The thing about Astreianters is that they believe Astreiant's the center of the world. Philip has heard this many times, and said it too, but it's only now he lives here that he's realized it's literally true. There's a world map frescoed on the south wall of the temple of Bonfortune, and bang in the middle, big out of all proportion, is the city. Major Astreiant landmarks, like the Queen's palace and the Bonfortune temple itself, are marked with colored dots. The dots are as big as the one for the city of Esling.
It's a merchant-venturer's way of thinking. Travel and trade, yes, but always coming home in the end. Travelling in order to come home, in order to lighten your profit-heavy pockets building yourself a grand house. Everything's measured by its distance from your marble-inlaid front door.
Soldiers' maps are different. No soldier needs a world map in any case; it's the next hill that matters, the next river, the woods that might conceal an ambush, the ridge that can be held forever with two good cannons. A soldier makes tactical maps, impermanent, useless after the next day's march. Drawn on old paper scraps, or even on sand; nobody would ever paint one on a wall. There's no center to such maps, bar the place you happen to be at that moment.
Philip still doesn't call himself an Astreianter, and maybe he never will, but there's no question his own map is changing. Astreiant grows ever more detailed in his mind, and therefore larger.
Nico loves to take him walking through the city. Sometimes it's a soldierly business, Nico showing him the invisible borders of safe streets and bad ones, districts where the rich bourgeoises might sic their dogs on a stranger and districts where the gangs might knife one.
But mostly it's for the pure joy of place. Nico seems to know every bridge, every tavern and market stall. Every cobblestone, Philip thinks sometimes. Nico is a scholar of Astreiant, as learned in his way as any master of the university. It's not a kind of devotion that Philip has ever felt. He spent fourteen years in Esling, but from the time he was old enough to daydream, he was always wishing to be elsewhere.
One bright morning they climb the steps--four hundred and forty-four steps, Nico tells him--to the top of the Tour des Etoiles. The city lies below them, its gray slate roofs unexpectedly somber. It's like seeing a fashionable landame who's stripped off her velvet and put on the dull linsey-woolsy of a Sofian renunciate. You'd never believe that a week ago she was dancing at court.
Philip squints against the suns, together in the sky at this time of year, and tries to make sense of this new viewpoint. "I'm all turned round."
"Well, there's the Sier." Nico points out a thin arc of murky blue, barely distinguishable from the gray stones that wall it in. "And the palace. The Midsummer Fair ground's off to the left a bit."
"Right. So the Points station for Dreams is somewhere . . . here-ish. And our house must be right along there." He laughs, and Nico raises an eyebrow at him. He got that trick from me, Philip thinks. "I was just imagining all the people who come here, trudging up all those narrow little stairs. And every single one of them arrives gasping at the top and says, "My house must be just about here . . . why yes, I can see it, I'd know that roof anywhere!'"
"I suppose we do," Nico says, with one of those grins that all too rarely lighten his solemn face. "Though any woman who can find her own roof has better eyes than me."
"But it's so obvious!" Philip presses in close behind Nico, leaning over his shoulder and pointing in the general direction of Dreams. "See? It's the gray one."
"Ah." Nico settles against him, body fitting to his as it does when they sleep. "Of course. How could I have missed it?" His head drops back, and Philip rests his cheek on Nico's rough, close-trimmed curls. Legacy of a Silklands grandfather, or maybe it was great-grandfather, who came here with a caravan and caught an Astreianter's roving eye. In that sense, the maps are true; trade weaves a web with Astreiant at its center, and everything ends up here eventually.
Philip slips his arms around Nico's waist. Off-duty, Nico's not wearing a pointsman's jerkin; it's almost a shock to catch the warmth of his skin through the shirt. "If we could only see over that mountain, I'd show you Esling."
"We'd need more than good eyesight for that. An astrologer's glass, probably, and it'd be damn hard to get one up those stairs."
"It wouldn't be worth it, not for a look at Esling. Much better to look at the sea, which is . . ." He remembers a two-day march, some years ago, to the port of Orianita. "Southeast. Forty miles, or maybe fifty."
"I've never been to the seaside. Always wanted to, but somehow I've never managed it."
Not a man with wandering in his stars, Nicolas Rathe. He's all earth, roots sunk deep. That mission to the Ile-Nord was the first time he'd ever left the city. "You should. We should. Convince your Astreianters to behave for a week and we'll take a holiday. So long as I needn't go farther from shore than a bit of wading in the surf."
"Pure and well-founded terror. I did sail once, from Orianita to Tcheplente in the off-season. The sea route's half the distance of overland, and our fool of a captain wanted to save time and supplies. But a storm blew up on the second day and we lost a ship full of troops."
Nico cranes to look back at him. "Your stars are bad for water."
"I couldn't exactly tell the captain that."
For answer, Nico's hands cover his. His stories make Nico retroactively frightened for him, at times, and protective. It's a sweet illogic in such a practical man.
So far above the city, there's no sound but the faint constant hiss of the wind. It's for this, Philip thinks, that Nico really brought him here. This silence, so impossible to find anywhere else in Astreiant. This solitude. Nico gives him places like gifts, and this one is a rarity.
"Do you miss it?" Nico asks, with the abruptness of someone who's been sitting on an uncomfortable question for a long time. "Soldiering?"
Philip doesn't especially need to think about the answer, but he pauses so that Nico knows he's taking it seriously. "Only a little." What exactly he misses is hard to define. War is alternately brutal and boring, and its duller realities--bad food, scarce water, long marches, cold camps, fevers that spread through an army like mold through a cheese--make for a deep weariness he's only noticed now that he's free of it. And yet a soldier's life has a kind of clarity, and an allure that defies all reasoning away. Maybe it's just that he went to war at fourteen, a boy finally out of his mother's eye, and to him it never stopped seeming like freedom.
He gives Nico's cheek a firm kiss. "It was my whole youth. Twenty years. Who doesn't miss being young, sometimes? But I'd not trade my warm bed for it."
"Sybarite," says Nico fondly. "Luxurious man, who not content with nature's meed, makes of it the bed and breeding-ground of vice."
"I beg your pardon?"
"The latest unlicensed broadsheet against the theaters. It objects, as far as I can tell, to the hours actors keep."
"You should have gone on the stage yourself, with a memory like that."
"Mistress Players'-Scourge has a gift for a memorable cadence."
"Probably an out-of-work playwright drumming up a little profitable scandal," Philip says, cooperating with the change of subject. He's offered as much reassurance as Nico's pride will let him ask for.
The truth is, he's a settled man now. Nico is his Astreiant, the center of his heart's map. If his bed's warm and comfortable, it's because Nico's in it. Some day Philip means to say so, if he can work out how not to sound like the lover in a bad play and make Nico laugh at him out of sheer embarrassment. It's a mystery how the pair of them have managed to swear lemanry--almost two moon-months ago now--without ever saying these things. Let some playwright tackle that.
For now, what Philip says is, "It's a fine view. A fine city. I like it here."