Today's Reading

CHAPTER 1

Officially, the City of Towers was not divided. Modernity and progress, law and order reigned supreme. That is, if you believed the Council's manifesto. Yet my cart driver didn't seem to believe the official line and stopped his horses at the gate leading to the lower spires that most of the city dwellers called the Pit.

The cart's driver bent down until his face was showing at the door's open window.

"That's as far as I go," he grumbled.

"But this is not—" I began to protest.

"It's as far as I go," he repeated, as if this was the only explanation needed before his face disappeared. He did not even bother to jump down and open the cart's door. That's city cart drivers for you . . .

I should have argued with him—I'd paid hard metal in advance for the ride down all the way to the Pit—but I decided not to bother. I told myself that I was too tired to waste time and energy on a few coins, but in my heart, I knew that after months of traveling, it was a blessed change to have found anyone willing to take me, even for the shortest of distances. Only a few days' travel from the city, most cart drivers took one look at my face and sped away. Some spat on the ground as they passed, while others, more often than I care to recall, aimed their spittle at me.

I climbed out of the filthy cart, holding the hem of my black coat in my free hand. The driver drove off without uttering a word, rightly assuming that no tip would be coming his way.

I carefully adjusted my cowl as I surveyed the enormous square of the city's Central Plateau, happy to be breathing fresh air. Almost everywhere else in the world, the darkness of night meant the halt of all outdoor activities. If you were a villager, you barricaded yourself and your family inside your walls, made sure your weapon of choice was within reach, and prayed to whatever god you believed in for the safety of daylight. Not in the City of Towers. Even at this late hour it was bustling with activity, from the shouts of sellers in food stalls to the miserable lowing and stench of livestock.

The Plateau was lit from above by several dozen, evenly spaced, gigantic Tarakan lamps, their collective effect closely matching daylight. Like all of the city's artifacts, the Tarakan lamps were secured by the ever-vigilant ShieldGuards. Though their faces were hidden behind black helmets, the movements of their heads indicated that they were scrutinizing the crowd. One of them spotted me, and I could almost feel his stare as he turned in my direction.

The area was too well lit, there were no shadowy corners to retreat to, so I chose a direction at random and began moving with the crowd. When I risked a glance back, the ShieldGuard was looking elsewhere. I eased my steps and circled around the area.

The cowl hid my tattoos from passersby, but it would not conceal my face completely. Eventually I would have to make eye contact, which would mean I might be remembered. I couldn't take that chance. Not tonight.

I considered my options: my original plan was to descend to the Pit via Cart's Way, but the road, albeit scenic, was too long to travel on foot, and I was pressed for time.

My next option, perhaps the most obvious one, was to take the disc, meaning to board one of the Tarakan lifts from the centre of the square. Despite the fact that no one knew exactly how they worked—and several unexplained, deadly accidents—the huge oblong discs remained a popular way of connecting the Central Plateau to the rest of the city. I guess they appealed to humans' unhealthy attraction towards danger, novelty, technology, and death. This kind of illogical behavior led me long ago to the conclusion that we are, essentially, a stupid race. Perhaps the Catastrophe was meant to clean the slate and start humanity over, but we managed to screw up even our own destruction.

One thing was sure; I possessed more than enough hard coin to pay for the lift. My LoreMaster was uncharacteristically generous with his purse when he sent me out on this venture—so generous, in fact, that I would be surprised if the Guild of Historians would be able to fund any other expedition in the foreseeable future. But I knew I should avoid taking the Tarakan lifts if I wanted to stay anonymous. Instinct told me there were too many eyes looking at me ever since I had come back to the city—and not without good reason. The woman I was looking for had amassed an impressive group of powerful enemies, but she still had a few friends in this city who could warn her. My lead was too solid to waste on amateurish behavior.

Look on the bright side, I told myself. After almost two years of travelling, chasing shadows, and following leads, you ended up back home, in the City of Towers, exactly where you started.

Sighing, I turned around and moved cautiously back through the mass of sweating humanity, away from the Plateau's central square and into the side streets of the middle spires. It was not long before I was enveloped by the night, which for some irrational reason made me feel momentarily safer.
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