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from Ryel and Arkmar: The First Six Pieces of Dream

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 a discarded 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.

This far within the walls, the towers of Dylath-Leen, as the cartographers called it, changed from square or rectangular or trapezoidal in cross section to their native hexagonal. Turning one more of those annoying 120 degree corners, Ryel melted into a doorway next to a disused dock. She peered from there at the next tower.

It faced the Main Street, surrounded and padded by little parks with enigmatic shrines and bas-reliefs. People moved up and down the Main Street but did not stray from it or enter or leave the hexagonal tower. Beyond it, fading into the black mist of night in that blackest of coastal cities, more hexagonal towers stood. Things moved about in the little parks, but those things could not be called people.

This was the place. She was sure of it.

The tower would be dozens of stories tall, but internally that would mean little. She knew much about it, because she knew it was a tower full of temples, because she had good sources, because her instructions were in some ways vague but in other ways quite specific. And then there was her odd intuition.

Many floors would combine into one, except for the stairs climbing around just inside the tower’s black shell. The ground floor would be two or three stories tall, as many were, but above that, the higher floors would be combined in sets of three or five or seven into tall halls with a troubling degree of ornamentation. Ryel did not like it when humans overdid the symbolism, the ritual, the meaning. Nothing good could come of it.

There would be many things of value there, precious stones of inexplicable design, ware of gold and silver and platinum and iridium and lo, even mithril, statuary of the most expensive material and the most anomalous subject matter, substances solid and liquid and gaseous, rare and rarer and almost unattainable even in Dream World, coin and cloth and tome and utensil and musical instrument and work of art, animal and plant and fungoid and living thing of no clear category. But that was not quite what Ryel was here for. Her mother had not raised any thieves. Not as such.

“Obtain the Map and use it to find the first Piece,” were the instructions. A certain sort of “they” would try to prevent her if they knew she was there, so she would make sure they did not. That was why it had to be Ryel and not some urban guerilla or sleek, slick cat burglar or clever sneak thief. That was why it could not have been any other of her people, or of the folk of Lothlorien or Imladris or Dol Amroth. She had the woods in her veins, but she had lived and done her work in city and on battlefield: the same things everyone else did in the forest, she did in the town. And, of course, she had suffered Loss, and that was supposed to make her ruthless. Thinking all this in a second, she smirked, a natural position for her mouth.
Of course she was ruthless. Of course she didn’t care, aside from her professional dignity. Of course she understood how very important the job was. In a distinct sense, the worlds depended on it. It had all been explained to her.
Ryel took a long breath and held it. The wine was dissipating and the caffeine remained, and the smoke smoothed it all out, but under or above all that, her mind was unaffected. Nothing moved, and then she did. She slipped across to the garden before her and into the shadow of a pillar.
There was a dripping, and it was not the rain, which had come to an end. She turned and gave a glance to the zone along the border of the little park, halfway from the tower she had left to the one she was headed for. Six pillars surrounded a little space, and their tops were connected by a thin lattice of beams of wood or metal. Below, amongst the pillars, was a pool, and something was dripping down into it. It was clear, but Ryel did not think it was water. Smirking over her disgust and a low grade of dread, she moved across to a block of rough stone of about her height. It seemed innocent enough. Of course it was covered with traceries of glyphs and enigmatic patterns of moving beetles, but they weren’t her business.

Ryel took another long breath. A half dozen drunks reeled up the Main Street. They paused, belched, laughed; one of them threw up. Then they seemed to realize where they were, and moved on quickly with a minimum of noise.
No one knew Ryel was there. No one, not even the things that Ryel didn’t know were there. She didn’t want to know about them and they didn’t need to know about her. Deal.
She let out her breath, then took in another, then flitted across to the building where her job hid, the Tower of the Minor Temples. It was surrounded by no landscaping, but weeds had grown to bushes in the lee of its straight sides. She made good friends with a particular overgrown relative of the lupine, its randy vigor not quite so intense as to make her think much about what sort of stuff it fed on. “You eat what you like,” she whispered to the burst of vegetation. “Drink deep, have one on me. Just keep me covered, okay?”
The lupine relative did not answer, although she had the feeling it was sympathetic to her situation. In its shelter, she scanned up the walls. They were not entirely unrelieved planes of basalt. There were windows, arrow slits really, vents perhaps, starting at the twenty foot level. “Doable,” she said to herself. She unshouldered her bow, pulled out the arrow with the rope attached to it, took careful aim, allowing for gravity and the density of the wet air, drew another breath and fired upwards.
The arrow flew straight and true. Of course it did, being inanimate and also obedient. It disappeared into the crack of window, and Ryel pulled the rope taut. Rope: not some inches-thick knotted clump of plant fibers wound around and around by mortal old ladies, but the product of the Elves, clean and light and strong. Just the usual, to Ryel, only the best. She pulled on it, pulled gently until the arrow caught in the crack of window and held, and then she began to pull herself up.
Things went well for the first fifteen feet. She heard distant faint sound from beyond the window, a chanting of mixed voices. In one step more, as she reached up with her hand, from behind and below came the tread of a watchman up the side street. He would not be curious, he would not spend effort looking up into the misty night, he might even be anxious to not see something that was there to be seen, if it was to be seen on this particular wall. But if she made a noise he would look, and if he looked he would see her, and if he saw her he would have to sound the alarm. It was just the way the rules were. And shooting him would not be an option. Both her hands were occupied.
She paused a moment, then reached out her other hand to the next foot of rope: only four feet left to the window’s edge. And a mosquito glided in and landed on her forearm.
Ryel grimaced, the mirthless cousin of her smirk. She rolled her eyes a bit too, and then, suitably emboldened, she muttered to the bug: “Listen. Freako. Listen to me. Go bite that guy down there. Down. There. That guy. Okay? I’ll give you a blessing.”
The mosquito sat there on her arm. Not biting. Its body was not flexible enough for it to give her a look, much less say anything; its brain, if it could be called that, was too simple to spend any amount of time considering possibilities. After a moment, during which the guard seemed to stop and examine something on his boot directly below Ryel, she whispered a tiny little blessing. “I can’t believe I did that,” she muttered. “Now go.”
The mosquito lifted off from her unbitten arm and swiftly dropped toward its new target. Three seconds later, Ryel could hear the watchman grumbling and turning around, then cursing. He stomped off rubbing the back of his neck. Ryel smiled and pulled herself up to the narrow window. In another second she had squeezed her skinny little elf frame through.