I. Basalt and artery

Ryel came to Dylath in the middle of a stormy day. It was during an intermission in the downpour, but Ryel, who was not the sort of elf archer girl who went about in a jeweled bikini and cape, was soaked to the skin.

The horse she had borrowed just this side of Ulthar was actually sorry to part from her. “It’s fine, baby,” she whispered to it in Elvish as she stood near the end of the line for the gate. “You go now. They need you more than I do. It’s fine, darling. I’ll be fine. I’ll come see you again soon, I promise.”

But me want to stay with you, the horse practically said. She looked away, rolled her eyes, and looked back into the horse’s big face. “Silly,” she chided. “You can’t. It’s not pretty in the city. You’ll be happier at home with the little girl and your friend the hen. Now go on.” She added a word of blessing and a kiss on the nose, and the horse couldn’t really do anything else but turn and start off for home. He looked back at her and she smiled from the end of the line.

“Animals,” she said in the common tongue to the person in front of her. “Right?”

“Right,” said the person in front of her, a bald dwarf with his helmet in his hand. Oh. A dwarf. Well, excuse me.

Ryel looked around, back at the woods, off to the left where the now full-grown River Skai rolled toward the sea, back up the road where the horse sauntered away. He looked back one more time. She smiled and looked away again, not wanting to encourage any more looking back.

The dwarf caught her eye again, looking up over the six inches she had on him. He actually grinned. “Can’t abide the beasts myself,” he said.

“As long as you don’t eat them, it’s fine with me,” she replied.

“Naw,” said the dwarf. “I prefer wyvern. Moose ain’t bad.”

“Isn’t,” Ryel said absently.

“Ever had buopoth?”

A dwarf who likes to talk, she thought. “Actually, yes,” she replied. “A bit tough, I think.”

“And they’re wicked shy,” said the dwarf. “But I do have a secret sauce.” He grinned again. “Semma leaf and yak butter. Or any kind of marrow butter will do. And salt. And oregano.”

“It’s not a secret sauce if you tell about it.” She looked toward the river. He looked down, then trudged forward as the line moved. She moved up too. “Oregano,” she muttered.

“I always keep oregano with me,” the dwarf said. “Fresh if I can get it. It grows all along the Oukranos.” He laughed a little. “The singing river. Kind of puts my teeth on edge, it does. Rivers ought to be able to find a key and stick with it, know what I mean?”

Ryel, who was now trying to ignore the dwarf, could not help but laugh. “Yes, actually,” she said. “I think that all the time.”

“But with those elf tastes of yours, you probably get irritated whenever a non-elf sings, don’t you? Unless it’s a songbird.”

“They’re not always on key either, actually.”

They were quiet for a few moments as they moved up again, but the dwarf broke the silence in spite of Ryel’s prayers. “So what brings you to the City of Basalt? Not the place for the Fair Folk, I would think.”

“What I am doing here is my business,” Ryel said automatically. She felt bad as soon as she said it. Here was a dwarf who actually knew how to cook and who was friendly while waiting in line, and here she was, behaving like a stereotype. “I’m just on a wander,” she lied. “Thinking of taking ship, in fact. Ever been to Oriab?”

“Nope,” he said, “thinking of going though, you going?” He shook the pack he had hanging on one shoulder. “Selling brass fittings. On a wander myself, wouldn’t mind making a bit of money at the same time. You come through Ulthar?”

“Yes, actually.”

“Love cats,” said the dwarf.

“You do??”

He grinned up at her sideways. “Arkmar,” he said, bowing, sweeping his helmet in front of him and along the ground. “At your service. A most unusual dwarf, I think you have to agree.”

“Ryel,” she said, not bowing but holding out her right hand. “At your service and your kindred’s.”

“That would be most unusual,” he said with that same grin.

“I,” she said defensively, “am rather unusual myself. I mean, ah, what I mean is, you do not know me if all you know is that I am an elf.”

“You talk to horses,” he said, “you find dwarves unpleasant, you are polite but you think much of your dignity, and you cannot keep your attitude to yourself. There is more?”

“Yes there’s more, you—!” She laughed. She bent over laughing. Her arrows fell out, and she picked them up, laughing, while he watched. The humans around them in line ignored her. “Nice to meet you, Arkmar,” she said, straightening everything out. She offered him her left hand, then put the rest of her arrows back and changed to right before he could be further offended and have more reason to make fun of her.

“Nice to meet you too,” said Arkmar. “I would say the sun shines on our meeting, but it doesn’t. Lucky it’s not pouring again.” With one more smile, he turned to present himself to the gate keepers.

Two minutes later Ryel too was through the gate and standing at the edge of the plaza where the River Road came in and became Main Street, and the Wall Street crossed. Dylath was a shadowy place even in sunlight, with its sky-scraping black towers and its grey-to-black cobblestones. The dwarf was right: it was more his kind of place than hers.

The rain had resumed; on the plus side, the dwarf had vanished during the minute Ryel had been deflecting the intrusive questions of the gate guards. She straightened her tunic and cape and put her formless green hat back on. The guards had insisted on inspecting it quite thoroughly and thus had missed the chance to find the secret pouch under the bottom of her pack, where her throwing stars, extra gold, Tarot cards and pipe and weed were hidden. They remained hidden as the elf maiden set off up the Main Street looking for the inn.

***

On the Street of Green Signs, half a block off the Maine Street and six blocks in from the wall, Ryel found lodging. It was more an unorthodox hotel than an inn: it occupied one fourth of a basalt tower, going up at least ten floors, because that was the floor on which Ryel’s lodging was. Of course there was a lift, and as with everything else in Dream World, the lift did not beg to be understood. Ryel was pretty sure it wasn’t the sort of magic she knew in her waking world, and she was pretty sure it wasn’t evil, but beyond that? She was too old a dreamer to bother thinking about things which did not at least do one the favor of suggesting their own explanations.

Dwarves were in the category of things that suggested their own explanations. They came out of the ground. Maybe that’s how they are born: they push a rock out of the way and climb out of the dirt. She laughed out loud, riding up the lift. But this dwarf: she had met a few in Dream World, but to her knowledge there was no resident population, no Dwarf Kingdom in the Saskatoon Mountains. So he too was a dreamer, this Arkwad or whatever his name was. She wondered where his sleeping body lay, in what world, and she wondered whether he was an old dreamer or a newbie.

It didn’t matter. She would never see his ugly mug again. She would do her job and get out of this disgusting little big city. He probably thought it was wonderful, all this rock. The lift door opened on the tenth floor. She turned right, then changed her mind and guessed left, and three doors in that direction was her door, numbered 10/3.

The room was well-enough appointed: large bed, three deep windows, writing table, two chairs. A door in back let into a water closet. Magical gem lanterns lit the room in dim pastel colors. Ryel regarded all these ostentations with disdain. But then she shook it off and headed for the bath. Stopping in the doorway, Ryel sized up the tub situation: ceramic and metal, white, nothing fancy, not huge, but it would serve. It had funny little brass feet; it had cute little brass taps and a ceramic-steel plug. Ryel fitted it and turned on the taps. She went back out and began to unclothe, throwing her jacket on the bed and setting her little boots on the floor near the chair. She moved them to beside the bed, but she was struck with a sudden sentiment.

Boots by the bed. Why couldn’t they be Glosvar’s boots?

Where the heck did that come from? She hadn’t thought of Glosvar in, well, all right, she had thought of him several times as she rode along the Skai Road, and she had definitely thought of him last night while sleeping in that village inn. Well, while not sleeping, actually. Oh yes. She had thought of him. But that was just to serve a purpose: she could think of all sorts of males, and some females, that would serve as well. But ah, how he had served, or the thought of him.

It certainly was true that Glosvar was a hunk. But surely Ryel did not feel anything more than that about him now. He was unavailable, married to that little blonde from over the river and through the woods, and not the River Skai or the Off Key Singing Oukranos: no, over the Anduin and through the Forest of Laurelindorinan. And thither had Glosvar repaired, and he had broken no promises in doing so, for Ryel and all the other elf girls who had crushes on him had no claim on him. Well, except that Ryel had some further claim on him. Well, except that no doubt other elf girls had the same claim.

Ryel stopped herself, shook her head, and went back into the bathroom: the tub was full and water was pouring into the overflow drain. She stopped the taps. It was wonderfully warm in here already. She glanced at the full-length mirror, but it was fully fogged. She smiled and stepped back out, undoing her green tunic and slipping out of her green pants. She sat down and managed to get her socks off her hot feet. She pulled her undershirt off over her head and placed it on the bed beside her other clothes, then stepped out of her panties.

There she stood, naked, looking at her carefully arranged clothes, crying. She picked up her shirt and wiped her face in it. She threw it down and put her face in her hands and stood there weeping bitter tears.

Just as suddenly, Ryel pulled herself together and stepped into the bathroom. Looking in the bath water, she thought to herself, I have a job to do. I am here to do a job. And if I forget that asshole ever existed, so much the better.

Smiling, she picked up a bottle of some kind of bath additive, uncorked it and poured it into the water. A minute later, she was soaking, washing her shoulder length black hair, and thinking about the job.

The hotel’s first and second floors each had a restaurant and they shared a bar. The first floor’s restaurant was expensive but of local taste; the second floor’s was expensive and peculiar, which suited Ryel nicely. She had a pasta dish with bits of some kind of mollusc, but passing her on trays borne by wait staff were various giant beetles, trilobites, lizards, six- and eight-legged mammals, and stuffed gourds of quite unnerving shapes. A glass of red wine went nicely with the pasta, and the cute little hookah they brought round left a smoky haze that kept back the smell of what everyone else was eating.

When Ryel was down to merely toying with a few pasta curls in oily sauce, the waiter sauntered by to see if she was still working. How very Dylath of him. “No,” she said in the common tongue of Dream World, “I am not still working. I will have another glass of wine, if you don’t mind.”

“Perhaps you would prefer the lounge,” said the waiter, who had a stony face bent into a condescending smile. “It will be open into the night, while we are cleaning up.”

“Perhaps I would prefer that,” said Ryel, standing up and straightening out her jacket. She finished the last drops in her glass, left three silver pieces on the table and wandered over toward the bar’s arched entrance. The atmosphere on the other side of the archway was quite different from the quiet concentration and innocent peculiarity of the restaurant. And the smells were very different as well: the hookahs were larger, and burned a wider array of herb; incense smoked here and there about the place; and in the midst of many dimly lit bodies, not all of them quite human, there was another smell: fresh coffee.

“Oh yeah,” said Ryel to herself in her native Sindarin. “Wine and espresso.”

The tavern was split between the ground floor and the first floor, with two stairways carved into the tower’s basalt, one at either end, connecting the two levels. Ryel hung about near the upstairs bar, but had no luck getting anyone’s attention until she felt something near her derriere.

“Is this yours?” she asked, after she had whipped around and caught the hand that had been trying to feel or to steal. The hand was large, much larger than Ryel’s, and the man who was attached was big, a foot taller and twice her weight. Nonetheless she had his full attention. She turned the hand steadily, slowly, until it had done nearly three hundred and sixty degrees of rotation. She let it go and turned back to wave at the barmaid.

The other big hand came down at her in a blinding slap. She caught it with the blade of her hunting knife, and while the hand did not come completely off, it did a job on itself. Blood spurted out on either side of the blade, as Ryel stepped quickly out of the way. The big man fell back bellowing in pain, using his twisted hand to still the bleeding on his injured one. Customers on either side cursed him for spilling his blood on them. He cursed them right back as he retreated to the stairs and disappeared, whether to die or find a doctor Ryel neither knew nor cared. What she cared about was that he did not even try to look at her again. Nor did anyone else.

“All right then,” she said, as the customers made space for her at the bar. “I’ll have a mug of pinot noir and a double latte.”

“A what and a what?” asked the barmaid.

“You do have those, don’t you?”

“You want them together, honey?”

“Well, not mixed.”

The barmaid smirked. “That’ll be a silver. And a promise on the knife.”

“All right,” said Ryel, used to the ways of the Dream World, “here is a silver.” She placed a coin on the bar. Then she held up the knife, which she had already taken the opportunity to wipe off on her belt rag. “I promise on this knife not to skewer anyone who doesn’t richly deserve it.”

“Good enough for me, hon,” said the barmaid, presenting her with a mug of wine full to the tippy top. “Latte along in a minute. Take that booth in the window up front, Barkle will clear out for you, I expect.”

Barkle, a loser if there ever was one, pulled one more long pull on his stem of the big hookah, gave Ryel a somber look and decamped to the downstairs bar. Ryel took his spot and soon was sipping her wine and her latte in sequence. An old man shuffled over and sat down opposite her, and she regarded him patiently. He began to lay out cards on the table between them: three, six, nine, twelve, fifteen. She looked down.

“Ah,” she said. “One solid red diamond, two solid green ovals, three solid blue stars. Set.”

After three games, of which Ryel won two, she finished her wine and drained her latte. “Thank you,” she said to the old guy, who nodded and laughed. She went back out the archway and turned aside to find the lift, which she took to her floor. In her room, she lay down fully clothed for twenty minutes, then jumped up, got her things together and headed out. She took the back stairway, the steps plain and carven from the tower’s black basalt as if the whole thing was some sort of geological formation. Ten flights down and she was on the ground floor, not on the Street of Green Signs but on some even more subsidiary thoroughfare, possibly the Lane of Discarded Ants or the Alley of Unintended Consequences. She turned and went up it and found that it ran reliably parallel to the Main Street.

Ryel walked up the street feeling like an ant among the Cyclopean towers of Dylath. The mist made them seem all the more unimaginably vast, as if they somehow connected the ground to the sky, as if, if she found a stair that went all the way up the inside of one, it would leave her in whatever sort of place the Gods had chosen to hide by putting it on top of the clouds. Still, she walked, seeming a citizen of the place: no one marked her passage through the gritty metropolis, Elf of the Greenwood though she was. Dark of clothing, black of hair, quiet of stride in her old comfortable boots: Ryel flitted through the city like she was flitting amongst so many gigantic ash trees. She didn’t even have to think about it.

And that was good, because she was thinking about the job.

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