PERCEPTIONS Book One of Three A Chronicle of the Reclamation Age by Desiree B. Cunin For my dad. Note on the Setting: This story takes place in an alternate timeline where Christianity never came into being. I have tried to remain as true to history as possible when discussing any events occurring in BC times, and up until the fall of the Roman Empire, little has been changed except for the obvious lack of Christians. The Reclamation Age began in approximately AD550 on our calendar, so Year One in the book is actually AD551 by our reckoning. Perceptions takes place in the 1400’s R.A. (Reclamation Age), which is somewhere around our present day. All of the non-English words mentioned in the book are translations of real ancient tongues. The same is true of all mythology and all gods named. Where possible, I have attempted to preserve the same attitudes and ideals found in the ancient world, some of which may be considered offensive in our modern civilization. No offense is intended. And now that you have read my disclaimer, I hope that you enjoy this story about the end of the Reclamation Age. Peace, Love, Recycle, Coffee. Desiree Cunin www.desicuninbooks.com www.blog.myspace.com/desicunin From the tale of Prometheus, and the giving of fire to mankind: For the gods have hidden and keep hidden what could be men’s livelihood…. Zeus in the anger of his heart hid it away because the devious-minded Prometheus had cheated him; and therefore Zeus thought up dismal sorrows for mankind. He hid fire; but Prometheus, the powerful son of Iapetos, stole it again from Zeus of the Counsels, to give to mortals…. …In anger the cloud-gatherer spoke to him: “…You are happy that you stole the fire, and outwitted my thinking; but it will be a great sorrow to you, and to men who come after. As the price of fire I will give them an evil, and all men shall fondle this, their evil, close to their hearts, and take delight in it.” --Hesiod, The Works and Days. Pandora. PROLOGUE: The old man looked up from the flames on the altar when he heard footsteps approaching from the long stairway that led up the hill. Without a sound, he waved his hand at the altar and the fire flickered away, leaving nothing behind, not even ash. Before he could be seen, the old man backed into the shadows of the trees that ringed the hilltop, leaning on his staff for support. The clicking of the bones and beads that dangled off the top end of the walking stick blended in with the deafening chaos of the night insects, so he did not worry that the noise might give him away. He watched from concealment as a young woman climbed into view bearing a newborn babe in her arms. She paused on the topmost stair and searched the bare hilltop for movement. Interested, the old man leaned out from behind his tree for a better view, confident that he would not be seen. The woman—a Spartan from the recently re-founded city in the valley below—appeared to satisfy herself that there was no one else up there at that late hour, and she hastened to the open-air altar. It was carved from a much older stone monolith which had occupied the site for thousands of years before the coming of the Hellenes. Before she could think better of it, the woman unwrapped the baby from the blanket in which she had carried it and placed it naked on the cold stone. She stared at it briefly, but when it started whimpering, and then crying lustily at the chill air it was exposed to, the woman ran back to the stairs and descended rapidly out of sight, stifling a sob as she left the child behind to die. After the young woman disappeared down the stairs, the old man emerged from the trees and approached the altar on which the abandoned babe lay screaming. It was a girl, he saw, and healthy by the looks of it. Why her family had deemed her unfit to rear, he could only guess; perhaps it had refused its mother’s breast. Suddenly, he smiled at the tiny thing, and as if it could sense his goodwill, the child stopped crying. “So you’re Cassandra,” the old man said to her as he reached down and gathered her into his arms. “Such a little Potentate.” He carefully wrapped part of his cloak around her shivering body and gently rocked her while he contemplated her newborn face. “I knew you’d show up eventually.” The tiny child cooed at him and the old man smiled again, thinking it amazing how small she was for someone who would one day grow to be so big. Even he, old and strange as he was, had trouble keeping a straight face when confronted with a tiny babe. For the first time in many ages, he seemed to understand mortality again. He carelessly waved his staff at the altar and the flames sprang back up, leaping high enough to be visible to the young woman who had turned her back on Sparta’s helpless daughter. He considered waiting for her to come flying back up so that he could scare her out of her wits, but the babe in his arms was hungry. Instead, he turned and walked into the trees where a second path was hidden in the underbrush. Behind him on the hilltop, he heard the young woman’s frantic screams when she returned to find the altar enveloped in flames. He smiled. Book One: The Potentate CHAPTER 1: She woke up cold again, cold and wet, and tried to wrap her pitifully thin cloak closer to her shivering body. It was useless. The worn material was tattered and falling apart, and it wasn’t thick enough to provide any warmth even when dry. Knowing that she wouldn’t be able to get any more sleep, Cassandra pulled herself to her feet and stuck her head out of the doorway where she was curled up. It was not yet morning. The sky was still dark and the rain fell in a continuous curtain, the drops small but unrelenting. It was the kind of rain that collected on top of clothing at first, a fine dewy mist before it soaked in all at once. It would not clear up until next nightfall, she figured after examining the way the clouds churned in on themselves instead of moving in any one direction. They would be lucky to see the moon over New Illium tonight. She started when a stranger passed her by, an old man bent over a staff that rattled and clicked as he walked. A collection of unidentifiable dark shapes dangled off the top end of his stick, producing the unique sound. For a moment, she thought that he might stop and demand to know what she was doing there, but he did not even notice her presence in the alcove. She breathed a sigh of relief when he turned a corner and walked out of sight. A week ago, his passing would have been an unremarkable occurrence, but people had started to notice her lately, a skinny little eight-year-old orphan of no special talent. She would have been happy for the attention under other circumstances; any one of the street kids would have because it meant recognition and possibly a benefactor. The attention now being paid to her, however, was anything but charitable. It had started a moon’s month ago when she made the mistake of confessing to the High Priest of the city temple of Ares that she could tell things about people just by looking at them. Not all the time, of course. But once in a while she could just know that one was late getting home and worried about his infant son in the hands of his servants; that another was afraid the tailor would not have her new clothes done in time for an upcoming holiday feast; or that a man hurrying through the marketplace was hoping he wouldn’t get caught for stealing the maize he had tucked under his cloak, the only food he had to give to his starving children. Cassi wouldn’t have told the priest at all if it hadn’t been for the man who had stolen a silver offering tray from the temple the night before. The High Priest had offered a handsome reward for information leading to its recovery, and Cassi had salivated at the thought of how much food she could buy with it. Undeterred by the jeers of the other street kids, she told the High Priest what she knew, but instead of the expected reward, he threatened to have her put in the stocks. She knew that he thought she was lying, so she named the man. This didn’t make things any better, though, and when the priest demanded that she tell him how she knew this, Cassi refused to say. That was when he grabbed her arm and shook her so hard that she feared he might hurt her. Even though she had sworn to herself that she would tell no one her secret, she answered the priest’s question just so that he would stop shaking her. For the barest moment after that, the High Priest’s face looked so strange, as if he were terrified and envious at the same time. Before she could unravel the meaning of the odd combination, the expression disappeared, leaving behind a look of pure hatred. The guards arrested the thief and returned the silver tray to the priest within the hour, and as payment, Cassi received a beating and a warning that if she ever showed her face inside Ares’ holy temple again, her youth would not protect her. Then they threw her down the temple steps and let the hounds chase her away while they screamed cruel words at her back and called her an evil daemon child. Cassi wasn’t angry about it because she was used to being tossed out of places. People did it to the street children all the time. Being called a daemon child didn’t even bother her; she thought it would be wonderful to be the daughter of one of the lesser beings from the realm of the gods. It was the evil part that began to keep her up at nights. She didn’t think she was evil, but what if the ability to know things was? After all, the High Priest was a very wise and enlightened man, closer to the gods than anyone else in New Illium. If he thought she was evil, it must be true. After that, she’d tried hard not to listen to the voices that imparted the forbidden knowledge, but the damage was already done. In a place like New Illium, a large but isolated city sitting far off the main trade routes of the southern continent of the New World, words traveled like lightning. The previously invisible little gutter girl was now the object of scorn and ridicule—even, as she learned from the other street kids, an object of fear. Some of the other kids ganged up on her a couple of times and chased her through the streets, calling her names and throwing stuff at her, but she always managed to give them the slip one way or another. Until last night, anyway. She took a wrong turn into a dead-end alley and five of them cornered her. She knew them, and they were all wimps who took off after getting in one good hit, but her ribs were still sore from where they kicked her. They were the reason she was here tonight, crouched in the puddles under a sheltered doorway in her thin cloak, trying to sleep. She knew with the forbidden way of knowing that she would no longer be safe from them in her previous little shelter behind the metal smith’s shop. Everyone knew she stayed there and Cassi had no idea what the kids would do to her if they cornered her again. It was too bad because the furnaces kept her warm, and the blacksmith, who was an Esper, let her watch him while he worked. Even though he’d told her that he didn’t listen to gossip, she wondered if he would turn her out now that she was banned from Ares’ temple. He didn’t care about her secret as long as she didn’t misuse her abilities, but he loved the gods very much. His acceptance of her wasn’t the only reason she enjoyed his company. He told her stories about the Laraka. Cassi suspected that he was pulling her leg with some of those fantastic tales, like the one about the Laraka who drew lightning out of a cloudless sky, but they were fun to listen to. She wished sometimes that she could see one, a real one, just once. Most people were afraid of the Laraka, saying that the Elders practiced black magic and evil ways, or that they and the Espers were frauds who used tricks and sleight- of-hand to scam people. Cassi did not believe for one minute that the Espers were fakes. The smith, she knew, could see with Esper sight and hear people thinking, so the Espers couldn’t be lying about their abilities. With a bit of grown-up logic, she reasoned that if one opinion about the Espers was wrong, then maybe others were as well. Since Cassi knew an Esper and talked to him a lot, she had concluded a long time ago that the Espers and the Laraka were good people. She often dreamed to herself that maybe she was one of them. It would be wonderful to be an Esper. But it still bothered her that the High Priest, a wise and learned man, thought she was evil. Could he be right somehow? Was there something she didn’t know about Espers, something damning? Had the wool been pulled over her young, trusting eyes? She hoped not because the smith really was a kind man, but it was always possible that he was the only good Esper. He was the only one in the entire city, after all, and there might have been a reason for that. Cassi shook her head, water drops flying off in all directions, and told herself to quit worrying. It wouldn’t solve anything and she had no time for it. When daylight broke, she had to be gone or the kids from last night would come back. She crept warily out of the doorway and into the muddy street, her eyes searching both ways for any other late walkers. “Girl!” Cassi jumped at the voice, and without thinking, she took off running. It was better to hide from a possibly well meaning stranger than to risk being caught alone on a dark street in a deserted neighborhood by one with less than savory intentions. She heard the slap-slap of her pursuer’s feet chasing her, gaining on her because the mud sucked at her small feet and slowed her. She doubled back without warning, intending to surprise him and dart past, but he anticipated her. She ran right into him and two small but strong arms engulfed her, lifting her off the ground. She squirmed and kicked but it had no effect and she stopped struggling to save her strength. The man set her roughly back on her feet but kept one hand clamped on her forearm. Cassi looked up to see a short man with a darkly tanned face covered in yellow and red tattoos, large golden disks fitted into stretched and elongated holes in his earlobes. He was an Inca, not much older than twenty maybe, and not friendly looking. He glared at her the way he might have looked at a piece of rotten meat on his dinner plate, then called a word into the dark street in a language she didn’t know. Cassi gulped. Out of the shadows came another person. He was very tall compared to the Inca, and he wore a long, thick cloak that looked black in the darkness. After he said something in that same unknown language, the Inca released her. Cassi’s first urge was to run but her instinct was quenched by her insatiable curiosity. Even though it often got her into trouble, she thought it worth the risk this time to stay and find out what these men wanted from her. Perhaps her inclination to trust them had something to do with the incredible sense of presence that the tall man wore like a coat of armor. “Are you Cassandra?” the tall man asked in Greek. She couldn’t tell by his accent where he came from and his face was hidden under his hood. In spite of that, Cassi was certain that he wasn’t a city dweller or a farmer from the outlying settlements. She could only speak Greek well, though she knew a little Latin and Gaelic like most people in the city, but she knew all the accents of the countryside. His fit none of them. Cassi cautiously confirmed her name, wondering what she had done that would send two strangers out to find her in the latest hours of the night. Then with a thrill of mingled fear and excitement, she recognized the sense she felt from the second man. It was like when she was near the smith, except stronger. Now she had done it, she thought—whatever it was. She was in trouble with an Esper, a real trained one, not like the smith who had only studied the Esper sciences for a year. They were mad at her. The ability she had was some evil perversion, and the High Priest had brought them here to punish her for using it. Cassi didn’t realize that she’d tensed to spring away until she felt the Inca’s hand come back down on her shoulder. She forced her muscles to relax. Whatever this was, she would find a way out of it, just like she found her way out of everything else she got herself into. “Don’t worry, Cassandra,” the Esper told her kindly, pushing back his hood. Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw that he looked perfectly normal under there. What had she expected? There was nothing in his appearance to tell him apart from anyone else except for the presence he emanated, and Cassi guessed that most people didn’t notice that. He was older than the Inca, maybe twenty-five or thirty, of the old Roman build and coloring. His dark brown hair hung just a bit too long over emerald eyes so bright that they seemed to shine with a light of their own. “My name is Julian, and this is my guide, Capac.” The Inca grunted and let her go again. “I’m Confidant to the Elder Inlil-Inksham. You’ve been summoned to her.” Cassi felt her heart skip and speed up. “I’m to see an Elder?” she asked, hardly believing her ears. Julian—the Confidant, a title that Cassi was unfamiliar with—smiled at her and kind of chuckled. “She wants to see you, yes. We’re to return as soon as possible. Our pack horses are waiting outside the city gates.” He scanned her clothing and frowned, and Cassi squirmed at the quality of his gaze. “That’ll never work. We’ll have to find you something better.” She had never felt so self-conscious before. It was a new and unwelcome emotion to her and she decided that she didn’t like being examined that way. Defiant, she crossed her arms. “What’s wrong with my own clothes? I’ve had these for months.” “That’s what’s wrong with them,” Julian told her, bending down so that he was at eye level. “You’ll freeze in the mountains if you wear those. Come on, we can wake one of the tailors and get you something decent.” He straightened and gestured for her to follow him through the unabating rain, and even though she knew that she was supposed to be cautious, she didn’t think to distrust him. She knew that he wasn’t lying, and she knew that he wasn’t dangerous to her, so without hesitation, she started after him. His legs carried him along quickly and she ran to keep up with his much longer strides, ignoring Capac plodding along behind her. “Why does an Elder want to see me?” she demanded when she was beside him. “I’m sure she has her reasons,” Julian answered enigmatically, his mouth quirked in a playful half smile. “How does she know who I am?” “She knows many things.” “But how? And where does she live, is it far? Maybe she was here once and she saw me, is that it? Did she see me and now she wants to talk to me?” “My, but we’re full of questions,” Julian commented. “Don’t be too eager; you’ll have your answers soon enough.” “Why not now?” Cassi demanded, irritated at the adult propensity for dragging everything out. “Because I don’t have all your answers, Cassandra, and you’ll have to wait for the Elder to explain it,” Julian informed her patiently. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time for learning.” Cassi felt ready to burst out of her skin with the strain of not being able to get her answers immediately, and after less than a minute of silence, she asked, “What’s a Confidant?” “It’s what the Laraka call their human companions,” Julian answered. “They always have two, usually Espers they’ve raised themselves. Confidants are sworn to their Elder for life.” “Really?” Cassi asked, wide-eyed. “How old is your Elder?” “I don’t really know,” he said casually. “Several thousand years, at least. Inlil-Inksham is the oldest surviving Laraka. Some say she’s been around since the fall of Ancient Shumer.” Cassi was speechless. So many years! “Then they are gods,” she whispered, glancing skyward. “No!” Julian barked without warning. Cassi flinched at the sharpness of his tone. “Don’t ever say that again, Cassandra, especially not in the Elder’s presence. That’s the surest way to insult her. The Laraka are not gods, or spirits, or demons. They’re a different race of people, of humans. They come from humans, their parents are humans. They’re not supernatural, and if you ever say that to one of them, you’ll offend them very badly, okay? Oh gods, don’t cry,” he said, stopping in the middle of the muddy street. “I’m sorry,” Cassi said, hiccupping back a sniffle that threatened to overwhelm her. “I’ll never say it again, I promise. Don’t be mad.” Julian sighed and shook his head as he knelt down in the mud. “Kid, I’m not mad at you. I just want you to understand that there’s nothing magical about them, or about the Espers. It’s not sorcery, it’s science, understand? Oh, come on, please stop.” He started to make a comforting gesture, but instead of gripping her shoulders, he pulled his hands back and rested them on his knee. “Look, I’m sorry I snapped, I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just important that you know this now.” When he resisted touching her, Cassi’s tears broke through. It surprised her and she hated herself for it, but she was so cold and tired and hungry that she couldn’t stop. She had said something so wrong that now he was too disgusted to even touch her, but too polite to say so. The force of her sobs made her bruised ribs hurt and she began gasping at the dull pain that pulsed in her sides with each breath she took. “No, no, Cassandra, that’s not it,” Julian told her out of nowhere. “You’re not repulsive for saying that, I swear.” He made the abortive gesture again, helplessly. “Kid, I can’t touch you, I really can’t touch you. I’m an Esper.” Getting her crying partially under control, she squeaked out, “Then you can really die from touching people?” “No, I wouldn’t die,” he replied as if the suggestion were absurd. “It’s just very unpleasant to touch someone who doesn’t know how…um.” He paused and scratched his head, searching for words she’d understand. “It hurts sometimes, but it won’t kill me. That’s just a myth.” “Oh,” Cassi said, her unwanted tears abating. “I’m sorry again.” “You don’t need to apologize,” Julian told her, obviously relieved that she’d stopped crying. “You didn’t know. Let’s go, we’ve got to get moving as early as possible. I don’t like leaving my Elder alone for so long.” Her tears forgotten as quickly as they had come, Cassi said, “You told me every Elder has two Confidants. Isn’t the other one with her?” Julian frowned. “Right now, I’m her only Confidant. The other one died almost a year ago. He was eighty-seven years old.” He stood and began walking again, glancing back to make sure that Cassandra followed. “I hope I live that long,” Cassi exclaimed as she splashed through the deepest puddles in the street. What use was there in keeping her feet dry when the rest of her was sopping wet? Besides, she’d seen how all the old spinsters picked their way down the street with their skirts held up around their knees when it rained, and she always noticed that they never smiled. Maybe if they splashed in the puddles once in a while, they would. Her ruminations about old ladies evaporated as she paused to examine her footprints in the mud. Hers were much smaller than Julian’s and she stuck her foot into one of his boot prints to see how many of her feet equaled one of his. “Maybe you will live that long, but if you don’t keep up, I’m going to leave without you,” Julian said as he strode ahead. She finished counting feet—two plus a little extra—and scampered back to his side. * * * * * Cassi wanted to laugh at how funny the tailor acted when he saw Julian walk in with her. He was one of the meanest shopkeepers in New Illium, but now he was scurrying back and forth, nervously asking Julian if one fabric or another was acceptable, and what style did he want and in what colors? Overly polite and bowing every minute or so, he pulled out stools for Julian and Capac and bellowed to his petite wife to bring them hot coffee while he adjusted the length of a cloak and hemmed a pair of riding breeches for Cassi. The wife was so intimidated that she accidentally splashed some of the hot dark liquid on Julian’s hand, and before Julian could do more than hiss at the temperature of it, she ran from the room, mortified. Cassi stared after her, wondering why she was so afraid of the Esper. Julian had hardly spoken except to answer the tailor’s questions, and Cassi didn’t think that he looked mean. Several minutes passed and when the wife didn’t come back, Julian excused himself and strode into the back room as if he had every right to be there. The tailor paused long enough to pale, then hastily returned to his work, keeping up an endless stream of inane chatter as if the prospect of silence frightened him. He acted the same way while he fitted her for boots and a warm alpaca-wool sweater. About that time, Julian returned with the tailor’s wife in tow, the latter much more relaxed and almost at ease in the Esper’s presence. She smiled shyly and wiped tear tracks from her rosy cheeks before pouring fresh cups of coffee. When they left the tailor’s shop around mid-day, Cassi strode at Julian’s side while Capac trailed behind like a bodyguard. She didn’t feel like herself anymore. The clothes were of a higher quality than she’d ever had, and the market-goers all kept moving aside. She watched them as they went out of their way for her, wondering why they bothered. She was still Cassandra the orphan who slept in the street. She wasn’t sure that Julian could hear her thoughts until he said, “It’s because they don’t recognize you anymore. They only see as far as the outside, the marks of caste. You don’t look like a street rat anymore, you look like a child from the mountains who is well provided for, and they treat you that way. Hungry?” Julian motioned at the little bakery stand they were passing. It had been so long since feeling hungry had anything to do with getting a meal that she almost said no. Catching herself in time, she followed Julian to the stand. “Pick anything you like,” he said, selecting a chunk of sweetbread for himself and handing another to Capac. “Go on,” he encouraged when all she did was stare at him. Timidly, she picked up a salted pretzel bigger than both her hands and watched Julian pay. As they walked away, she kept glancing back at the stand, waiting for a guard to pop up and make her return the pretzel. There were no guards in sight, however, and she eventually bit into her pastry. It was still warm. Cassi was still busy devouring the pretzel when they turned into the industrial district. Carpenters and blacksmiths, jewelers, road-builders, architects, sculptors and various other professionals had their work areas down there. The streets of this district were wider and the buildings spaced farther apart than up in the marketplace and urban areas. The road here was also newly paved, the first in a series of projects to lay asphalt streets throughout the entire city, slums and high-class areas alike. Caravans had been arriving from the coastal ports for months already, carts and animals laden to the breaking point with barrels of an oily black slush that the smith had told her was bitumen from Anatolia. She’d watched him purify it once and use it to pave his front walk, pouring the hot, bubbling black sludge all over the ground in front of his door and smoothing it with a metal brush until it cooled and hardened. “I thought you said your pack animals were outside the city,” Cassi said, speaking around the last chunk of her pretzel, which she’d just shoved into her mouth. It didn’t occur to her to wait until she was finished chewing until Julian gave her a disapproving look. “One of the horses threw a shoe yesterday afternoon,” Julian answered. “We have to pick him up.” Cassi gave a start of recognition when he led them into her smith’s shop. The smith greeted them at the door and sternly appraised Cassi before smiling and saying, “You clean up well, just like I told them you would. Finally going to meet an Elder, huh?” The full impact of the day’s events hit her and she grinned from ear to ear. “Yes, sir!” she answered, drawing herself up to her full height. The smith laughed. “Well, good luck to you, youngling,” he told her as he handed the horse’s reigns to Capac. “I hope you find your fortune.” Cassi smiled even bigger and skipped out the door after Julian, waving goodbye to the smith, who watched them from his doorway. This was the best day of Cassi’s life. She’d gotten a pretzel and new clothes, and Julian was taking her away from New Illium to meet a real live Elder. Most fortunate things in her life turned out to be bad things in disguise, but for once, she could feel that this really was as good as it seemed. * * * * * “This stinks,” Cassi complained as she trudged uphill behind Julian. She hurried so Capac wouldn’t step on her heels again. “Why can’t we ride the horses through the mountains?” “Because they’re only ponies and they’re too small to hold us. Besides, we only have two of them. Even if they could carry people, someone would still have to walk.” Cassi looked intentionally back at Capac and the Inca glowered at her. “Why doesn’t he say anything? And why doesn’t he like me?” “He doesn’t like anyone,” Julian told her, “not even me. He’s just civil to me because I’m the one paying him, and he respects Espers. And he doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t speak Latin or Greek. He only knows his native tongue, the dialect of the Peruvian Inca.” “But you speak his language,” she pressed. “Why doesn’t he talk to you?” Julian let out a frustrated sigh. “He’s just doesn’t have a friendly nature, Cassandra. He was born the illegitimate son of the High Priest of Tiahuanaco, and since the temple doesn’t recognize his lineage, he can’t claim descent from the ancient temple-keepers. He should’ve been heir to the priestly caste, but all they let him walk away with was the blood in his veins, and that grudgingly. Don’t let his bad mood get to you. It’s just the way he is.” “Oh.” She turned her attention back to the path. “Why aren’t there any roads here?” “Except for the fields immediately surrounding the foreign settlements, this land belongs to one of the tribes of the Amazon, I think the Tapajos Chiefdom, and they don’t believe that the earth should be covered by stone. If she lets you pass, she lets you pass. If not, too bad. It means that the gods didn’t want you to.” For the rest of that day, Cassi badgered him into telling her everything he knew about the Amazon tribes, especially the violent Tapajos Chiefdom who still practiced human sacrifice, until they made camp for the night and he sternly told her to go to sleep. She was surprised when he gave her a blanket of her own and a spot near the dying fire instead of shooing her off into the trees to fend for herself. Her spot was actually better than his. As a last warning, he told her to stay within earshot because, though the area was generally safe, there were a few tribes that still practiced the old rites. With a suggestive grin, Julian ran one finger from ear to ear across his throat and smacked his lips. Cassandra wished she could tell whether he was being serious or not, and on that disturbing note, she was slow falling to sleep. * * * * * The next several days saw them into the wilderness of the Andes and safely into the lands of the Inca. Accustomed as she was to seeing mountains rise in the near distance above the walls of her home city, nothing could’ve prepared her for actually being inside them. The peaks rose so far above her that she felt as if the world had grown walls to separate it from the black void where the stars slept. She often wondered, as she waited for sleep at night, if she would fall away from the earth if she tried to step over one of the tall, razor-sharp ridges connecting the peaks. Watching the ragged, tree-covered slopes tower higher and steeper on either side of the valley they walked in during the long days, Cassandra fervently hoped they weren’t going to one of the huge stone cities built on the tops of the mountains. She didn’t want to have to climb all the way up the side of one of those huge things, not even to meet an Elder. Besides, she’d heard from another one of the street kids that the higher a person went, the less they weighed till eventually, they floated away into the black sky and got stuck in the firmament forever, like when a gnat flew into a spider’s web. That was the last place she wanted to go, curious as she was about it. She did, however, hope they would see the ocean. Her wish was close to being granted five days later when they exchanged the horses for two shaggy mountain ponies at a small farming village and left the main path, heading off on a narrower track that led west toward the Great Ocean, the Pacific. Though New Illium was within ten day’s travel of the eastern coast, Cassandra had never been there. There was never a reason for her to risk a journey like that, but she was still fascinated by the sea. She’d spent countless nights hiding under tables in the taverns, listening to old sailors talk about it over ales like it was an old lady friend. One had even referred to the ocean as his long lost love. They always spoke with such bitter sweetness, such fondness and longing, that she wanted to see for herself why the crashing, white-foamed waves were so captivating. The trio followed the smaller, less-worn path for two more days before stopping late on the eleventh day of their journey, and Cassi was able to stare into the endless depths of the night-swathed sea for the first time. Though she could not manage to find the sailors’ lady friend out there, their nostalgia began to make sense to her. Enthralled, she watched the water’s rippling surface twinkle in the light of the crescent moon as if the ocean were an otherworldly sky filled with stars of its own. If she never saw it again, she would yearn for it every day till she died, and the whisper of the waves beating against the cliff’s base far below would haunt her dreams every night. Cassandra slept in the open that last night on the road, free from the suffocating closeness of the Andes, and dreamed to the sweet susurration of the waves pounding the rocks.
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