pay me here
Sildinis strode through the row of wagons and tents in the small-hours light. The caravan had been set up in the Court of Winds for almost a week. The City of Thieves teemed with people, always busy, always hurrying. She had to watch for the pickpockets all day, and protect the talent from the bullies and extortionists by night. The early hours though, those were quiet and empty, she relished them. The city was hers and all the eyes were no longer watching her.
The well-to-do houses that surrounded the court, made of brick and as tall as trees and touching sides, rose up like walls on all sides breaking in places for alleyways and roads to pass through. It all seemed too much like a prison to her.
The moon was full and bright massive in the night sky, illuminating the main paths. The night's chill brought the fog seeping up from the sewer grates that dotted both the stone paths and the grassy areas. Too bright to forage, everyone was alert here.
She passed the workmen's wagon, the men inside snoring in their hammocks, and weaved through the stacks of barrels and scrap wood and bolts of many-colored cloths. OldBerry's Trinkets was next, and the two children were asleep beneath the wagon, between the wheels, as gnomes prefer. Sildinis stooped to check on the children, concentrating on the seeds and roots hidden in the grassy lawn. Her magic creeped through the ground, and the living roots and vines burrowed and grew spreading over the young gnomes brittle but warm.
"Sweet Sil, mothering the children?" A melodic baritone voice said from behind her.
"Hush for quiet, Billy" Sil turned and said to the tall good looking young man.
"Lest they wake?" Billy said back quieter approaching.
"Don't bother your charms on me SweetSongs." Sil said as she walked past Billy.
"I wouldn't dare." Billy said as he fell in step behind her.
"You can't help it." Sil's voice was now more sultry, her walk more sensual.
"Not with you, Lady Sil." Billy smiled, watching Sil sway in front of him.
"Bored with Nee'ateh already?" Sil leaned her head back as she spoke, smiling back.
"That's just business Sil, with you it's my pleasure." Billy's voice was low and earnest.
Sil curtsied mockingly and spoke in a lowborn accent, "Well lah-tee, my wee head is spinning with hope, dear Billy."
"You're a low mean soul, Sil." Billy laughed along with Sil and they continued through the caravan side-by-side.
"Race you to the wheel!" Billy said and took off running.
Off like a bolt, they both sprang down the alleyway. Sil leaped atop a barrel then to a stack of crates on towards the rooftops. It wasn't necessary to be efficient, Billy couldn't match her fleetness in a straight-out run. Through a crowd he could beat her every time, but without people in the way, he was no match for her. Sil flew from one roof to another over a thin alley, like many that criss-crossed in every district of the City of Thieves. Between the Court of Winds and the Court of Dragons, where the wheel was installed, the alley was wide but serpentine with stacks of crates and barrels making shadowy hidden spaces all along the way interspersed with a myriad of tiny winding alleys leading off sometimes to dead ends, other times to places worse. Sil ran a mostly straight line to the wheel. Billy wound his way through the alley moving his feet as fast as he could without tumbling. When she reached the last roof opening up on the Court of Dragons, the Gnomish carnivale before her, with the enormous wheel seven stories high, and the spinning machines and the other contraptions displayed before her, Sil paused, looking down into the alley waiting for Billy to catch up.
The eastern sky turned grey, the stars struggling against the failing night. Sil heard Billy's footsteps and panting, then shifted her gaze out across the Gnomish engines. Noises, creaking and popping, snapping and cracking, issued from each one, Sil soaked it all in, a symphony in sounds. She had studied each engine in turn, learning each lurching and sway, trying to understand how each piece moved and why. It was a trick, really, made to look unstable, but really strong, impossibly strong. The individual pieces moved and the slack that made it seem unsafe absorbed the energy so wood did not crack and metal did not split.
Billy ran, nearly stumbling with each footstep, recklessly through the way. Sil waited and watched until Billy ran out of the alley into the Court proper, then lauched out and down, tucking and spinning and when she hit the ground, rolled and came up running. Billy reached the wheel first and grabbed the nearest crossbar and drew himself up. Sil hit the wheel and went swiftly up the side, knowing where each support would shift, and where not. While Billy grabbed a piece and waited for it to shift, Sil grabbed where the connection was strong, moving up the wheel along the axis of strength. Billy grabbed a beam and the whole wheel shfted. The lurching wracked the wooden structure and Billy's skeleton, but Sil could feel the shift and knew how the engine would compensate. She leapt upward, airborne for the split second when the structure repositioned, by the time she reached the zenith of her leap, the wave of moving wood had passed and she kept moving towards the top without a pause.
By the time Billy pulled himself onto the last rung, Sil was already there watching the eastern sky lighten. She did not turn, but kept her gaze east as Billy inched close and wrapped his cloak and arms around her warmly. Sil relaxed into his arms and let his warmth cover her never straying her eyes from the eastern view. The sun broke through, just a sliver in the sky, burning the grey away to blue. White clouds, small cottony puffs floating lazily here and there, had bottoms flashed to orange, to grey, then back to white as the widening rays of the sun sliced through the morning sky. In mere minutes the entire globe of fire was above the distant horizon, and only the tallest buildings of the Swans were obstructing it's light. How tall were those buildings? Sil asked silently in her head. She had seen the great Temple of Xi, with its muscular bulbous spire that reached up for what seemed like miles. But it was thin for most of its height, like a thick paste had been dropped by the gods and frozen quick. The great buildings of the Swans were different, square and bulky all the way up, and maybe even taller, great gleaming mirrored glass and steel and rich dark woods of impossible strength.
"SilverSwan Tower is fifteen stories tall, and the BlackSwan is even taller." Billy said finally.
"Are those Tesswood beams?" Sil asked.
"I guess, can't even be scratched with normal steel. Oily too, hard to climb." Billy said while scanning the streets of the Swan District.
"I can't even imagine the wealth required to get beams of Tesswood." Sil said.
Billy shifted his weight uncomfortable. The Wheel heaved and shifted likewise, one loud chunk after another following the wheel struts counterclockwise until the shifting came around to them again like an ocean wave. Sil rode the moving beam easily, but Billy had to grab on both hands tight to steady himself.
"I hate climbing this thing, for the life of me, how it still stands is a miracle." Billy said holding Sil close.
"It's the way gnomish things are. They're strong though, the movement uses up the energy, keeps the engine from breaking." Sil continued silently in her head, OldBerry's often spoken words, that which bends will then not break..
"Energy like magic?" Billy said.
"No." Sil said definitively, then her expression softened, "Well, yes, sort of."
"You always do that." Billy said.
"What?" Sil replied.
"You say one thing, then immediately say the opposite thing." Billy said.
"No I don't." Sil paused, then smiled broadly and continued, "Yes, I do." Her smile broke into a laugh, "I only do that when I'm with you."
"Contrary." Billy said laughing quietly and shaking his head.
"Not contrary." Sil replied laughing.
"Well, Sun's up time to get to work, come with me to the Swans?" Billy said smiling sweetly.
"I can't go to the Swans, they would never let me in." Sil answered.
"I know a secret way. It'll be fun." Billy said.
"Tempting, but not right now. Mother Leaflan needs me soon. Catch up later?" Sil said as she slipped over the edge and down the Wheel, falling swiftly.
Every once in a bit, Sil would reach a hand or foot out and brush a piece of the Wheel to slow her progress until she landed softly at the base. There, a very gruff and angry-looking gnome stared at her sidewise before returning to his duties oiling the pivots. Sil looked up at Billy slowly making his way down, the Wheel screaming a racket of wooden creaks and squeaks with each hand and foot hold. Sil didn't wait, but started walking back towards the Court of Winds and home. More gnomes appeared and went about their chores, mostly ignoring the interlopers, but keeping a healthy distance from Sil, always. The alley was wider than most, perhaps meant to be a thoroughfare between the Courts, but its usefulness was hampered by stacks of wooden crates all along its way, along with barrels of various sizes and manufactures, some looked foreign or had strange markings. Sil silently said to herself, how are these things not stolen?
Sil entered the Court of the Winds, already busy with caravan workers and performers milling about, preparing their tricks, games, shows and scams. There were a few of the more respectable visitors walking along the row looking for their favorites. OldBerry was walking to his door carrying a pail of fresh water from the well as Sil passed his trinkets wagon, now with one wall lifted up as an awning and a myriad of small toys and engines hanging and spinning and hooting. OldBerry's daughters ran about quickly hanging tiny wooden birds that flapped their wings, and setting upright toy soldiers that saluted all on their own, and a menagerie of tiny metal and wood animals of all sizes, types and abilities.
"Hey Sil, thanks for the night cover." Haile said bouncing down from the stool on which she had been standing.
"Anytime, sweetling." Sil smiled and hugged Haile who quickly bounded off on more chores.
"They say it could rain later." Triste was a small copy of her sister, except with red curls instead of black.
"Ah, Triste, They always say its going to rain...it never rains." Sil said.
"Well if it does, can we practice LeafShy?" Triste said hopefully.
"Sure, if your mother says fine." Sil roughed up Triste's hair as she spoke.
OldBerry opened the small door and waved Sil inside. Not much taller and slighter than most gnomes, Sil was one of the few that did not have to stoop in the OldBerry's cabin. Kicking a stool with his foot as he sat down, OldBerry picked up his pipe and began to smoke without bothering to light it. The bowl of the pipe heated bright orange anyway and thin trails of white and grey escaped into the air. Sil took the stool and sat opposite him, watching as the smoke rose into the air with each puff, long thin wispy streams of grey followed by thicker clouds of cottony whites. OldBerry passed the pipe to Sil who took in a long draught and held, then slowly let out smoke in small bursts. Stern-faced, OldBerry sat back thick-eyed and watched Sil's willowy streams follow his own. The smoke swirled unnaturally and formed into small dragons and birds and tiny faceless men leaping and throwing spears. Her face serene in concentration, Sil moved the air in tiny battles and dances. OldBerry smiled and chuckled, intently watching Sil's stories play out in the air as he took the pipe back and puffed again.
"It's slow now, practice?" Triste said bounding through the door, and the smoke blew away. "Sorry Sil, I didn't mean-"
"It's fine WeeShy, let's practice" Sil said, got up from the stool and winked to OldBerry, then back to Triste, "Hey, where's your mother?"
"She went shopping." Triste said as the pair left the cabin.
"She should have waited for me to go with." Sil said worried.
"She said you'd say that and to tell you she is a big girl." Triste giggled.