There are plenty of ravens in the world, thought Chaen, and finished painting the sign with lacquer. As she cleaned her brushes, she kept an eye on the sign, which rested on two rickety sawhorses. The shadows would not creep back from this sheltered spot until late afternoon, and by then the lacquer would be dry. A nearby tree cast white petals to the ground like snow, but the breeze seemed to have settled and she thought no more petals would blow onto the wet lacquer. Her stomach growled, and she thought of a warm slice of bread, the aroma like nuts being roasted. She thought of a thick chunk of cheese, the color of cream, its surface rough like a rocky hillside. She opened the alehouse door, but paused and glanced again at the sky. No raven. She did not see the large black bird that lurked on a rooftop in the shadow of a chimney.
The alley door opened into the kitchen, which was occupied only by Nia, the cook, dozing in a wooden chair tilted backwards to rest precariously against the wall. Nia opened an eye as Chaen came in, then closed it and uttered a soft snore. Chaen sliced herself some bread and lay it on a stovetop to warm up as she cut some cheese and took a scoop of butter from the bowl. Bearing her plate, she went into the front room. This alehouse, situated near the docks, was usually busy, but this afternoon it lay practically empty. The tide had turned, Chaen realized, and the trade ships that had been lingering in port waiting for the weather to clear would all have departed. New ships would arrive of course, but probably not until morning.
Bodrik approached as she sat down at a table. “How long does it take to paint a sign?” he asked. “Two days, you said!” He gestured at her plate of bread and cheese in disgust, as though she had helped herself to a fat slice of beef and a glass of wine imported at great expense from some distant place.
“The sign is finished—just waiting for the lacquer to dry. I’ll hang it before dark.”
“Tomorrow you’ll be gone, then.”
He snorted and left her alone to eat her dinner in peace. The windows were propped open to the balmy afternoon, and the city sounds wandered in: Children shouting in play, carts rattling past, laundry flapping on lines stretched across the street, the sharp, rhythmic ching-ching-ching of the metalsmiths’ hammer.
Jareth is dead. Every time this thought entered Chaen’s mind it felt more familiar, less terrible. A handful of broadsheets had made their way from Watfield to Hanishport, and each one had been read by one person after another until the ink was rubbed away and the paper shredded to ribbons. Chaen had seen one of these, and had managed to put its shredded pieces back together so she could read the faded words beneath the headline, “Assassination Foiled!” One of the brave six had been captured alive, she read. His name was not known, but by now he would have starved himself to death, and he would have never said a word—of this Chaen had no doubt. But Jareth, like Chaen, had never set foot in the G’deon’s horrible, squatting house. Like her, he had fled Watfield when their failure became apparent. Like her, he had bided his time, watching for ravens, doing nothing that might appear to be purposeful. Unlike her, he had somehow come to harm. For fifteen days she had been awaiting him in Hanishport. Every evening she went to the docks and lingered by the Hanishport Clock, a famous landmark that told the tides instead of the time. She would not go there tonight: Jareth was dead.
She ate her bread and cheese, and drew herself a mug of water from the barrel. The water was sweet, fresh, the barrel filled at the Hanishport spring-mouth that very morning, delivered by a water-seller at first light. Sailors were thirsty when they came to port, and after an entire season or longer drinking only stale, tannin-flavored water, it was fresh water they wanted, even more than they wanted ale. What a strange life was led by sailors! Perhaps Chaen might flee on a ship ... but what captain would hire a portrait painter to be a sailor? And how could she bear to know that years would pass before she set foot again in Shaftal? How could she live so long without him?
In the corner by the window, someone laughed out loud. “Oh that is rich,” said the old man who always sat there, whose name she did not know. His companion, a mere silhouette against the glare, had been present when Chaen first came in, but the old man was often visited, and Chaen had paid no attention. She sipped her water and wondered, wondered, wondered what to do. She could only think of what she must not do: Seek the others; think about her son; try to learn what had become of Jareth; yearn for him.
She glanced up, startled, but restraining herself from seeming even slightly surprised. The old man’s companion had approached Chaen’s table, and now she could see her: a border woman, with her hair tied back, her face sharp-edged and hollowed, outlined in shadow and light. In Hanishport there were all sorts of people—all travelers wound up here sooner or later, and no few of them ran out of momentum, as Chaen had, and never left again. “Greetings,” she said, wanting to run upstairs for paper and pencils. That face—what a pleasure it would be to draw.
”Tell your fortune?” The border woman’s hands were full of cards—two fat stacks of them.
“I’m penniless,” said Chaen.
The woman raised a shoulder slightly, a subtle shrug.
“What do you want from me, then?”
“Nothing at all.” The woman sat, though Chaen had intended to refuse her offer. The two stacks of glyph cards she set down were impressive—more than Chaen had ever seen in one person’s possession. She began to feel something—astonishment, mostly. The woman slipped a card from the middle of a stack and lay it down, facing Chaen so she could see its illustration right-side-up.
She had never seen the glyph that was drawn in red ink in the lower left corner. She had never seen the illustration, either. She glanced at the border woman, who gazed back, expressionless. “May I pick it up?”
Chaen held the lovely thing to the light. This was no woodblock print; it was hand-drawn with an extremely fine nib, an intricate miniature so lively that, had the figures depicted there moved, Chaen would have hardly been surprised. “What artist?” she murmured. She examined the technique, noted how skillfully the artist had balanced light and darkness, and then considered the unfamiliar illustration as a whole. A woman stood in a stone-strewn landscape. She gazed at nothing; there was nothing to see—just emptiness, and a swirl of clouds pushed by the same wind that had tugged loose the cloth that wrapped her body, and that made her hair flow across her face like water. For a moment it seemed the woman was drowning. Then it seemed she was trapped within the intricate borders of the drawing. Then, Chaen realized that the borders depicted the woman’s memories: a peculiar little house, a thick woodland, a hilly landscape, a harbor filled with oddly-rigged ships, an island in the ocean, a rugged coastline, a battle being fought in a battlefield of corpses.
“The Wasteland,” said the border woman.
“What artist?” Chaen asked again. She turned the card over, seeking a signature, but there was none. “I have never heard of this glyph,” she added, when the woman said nothing.
“You know glyphs.”
“I’m a painter.”
Chaen glanced up again, though her eyes were pulled by the drawing. “I don’t know you.”
“I have just arrived.”
“Not on a ship, you didn’t.”
“I only go afoot. Will you ask a question?”
“For your fortune.”
Chaen laughed. “You think you can tell me what to do.”
The woman began casting the cards. Apparently she had not recognized Chaen’s sarcasm, and had taken her comment to be a question. The cards fell upon the tabletop as she selected them—not in any kind of pattern, but in a random disorder. Chaen could have objected, she could have walked away, or she could have simply ignored the casting. But each glyph card was as lovely, intricate and unfamiliar as the first, and Chaen could not make herself stop looking at them.
The woman ceased casting. The topsy-turvy cards, pointing every which way, overlapping each other, meant only one thing to Chaen: chaos. How absurd! Chaen said, “Do you think I’ll mistake these for some of the lost glyphs? You invented these yourself, didn’t you? A card deck so impressive—how easily people might believe in your enlightenment.”
“My enlightenment,” the woman repeated. “No, this is your enlightenment. Your life is without sense and you don’t realize it.”
“Because I’m blind, is that it? And now you’ll tell me what the truth is?”
“Leave the city at once,” the border woman said, and began to gather up the cards.
“You asked what you should do. The answer is that you should leave the city at once.” The woman stood up. “Good day.”
Chaen stared as she went out the door, as she walked past the windows and was gone. “Then leaving is the last thing I’ll do!” Chaen muttered.
She drank the last of her water and went out. The border woman had already disappeared—she probably had turned at the corner. The metalsmith’s hammer rang out its bright rhythm. The sweet, rotten, salty scent of low tide filled Chaen’s nostrils. She turned away from the alehouse and headed to the tailor’s shop down the street, where the shop sign was so old it had practically no paint on it at all.
The raven followed her.
AIR LOGIC, copyright © 2007, work in progress, Laurie J. Marks