The Most Welcoming of Secrets

Abine wasn’t tired. 

But he was supposed to be, wasn’t he? He was retired. He had seen the world and it had seen him. 

So why wasn’t he tired? You’d think he would be tired. Old, even. That was what was expected of him. That he would just yield the moment they told him, take to the dark without a word. 

And keep the greatest of secrets. Keep it for the rest of his life; lie whenever questioned. Be happy. 

Be content; don’t ask questions.

He worked for the nobility. The nobility and the Face. The Face and the Lord Governor. The Lord Governor and the Merchant Prince. The Prince himself had explained to Abine why he had to keep the secret. “You see, runner,” the Prince had said, “you are a special case. I hired you on a whim. They usually undergo training first. Swear to keep the secret. Not one has spilled the beans yet, have they? No, no they have not. Did you know that?”

Abine had shaken his head. Abine had not been compliant. 

Abine walked without confidence down a street lined with chalky yellow stones and depressed, shriveled roses in shallow beds. Government officials came at night to force those roses open. So much work just for a little beauty, and hardly that. The flowers wouldn’t bloom on their own, of course. It was too cold, up here near where the clouds lay.

“Do you know what you hold? Do you know what awaits you, runner? Riches and honor for what you have accomplished. Would you really forgo that just for a sliver of satisfaction? No, I didn’t think so.”

The roses would shrivel and die within the week. 

Abine pulled his overcoat tightly around him. The wind coming down from the cliffs today was especially violent, and brought with it a deep, itching chill. He hoped he would find shelter somewhere. He hoped… 

What did he hope? He knew what he would get. He might find nobles willing to help him on the city’s Face, but he had no friends here. They would start turning him away sooner or later. And so he would have to take the last route left. The route into darkness. 

Abine had seen the world, experienced the wind through the heather, the rivers and the forest-creatures, and other cultures, other people, with different ideas. Now, for the rest of his life, he would have to sit entombed in darkness. With a secret. 

Why didn’t more people disobey? Surely they hadn’t all fallen for the merchants’ bribes. Of course, he himself had caved in the end. 

“Consider yourself a vessel. As we package fruits and salt meats so as to preserve them, the secret lies inside you. Keep it there. You are the can. You are the vessel. Let out your secret, your dangerous fruit, and it will not be pretty. For you or for the rest of your people.”

The street was called Evered’s Promenade, named after the old Lord Governor of a decade past. He had been the Lord Governor when Abine had been born. A better man than the current one. Abine was sure of that. 

“Your people, yes. You are a leader now, aren’t you, runner? I’ve found a nice place for you. You’ll serve nicely alongside an old runner of mine. He’s sharp. Maybe, you’ll eventually take his place.”

Beyond the flowers rose buildings, primarily made up of stone bricks fastened to each other with vhest, a kind of adhesive clay. Several were especially imposing—those were the keeps of the city’s wealthier greathouses. They were enforced by other materials, their walls several feet thick. Most of the structures, however, had only one level. As much as the citizens of Amathandir cared about their fashion, they minded little for the outside appearances of their houses, shops, and banks. It was a universal, and unspoken, agreement. There wasn’t a single person from outside the city they were trying to attract. 

For the city was isolated thousands of feet into the sky, entirely separate from the rest of the world. Amathandir—the city of the People—was its own world. Very few from the city had ever been off the plateau. Only special folk, hired by the merchants to discreetly trade and gather fundamental resources, had that privilege. 

Only people like Abine. 

He had imagined his homecoming would be different. Vaguely, he had imagined a crowd awaiting his safe return. But he doubted there was one soul who remembered him. All he had gotten was an “emergency meeting” with Fadiren Tormoux, the Merchant Prince. The one who had taken Abine in the first place. Oh, the merchant was important—he was one of the most influential people in the city. Abine had never before spoken directly to him—his wife, Lady Loravene Tormoux, handled the house’s runners. 

“Whatever you do, remember this. What you saw out there… it doesn’t matter to you now. As far as you are concerned, this city is the extent of the world. This is your domain. And you’ll do well to stay in it. Just as we all have all these years. You once were a runner. You have served. Now you will protect.”

For some reason, he had expected there to be more. Perhaps he had just been spoiled by his time away. He had once thought Amathandir was the greatest city in the world. What he saw now disproved that notion. If anything, the city seemed to have shrunk since last time. Shriveled. Was that even possible? New buildings littered the plateau around the main city, ever reaching toward the mountain’s rocky edge. 

It was dusk, and the city was shrouded in shadow. The sun melted into the empty expanse that was the western horizon. Clouds of swirling white mist illuminated by the dying light rode some hundreds of feet above the city in the sky, dispersing as they crashed into the great unmoving wall of mountains there. 

The city’s plateau struck out from one of these great peaks, just below the clouds. A scattering of several hundred buildings, clinging to the flat rock like seeds to dirt, made up what Abine’s people called home. Amathandir. City of amathan. City of the People. 

He passed a group of older people huddled in their own brown and dark green overcoats, hurrying down the street. They barely spared glances for him. A few minutes later a pair of women in similar coats with grey and blue patterned scarves emerged from a side street, passing him by in a hurry, whispering conspiratorially. He couldn’t make out what they were saying. Such dull colors was the one thing he observed. He was accustomed to more. Most decorative dyes weren’t common this far from civilization; the nobles had to work with what they had. 

He continued down the wide street, eying the houses. Searching… 

There. One of the buildings, larger than the others with two additional levels, stood out from the rest. The door was of a hard, grey wood, and had an enormous chain across the front. That wasn’t particularly unusual in the city—folks liked to keep to themselves. What was uncommon was what was carved into the door. Twin lines, forming a rough X, with a small circle scratched underneath. 

It marked the home as an entry point. The symbol was required of all such locations; nobles claimed it was for the protection of the people. After having met said nobles, Abine suspected there were additional motives at play. 

Everyone knew that some entry points were still hidden, and did not announce themselves as was law. That particular law was hardly enforced. Occasionally, the location of such a point would be sold out, and everyone would pretend to be shocked, surprised. The Orathani—the Face Watch, as they were more commonly called—would come, mark the door, and put the home under government surveillance. 

But there were always others. Abine suspected that there would be until the city itself grew too heavy and collapsed into the dark below. 

At the end of the street loomed a temple. Taller than any of the other buildings around—and the city only flattened from there—it towered above the city, an emblem of the peoples’ ancient religion of Shalvenase. Abine slowed from a brisk walk to an unhurried stroll as he neared it. He needed to remember. Needed to be prepared. 

“Take what is yours, as we all have. Do what is right. Do what is just. Son, this is a game of lives. We all play by the rules.” 

They had given him instructions for how to find this old runner, then had given him a place to stay. Only one night, Fadiren had said. The second most powerful man in the city, and perhaps the most influential one. He might have intimidated some. But Abine had met far more powerful people in his time away. In the end, Amathandir was just one city. 

Only one night. Fadiren hadn’t been there in the morning, nor in the afternoon, when Abine had been made to leave. He hadn’t struggled. What use was there to that? He had never been a fighter. He was fast, and now he had a secret. That was a distinct advantage. 

Here he was just past four hours later. Wandering with eyes to the horizon in the vain hope of rescue as the sky grew dark. What he was really doing was delaying. He would have to descend, most likely tonight. He had a destination, and was only pretending he didn’t. The facade wouldn’t last for long. 

Oh, how he had wished to leave this place forever, to never again be faced with what lay below. But such a fate was too good to be true. 

Why couldn’t he continue as a runner for the merchants? Oh, he had asked that question. Tradition, they had said. Tradition. 

What a fragile thing, tradition. A man in power could make tradition to suit his aims. It was hard to ask for proof that you weren’t the one for whom the tradition was created. He would return, as they all had, and he would remain, as they all had. As far as he knew, the custom had been in place since well before he was born. But one could wonder. 

That raised another question: Why keep him here? Why not let him free to wander as he wished, now that his work was over? Well, he knew at least the answer to that. The merchants kept careful track of every man and woman allowed out of the city. Dare they loosen their grip, runners would start to fail their duties. Worse, they would tell the leaders of the great nations about Amathandir. And that was the end, wasn’t it?

It was the deadliest of secrets. It went two ways: the average citizen of Amathandir could not know about the outside world, and the world could not, under any circumstances, learn about Amathandir. Only with this secret kept among the city’s elites could things continue to function as they always had. 

Abine passed an obviously important person—a merchant, by his attire, accompanied by several guards, all walking. That was something else that struck him as odd: merchants everywhere else had wagons with horses or oxen to pull. But in Amathandir, most nobles had to walk. How strange it was to look back at what was considered normal up here with the new perspective of one having seen the world. Well, at least a fraction of the world. There was always more to see. 

For a time, he had considered disobeying, making off just to experience the sights, covering up his trail and forging a new life. But veiled threats from the Prince had brought him back, in the end. They must have sensed the hesitation on his last run. He wouldn’t be let out again. He guessed that even now they kept a careful eye on him. 

Briefly, he wondered how long it would take for them to forget about him. And all of a sudden, walking slowly down the street and nodding to passersby in the dying light of the sun, a plan began to form. 

They would assume that he had taken to the undercity. And he would, for a time. He was patient. That was one thing about being a runner—you had to be patient. Just like you had to be resourceful. And charismatic. These were traits, it turned out, that would serve him again. 

He would give the nobles six years. That would be enough time for the people to elect a new Lord Governer. Even if the current one remained, he would almost certainly have forgotten. Abine might have to deal with the Prince’s threats again, but the chances were definitely against it. 

After the six years, he would leave the city again. He couldn’t escape through the Face, of course. The path that wound down the mountain, by which the People had originally come to found the city, was concealed and guarded day and night by the best of the Orathani. But people spoke of another route, and no rumor so consistent as this was a lie. He couldn’t be sure of its exact location, but he would not spend the next four years idle. He was charismatic, and he held a deadly secret.

The outlines of the plan had formed, but he put it out of his mind for the moment and focused on what was directly ahead of him. Fate. Pain and sorrow if anything he remembered would remain. 

Under Amathandir was another realm. Not a realm like one might expect; Abine had seen nothing resembling its design in all the world’s great nations. Abine had seen basements, hidden trade paths, and underground criminal complexes. But this was different. Salkanest was an undercity

Abine had been born and raised in Salkanest. Neinra, his mother, had died before he could know her. No one had wanted anything of him. In the language of the People, “skalk” meant “rat,” so there was some truth to the undercity’s title. His father had always said that the others who lived there were “all rats.” He had proved himself right when they had come for Neinra’s gold and killed him too. 

The temple loomed, a black blade piercing the stone below. Tall and thin, it defied the physical rules by which the rest of the city had been built. The clerics claimed it was the power of Shalev that kept it standing. It cast a shadow out over the thoroughfare, and it was this darkness that Abine now entered. Soon enough, he was at one of the doors, a decorated oaken thing. It stood slightly ajar; as per tradition, the temple stood open from the back for those who needed refuge at night. That was one thing that hadn’t changed. 

Now he had to confront the truth. Why had he come here? Was it to seek refuge? Find food? Talk to the clerics, see if they could find him accommodations? No. He knew as well as anyone that the clerics’ outward projection of kindness was only the face of a much less gentle practice. Those who entered the temple did not leave. 

Torches burned from within the building. Deadly. Inviting. Those still on the street pretended not to notice him standing there. 

And so he stood. As he did, the last of the sunlight fled from the surface of the world, leaving only the faint illumination of Lilim and Jou, the world’s two moons, as a ghostly light that mingled with the fog. 

Eventually, there was movement from inside the temple. Abine turned to watch as a figure shuffled to the doorway. He was surprised to find an elderly woman standing there, dressed in long grey robes. She squinted up at him for a moment, unsmiling. Abine got the impression that she had never smiled before in her life. 

“Are you going to come in?” Her voice, quiet and almost hissing like sand thrown onto a fire, portrayed none of the questioning that the statement would seem to suggest, but he took it as an inquiry. 

“Um…” his pondering had left him at a loss for words. “Yes, I’ll… I’ll just… Do you need to close the door, or…” 

Idiot. What had that been? The woman didn’t seem particularly bothered, however. At least not any more than she had been. Instead she just turned and made her way back into the building. 

“Don’t still be there tomorrow morning,” she called as she left. “We have enough of your type as it is. Come in or don’t.” She turned and disappeared from view. 

He hesitated for a moment, then followed her in. Immediately he was swallowed by a new kind of light: a yellow, practical light, the kind that made him feel at home. Long shadows cast by pillars danced as oil lanterns flickered on the wall behind each. Like the rest of the building the walls were of stone, intricately carved with religious reliefs. People with tridents, snakes that stretched between scenes, and other swamp-creatures featured heavily. 

Some people sat on rows of benches, while others roamed about. They were all eerily silent, with the majority wearing Shalven religious garb: grey, yellow, and white, the adapted colors of the original religion. None seemed particularly bothered by the cold air flowing in from the doorway; they were used to far worse. Abine guessed there were about thirty. 

Several glanced at him as they entered, but none made as if to speak. After a moment he saw the woman who had greeted him earlier sitting near the front, head bowed, but not muttering anything. In this religion, silence was a key virtue. 

The sanctuary made up the entire temple, with no obvious doors to preparation rooms or quarters for the clerics. Abine didn’t actually know where they lived, but he did know that come morning, all others who had entered would be told to leave. Everyone knew this; they didn’t often come just for shelter. And they didn’t come for nourishment. The temple held ceremonies every day at noon. Its secondary purpose, however, was that of an intermediary point. 

Balconies accessed by curving stairs rose in ringed levels above the sanctuary. Thick pillars of carved stone rose all the way through the roof. Square and paneled, scenes were represented in reliefs upon every pillar face. There were nine of them in all: eight in pairs of four and one looming behind an altar at the back end of the sanctuary. 

Abine had come in from the side—the great doors were locked at night, of course. He turned to see two clerics arguing silently by the altar pillar. They did so by gesturing at each other with rapid hand motions. Generations ago, an unyielding devotion to silence had led the clerics to construct a new method of communication that didn’t require sound. Abine knew that at least several of the clerics were deaf. Serving in the temple was the easiest path forward for men and women who could not hear. 

Could Abine serve beside them? Join the temple, avoid Salkanest? He thought it over for a moment. 

No. That would give Fadiren and his men too easy an excuse to keep an eye on him. Instead, if he ever wished to escape this wretched city, he would have to disappear from the public eye. 

With that knowledge in mind, he turned and began to make his way toward the altar. Several people glanced up as he passed, acknowledging his choice with a nod. Confidently, projecting satisfaction despite his fear, he rounded the pillar at its back.

On the other side a door was embedded into the stone. Above it the symbol of the X with a circle just under, the same sign he had seen out on the street, was carved into the pillar. Both the symbol and the door were invisible to the majority of the sanctuary, the space where people gathered during the day. 

The door was closed, but unlocked as he confirmed by grasping and turning the handle. He paused, eyeing a guard who stood in the center of the back wall. The guard watched him out of the corner of an eye, but made no attempt to stop him. Abine knew that that very guard could well have been employed by the Merchant Prince, who would want to know if and when Abine took this action. He paused. 

But there was nothing more to think about. Nothing more to do. The sooner, the better. 

He drew open the door and stepped into the dark. 


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