The city was quite a bit different to my home town. For one, it was much smaller. I think we had villages the size of this city in Valand. However, it tried its best to hide its size: A large wall was dividing up the outer and inner city, with the inner city being a dense mess of narrow, winding streets separated by tall, narrow houses which were built as closely to another as possible, sometimes joining above head height anyway. The inner city had certain quarters in which the poor lived and certain quarters where the rich lived, and they clearly were separated, but as far as I could tell, the actual living quality in both areas was roughly the same. Though of course, it is nicer to live this closely together with other people if you have enough to eat and so much to drink that you don’t need to care whether others can still hear you.
The outer city meanwhile was much less dense. The houses were much bigger, yet much simpler, and they each had their own little gardens and sometimes animals. I asked the librarian why the rich people were living so crammed up in the city centre, and they revealed that in this land, entire kingdoms form criminal bands to steal stuff from the neighbouring kingdoms, and that the walls were there for protection (and not, as I first had assumed, to build a magnificent roof over the inner city). This entire process, which they called war, would frequently get reversed with this kingdom moving out and pillaging the other. During these wars, much of the outer city got destroyed and many people died, and some parts of the other kingdom were being annexed and would belong to this kingdom in the future.
The librarian had a difficult time explaining to me why all this was necessary, because if I was to go around at home destroying the tools of one particular village, they’d lose a lot of efficiency and were mostly busy feeding themselves, rather than being able to send a lot back to us. The librarian meanwhile had a difficult time understanding why no village or group of villages had started stealing tools to get an advantage over their competitors. Overall, it was in this city where for the first time, I had talked to people where I just fundamentally couldn’t understand the reasoning of them, and they couldn’t understand mine.
As it turned evening, I had neither found someone who sold the fuel I was looking for, nor a place to sleep over the night. To make it worse, it started to rain. I asked at the taverns and really anything if I could sleep there, but none would make an exception for me, they all wanted money. Money I did not have. I finally ended up in an archway between two houses, but I had barely laid down when a guard came and threw me outside the city gates. Darkness joined the wetness and coldness for a magnificent mix of unpleasantness.
I searched around and finally found my way into a stable of some description. I laid down to sleep and hoped I’d be up before the owner came.
As it was beginning to dawn, I was being eaten by something. Rough tongues licked my face and claws were climbing up my back. I quickly got up, a move that was widely regarded as unnecessary among the local cat community. They started meowing at once. I immediately tried to leave the stable, but didn’t get far before a voice called me out.
— So you’re the lad who slept with my cats tonight?, it said. I turned around. The voice belonged to a boy who made his best attempt at sounding adult and condescending.
— I, uhm… Yes. I couldn’t find a place to sleep, and didn’t want to sleep out in the rain.
— The cats don’t like to sleep in the rain either. And you were stealing valuable space from them!
— I… have provided them with additional warmth and softness, I protested.
— Did ya now? Alright, I shall let you off with a warning this time. But you won’t get off this easily next time!
— Yes. Thank you.
The boy shooed me away, his self-confidence inflated having just won an argument with an adult. I let him be, I was just happy that I hadn’t gotten into trouble over anything in this city. Yet, anyway.
Lily was one of the first merchants to come to the city. She was eager to see me and even had a bit of extra food for me. I told her I hadn’t found any useful source of fuel, and planned to continue asking around for some.
I had barely was noon when guards came in. They were clad in long, red robes and demanded anyone from Aucrary to identify themselves. I turned away and felt I wasn’t technically wrong to do so, but a strong pair of hands turned me back around and a second pair of hands carrying a sword reminded me that it probably was best to talk to the guards to which these hands belonged.
— Tell me, where do you come from?
— I’m from Valand.
— Have you heard of Valand before?, the guard asked his fellow compatriot.
— I have not heard of this place. I think he’s making it up.
— I’m not making it up! It’s a long way in that direction!
— And what are you doing here?
— I’m looking for a special type of water that burns.
— Bold! You’re a spy from the enemy and bluntly say you’re here to commit heresy. You are hereby arrested!
Based on my previous experience with heresy, I figured this would result in death. I had to find a way out of this. The entire market looked at us, much to the pleasure of a thief who took his sweet time stealing food and potions. I called out the thief, and the onlookers turned around, as did the guard clearing the way in front of me. I hoped that the one behind me did the same and kicked him in the noodle, followed by a shove to the side. Thinking quickly, I ran towards the thief, who himself did his best to escape. Someone in the crowd tried to stop me, but wrangling with machines gives you a certain bit of strength, enough to bulldoze the poor guy out of my path. People ran after me. I shouted “he ran this way”, pointing in a side alley, hoping people would care more about catching a thief stealing from them directly than the more abstract threat of an enemy spy.
And maybe they did. As I ran out of the city, only two or three dedicated folks were behind me. I turned a corner and waited, I wouldn’t be able to outrun a good runner, but maybe I was able to outfight a bunch of people who maybe were more exhausted than me.
— Here you are, cornered like a rat in a trap, the first person to turn the corner said. He was a hulking beast of muscle, and the success probability of my plan decreased sharply. — I’m gonna tare you a second asshole before I’m done with you!
— I’m not an enemy! I just want to get back home!
— Back home to spill all the secrets you have collected here. Of course I should let you go!
— Leave him!, a woman said. It was Lily. — He’s no spy, he came down flying from the holy mountain! I saw it myself!
— Are you his lover or what?
— Rudy! What she says is true, Ralph said. — I have his flying machine in my shop.
If someone had been sitting in the stable, they would have heard some storytelling, plans being forged and goodbyes being said. If there had been someone watching through the slits in the stable, they would’ve seen a man and a woman falling into each others arms and crying. If someone had been in the stable, they would have seen these people entering, stealing a horse and putting twice its value in gold down. But nobody was in the stable, and this act by us four conspirators in broad daylight went by unnoticed by anyone.