© Paul Kupperberg
Malasa took the road east. It was half a day’s ride into the City of the Stars. Less than an hour into her journey, the spires of the City poked up from the horizon. Slim elegant spires, as bright and shimmering as starlight grew taller as the evening drew closer. The sky was dotted with the aircraft of the rich and noble.
Malasa did not notice the passage of time or the mighty city that hove into view before her. She thought instead of the eclipse. And of the lie she had told Khar. She had called him a fool for fearing the eclipse, but really, how was he to know any better? For all his kindness, his intelligence for a man of his station, Khar shared the base superstitions of a peasant. He sees that which he does not understand and thus ascribes some supernatural, and no doubt ominous, cause to it. Blotting out the sun surely foretells imminent doom. He couldn’t know that the gods were not the least bit interested in his life or death. Their attentions were turned to matters cosmic and often beyond mortal comprehension. Kahna had stood before them, defied them, battled them, felt their scorn, only to survive because she was too insignificant to be worth killing. That their actions ever crossed with those of mortals was only of the greatest coincidence. That they might answer prayers or change any one mortal’s life out of anything but wretched self-interest was laughable.
Khar had seen an omen of disaster.
Malasa told him the eclipse was just that, an eclipse. He did not believe her when she said that truth had been a lie. Perhaps she had not granted him credit enough for wisdom.
An eclipse was nothing more than the passage of one body between two others, casting a shadow across space.
The event itself did not cause ill to befall the world.
It did, however, announce that the Powers were at their apogee and the schemes of gods and demagogues and mages alike were soon to commence.
* * *
As evening fell, Malasa rode through the East Gate of the City of the Stars, between twin ranks of Guard. Kahna’s heart swelled at the sight of them, strong young men and women in their gleaming armor over crisp uniforms. Their posture was as rigid as their battle staffs, shined to mirror perfection and planted firmly on the ground. Once she had been one of them, a soldier in the Palace Guard of the City of the Archer, in the reign of Ahr’ghan II. She remembered what it was like to buckle on the armor, march as one with an army of her peers, sharing in their strength and reveling in their numbers. How many years ago was it?
“Guardsman,” she called.
“Aye?” one answered turning only his eyes to her.
“What is the year?”
“Last I looked, it was still 5276, in the reign of Shiad VI.” The guardswoman to his left snorted in derision at the ignorant peasant.
Malasa ignored her and said, to herself and in disbelief, “More than eight hundred years.” She dug her heels into the horse’s side, urging him forward. “Eight hundred years.”
She wondered if, in all that time, this was the only time she had come back.
* * *
The marketplace seemed to find new life in the early hours of darkness. Exhausted by the days commerce, the vast, tight maze of streets and shops that twisted up the gentle slope of Palace Hill would fall quiet, merchants and peddlers toppling off legs grown numb from standing dawn to dusk, gasping for breathe and recovery as they shuttered their businesses and crept home to dinner and sleep. Then, come the night, and the market opened anew for businesses best conducted under the cover of darkness and in the shadows of morality.
Malasa left the horse at the livery owned by the husband of Khar’s sister and, refusing their repeated offer of a bed for the night, wandered into the torch lit marketplace.
Malasa seldom came to the City. All that they needed to live, really, was available to them where they were. They grew their own food, raised their own livestock, trading the surplus with neighbors for whatever else they needed. Khar shoed horses, repaired farming implements and craftsmen’s tools for services or goods and, even sometimes, a little gold. Save for the raw materials of his trade, the metals and coal for his hearth, they needed nothing from the City of the Stars.
Kahna knew the marketplace intimately, or at least she had eight centuries past. But she found as she wandered the serpentine streets that while the faces of the merchants and facades of the stalls and shops had changed from what she remembered, the marketplace remained as it had been. A new generation of gamblers and tricksters and whores and thieves crawled these streets seeking victims among the unwary, but the stink of stale ale and the stench of desperation were the same as it had ever been. Kahna felt right at home. Malasa had been frightened since she had ridden off from home.