As Tharnie stepped into the room, his eyes and mouth opened in wonder, his artistic being drawn by the colour and space and the many, many strange objects that adorned walls and sat on low tables dotted around the room.
Did Thil – did Threvor – known how Webcleaners lived? This was not a space filled by the unruly stupid. This was a place of thoughtfulness, learning and – yes – there would be laughter here, too.
Tharnie became aware of the people who stared at him. They were frightened! They were frightened of him! Years of servitude had instilled a fear of the power of other Crystalmakers. A remark Elthán had once made: “Guild Master, from birth, Webcleaners are taught that their place is beneath that of others,” sounded in his mind
“But not you,” he had said.
“No. But I am, nevertheless, of my people.”
“What a wonderful home you have!” he exclaimed now and saw fright turn to concerned puzzlement. He turned to Thanin. “May I? Please may I look at some of these wonderful images and –” he swept his hand before him to indicate the shelves and furniture “–all of this?”
“Of course, Guild Master.” But there was no welcome in Thanin’s voice and much fearful suspicion.
The image that most drew Tharnie’s attention was a long, floor-to-ceiling hanging, in hues of greens and browns with splashes of bright yellow, red and blue. “Tell me about this,” he said, standing before it. “I have never seen its like.”
“It is an image of a rainforest, Guild Master.”
“Forest? A group of trees? Is this an image of aboveground?”
“Not on Si’Empra, Guild Master. This image is from another land where there’s no cold and trees grow so tall we can’t see the tops.”
“These are leaves, but why are they so odd?” Thanin pointed to the bright green, shiny deeply furrowed foliage.
“From vines, Guild Master. The trees have these brown trunks,” Thanin reached out to point to the shadowy shapes in the background of the image. He snatched his hand back, suddenly shy again.
“I want to know. Please go on. I beg you to go on. I’m overcome with wonder. I’ve never seen such colours and shapes.”
“These are called ferns, Guild Master. They grow in warmth and shade and water. There are also ferns growing aboveground on Si’Empra – around warm pools. I’ve never seen them myself but the harvesters tell me about them.”
“And these are representations of birds?” Thanin reached up to point to a brightly coloured image.
“Yes, Guild Master. They are called parrots.”
“These colours are astonishing! So bright! How do Skyseekers bear it?”
“They see more colour than we do, Guild Master, and it doesn’t disturb them like it does us.”
“Indeed! Yes. Yes. I’ve learnt this – but there’s a difference when it’s actually – when you see it like this. And this material?” Tharnie touched the image. “What is this material?”
“It’s paper covered in plastic.”
“Paper? Plastic?” Tharnie’s thoughts whirled. “I’ve never heard of this.” He turned to look around him again. He stared at the objects he saw on shelves and on several of the low tables. He had heard of these objects – of what they were. “Are these – books?”
Silence. Several of the Webcleaners shifted uncomfortably and Thanin stared hard at the ground.
“Do you – do you – read? Do you write?”
“It’s forbidden,” Thanin murmured.
Breath short with excitement, Tharnie sank on to a cushion next to a table and pulled a book towards himself. When he picked it up, it fell open, almost slipping from his hands. He laid it open on the table and stared at a surface full of symbols. “Is this writing?” he asked.
“Yes, Guild Master.”
“Does it mean something to you?”
Because of the silence, Tharnie looked up and saw, again, the profound uncertainty in Thanin’s face.
“Does it mean something to you?”
“Not to me, Guild Master. The language is that of the Skyseekers.”
“But you can read?”
An unhappy nod.
“Is there someone here who can read this?” He turned to the others in the room.
A child, not yet into puberty, said shyly, “I can. Mistress Elthán says I speak –”
“Hush!” an adult put a hand on the child’s arm.
“Come forward,” Tharnie said. “Sit by me. Read to me.”
Uncertain after the admonishment, the child nevertheless did as Tharnie asked. She attended to the page and began to speak unintelligibly.
“And what is its meaning?” Tharnie asked when the child paused and pinched an edge, causing a leaf to become loose on the book.
“It is a story about a very powerful woman who looks in a mirror and asks the mirror if she is the most beautiful woman in the world.” The child lifted the leaf and turned, revealing more symbols and an image. “Here is a picture of her looking into the mirror.”
Colour! Tharnie touched the smooth finish of the image. The detail of the woman and her reflection in the mirror were life-like clear. “How is this painting made?”
There was laughter in the child’s voice – her caution easing under the influence of Tharni’s enthusiastic attention. “It is a photograph.”
“Photograph?” He repeated the word with difficulty, his tongue clumsy over the unfamiliar syllables.
“It’s made with a camera.”
“Camera? What’s a camera?”
“I’ll show you!” Another child, even younger than the reader, broke free of the adults’ fear and ran to a table, picked up a small, rectangular object and held it in front of himself.
There was a small, audible intake of breath from the adults, but the child came to Tharnie undeterred, and held the object towards him. “See,” he said. “I took a picture of you.”
Tharnie yelped with surprise. His face stared back at him, drawn as precisely as the woman’s in the book had been.
“How did you do that? Show me?”
Gradually, Tharnie’s enthusiasm and amazement thawed the adult Webcleaners’ suspicions and fears. They introduced him to a world he had never dreamed could exist.
Phone camera? What is a phone camera? Electronics? Recharge? A generator run on hot water? Making light without crystal? How is that possible? Just an experiment? What is an experiment?
Learning from books: shelves and shelves of books containing knowledge and entertainment.
He was shown a room full of strange shapes and colours: apparently to help with learning how to deal with the aboveground.
There were rooms for curing foods; others for dealing with waste; others for doing laundry. It had never occurred to Tharnie that there would be complexity in managing these things – he had simply left his dirty clothes in a corner and thrown waste into receptacles, and food was served from the kitchen.
Tharnie felt increasingly ignorant as the hours flew by and his admiration rose for those to whom he had previously given little attention.
They fed him with simple pendle and berry rolls. The children – shyness lost and full of pride with what they had learnt from a friend of the Mistress they called Müther – sang for him, demonstrated how they could speak the Skyseeker language, and they read, read, read to him, stories from strange imaginations and unfamiliar themes.
“What fools we are!” he said to Thanin as he took his leave. “What blind, arrogant, ignorant fools we are. To what purpose have we denied ourselves such knowledge and beauty?”
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