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Vincalis the Agitator
By Holly Lisle
Warner AspectCopyright © 2002 Holly Lisle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDown below, in the cages where they'd been born, Wraith's only two friends in the world starved and waited. So the boy crouched in the shadows, heart racing in his throat. Without food, he couldn't go home. Without food soon, he would have no reason to go home. The strangeness of this place frightened him, and he yearned for the familiar back ways he'd left behind. But some instinct had drawn him to this rich and impossible place, and he promised himself he would not leave empty-handed.
This city in the sky terrified him, though. To his right, a fountain erupted from nothing, spraying streams of crystalline liquid and gemlike shards of red and blue and green into the air. No solid structure supported this delicate miracle, but the many people who strolled past seemed not to even notice it. All around Wraith, buildings spun of smoke and light rose from foundations equally ephemeral, yet within them people moved easily from floor to floor, visible through lovely archways and on broad balconies. Below his feet, through roads like ribbons of stained glass, lay the other, lesser city-his city-so far away that streets looked like silken threads and buildings like beads sewn on fine cloth.
Wraith did not belong in these fine streets, in this city above the city, in this realm of men who would be gods. But because he could come here-because the city itself let him enter-no one looked at him with suspicion or with doubt. No one questioned the shabby nature of his clothes, the rough cut of his hair, his shoeless feet, or his gaunt child's body. If he was here, they seemed to think, then it could only be because he belonged here-for magic barred those who did not belong from the secrets of Oel Artis Travia-the Aboves.
And here, where he knew he had no business, he found the thing he had so desperately sought. In the Belows, no one would think of displaying food in the open air, where anyone might walk up to it, touch it-steal it. But here it lay, in vast and wondrous quantities and unimaginable varieties. Wraith routinely stole thrown-away food from the containers behind stores and homes in the Belows, but this was new food, right where he could get it.
His stomach rumbled; the fruits and vegetables, breads and cheeses, pastries and beverages spread like a banquet before him, and he wanted so much to eat something. Anything. He had eaten scraps of bread soaked in some sort of gravy the previous day, picking tiny maggots off before taking bites. Aside from water, he'd had nothing else.
Any bite of food at all would have been wonderful-but none of the other people wandering through the aisles ate anything while they walked. He'd watched carefully; after years of scavenging, the knowledge that calling attention to himself would cause him trouble had become so deeply ingrained he didn't even need to think about it. The shoppers all around him carried baskets that they picked up from one corner of this odd open-air market, and they wandered through the aisles, sorting through the offered produce and putting their chosen items into their baskets. When they finished, they simply took the baskets with them and left. They never paid, as people in the Belows paid. Wraith had seen money many times, and understood that it could be traded for food; what he had never been able to discover was where he might get money of his own.
Here, however, no money appeared to be necessary.
So he took a basket, and like the other people, he began putting food into it. In one basket, he would have enough food for Jess and Smoke and himself to live on for several days-and to live well. He mainly chose breads, dried meats, and pastries, because these, from his experience, would last longest. However, he couldn't resist just a few of the beautiful, brightly colored fruits and vegetables. He could imagine the expressions on the faces of his friends when he returned with such a bounty.
When he finished collecting the food he wanted-not letting himself be as greedy as he desperately wished to be, but still with a nice haul-he headed for the exit, following the precise route those before him had followed. But whereas no one paid any attention when those others left, when he left someone said, "Hey, that boy didn't pay!"
And then someone else said, "But he didn't set off the alarm."
And a woman shouted, "Master! A thief!"
A man of young middle age rose from the edge of the market, where he had been sitting, apparently doing nothing more important than watching the water falling in the fountain. He turned, and stared at Wraith with eyes as cold as death, and pointed a finger. "You. Stop."
His voice had an odd echo to it. Wraith didn't waste time contemplating what that echo might mean; he simply clutched the basket of food to his belly and fled.
The man, strangely, laughed. In the next instant, blinding white light surrounded Wraith, making the air around him crackle and sing, and scaring him so badly that he dropped the food. He didn't dare stop to pick it up; the man hadn't hurt him, but the wizard's next attack might be more than fancy lights and noises.
Racing for the nearest of the little side streets that fed the square, Wraith ventured a glance over his shoulder, and got a bad shock. The square had been full of people. In just an instant, impossibly, they were gone, and only five remained: the man, the woman who had called out that he was a thief, and three gray-suited guards. The wizard's oily voice carried clearly as Wraith darted down his chosen street. "That's the one. When you catch him ... bring him to me. I want to take him apart and see what he's made of."
Something in the wizard's voice told Wraith that if the wizard caught Wraith, he would kill him. But over a basketful of food? In this place of such plenty, where people chose what they wanted and took it freely? "We will, Master," one of the guards said in a voice that sounded as frightened as Wraith suddenly felt.
He heard the hiss and whisper of the guards' skimmers behind him, and he looked for cover. They could fly faster than he could ever hope to run, and with three of them after him, he probably didn't have much chance. His feet pounded over the translucent pavement, and he did not let himself look down to the ground far below. They could throw him off the road and he would die of terror long before he smashed into the pavement in the Belows.
He wished as he ran that he had not dared to chance the gate that led upward on the spiraling, spun-glass road. He wished he had stayed firmly on the ground where he belonged. There, at least, he might have found food that would keep Jess and Smoke alive a little longer. He would have managed, somehow, to provide for his friends the things they could not provide for themselves. But if he died here, the two of them would be lost; they would either starve to death or return to the hell of Sleep, from which he would never dare awaken them again.
He had to live. He had to.
The street down which he ran was a neighborhood thoroughfare. Behind the glass wall that edged the thoroughfare, houses built on clouds stood inside secondary walls blocked off by high, gracefully deadly gates. The translucent white walls of the houses gleamed with inset stones and metals, and the light that shone through them made them look as evanescent as soap bubbles, and as lovely. The inhabitants had spun their gardens of diamonds and stars that glittered and gleamed in stunning configurations. And singing fountains and streams that ran burbling and chuckling between invisible banks served as destinations for the gossamer paths that led from the gates to the houses.
Wraith thought it all very lovely, and all horrifying. He saw no place to hide, for even if he could climb a wall, he could not hide in a yard made of air and decorated by floating lights. He would be visible from any of the paths. And he didn't see an alley, an open gate, something that would let him escape from that whine that came closer and closer to him.
Tears clogged his throat, and the air that fought its way through the narrowed passage burned in his lungs. He thought his heart might stop on its own before the guards behind him could touch him. Everything was closed. Locked. Impenetrable. And the next intersection was so far away, it might as well have been on the moon.
Then, as he bolted toward one great house, he saw that its owners had not worried about a physical gate with bars and spikes. Instead, the archway lay open. No doubt the invisible gate would be as formidable to most people as one of the tangible ones-but not to Wraith. He put on a burst of speed and threw himself through the opening. Cool fires of a hundred hues played across him, as they had earlier when he'd entered the gate that led to the Aboves-but those fires did nothing to him.
A boy of about his own age-stocky, blond, elaborately dressed-had been entertaining himself in that yard, sitting in a comfortable chair with his feet propped up, making three gold balls and a bit of rope spin through the air. The boy jumped at the flashing lights, and stared as Wraith lunged at him and said, "Hide me."
The boy gave one startled glance at the gate. But then he nodded and pointed Wraith to a tiny house with its own cloud-spun path that hung in the air almost against the wall.
Wraith didn't ask questions. He didn't let himself look down. He just ran.
The little house had, thank all the gods, a real floor. It held a table and four chairs, shelves full of books and jars and paraphernalia that Wraith couldn't begin to identify, and on the floor dozens of dolls and brightly colored blocks and wheels and balls. It consisted of one room, a door, and four small round windows set a little lower than Wraith's eye level. He crouched, and through the window that faced back the way he had come, he watched the boy, pointedly not looking at the little house, return to his activity of making all three balls hover in the air while the string braided itself between them.
The guards stopped outside the gate. Two of them stared at the little house. The third glowered at Wraith's unexpected ally. "Where is the little bastard?" the head guard asked.
The boy rose, not yet acknowledging any of the guards, and pointed to the translucent yard. All three balls spun neatly downward and settled into a line there. When he had summoned the rope to himself and it had wound itself around his arm as if it were a living thing, he turned and slowly walked to the gate. "Perfann, do you know to whom you are speaking?"
The guard ignored the question. "Master Faregan told me to catch that little thief and-"
"My name is Solander Artis," the boy interrupted. "Son of Rone Artis. Artis, perfann-which should have some meaning even to one of Faregan's men. And this is Artis House. So ... now that you know to whom you are speaking, would you like to reconsider your ... presence?" The guard's ruddy face bleached the color of bone. He said, "My apologies. I would not bother you. But a thief escaped from the market, and Master Faregan has demanded that we ..." He paused, considering his words. "That we capture him and remand him over to Master Faregan for questioning."
"A worthy thing, no doubt," the boy Solander said. "And had he come into my yard, I would without hesitation turn him over to you. But no one has come through the gate. It's armed, and since I did not wish to be disturbed at my studies, I did not unarm it. Did you notice anyone trying to cross an armed gate? That's a fairly obvious thing."
"Well, we saw the gate light up ... but we saw the boy on the other side."
"You saw the gate light up." The boy smiled coldly. "And the gate is armed, and there is no boy. I can only reach one conclusion from that, perfann. I suggest you tell Master Faregan that the thief died trying to escape; in a fashion, perhaps justice has been served."
The three guards stared from the little house in which Wraith hid to the boy who faced them at the gate, then back to the little house.
"I saw the gate light up," one of them said. The other two both nodded and agreed. "So he couldn't be alive." "But I swear I saw him running on the other side."
The one in charge shook his head. "Can't have. He cooked in the gate." The three of them stood there staring at each other, and Wraith sensed that they had come to an agreement before the other two spoke. When at last they said, "Yes," and "There's no other possibility," it was merely formality. The head guard nodded to the boy Solander and said, "Then we thank you for your time, and we apologize for the disturbance. We will be on our way."
And they left. Solander stood at the gate for a moment, watching them get on their skimmers and leave. Then, a thoughtful expression on his face, he turned and strolled down the path to the playhouse.
He came in and sat down, and for a moment said nothing.
"Thank you," Wraith said. "You saved my life. Those three had orders to give me to the market wizard-he said he wanted to take me apart to see what I was made of."
"Really?" Wraith nodded. "What did you do?"
"I'm not sure. I went through the market like the other people in the square, and put food into a basket, and left out the same gate through which they all left, but when I left, someone shouted that I was stealing food."
"Did you lose your credit amulet?" "My what?"
The boy reached into his shirt and from beneath it pulled out a small white disk on a gold chain. "This. What happened to yours?"
"I don't have one of those. What does it do?"
"Takes money from your family account to pay for whatever you purchase. The shields around each business are spelled to read your amulet and...." He shook his head. "You should know this. Why don't you?"
Wraith shrugged. "We have no credit amulets in the Warrens. No open markets. And what are shields?"
The boy sat down and rested his elbows on the table and his chin on his fists. "Why would you have been in the Warrens? No one goes there." "I live there."
"With the riots and the murders and the mind-drugs and the crime lords and the prostitutes and ... I've seen the nightlies. None but criminals live there."
Wraith tried to figure out what Solander was talking about. "You must have heard of a different place. That's nothing like where I live-the Warrens are the quietest place in the city."
"If you lived in the Warrens, you wouldn't be here," the boy said. "Because the Warrens are gated to keep the criminals in; you couldn't have gotten out. And you certainly couldn't have come to Oel Artis Travia."
"I just walked here. Walked out of the Warrens, too." "How?" "The same way I ran into your yard."
"The gates in the Warrens are malfunctioning, too? My father will have a fit. He's going to be upset enough that something's wrong with our gate.
Excerpted from Vincalis the Agitator by Holly Lisle Copyright © 2002 by Holly Lisle . Excerpted by permission.
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