Here we are, the fourth chapter of To Look Skyward, and back to Danas' viewpoint. I envisioned these two characters, Kirelon and Danas, as opposites that want to accomplish the same thing, but would rather go about it in different ways. And the third main character of the book, Ilendia, yet to be introduced, is like a counterpoint to both Kirelon and Danas. Ilendia reveals things about them through her interaction with them (and about herself as well, since she's not just a foil) and is in a way the real focal point of the story. But we'll get to that later.
For now, enjoy Danas as she journeys up into the Middle City for the first time in her life. You can find the Google Doc version of the chapter here. As always, I encourage you to comment on the chapters as I post them and let me know what you think.
"Do you have to leave, Danas?" Eline said, hugging her older sister with all of the strength her slender little arms could muster. The girl’s light brown hair was as thin and wispy as the wind itself, and she looked up at Danas with huge brown eyes that were on the verge of tears. "I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too, Eline," Danas said, stroking her sister's hair with a gentle affection. "But I do have to go. You need to be strong now, little one. For Mother, and for me." Danas broke Eline's grip around her waist and knelt down to look the little girl in the eyes. "And especially for Penod. He gets himself into trouble, and you need to look after him, alright?"
Eline wiped at her eyes as tears began to fall. "Okay, I'll try," she said in a small voice. "When will you be back?"
Never, Danas thought. If things work out the way they're supposed to. Or even if they don't. "I don't know," she said aloud, continuing to stroke Eline's hair. "Hopefully soon, little one." She glanced up at Penod, who stood with his arms folded, glaring at her. She sighed, and stepped over to him. He had grown considerably in the years since their father's death--he was as tall as Vatos had been, and nearly as strong. Penod was only fifteen, but he was big enough to be a man.
"You're really leaving, then?" he said, his expression refusing to soften even as she put a hand on his shoulder. "You're abandoning us?"
"I'm not abandoning you," Danas said, meeting his gaze firmly. "I am saving you. I'm saving all of us. I'll change things, and the Lower City will be better. Trust me."
He snorted, and looked away, arms still folded. "Whatever. I don't believe you."
She sighed and turned, looking across the room at her mother, who stood at the open door, silently watching the courtyard beyond their four walls--the place where her husband had died. Danas felt a fire begin to come alive in her veins as she thought back on that day. They had executed her father in front of everyone in the neighborhood--in front of his wife and children--forcing them all to watch for no other reason than to see them squirm. Of course, the Speakers had done it. They had Dominated him from above and compelled him to cut his own throat. The final humiliation after they had flogged him and publicly condemned him to eternal torment in the name of Chridius, their "god". It was a traitor's death. The worst of deaths.
For the best of men.
Chrilles continued to watch out the door, as was her custom. She had never been the same after her husband's demise. It had progressively gotten worse over the years--by the time Eline was six, their mother barely spoke to any of them. She just stared out the door with a blank expression, and if Danas listened for long enough, she sometimes heard her mumble the word "home". Danas had never understood what her mother meant by that word.
Danas walked over to her mother and draped an arm about her shoulders. "I'm leaving now. I won't be back for a while," Danas whispered, her voice starting to break as the memories flooded her mind. "I love you, mother." And then she kissed Mother on the cheek, the tears already flowing. Her mother turned to her and smiled once--a sad, almost regretful smile--and then went back to her quiet observation of the courtyard.
Danas left, leaving through a side door and not looking back. She had never been one for emotional goodbyes, and that was about as much emotion as she could take at one time. With everything that had been happening lately, Danas wasn't sure how to handle any of this. Her thoughts seemed to scatter even as she tried to string them together into cohesive patterns, and nothing she did made sense to her anymore. It was only Mikis, Nast, Pohn, and the others that were keeping her afloat. She was barely functioning, and even though she pretended well, her fellow revolutionaries suspected there was something wrong.
Of course, there was something wrong. The man she had always thought would one day be her husband had tried to murder her. And she had killed him in return. It was the sort of thing that she had always assumed would never happen to her. Everyone else would suffer and lose their entire world, but she was different. That was before the man she loved most had died--her father. Now it had happened again, the same pattern. She had gotten intimately close with someone, and built her entire life around that person, and then they had been taken from her. Part of her wanted to close off from everyone, lest the pattern continue. But... She didn't really want to do that. Sometimes she hated people, what they did to each other, what they said. She was the only person that really made sense to her, the only one she could really trust. But the more she contemplated the thought, the more it sickened her. What would that accomplish? She might be happy, but that was it. It was selfish and wrong. She had a purpose in life, something that went beyond her own wants and needs.
She had to save these people. For her father, if nothing else.
The Lower City sprawled out before her as she walked, clusters of grey-stoned buildings surrounded by dirty streets, endlessly repeating down the entire length of the valley. There were farms that grew the native fungi on the outskirts of the city, of course, and terraces along the lower edges of the north and south walls where farms grew other food crops, but for the most part, the Lower City was one dreary mass of grey, stretching as far as the eye could see, surrounded on every side by sheer stone walls. Today, the streets were filled with a heavy fog, a sluggish soup of opaque air that seemed to eddie and sway like water on a lake.
Danas made her way down a foggy alley, one hand on her sword hilt, the other holding her jar of everglow, as was her custom. She passed a rickety wooden door, a side passage leading into one of the buildings adjacent to the alley. She paused after a few more steps, and glanced back at the door through the fog. She recognized the small mark on the doorframe--two diagonal lines crossing each other, their top points connected by a third line, making a sort of bottomless hourglass. She nodded to herself. This was it. She had almost missed it in the fog.
She turned back and went to the door, rapping on the frame just above the mark six times in slow, measured beats--the prearranged signal for anyone who was a part of Danas' rebellion-in-planning. The door opened a moment later, and Nast's angular face appeared, smiling at her.
"Come on in," he said, swinging the door open wide for her.
Danas stepped into a back room filled with barrels and crates holding various foodstuffs and strong drink. This was the pantry of the tavern that Nast had owned and run for the past several years. It didn't really have a proper name, so most of the patrons called it "Nast's" and left it at that. Nast's tavern allowed workers to escape from their dreary lives, either through pleasant conversation, or--for the more desperate types--through a great deal of beer.
Mikis sat on a low stool, looking over some papers spread out on one of the crates. He glanced up as Danas entered and nodded. "Good, you're here. I'm not sure I could've handled being alone in a room with Nast for much longer."
Nast laughed. "Am I really all that bad?" Mikis gave him a withering look, and Nast grinned in response. "I guess I've done my job, then."
"Your job is to annoy me to death?"
"No, not to death. Of course not. Someone needs to do the paperwork for this little rebellion of ours, and it's certainly not going to be me. I'm far too busy doing more physically demanding, masculine things. No, Mikis, my job is to aggravate you just enough to sharpen your mind, keep you alert, that sort of thing. Without these little verbal sparring matches, your brain would have turned to soup ages ago."
"You know," Mikis said, gathering his papers up and started to stack them in a pile. "I used to think you talked all the time because you were in love with the sound of your own voice, but I'm beginning to see that I may be wrong. I think you may actually believe that you have something interesting to say. It's kind of sad, really."
"Oh, clever," Nast said, eyes twinkling. "Did you just make that up now, or have you been saving it for a special occasion?"
"If you two don't mind," Danas said, leaning against a barrel and watching them in amusement. "I would like to get started in the next hour or so. Could we hurry this along?"
"Of course, great leader," Nast said, turning a making a flourid, mocking bow in her direction. "Anything you say."
Danas raised an eyebrow. "Really? Anything? Now, that is an interesting proposition."
Mikis smirked and folded his arms. "Within reason, Danas. Within reason. As much as I enjoy entertaining the possibility of you ordering Nast to run through the market naked, he does have some uses, and they are better served if he is not in jail."
"Yes," Nast said with a puff of his chest. "I'm useful."
Mikis rolled his eyes, and Danas laughed, though the sound seemed forced, even to her. "I'm going to miss you two," she said with a wan smile.
"And I'm going to miss being bossed around," Nast said with a show of sadness. He glanced at Mikis and grimaced. "Nevermind. He's still going to be here."
Mikis, however, was looking at Danas in that scrutinizing way of his. "Are you alright, Danas?"
"Yes, I'm fine," Danas replied instantly. "I already told you. Now, could we get on with this?"
"Danas--" Nast started, frowning at her.
"You've both asked me the same blasted question twenty times this week," Danas said, throwing her arms up in the air. "Will you lay off already?"
Mikis raised an eyebrow. "Listen, I don't ask just because I need a question to fill the silence. I ask because I'm worried about you. You're not acting like yourself. Are you sure you're ready for this?"
Danas didn't answer, instead looking away. Nast stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder, all traces of his normal care-free attitude falling away. "Danas, please. We're trying to help you. Don't put up walls."
Danas hesitated. "Of course I'm not okay!" she blurted suddenly, surprising even herself at the vehemence in her words. "You know that. Everyone knows that." Nast started to say something, but she raised a hand. "But yes, I'm still ready to do this. I don't really have a choice. We've worked too hard to get me into the Middle City to give up now because something bad happened to me. I can handle it. Stop worrying, both of you."
"We're not bringing this up because we doubt you," Mikis said, running a hand over his bald scalp. "It's just...we don't want you to push yourself beyond your limits."
Nast nodded, his face more serious than Danas had ever seen it before. "You've been through a lot in the last week, and I'll probably never fully understand how much it's hurt you...but I do understand what it's like to keep going after you should have stopped. You have to know yourself, Danas, and know where the line is. I've seen you--when there is a problem to be solved, you don't quit until its over and done with. But that could be dangerous. If you keep working, keep pushing yourself, you might not have enough strength left when it'll really matter."
Danas stared at them, and all of the sudden she realized how much she loved these dear men. They had been with her through pain, struggle, and heartache as they had strived to create something that would change this city, and they had never given up. They had always been by her side, and even when she hadn't believed in herself, they had believed in her. These valiant men were all she really had left. A tear escaped from the pit of her eye, and she turned away again, embarrassed at the show of emotion. She wiped the tear away and nodded tersely to her companions. "You're right. Thanks. I probably needed to hear that."
"I think we all needed to hear that," Mikis said, shuffling his parchments on the crate. "It's been a long week."
Nast smiled and took another sip of his drink. "Well, now that all the soul-searching is out of the way, do you suppose we could get down to business?"
They talked for maybe half an hour, tidying up last details before Danas would go dark. It might be months before she would be able to contact them again, and she wanted to make sure the right preparations were in place to keep the revolution from falling apart the moment she wasn't there to push it along. Not that she didn't trust Mikis, Nast, and Pohn--who had been too busy with the construction of the tunnels to join them--to keep things under control...but she had never really been the trusting type. Most of the people she had trusted in the past were dead.
When they were finished, Danas gave the two men another wan little smile--already saddened at the prospect of leaving this city and these people behind--and bid them farewell. She stepped out the door and back into the fog-heavy alley beyond, beginning the mental preparation for what was to come. She hurried on towards the barracks several blocks southward, though she was not technically late. Time was kept track of irregularly in the Lower City, and many of the lowborn didn't really pay much attention to it at all--except in the broadest, most general terms, such as day and night. Even that was sort of hard to keep accurately, because of the infrequency of sunlight.
As Danas rounded a corner, she did her usual mental check to see if she had any unwanted baggage. She wasn't Linked with very often--as she wasn't a Listener--but she'd always had one Speaker who seemed to always be there. Her stalker, as she affectionately put it. He would watch her for hours, and then leave, without every having said a word or attempted to Dominate her. She could tell it was the same person, and that it was a man--the Link between their two minds told her that much, but the Speaker had never given any indication as to what he was like or why he observed her all the time.
There was no one Linking with her at the moment, not even her stalker. For some reason, that worried her. He hadn't shown himself in nearly a week, and that was highly unusual. Every couple of days, she would notice him in her mind, never saying anything, just watching. He should have come at least twice since his last visit, and broken patterns always set Danas' teeth on edge. Part of her hoped that the man had given up on her completely, off to some new diversion, but the Speaker had been with her too long for him to disappear without a trace. No...he would be back.
She caught sight of the barracks through the fog as she moved through the dirty street, a long, wide building made of the same grey stone of the surrounding houses. The front of the otherwise dreary building was covered with various tapestries, depicting the insignia of the Argosson Military--two swords, one point up, one point down, on a striped field of red and blue. She made her way to its front doors--two wide, wooden portals with the same insignia engraved into their surfaces--and spoke briefly with the guards outside. They recognized her and her authority easily, and stepped aside as she swung the doors open with a great heave. A waiting chamber lay beyond, with a few chairs and a table where a serious young man in Argo uniform was busy writing something down on a piece of parchment.
She took a deep breath as she continued through the waiting chamber, preparing herself for what was going to come. She was finally leaving. After all these years, slowly climbing up the hierarchy of the Lower City military and clawing inch by inch towards a promotion, she was finally getting the chance to change things. The Middle City was only several hundred feet above the valley where the lowborn lived, but somehow it had always seemed as if it was on the other side of the world. Lowborn rarely, if ever, were given a chance to rise any higher in Argosson, and the fact that Danas was getting that chance now was making her terribly nervous. What if things went wrong? What if Taphim decided to deny her transfer at the last minute? What if--
Danas cut her own thought process off abruptly. This was not the time for second guessing everything. If she stood around saying, "what if" all of the time, she would never get anywhere, and she had a long way to go. She took another deep breath, steeling her resolve and trying once more to calm her nerves. She was going to the Middle City, and she was going to change things. That was that. She would find a weakness, some sort of advantage the revolution could use to overthrow the government and start anew. Their mission was an almost impossible task, requiring the complete annihilation and then reconstruction of the social structure--but it had to be done. Even if Argosson had been this way for centuries, and even if it was an efficient way to run the city, it was still wrong, and Danas would not stop fighting until she had freed her people from the Upper City and the Speakers.
She pushed open another set of doors that led further into the barracks, coming into a large vaulted chamber, sparsely decorated and dreary looking, as were most rooms in the entirety of the Lower City. Various lowborn soldiers milled around in uniform, some on their way to this or that assignment, most just being idle. At the other end of the chamber, a small desk was occupied by a stout-looking, brown-haired man in an officer's uniform--Taphim, the man in charge of the Lower City garrison. He was talking with another officer, a tall woman with raven hair, and gesturing to a map on the desk. Danas crossed to them, speaking a word of greeting to a few of her fellow soldiers as she did so. Taphim nodded to her as she came to stand beside them, but finished up his conversation with the other woman and dismissed her before turning to Danas.
"Ah, Danas, nice to see you," Taphim said, a brief smile touching his lips before surrendering to a more serious expression. "I take it you're here to be briefed regarding your promotion?"
"Yes, sir," Danas said, smiling slightly in return. "I want to thank you again for the chance, sir."
Taphim made a dismissive gesture. "It was no problem. You're one of my best, Danas--I hate to lose you, but you've made it clear that you're after bigger things, and the Middle City could definitely use someone with your talent and ambition." He opened a drawer in his desk and took out a rolled sheet of parchment. "I know that most people in Argosson have it out for lowborn--they think they're a lesser breed of human or something--but I know better. You're just people, like the rest of us. Unfortunately, life hasn't given you much of a chance, but I'm here to change that. You show promise, Danas. I want you to do great things, and I'm willing to stake my reputation on your career." Most leaders among the lowborn were Listeners, but Taphim was from the Middle City. He had always liked Danas, though, and didn't seem to have the same prejudice that usually followed highborn.
"Thank you, sir. I appreciate it, sir."
Taphim handed Danas the rolled parchment. "It's all right there, soldier. That will get you into the Middle City and to the right barracks. Good luck, Danas. I'm counting on you not to disappoint."
Danas took the parchment and couldn't help but grin. "That's the last thing on my mind, sir."
Taphim grinned back. "Glad to hear it. Now get out of here!" He flicked his hand as if to shoo her away. "You don't work for me anymore."
Danas saluted and walked away, smiling as many of the soldiers began to clap for her, smiles on their faces. It was a rare occasion--the last lowborn who had been promoted to high citizenship had been so long ago that no one was alive to remember it--and it was also a happy occasion. Even if the rest of the soldiers here would continue to work in the Lower City, to know that one of their own was going skyward was a comfort all the same.
Danas opened one of the side doors in the large chamber and went into the room that had been her home for the past four years. It wasn't much--only a simple bunk and dresser, which were now bare and empty from Danas' packing--but it was home, and she was almost reluctant to leave it, even for the luxury of the Middle City above. It's funny how that happens, she thought as she grabbed the two bags she had stuffed with her personal belongings and slung them over her shoulders. Even when the lock to our cage is broken, we stay, simply because it's all we've ever known. We fear change. Well, most people did. Danas did not fear change. Quite the contrary--she was going to be its instrument.
As she stepped out of her room--and out of the barracks--for the last time, she took another step towards what she knew she was meant to do. Her father had wanted to free the Lower City, and had slowly been sowing the seeds for a rebellion until his death. Danas knew that she was the one to tame the plants that were grown from those seeds into a garden. And if that garden ended up killing people to further its growth, so be it. There were always casualties in war. And this was war. Silently, in her heart, Danas swore to the city of Argosson that she would burn it to the ground if she had to, as long it would save the people she loved.
Danas gripped the edge of the railing as tightly as she could, watching the Lower City shrink beneath her. The elevator, an open-roofed steel platform about fifteen feet across, went inexorably skyward, operated through a system of ropes, pulleys, and gears that Danas thought looked impossibly complex. She would never have admitted it to anyone, but she was absolutely terrified--terrified of the amount of distance that was between her and the ground, of her mind's refusal to accept the fact that she was floating in the air with only a thin layer of steel between her and empty space, and of the fact that her life had just changed forever.
Danas turned her head to glare at the operator, a short, dumpy man who sat calmly on a stool, looking at the buildings below. How is he so calm? Danas thought, sweat trickling down her face, not from heat, but from stress. I don't know how anyone could stand this. She glanced back down at the valley and shuddered, then deliberately closed her eyes and tried not to think about it.
"You lowborn are all the same," the operator said, a note of disgust in his voice. Danas opened her eyes and looked at him, one eyebrow raised. "Too stubborn to stay in your place, but too weak to handle being outside of it." He laughed, gesturing at her. "Look at you. You look like you're gonna pee yourself."
Danas' blood began to boil, and she swore at him. "You don't know what you're talking about."
"I don't?" The man laughed again, slapping the side of the elevator, which made it wobble slightly. Danas flinched and tightened her grip on the railing. "See? You ain't got any backbone."
Danas took a deep breath and tried to ignore him. Getting into a fight with anyone right now, even a pieceman--who were just above lowborn--was not a good way to start her career here. She hoped that the Middle City garrison wasn't going to be as prejudiced towards her as this man obviously was. Otherwise it was going to be a long few months.
"How many men have you slept with?" the man on the stool said, flashing her a wicked grin.
"What?" she said, mouth agape.
"Oh, I know how you lowborn women are," he said, laughing. "You'd sell your bodies for a cheap penny. Go on, give me all the details, I can keep a secret."
She just stared at him, feeling her face grow hot with anger. She contemplated--for just a moment--pushing him off the elevator and watching him fall hundreds of feet towards the rocks below, but then decided against it. That wouldn't solve anything, and murdering someone--even this man--was, regretfully, wrong. She started to retort with some witty reply, but bit her tongue and turned away instead. No, this man just wanted a fight. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction.
She closed her eyes and thought of her father, and the way he would never fight back if he could help it. Of course, whenever someone else had been threatened, he was always there, standing up for them. But Danas couldn't recall a single time when Vatos had defended himself. He'd always had a certain peace about him, as if there was nothing anyone in the world could do to really hurt him. The only time he had ever been truly worried or angry about anything had been when he had seen others being hurt. She focused on that--she would save her energy for when it really mattered. She didn't care what this man did to taunt her or goad her into doing something she would regret, even if he was a bigoted, horrible--
No, she thought. He's not even worth thinking about. Just ignore him completely. And so she did. The man made a couple more derogatory comments in an attempt to draw her back into an argument, but she barely heard them. She was already thinking about what she was going to do when they reached the Middle City. She needed to find the barracks, meet with her new commanding officer and get situated there. She would have to cement herself in the ranks as quickly as possible, or else she was at risk of getting demoted back to the Lower City, possibly for no other reason than some bigoted soldier not liking her. She had to show them all that she was capable and ambitious--a force to be reckoned with--but she also didn't want to step on any toes. The last thing she needed right now were enemies.
There was also the unpredictability factor--Danas had pretty much no idea what to expect when the elevator stopped. She had never been skyward before, not even on a hunting expedition or to be sent to a mine. She had been a soldier for most of her life, and the furthest she had gone was to the other side of the Lower City to stop this or that disturbance. Or to the Lake. But those were still in the valley, and the information she had about the world outside of it was little. She was entering a new world. And, unfortunately, it was a new world in which everyone universally despised her and anyone like her. She sighed as she glanced up, trying to see through the thick, low-hanging clouds that blocked her line of sight to anything above them. This was going to be interesting.
Danas flinched as they penetrated the cloud layer and her body was misted with water vapor. When she opened her eyes, the Middle City was before her. Row upon row of buildings were built upon terraces, some natural, others obviously man-made. Other buildings seemed to be carved into the mountainside itself, like artificial caves. She let her eyes be drawn slowly upward, taking in the seemingly neverending layers of buildings stretching up the slope of the mountain. Then she saw it. The Upper City. The practical, relatively moderate-sized buildings that dotted the cliffs were suddenly replaced with unbelievably enormous mansions, built upon equally massive terraces jutting out from the upper reaches of the two mountains, Olcaen and Laus. Danas stood in awe at the sheer manpower required to build such magnificent creations of architecture and engineering. It must have taken hundreds of years to merely construct the Upper City, let alone the rest of Argosson. Either that, or some sort of power or strength Danas could only guess at. She knew that Speakers could Dominate a man's mind...but what else were they capable of? Were they responsible for such wonders?
As Danas continued to stare at the Upper City, something in the corner of her eye drew her attention even further up the mountains. Danas' eyes went wide. There were buildings floating in the air. Like boats upon water, they seemed to bob and shift as the wind moved them around. Danas squinted. It looked like they were tied down, which was smart--they'd likely float off with the wind if they weren't. Danas shook her head in amazement. This was incredible. She had never seen--
She saw the expanse of the sky for the first time in her life. It was a deep blue, and for a moment she thought it must be a huge lake, somehow hanging upside down with whatever sorcery the Speakers had available to them. But her momentary panic passed, and she realized it for what it was. She had seen the sky, or at least part of it, before, but only in momentary glimpses of blue or as a small sliver overhead filled with glittering stars. From the way the valley was blocked off by the cliffs and the two peaks, there was only a small piece of the sky visible at any one time, and even then only from certain areas in the Lower City. Danas had never seen it all before, and it was so vast and empty that it made her knees weak. She was sure that if she hadn't been so afraid of falling, she would have fainted by now. A great green orb hovered in that expanse, like an emerald eye, and Danas realized that it was Anillend, the Great Moon. She had heard of it, but never actually seen it in its entirety.
Danas smiled, in awe at everything she was seeing. It was all so beautiful. Of course, the Lower City had its own wonders--the Lake, for one--but there was something about this that made her feel at home. She knew somewhere deep down inside her that men were not meant to live so far from the sky. Standing here, among low-hanging clouds and buildings built into the mountain itself, everything just felt right.
She froze, realizing where these thoughts were leading her. She needed to remember what she was here to do. This was not her home. At least, not yet. She had come as an enemy into a hostile land, not as a visitor to a strange destination. If she had to burn all of this to the ground to save her people, she would do it. No matter its beauty or its worth. The men and women who took that beauty for granted did not deserve it, and so if the lowborn could not share in this paradise, no one could.
The operator grunted as they pulled to a halt where the sheer cliff ended and the terraces began. There was a small stone walkway leading from the elevator into the rest of the city, and Danas stepped towards it, hefting her bags on her shoulder again.
"Hey, you." the short man said as he stood up from his stool. "Don't be getting cocky, you hear. You're a lowborn, no matter how much you get promoted. Stay out of business that's not yours and keep your head down, or else there'll be trouble."
She glared at him. "You're a despicable man, do you know that?"
He stiffened. "You mind the way you talk to me, wench. One word from me and you're back where you came from. And this time you'll stay there and rot like the rest of the fungus."
"I don't think so," Danas said, not taking her eyes from him. "You're a pieceman, are you not? I doubt anyone would actually care what you say, even about a 'lowborn wench' like me. You're almost as low as the rest of us--we all get shoved around like garbage. You feel like you have crush us like bugs because there's no one else for you to step on, I get that. Just remember: the valley has a lot of different kinds of insects...and some of them can kill a man in seconds, if they're angry enough. If you couldn't tell already, I'm one of those kinds. You don't want to see me when I'm angry. I might just bite."
Danas stepped on to the stone walkway and started off, ignoring the rude gesture the man made her way. She heard him mumble something obscene about lowborn and then begin to lower the elevator down towards the valley again. Danas smiled. She loved getting in the last word.
Danas watched the puppets move across the small boxed theatre's stage, their motions exaggerated and emphasized with overly emotional dialogue spoken by the man holding the strings. It was supposed to be a representation of Domination, with the puppet master playing the part of a Speaker, and the puppets acting as lowborn. Danas barely restrained herself from walking over and knocking down the street performer's little theatre. How dare they? They had transformed the most traumatic, horrible thing you could do to a person into cheap entertainment. How dare they?
After the "Speaker" saved the Middle City from being overrun with lowborn, and the sizeable crowd gathered around his box stood up and cheered, Danas fled, still fuming. It was all she could do not to make a scene.
She walked aimlessly for a while, waiting to cool down before continuing on to the barracks. She did not want to storm in there with a bone to pick--no, that wouldn't help at all. The streets were packed, and she shoved through a throng of people so thick that it was almost suffocating. Technically, there were many more people living in the Lower City, but they had much more space to work with down in the valley, and most of the lowborn were usually out on hunts or in a mine somewhere on the outskirts of the city during the majority of a day. In the Middle City, all of the buildings were practically built on top of one another, and three families seemed to live in every house. Merchants sold goods on every corner where there wasn't already a musician or other performer, and various craftsmen toiled in open-air workshops along the street, some working in metal, others in clay or wool. Wool seemed to be much more prevalent here than it was in the Lower City, though Danas supposed that was to be expected--it was a bit colder this high up the mountain. She made a mental note to buy some wool clothing the next time she had the opportunity. Even though it was summer now, the air was still a bit chilly for her Lower City expectations, and it would only get colder.
She was on the fifth tier from the bottom, and had been steadily working her way upward the entire afternoon, familiarizing herself with the streets and the way the people lived. They were better off than those in the Lower City, but not by much--at least in the lower tiers. Since lowborn were usually forbidden to leave the valley, a labor force of poor middle citizenry had been formed, called "piecemen" by the more well-off citizens of Argosson because of their standard pay a week--a single lowpiece. It was a common coin, made of an ounce of silver, but to Danas, who had never really had very much, it was still quite a bit of money--worth four hundred bits, to be exact.
She glanced to the side of the street, where a pieceman porter was pulling a load of iron along in a wooden cart, shouting for people to get out of the way as he tried to make it through the heavy crowd. He looked ragged, worn, beaten down. Almost like a lowborn. The realization that people may not have it better up here simply because they were in the Middle City was a difficult one for Danas. She'd always demonized everyone higher than her, but had never stopped to think that maybe the corruption scaled skyward along with the ranks. As you got progressively nearer to the Upper City, the citizens became more pompous and self-important, and less downtrodden. Of course, they all still looked down on the lowborn, but that was because they needed the power trip. In reality, they were all pawns of the Speakers and the nobility, and they knew it. But, for a little while, anyway, they could pretend that only the lowborn were the pawns, and that they had some modicem of control in their life. Danas suspected that was why the puppet shows were so popular.
She stopped where she was in the street as she came in sight of the barracks. It was large, carved into the side of the cliff and displaying the same blue and red banner of the Argosson military that every barracks in the entire city did. Two guards, hands on their sword hilts, watched the crowd from the sides of the arched entrance, their faces grim. Danas stood amidst the throng of people as they moved around her, as if she was a rock standing firm against a river's current. This was it. The day she had been preparing for since she had taken leadership of the revolution. Her chance to shake her fist at society and then bring it to its knees.
She straightened her back in determination and started pushing her way through the crowd, eyes never straying from the entrance to the barracks. When she reached it, one of the guards raised a hand. He was a tall man with a thin black mustache, and his eyes bored into her from the slits of his curved helmet. "What is your business, soldier? You're not from this barracks."
She held his gaze, and neither softened nor hardened hers. "I was just transferred. I have the proper documents, if you'd care to look at them." She took out the rolled parchment from the side pocket of one of her bags and held it out.
The man stared at her for a moment, then looked down at the document. "That won't be necessary. Go ahead, Commander Hyrtion will be waiting for you."
She nodded and entered the cave-like building, her footsteps starting to echo as she crossed the threshold. Torches along the walls led the way down the hallway, and she followed, still not completely sure what she would find. The corridor turned a corner a few dozen feet in and led to a large artificial cavern lit by those same torches and smelling of unwashed bodies. It was filled with rows of cots, and those cots were filled with soldiers. Some lay sleeping, others sat idly, conversing with their comrades or amusing themselves with various forms of entertainment, such as gambling. Danas was shocked by the laxity in the room--there didn't seem to be any order to the lay out of the cots, and the lack of discipline from the troops was abundantly clear. There was no segregation of the genders or the ranks, and officers rubbed elbows with common soldiers throughout the huge chamber. Uniforms were wrinkled or stained, and many of the men went unshaven. One of the female soldiers lifted her arms over her head in a languid stretch, and suddenly it became frighteningly obvious that neither of the genders cared much for shaving.
She stood there, still reeling from the shock of it all--and partially from the smell. This was not what she had been expecting. The Middle City garrison should be more organized than their Lower City cousins, not a dozen steps less. Danas was used to her life being structured and orderly--if not because of the military, then because of her own overwhelming desire for organization and discipline. This place was about as organized as a circus. She finally recovered from her surprise as a young soldier trotted over to her, his uniform jacket thrown over one shoulder, revealing his hugely muscular arms through the tight-fitting shirt beneath.
"What brings you here, stranger?" The man said, scratching at his head with three thick fingers. His hair was such a light brown that it was almost on the verge of being golden, and he had striking blue eyes that seemed alive with curiosity, but not much resembling coherent thought. "You look lost."
"Just a little...surprised, is all," Danas replied. "I'm a new transfer."
"Ah," the man said knowingly. "You must have come from one of those stodgy barracks'. Things are a lot more relaxed around here."
"I...can see that," Danas said, not trusting herself to go any further with her commentary. She held out her hand. "My name's Danas. What's yours?"
"Cader," he said, shaking her hand. "Nice to meet you, Danas."
"Cader, come away from her!" a female soldier barked, walking over to them. She had short brown hair and a number of ear piercings, and a sort of haughty strut to her movements. "Are you blind?" she said as she reached them. "That's the lowborn."
Cader glanced over at the soldier and raised an eyebrow. He looked back at Danas and then seemed to see her for the first time. "Oh, right. I should have figured it. You look like one of them. The pale skin and all." He turned away with his friend and started away without another word.
Danas was almost too stunned to say anything, but recovered her wits at the last moment and called after him. "Wait, could you tell me where I can find Commander Myrtion? I'm supposed to report to him."
Cader glanced back, and seemed about to say something, but his fellow soldier prodded him in the ribs and he closed his mouth and turned away again. Danas swore. Well, this isn't starting out well. I wonder how the rest of them will treat me. She looked around the room, trying to see if one of the many uniformed soldiers had a double gold Commander's Brooch. After a first inspection, she couldn't seem to see anyone higher than a standard officer in rank, and so she began to wander around the room. Most of the other soldiers ignored her, but a few started casting disgusted glances in her direction, and Danas quickly realized that the news of who she was had spread. She thought of asking one of the soldiers for directions, but decided against it as a particularly brazen one shouted out a derogatory statement about her parentage. She grimaced and turned away with disgust. When she came to the other side of the room, she found a corridor branching off at one of the corners, and, not knowing what else to do, she went down it.
More torches led her way, and after a moment she turned another corner into a small office. A desk made of dark wood sat at the back of the room, flanked on two sides by stout chairs of similar make. Trophies and mementos taken from various animals hung on the walls, from the head of one of the larger lizards that lived in the valley to a huge furred paw of some animal that Danas didn't recognize. A man sat in one of the chairs, facing her direction with his bare feet propped up on the desk. He was short and solid-looking, with grey hair and eyes of such an odd shade of blue that they seemed almost purple. He was dirty and unkempt, and was absently picking at one of his elongated toenails, trying to rip it off. Though Myrtion had none of the aura of authority Danas had come to expect from barracks commanders, the gold brooch on his uniform undoubtedly marked him as such, and she saluted out of habit.
"Sir, my name is Danas," she said, trying to keep her voice neutral and respectful. "I'm from the northwest barracks in the Lower City. I was assigned a post here and was told to see you as soon as I arrived."
Myrtion ignored her, still picking at his toenail.
She waited respectfully, wondering if this was a test of some kind. The old man had obviously seen her--how could he not have? So why wasn't he acknowledging her? She stood there at attention for what seemed hours, growing more impatient with every scrape of nail on nail from the commander.
"Sir?" she said, when her patience had reached its limit. "Did you hear me? I said--"
He held up a hand to silence her while continuing to vigorously tear at his toenail.
"Commander Myrtion, please," Danas said, growing irritated. "This is--"
"Sky above, woman!" he said, looking at her for the first time. "I'm trying to get this blasted nail off, give me a minute!"
She flushed and clamped her mouth shut to head off a string of expletives. The commander went back to the excavation of his toenail, and after a few moments, it finally came free with a violent jerk. The dirty man stretched his legs and gave a relieved sigh, and then leaned back in the chair with a satisfied smirk on his face. "Ah, that's better," he said, wiggling his toes and smiling.
Danas saluted again, more than ready for this to just be over with. "Sir, did you have any specific orders for me, or did you just want me to check in?"
Myrtion's good spirits immediately fled, and he glared at her. "Oh, right," he said, grimacing. "It's you. Taphim's lowborn pup."
Danas stiffened and resisted the urge to say something she would regret.
"No witty retort?" Mrytion said, raising an eyebrow. "Why, we might just get along yet. Yes, lowborn, I wanted to see you--to welcome you to your new, illustrious post and to give you your first assignment." He swung his feet down and got up from his chair, padding over to her on shoeless feet. "First things first: I want to make it abundantly clear that nobody wants you to be here." He was noticeably shorter than she was, but he still seemed to be looking down at her somehow. "You might even say that we hate you--and I will certainly do everything in my power to make your life miserable. Why, you ask? Because you don't belong here, and you don't deserve this promotion. You got it because you fluttered your eyelashes at a barracks commander and then proceeded to follow him around like a well-trained pet. I wouldn't be surprised if I learned that you had crawled into his bed and--"
"Sir!" Danas said, too angry to just stand there and take it. "What's my assignment? I don't think this conversation is going anywhere."
Myrtion's face went red. "You are on dangerous ground, lowborn. One more word, and you're back in a kennel with the rest of the dogs."
Danas inhaled deeply, trying to calm herself down. No matter what she thought about this place or these people, she had to stay here and gather what information she could. It was vital to the success of their plans that she kept her mouth closed and did as she was told. She resolved in that moment to whatever was necessary, even if that involved placating a man she would rather stab in the chest. She exhaled and brought her hand away from where it hovered over her sword hilt. "Please, sir," she said, hating herself even as she said the words. "I know that I'm not worthy of this position, but I'm willing to do whatever you need me to do to prove that I can be an asset to you. I understand my place. Just let me know what you want."
Myrtion stared at her, seeming to be right on the edge of a fit of anger. Instead, he snorted and walked back to his chair, sitting down and then proceeding to rummage through one of the drawers of his desk. "You already have a uniform, a weapon, and a bad attitude, lowborn. Now all you'll need is this." He grabbed a small metal item from inside the drawer and tossed it to her. She caught it and opened her hand to see a key. She looked back at Myrtion questioningly.
"That's the key to the storage closet," he said, as if that explained everything. When Danas didn't respond, he gestured towards the door. "Well, go on."
"I don't understand, sir," she said, still confused. "What am I supposed to do in the storage closet?"
"Get cleaning supplies, of course," Myrtion said, starting to pick absently at another of his toenails. "Mops, brooms, rags, that sort of thing."
"Sky above!" he said, throwing his hands up in disgust. "Clean the barracks, woman. Top to bottom. I want to be able to eat off that blasted floor when you're finished with it."
She stared at him, mouth agape.
"Oh, you can leave your sword here with me. You won't be needing it anytime soon." He looked up at her and grinned viciously. "Welcome to the Fifth Tier Barracks, lowborn. I hope you enjoy your stay."