The Skies of Aurlin
Author: Caela Kings

Chapter 3

In the air lies its home:

A faint buzzing of lace and breeze,

The sweetness of a harper foul spun—

Her light cries in the dark sun,

And something of gold flickers in that beam:

A half-dream of memory.”

The Book of Poets, v. H-02, by a Master Feld.   

“We should go back...” Ali said. She lingered behind Feld, staring outside with a look of mixed awe and horror. She took a step backwards.

“After all this trouble?” Feld asked. He stepped out, rocks and broken glass crunching under his shoe. He walked out of the pieces, running a hand along the wall of Aurlin. It was marble, like the rest, but so worn the separate stones were rounded like common rocks and they sported the dirty white of plaster. He shivered in the cold—it felt as though someone had placed ice and water over his head: painful, uncomfortable, and terribly refreshing. He laughed as the wind started up again.

“Come out, Ali,” he said, turning back to her. “It's wonderful—I promise.”

She flashed him an uneasy glance, then she looked down to the broken glass. “I'll cut my feet to shreds on those.”

“And what a horrible mess that would make,” Feld agreed sarcastically. “Just jump, Ali.” The pile of sharp glass was not wide, if she jumped to the side where Feld stood. She shuffled her feet, as if she were about to take a step, but ultimately stopped herself. When she finally did leap, it was without warning, sudden, and lacking in all sorts of grace she previously displayed. Her skirts flapped like a terrified bird and her landing as clumsy as a vulture's. She stumbled, yelped as her feet slammed into the rocks, and fell into the wall for support. She looked up, cheeks flushed and chest heaving as she drew in deep breaths. She straightened, turned to the landscape before them, and attempted to hide her smile, in vain, as a bubbling laugh came from her lips.

“It's beautiful,” she said; Feld couldn't help but agree. There was something spectacular about seeing such a sigh when before it went screened behind inches of glass or the eyes of a bird. It was something which deserved writing down. He drew a spare notebook from his breast pocket—it was nothing like the one in his study, but newly made, the sandy parchment white and rough. He did not write in it much, but he still kept a pen as well—one with a wedge-shaped tip and a pouch of blue ink within its silver shell.

When she flies, ever so high,

She is a griffon in the skies,

But can her rare smile ever compare

With the sun's least promising stare?

It was a quick thing, leaping to his mind. Simple, but he'd written it anyway. Ali looked at him curiously, leaning forward to catch a furtive glance of his writing.

“Oh, that is nice, Feld,” she said genuinely. “One might compare me to a morning sun, but you compare the sun to me?”

Feld rolled his eyes. “It's a child's rhyme, Ali. I could write that in my sleep when I was still in school.” He began to place his book back in his pocket, but Ali caught his hand. She was not stronger than him by any means, but he stopped himself nonetheless.

“Then why don't you?” Ali asked. “Tria, I know, would swoon over something like this. San might, but it's hard to know about her. As for the women outside of here, if this were published—I'd have no doubts in my mind. Turn this in to the Regency.” Feld gritted his teeth, almost wishing he hadn't written it. He could write better—he would write better. That... thing wasn't worth the ink he'd written it with, just a moment of awe-stricken fancy. It would be absolutely shameful to turn it in. He flipped the small book back open again, touching the pen to the paper. He leaned against the exterior wall with a sigh. The wind stirred, slightly, in its sleep, snoring as a well fed beast might. The dark clouds he saw earlier were approaching.

Like a shadow, slowly stretching, before ascending suns.

He frowned at the single line. It was out of place, blue among white. Too sudden a start. Yet nothing else came to mind. The sky, the stone, the air before him was a sight which filled him with awe—and yet all he could muster were a few couplets and a single line. It was as though it were too majestic, too fearful—never to be captured by mere words as a glint of light or color might.

“Are these what you've been working on?” Ali asked, “When you steal away to your secret study?” She grinned at the alliteration.

“Not usually,” Feld said. He would have to start though. The end of the year was nearing, summer approaching, and he would have to send in some written works to pay his dues. Often, he found himself scrambling last minute for some instant inspiration. He was not a model citizen by any means. Both Warren and Sovan spent the entire year to send in their best works—no doubt that strange, floating light of Warren's was one such project. Sovan already had several books published—five, perhaps. He was not required to send in an entire one each year—there wasn't enough philosophy in the world. But bits and pieces until he declared it finished. One day, Feld would have to go find one in the libraries. His work was often just placed with the rest of the poets' in one mass volume.

“What do you write, then?” Ali inquired.

“Nothing important,” Feld said, closing his book with a snap. “Come on—we should get back before people start worrying.”

“Oh! Right,” Ali agreed, blinking as she looked back to the old window, as if she had not noticed the large hole in the wall before now. “Do think we'll have to get that fixed? Will we get in trouble?” She paled, though—even if they did—Feld doubted she would get more than a tongue lashing. Her health could barely be spared. Though, Feld couldn't help but feel a slight dread at the thought of others knowing of their excursion.

“We should tell the head maid we found it like this, or that it was an accident,” he said. “That it was too old and crumbled under its own weight.”


“They won't be expecting it.”

Ali nodded, jumped back inside and grabbing Feld's shoulders as she landed. She coughed pointedly as she smoothed her ruffled dress. They retreated in silence, though Feld thought he heard her murmur: “It wasn't just the window—this whole hallway is dead.”

Just as the hallway began to start looking normal once more—pristine walls, shining floors—someone called, faintly, for Ali. Her brows lowered in her confusion. She pushed past Feld, walking a pace faster. The sitting room came into view, along with the dark-haired, lithe form of San, and her dull-witted chaperone. She was sitting on the small sofa, but rose when Ali entered and smiled one of her wolfish smiles, yellow eyes alight. She was a strange women indeed—too sly to be pretty, as delicate, pale Ali was, but her coal-grey hair on the verge of being black and her deep, honey eyes made her almost hypnotic to look at. Her chaperone was by no chance a noble, but a small, old man hidden as a white shadow in the background. Feld didn't even know why she'd didn't just leave him behind in some dark corridor—she wasn't fooling anyone.

“Ali, dear—” San called anyone of the younger class “dear” despite the mere, one-year difference in age “—The paragons just left a moment ago; there's mail for you.” The paragons were one of the lowest people in the Aurlin government—which meant they were higher in the system than any noble. They were also one of the rare people bequeathed with the ability to freely travel between sections. They always reported back to the Mains, but often by their first month, they'd been to nearly every part of Aurlin imaginable. They had to, considering their primary job was mail delivery. San held out a delicate, lace-lined letter to Ali, as if it were some silver treasure.

“Ah.” Ali let out a breath as she accepted the parcel. “Is this what I think this is?”

“Indeed,” San replied, bowing despite the burgundy dress she wore. The skirts were thinner than most, but still quite large. Golden horses pranced along the hem—the animals were her emblem, just as griffons were Ali's. The point of them eluded Feld. It was mainly a feminine practice. “It is that time of the year,” San added.

“What—” Feld said, before stopping himself, “Oh.” Ali laughed. As summer came, the officials often hosted a sort of ball—a Gathering of all nobles who'd proved themselves beyond what was expected of them after their graduation. Most women were invited regardless, as—if anything—they provided entertainment. Ali was invited near every year. And, often, the guests were allowed to bring one other person with them, as the requirements were usually so high only a few ended up invited at all. Granted, one or two people from each section, adding as well the average of two more women—the figure would begin to add up—but the Mains was a huge building, despite the amount of small children scampering about.

Feld remembered those noisy, midsummer mornings when he was a child—he himself had never been invited, but as he grew into his schooling, he had been allowed to participate even the smallest amount in the festivities. Fond memories of glorious music from the finest musicians in Aurlin, food from the best cooks—when he and Warren managed to steal into the kitchens—and, of course, the new, pretty faces.

From his more recent memories, he recalled Ali's previous partners; she took whomever she was currently courting the more frequently, or whomever gave her the more expensive gift—another reason Feld never went after he'd graduated. Instead of the joyful anticipation most felt about the event, all he could muster was indifference at best—anxiety at worst. Summer meant he'd have to turn in some work, and very soon.

“Who will you be dragging along this time, Ali?” Feld asked.

“Funny you should use the word 'drag',” she replied, reading over a letter she'd doubtless memorized years ago. “I was thinking about—”

The holiest of the nine hells!” Feld could not tell if the voice was close or far, but it most certainly was loud. The way the halls echoed and warped a voice did Feld little good when he attempted to recognize it, but he barely needed to as Sovan entered. “Dammit, Sanguine,” he said, staring down at a intricate letter he held clutched between his two hands. He tended to call San 'sanguine' as a play off her full name, Sanginette—despite the easier, shorter nickname of San. “You said you had found a pleasant surprise for me, but you did not tell me it was something such as this.” He laughed then, the first time Feld has heard him utter such a sound without a hint of bitterness—still, it reminded him of a bird's caw and he cringed as it echoed down one of the close corridors. He waved his letter in the air, like the grand banner of a victorious king. He was grinning like madman and the expression did not falter even as his green gaze passed over Feld.

He rounded on the corridor which led to the staircase. “Warren!” he shouted. “You had better come down here this very instant!” Silence prevailed the next few moments—most in the room were too stunned to speak, the other had no idea what to say anyway. Soft-spoken, wise, concise Sovan, shouting and laughing his joys. All except Warren, who finally appeared in the entrance of the sitting room. He was holding his head and shot Sovan a stare which could turn vapor to ice.

“By all the Lands which the Regent reigns,” he mumbled. “I have the worst headache you could imagine—this had better be—” He was cut off as Sovan embraced him tightly. His eyes stretched to a size comparable to dinner plates. “The hell, Sovan,” he managed to say. “Has your philosophy finally driven you mad—I knew it would happen!—eventually.”

“No, no!” Sovan replied. He finally released his friend, who stumbled backward, baffled and blinking. “Look at this,” he said, and thrust the letter out before him. Warren took it with a sigh, reading it over slowly. His face paled by shades and he too let out a loud, resounding laugh.

“The Gathering, Sovan?” he said, looking up. “This is... this is...” He gestured with his hand vaguely, as he attempted to find the right word.

“Spectacular, perhaps?” Sovan supplied and Warren pounded him on the back.

“See how they react to this,” San asked, as a teacher might point out a freakish animal. “Observe the way they are forced to shout and abuse each other. My studies have shown that a man might just explode as their inferior minds struggle to comprehend what they imagine an honor if these actions do not take place.” Half her mouth lifted in a wicked, red smile.

“Well, who are you bringing?” Warren asked.

“I adore how that's the first thing you ask,” Sovan said sarcastically. “Why—I can't allow such a greedy person to accompany me to the Gathering—as I had originally planned. How unsightly.” Despite Sovan's joking manner, Warren reddened, as a chastised child might.

“I know you're joking...” Warren said, tasting the words. “But I have to be sure...” His eyes narrowed in his covert suspicion, making Sovan grin all the more.

“What sort of friend would I be if I didn't let you along with me?” Sovan asked.

“A horrible one, that's what,” Warren said. “I should start packing! How long is it... a week or so away?”

“Eight days,” San said. “And it goes on for around a month or two.” Sovan nodded, but Warren cursed under his breath, only his conviction reaching Feld if not the actual word.

“I need to tell Tria,” he said. “I don't think she'll be happy.” Ali rolled her eyes.

“Why would she be unhappy about your accompanying her this year?”

Warren coughed. “She claims the Gathering is the one time of the year she gets to be away from me. Who knows what she does up there!” He shook his head. “But it matters not! Think of all the glorious women we'll get to see—I'll tell her that. And then she'll realize. That woman will fawn over me—dote on me like the sun...” He continued his rant as he turned and proceeded back up to his chambers. Feld heard him murmur, “Such a jealous little thing. I love her so.”

Sovan cringed at the show, instantly forgetting his own. “I'd better go see that he's packed right,” he said, starting after Warren. “And that Tria's not killed him yet.” San's watched the both of them leave, eyes like honey. She turned to her chaperone as he approached her.

“Yes, dear?” she asked, her voice taking a touch of sweetness. The servant kept his hands behind his back, looking straightforward and not quite meeting his mistress's eyes.

“You promised my lord Etrin that you would be painting with him in one of the observatories,” he said, “my lady.”

“Of course,” she replied, as if she had not needed reminding. She probably didn't. “I'll be leaving shortly then. Thank you for reminding me, dear.” Her shoes clicked against the floors as she exited. “Farewell, miss Ali, master Feld.”

Ali let out a breath as the other women left and she collapsed limply on the sofa in an exaggerated motion of relief. “She's gone!” she said. “San makes me shiver.” She frowned, glaring at the halls. “Oh, I hope she didn't hear that. It's desperately hard to keep secrets with all the echoing.” Feld sat next to her, on the far side of the sofa which she had not already claimed.

“I'll admit,” he said. “She is a tad... disconcerting.” Disconcerting wasn't quite the word though—unnerving and disarming would be better suited; as if she were two entities, in Feld's mind, one a prancing, graceful, prideful cat, and the other a mesmerizing adder. He could never very much tell the difference, but he could hardly tell Ali thus.

“Disconcerting?” Ali asked, exasperated. “She hates me. They all do!”

Feld frowned. “Someone? Hate you?” Ali snorted at his disbelief.

“You're a man—you wouldn't see it,” she said. “They had to work to get here, just like you. And I? I can bear children. Not only did I get to jump and hop over the hard parts—but I could because I have the one skill they do not and never will have.”

“Even Tria?” Feld was shocked. The petite woman was rarely less than genteel, if a bit fiery if her temper was roused—but such an event was not often seen and burned away quickly, like a sudden storm. However, Ali nodded, coppery curls bouncing against the cushions.

“Yes, but for slightly different, less obvious reasons,” she said carefully, brows knitting slightly.

“How so?”

“I slept with Warren,” she replied. Warren's comment about Tria's jealousy immediately echoed back in Feld's head and he winced sympathetically.

“You've slept with near everyone though,” Feld said. “It cancels out—like in an equation.”

“It doesn't quite work like that,” Ali said. “Besides, I haven't slept with Sovan yet.”

“Really?” Feld wasn't sure why that gave such a huge amount of relief. Ali shook her head.

“He tries too hard,” she said. She paused, lifting her head and looking through the doorway, smiling just slightly. The sound of footsteps suddenly filled the room and a thin face poked into the room. For once, Feld recognized the servant—his name was Ter and he was probably the most accomplished of the lower sect of people. He did not always serve here—which was an extremely odd occurrence, as most servants were stationed for life—but once, he'd lived in the Mains with the Regent himself as one of the guards. Only lower classes were ever permitted to touch iron, as the metal was foul and most nobles shied from it. Therefore, only they were able to serve as guards for the Regent.

It was also said that Ter was a remarkable craftsman, but because of his otherwise severely low marks, he'd never been able to graduate. Feld guessed it was his one remarkable skill which earned him his life—more people who earned such horrible grades weren't even entrusted with a life of servitude. They had important jobs: cooking and cleaning—menial, Feld knew, but he did not enjoy the thought of life without such services provided.

But the thought of a possibly skilled—intelligent even—servant was all the more disturbing. Ter's eyes burned a strange dark blue, as if from fever. He was a disconcerting man, the reason Feld remembered him above all the others.

Ali smiled at his approach. “Sir, come here!” she said, waving him forward and finally sitting up. Ter came forward, hands clasp behind his back, diligent face forward. He wore grey, a common color for his class, though they were often offered other clothing by masters who favored them. “My friend and I were down that hallway there.” She pointed. “Farther than we should have, and we...” She trailed off, then blushed prettily. Her mouth opened once, but she could not seem to let the planned words out. There was suddenly a tense air around her; her delicate face held an expression of utter befuddlement. Feld coughed.

“I might have leaned too heavily against one of the windows and it fell and cracked. There's a hole there now,” he said. Ter nodded as the tale ended.

“This is an issue, my lord,” he said. “We'll have to fix this as soon as possible.” He bowed stiffly, bending his thin body like a stubborn piece of cardboard. The air lightened as he exited, only to grow heavy a moment later as he led a larger, thicker man through the sitting room. The new servant held a pane of glass in his hands, edged with hardened silver. Ali blinked.

“I hadn't thought they'd fix it so fast,” she said, almost awed. Her careful eyes followed them out. Ter nodded.

“There is a stock of glass in the levels below you, m'lady,” he said. “We try to fix Aurlin's injuries as soon as possible.” He spoke in a monotone, only the slightest infliction of his words giving him more emotion than a mythical automaton.

“And a brilliant job you are doing of it, sir,” Feld replied absently, even as a sinking feeling shadowed his stomach. He'd expected the gap to be closed—but so soon? It was more confusing than anything—a rush of emotions as the strange new wonderment was stolen from his hands before he'd even gotten to do more than dream about exactly how wonderful it might be. Without thinking, he continued, “And what about the cracks in the walls? Why haven't those been fixed up?”

Ter blinked, a brief, new emotion flicking across his face. “Why should we, m'lord?” he asked, truly inquiring. “No one would go down there.” He added, under his breath, “No one sane.”

Sane... the word made some light flicker in Feld's mind. What was sanity? he wondered suddenly. Intelligence? Logic? Normality? He frowned. None of them seemed adequate—just that one inch away from being right. Just enough to make he want to fight for more, though he knew such a line of thought was pointless. Yet... did his poetry stem from his intelligence? His writing from logic?

His inspiration from normality?

He resolved, in that moment, to find another entrance outside. A window. A portal.


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