A glance out the window told me the gardens below were silent and dark. The rising sun would reach my high window several minutes before it reached ground level in Solanti. I paused just outside my door, looking left, and then right, down the black hall, wondering which direction I should go. Deciding on the stairwell, I turned left and walked lightly down the hall so as not to awaken Madia.
The stairwell was nearly as bright as it would be outdoors due to windows on every level. I went down a few floors, looking for any change in pattern or layout. Nothing. Every floor was the same. I turned around, realizing I might miss a visitor if I went too far. Back on my own floor, I checked the silent hallway, and then went up a floor to investigate.
Here I found something new. The whole floor forty-four was open and empty. Light from the rising sun shined through the eastern windows and lit the great room. The walls were lined with lovely sculptures and paintings, and the great marble floor was a thing of beauty. The room itself must have been two acres of empty space.
I looked out of the eastern windows to check the progress of the rising sun and the Gardens of Reverence. Still no one in sight, so I quietly transversed the grand room, looking at paintings depicting past Marchempors and their splendor. It was clear the Solantians had lived longer several generations back. Some of the men in the paintings appeared to be in their forties at least. But the paintings were all old. Many were faded from the light and the paint was flaking away. Apparently the more recent Marchempors had not lived long enough to have their paintings made, or there were no artists left to paint them.
At the end of the great room I found a door that would appear to lead into empty space beyond the outer, north facing wall. The door was wooden and fragile with age. Expecting an outdoor stairwell, or a precipice, I opened the door slowly and carefully. What I found was a narrow inclosed passage of stone, like a covered bridge, that led from our building to the next. As tempted as I was to continue, I knew it was a bad time.
A glance out the eastern windows revealed the rising sun was now above the horizon and a few tiny figures were gathering in the gardens below. I turned to hurry back to my room.
As I ran lightly down the stairwell and through the hall, I passed the room Madia had spent the night in. The door was closed and all was silent.
Quietly, I entered my room, trying to look haggard and weary just incase someone was waiting for me. The sun shined right into my face, blinding me for a moment.
No one. I took one longing look at my bed and then laid down on the stone floor, face down, next to the puddle of manufactured vomit. The stone floor was cold and after a moment I pulled the woven wool blanket off the bed and over me.
Then, amazingly, I feel asleep.
A frightened, “Oh!” awakened me and I sat up a little too quickly. Chalice stood over me, looking shocked. As soon as I saw her young-old face I remembered my charade and held my head with a terrible grimace as though it were pounding.
“Oh, you truly are ill!” she exclaimed. Through squinting eyes I tried to read her expression. She was convinced I was sick, alright. Maybe disappointed? It was hard to tell.
“Leon?” I asked. “Please let me see Leon,” I moaned, crawling toward the bed on my hands and knees. Chalice stood undecided in the doorway.
“Leon is not well today either,” she explained, evading my request. “Our atmosphere does not seem to agree with you. Bartroles was convinced you were pretending yesterday. But if he could see you now. . .”
I curled up in a fetal position on the bed and looked wanly at Chalice. She was as pale as a lily and even at a distance I could see her hands were trembling.
“You don’t look so great yourself,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“My time is near,” she explained. Her voice was weak with fear.
“Oh. Your baby?”
“Yes. My baby.” She walked across the room and looked out the window as though trying to memorize the landscape and sighed deeply. “I have lived my life to the fullest—”
“What the heck.” I interrupted her, betraying my quick temper. Her apathetic acceptance of illness and death disturbed me. She turned back and looked at me questioningly.
“The heck?” she asked.
“There is more to live, Chalice. A lot more.”
As if she had forgotten my illness and the danger it might pose to her, she sat down heavily in the only chair and slumped forward, holding her belly.
“I am old,” she said emphatically. “There is no more for me.”
“There’s your baby. You’ll get to be a mother—“ Even as I said the words I realized maybe she wouldn’t live long enough to see her own baby grow up. She did look really old.
“Do you remember your mother?” Chalice asked with vague curiosity. Her assumption that my mother was dead was somehow a relief. It was the first time I had been given the chance to acknowledge my loss audibly.
“Yes, I remember her. . .” Tears rushed to my eyes.
“What was she like?” Chalice asked with childlike simplicity.
“She looked a lot like me. But smaller and more. . . bouncy. Like an energetic kid. She used to say I should have been the mom and her the daughter.” I laughed at the memory. “We liked to cook together. And shop. She was fun to shop with.”
“Shop?” Chalice asked, as lost in the story as I was.
“Like, to go buy clothes or shoes and stuff.”
“Oh. What did you cook?”
“Enchiladas. Chocolate cake. Egg rolls and stir fry. Oh, and shwarma. . . We liked to try different ethnic foods from all over the world. She made really great curry chicken too.”
I realized that I must sound hungry and stopped talking. I was supposed to be too sick to be hungry.
“I never knew my mother,” Chalice said wistfully. “I don’t know anyone who remembers their mother. Except for Ryonel.”
We looked at each other across the room in silence. Suddenly Chalice’s eyes filled with tears. “My child will not remember me,” she said.
I sat up on the bed and reached out to hold her hand. It was thin and cold. Her tears fell unheeded on the woven cloth over her protruding belly. My earlier impatience with her despair now seemed unfair and harsh. Without really thinking about it, I made a ridiculous promise:
“I will tell her about you, Chalice. I will tell your baby how much you loved her and how amazing you were. She will remember through me.”
Chalice smiled for the first time and her head tilted with a hint of teasing. “Then you must get well,” she said.
I felt a chill of fear. Chalice was smarter than I gave her credit for. I let go of her hand and laid back down on the bed.
“I will try,” I said, with real honesty. “I will get better.”
She nodded and stood heavily to her feet, forgetful of her own recent tears.
“And I will tell Bartroles you are truly ill. Perhaps he will allow you more time to recover. It was his intention that you should accompany him today on a tour of his kingdom.”
“Thank you, Chalice. I would appreciate another day to sleep. Please let me know how my - er, how Leon is too.”
She nodded regally, made a wide berth around the messy spot on the floor, and disappeared down the hall.
Almost as soon as Chalice’ footsteps faded down the hall, Madia slipped through the door with a cheerful, “Good morning - oh!”
Both of her hands flew up to cover her mouth in alarm and she stared at me in horror.
“I’m okay,” I assured her, sitting up quickly. “Really - like really, I’m fine. I just had to make myself look sick so Bartroles would leave me alone.”
“No - no you are very ill,” Madia told me gently and approached the bed to cover me with the wool blanket. “You should lie down and rest.”
This made me start laughing, which confused Madia all the more.
“It’s just paint, Madia,” I insisted, pushing the blanket away and sitting up. “I painted my face to make myself look sick. I’m not really sick. I promise.”
“Then what is on the floor?” She asked severely, as though I were a child.
“Uh. . . that is mashed up bread and grapes and some soapy water.”
Madia and I both stared at the puddle on the floor. Then she giggled and I started laughing.
“I almost wish Bartroles had come to check on me this morning,” I confessed. “But it was Chalice.”
“I saw her,” Madia said, cautiously approaching the window to peer out. Suddenly she cringed back from the window.
“The bell. . .” she said, and before she was done speaking, the bell began to toll. She shuddered and backed away, holding her hands over her ears.
“I hate it,” she said. “I hate it, I hate it. . .”
The ringing of the bell was inescapable. Covering one’s ears did nothing to stop the tangible waves of resonance that washed over us again and again. I was thankful to not be on the ground with all the youth laying on their faces in worship in the gardens below.
I joined Madia in the middle of the room, looking out at the day outside. Somewhere out there, in a room similar to mine, Leon was sleeping and recovering from a night in the Dark Wood. Ryonel was on the Starport, also probably resting.
As the ring of the bell faded, I remembered Ryonel’s instruction to wear the mask for a few hours after the bell was rung. I got out my mask and put it on. Madia did not ask me why. She pulled up the strip of cloth I had put around her face the night before, covering her own nose and face. She lost the pensive look the bell had provoked, and giggled again.
“You look mad,” she said. I glanced in the brass mirror. Fuzzy, short hair had worked loose from my braid and stood up in a hallo around my head, My black-ringed eyes peered through the blast shield like a raccoon looking through a window.
I laughed and shrugged. “Ryonel told me I had to look unappealing.”
“Why?” Madia asked in surprise.
“I’ll tell you about it later,” I said. “But right now, while everyone is busy with breakfast, I want to explore. I found a door to another building.”
“On the floor above us.”
Madia followed me back up the stairwell to floor forty-four. She seemed as interested as I had been in all the paintings and sculptures.
“They look so old and so young,” she commented, standing in front of a portrait depicting a middle-aged portly Marchempor of the past.
“Have you ever been here before?” I asked. She shook her head, “no.”
“Well, it’s probably at least four hundred steps to get up here, and the Vaer is monitored. So, why would I?” she returned.
“Oh, right. Well. . . look at this.” I reached for the handle of the door at the end of the room and carefully pushed it open. We stood side by side, looking into the covered bridge across to the other building.
“Oh!” Madia exclaimed. “That must be. . . I think. . .” she ran to look out a nearby window at the adjacent building. “It’s the Youth Hall!” she cried. “My children are over there!”
Without hesitation, Madia ran across the bridge, pulling me after her by the hand. She might only be thirteen, but I’d never seen a mother more attached to her children than this fragile redheaded girl.
The bridge was made of large white stones, like everything else in the city of Solanti. It arched upward in the middle in a graceful curve. There were tall side walls, but above their smooth, rounded edges were long open stretches through which the wild wood of Nedan could be seen. Running down the declining side of the bridge while looking out the of the window openings gave me a strange sense of vertigo and I found myself slowing down and reaching for the sides to steady myself. We were almost across the eighty-foot bridge when it occurred to me that building such a bridge was a feat of construction I could not even imagine. How had such a thing been done? The multi-ton stones had to be quarried and lifted over six hundred feet into the air and then set in space between the two great edifices on either side.
I wanted to stop and look through the open sides and upward to see if the bridge was suspended by anything. But Madia was on a mission, and there could be no pausing to admire the local architecture.
We reached the far door only to be thwarted in progress. This door was locked.
“It’s because of the children,” Madia explained, as if to herself. “A child might have the energy and curiosity to climb ten floors.”
“Ten floors,” I echoed. “Are the bottom thirty-four floors full of children?”
“No,” Madia said. “Only one floor has children. The rest are empty. “They keep us suspended in empty space so that the Vaer monitors can keep track of everyone. Thirty-four floors is high enough that no one would take the stairs.”
This assertion made up my mind. I rattled the door, gauging just how “locked” it was. The stone building was nearly impervious to passing years, but the wooden doors were not.
“Do you still want to go see your kids?” I asked. Madia nodded mutely, hope in her eyes.
It didn’t take that much of a kick. One aggressive heel at the level of the lock and the latch gave way. Some of the casing did too, but neither of us cared.
“They will be in the Dining Room,” Madia said, as we began to descend an identical stairwell to the one in “my” building.
“Won’t we be seen?” I asked, only a little worried. I was about fed up with hiding.
“Only by the Care-sisters. They will not betray us. I have taught them how to read.”
Madia said this confidently as though being able to read was an exclusive privilege that set them above the ignorant masses. And I suppose it did.
Madia went on to explain that when a baby was old enough that he or she was weaned, potty-trained, and able to talk and dress himself, he was taken from “the Infant Hall” to the “Youth Hall”.
This transfer happened when the child was around three years old. There, the children were under the supervision of a Care-sister until they were six years old. She was to school them in the importance of obeying the laws, worshipping the bell, and doing their civil duties.
The civil duties of children over the age of six included cleaning, gardening, animal-husbandry, cooking and, when they were physically able, to have at least one offspring before they died.
The children remained with their Care-sister until they were old enough to become full members of society (age seven). At this point they began their civil duties and were required to worship the bell at sunrise and sundown, take meals in the Sustenance Hall and live in barracks with other children their own age.
But until that point in time, the children of Solanti lived beyond the reach of the bell.
“Is that why you don’t seem as aged as Chalice?” I asked Madia, as we paused on floor thirty-six to wait for our spinning heads to steady. “Because you’ve spent most of your life above the bell? When did you become a Care-sister?”
“I began training when I was nine,” Madia replied. “So I spent two and a half years at ground level, and worked in the gardens. The managers noticed I was good with the younger children and chose me to be a Care-sister.”
We reached floor thirty-four and Madia ran down the hall toward the large room in the north end of the building. She disappeared through double doors and I hesitated in the hall, trying to decide if I should reveal myself or not. I heard the excited shouts of children and the subdued happy voices of other girls. Madia was home.
Turning around slowly in the hall, I noticed another brass mirror hanging above an ornate bench. Madia was right. I looked like a crazy woman for sure. I took off the mask and smoothed my hair down as much as I could with my fingers. I didn’t want to frighten the children.
Danteres burst through the double doors, apparently looking for me. His knee length tunic and his happy face was stained with what appeared to be red, yellow and blue paint.
“Lani!” he commanded like an imperious little Marchempor, “Come!”
Without waiting for a response, he took my hand and led me through the double doors into a dining room. There were two long tables set for breakfast. But the children had left their plates behind to gather around Madia. She knelt in their midst, joyfully embracing each child in turn. There were tears among the oldest little girls and some sleepy and confused looking toddlers who had no idea what was going on. Four girls about twelve or thirteen years old stood nearby with happy tears running down their faces. They had believed Madia to be be dead.
“Everyone, everyone. . .” Danteres announced, pulling me to a stop and anchoring me in place by hanging on my arm just a little. The chatter and sniffling quieted as the children all turned to look at us.
“This is Lani. She is from a place where people have time to paint, and sculpt, and explore, and there they have killed all the monsters, and live to be very, veeeerrrry old. And they all read the archives all the time.”
Where he had gotten his extensive information, Dante did not say. I didn’t want to tell him the place he had described with surprising accuracy may have become a young star, set aflame by the foolish disregard of her brave and creative inhabitants.
The children were not surprised, and one of them called out anxiously, “how long will it take to get there?”
Before I could answer, a girl about five years old asked, “When are we leaving?”
A little boy answered, “As soon as we finish breakfast,” and with that, all the children ran back to their places and began to eat hurriedly.
It seemed Danteres had been at work, preparing his little kingdom for a drastic move. The Care-sisters stood with open mouths looking from me to Madia for explanations. Madia was looking at me with hope in her eyes. I cleared my throat and spoke clearly above the excited chatter.
“There is much to do before we go. It will not be today. And I will need every one of you to help me get ready.”
“We will get ready!” Dante echoed and the children nodded or voiced their agreement.
“What shall we do?” Dante asked, turning toward me.
I was more than amazed. It was as though the children had been preparing for this moment. Preparing to leave; to walk away from everything they had ever known, into a new world, whatever it might hold. They were so young. I counted about forty bobbing heads of children between the ages of three and six years old. Then I laughed with incredulity. What would Ryonel say? How could we take them? But how could we leave them behind?
“We are going to need food for our journey,” I said. I walked across the room where all the children could see me more clearly. Not one of them seemed to notice my haggard appearance.
“Each one will need to carry as much food as he can. Is it possible to gather extra food?” This question I aimed mostly toward Madia and the Care-sisters. They conferred with one another for a few moments and then Madia spoke.
“Maybe. Probably. With Danteres’ help. He is able to leave this floor whenever he wants. So he might —“
“I can.” Dante assured me. “What else?”
“It must be done quickly. . . in the next day or so. And no one can know about it.”
“You must be very, very careful not to get caught,” Madia added.
“What else?” Danteres repeated impatiently.
“A blanket for each of you, and clothing that will serve you in cold or warm climates.”
“I can get that ready,” one of the Care-sisters said quickly. When I looked in her direction she smiled and nodded. “My name is Tessa.”
“Thank you, Tessa.”
“And it must be a secret,” Danteres reminded everyone, as though belatedly considering Madia’s warning.
“Yes,” I agreed. “You must not speak of it outside of this room, not with anyone. If any word of our journey gets out, we will not go.”
A murmur passed through the children as they chided each other not to tell, not to be the one who disappointed all the rest.
“None of them go out without us,” Madia assured me. “There is very little interaction between our children and the others. Except for Dante.”
“Anything else?” Dante asked, eyeing his plate of food.
“I need a map,” I said. “A map of the city, including the Archives and the Starport. And if you have it, a map of the entire planet of Nedan.”
Everyone was silent, looking at one another with worried expressions. Madia grimaced and explained,
“The only map I know of is in the possession of the Marchempor at all times.”