It's been a week now since I’ve had a chance to write any more of my story. Finding out that ruinmen were on their way was a relief, but it also meant that a mother of a lot of work had to be done getting rooms ready for them. It gave us all something to do besides sit and wonder what we were going to hear when Tashel Ban got the radio going, but I think I’ve been spending too much time sitting and reading, and not enough cracking open concrete with a sledgehammer; back when I was still Gray Garman’s prentice, I could have done that much work without getting anything like so tired.
The first night there wasn’t anything at all in the news bulletin, not even a mention of him. The next night, though, one of the important jennels got quoted saying that Meriga had enough good candidates and didn’t have to go looking for them among tweens and ruinmen. Eleen spat a piece of hot language at the radio when that came through, which startled me, but Tashel Ban shook his head.
“Not at all,” he said. “Jennels of his rank aren’t fool enough to say whatever comes into their heads. If he’s that worried about Berry’s case, the wind’s blowing the right way.”
The evening after that, there was news: half a dozen of the minor jennels, I think it was, sent an open letter to Congrus saying that Berry’s claim should be considered. None of them were electors, and the electors could ignore them if they wanted, but they were still jennels, and that counted for something. What they said was simple enough: by law, one of a presden’s children became the next presden unless there was some good reason to do something else; being a tween would probably be good reason, but there weren’t any other strong candidates, and being a tween hadn’t stopped Sheren herself from being one of the best presdens we’d had since the old world ended, so if this Sharl sunna Sheren was who he claimed to be, his claim ought to be taken seriously.
That was promising, but the next two evenings went by without any news about Berry’s candidacy at all—not surprising, because those were the days set aside for Sheren’s funeral, and the news bulletin didn’t talk about anything else. Not that long ago, Berry would have spent those days jittering like a drop of water on a hot griddle, but not any more. I could just about hear him telling himself, no, a presden doesn’t do that. Still, it was probably just as well that the two of us spent those days finding a couple of disused kitchens down in the deep levels of Star’s Reach; hauling the pots and pans back up all those stairs didn’t leave him enough strength left to jitter.
It was the following evening that things changed, hard. Tashel Ban got the receiver working and then sat there, staring at it, as though he expected something to happen, and he wasn’t disappointed. After some final news from the funeral, the announcer said, “Meanwhile, the succession is on a lot of minds. Odry darra Beth of Sisnaddi Circle had this to say.” Pops and crackles, and then an old woman’s voice: “It was always a disappointment for us that Sheren was never able to become one of us, though of course now we know why. Circle had an excellent working relationship with her, and if her child is cut from the same cloth, I can’t imagine anyone in Circle objecting if the electors favor his claim.”
Tashel Ban let out a long low whistle. I didn’t know who Odry darra Beth was, but clearly he did, and I could guess. The old women in red hats who run Circle have their own way of deciding things, and you don’t get one of them making an announcement unless the rest of them are pretty much in agreement with it. Circle’s got a lot of power in Meriga, and if the Circle elders were willing to accept Berry’s candidacy, he was past one big hurdle.
The announcer wasn’t done yet, though. “And this from Jor sunna Kelli, of the Sisnaddi ruinmen.” Berry and I gave each other startled looks as the recording crackled and popped; that was a name we both knew. “Mister Sharl is one of ours,” he said, in the kind of voice that sounds like gravel getting crushed, and warns you not to mess with the person who’s attached to it. “Whether he ends up presden or not is up to the electors; that’s the law in Meriga, and we’ll abide by it—but if anybody else tries to make that decision for them, they’re going to answer to us.”
More crackles, then the announcer: “Still no word from the electors, but an announcement is expected in the next day or so. This is Sanloo station, with this evening’s news.”
The music started to play, and we all looked at Berry, who mostly looked dazed. “I take it,” said Tashel Ban, “that Mister Jor is important.”
“Senior mister at Sisnaddi,” I told him. “Ruinmen don’t have a boss, but if they did, it would be him.”
“So the threat is credible,” said Thu. “That may be helpful.”
“The Circle elder’s the one that interests me more,” Tashel Ban said. “They rarely involve themselves in the succession this early on. Well, we’ll see what happens.”
Berry shook his head, then, as though he was shaking himself awake, and said, “Well.” It seemed like a reasonable thing to say, and none of us had anything to add to it.
So we went to our rooms, and I kissed Eleen and watched her fall asleep, and then pulled out this notebook and sat here remembering the green hills of the Tomic valley and the last part of my walk to Deesee. The days I spent walking along the Tomic were the strangest part of the whole strange journey that brought me here to Star’s Reach; I had no idea what I was looking for or where I might find it, and it had started to sink in by then that following a story I’d heard from a harlot in a little town in Ilanoy might not be the brightest idea, especially since it took me outside of Meriga and into the nobody’s-land between us and the coastal allegiancies. Still, it felt like walking over the trapped floor in the Shanuga ruins, where the whole journey started—not something you necessarily want to do, but once you start, there’s nothing to do but finish.
So I followed the old crumbling road alongside the Tomic, watched the water rush past me toward the Lannic, and got used to water in the river, wind in the leaves, and my own boots crunching on the old road being the only sounds there were. I’d been in plenty of places where you could walk for a day and not see any sign that people had been there since the old world ended, but this seemed emptier still. Of course I knew why: every few years raiders from the coastal allegiancies would come through here trying to push their way into Wesfa Jinya, and every few years the Merigan army would march the other way to return the favor, and there are plenty of safer places to build a house and start a farm if that’s what you want to do, or, well, anything else. It must have been full of towns and farms before the old world ended, and maybe someday it will be full of both again, but as long as we’re at war with the allegiancies, the Tomic valley is going to stay empty.
Day followed day, and I followed the river. After I forget how long—it must have been a week or so, maybe a little more—the mountains turned into hills and the hills spread out and hid their feet in the forest, and when the breeze blew in my face I started to catch a hint of the salt smell I’d gotten to know when I was living in Memfis. That’s the way the breeze was blowing one sunny morning when I heard hooves on the road ahead of me.
That was in a place where the road ran straight for a while, and by the time I’d thought of running into the woods to hide, the riders were in sight ahead of me. There were four of them, coming straight up the road, and I knew that if I tried to run they’d chase me down like a deer, so I just kept walking.
They slowed their horses and stopped maybe twenty paces ahead, waited while I walked up: four men, three of them younger than I was and the fourth a good bit older. They were wearing brown homespun clothes and big floppy hats, they all had long hair, long beards, and a couple of pistols each stuck into leather holsters that had seen a lot of hard wear. Their horses, though, were big and strong and skittish, the kind that jennels and cunnels ride in Meriga.
I walked up to within a couple of paces of them and stopped. They looked at me, and I looked at them, and the oldest one finally said, “Who the hell are you?”
I told him my name.
“You out of Meriga?”
“What the hell you doin’ here?”
I knew that if they thought I was lying they’d kill me without a second thought, and I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound like a lie, except the truth. “I’ve been looking for Star’s Reach for getting on five years now,” I told them. “I hear there’s a place down by the Deesee ruins where—where every question has an answer. Nothing else worked, so I figured I’d try that.”
They looked at each other, then back at me. “Where’d you hear that?” the oldest one asked.
“From a harlot in Ilanoy,” I told him.
They looked at each other again, this time for a good long while. The oldest one leaned forward in his saddle. “There’s a place like that,” he said. “You go straight down this road all the way to the sea, and then turn to your right hand and walk along the water a bit until you see a chair made of chunks of concrete. That’s where it is; you sit down there before the sun sets and you don’t get up again until it rises. Got that?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Good.” He leaned forward a little more. “Now if you go straight there and come straight back and go home, and don’t stick your nose into anyplace it shouldn’t get, you’ll be okay. And if you don’t—well, then you better pray real hard, because you’re gonna wish you never got born. Got that?”
“Yessir,” I said, the way that soldiers do, and he nodded, and the four of them snapped their reins and rode right past me at trot, two on each side. When they were past, one of the younger ones turned around in the saddle and called back, “You find Star’s Reach, you tell the aliens hi for us, you hear?”
I promised I would, and they trotted on up the road. After a bit, I turned and started walking the other way. For a while I wondered if they would come back after me and see where I went, but the hoofbeats faded out and from then on it was just my boots crunching on what was left of the road, and the sounds of the river and the wind. The sun rose up in the sky ahead of me, and moved past to my right side, and sank toward the hills behind me, and all the while the salt smell on the wind became stronger and stronger, until finally the forest fell away into scrub pines and beachgrass, sand covered what was left of the old road, and I went up and over a dune and stood looking out at the sea.
There were waves rolling up to the beach in lines of foam and sweeping out again in flat sheets of water, and big gray masses of concrete rising up here and there, with waves crashing into them and seaweed and things growing all over them, but it was a long moment before I noticed them, because I was looking at the Spire. It was just like the pictures I’d seen when I was growing up, a white shape rising up straight out of the water well out to sea, and the light of the afternoon sun shone on it and made it blaze like a still and silent flame.
I have no idea how long I stood there looking at it. Finally, though, I remembered the directions I’d been given, turned right, and walked south along the beach.
I’ve written more than once about the times along the way from the Shanuga ruins to Star’s Reach when I saw how much bigger and more crowded everything was in the old world, and how small and sparsely peopled Meriga and the rest of the world is nowadays. As I write this, I’m thinking of the ruins of Cago, and how they stretch for kloms and kloms along the shores of Lake Mishga; I’m thinking of the towns and cities that used to be on the banks of the Ilanoy and Misipi Rivers and aren’t there any more; I’m thinking of the view from Troy Tower—and none of them, not even all of them put together, were like walking along that beach.
Ahead there were rounded masses of concrete rising up out of the water and the sand as far as I could see, and further, and I knew that behind me the same thing went pretty much without a break all the way up into Nuwinga, and I knew that all of that was just the edges of the drowned cities of the coast, which used to go a hundred kloms or more further east before the sea rose up and swallowed them all. I thought of the millions and millions of people who used to live there, more people than there are in all of Meriga nowadays, and now there was just one stray ruinman a long way from home, wandering past the little that was left of it all. The wind went whispering past me, picking up sand and tossing it against my boots and my legs, and I wondered whether the dust of old bones was mixed in with it.
That’s what I was thinking as I walked south along the shore, and the waves rolled and splashed, and the sun sank closer to the western hills. I started to wonder after a while if I’d walked right past the chair made of concrete the man from Jinya mentioned, and what would happen if they found me a couple of kloms past the place I was looking for. About the time I was starting to get really worried, though, I walked up most of the way into the dunes to get around a big ragged mass of concrete, and saw not too far ahead a clear space and something that might be a chair. I kept going along the beach, and after a while, I got to it.
I really had no idea what to expect when I got there. Back when Lu the harlot first told me about the place where every question has an answer, I’d wondered if it was some kind of installation from the old world, with computers, maybe, that would take your question, check it against data that got lost everywhere else in the world, and give you the answer in glowing letters on a screen. Later on, I’d made any number of guesses about it, but all of them were wrong.
There was a rough chair made of big chunks of concrete half buried in the sand, and a circle made of more chunks of concrete, not much more than knee-high, rising out of the sand like an old woman’s teeth. Here and there people had taken sticks and driven one end into the sand, and tied strips of cloth to the upper end, so that the cloth fluttered in the wind. That was all. There were some big masses of concrete further south, and much more to the north, but right there the beach was flat empty sand and the sea stretched out into the east, unbroken except for the Spire, a little north of straight ahead.
I stood there for a long moment, looking at the chair. I felt like a complete fool. I couldn’t think of any way a chair of salvaged concrete in the middle of nowhere was going to answer the question I’d come to ask. Since there wasn’t anywhere else for me to go, and the sun was maybe an hour from setting, I sat down on one of the chunks of concrete in the circle, and ate some bread and sausage and dried fruit I bought in Pisba. The sun got low, and the wind turned cool and then cold, and finally I laughed out loud and got up and went over to the chair. The seat and the back were both flat smooth pieces of concrete, which was better than I’d been expecting.