Risa never could’ve imagined that the capital city of Kalpar was so large. Or so beautiful.
She stopped at almost the same second she emerged from the opening (which was wider than the others, as it was made to fit horses, and lined with a smooth white stone)--and her mouth fell open in awe of the beautiful city. It was beyond her wildest imaginations, grand and regal and somehow inspiring--like something out of a storybook, or a tale of legends. Great white buildings stood in every direction she looked, testament to the power of the Kalpan nation; even the homes had an air about them, this strange sense of pride. Everything shone clear in the light, the windows made of colored glass that she had never seen before, the people dressed in clothes worn only in the ancient paintings...such splendor, such grandeur was in this capital city...!
Thali had to shake her several times to get her attention, because calling her name hadn’t seemed to work. “Stop staring,” she teased, grinning, “and start moving. You’re blocking the entrance.”
Risa blushed and shuffled quickly to the side, where busy people grumbled at her as they passed her by.
Zarkera Niche, the capital city of Kalpar, was located in the very center of the mountainside, and it swelled to such heights that she couldn’t see where it ended. It was larger than any of the other cities, and brighter as well; though this probably had something to do with the giant glowing orb that rested above a massive and stone-white castle. It looked almost suspended in the air, like a smaller version of the sun.
The castle above which the light rested was, by far, the greatest of the wonders in the Zarkera Niche. It stood tall in the center of the city, looming over the other buildings and strangely visible no matter where you stood; the surfaces of its walls were almost like water, and rippled in the warm glow of the billowing light.
Thali caught Risa’s gaze with a smile and followed it.
“Ailis,” she said, speaking the word carefully so Risa couldn’t mistake it for anything else. “What you watch is called the Ailis.”
“Ailis, ailis,” Risa murmured quietly to herself, taking a small step into the vast and bustling city.
“The Zarkera Niche,” Thali said, sidestepping carefully to avoid a lady who pushed past her with two squirming children, “is the greatest of the twenty-four Niches. But as it is home to the Ailis of the Yonshu Aasir, this is of course no wonder.”
“Aasir?” Risa asked, her eyes wandering all over the buildings and the places that surrounded them. She couldn’t mask the air of wonder that seemed to light every inch of her face. “That...is Yonshu...name?”
“Yes; Aasir Kalevi, in full. He took the throne ten Yaru ago, in the Time of the Two Stars. It is a celebrated time now, for Kalpar was in ruin before his reign. We usually spend most of the Kotsch celebrating it, for in the other times, we are too busy.”
Risa stopped walking, a confused expression written on her face as she visibly fought to understand, and Thali sighed.
“Don’t ask me to explain it to you, I don’t know know hardly anything about it as it is. And since I never did learn the differences between the Reihimian time systems and the Korish ones, I couldn’t even begin to explain them, even if I did understand. You can probably ask Juris or Lan though, the two of them know everything about the Old Reihem.”
“Juris of...of...An’nada?” Risa asked, wincing.
Thali frowned, shaking her head. “No! No more Reihimian, remember? You’re never going to learn if you keep using it.”
“I...not remember word,” Risa said slowly, a hint of frustration in her voice. “What...word for it?”
“Library. Say it slowly--”
“Li...Librariy,” Risa stammered.
“Close enough,” Thali sighed. “But I want you to see it, so you can--”
Just then, the rolling ball of fire above the magnificent Ailis gave a powerful spurt; and Thali stopped, studying it intently. A second light flashed, and her face fell.
“Ah! We can’t now; it’s nearing midday, and we haven’t even started the chores.”
Risa’s eyes widened in despair. “No more? But...I want...see...Libary!”
“Library,” Thali corrected. “And we’ve already been to two Niches today besides this one, aren’t you tired?”
Risa shook her head emphatically; but Thali raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Well, you will be by the time the chores are finished; and if you aren’t, then we can go after. I don’t feel like exhausting myself just before work.”
Risa nodded in understanding, her gaze falling to the ground; but there was a strangely longing tug on her heart, and she wished she could stay, if only to gaze gaze at the wonders just a little bit longer. Ever since Thali had begun teaching her almost twelve suns ago (had it really been so long?) she had been soaking up the information like a drop of water in the desert, learning everything and anything she could wrap her mind around. And there was no limit to her curiosity, which Thali discovered fairly quickly (and used often to her advantage); she took delight in telling the young foreigner of all the strange and wonderful things she’d learned about the proud and mysterious mountain within her time. Risa of course would pay the utmost attention, even when the words whistled by her ears like the whispers of the wind; for she never knew what she was going to hear and understand.
Like the time Thali spent half the day telling her about the mysterious twenty-fifth Niche. No one knew where it was, but even so, many believed that it existed; there were rumors of those who had found it while climbing the other side of the mountain. But each time they returned to it, they found that it had disappeared--or so the people would talk, speculating over the truth.
But such things were always happening, Thali said; and if she ever found the Niche herself, she’d go and explore it before ever leaving to tell someone about it. She told Risa that anyone who did any different had no courage (or perhaps no curiosity) and therefore never deserved to discover such a marvelous thing in the first place.
The two boarded the central lift (much larger than any of the others, and gated off, in the case of horses), and Risa gripped the railing, gazing out into the everlasting desert that seemed to roll under an endless blue sky. She had grown much more comfortable with riding these things, as she had to use them to get anywhere; and Thali had once made them ride up and down one of the smaller ones just so she could get used to it (she gave a very generous tip to the men who worked the contraption, who weren’t used to such constant requests).
The Lift swayed in the wind, but Risa steadied herself; she realized suddenly that it had been awhile since her leg hurt her. The color in it had died many suns ago, but not the pain; and she supposed that all the work she had been concentrating on distracted her from realizing that it had healed.
She wondered if it was perhaps because of the fact that she had once worked as a desideria that she was always so restless; for Thali would try her hardest to tire her out, but never could quite seem to. “Perhaps my magic will return to me here after all,” Risa would say proudly then, though she knew full well that it would not.
Usually, Thali assigned her to all of the chores that consisted of simple things not requiring magic; sweeping, dusting, and washing the dishes and clothing. Thali handled all the magic-related chores, changing the Lights and the Darks (which were what was used to darken the lights in the nighttime), working her shift at the Library, and repairing simple fixes, like holes in the walls and ceiling; and with her extra help she found that the normally long and uneventful days went by much faster now, for the two girls would sometimes finish their chores early and sit and talk to each other, mostly in Korish, though sometimes in Reihimian (if Risa was too tired to do otherwise).
The general trust for Risa had grown over this time as well; for she did her work quickly and efficiently, and hadn’t done anything untrustworthy up to that point. Thali had granted her permission her several suns ago to clean her room; but today she told Risa that she could begin her work on Tanmar’s as well. She said there wasn’t much to do there, but just enough that she didn’t have the time to do it herself anymore; and she knew that the Reihimian girl wouldn’t do anything stupid, so she decided to give her a chance.
They entered the Niche, and Thali smiled politely to the people as she passed them by on her way to the house; and they smiled back at her, but ignore Risa entirely. She thought at first that it was because they didn’t know her; but Thali had explained to her later that they held a fierce loyalty to their Yonshu, and would disregard anyone that he had disgraced. Risa was glad she understood this--for now she wouldn’t have to worry about making more ties than she wanted to. Formulating her revenge was getting difficult already, with how close she was becoming to Thali and her father.
Tanmar was home early that evening, and greeted them at the door. Thali returned it cheerfully; but Risa kept her head bowed, and her eyes to the ground. She had been avoiding him ever since their accidental meeting, when Channa was still away; for ever since then, she had grown strangely afraid of him, and afraid of getting close to him. For if there was anyone who was going to discover her true identity, it was going to be Tanmar; and so she distanced herself, in order to protect it.
Thali whisked away almost at once when her father told her that one of the Lights was behaving strangely in the upper rooms, blinking on and off; he assumed that the Dark had gotten too strong and was fighting it, but he needed her to check. Once she had gone, that left Risa suddenly alone with him; and so she hurried off to the nearest room before he could call her over and begin saying things to her all the things she had been trying so hard to forget, morals she once had valued that now only made her head hurt.
She closed the door and sighed, only to realize that she was in his room now; face reddening in embarrassment, she decided to make the best of it, and got to cleaning anyway. The bedsheets were already folded, as they usually were; so she had only to gather the dirty clothes and clean the swords.
Risa eased her way around the room, picking up the clothes that lay haphazardly all over the floor; for Tanmar never did have the time to organize them himself. A pile had already been left near the doorway in what she assumed to be an attempt to try and gather the clothing himself; but he hadn’t gotten all of it, so at least there was something for her to do. She worked slowly, hoping that Tanmar would be gone by the time she finished, when she was ready to take the clothes out to the Water-Wells to wash.
She dropped the last shirt in the pile and sighed, stretching out her back as she leaned over. Only the Shôran swords were left to be cleaned now.
She pulled a rag out from the pocket of her dress (Thali thankfully had some clothes that didn’t cover from head to toe) and padded quietly over to the shelf, which was on the wall opposite the bed. Pulling them down carefully one by one, she unsheathed the majestic swords and began running up and down their faces with the soft side of her rag.
Thali had told her that this was necessary at least once a day; the blades had already been magicked so that they didn’t rust, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t get dirty. The better the condition of the blade, the more power Tanmar could put into them; and so she had to take special care not to forget about it.
The blades were very beautiful, even to her standards--and she’d seen many a craft back in Reihem. There were ancient letterings in a language she couldn’t identify that threaded their way up and down the blades, which grew warm to the touch when she moved over them; and the handles were carved from different stones--one of them being clear as water, some as though the insides were constantly moving (though they were solid to the touch). Risa sometimes sat them down on the bed and stared at them, wondering what it would be like to fight with one; and only when Thali yelled at her to hurry did she remember where she was and put them away.
Already she could hear Thali stomping around upstairs; and she sighed, picking up the sheaths. One by one she replaced them back on the shelf, organizing them carefully in the order which Thali had taught to her.
But somehow her mind became distracted with the glint that came off the hilt of the last one; she stared at it too long without placing it down and it became suddenly heavy, slamming down with a magnificent force upon the shelf. The sudden impact shook it, loosening it from the wall; and the swords, with a violent crash, went thundering to the ground.
Risa froze, her eyes wide; the culprit sword was trembling in her hands, and a bright red light glowed from inside the sheath. Her blood throbbed in her veins. What had she done? What had she just done?
The door opened, and she flinched at the light; and sure enough, Tanmar was standing there. His careful eyes took in the girl, the broken shelf, and the swords lying in a heap on the ground; and while his face was stern, it was not unkind.
“You are unhurt?”
Risa nodded, visibly trembling.
“Well, that is a relief. Let us get these somewhere safe before we get Thali to put the shelf back on the wall.”
She could hear a hint of something in his voice...disappointment? She shuddered. What was going to happen to her? She couldn’t afford to get kicked out of this house, not now. Her mind cursed her. Stupid, stupid, it said; she had just ruined everything.
Tanmar took a table near the door and moved it to where the shelf had once been; and Risa handed him the swords one by one, which he took from her and arranged in a different order than the one she had previously known. When he got to the last one, which Risa had been holding, he noticed that it was warm, and unsheathed it, just to see; but he had not the faint red glow of the letterings. He sat there for awhile, studying it; but he eventually resheathed it without a word, and placed it on the shelf with the others. Now that he had finished, he stood and paused to look at her, raising his hand suddenly; and Risa flinched, squeezing her eyes shut.
But the hand only rested softly on the top of her head, and ruffled her hair; and she opened her eyes confusedly, looking up to find that he was watching her still. A sad sort of gleam lit his eyes, while that ever-present smile graced his weather-beaten face.
“Iuste, if I had wished to harm you, I would have done so already. You have no reason to fear me now.”
Risa’s face reddened. Silently, she was grateful that he hadn’t hit her, as she had expected; but she said nothing about it, and refused to look at his eyes. For a second the proud tilt to her face had left; and only the desideria, small and terrified, had been left behind.
But then it returned, stronger than ever; another thump sounded upstairs, and they both heard Thali growl and curse in frustration. Tanmar chuckled.
“Well, you should go and see to Thali; I will finish the work here myself,” he said. Risa nodded stiffly; and she turned to leave.
There was some more commotion upstairs, followed by a bump and a clatter; and then Thali let out a scream. That was all the excuse she needed. Risa went flying down the hall, and sprinted up the stairs.
There was one room at the end of the hall, next to Risa’s, that was blinking furiously with light. She crept toward it cautiously, biting her lower lip with hesistation.
“Thali?” she called after a time.
“Don’t come in!” the girl cried. “It’s too dangerous in here! I’ve been overexposed to the light, and it’s...it’s...” There was another painful wail.
Risa looked around frantically, feeling a strange sort of restlessness build inside of her. “What...what I can do?” she stammered.
“Help me...help me when I am outside!”
Risa waited, quietly pacing the hall; and slowly the flickering light dimmed, until nothing from it was left. The room was darker than it had been before, but the flashing had stopped, so Risa assumed it was okay to go inside again.
In the room she found Thali, curled up in the middle of the floor, leaning on her arms; she was shivering, and the sweat had gathered into the cloth around her face. Her eyes were wide and trembling.
“Thali?” Risa asked. The girl smiled weakly and looked up.
“Hime,” she whispered, rising shakily to her feet. She almost fell, but Risa caught her before she hit the ground.
“You...too hot. Why no...take off?” Risa asked, pulling at her clothes; for the the girl was, as always, entirely covered in them.
But Thali’s eyes became suddenly bright, and they flickered almost angrily in Risa’s direction. “No. No. I cannot. I will be fine...like this.” But her voice was hoarse, and Risa could hear a rattling in her chest. Was an overexposure to magic really so serious?
“Is you...sure? I...help you,” Risa offered.
“Are you. And I’m positive.”
“Oh...oh, why no? You...look like dead. Why no...take off...this?” Risa insisted, reaching for the cloth that covered her face.
But Thali snapped her arm up, and pushed her hand away. “Don’t you touch me!” she cried. “That is none of your business. Don’t you know not to meddle in other people’s affairs?”
The softness that had formed (though she wasn’t sure when) suddenly left Risa’s eyes; and the coldness from many suns ago began to seep back into them, filling them with anger.
“Fine. Why...care I...for Kalpan?” Risa retorted; but the words burned in her mouth, and Thali could hear the hurt in them. The Justice spun around, leaving the Kalpan girl behind.
Risa’s vision blurred as she stormed to her room, slamming the door behind her. She willed it not to, but her mind seemed only to think about it; for Thali had seemed hurt, very hurt, and not just because of the light. Her mind wandered to the conversation she’d held with Tanmar many moons before, on the rooftop, when they spoke about his past. Could this, perhaps, have something to do with Thali’s secret?
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