Thil’s voice woke her. “The Guild Masters will now see you.” She levered up on one elbow, blinking into the darkness as she re-oriented herself. The luminous dials on her watch told her she had been asleep for more than two hours.
“Thank you Thil,” she said, in as neutral a tone as she could manage. “Excuse me one moment.” She stood, picked up her pack and turned toward the bathroom.
“The Guild Masters will not appreciate being kept waiting,” he said.
She paused, turned a little towards him and simply said: “I understand,” and continued to the bathroom.
It was hard to judge Thil’s reaction to her words in the darkness of the room. She thought he stiffened slightly. He did not respond. She did not keep him waiting long, however. When she returned from the bathroom, he held the curtain aside for her to pass through.
She shouldered her backpack and followed him through the cavern, noting that there were quite a number of Crystalmakers standing in clusters. They whispered to one another and turned their heads in her direction. She studied them in turn. Like Thil, they were ostentatiously made up and dressed, noting like the simple plainness of Webcleaners. Some people had on long sparkling gowns that entirely covered their bodies, others had on barely any clothes at all but had tattooed their bare arms and legs and further adorned their limbs with bands of cloth, still others had on tight suits over which hung tassels that blinked in a kaleidoscope of colour. Almost everyone had elaborate hairstyles, dyed to exactly match the clothes they wore. Ellen smiled at the pleasure of seeing the artistry and would have loved to stop and examine each outfit in turn. Skyseeker clothes were drab indeed beside the imagination displayed by the Crystalmakers!
Thil led on without pause, radiating stern purpose.
Another curtained entrance led them into a long tunnel. Here the walls not only held sconces but were adorned with sparkling stones and floor-to-ceiling tapestries. Ellen itched to take the torch out of her bag to inspect the images. She had seen Crystalmaker images before on her visit to the Lost City and would have liked to make comparisons.
But Thil led on doggedly – and silently.
The tunnel ended at a large, ornate doorway. Even in the half-light, the curtain over the doorway was breathtakingly beautiful, glittering with inlaid crystal arranged in a pattern around images of people engaged in the crafts that were fundamental to Crystalmaker culture: shaping crystal, weaving cloth, creating design, and forming structures. Behind the guildspeople were others. Ellen guessed that these figures depicted the Memory Masters.
Ellen frowned a little, the magnificent weaving stirring a memory. She had seen these images before, but it had not been so complete – and yet something seemed to be missing.
The curtain parted, evenly lifting on both sides without disturbing the highest folds. Light poured out of the room behind the curtain. She saw Thil flinch, eyes blinking rapidly. For Ellen the light was a relief, easing the strain of gloom. Fleetingly, she thought that the increased illumination was a courtesy meant for her Skyseeker eyes. But then she saw the Guild Masters, seated on high-backed thrones on a dais at the far end of a long hall, looking stern and noble. She realised, then, that the light was an attempt to demonstrate power.
All you have done, Guild Masters, Ellen thought, feeling the thrill of a challenge, is to remove the advantage you could have had with your more light-sensitive eyes. If you want a show, I can give you a show!
Thil stepped forward, indicating with a tiny movement of his hand that Ellen should follow. He stopped ten metres from the dais but Ellen did not stop with him. She heard Thil gasp and saw the Guild Masters stiffen. Thil’s hand grasped her arm. She turned to him, first looking impassively into his eyes, then at the hand that held her arm. His fingers lost their grip and she made to move on again. He grabbed her again and a Guild Master growled: “Be still!” Thil’s clutch tightened.
Ellen stopped but this time did not acknowledge Thil’s grip. Instead, she focused, her features still holding no expression, on the one who had spoken: an old woman. Even in her seat her back was slightly stooped. She wore a shapeless smock, richly embroidered at the right side with the figure of a rather androgynous person delivering an oration. Her thin hair had been died black and was woven up and through a small, bright yellow trellis on her head.
Thanin had described and told her the names of each of the Guild Masters. This old one must be the Guild Master of Memory, Threvor, the oldest and perhaps the most powerful of the Guild Masters.
She returned Ellen’s direct gaze with a glare full of distrust. Ellen waited silently, not averting her eyes.
“I – I present to you this Skyseeker,” Thil stammered.
“And why do you do so?” the Guild Master of Memory asked.
“She has sought an audience. With your permission I will interrogate this Skyseeker.”
“Permission is so granted.”
Thil turned to Ellen. “By order of the Guild Masters I am charged to demand why you have sought to be brought into their presence,” he intoned.
Ellen ignored him. She shifted her gaze from the Guild Master of Memory and studied each Guild Master by turn, continuing to keep her features inscrutable. The first eyes she met were those of the Guild Master of Crystal, Joosthin. Elthán had spoken of him and her clandestine alliance with him. He wore a plain, white robe, belted at the waist. His white hair was short; there was no attempt by this man to display himself. The second Guild Master she turned her attention to was clearly the youngest: a small woman dressed in a flowing gown with a complex weave of colours radiating from a wide waistband. The hair on her head was looped with a network of plaits, each plait a different colour. The end of each plait hung loose to her shoulders, giving the effect of a rainbow collar. This was the Guild Master of Weaving, Sara. Next, Ellen’s gaze moved to the Guild Master of Design. He was a slim male of middle age. His mauve eyes were large and fringed with long, pale-brown lashes, the skin of his face was almost too soft to belong to a man. His long hair, glowing a lemon yellow, was caught in a single, thick braid and draped over one shoulder. His name was Tharnie. The last was the Guild Master of Structure, Auchust. His strong-looking hands were folded on his lap; short, platinum-coloured hair sat in spikes over his head. He wore plain grey trousers and shirt. His deep-set eyes stared at her speculatively.
Behind the Guild Masters sat a man and a woman. They were dressed exactly alike in a pleated white robe that fell straight from shoulder to floor, hiding their arms and legs. Their heads were covered by white clothes so that only their faces showed. Ellen guessed them to be acolytes of the Guild Master of Memory. It would be their task to remember each aspect of this meeting and, perhaps, to commit it to a poem.
The silence stretched. Thil still had hold of her arm. “You are charged to tell me why you have sought to be brought into the presence of the Guild Masters,” he repeated, the nervousness in his voice more pronounced.
Having finished her inspection of the Guild Masters, Ellen looked carefully at the dais. The Guild Masters sat around a massive elliptical stone slab that seemed to glow with its own light. On top of the slab lay a glittering crystal sceptre. Her eyes lingered on the sceptre a few seconds – it seemed faintly familiar – and then her eyes were drawn to the wall behind the dais. Shadows that ran into grooves cut into the stone gave the impression that the whole of the vast audience hall either exploded out from the wall or was collapsing into the wall. It was a clever trick of perception: she blinked and all lines in the room seemed to converge; she blinked again and all lines ran out to form the hall.
Since the Guild Masters had still not addressed her, she continued her study of the chamber. All the walls were highly polished and smooth. First impressions were that they were pink, but, actually, they were shot through with many colours: a black streak, sparkling with tiny crystals, bulged and contracted from floor to ceiling on the left of the dais; a claret-red mark showed up clearly on the ceiling and seemed to have thrown drops of itself on to the walls and floor; white, cream and brown patches – some tiny, some as a wide as a hand – showed up irregularly, some with a homogenous colour, others with gradations of colour. Brown, black, red and even yellowish lines scribbled randomly through the rock. No arrangement of colour or shape was repeated anywhere. Ellen had grown up surrounded by smoothly polished granite surfaces: for walls, ceilings, floors and benches, granite was the most-used construction material in Si’Empra, but never had she seen rock that seemed so alive. The floor-to-ceiling tapestries that hung at intervals on the walls were almost unwelcome interruptions.
From the corner of her eye she could see that a sheen had formed on Thil’s upper lip. The acolytes on the dais stole uncertain glances at one another. The Guild Master of Memory’s face had reddened; a vein began to pulse on her temple. The Guild Master of Design tipped his head slightly, a slight smile forming at the corners of his mouth as he contemplated her. Guild Master Joosthin’s lips tightened as his brows lowered.
Finally, with a snarl, Guild Master Joosthin commanded: “Speak!”
Ellen’s attention returned to the dais. She began to draw a breath to respond to his command when the crystal sceptre echoed: “Speak, speak, speak,” in a pure tone.
Ellen barely managed to mask her surprise, keeping her gaze steadily on the Guild Master’s face. Her thoughts, however, raced, remembering the missing item in the museum. This is a virigin! This is the Guild Sceptre! It does exist!
Once the virigin was silent again, Ellen released her indrawn breath. Making eye contact with each Guild Master by turn, she spoke in a clear voice, using formal words but not attempting to hide Webcleaner cadences.
“I am Lian Ellen. Daughter of the half-caste Constance and Ülrügh Briani of the ruling house of Skyseekers.” She did not know which words of power the virigin would repeat so she chose her words carefully, not wishing the virigin to distract from her speech until she wanted it to. “My grandfather was the Ülrügh Devi who, angered by the intransigence of the Guild Masters and then with the Cryptals for denying warmth to the city of Si’Em, invaded the Cryptal tunnels and engaged in the wholesale slaughter of Cryptals and Crystalmakers. I am the mistress of the glasaur Rosa, gifted to me by the Cryptals. In bestowing the glasaur to me, the Cryptals importuned me to help Crystalmakers and Skyseekers alike. It has come to my attention that Crystalmakers will face a winter of hunger. I have come to offer my assistance to broker a deal which will provide Crystalmakers with the provisions they need. For this I need the crystal and cloth that you, Guild Masters, have the power to provide. I stand before you ready to be of service.”
She made sure her facial features remained impassive but authoritative as she observed the confusion her words caused the Guild Masters: almost as one they had started when she revealed Ülrügh Devi’s motivation to engage in The Destruction; their jaws had dropped at the mention of the glasaur; they had looked sideways at one another when she revealed the implicit pact she had made with the Cryptals; and they now stared at her.
Thil released her arm.
“Glasaurs no longer exist,” the Guild Master of Memory stated, breaking the silence with a reedy, ancient voice.
Ellen fixed her gaze on the speaker. Waited until she was sure the Guild Master had nothing more to say, and returned “You are wrong, Guild Master of Memory. Glasaurs are creatures fashioned by Cryptals and can be created at any time by the Cryptals.”
“There has been no glasaur for centuries – millennia!”
To this, Ellen needed to say nothing.
The Guild Master surged to her feet, bringing up her arm and pointing. “Your tongue speaks the falsehoods of Skyseekers! What plot is this that the Scourge of Si’Empra now brings to our world? Your plot is to destroy us entirely!”
The Scourge of Si’Empra. Ellen wondered who that might be: Redel? Skyseekers in general? She watched as the old woman turned to her fellow Guild Masters. “She will destroy us entirely. We must hold her and destroy her.”
The other Guild Masters were clearly taken aback by their colleague’s outburst but, perhaps to show solidarity, they hastened to their feet and confronted Ellen with stern looks.
“There are indeed a number of factors that we must consider,” the Guild Master of Crystal said. He waved a hand dismissively in Ellen’s direction, directing a command to Thil.
“Leave us now–”
“Leave, leave, leave,” echoed the virigin, interrupting him. Joosthin shot it a venomous glance. “We will call you when–”.
“Call, call, call.”
Joosthin’s lips closed into a thin line. Colour flooded his face.
And you should blush, Ellen thought. Fancy you, Guild Master of Crystal of all people, forgetting how to use a virigin to emphasise rather than interrupt your directives.
Before Thil could touch her, she turned on her heel and indicated with a slight nod that she was ready to follow him.
He led her to a small room not far from the entrance to the main chamber. He did not come in with her, but held the curtain aside and dropped it closed as soon as she entered, plunging the small room into darkness. Ellen groped her way to a seat. “Well,” she murmured to herself. “That was short and sweet. I had wanted to make an impression but it seems like I may have overdone the impression bit. Do they really not know about Rosa? Is there such a divide between Webcleaners and other Crystalmakers? Well, at least that’s interesting to discover.”
She swung her backpack off, rummaged around for her torch and wound it vigorously to charge the battery. She shone the torch around the room. Unlike the grand chamber, the walls here were relatively bare. She felt around in her pack again, looking for a purse in which she kept a stock of lozenges and other sweets. Even though the mylin in the chambers was faint, it was beginning to irritate her throat. She remembered Elthán’s warnings about overdosing on mylin and wrapped a scarf around her mouth and nose.
She looked around the bare room again and sighed. She had a feeling she might be waiting for a while. Might as well read a book. She took the novel she had packed into her bag out and laid it open on her lap, but her thoughts strayed.
I might not be able to swing a deal with these Guild Masters. That means I can’t help Elthán – or Fadil and Thuls Refuge. I need to think of another plan. Ellen felt a strong urge to have a bath and hated herself for it, then buried the urge and hate with a shake of her head. Another plan! she told herself sternly. The spread on my bed at the Serai is made from Cryptal cloth. I could use that. And – oooh, Ellen, this would cause quite some stir: I can steal some crystal out of the Serai too. There are still a few bits and pieces around, especially in Redel’s Green Room.
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