High above the central city of Lianthre stood the poor houses and tents and shacks and carts that passed for homes. Outside a taller house Reih sat at a market stall, under the canopy, protecting her from the rain coming down here. The rain here was dirty and stained clothes. As the only person with clean clothes she stood out. There was no chance of getting robbed though, she thought — Reih was the only one with a personal guard as well.
She had looked out before and seen exactly what the Kuh’taenium had shown her. She had smelled the spice. Now she sat inside, her protector cold and silent behind her by the opening. She sipped some of the syrupy drink, some oil from Qit Wile Mines. It was said to enhance and envigourate the soul. Her soul was that of the Kuh’taenium though. It took much more than a drink to dull her sense.
The streets here stank, but Reih smiled to herself anyway, ignoring the sewage rot smell. The slums spread high on the hill, like a nose trying to escape the bodies own smell. It spread onto the hill in the east and higher than even the tallest towers in the centre of Lianthre, where the hierarch lived in their towering monoliths, plain and huge tower of sweeping beams and shining metal rooves. The slums stood higher though. Now she could see the city below she could see the sprawl, the buildings spreading like a stain, held back by the rich protected in their groves. Even the real rain migrated to them, like it prefered money. The rain was clean and sweet out on the West, where they all lived, the dirty rain fell to the east, on the poor.
The Hierarchs, the council themselves complicit, had pushed out the poor hundreds of years ago, the ones nobody wanted. They ignored them and dragged themselves down together. Would that it had been different, she thought. I too, am complicit. Perhaps it is not all a bad thing, though, she thought next; here in the slums Reih saw pride. The streets were filthy with mud and damp warm constant rain and passing carts splashed mud against the fronts of the buildings. Even in high summer the rain fell here. But inside each mud covered house she knew the building would be exquisite, they always were. The mud was just a shield. If you were poor you didn’t clean the outside of your house — that was just asking for trouble. You didn’t want to stand out. The poor themselves were greater at holding back their number than any hurdles the affluent set for them.
No, inside their homes was were they lived their secret lives. The artisans of the city thought they were talented. They worked with the finest materials, carving through heartwood or stone to manufacture something beautiful in its own way, but manufactured none the less. It was something they did everyday. There was no love in their carvings. These people carved their own, with flimsy knives and spikes and hammers. The materials they used were all they could get, and yet they created beauty. If a carving I was working on splintered, I would buy some new wood. These people couldn’t buy new wood. When their wood broke, they had to change the picture.
She sipped some more of the sweet liquid down and turned away from the view to look at Sventhan. The stout man looked back at her over his mashed nose. “The Kuh’taenium said you needed help.”
“How is it that you can hear it?” Reih shifted in her seat to question the man.
“Nevermind that lady, what do you want?”
“I don’t know, I never thought about it. The Kuh’taenium said you could help. It didn’t say why.”
Sverthan sighed and unstoppered a pitch black jug. He topped up the drink she held out. The liquid held in the jug for a second, then with a gloop some fell out into the cup. It didn’t splash. “Then why did you come here?”
“It told me to. How can you help?”
“I can help in many ways lady. I am a builder. I know the Kuh’taenium as you do. It speaks to our blood. It is time to call on our support. There is a war coming, and like it or not you are in the middle.”
“I am a councillor. No warrior. I don’t know who I can trust. I only know the threat is real.”
“Then I will do what I can for you. Who’s the lump?“
“My guard, Perr.”
Sverthan stared at him, utterly still. Then, a knife flashed. It flew from under his counter straight at the armoured man’s helm. Perr didn’t flinch but let the blade bounce against the metal, blunting the tip.
Perr, mildly annoyed, looked across to Reih.
“It’s alright.” She said to Perr and turned to Sverthan. “Now really. You shouldn’t upset him. “
“He didn’t even catch it! He’s useless. You are in danger and the man can’t even catch a knife! You should leave now, while you can. How well do you think the Kuh’taenium would fare without you!?”
Perr sighed behind Reih.
“How well do you think it would fare without me. Dead or fleeing, it would make little difference. I’ll not do either gladly. If I leave the Kuh’taenium will surely fall.”
“It will never be unprotected. It has its own defences — after all, we built it.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, man. It’s thousands of years old.”
“Yes it is, councellor, and you would do well to remember that. Let me say the people I represent have a vested interest in it. So just remember, you might think you have her best interests at heart, but if you take one wrong turn we’ll not sit idly and watch her die.”
“Yes, her. I’m sure there are many things that you would not believe, lady, but I haven’t the time or the patience to go into it. You believe her. That is all you need for now. Now, listen to me carefully. The building is the focus of our power, and she must not fall. The builders are on your side now. We are no army. That is up to you. We can protect you, but the time has come to fight. We must destroy the threat if the people are to survive.”
“And bring war?”
“You have no choice. Raise the armies. The rahkens nation already rails against our oppressors. They know our people of old. You will be surprised,” said Sventhan. “The land longs to fight. It cannot bear the weight of the Protectorate much longer…but it is the Hierarchy that are the true enemy, and their fathers, who soon return from the stars.”
“It is no longer possible to remain idle, for to do so will mean the end of this land and every other. You think the land harsh now. The fathers of the Hierarchy will tear each mortal to pieces and feast on their pain, bathe in their blood. You cannot say you are afraid. You do not even know what it means. But if you fail, you will. You will know suffering and terror until your death, and the death of the people you are supposed to be shepherding through this age.”
Reih listened, and if she thought the builder overstepped the mark she did not say so. She listened with a growing sense of dread. Not because he was a great orator, like some she had known, or an accomplished troubadour, deftly spinning a yarn. She listened because in some dark part of her heart, she knew it was the terrible truth…and her twin knew this also.
“How will I raise an army? I can contact the rahkens, but mankind has no warriors. They would be crushed before they could think…and what of magic? Even could I begin to raise an army to oppose them, their mages would roast them alive on any battlefield.”
Sventhan nodded sagely. “At last, you are thinking. There are two nexus points on this land, that wait for this age. One is Sybremreyen, and ancient temple far to the south. The other, as you well know, is your twin, the Kuh’taenium. Together, they can hold back the tide of the Protectorate’s magic…whether they can stand against the darkness of the Hierarchy I could not say. But they hold more power than you could imagine. Send your forces south to Sybremreyen. They will be safe there, until the time comes…”
Sventhan spoke for a while longer, and Reih listened. She knew the time had come. She could no longer return to her old life. She would become a prisoner within the Kuh’taenium, separated from whatever force she could find — builders, thieves, caravan guards…any man or woman who could wield a blade. She would direct, and they would follow. Her life, and theirs, were solely her responsibility. If only someone else could take this mantle…but the Kuh’taenium had chosen her to be its avatar in these final days. The return was near, so Sventhan said. While he did not paint a vivid picture, it was somehow more frightening because of the simplicity of his words, the gruffness of his voice.
Hers would be a secret war, he would be her general, and she was more afraid now than she had ever been before.
Reih left the drink unfinished. Sventhan spoke before she could rise.
“In a month’s time, we wake her powers. I will be ready by then. You must live. Do nothing foolish.”
She nodded, and rose to leave. Perr turned first and followed his mistress back to the Kuh’taenium and the sunny side of the city.
Reih walked on, Perr behind her. She walked straight, deep in thought. The steel clad warrior walking two paces behind her was enough to leave her unmolested as she walked through the east gates and passed the guard into the town where it was once deemed safe.
Safety was something she would have to hold in her heart from now on, for she was under no illusions. War was coming to Lianthre, for the first time in a thousand years.