Actions

Work Header

His Heart, Chambered Like A Nautilus

Work Text:

“Maybe it’s cursed.”

“Maybe it’s coated with a special poison.”

The box sat there, square and brown and unremarkable.

“Maybe it holds the head of someone we liked from Charisat.”

Khat frowned as he prowled around the box. “No, that’s too subtle for Lushan. He’d never settle for causing mere grief. Not if he could go straight for making me bleed.”

The courtyard of their rented house was very small but, luckily, so was the box. It did not quite come up to the height of Khat’s knee.

Khat lightly kicked a pebble lying on the ground, and it rolled against the side of the box. The box did not react. “Maybe there’s a trigger somewhere, and hidden blades slice off your fingers as soon as you open it.”

Sagai shrugged. He had crouched down to have a closer look at the box, although, like Khat, he also maintained a prudent distance from it. “Maybe. Or perhaps some timer mechanism? And as soon as the last grain of sand dribbles past, it will burst into flame?”

“Mmmm. Could be an animal in there. Maybe something that likes to burrow in soft tissue and lay its eggs in your eye sockets.”

“No air holes, though.”

Khat snorted. “You know that doesn’t mean anything.”

There was a delicate cough

Both men turned to look up at the courier, who was still standing there beside his red-flagged courier’s cart. He had grown somewhat wide-eyed during their discussion, but now he smoothly bowed and said, “I repeat, I am glad to have been of service in delivering this package to you, honored sirs! And now I must receive the receipt-price from you.”

Khat raised an eyebrow. “What?”

The courier gave another one of his well-practiced coughs. “The receipt-price, honored sir. The payment. In exchange for my delivery.”

“Some go-between must have taken payment in Charisat when they accepted the package. You or your confederates have already been paid.”

“Ah,” the courier said, smiling thinly, “for we Pirra couriers, the gift-price and the receipt-price are separate matters, honored sirs. One pays to send; another pays to receive.”

Khat suppressed his instinctive reaction to bargain. He had only been in Pirra for a few days, and much of the sunken city was still a mystery to him. For all he knew, perhaps the city’s strange guild of red-marked messengers and errand-boys really did receive two separate payments for one job.

Over the low courtyard wall, he could see some of their neighbors hanging laundry on roofs and looking over at them curiously. The courier’s red flag snapped from a tall pole affixed to his cart: an easily visible indication that the strange foreign scholars from Kenniliar had just gotten some sort of valuable package delivered.

Please, Khat thought very hard in their direction. Please, somebody steal this box and save us a lot of trouble getting rid of it.

To the courier, Khat said, “No. No payment. We refuse receipt. You’ll have to take it back to the depot.”

The courier’s smile evaporated. “What? No. I have brought it to you, in accordance with the contract. Everything was properly sealed and signed and certified. To say nothing of the free transfer when the original messengers could not find you in Kenniliar and were forced to forward this box onward to Pirra. Despite the time and hardship, despite the vast distance, behold, the last bequest of a dead man, delivered faithfully to you!”

Khat rolled his eyes. “Yes, a dead man who happened to hate me, which makes his gift somewhat suspicious. We refuse to pay. You’ll have to take it back.”

The courier’s sudden inhalation was both shocked and outraged.

“What if,” Sagai said suddenly, looking up, “we pay you to take it back? Can we engage the couriers to return this...object to Charisat? Paying a full gift-price and a full receipt-price at the same time?”

The courier blinked, and Khat could see that he was momentarily tempted by earning a doubled sum -- but then his eyes flickered down to the box, and Khat could see him remembering what Sagai and Khat had been saying just a moment ago about curses and poisons and burrowing animals.

Khat inwardly kicked himself.

“No,” the courier said, drawing himself up with an air of finality. “No, that won’t be possible.” He hesitated and said, “I will register a note with the central depot that you will be coming by to pay the receipt-price in the next couple of days.” His thin smile re-appeared. “But there is no hurry, honored sirs.”

Khat rolled his eyes as he turned back to regard the box, but Sagai said, “Yes, very well. Thank you.”

The courier clicked his heels together and offered them one final bow before turning to seize the handles of his cart, which he began to push back towards the city street. He did not break out into an outright run -- but only just. The red courier flag attached to his cart fluttered with urgency, despite the lack of any breeze.

Sagai and Khat remained in the courtyard and regarded the box.

“Maybe we could just bury it,” Khat said. “Right here.”

“Our landlady would never forgive us if we poisoned her property,” Sagai said. “Or cursed her household to vengeful spirits. Or infested the place with pests.”

And when Khat’s expression did not change, Sagai added, “And besides, perhaps burying it will make whatever is inside just hatch faster.”

Khat still said nothing.

“And,” Sagai added, with a note of desperation creeping into his voice. “Miram will never forgive us if we do anything to annoy her cousin.”

Miram’s cousin lived one street away and had been an important, if somewhat querulous, intermediary in arranging for them to rent this house while they were working in Pirra.

Khat was utterly indifferent to any potential awkwardness or inconvenience suffered by Miram’s cousin, but he regarded Miram herself in some awe, as was customary for anyone who had spent any amount of time with Sagai’s wife. It went without saying that both Khat and Sagai would go to great lengths to avoid irritating Miram.

Khat rubbed the back of his neck and asked, “Fine. Then what should we do with this thing?”

“Well,” Sagai said, squinting up at the sky. “The morning slips away, and we need not come to a final decision right this instant. After all, this thing made it all the way from Charisat to Kenniliar to Pirra without...erupting, and that’s a journey of what, several weeks? With multiple couriers handling it on the way between depots? And nothing ill seems to have befallen them.”

“That we know about,” Khat retorted. “Perhaps there is a string of belatedly dying couriers between us and Charisat right now.”

“Perhaps,” Sagai said with equanimity. “Even so, I think our doom will keep for day or two. We’ll ask around. We’ll find someone who can cart it deep into the Waste for us. And then it won’t matter what evil revenge it contains. It will be a drop in the bucket of all the malice and misfortune that the Waste already contains.”

“Mmm,” Khat said.

“You’re not thinking of opening it,” Sagai said sharply.

“I’m not a fool,” Khat said.

“You’re not thinking of opening it,” Sagai repeated.

Khat grimaced. “No. If Lushan thought to trap me with my own terrible curiosity, he was sadly mistaken.”

Reluctantly, Khat reflected on the corrupt Charisat broker. He had not seen Lushan in two years, nor thought of him in that interval either, but he was not surprised that Lushan had continued to think about Khat right up until the moment of his demise. Lushan had not been the kind of man to surrender a grudge easily.

“I wonder if the bastard is actually and really dead?”

A delicate pause, and then Sagai said, “We can write to the Charisat Academy. If Lushan’s heirs held the last rites and feast days, those at the Academy may have heard about them.”

Unspoken but implied: We could also write to the Master Warder of Charisat. She would know. She would tell us.

But Sagai did not speak those words, and Khat did not acknowledge them. Instead, he crossed his arms restlessly and said, “Feast days? Hard to imagine Lushan’s heirs, whoever they are, going through any effort to honor that foul creature.

“They honored him enough to send you the ‘gift’ he specified in his last will and testament,” Sagai pointed out.

“Maybe. Assuming Lushan is really dead. And even if he is, he probably stipulated that they had to send this to me if they wanted to inherit anything. Lushan’s revenge could never come cheaply. ”

Sagai nodded thoughtfully as he rose to his feet and carefully stretched. “Just so long as you are not planning to open it.”

“I was never planning to open it,” Khat lied. He scanned the sky, where the sun was already climbing precipitously into the heat of mid-morning. “Do you still want to see Robard before we visit the big hole?”

Sagai sighed. “Yes. He sent word yesterday that he wanted to see us before we inspect the excavation site. I think he’s likely to be...antsy if we don’t keep the appointment.”

“I don’t see why he needs to see us again,” Khat said. “He has no expertise or information on the big hole.”

“Probably he has sent for us in the hopes of hurrying us along,” Sagai said, smiling. “As long as we’re here, studying things, he cannot finish building his warehouse.”

“He’s a damn silly fool,” Khat said as he followed Sagai out of the courtyard. “If he didn’t want the Scholar’s Guild to get involved, he shouldn’t have told them that he found something strange while digging out the foundation for his warehouse. Should have just paid the builders double to keep their mouths shut. Should have just put down the cellar flooring fast. Then no one would have been the wiser.”

“In hindsight, he no doubt agrees,” Sagai murmured as he paused to close the low-slung gate of the courtyard behind them. “No doubt he thought the Scholars’ Guild would express some polite interest, maybe request an etching or put his name in some book somewhere.”

Khat laughed.

Instead, upon receiving Robard of Pirra’s message, the Scholars’ Guild of Kenniliar had fired back a terse reply, carried by a fast (and expensive) courier on a crimson steam-wagon: STOP DIGGING AWAIT US. Worse yet, they had sent a slightly lengthier but no less peremptory message to the Baig, ruler of Pirra, who had recently negotiated a favorable trade deal with Kenniliar via the mediation of the Scholars.

As such, even if Robard had been tempted to ignore the message and continue building his warehouse, the arrival of the Baig’s soldiers that night at the construction site would have put a stop to such aspirations.

Instead, bewildered, Robard had stopped digging and waited.

After a week, he had been rewarded by the appearance, in the flesh, of two Guild Scholars who had come to Pirra to personally inspect his findings.

And if Robard was startled to find that one of the Scholars was a tall kris with sharp incisors and ever-changing irises, then at least he was wise enough to keep his surprise to himself.

 


 

Before they had left for Pirra, Sagai had spent two very happy days looking up information about the city in the Guild’s archives.

“This is a lot of effort to research a city you’ve visited before,” Khat had pointed out, and Sagai had responded with a long-suffering sigh. He did not bother to repeat what he had told Khat previously: his earlier visit to Pirra had been completely consumed with wedding rites for Miram’s cousin, and that between the obligatory banquets and ceremonies, he had seen barely any part of the city.

It was the slow, quiet hour after lunch, and the city-sounds of Kenniliar had quieted to a dull rumble. At the moment, no other Scholar was working in this reading room -- an unimportant annex that housed minor geographical works -- and so Sagai had taken the opportunity to spread out multiple scrolls and books on the table in the center of the room. Khat, meanwhile, was lying sprawled on a low wooden bench that ran along the wall and meditating on really committing himself to a nap.

In the distance, he could hear the city cantors of Kenniliar singing out the changing hour.

Khat’s eyes slipped down, just for a moment -- and then Sagai was saying his name, and Khat groggily pushed himself into a sitting position. “What is it?”

Sagai was bending over a yellowed book at the reading table in the center of the room. “A map of Pirra. I’ve never seen this one before. Come see.”

Khat rubbed at his eyes and padded over to peer over Sagai’s shoulder. “Huh.”

“Curious, no?”

“Is the whole city really in the shape of a spiral?”

“Maybe,” Sagai said. “Although the parts of Pirra I saw...hmm. Perhaps it is just poetic license on the part of the map-maker?”

“It reminds me of something,” Khat had said vaguely, looking down at the faded drawing of the city.

The drawing was from the imagined perspective of someone standing high in the air directly over the city. The artist had offered a stylized vision of what Pirra would look like from such a vantage point: a large circle filled with smaller squares, segmented by roads that curled tighter and tighter until they converged in the city’s center.

In the middle, there was a squiggly star shape marked on the map, and Sagai tapped it. “That would be the Well.”

“The Well,” Khat repeated, only half-listening, because now he was thinking of a time, several years ago, when he had found a small spiraling fossil of some long-dead sea creature in the Waste outside Charisat. It might have been the thing to which the Ancient texts referred when they talked about something called a “seashell.” Some of the old writings claimed that, if one held the hard protective covering up to one’s ear, one could hear the sound of the forgotten sea -- but standing there in the dry Waste, Khat had tried putting his ear against it and had heard nothing. That particular magic, like so many things about the old world, must have died with its host, Khat had thought at the time.

In that moment, Khat had not paid much attention to the fossil’s shape: a horn that curved endlessly back on itself. But now, looking down on the identically coiling streets on the map of Pirra, he felt weirdly and unsettlingly reminded of that dead sea animal.

“Tell me again,” he said, as the two of them stood in the quiet reading room, “why they’re sending us to investigate a big hole that some Pirra nobleman found under his cellar?”

“The workers found some strange markings. And Markel thinks that it may be important.”

“Why isn’t Markel going, then?”

Sagai smiled. “Markel is not one for personal discomfort,” he said simply.

Khat threw himself back on the low bench. “And so we must pay the price for Markel’s curiosity?”

“Mmm,” Sagai said. “Are you objecting to the errand? I’m surprised. I would have thought you’d have leapt at the opportunity.”

Khat raised one silent eyebrow.

Sagai did not look up from his close examination of the map. “You are bored with our work here. I assumed you’d be interested in leaving it for a while to see something new.”

Khat thought about protesting that he was not bored, and then he thought about protesting the idea that something new and interesting might actually await them in Pirra, but from long practice, he knew how these conversations with Sagai would unspool, and so instead he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “Wake me up when you’re ready to go.”

“Naturally,” Sagai said.

 


 

When Sagai and Khat had finally arrived in Pirra -- after a great deal of long-distance dickering between the Baig and the Scholars' Guild and (eventually) Miram’s cousin about where they would be staying while they worked in Pirra, carried back and forth by several long-suffering, red-flagged couriers -- Khat had realized that the maker of that old map had faithfully sketched a bird-eye’s view of the city but had utterly failed to convey the dimensional depth of Pirra.

It was not a flat spiral of a city. It was a sunken drain.

(“You didn’t remember this?” Khat had said to Sagai on their first day, as they stood on the outer rim overlooking the city, looking down at its plunging slopes, and Sagai had shrugged and said, “You have to remember, Khat: so many banquets. And Miram was in the middle of a fight with one of her aunts. I had many things to distract me.”)

On the morning that they received Lushan’s box, Khat and Sagai walked to Robard’s estate. They could have hired a courier to take them -- among their other employments, the couriers of Pirra made a brisk profit by loading the well-heeled of Pirra onto their red-flagged carts and pushing them up and down the sloping streets -- but Khat and Sagai stubbornly chose to walk.

Approaching the rich center of Pirra meant descending down countless curving ramps and streets. On one side, perpetually rising terraces of buildings; on the other side, the plunging drop of lower streets, lower buildings, and -- at the very bottom and the very center -- the dark dome of the Baig’s palace. The palace itself surrounded the lowest and most precious point of Pirra: the Well, the primary source of water for miles around.

“I’m surprised the Scholars’ Guild doesn’t have a permanent embassy here,” Khat said now to Sagai as they ambled down the curving street that would eventually take them to Robard’s house. “I’d have thought they’d want to study the Well until they figured out where it gets all that water.”

“They don’t think it’s much of a mystery,” Sagai said judiciously. “According to the Guild records, it is just a very deep hole. Apparently there’s a confined aquifer down there, and the Well connects it to the surface, and pressure does what pressure does.”

Khat made a face.

“Sometimes Scholars have come out here to try to figure out how the hole itself was produced, because that part is mystifying, but nobody has raised any questions about the water.” Sagai smiled. “Besides, you know our colleagues. It’s a hard task to get them to leave Kenniliar.”

“Hence why we always draw the short straw.”

Sagai shrugged. “I like to see foreign parts. It makes me appreciate my familiar home all the more when I return.”

Khat made a noncommittal noise in response. He had lived in Kenniliar for two years now, and he still did not consider it “home.” But this was an old and well-worn argument with Sagai, and Khat did not really feel like debating it yet again.

Instead, he said, “Do you still think the markings in Robard’s ruins dates from before the Cataclysm?”

“No,” Sagai said, slowly and with great reluctance. This had been a sustained argument between himself and Khat during their days of working in Pirra, and he visibly regretted having to concede the point. “I think, on the whole, that you are right, and that the carvings dates after the Cataclysm. But still! Very close, I think! Certainly carved within two generations of the event. Maybe one.”

“Mmm,” Khat said.

“I know you think it is much more recent,” Sagai said. “But the similarity between the markings and the carvings that were uncovered at Veselia twenty years ago--”

“And which were widely circulated because they were printed in that work by Ultus,” Khat said.

Sagai blinked at him. “What? I know you thought the markings were recent but--”

“Yes,” Khat said easily. “I’ve been revising my opinion on that matter. I’ve started to wonder if those markings in that hole are actually quite recent. And copied from Ultus’ copies.”

“Hmm. But who benefits from such a fraud?”

“Not Robard,” Khat said immediately.

“Not Robard,” Sagai agreed. “We are a great inconvenience to him. He would not have brought his own doom upon himself.”

“Then one of Robard’s enemies,” Khat said. He looked over the railings that ran along one side of the street and prevented anyone from falling into the precipitously dropping center of Pirra. Far below them, the dark circle of the Baig’s palace sat like a black pupil in the center of a staring eye. “Possibly a very powerful enemy.”

“What fun for us,” Sagai said dryly, and Khat laughed.

Robard’s home came into view. Khat and Sagai were prepared to go through a long interlude of greeting guards and telling their names to various servants and cooling their heels in various tasteful sitting rooms before they managed to gain access to Robard -- but instead, to their surprise, Robard was standing there in the street and having an animated conversation with a courier.

This courier was a different man from the courier who had delivered Lushan’s box to Khat and Sagai that morning, but his cart was adorned with the same bright red flag.

Robard broke off the conversation as soon as he saw Khat and Sagai. “You’ve heard the news, then?” he shouted at them.

Khat and Sagai exchanged a glance. “What news?” Sagai asked carefully.

Robard’s face crumbled. “Oh. You haven’t heard. The foundations…” He took a deep breath. “I was just in the middle of sending you a message.” He gestured at the courier, who politely smiled at them until Robard added, “No need for a message, if you’re already here.”

“What has happened?” Sagai asked as the dejected courier turned and began pushing his cart away.

Robard opened his mouth, and then paused, and then sighed. “Easier to show you, I think.”

 


 

They stood at the lip of the hole and looked down into darkness.

“The big hole has gotten bigger,” Khat said, and Sagai gave him a sharp look.

“It happened overnight,” Robard said as he patted his forehead with a handkerchief. He was sweating profusely. Robard’s home was not far from Pirra’s center, but the site of Robard’s intended warehouse was near Pirra’s outer rim, which meant that reaching it required walking back uphill in a clockwise direction.

“Are such collapses common in Pirra?” Sagai asked.

“No,” Robard said forcefully. “It’s solid everywhere but the Well, and digging around the Well is forbidden.”

Minding where he placed his feet, Khat leaned over the hole. Yesterday, the site had been a hole, perhaps fifteen-feet deep and fifteen-feet wide, that culminated in a floor marked with the carvings that Sagai wanted to think were authentic and which Khat increasingly suspected were faked.

Today, the hole was still perhaps fifteen-feet wide, but it was hard to say how deep it was, since the floor had disappeared into a dark abyss with no visible bottom.

“Has anyone gone down into it?” Sagai was asking.

“No,” Robard said. “We thought to wait for you two.”

There was a small rock by Khat’s feet, and he lightly kicked into the vast emptiness of the hole. It disappeared, and there was no rattle or clatter to mark that it ever hit the hole’s floor.

“This suggests that there are some structural instabilities in this quarter,” Sagai said. “There may be some risk to the surrounding buildings. You’ll need to notify the Baig.”

“Oh, he already knows,” Robard said grimly. “His city guards were the ones who came and told me about this latest disaster.”

Khat looked up to exchange a glance with Sagai.

“They witnessed the collapse?” Sagai asked.

“Yes,” Robard said. “They man a watch here every night.”

Khat and Sagai stared at him, and he gave a long-suffering sigh. “I think they’re afraid that I’ll sneak some men in overnight so that I can keep building the warehouse.”

Khat and Sagai continued to stare at him, until he added, spluttering, “Not that I would, of course! I’m obedient to the Baig’s command!”

“Did the guards see anything unusual?” Khat asked.

Robard paused. “Maybe. Hard to say. They would be unlikely to tell me the whole story, I suspect. But you’ll want to talk to them directly before you go down there.”

Khat had, of course, realized as soon as he saw the gaping hole that he and Sagai would be clambering down there -- but at Robard’s comment, he slowly turned his head and fixed the merchant with a hard gaze. “Are we going down there?”

“Why, yes,” Robard said, wide-eyed. “The Baig -- oh, damn. I forgot. This was part of the message I was writing to you. Yes, the Baig wants you to go down there. As soon as possible.”

“An expedition deep into the interior of Pirra goes slightly against our original commission from the Scholars’ Guild,” Sagai said gently. “There will be additional expenses, time…” He pretended to pause, and Khat suppressed a smile. “We may need further authorization from our Guild brothers in Kenniliar.”

Robard was shaking his head. “No, no. No need. The Baig wants it done right away, and I’m sure that he’ll authorize you.” He paused and said. “You can go down to the Well. The Baig is currently in residence. His clerks can assist you in finding men and supplies.”

Sagai inclined his head. “We will go down there immediately.”

They bowed to Robard, and Robard gave them many distracted half-bows in response, and they were several paces down the street before Khat abruptly turned and shouted back: “Robard! Do you know anyone who will deliver something to the Waste on our behalf?”

Robard turned, frowning. “To the Waste? But why?”

“It’s just a box,” Khat said easily. “But I need to get rid of it.”

Robard shrugged. “Ask the Baig’s men! They go out into the Waste sometimes.”

Khat turned to Sagai with a toothy smile. “So many boons to ask of this Baig.”

“So many,” Sagai agreed.

 


 

If the Baig had been expecting the arrival of Sagai and Khat that morning, his staff did not betray it. At every step of their entry -- at the guard station at the outer wall, at the guard station at the inner wall, at the courtyard where they waited for a long period, at the dark and shadowed antechamber where a steward interviewed them with visible skepticism, at the smaller sitting room where they waited for another long period, and then finally in a covered pavilion deep within the Baig’s palace -- they were required to restate their identities, their business, their reason for wanting to speak to one of the Baig’s clerks.

If this degree of formality and bureaucracy was intended to be a calculated insult, it failed. Khat and Sagai cheerfully drank the lemon-flavored water they were offered at every stop, and they cheerfully repeated their answers to the inane questions they were asked, over and over again.

In the covered pavilion, Khat waited until the latest palace attendant’s soft footsteps had faded in the distance, and then he said, “Why would the Baig want to sabotage some random merchant’s warehouse? Robard is not that important, is he?”

“Maybe the building site marks the tomb of an eldritch horror that dates from the days of the Ancients, and that knowledge has been passed down in secret from Baig to Baig since Pirra’s founding,” Sagai said.

Khat looked at him.

“Of course, maybe the Baig simply doesn’t like Robard,” Sagai said. “I find that a lot of municipal politics becomes a lot clearer when you consider that everyone dislikes somebody. Not that I’m necessarily willing to concede that the Baig or his guards faked those floor carvings just to delay Robard’s building project, you understand.”

“We’ll never know now,” Khat said, “since the floor itself is gone. Maybe the culprits got overly ambitious about destroying the evidence last night, and that’s what caused the collapse.”

“Maybe,” Sagai said. “Still, I will be interested to see what’s down there. Nobody thought there was any cavernous spaces beneath Pirra. Other than whatever unknown water-source supplies the Well, of course.”

“Ah, right,” Khat said. “The Well.” He raised a speculative eyebrow at Sagai.

“Why not,” Sagai said in response to his unvoiced question. “I would like to see it too.”

The Well, it turned out, was not hard to find. When they exited the pavilion, a gravel path led them to a large amphitheater. As they walked toward it, various attendants dressed in the colors of the Baig glanced at them curiously, but no one stopped them or raised an alarm. This deep into the palace grounds, there were no guards to be seen.

Above them stood the tall, all-encompassing dome of the Baig’s palace. From above, it had seemed dark and opaque, but now, viewed from below with the sun behind it, it was a gentle gray color.

“So the Well is just a well?” Khat asked. “Nothing magical or uncanny about it?”

“That’s what I understand,” Sagai said. “But I’m sure it bolsters the power of the Baig and his house to have it spoken about in solemn, hushed tones.”

They entered the amphitheater. In the center stood the Well.

It was surprisingly small. A small dark tube -- perhaps as wide as a man’s fist and perhaps about as tall as the man himself -- jutted out of the ground, and a steady stream of clear water ran over its top and down its sides.

The Well stood in a broad stone basin, itself elevated from the ground, and channels had been cut into the basin to allow the collected water to run down and fall in large ceramic vessels, which the Baig’s attendants carefully monitored. As each vessel filled, an attendant replaced it with an empty vessel and moved the filled vessel to a wheeled cart. Periodically, a crimson courier would wheel the cart of water jugs out of the amphitheater -- presumably taking them to one of the water markets of Pirra.

Khat and Sagai regarded all of this with identical frowns.

At last, Khat said, “Sagai, my dear friend, perhaps we krismen just made peculiar wells in the Enclave. But that does not look like a well.”

“No,” Sagai said, “it doesn’t.”

“How deep is the source of the water supposed to be?”

“Very deep,” Sagai said. “Allegedly.”

“So what would push the water up like that? A pump?”

“If there’s a pump mechanism, it’s very secret,” Sagai said. “Nobody has ever described it when talking about the Well of Pirra.”

“Maybe no one has ever gone looking for it?”

“Maybe. Although, I wonder… Perhaps a pump isn’t needed. Perhaps the pressure is supplied through other means?”

“Like what?”

Sagai stared at the Well, and then glanced up past it to the surrounding dome, which blocked the city of Pirra from their sight. “Perhaps the water itself is just a byproduct…”

“What do you mean?” Khat asked, but Sagai did not answer, because just then one of the Baig’s attendants appeared, breathless and red-faced and indignant that they had left the pavilion without permission and that he had been forced to run around and find them. He told them, as he panted heavily, that their audience was granted but that they must immediately be present at it.

“Audience?” Sagai murmured to Khat as they followed the frantic attendant. “Does one necessarily need an audience to ask a clerk for money?”

“Dear Sagai, I do no think we are going to see one of the Baig’s clerks right now.”

Sagai sighed. “I would have put on a nicer robe this morning if I had known.”

As a result, neither of them were entirely surprised when a white-robed servant appeared to silently guide them into the Baig’s personal chambers, and they was not entirely surprised when they were shown into a room where a short man wearing the telltale diadem of the Baig of Pirra was seated on a floor cushion and pouring out cups of hot tea.

However, despite all his jaded expectations, Khat was surprised to see the other person seated in the room.

The white-clothed servant gestured at Khat and Sagai to bow, and Khat found himself going through the motions automatically, without thinking.

He did not look directly at the woman sitting on the floor, the woman who was Elen.

“Ah, good,” said the Baig of Pirra. “The Scholars from Kenniliar. Come and join us.”

Sitting beside the Baig, Elen looked up at Khat -- and then, incurious, her gaze moved on to Sagai and then back to her small tea cup.

“This is the Master Warder of Charisat,” the Baig was saying. “Her delegation has just arrived in Pirra. I’ve been telling her about the site you’ve come to research.”

Khat, sinking to his knees before the Baig, mutely accepted a tea cup that the Baig handed him directly.

Elen took a long sip of her tea and said, in a tone of vague boredom, “It sounds perfectly fascinating.”

“It has gotten more fascinating in recent hours,” the Baig said dryly. He filled another cup and handed it to Sagai, who had silently seated himself next to Khat. “My attendants tell me that you’ve already visited the collapse. Tell me, do you think more ground will fall? Has that fool Robard accidentally created a sinkhole somehow?”

“Hard to say, your reverence,” Sagai said calmly. “Robard told us that you were requesting us to explore these new depths.”

The Baig had been lifting a cup of tea to his mouth, but he paused at this. “Of course. That’s why you Scholars are here, is it not? To investigate the hole, yes?” He made a dismissive gesture with his free hand. “Now the hole is just slightly bigger.”

“We’ll need equipment,” Khat said. “Rope, chalk, water, men. Money.” He kept the focus of his gaze on the Baig, but he was watching Elen from the corner of his eye. She was looking up at the painted ceiling. She seemingly lacked any interest in the ongoing conversation.

When Khat had known her, two years ago, she had possessed no special gift for deception -- but in the interval, her skills had clearly improved.

The Baig was protesting Khat’s demands but rotely; he had clearly expected these requests and was prepared to capitulate after his weak refusals.

Serenely, Sagai was insisting on the objects and supplies that they needed.

Khat sipped his tea and did not look at Elen and waited for the Baig and Sagai to volley back and forth for a bit before he interjected: “We’ll also need to talk to the guards who were stationed at the site. Robard said they witnessed the collapse.”

The Baig paused for an almost imperceptible moment. “Ah. Yes. The guards.” He took a sip of his own tea and then said, “There is no need for you to talk to them. It was dark. They saw nothing of what caused the collapse.”

Khat nodded and thought So they caused the collapse. Good to know. From the corner of his eye, he saw Elen’s gaze focused on the Baig, and he wondered what incriminating emotions she was picking up from the surface of his thoughts.

“We were curious,” Sagai said mildly, “if there has been any precedents for this kind of...accident in Pirra?”

“The ground giving way? Giant holes appearing? No, no precedents,” the Baig said, as a slight frown creased his forehead. “But...well...it’s probably nothing, but there were some small irregularities with Robard’s initial building efforts.”

“What do you mean?” Sagai asked blandly.

“Traditionally, it is customary for anyone embarking on a new building project in Pirra to make a small offering to the Well,” the Baig said, cupping his tea cup in both hands. “And Robard, well… I believe he elected to forego that tradition.”

So Robard didn’t pay the usual bribe to the Baig, and now the Baig is getting him back by gumming up the works on his construction project, Khat thought. I hope the Scholars' Guild got a good donation-bribe from the Baig in exchange for entertaining this nonsense, at least.

Suddenly, to the surprise of the three men, Elen spoke. “I don’t understand. Is this Well supposed to be...alive? Why does it require an...offering?”

The Baig uttered an indulgent chuckle. “Oh, no. Nothing like that, Master Warder. It is really an offering in memory and commemoration of the people who built Pirra originally. We don’t know very much about them, you see. When my ancestors first found Pirra, a long time ago, the city was already constructed but completely deserted. We don’t know what happened to the first builders.” He grimaced in regret. “I had so hoped that the Scholars here would be able to shed some light on that question with their investigation of the strange ruins that Robard uncovered.”

I bet you did, Khat thought, but Sagai was nodding deferentially and saying, “Perhaps we will find further information when we descend deeper into the hole.”

“Yes,” the Baig said slowly. “Right. I’ll notify my clerks to give you what we have agreed upon. And in exchange, you’ll make a speedy investigation. At first light tomorrow, I suppose.”

Sagai nodded. “Of course, your reverence.”

“It sounds like quite a strange phenomenon,” Elen said suddenly.

The Baig looked at her in surprise. “Certainly, Master Warder. Very strange.”

“I should like to see it,” Elen said calmly. “Your reverence, would that be possible?” She glanced indifferently at Khat and Sagai. “Could these Scholars show me the, uh, the hole?”

The Baig hesitated, visibly surprised by the request. “Master Warder, it is possible that this hole is...dangerous, or might have some structural irregularity--”

Elen was nodding. “Yes, of course, but I have my own protections.”

The Baig drew in his breath at the word “protections” -- Pirra had no tradition of Warders, but even he had heard of the strange powers and unsettling ailments that possessed the Warders of Charisat -- but Sagai was already saying, “Most humbly, your reverence, we would appreciate the Master Warder having a look at the site as well. Perhaps her...powers will penetrate the veil there. The mysteries we have not been able to decipher. Such things beyond our ken, you know.”

Inwardly, Khat rolled his eyes.

There was no mistaking it; the Baig had gone pale. “Well, perhaps in a week, after the Scholars have--”

“Impossible,” Elen said, setting her cup on the floor decisively. “Your reverence, as you remember, my delegation only remains in Pirra for a day and a night before we move on to Kenniliar. It will have to be today.”

“Of course, Master Warder,” Sagai said. “Today.”

The Baig continued to protest, weakly and ritually, but now Khat allowed himself to stop listening to him and instead to look directly at Elen.

Her hair was longer now then it had been, the last time he saw her.

Her eyes were the same.

“One more thing,” Khat said abruptly. “One more requirement.”

“Yes?” the Baig asked, startled at being interrupted.

“We need to have something delivered to the Waste,” Khat said. “As soon as possible. Today.”

“Um, certainly,” the Baig said. “That can be arranged. But what do you want taken out there?”

“Just a box,” Khat said. “Just a boring, unimportant box.”

 


 

The Baig arranged for three couriers to cart Khat, Sagai, and Elen back up to the site of the collapse. Khat quickly discovered that he could not persuade the three red-flagged couriers from abandoning their paid errand and allowing the three of them to walk back up Pirra’s streets on their own legs.

“Oh, well,” Sagai said as he seated himself in one of the courier’s carts. “Think of it a valuable opportunity, Khat. Now you will be able to tell everyone back in Kenniliar what the experience of being carted through Pirra was like. Pay close attention, Khat! My children will want to hear about every aspect!”

Khat’s response was lost in the clatter of wheels as the couriers began to move forward. Grumbling, he slumped back in his own cart.

It was not a comfortable ride; the cart bounced roughly up and down over the uneven streets. Khat missed walking at his own pace.

He wanted to talk to Elen. At the same time, with an almost superstitious fervor, he wanted to put off talking to Elen until the last possible moment, because he had no idea what he was supposed to say to her.

It had been two years since they had last seen each other. Two years since Elen had made him a tentative offer, and Khat had declined it.

I wish I could trust you.

Alone in her own cart, Elen curiously looked around at the sloping buildings of Pirra that they passed. The Baig had tried to make her take along one of his guards, or one of the Charisat Warders who had accompanied her to Pirra, but Elen had firmly refused. (“My Warders are still resting, and your guards have their own obligations that I would not take them from. I am sure I am in good hands with these Scholars, your reverence.”)

The couriers did not leave when they reached the hole. Instead, they hung around hopefully -- no doubt angling for a commission to return Elen back to the Baig’s palace.

Khat glared at them. He wanted to ask Elen what she was doing in Pirra, but he was damned if he was going to do so in front of the blandly listening couriers.

Instead, Khat and Sagai, still ostentatiously pretending not to know Elen, made a great show of lecturing her as they ushered her to the edge of the collapse.

Elen endured this with a quirked eyebrow. “How far down does it go?” she asked them.

“That’s what the Baig wants us to find out,” Khat said.

“What kind of carvings were here originally?”

Khat and Sagai exchanged a look. “A matter of some dispute, actually,” Sagai said.

"Extremely fake ones," Khat said. 

Elen cocked her head to one side. “I think--” she started to say, but what she had to say went unsaid, because then the edge of the hole began to crumble under her feet.

“Shit,” Khat said, lunging forward to grab hold of her.

He succeeded in grabbing her shoulder, but he did not succeed in pulling her to safety, because then the ground shifted beneath his own feet, and he found himself in the air, falling into the darkness, and the last thing he saw was Elen’s pale face turned toward him.

Then there was nothing for a little while.

 


 

Gradually, achingly, consciousness returned.

Khat opened his eyes.

“Good,” Elen said. “You’re alive.”

Khat blinked at her carefully. She was leaning over him, and her frowning face was illuminated by a faint blue globe that she held in one hand.

“How long was I out?” Khat asked.

“Not long,” Elen said. She was kneeling, Khat now saw, and he was lying on the ground. “How do you feel?”

“Like I’m going to be aching for a few days,” Khat said. “But I can feel all my fingers and all my toes.” He turned his head toward what he knew, instinctively, was up but there was only darkness there, with no sign of a wide gash in the ground and the sky beyond it. No sign of Sagai and three bewildered couriers peering down at them. “How far did we fall?”

“Hard to say,” Elen said. “The ground is sloped here. Probably why we didn’t just die. But I think we rolled for a bit. We’re no longer directly under the hole.”

“Where is Sagai?”

“I don’t think he fell with us. He was standing further back from the opening, remember?”

Khat took a deep breath and slowly, gingerly, pushed himself into a sitting position. As expected, every inch of his body protested loudly. But nothing was numb, nothing felt sickeningly broken, and that was a small comfort.

“What exactly is around us?” he asked her, because he took it for granted that Elen had left him while he was unconscious to look for an exit.

She nodded thoughtfully, since she had done exactly that. “We’re in some circular room. It’s human-made. There are passages branching off in three directions. The air smells fresher down one of them. I think that means there may be another opening we can use to escape.”

Khat gingerly rubbed the back of his head. “Is there anything...alive down here with us?”

“No,” Elen said. “Or at least nothing that I can feel. I suppose there could be kris or something. I don't think I would feel them.”

“Doubtful,” Khat said. “This place is off the beaten path for my kind. I haven’t heard anything about any kris appearing around here, and I doubt they've founded a secret colony beneath the streets of Pirra.” He shifted slightly and winced.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Khat said faintly. “Yes, absolutely. Just...give me a moment.”

“Very well,” Elen said. “So. What are you and Sagai doing here?”

“Exactly what we appear to be doing. The Scholars' Guild sent us to investigate some mysterious carvings. So here we are. No ulterior motives. Unlike that Baig.”

“Yes,” Elen said. “He seems to enjoy devising machinations.” She cocked her head to one side. “So you’re part of the Guild now.”

Within that statement were a host of unspoken questions. Khat shrugged. “Yes. Not a well-respected member. But a member, nonetheless.”

“I’m glad,” Elen said softly.

In the dim blue glow of her light, they regarded one another without speaking.

Finally, Khat said, “What are you doing here? Since when does the Master Warder make goodwill tours?”

Elen was silent for a moment. “It was Constans. He burned the bones last month and then he came to me and told me that I needed to be here.” She shrugged. “And he also told the Elector, and the Elector thought it was a good idea. It has been a while since Charisat sent a delegation to the other Fringe Cities, and the Elector saw an opportunity.”

"What did Constans see for you in Pirra?" 

"He didn't say," Elen said. "I don't know if he saw it clearly. But he thought it very important that I visit Pirra, so here I am." 

“What was with all the play-acting over tea with the Baig?” Khat asked. "Why were we all supposed to be strangers to one another?"

“Oh, that,” Elen said tiredly. “The Baig does not entirely trust me. He think I’m here to spy for Charisat. I didn’t want his paranoia to land on two innocent Scholars from Kenniliar that I happened to meet years ago.”

There was a tart note to Elen’s voice for these last few word. Khat ignored it. “And is he right? Are you here to spy for Charisat?”

“No,” Elen said. “Should I be spying on him?”

“He’s a duplicitous fool,” Khat said. “I’m pretty certain that he’s at the root of this mess. I think he was trying to sabotage a merchant’s building plans by faking some carvings at the dig site, and then, when his men were trying to erase the evidence, they accidentally broke through to this lower chamber and caused the collapse of the site.”

“And yet,” Elen said, looking around, “no one knew that this space was down here. Until now. Maybe it was fortuitous malice on the Baig’s part.”

“Maybe,” Khat said. “Though if we end up dying down here, I’m not going to think fondly of his charades.”

“I don’t think we’re going die down here,” Elen said. “Or at least, I’m not. Constans didn’t see anything about me dying in Pirra when he burned the bones.”

“Or if he did, he didn’t say anything about it,” Khat pointed out, and Elen laughed.

And then Elen leaned forward, and for a moment Khat thought he knew what she was going to say, and his mind went perfectly empty and blank -- but instead she said, “What’s the deal with the box you want the Baig to get rid of?”

“Oh, that,” Khat said, a little breathlessly. “Lushan sent it. Do you happen to know if Lushan is really dead, by the way? Maybe due to the sense of general elation and jubilation in Charisat after his death?”

“Who is Lushan?”

“He was a broker who dealt with relics in Charisat,” Khat said. “Not a nice man. Not a friend to me. This morning, a courier showed up with a box. Said it was part of Lushan’s last will and testament. Said it was for me.”

“Ah,” Elen said. “A trap.”

“Exactly.”

“What kind of trap? Will it issue a poisonous vapor as soon as you open it?”

Khat shrugged “Might.”

“You didn’t open it?”

“Of course I didn’t open it,” Khat said.

A long, dubious pause.

“Also, Sagai was there,” Khat added. “And he wouldn’t let me open it.”

“Ahhhhh.”

“I think I’m going to see about standing up now,” Khat said. “Will you help me?”

“Of course.”

With great effort and the assistance of Elen, and not a few awkward false-starts, Khat managed to climb to his feet. He felt weak and tender. 

“Which way?”

Elen nodded toward the left. “The air smells better in that direction. I think that’s our best bet for finding an opening.”

They had hobbled barely a few feet before Elen paused and swung her light toward the nearest wall.

“What’s that?” Khat asked.

Elen brought her light closer. “It looks like a drawing.” She glanced at Khat. “Does this look like the carvings that Robard’s workers discovered? The ones faked by the Baig’s men?”

“No,” Khat said, squinting. “No. This looks different. And older. And possibly real. Are these antennae? Is this an...insect of some kind?”

“No,” Elen said after a pause. “No, they’re streets. Look. It’s...it’s Pirra, I think.”

Together, they regarded the drawing of Pirra. The earlier map that Khat had seen in Kenniliar had been drawn from the perspective of someone suspended high above Pirra and looking down; this drawing was from the perspective of someone who had burrowed halfway down the sloping ground and was now looking across the city: a cross-section of a funnel made up of threaded legs.

“Hmmm,” Khat said.

“Hmmm,” Elen said. “I think the Baig is mistaken about his city. It’s not a well, actually. It’s a...reservoir.”

“Yeah,” Khat said. “But what is it collecting?” He crossed his arms. “Unless the Baig is conducting secret blood sacrifices at the Well every night.”

“No,” Elen said. “No, I don’t think so. He didn’t have that kind of mind. I think…” Her fingers tapped the center of the drawing, where the Well was symbolized with an icon that looked like a spiral. “I think maybe that whoever built Pirra maybe didn’t have a chance to finish it. Or activate it.”

"You can tell that just from the drawing?"

"Well, in a way. It's also based on something Constans said, before I left. I think he had seen something in the bones and wanted to try to tell me. But I'm wondering how the Well, as it functions today, fits into this original plan. The Baig showed it to me today. It did not look as I expected."

“Sagai said he thought the waters from the Well might be a byproduct of something else,” Khat said.

“Might be,” Elen said. “Look, here. According to this, there’s something below Pirra, something like a steam engine that’s always running. But maybe it’s not doing the thing it was designed to do. Maybe it can’t. Maybe its engineers didn’t get that far along. But the pressure is always building, and it needs to release it somehow. So it has a little valve.” She tapped the symbol for the Well again.

"Who built this elaborate system?"

"People who are long-dead, I am afraid, and unable to justify their actions to us."

Khat ran a thoughtful foot against the ground. He did not need Elen’s dim light to know that the ground was sloped.

“Based on this map,” he said, “if we went downhill, we’d eventually converge on whatever lies beneath the Well.”

Elen squinted at him. “Mmmm,”

“Mmm. Yeah, I’d agree. I don’t want to see whatever lies beneath the Well right now. That’s a task I want to do fully supplied and rested, and with lots of people carrying strong lamps. That’s a task for tomorrow, I think.”

“Good,” Elen said. “So, instead, uphill? Up to the outer edges of whatever this city-bowl is?”

“It will be much less exciting,” Khat said.

“Good,” Elen said again. “I don’t think, given our current shape, that we would survive much excitement. Come on.”

And she reached out to take Khat’s hand.

 


 

Some time later, as they walked through a thick darkness only partly alleviated by her small blue light, Elen said, quietly, “I missed you.”

A long pause. Then, reluctantly, “I missed you too.”

“Are you happy? In Kenniliar?”

Khat closed his eyes. “I should be. I should be happy.”

Elen said nothing, but her warm hand squeezed his.

“I wanted to be a member of the Scholars’ Guild,” Khat said. “And now I am. And I find it is a thing that no longer satisfies me. I find myself bored. I find myself thinking about leaving the city. Going somewhere else. I don’t know. Maybe I am just too...fickle. Maybe I do not deserve to be happy.”

“No,” Elen said immediately. “Don’t think of it like that. You wanted a thing, and you achieved it, and that is praiseworthy. But it is natural for the things that one wants to change with time. You can honor your past-self and his hopes without being chained to him. You can have new hopes, Khat.”

Khat exhaled. “Perhaps. What about you? Are you happy in Charisat?”

“Happy is maybe not the right word,” Elen said musingly. “But I am satisfied. I am glad to be there at the work I have chosen. Reforming the Warders is a struggle, but it is...a meaningful struggle? I have not yet grown bored of it, at any rate.”

“I see,” Khat said.

They walked in silence for a while. The tunnels around them were featureless and interchangeable, but they were still going uphill, always uphill, and the smell of fresh air was growing stronger.

“Elen,” Khat said. “Two years ago, you asked for me to stay in Charisat.”

“I remember,” Elen said.

“Does that invitation still stand?”

Elen stopped short, so suddenly that Khat walked into her, and for a moment, their contortions and wobblings threatened to knock the other person over, until Khat managed to find his footing and steady Elen with one arm. (And as he did so, every muscle in his body again protested furiously, and he thought, Tomorrow is going to be a day of delayed pain.)

Elen was breathing heavily against Khat’s chest, and then she looked up at him, almost angrily, and said, “How can you ask me that? Of course.”

There did not seem like any satisfactory answer that Khat could make to that, so instead he dipped his head down and kissed her.

The kiss went on for a while, but after it ended, Elen peered up at him with a frown. “However,” she said, “I seem to remember that you had some objections to the disparity in our stations in Charisat two years ago.”

“Yes, I remember,” Khat said. “But that was then. A Master Warder and kris? Impossible. Now? A Master Warder and an authentic member of the Scholars' Guild of Kenniliar?” He winked down at her. “Much different.”

Elen continued to frown. “Is it--”

Much different,” Khat repeated, and then he kissed her again.

 


 

After that, they walked through the dark passageways of under-Pirra for a long time, until finally Elen stopped. “Is this a dead end?”

“I think...it’s a door.”

“How does it open?”

“Let’s try pushing on it,” Khat said.

This was wishful thinking on his part -- the door mechanism could have worked in a million different ways, after all -- but luckily, it was the correct guess. A few seconds after they started pushing against it with all their strength, the door squeaked and began to swing open. Clean air blew past them.

The Waste lay beyond the door. They had walked beneath Pirra for farther than they knew.

“Where are we?” Elen asked, stepping out. It was getting dark. Evening had fallen while they were below ground.

Khat followed her. “Just outside Pirra,” he said, and he turned to see the curved rim of the bright lights of Pirra behind them.

“What’s that noise?” Elen asked.

There was the faint, distant sound of someone whistling.

Khat and Elen exchanged a glance. Then, as one, they began creeping forward.

They reached the edge of a rock ledge and looked down. A figure about ten feet below them was dragging a cart. Even in the dim evening light, they could see that the cart sported a familiar red flag, bold and bright.

“Is that one of those weird courier people from Pirra?” Elen asked.

“Yes,” Khat said.

“What’s he doing out here?”

“I think,” Khat said, “that he’s dropping off Lushan’s box somewhere obscure and inaccessible.”

“Huh,” Elen said. “What did that box contain, anyway?”

For a moment, Khat thought about hailing the courier, retrieving his property, and finally -- once and for all -- solving the mystery of the box that Lushan had managed to send him from beyond the grave. 

Instead, he said, "No idea.  Something bad. But it’s not my problem any more.” He took her hand. “Come on. Let’s go find Sagai and tell him that we’re not dead.”