Madia and I spent the whole morning with the children and ate both breakfast and lunch until we were completely satisfied. When the children laid down for their naps, we made our departure.
We took our time climbing the one hundred and thirty steps back to floor forty-four, crossed the bridge to our building and went back down one flight of steps. Here we paused in the stairwell, listening for any activity. There was a possibility someone had come to check on me and I had been missing. But our luck held.
“What I wouldn’t do for a shower,” I commented as we reached my room again.
The fake vomit had evaporated, leaving behind dehydrated bread and grape crumbles.
“What is a “shower”?” Madia asked.
“Like a bath. . . you know; washing, cleaning. . .”
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Did no one show you the ablution block on our floor?”
I grabbed the life-saving backpack and followed her back out the door again. She led me down the hall toward the Vaer and then beyond it to the other end of the building. There were two doorways, each with an etched stone sign over the door. One depicted a woman, the other a man. It was so much like an airport bathroom I laughed aloud. The names might be different, but the necessities were the same.
The showers were more like waterfalls, as the water rushed over a broad lip of stone and cascaded into a pool about a foot deep that also drained over a lip of stone, down beneath us somewhere.
“This is great,” I said with satisfaction, “but where does the water come from and go to?”
Madia’s brow furrowed with thought. “I don’t know,” she said. “It comes from the river that flows past the city. All of the water comes from there. But I don’t know how it gets up here or where it goes. I never thought about it.” She was silent for a moment and then rebuked herself, “I should have questioned that before. I should have. . .”
“Are there toilets behind those walls?” I asked, not waiting for her to answer. I looked around one of several curved walls. There were simple holes in the floor that fell away into darkness. Water in a channel flowed past each toilet hole, undisturbed, until a simple water gate was lifted, then the water ran down into hole, “flushing it” until the water gate was replaced.
“That’s for - for—“
“Peeing.” I finished the sentence for her. “I wish I had known about them earlier.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because the lilies Bartroles brought me are not very happy today.”
Madia giggled, hesitantly at first, unsure of my humor, but when I chuckled too, she laughed until she had tears in her eyes.
Madia decided to make the climb back up to the Youth Hall and get some clean clothing for herself. She said there was an ablution block there as well, but that it was always busy with the children.
I had a second set of fatigues in my backpack. While she was gone, I showered and washed my hair. The water was vaguely warm, but I could not discover how it was heated. It felt so good, I took my time. Then I dressed and carefully painted my face again.
While I hand-washed my dirty clothing and hung it up to dry I was thinking over the events of the last few days and about our situation. I needed to know more about Ryonel and Leon’s plan, and they needed to know what was going on with me and Madia too.
We never had turned on the signal for the Space Alliance, and now our ship was gone, dumped over the side of a Starport that stood a thousand feet above the ground. Maybe that was for the best. Nedan could be a dead end after all. But it looked viable. It looked amazing out there, beyond the walls of Solanti. We just had to go and find out. Maybe I could talk Leon and Ryonel into taking me with them tonight. . .
Madia and I parted until evening. I was loathe to wear the mask again and left it in my backpack with the weak excuse of waiting for my hair to dry. Then I fell into a deep and restful sleep on the small bed in my room.
Again I dreamed I was riding the sky-rail train toward Solanti. I sat near the window, looking out at the passing terrain. This time, in the dream, I, Lani Ascent, was somehow present. Eagerly I searched for habitations, signs of life and progress. Ways of living.
Beyond the land, I could see an ocean or great lake. Sparkling turquoise water with pale pink foam stretched into the distance. Between the train and the ocean were several miles of dense jungle. At times, I thought I could see large moving life-forms. These must be “the monsters.”
Suddenly, we crossed a great stone wall. I leaned forward in my seat and looked into the distance. The great wall turned at sharp angles every mile or so. Soon, looking out into the distance, I could see that the wall inclosed an area shaped like an enormous star. Within the star walls were miles upon miles of croplands. Now I could see the tiny figures of people working in the fields. A river flowed through the cropland and irrigation ditches spread out in symmetric angles. The crops within the star-shaped walls almost seemed fractal at this distance. It was a beautiful sight, and I wanted to stop and see more. I wanted to go down there and see what they were growing, and wade through the irrigation ditches. I wanted to feel the mud between my toes.
There were stone buildings in the middle of the star. And a small city or town in the far distance, near the ocean. We were too far away to see them clearly. Were they silos? I could not tell. The size of the walls assured me none of the beasts in the jungle were a threat to those who worked inside the starfort walls.
Suddenly our train began to slow down and I realized we were approaching a train station on the edge of the croplands. We were going to stop. My pulse quickened with joy. This was the place we were looking for. I couldn’t wait to see it.
I awoke to see Bartroles staring down at me. The light of the sun was at a low angle, and the room was in deep shadow. I blinked and winced, thankful I had taken the time to paint dark circles under my eyes before my nap and that the forsheda mask was hidden in the backpack under my head and shoulders.
The Marchempor did not speak, he just looked at me, critically and with impatience. His face was curious and impertinent with spoiled youth, but also wrinkled and discolored with age. I realized for the first time that wisdom and experience are the beauty of old age, while the fairness of youth is a graceful disguise for the lack of these finer traits. Bartroles had neither youth nor the beauty of wisdom. His whole appearance was revolting to me and it took effort to keep the disgust out of my expression.
I sat up slowly and rubbed my head as though it hurt. My hair was unbound and tangled.
“How long has it been?” I asked stupidly. “Is Leon okay?”
Bartroles stared at me a few more seconds before he seemed satisfied with his own judgement of my state of well-being.
“His health is similar to yours,” Bartroles replied. “I have allowed him to rest today.”
“I think I actually feel a little better than I did earlier,” I said hopefully.
“Are you well enough to accompany me to receive nourishment? You will sit at my own table.” The Marchempor swung his fur-lined robe around him with a flourish. “You must be hungry by now.” He glanced surreptitiously at the mostly-dried grape mash on the floor.
My mind was racing to make a plan. I needed to see Bartroles’ map. But I also needed to confer with Leon and Ryonel before doing anything rash.
“I feel too weak to walk very far right now,” I said and sagged back onto the bed weakly for effect. “Maybe tomorrow.”￼
The Marchempor considered his options for a moment in silence and appeared to make up his mind.
“For you, I will make an exception. In the morning I will have nourishment sent to you for strength and recovery. Then you will accompany me on a tour of my kingdom in royal conveyance.”
He wasn’t asking, and the plan was reasonable enough. I nodded tiredly and sighed.
“Unless you could take sustenance tonight?” Bartroles added with a hint of self-doubt that made him seem very young after all.
I hid a smile and said with as much gratitude as I could muster, “Thank you, Marchempor. Your offer sounds wise and generous. Tonight I will rest, and tomorrow I will try to eat and be strong.”
His confidence returned in a flash and Bartroles whirled around, pausing momentarily to observe the wilted lilies with dismay. Then he was gone.