not like those back home. Also he listened with great concentration, or gave the illusion at least, whenever a woman spoke to him. And finally he was one of the best-if not the best-dancers he knew of, and that meant something coming from the island of Folke. There everyone learned to dance as soon as they could walk-some before that, being expected to crawl with rhythm even as babies.
Provincial charm would only add to this allure of the stranger, a little accent perhaps, enough for the girls to take an interest in what he had to say. A tall man, he'd remained slender, to the eternal envy of fat gossiping women back home. Altogether, he rated his chances well, as he advanced upon the last of the three gates under the dawn rain, armed with only his few necessary belongings, a pocketful of forged family histories, and a thousand witty retorts.
Randur already knew his folklore and history, had learned further during his journey. You had to be prepared for an important city like this, because Villjamur was the residence of the Emperor Jamur Johynn, and this island called Jokull was the Empire's homeland. Once known as Vilhallan, it had been a collection of small farming settlements scattered around the original cave systems, now hidden behind the current architecture. Most of the city's current population were in fact direct descendants of those early dwellers. Eleven thousand years ago. Before even the clan wars began. The community thrived on myth. With such a history, a wealth of cultures and creatures, the city was said to possess an emergent property.
Randur had been traveling for weeks. Somewhere on the way, on a superficial level, he'd become someone else. His mother was back in Ule, on the island of Folke. A stern yet strangely faithful woman, she'd raised him on her own in spite of the collapse of their wealth, which had happened when he was too young to know about it. He remembered hearing her coughing upstairs, in a musty room, the stench of death all too premature. Every time he entered it, he never knew what to expect.
She'd found him a "job" in Villjamur. It came through the influence of one of his shady uncles who was well connected on Y'iren and Folke as a trading dignitary, though he'd never shared his wealth with them. The man had always commented on Kapp's good looks as if this was a hindrance in life. Then that same uncle informed Kapp's mother that a man the same age and appearance as the lad had disappeared only the previous week. His name was Randur Estevu, and it was known that he was headed for employment in the Emperor's house. He had even been a rival of Kapp's at dance tournaments and in Vitassi bladework during the island's festivals. The young man had made enemies all right, boasting all too often that he had sanctuary guaranteed in Villjamur before the Freeze came.
"You lot'll turn to ice, fuckers," the lad had said at the time, "while I got me safe digs at the warmest place in the Empire. Can't say more, though, because I wouldn't want you lot getting in on my connections."
They'd found his body, or what was left of it, stuffed inside a crate on a decaying boat that hadn't left the harbor at Geu Docks for as long as anyone could remember. No one was even shocked the boy was dead. They were more interested in the old boat itself, as it seemed to fulfill some maritime prophecy someone had mentioned the week before.
Kapp then became Randur Estevu. Fled south with fake identification to the Sanctuary City.
He was told by his mother to seek his fortune there, where the family line might have a chance to survive the arrival of the ice. He had no idea what the real Randur Estevu was to be doing in Villjamur, as the stolen papers didn't explain. Besides, Randur, as he would now be known, had his own schemes.
He fingered the coin in his pocket, the one the cultist had handed him all those years ago, in the darkness, on that night of blood.
Garudas loomed above on the battlements beside the final gate leading into the city. They stood with folded arms. Half vulture, half man: wings, beaks, talons on a human form. Cloaks and minimal armor. White faces that seemed to glow in this gray light. During his few days in a Folke station of the Regiment-which he joined on a poetic whim, and primarily to impress this girl who was all longing glances and unlikely promises-the men talked much about the skills of the garuda. It seemed only a talented archer stood a chance of deleting one from the skies.
Soldiers had checked his papers at the first and second gates. At the third they searched his bags, confiscated his weapons, and questioned him with an alarming intensity.
"Sele of Jamur," Randur said. "So, then, what news here in the Sanctuary City?"
One of the guards replied, "Well, the mood ain't good, to be honest. People ain't happy. See a lot of miserable faces, both outside and in. Can understand it out there, like," he indicated the closed gates behind which huddled the refugees. "But in there they've got faces like slapped asses, the lot of 'em. They're the ones who're safe, too, miserable sods."
"Perhaps no one likes being trapped, even if it is for their own good," Randur speculated.
"Hey, they're free to fuck off any time," the guard grumbled. "Nah, it'll bring more than just ice, this weather."
After this final search, Randur continued through, and at last he found himself standing inside the Sanctuary City.
Whoever built Villjamur, or at least whoever designed its intricate shapes and eerily precise structures, could surely not have been a human. Garish buildings were coated with painted pebbles, while other oddities possessed colored glass in the stonework so they glistened like fractured gems. Randur stared around in awe, not quite sure which way to go first. Possibilities grew exponentially. The chilling rain transformed into drizzle then began to stop. Fish was cooking in some far alleyway. Nearby, two signs said "firewood." From the windows of one of the terraced houses, a couple of women started hanging out sheets. Two young men talked in some local hand-language, their sentences needing a gesture and a glance for completion. Ahead of him, roads branched on two sides, each leading uphill in a gradual arc, while pterodettes raced up the cliff faces looming in the distance. Kids were sliding on patches of ice in horizontal freefall. A couple walked by, the blond woman much younger than the man, and he judged them "respectable" by the quality of their clothing. Randur was tempted to make eye contact with the woman, and perhaps tease a reaction out of her. It seemed to matter, stealing a smile from that man's life. Not just yet, though. He had only just arrived. He had a cultist to find.
In a top-floor bedroom, in one of the expensive balconied houses gracing the higher levels of Villjamur, a woman with a scarred face relaxed on top of a man who was still panting from his sexual exertions.
They kissed. Tongues slid across each other-only briefly, as it didn't quite feel right, and she wasn't sure which of them was causing that reaction. She pulled away, then clutched his chest, began playing with the gray hairs. His face was small, his features delicate, and his hands were rough, but at least they were touching her. Neither of them had ruined the sexual act with words, something she at least was grateful for. Meanwhile he continued to run his hands along her sides, rubbing her hip bones gently with his thumb, as if he had a fetish for the firm ridges of her body.
She pushed herself forward till her long red hair fell across his face. She then waited for him to brush it aside, and slowly, she could see the inevitable disappointment appear in his eyes, just as she had learned to notice it regularly over the last few years. At first his eyes remained fixed on hers. Then she saw his pupils clearly register the terrible blemish on the side of her exposed face. This one's reaction isn't so bad, she reflected. He had been a little drunk when they met, and his vision easily blurred. She had remained disappointed, though, in his overall ability to maintain his erection.
It always seemed to end up the same when she sought her own pleasure- something very different from when she was merely doing it for the money. Her job made it hard for her to meet normal men, certainly stopped her having a decent relationship. Her visible disfigurement didn't help either, that blistering down the right side of her face.
But this was her night off, and she had wanted a fling to make her feel better. She so much wanted to feel close to someone, had wanted that for so long.
In her younger days, she had known the world was cruel, how people judged you by first appearances. How that childlike prejudice against the unnatural could continue into adulthood as people merely found a way of better hiding their revulsions.
She pushed herself off him slowly, and then reached for her dressing gown. Walking over to the window, she looked out across the spires and bridges of Villjamur as if she was now trying to put the greatest possible distance between the two of them. In the opposite corner of the room, covered canvases of various sizes were stacked against the wall. She could still smell the chemicals from the painting she had begun yesterday evening.
"Wow," he said at last. "By Bohr, you're amazing."