Extract – Book 3: Virigin’s Lure

Threvor shifted restlessly in her seat, thin, bony hands fluttering, the sharp bones of her shoulders jerking beneath the cloth of her robe. Her rheumy eyes twitched back and forth as if seeking something.

Probably lost a memory, Tharnie thought, as he watched the twitching and kept his own impatience carefully in check.

“So, your Guild Master was angry,” Tharnie said.

Threvor started, and focused on Tharnie as if she had only just noticed him sitting in front of her. “What! What?”

Ah. You need to backtrack, Tharnie. She’s forgotten her train of thought.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tharnie saw Sythel look up from a small, worn tapestry he was studying. It had recently been found by Mistress Elthán in a part of Illiath that had been ruined in The Destruction and which the Webcleaners were gradually making habitable again. The acolytes of Sara, Guild Master of Weaving, had cleaned the tapestry and repaired it but the images were still faint and the artistry quite different from Crystalmaker work. Sythel had wondered whether it belonged to Skyseekers. Since Tharnie had now had a great deal of interaction with Skyseekers, Sythel had asked him to be present when he showed the tapestry to Threvor.

Threvor had fallen into a chair upon seeing the tapestry, hand over her heart. Finally, she had wheezed, “Love unsung or sung too loud; betrayal darkens the proud.”

Tharnie glanced at Sythel, who indicated, with a slight shrug, that the verses meant nothing to him.

Humbly, Sythel said: “My memory fails me, Guild Master. “I do not know the songline of these verses.”

“No. No.” Threvor had moaned. “They are almost lost. Almost. Better that way. Betrayal.” She turned to Tharnie and her lips curled, disdain replacing shock on her features. “You’ve been looking, haven’t you? You think I don’t notice your quest. Looking for ancient patterns. That was your excuse. Pfah! Your lie never convinced me. You’re searching for something but you don’t know what.”

Tharnie had smiled, not taking offence at her rudeness. “I became curious about Webcleaners,” he admitted. “They are so much apart from us that it seemed incongruous to me.”

“And you thought to find answers in the tapestries? Our memories are in The Telling.”

“But The Telling is almost silent about Webcleaners.”

“For that we have The Order.”

“And is there no memory of the nature of The Order?”

“It is in The Telling.” In the singsong voice used by the Guild of Memory when they recited verses from The Telling, Threvor said,

We crawled from the sea

Into Cryptal arms

They give us our warmth

They give us our light

They give us our homes

They give us our Order.

Tharnie put his head to one side and regarded the old woman for a moment. “I am puzzled by another part of The Telling,” he said, and began to recite.

The gift of the web

The cleaner renowned

In service of beauty.

He paused. “I do not understand how Webcleaners are in service of beauty.”

“Self evident!” Threvor had scoffed. “The Order demands they keep our surroundings as we have made them: in beauty.”

Though Threvor had dismissed Tharnie’s observation, he saw Sythel’s eyes turn towards him thoughtfully, as if he had never considered such a question before and now that it was posed, he, too, saw there was an apparent anomaly.

Not wishing to aggravate the old Guild Master, Tharnie had merely nodded. “You always have been most astute. I apologise that I was not more honest with you. But this tapestry that your acolyte has. He thought that it may be a Skyseeker one but you think not?”

“I have seen it. I was a child. Eager to learn. I had a myriad questions. So much to learn. So much to learn.” Threvor’s voice had faded and she murmured other things to herself, seeming to forget Tharnie and Sythel again.

When it was obvious that she was not about to continue, Tharnie had said: “It is as well for all of us that you had the talent to learn, else The Destruction would have destroyed not only our homes but also our very essence.”

Threvor had regarded him for a long time, twitching and fluttering. Collecting herself, she demanded, “Why are you here, Tharnie?”

“Ah. The tapestry. I wondered whether it was a Skyseeker one.”

“Skyseeker!” Threvor practically screeched the words. “Webcleaner!” She spat that word out too. “They dared! Dared! Against the Order! Everything they stole! And still they dared to try to mimic what only each of the Guilds – what The Order has deemed the Guilds should govern.”

“How did that come about?” Tharnie asked.

“Give me that tapestry,” Threvor ordered Sythel. When Sythel placed it over Threvor’s lap, she traced her fingers over the vague figures woven into the cloth. “This is the triangle, a love triangle. There was trust here. Trust at first. But then there is betrayal.” With a sudden clutch of her hand, Threvor had bunched up a part of the tapestry and then flung the cloth across the room. “My Guild Master. When I found this tapestry and brought it to him, my Guild Master was furious. He knew this was the stuff of Webcleaners. Crude! He told me that verse. He said it to make me understand.” Threvor had heaved a sigh. “But I didn’t. I didn’t learn,” she muttered, and once again lapsed into silence.

Sythel had picked up the tapestry and spread it on the table, studying it with a frown.

Tharnie again attempted to prod Threvor’s memory. “So, your Guild Master was angry. Was it only the fact that the Webcleaners had attempted to weave a tapestry that made your Guild Master angry?”

Before Threvor could collect herself to answer, Sythel murmured:

A stitch on top must stitch below

As love and hate are needle pairs.

Guild Master Threvor jerked her head around to look at her acolyte. “I taught you that!” she snapped. “For our Guild alone, some memories.”

“I am honoured, Guild Master. I am honoured you deem me worthy –”

“Worthy! Worthy!” The old Guild Master became animated again. “There is no worthy here. You will be the next Guild Master and you must prepare. Prepare, I say.”

The acolyte bowed his head respectfully. “I study and remember all that you teach, Guild Master.”

The problem is, Tharnie thought as he watched the interaction, that either you do not know the full meaning of some of the things you teach your Guild or you are trying to decide that something in the past should lie forgotten.

Threvor had never fully recovered from that awful day when Joosthin smashed the Guild Sceptre. Over the years, she had become ever more irascible. Her hate for the Webcleaners became more entrenched and she would fly into a rage at even the merest mention of adopting new ways. Many decisions, nowadays, were made without the presence of either Threvor or Sara, the fragile Guild Master of Weaving. The absence of members of the Guild of Memory was increasingly not missed since the conversations in meetings were recorded on the clever devices Skyseekers provided. In the past few years Tharnie had even dared to make notes in the presence of August and Joosthin, using the symbols that Skyseekers had taught him.

“Go away! Go away!” Threvor said. “I don’t want to talk to you any more.”

Out of earshot from Threvor and making their way to a private room, Tharnie asked Sythel, “Did any of that make sense to you?”

Sythel shook his head, a frown creasing his brow. “Let us see how this might fit together.” He closed a heavy curtain to ensure that he and Tharnie could converse in private. “These verses puzzle me”:

Love unsung or sung too loud

Betrayal darkens the proud

A stitch on top must stitch below

As love and hate are needle pairs.

“The verses coupled with all the tapestries that my Guild Master hides in secret and now this one, also showing love, all puzzle me. My Guild Master says this is a love triangle and there is betrayal and pride here.” Sythel spread the tapestry over a table.

“Why did you bring up the verse about stitches and needles?”

“It is a verse my Guild Master is fond of saying. I had always thought it had only to do with the notion that opposites are closely coupled. I never understood why she thought the verse so precious that she only ever said it in the presence of her acolytes and let it be known that we were not to repeat it. Looking at this tapestry, I wondered whether it matched a couplet that had to do with love and hate – perhaps hate brought on by betrayal. These vague images – see here, these three figures appear to be holding hands but note the angle of this one’s head. See how it seems to be turned away.”

Tharnie examined the tapestry. “Perhaps you are right. Why do you think it might be significant?”

Sythel shook his head. “I’m not sure where my thoughts are taking me.” He bent over the tapestry. “And look at this, Guild Master. I had not noticed it before, but I do believe that it exists on other tapestries we have been studying. See, this person has something in her hand. It falls like some liquid – some pale liquid.”

Tharnie bent over the tapestry again.

“Yes. I see what you mean. And I have seen it on other tapestries too.”

Sythel sighed. “I will approach my Guild Master about this when her mood is a little more settled.”

Tharnie placed his hand on Sythel’s arm. “Thank you for your efforts, Sythel.”

Sythel wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I do not like practising this subterfuge on my Guild Master and my colleagues. I would rather be able to discuss my enquiries more openly.”

“For that you would need a less jealous Guild Master.”

“We are lucky in her.” Even though Sythel had approached the other Guild Masters to voice his worry that his Guild Master was no longer capable of carrying out her duties, he was not about to let his loyalty be doubted. “Had she not survived we would be lost entirely.”

“With every breath, Sythel, I am grateful for her efforts. She has worked tirelessly to restore our world,” Tharnie assured him. He straightened. “And we are lucky in you, Sythel – lucky that you have sufficient insight and courage to work now in the background to ensure that your Guild continues to play its valuable part among Crystalmakers. But now, I must leave you. I have another matter I must attend to.”

Tharnie retrieved his satchel from where he had left it at the entrance to the Guild of Memories’ quarters and made his way to the exit from Illiath. He retrieved his coverall from its hook, pulled it securely over himself and opened the door to a small waiting area. The people who already stood waiting for the next shuttle to Trebiath respectfully made space for him and he thanked them politely. Within minutes the open-topped shuttle arrived: an electric car pulling a series of carts with benches. He climbed into one of the carts, the other passengers allowing him the luxury of a cart to himself.

This shuttle had been running for almost ten years, evidence of a significant benefit from cooperating peacefully with Skyseekers. A larger project was now underway: a tunnel linking Illiath with Trebiath through which a fully enclosed carriage would traverse; the advantage of that carriage being that coveralls would not be needed for moving between the two cities.

Once in Trebiath, Thanin transferred to yet another shuttle, bound for Si’Em City. He was the only passenger. Upon arrival, he made his way to a booth where an attendant greeted him politely and passed him a bundle containing toiletries, towel and clothing. He stepped into one of a row of bathrooms to shower and don fresh clothing. In the light of the bathroom, which he knew was dim for Skyseekers but very bright for Crystalmakers, he noted that his hair was losing its slight yellowish colour. Age! He smoothed his long-fingered hands over his face. Still, he reasoned to himself, smiling ruefully at his vanity, you are not ageing badly! He combed out his hair, braided it into one long plait down his back, donned dark glasses and left the bathroom, passing his used clothes to the attendant; they would be washed and made ready for the next time he needed to visit the city.

He arrived in the especially created meeting room in the bowels of Si’Em City where Skyseekers could comfortably meet with Crystalmakers. Joosthin and Auchust – who had also completed the ritual of bathing and redressing – and a number of lians were already in the meeting room and helping themselves to the refreshments laid out on a side table. Tharnie greeted each person in the room by name and was about to also help himself to the offerings of food and drink when the Ülrügh entered the room, accompanied by Pedro and Mistress Elthán.

Conversations faltered.

She still does that, mused Tharnie. Even after all these years, she still turned heads. Tharnie smiled at his own reaction: an urge to sketch her – an endless attempt to catch that special quality she had and immortalise it in his artistry. He had many many sketches and paintings of such attempts and was not satisfied with any of them!

The Ülrügh nodded a greeting to all in the room and made her way to where the Guild Masters stood. “Warmth and light, Guild Masters. Thank you for coming to this place to meet.”

Always she thanked them, an acknowledgement that she found it irksome that she could not enter their living spaces.

“As usual, being with you makes the nearness of the sky bearable,” Auchust rumbled. It still amused Tharnie that taciturn Auchust did not attempt to hide his attraction to the Ülrügh. She never embarrassed Auchust with explicit disapproval but gently made his flirtatious remarks innocuous.

“The sky is especially near today,” she smiled. “Last I looked, it was spotless blue.” She turned to Tharnie. “Guild Master Tharnie, I hope that, after the meeting, you might like to enjoy a ride on Rosa with me.”

Tharnie shuddered. He was the only one of the Guild Masters who had dared to venture aboveground. In spite of the several times that he had done so, he still found the experience frightening and disorienting. Nevertheless, he said, “With pleasure.”

Mistress Elthán joined them, a glass of juice in one hand and a filled bun in the other. She handed them to the Ülrügh, whose flicker of irritated resignation indicated that she was not especially pleased by the offerings.

So. Your appetite is diminishing. Tharnie noted that the Ülrügh’s eyes had lost more of their purple hue since last he saw her, and she looked thinner. Gone were the days of mylin fuelled hunger, and he’d heard that she had been ill – womanly pains – something she used to suffer from and had returned to trouble her. Whispers of disquiet had begun. In fifteen years, the Ülrügh had become so much the rock upon which Si’Empran societies had built themselves, that the idea that she might pass from the lives of Si’Emprans was most disturbing. Given the great lengths Cystalmakers were forced to go to to ensure she would not receive even a whiff of mylin from their clothes or bodies, it was clear the Cryptals had decided she would receive no more poison from them. It had taken several trials with different modes of meeting preparations before the WhiteŌne had not screeched disapproval whenever there was an attempt by the Ülrügh to meet with Crystalmakers.

Mylin, and the demands of Cryptals concerning her or her health, however, were topics she did not discuss – at least not to Tharnie’s knowledge.

The Ülrügh finished her drink and, nibbling on the bun, excused herself to take a seat at the meeting table next to Pedro. The meeting room was round and the table oval shaped. The Ülrügh did not sit at the notional head of the table, changing where she sat each time. She never demanded to conduct the meetings, but she did so by tacit agreement of all.

Just as the meeting was about to begin, Richard and Chancellor Chithra, with her sister, the blind Lian Grace on her arm, entered. Seconds later, in her usual flustered way, Sara joined the meeting. Everyone busied themselves for some minutes arranging papers and electronic devices.

Important to the smooth running of the meeting was not only the Ülrügh’s deft capacity to move through the agenda items, but the easy way that she, Pedro, Richard, Lian Grace and Mistress Elthán switched between the Skyseeker and Crystalmaker languages, between them carrying out the task of translating and clarifying. Tharnie and Auchust had made significant efforts to learn Skyseeker, and a number of the lians had attempted to learn Crystalmaker, but the command of all the recent learners was clumsy. All Skyseeker children were now required to learn Crystalmaker but, until Threvor released her hold on the Guild of Memory and on Sara, Crystalmakers did not have reciprocal learning – with the exception of the Webcleaners, of course.

This full meeting of the Lianthem with the Guild Masters occurred every three months. Pedro always prepared the agenda with great care, consulting Guild Masters and lians for items and bringing others to their attention well ahead of the meeting. The meetings of the first few years had often been difficult, as Skyseekers and Crystalmakers attempted to find common ground, put past hatreds behind them and find a new way of living together. Nowadays the meetings had become more routine, and even events to anticipate with pleasure.

After the meeting Tharnie and the Ülrügh climbed up stairs to the Serai. As they passed through the Serai’s forecourt, the Ülrügh detoured briefly to the entrance. “Good,” she said, returning to where Tharnie stood waiting. “The weather is still fine.”

Katherina, anticipating them in the Ülrügh’s room, had a warm coat and boots ready for Tharnie. The Ülrügh simply shrugged on a coat and opened the doors of her room to Rosa’s garden.

The glasaur greeted her with chirrups of happiness, but then saw Tharnie and abandoned her mistress to fawn over him. For some reason, the bird had taken an intense liking to Tharnie. Rosa’s obvious pleasure at seeing him served to quell some of his nervousness.

“Come, Rosa. Let the Guild Master get dressed and help me with your saddle,” the Ülrügh said.

Rosa did as she was told. Katherina helped Tharnie lace up his boots, put on a harness and handed him a wide-brimmed hat. By the time he was ready, Rosa was hauling up saddlebags and helping the Ülrügh attach them to the saddle. Seeing the saddlebags caused Tharnie’s nervousness to flutter again. They contained, he knew, gear in case the weather turned suddenly and they were forced to take shelter. It had not yet happened in the dozen or so times he had been out, but the Ülrügh never took a chance. Tharnie did not have a clear idea what a “turn of the weather” might be like, but he understood that it could be dangerous.

Rosa prodded him to put his foot in a stirrup and gave the rope a tug to activate the pulley. Using her forehead, she steadied his ascent then fussed over him as he clipped himself to the saddle. She checked that he was secure, making small finicky noises as she tugged at each fastening. The Ülrügh watched, a fond, amused smile playing over her lips.

“Can I get up now?” she asked, when Rosa seemed satisfied.

Rosa batted her eyes coyly and the Ülrügh laughed. “She is totally in love with you,” she said as she swung herself easily up into the saddle and settled before Tharnie. “I can’t remember her ever checking my fastenings.” From her vantage on top of Rosa, the Ülrügh looked towards the mountains beyond the Overshot. “Let’s go visit a favourite plateau of mine that overlooks the sea,” she said. “Rosa, jump us over the Overshot and let’s climb.”

Rosa took a long-legged leap up on to the garden wall then down on to the grass below before loping off towards the overshot. “Up with your legs, Guild Master. We are going to fly. Lean forward with me.”

It was thrilling and terrifying. Tharnie’s instinct was to close his eyes but he forced them to stay open so that he could experience the full expanse of space that his life belowground never provided. Rosa launched herself into an abyss, wings wide. She banked so that Tharnie felt his harness snap tight around one side, holding him to the saddle. Below him water thundered, white and foaming over ominous black rocks. Then that view was obliterated by great black wings. When the wings lowered again, he saw a cliff racing towards him. The wings came up again and, with a powerful downbeat, lifted the bird and her passengers on top of the cliff. Rosa extended her legs and landed.

“Beautiful,” the Ülrügh said. “Clever girl. Take us up, Rosa.”

Rosa leapt and scrambled up a slope full of huge, sharp boulders, often using her hooked beak and wings to steady herself. Tharnie gripped the saddle with sweaty hands, even though he knew that his harness would not give way no matter how much he was jerked about. The Ülrügh held her seat much more steadily; she was able to anticipate Rosa’s movements.

They climbed for perhaps half an hour before reaching a wide plateau surrounded on two sides by a rubble slope intersected by gutters full of plants with an amazing array of flowers and berries. Small birds flew out of the bushes upon their approach and rodents dashed for cover. “Oh. It’s beautiful!” Tharnie exclaimed. He could still be overwhelmed by the vibrancy of colour and variety of shapes of aboveground.

“I thought you would like it,” the Ülrügh grinned. She helped him dismount and steadied him over the uneven ground as she led him around, pointing out the details of the wildlife and the plants. She asked Rosa to pass her a plastic container from a saddlebag, which the bird did, and set about collecting ripe berries. When the container was full, she sat at the edge of the plateau and invited Tharnie to sit beside her.

So close to the edge, Tharnie did not dare so she shifted herself back and told Rosa to set herself down behind Tharnie to help him feel more secure.

Placing the container of berries between them, the Ülrügh pointed. “If we travel long enough that way, we arrive at the Antarctic Continent.”

Tharnie looked where she was pointing and immediately felt disoriented. He had tried to internalise the concept of distance but still he never considered looking far. Belowground there was no “far”. Crystalmaker tunnels could be many kilometres long, but turns in the tunnels or simply darkness meant that the eye never needed to go further than about thirty metres.

Tharnie had seen the sea from the balcony of the Serai but here, perched upon the plateau, it was an even more overwhelming vastness. He clutched at Rosa, feeling as if the view would suck him into it. Rosa eased a little of her wing over him protectively.

“Look! Can you see the whales? There’s a pod of them feeding below us.”

Tharnie’s eyes were not good at picking out the detail. The Ülrügh fetched him binoculars, He peered through them and, for some moments, simply stared in awe as the leviathans tail-slapped, breeched and spouted below him.

“Every summer they come to these waters,” the Ülrügh explained. “There are three types. Those are humpbacks, but sometimes you also see–”

“I see birds too.”

“Ah. Good. Your sight is adjusting. Tell me some details.”

“There is a white bird with very narrow wings.” The bird came into Tharnie’s field of vision and he moved his head to follow its flight, trusting Rosa’s wing to keep him anchored.

“That is a wandering albatross. Look closely. You’ll see that its wingtips and the edge of its wings are dark. This bird spends most of its life flying.”

“And now I see a most strange bird. Dark. Small. Is it walking on the water?”

“That is one of my favourite birds,” Tharnie heard a smile in the Ülrügh’s voice. “It’s a Wilson’s storm petrel. It is hardly larger than a human hand, yet it travels over half of the earth. There are quite a number of them over the ocean below us. They patter the water with their feet then bob down to snatch little crustaceans or carrion just below the surface. Tip more to see directly below us.”

“Oh! Are they seals?”

“Sea lions. Juvenile males. See how they posture at one another.”

A group of sea lions were clustered on a rocky islet just off shore. Individuals raised their heads and made lunges at one another with open mouths, occasionally making contact but quickly backing off. As Tharnie watched, two seals slid into the water and gracefully spiralled into the deep, front flippers flicking quickly in and out. “Oh! And what do I see now? Jumping in and out of the water!”

“Penguins. There is a colony on shore – if you go to the edge of the plateau you can just make it out. You are seeing the parents bringing food back.”

In this way Tharnie continued to explore his surroundings, feeling more secure in the vastness when his vision was tunnelled through the lenses. It seemed that for his every question, the Ülrügh could explain. As with the other times that she had brought him out aboveground, he felt the excitement that came with experiencing what had previously only been descriptions or images.

Finally, he lowered the binoculars, settling dark glasses over his eyes again. “You know so much about this area. Do you spend much time here?”

The Ülrügh gave a laugh. “Too much time and not enough. I can waste hours here. Luckily for my duties, the weather is not always conducive to this pastime.”

“Do you enjoy being Ülrügh?”

She was silent for quite a while, staring into the distance. Eventually, she simply said: “It is what I do.”

“You do it well.”

She offered him berries from the container without commenting and took a handful herself.

“How is Guild Master Threvor?”

Tharnie sighed and sat back more securely against Rosa. She pulled her wing even more tightly around him, giving the top of his head a gentle, reassuring nibble. You are indeed an endearing creature, he thought, reaching up and stroking her beak. “Her acolyte, Sythel, asked to meet Joosthin, Aughust and myself in secret some weeks ago. He told us that he feared that his Guild Master would either lose her memories or die before she had imparted all her knowledge. For years, I have been attempting to find information about the origin of Webcleaners and their link with the virigin but, apart from suspecting that some tapestries have been tampered with, I have found nothing. Sythel had also noted the apparent tampering and has been, without success, trying to find the reasons. Threvor insists that there has been no tampering. When it is most obvious, she says it may be repairs. The person who would be best able to help is Sara, but she will not make any investigation unless Threvor demands it.”

Tharnie related that morning’s conversation with Threvor and Sythel.

The Ülrügh listened carefully and without interruption, her gaze steadily trained on the scene before her. When Tharnie was done, she continued to contemplate the sea and horizon, occasionally putting a berry into her mouth. Tharnie ate his berries, his own attention tracing the erosion lines of the rock upon which he sat. Rock he could understand, and the pock marks and stress of wind and water on the rock’s surface were as fascinating to him as the sea and wildlife were for the Ülrügh.

“There is a tapestry that hangs before the Guild meeting room.” The Ülrügh broke her silence at last. “I have seen that image before but there was something more in that image. It took me a long time to remember where I had seen the image. It was in grottos on top of the Barrier Cliffs.”

“The Lost City!” Tharnie jerked forward in shock. “You have been to the Lost City?”

The Ülrügh turned her head to the side to look at him. “The Lost City,” she repeated. “There is a small part in The Telling that speaks of a Lost City. Do you know more than what is in The Telling?”

“Only what is discussed when that verse is sung by the Guild of Memory. There are a very few tapestries that depict a place – something like your Serai – on top of a plateau – like this – with glasaurs, Cryptals and people. My understanding is that is where Crystalmakers originally lived, long before the coming of Skyseekers. The Telling speaks of Others, but not even the Guild of Memory is clear about the meaning of “Others”. Perhaps they were a people even more ancient than we Crystalmakers. It would appear that these Others were a cause for disagreement among Cryptals.”

When the Ülrügh continued to study him without comment, Tharnie said, “That is all I know.”

She nodded, turning her gaze towards the sea again.

The air, which had been relatively still, suddenly began to move. Tharnie, shifted back into Rosa’s protection. The Ülrügh glanced in the direction of the wind. A corner of her mouth twitched down and she heaved a breath in and out. She stood up. “I smell a change. We had better make our way back.”

They returned by a different route, following the plateau to where it jutted over the Overshot Gorge. From there they could see Si’Em Bluff, the wide expanse of grass on the bluff and the Serai at its edge. Rosa began to pick her way downslope but the Ülrügh stopped her. “Not today, Rosa. Jump us over the gorge and let’s go home. It’s getting late.” To Tharnie, she said. “Down the way that Rosa was about to take us is a little place we used to frequent.” Rosa changed direction, leapt down a series of ledges, and readied herself to launch. “With me, Guild Master!” The Ülrügh pulled Tharnie down over the top of her back and encourage him to draw up his legs to give Rosa room to Rosa spread her wings. Tharnie closed his eyes, deciding that his heart did not need yet another challenge to its beat.

Several swoops and wing beats later Rosa landed at a run on the grass and trotted the rest of the way to the Serai. She jumped on to the garden wall and down into her garden. The Ülrügh dismounted, taking the great head of the glasaur in her arms and whispering endearments. Rosa cooed and chirruped in pathetic love, then she pushed her mistress gently away and attended to Tharnie, helping him unfasten his harness clips and dismount. “Thank you,” Tharnie said, as Rosa nibbled the top of his head and presented her crest for a scratch in turn.

Katherina appeared, carrying a tray holding two steaming mugs. “Ülrügh,” she fussed disapprovingly. “You’re out so late the poor Guild Master must be dead on his feet.”

Her words caused Tharnie to look about and take note of the strength of the light. It had indeed become quite dim. He did some calculations, drawing on what he had been told about the coming and going of light aboveground. Indeed, Katherina was right; it must be well past when most people were asleep.

“I hope he will indulge me just a little longer,” the Ülrügh said. She took a mug off the tray, handed it to Tharnie, and took the other. Leading the way into her room, she indicated one of the two armchairs in a corner. “Sit with me, Guild Master, and enjoy this excellent drink that Katherina spoils me with.”

Katherina sighed and left the room, shaking her head a little.

Taking a sip of her warm drink, the Ülrügh began: “There was a time when I acted impetuously and promises dripped from my mouth in an easy flow, one promise dependent upon another, and the whole lot becoming a mess I had no hope of sorting. It is no secret that the Cryptals gave me the strength to do much of what I needed to do. There is one promise, however, that tugs at me constantly: I promised Guild Master Joosthin that I would find the secret of the making of virigins.”

Tharnie glanced at her in surprise.

“hy I made that promise is for Guild Master Joosthin to divulge if he wishes to. Neither of us has mentioned it again to the other, but I have not forgotten my promise. Over the years, and after exploring many different ways of trying to fulfil my promise, I have increasingly come to the view that I will not solve the mystery until I also solve the question of the nature of the Webcleaners. Perhaps it does indeed have something to do with a mis-telling of The Telling, and tampering with tapestries. What you have told me today adds to my suspicions. The Lost City has, I believe, some answers and I intend to visit it again very soon. This time I will not only look around the city but I will be searching for details that may help to unravel some of this mystery.”

“When the Lost City is discussed at all, it is as if it was a myth, but a part of that myth is that the city is impossible to reach.”

The Ülrügh nodded. “Indeed, for most people it is. But I have Rosa. And the Cryptals favour me.” She turned to Tharnie. “I will tell you something about what I know of the Lost City. It was where other peoples lived before the coming of your ancestors. They are not as we are. Their language is not overly sophisticated and their capacity to remake their environment in the way that we do is limited. The Cryptals used them and used glasaurs to provide for them and, in return, gave them sanctuary in grottos. When your ancestors arrived, as told in The Telling they were also given sanctuary in these grottos. It was not long before some Cryptals saw another way of living with your ancestors. This made the Others less important. I don’t know the details as, indeed, I do not know the mind of Cryptals, but the Cryptals caused the Barrier Cliffs to rise, dividing the island. Beyond the Barrier Cliffs live the Others and on this side we live.”

Tharnie stared at the Ülrügh in amazement. “How do you know this?”

She took a while to answer, sipping her drink, her eyes taking on that faraway look he had seen on the plateau. “When the Black’One held me, many images flashed into my mind. I have always been good at piecing together puzzles, but when the mylin was strong in my system that capacity was enhanced. It took me a while to put those pieces of the story I have just told you together. In part I could create the story because I have been to the Lost City and I have been with the Others.”

With that last sentence, Tharnie realised that she had indeed spoken of the Others in the present tense. “They are still here? The Others are still on this island?”

The Ülrügh turned to Tharnie again.

“Guild Master Tharnie. It is no secret that my days are not numbered in the many. How many I don’t know. Nor do I spend any time speculating on the count or on the nature of my demise; there are enough others who do that, Katherina, Pedro and Elthán being the chief worriers on that score. And I have no doubt that there are others who would prefer that I finish my days a little earlier. What concerns me is that I do not leave behind problems that I could have solved, or prevent a suffering that might have been prevented. I tell you the things that I have told you because I perceive in you a person who has truly the interest of others at heart and does not put a lot of store into benefitting his own ego. I do not trust just anyone with all the information I have. I don’t know how long the Others can remain hidden. I don’t know how long Si’Empra as we know it can exist. But there is much that is wonderful about who we are as a people and how we interact and can interact. I have a hope that it can last a little longer if people like you use the knowledge I have gained.”

The Ülrügh rose, taking Tharnie’s emptied mug from his hands. “Now, Guild Master. I have detained you long enough. I will ask Katherina to guide you to the shuttle stop.”

Tharnie also stood up. “Ülrügh, you have truly honoured me.”

“The honour of your company is mine, Guild Master.” She walked to the door of her room. “I hope that you will give me many more opportunities to show you aboveground and that in time you will find the experience less onerous.” She glanced at him, a glint of mischief touching her eyes, her hand pulling open the door. “And then I might really take you on an adventure that will challenge the artistry of your being.”

Tharnie grinned. “I cannot even imagine what that might be. Jumping gorges and peering over the edge of the world are adventures enough for me.”

Katherian appeared immediately the door opened.

“Katherina, would you please show the Guild Master the way to the shuttle.” To Tharnie, she said: “Warmth and light, Guild Master.”

“Warmth and light, Ülrügh.”

Katherina led Tharnie quickly through hallways and down stairs to the shuttle stop, her only words being, “I’m sorry the Ülrügh has kept you so late. She forgets, sometimes, the essentials of sleep and rest,” by which Tharnie understood that Katherina was concerned that the Ülrügh did not sleep enough and that Katherina needed to quickly return to the Ülrügh to help her into her bed.

Tharnie apologised to the shuttle driver for his lateness. The driver shook his head to indicate he had not minded the wait, but he yawned elaborately as he set the vehicle in motion.

By the time Tharnie arrived in his own quarters, the adrenalin that had kept him stimulated had ebbed. He dropped his day clothes on the floor and crawled, naked, into his bed, wrapping himself around his life-partner.

“Long day?” a sleepy voice asked.

“A long day,” Tharnie agreed. “A day that will give me much to reflect upon for many more days.”

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My dearest Pedro,

I hope this note finds you well.

I was in your country scarcely eight months and yet nothing in my life has left such a profound impact. The artistry and music of your people, the way you live your lives on your most forbidding island, and the knowledge that it is also inhabited by unique others, fills my mind constantly.

This note comes to you via a close and trusted friend. I would be most humbly grateful if you would write me a little of the history of Si’Empra. My friend will convey your writings to me. I will not pre-empt your words by asking questions now but hope that you will unfold for me a context into which I can place news from your land.

I promise you that your words will never be read by other than myself, nor will they be repeated by me.

I remain your friend.

Augustine (Fr)

July 2011

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Dear Father Augustine

You are right that it is important for me to guard my words. I will tell you briefly something of Si’Empra’s history and how we have come to our unhappy and deteriorating circumstance.

Our history is complex and must start with ancient songlines that tell of the landing of people on this island. They found the island inhabited by Cryptals – those creatures you have heard rumoured of in your time with us. I know only a little about Cryptals (indeed I doubt anyone knows much about them, they are so other than we are!). Cryptals are able to use scent – perhaps we would characterise such scent as pheromones, though this has never been studied – to manipulate the behaviour of creatures on Si’Empra. We call the scent mylin or Cryptal poison. In general, we talk of mylin as if it has only one characteristic, and that it is highly poisonous; but, in fact, in small doses, it can strengthen Si’Emprans, especially Crystal Makers. I suspect that Cryptals can also produce many forms of mylin.

Cryptals inhabit the deep earth of Si’Empra and travel the underworld through an intricate weave of tunnels. One of the creatures, called the White’One, sings almost constantly. The song appears to coordinate the movement of other Cryptals. There is also talk of a Black’One, but information of this creature is hazy indeed. Remarkable as you may find what I have already told you about the Cryptals, know that they can also manipulate the very earth. You are aware that Si’Empra is on a part of a fault line between Earth’s tectonic plates – I believe it is called the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge. The earth is highly volatile along this line and, perhaps in normal circumstances, the island would not exist at all. However, Cryptals know how to release pressure in rock and the belief of many of us is the island owes its very existence to such Cryptal capacity.

When the first people came to the island there were not only Cryptals but also huge birds, which we call glasaurs. These birds seem to have disappeared soon after the coming of people. I am not sure why, though I suspect that Cryptals created the birds (I think they are mutated versions of a bird that lives beyond the forbidding Barrier Cliffs that are on the very far side of our island) and found no more use for them after people arrived. Recently, another such bird has come among us again – you have heard of this.

Cryptals and the first peoples, over the thousands of years that followed, came to an arrangement. I should tell you also that Cryptals have another feature: they have long and thick fur, which the first people learnt how to weave into cloth. At some stage, the people also discovered that, with sufficient heat and other treatments, they could manipulate the fur to make a sort of glass, which we call crystal. As you will have discerned, this crystal is highly prized – though we have little access to it now. There was something else that the people discovered they could do with the crystal: that is, with further work they could cause the crystal to echo certain sounds. This special crystal is called virigin. But the craft of making virigins is lost.

The first people on Si’Empra we call the Crystal Makers. I believe that at the time of their coming, Si’Empra’s climate was relatively benign but gradually changed to become increasingly hostile and cold. Crystal Makers gradually retreated into the underground world of the Cryptals. It was onto this cold, windswept island that another peoples were shipwrecked. These were my ancestors. Of the origin of these people, I know very little. (As an aside, I think that my ancestors also introduced goats to Si’Empra – though, as you and I have already established, our domesticated chickens are native).

The newcomers were welcomed by the Crystal Makers. Over time, Crystal Makers no longer left their underground dwellings but provided Sky Seekers with cloth and crystal in exchange for food and other aboveground necessities. The homes of Sky Seekers were also kept warm by hot geothermal waters that Cryptals channelled through the flooring – you have seen these structures in Si'Em City though the warming is currently carried out by the use of diesel-fuelled generators.

Sky Seekers and Crystal Makers have different social systems as well as language. Crystal Makers divide their people into guilds. Each guild is headed by a Guild Master. The code by which the Crystal Makers operate is called The Order. It is strictly enforced by the Guild Masters. Sky Seekers, as you have learnt, are governed by a council, called the Lianthem, which is traditionally drawn from a group of ruling families. The head of the Lianthem is our Ülrügh, notionally appointed by the Lianthem. However, it has long been accepted that each Ülrügh chooses one of his or her children to be his or her successor.

You have seen how forbidding our shoreline is and it is, perhaps, why Si’Empra has long been isolated. Nevertheless, a group of seal hunters did land on our island some eight decades ago. This event began a process that fundamentally changed a way of life on Si’Empra that had existed for hundreds of years.

You have remarked on our modernisation achievements. I think I implied, in our conversations, that all Si’Emprans initially did well under the rule of Ülrügh Devi. The Crystal Makers were our allies, providing unique Cryptal cloth and crystal that was much sought-after by foreigners (these things still are!). Such alliance, however, did not last. Crystal Makers do not believe in change and when they perceived that Sky Seekers were changing their lives as a result of association with foreigners, Crystal Makers ceased to provide cloth and crystal. The Lianthem discovered that outsiders were also keen to purchase the gemstones found on this island. With the help of a Chinese family (you have met a member of this family, Cheng Yi), Sky Seekers developed a gemstone business. Unfortunately, mining gemstones did not meet with the approval of Cryptals. The Crystal Makers warned against it and, when the Sky Seekers refused to listen, the Cryptals retaliated by denying Sky Seekers access to the geothermal energy the island has in abundance.

Ülrügh Devi, in spite of his many brilliant insights, was not one to be coerced into a course of action when he had set his mind on another. With confidence that Sky Seekers could continue to fend for themselves without the help of Crystal Makers and Cryptals, he decided to remove our belowground dwellers. Among the Crystal Makers who survived the Ülrügh’s purge, this purge is known as ‘The Destruction’. There were those on the Lianthem who disagreed with Ülrügh Devi. When he turned on them also, they fled. The hunt of Crystal Makers and Cryptals continues even today, the current Ülrügh having set up a special group to do it and with otherwise minimal involvement of others on the Lianthem – though a majority approve or are disinterested.

Ülrügh Devi was succeeded by his son, Briani.

We are now into events that occur in my lifetime.

Ülrügh Briani was much manipulated by some on the Lianthem who profited greatly from modernisation. Ülrügh Devi’s leap of faith that Sky Seekers could manage on Si’Empra without the aid of Crystal Makers and Cryptals is not working as well as planned. Si’Empra constantly struggles to buy and produce all that is needed – or perhaps the shortages many Si’Empran’s suffer is because some of the ruling families have grown used to a lavish lifestyles and the sharing that used to be part of Sky Seeker tradition has thinned.

Ülrügh Briani married Lian Thea, a twin sister of our current Chancellor, Lian Chithra. She bore the Ülrügh a son – you have met Ülrügh Redel. Rumour has it that Lian Thea was unkind to her child. She died when he was but a young boy – perhaps four or five. After fourteen or fifteen years, the Ülrügh took a new wife. A very young bride, only a few years older than the Ülrügh’s son. Nevertheless, there seemed to be real love between Constance – the bride’s name – and Ülrügh Briani. Constance gave birth to Ellen, who became much beloved by her father and many Si’Emprans and all indications were that Ülrügh Devi intended her to be his successor. The Ülrügh’s unexpected death, however, saw Redel become Ülrügh.

Forgive me. What followed after Ülrügh Briani’s death is extremely painful to me. While I have entrusted to you the above version of Si’Empra’s history (not one that is safe to discuss nowadays), I find myself unable to continue. Suffice to say that our new Ülrügh abused his sister but denied the abuse – and Ellen has never confirmed or denied. In an effort to safeguard her daughter, Constance, agreed to become his wife. She bore him a daughter, who is called Chrystal – you have met the child. Constance died soon after childbirth.

Perhaps you understand Si’Empra better now. We have access to the most wonderful things that the outer world can provide – we have Internet access, mobile phones, electric lighting, lifts to save our legs from stairs, access to word class education etc etc. Even cars we have on Si’Empra, (though there are few roads on which to drive them – one to Sinthen and one to the mines, and a minor one up to the Serai). The cars are all but useless but the helicopters potentially more useful – though at present they are put to deadly use. Our access to the ‘wonderful things’ is, however, limited. Indeed, beyond Si’Em City and Baltha, people live in poverty.

I hope you stay well and I look forward to many more years of correspondence with you on philosophical exercises of the mind that need not be burdened by the raw emotion of day-to-day melancholy.

With kind regards,


PS: If I were to tell you a fuller story of how Si’Empra is today, I would begin with an event about two years ago that caused Lian Ellen to flee Si’Em City and not return.


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Glossary of names


Acolyte SythelAcolyte of the Guild of Weaving who helped Sami and Tharnie
adjutantRedel's special guard
AnnePartner of Lian Dane
AuchustGuild Master of Construction: short hair in spikes on his head
BacharWeb Cleaner child with good voice
BrianiGrandfather of Ellen
ChrisWeb Cleaner/harvester/looks after Muther over summer
Cillapregnant Crystal Maker
ConstanceEllen's mother
Cryptalscreatures of the deep
DeviRedel's father
DevoutsRedel's priest aids
Dr Thomas DohertySurgeon that Lian Shivay communicates with to help Ellen
Dr ThrakeOrthopaedic surgeon
EllenDaughter of Briani and Constance
ElthanEllen's grandmother
Ethanson of Sathun
FrancisA huge muscled black man from South Africa
GreciaDoctor at Sinthen and Pedro's old home
GrettaLives beyond the Barrier Cliffs
Heiniepartner of Thyrol
Ian SewellOne of Norm Tucker's crew
Jessorphan girl Sathun found and now wife of José
JoeOne of Norm Tucker's crew: a tall thin man
JonAdministrative aid to Chithra
JoosthinCrystal Guild Master
Joseeldest son of Sathun
JosieWeb Cleaner child with the burnt face
KatherinaEllen's devoted carer
LaraAcolyte in Guild of weaving
Lian AchtonMusic teacher
Lian CecilTax Collector
Lian DaneOwner of most of the hothouses, clear blue eyes, balding pate, and trim fram
Lian DiánnéIn charge of the stores
Lian IsoldeAchton's wife
Lian JulianHas much real estate, arthritis, nephew to Devi, cheerful
Lian PethriePhysician
Lian ShivayDoctor at Baltha hospital
Lian SienneOne of the coup leaders
Lian TheonOne of the coup leaders and father of Thull
Lian ThessaTakes over Marthin's role
Lian ThobiasChief Engineer
LumanA favourite grandson of Lian Julian and good at Chatham
MarthinHusband of Mary
Marypartner of Marthin
MutherSi'Empra Mayal -living with Grecia
PedroElthan's partner, Ellen's grandfather
Phanlives with Grecia
Phietnurse helping Greçia
Rangera section of the adjutants who are involved with the hunt
Redelbrother of Ellen and Ulrugh
Richardson of Muther
Rosaa glasaur - a very large bird, one of a kind, that Ellen rides
SamiAcolyte of Tharnie - who is on crutches
SaraGuild Master of Weaving: small woman, chews her nails, youngest member
SaraGuild Master of Weaving
SathunThe son of Sienne the rebel
SiraAccompanied Thanin to meet Ellen
ThaliaThe child in Fadil Village that Redel murdered
ThamNurse helping Greçia
ThaninGuild Master of Design
TharylWeb Cleaner in charge of one of the food storage areas
The Black OneLarge, dark brown eyes
The Othersthose living beyond the Barrier Cliffs
The OvercomeThose addicted beyond reason to mylin
TheresaSathun's oldest daughter
ThilAcolyte of the Guild of Memory and Gate Master of Illiath
ThimonWeb Cleaner/harvester/Elthan's harvester deputy
ThomaliasDaughter of Thom - the girl in Fadil Village
ThrenFriend of Joosthin now become part of the Overcome
ThrevorGuild Master of Memory: one of the guilds of the Crystal Makers; old, stooped and the most powerful
ThrevorGuild Master of Memory slim male of middle age with pale yellow braided hair
ThullSathun's father, recently deceased
Thyrolpartner of Heinie
White'OneSinging Cryptal
WhypoonMaster who taught Elthan how to clean webs
ZaraAcolyte of Joosthin

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Glossary of words


Brimaldplants on the Chess River ravine
Hawkberry plantplants on the walk: A minty smell with a touch of rose
Jalineplants on the Chess River ravine
Lalloonsleek beast, the size of a small dog. It was a lalloon; a pretty creature with rounded, furry ears, a narrow snout tipped by a black nose and long, soft, reddish-brown fur that was prized by Sky Seekers for lining the hoods of winter coats. The creature was a hunter and scavenger, sneaky, adept at hiding and solitary.
LayamleSi'Em City's vast, communal chamber,
Lianequivalent to 'Lady'
Lianthemequivalent to the ruling council
Lithilian berriesspecial berries for making a kind of wine
Pendleweedplants on the Chess River ravine
samiraa musical instrument
schathemSi'Empran traditional climbing game
Seraiequivalent to 'palace'
Si'Empra MayalSongbird of Si'Empra
Si'Empra TheolelThe Jewel of Si'Empra
solnishunting animal
Sweensbeeplants on the Chess River ravine
Thordilonesa musical instrument

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Glossary of places


Balthaon the other side of the bridge
Barthgunman accompanying Lian Cecil in Fadil Villae
Charn RiverTo the east of the Sith River
Fadil Villagescene of tax collector incident
GhuyHeadman of Fadil Village
IlliathBelowground Crystmaker city
Northern LandsWhere the summer dwelling is for Richard and Muther
Overshot Gorgeseparates the Si'Em bluff from the rest of the island
River OrbEast of Thuls Refuge which has become easier to cross as a result of the earthquake and the route Ellen advised Richard et al to take
Si'Em Bluffinto which Si'Em City is built
Si'Em Citymain city on the island
Si'Empraname of island
Sinthenlinked to Baltha by a road
Sith ChamberA huge cave used by the harvesters
Sith CliffsThe first barrier above the Sith River on the way to the Northern Lands
Sith RiverTo the west of the Charn River
The Barrier Cliffsseparate the place The Others live from the rest of Si'Empra
The Lost Cityon top of the Barrier Cliffs
The Seraipalace - administration centre
The ShoalsRubbish dump and where Sky Seeker dead are left
TrebiathBelowground Crystmaker city

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Bookfunnel is an e-book delivery platform designed to make downloading to any e-reader platform easy. You’ll buy the book from Payhip which will ask for your email address to send the ebook. You’ll be sent an email to download from Payhip but if you wait a few moments, Bookfunnel will also send you an email and will make the download process easier.

Of course, if you would prefer to download the book through the standard options, I’ve provided the links to those platforms on this webpage.

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