We were done being brushed and washed and I for one felt squeaky clean. The women who washed us handed us new clothes. Our new attire, regardless of man or woman, consisted of an orange robe long enough to cloth people much larger in height and width, as well as a blue length of cloth that the women wrapped around our waist and across our chest tightly so that the flabby attire would not make us look ill-dressed or disgraceful. Finally, they told us that the festivities would begin soon, then left us alone.
The Professor had a few important instructions to address to us. “I say we should use this occasion to find out as much as we can.” Everyone nodded in agreement. “I do not know whether they truly believe we are from the surface, it could be that they think it a mere story of myth, so we best be restrained in talking about it.” Again, everyone nodded. “We will be accepting their gifts and returning their kindness, no matter how odd their customs may seem.” I had to hesitate for a moment, thinking of all the different myths I had heard about the customs of indigenous people, but when I remembered their resourceful architecture, I concluded that these people could not be savages after all. As everyone agreed, we left our sleeping quarters and met two guards outside, who were waiting to accompany us to the place of the festivities.
They led us to the large hall we had previously considered to be a trade depot, but we saw that it was a quite versatile room. It had been transformed, within the short timespan it had taken us to get washed and clothed. Gone were all the crates, piles and barrels of wares. Gone was also any dust or dirt. Instead we saw rows of tables and benches on the main floor and a single large table up on the podium with Wicca chairs, the three most central ones the biggest and most adorned, akin to thrones. It was all completed with tablecloths, banners on the walls and flowers in large standing pots, exuding sweet scents and more elegant baskets bearing freshly filed moonlight crystals, casting a neutral light all across the room.
The main floor was already stuffed with chattering villagers. Up on the podium, Mohatul waited for us in dresses befitting a master of ceremonies. He seated us at the large table alongside dignitaries. Anne was seated away from us at the other end of the table while us three men were seated at the other end, across the table of an ageing crolachan man who both the Professor and I recognized as most likely a mage. His clothes were very fine in make, dyed skilfully with geometric patterns and lines that somehow came together into symbols with an almost uncanny familiarity. To his side leaned a cane of peculiar make, the shaft of dark wood carved in trailing shapes and images and the knob made of crystal, obviously an arcane lens as on our staves.
Professor Scutolith immediately used the opportunity to introduce himself to the man. He did so in the typical way two mages exchanged pleasantries when meeting; he raised his right hand, on which the seal of the University of Northbridge glowed in fine and colourful lines. I would have shown too, had I graduated from that prestigious institution already. The mage raised his hand, although he showed no seal there. He introduced himself as Magus Sudhitan, advisor and mage to the chief. Before we could continue any pleasant exchange, we were interrupted by young women placing in front of us small cups of a cloudy liquid swimming witch dark red specks. They placed these cups in front of everyone else at the table and indeed in the entire hall. The beverage flooded the air with that coveted aroma of sweet prickly nectar. After taking another whiff, I could confirm that it was indeed a sweet ale brewed of that morsel the Princess herself had introduced us to. I wanted to take a taste when Magus Sudhitan beckoned us to halt and pointed to Mohatul, who stood at the edge of the podium, holding a gourd-like object. He shook it, producing a bright rattling sound, rising over the chatter of the revelling villagers, bringing the entire room to silence.
He loudly announced the arrival of the chief and his family. The door to the back of the podium opened and in came the princess, followed by her father and then her mother.
I cannot deny that at that moment, I believed Sarita, as she was then, to be the most beautiful sight found below or above the world’s surface. Beauty was truly hers. Where her coat was previously a chaotic mottle of grey to dark red, now she had a fur of pure, uniform, impenetrable black, her white spots shined like fresh snow and her eyes were surrounded with a play of colourful sparkles. Her body was wrapped in the most colourful ribbons and bands, woven akin to the Vrata vines that constituted so much of the town itself, rows of feathers stuck underneath each band, framing every part of her body in an array of colours and softness. On her head she wore a wig of astonishing volume made from many long, thin strips of differently coloured cloth; whether this was because of her rather ill-kempt mane or because it was customary any way, I did not know and I did not care. Any girl I knew would have dreamed to be this beautiful for one day in her life.
Behind her entered the chief and his wife. As they passed behind me, I saw the reason for Sarita’s beautiful transformation: dust. Finely powdered coal deepened the black to its uniform appearance while powdered lime highlighted her bright spots. Her face was adorned with glittering dust of different sorts of gemstones casting an array of colours around her even, golden eyes.
The three came to stand at the table in front of their respective seats and raised cups like the ones everyone else had been given. The rest of the room raised their cups to the chief’s family and with a cheer, drank. We followed suit and in my mouth, manifold flavours and aromas blossomed. There was a sour note similar to currant, a bitter note that reminded me of tea, and of course underlying it all much diluted yet still recognizable, prickly nectar sweetness.
When the chief’s family was done with their drinks, his wife and Sarita sat down while Chief Avantyet remained standing. He addressed the crowd in a slow and clear language apparently meant for ceremonies and arguably close to ancient Pliranti. From the fragmented grammar and vocabulary I understood, I pieced together that he told of his daughter’s disappearance and stranding in the wilderness. I do not know whether he really believed that or maybe he had just said it to hide his parenting problems, but I decided to not speak up about it, we were honoured guests, after all. I tried to throw a glance over to Sarita. She noticed, smiled softly and waved half-heartedly while under the strict eyes of her mother.
Chief Avantyet had now gotten to us, the heroes of the day. He introduced us as travellers from a land afar, scholars who bring great knowledge and who had been caught in a misfortune, out of which the princess had helped them in return for safe passage back to her home town. The entire story was very reminiscent of a sort of sermon or epic poetry and I have to admit, if this was what a chief of a crolachan town had to do, Avantyet was surely among the best at it.
He gave a signal and four beautiful young women in elaborate attire holding white scarfs neatly folded entered the podium. One of them each stood before us and handed us the piece of cloth. I smiled and as I touched it, I felt a most overcoming sensation of softness. I had never felt anything as comfortable, fluffy and warm. I could not resist rubbing my cheek against it to convince myself that this was not an illusion. Stitched onto the white cloth were beautiful, plant-like patterns of green, blue, red, and yellow, most of them depicting the Vrata vine. I looked to the other members of our group and they too enjoyed this gift. We wrapped it around our necks and thanked with a bowing gesture.
Serving ladies brought more cups of prickly wine and plates of small morsels to eat. We had little idea what they were but we agreed that all of them were delicious, some thick and hearty, some spicy and sour, some juicy and sweet.
I was still testing various treats to find my new favourite when I noticed that Professor Scutolith was already chatting with the Magus Sudhitan, who too spoke the ceremonial language. When we inquired as to what it exactly was, he claimed it to be a language passed down from ancestors and spoken only by dignitaries of the humans and crolachans of this world.
“Amazing, Havellan, how do you think this cane about?” the Professor’s thirst for knowledge swelled up as his eyes and ears seemed to widen to soak up ever more of it.
I tried formulating a hypothesis. “Maybe a group of humans and Crolachans wandered down here during the time of the Pliranti empire?”
“Yeeees, that must be it!” the Professor was already ahead, asking Magus Sudhitan even more questions, which he answered with a dutiful respect.
Similar to how families with gifted blood would form noble houses on the surface world, families of mages took the form of organized cadres that however held no direct power, instead sending mages like himself to the side of influential political figures. Many governmental and diplomatic acts took place only through these bodies. Another charge of these cadres were long-range tunnel networks that had to be kept in good conditions, as to allow their use to all those who pay the toll and promise to not use them for specific wares or purposes.
I soon fell out of interest with the intricacies of toll keeper families and turned instead to Brad, who was currently busy using hands, feet, tail and many, many Pliranti words to entertain the serving girls, who had gathered around the intriguing foreigner with the masculine wide chest no other man down here had. I glanced over to Anne, who was involved in discussion with another villager in fine clothes and of elderly exterior. Sarita sat firmly between her mother and her father, who also formed a man-woman split at the table. The common villagers obeyed no such split at their tables and there was joyful mingling with each other and I could clearly recognize flirtatious youths trying to break the ice with those of the other gender.
I decided to leave for fresh air. I stood up, bowed to Magus Sudhitan and left the podium through the back door. From there, I walked up and down the walkway going around the building, observing the surrounding chamber. As I could see, the fog was currently falling from up high, slowly settling down, dusk was about to come, soon this entire chamber would be dark. I saw moonlight crystals already placed and glowing brightly in baskets, braziers or even candelabra-like objects. They were in some regards truly like torches or candles, except without flame or soot and safe from winds and water, making them perfect in use for these sometimes confined chambers. Below I saw Chrysita, or more precisely her golem body, two guards stood there while children gawked and talked close by, apparently eager to climb and play upon it. From when we were accompanied through the chambers, I remembered the reactions of the villagers who were far more restrained than any surface dwellers would. Maybe this rich air down here made golems feasible and more common, it only made sense.
I had walked a few times around the building when a woman of the village approached me. I recognized her as the one that had washed me, now in more elegant clothes than that of a servant. She had a worried look about herself, constantly turning her head to ensure we were alone, and in her hands she held something small and soft that she nervously kneaded.
Is stopped and waited for her to speak up to me first. She was obviously not well versed in the ceremonial language, but tried her best nonetheless.
At first she pleaded with me to help, presumably her. I agreed with a nod and she came even closer to me, lowering her voice. She then sought together a few clear words to form something of a logic.
“Sarita husband not good.”
Was she telling me the arranged marriage was bad for the girl? I beckoned her to continue.
“Sarita husband angry. Sarita husband marry other princess, strike other princess. Other princess dead now. Sarita dead then.”
I understood immediately. Sarita had not just fled from an arranged marriage, but from a marriage to a violent husband. Things started to make sense now; the desperation in her when we said we would return her to get the reward, her increasingly depressed and glum mood, her sadness despite the revelry surrounding her.
The woman again pleaded with me. “Escape. Sarita leave, Sarita safe.”
I nodded. The woman wanted us to take Sarita with them. I answered her with a single word. “How?” to which the woman answered with a desperate shrug, it seemed to me this woman was all out of options. She looked again around nervously when two happily chatting voices came closer around the corner. Hastily, the woman pushed the soft something from her hands to my chest and under the wrappings of my robes, whispered “Grace” into my ear and then made quick way to leave around the corner as if nothing had happened. I turned around and leaned on the railing of the walkway, pretending to look out over the chamber.
When the two chatting revellers had passed me by, I looked at the soft something she had left with me. It was a plush toy of some sort, old and patched many times. It depicted an animal likely resembling a bear. This woman obviously cared much about the girl and was close to her, at least in the girl’s childhood. Was she a nanny, or maybe even Sarita’s wet nurse? All I knew for certain was that she cared more about the girl’s well being than her parents obviously did. I put the plush toy back into the folds of my wrappings so that its presence could not even be guessed. Then I returned inside.
Back on my seat, I found the Professor and Magus Sudhitan embroiled in a discussion about celestial bodies, a concept the scholars below the surface had theorized about, but had little understanding of. Ancient tales of ‘the Flame’ and ‘the Lights’ existed, but had no clear evidence of. The parallels between the phases of the moon and the rhythm of the glowing mist had struck Magus Sudhitan as most interesting.
To further highlight this similarity, the Professor explained to me the calendar used by the people living below the surface. “As you know, Havellan, the moon takes a little over twelve days to complete its transition from new moon to waxing to full to waning and back to new moon again. Since the glowing mist, as you correctly observed, behaves similar to the tides on the surface, we can also assume that every half moon, there would be a neap tide down here and every full and new moon a spring tide. This is what our colleague Magus Sudhitan has told me about. Since the people here can only observe spring- and neap-tides but not the phases of the moon, they have separated the time down here into sections of twelve tides, from neap- to spring tide, roughly six days for us on the surface, each tide consisting of twelve hours, although these would have to be a tiny bit longer than our hours, which are based on the sun, not the tides. And it seems the rhythm of day and night seems to be in their blood, because they and other people’s down here see twenty-four hours as something of a unit containing work, recreation and sleep once.
The people down here also put twelve tides into a group called a duoch, 144 tides, 72 days or 1728 hours, and 144 duochs were again a vertoch, roughly 28 years to us. Now this is interesting, I find.” The Professor made a pause and made a nod to Sarita. “When Sarita said she was over 72, what she meant was duochs. 72 duochs, or half a vertoch, is considered a coming of age for many people down here and it would place the dear girl at fourteen years old.”
I was at first relieved to have finally learned of these people’s perception of time, a certain worry made its way into my mind. “Fourteen is not what I would consider a good time for a girl to marry.”
“But Havellan, boy, you must see it from their perspective: a duoch consists of 144 tides and 144 times 72 is half of 144 times 144 tides, a holy number for them. They consider all earthly things to be arranged by the number twelve.”
The Professor was far more interested in acquiring knowledge than the ramifications of these things. He would be hardest convince and I decided to only try when I had at least one of the others on my side. I guessed Anne to be the easiest to convince; she obviously already cared for the wellbeing of the girl. It was no use for now. To plan to help Sarita escape here could be dangerous. We might be able to understand us despite our language, or even just guess our conspiring intentions for our faces and moods. For now I asked for another cup of prickly wine and observed the others as they were having more fun than I did, but inside my mind, the gears of conspiracy were already working.