Pol rose early in the day, though not out of any personal desire to do so, and carefully pushed himself through the window. This was not his home and its merchant owner had taken all the keys, he had not, however, sealed all of the upper floor windows and that was how Pol and come to make the property his temporary residence. He had a nose for people leaving the city and their empty properties, stealing what they were unlikely to miss, or if it came to it, the silver cutlery, and enjoying a few nights with a roof over his head he could pretend was his own.
The smaller temples did sometimes allow the homeless and sickly to take refuge within their walls, but that meant unrelentingly monotonous sermons about punishment and sin, a weak fragrant chowder for every meal (if that’s what it was), and being forced out onto the street whenever a patron showed up to commission a statue or purchase a tomb within the temple itself.
He was young and underfed, which ruled him out of most manual work even on the ships which seemed willing to hire just about anyone, and while he could attempt to smuggle himself away, the city of Alays was his home and dour as it was, he hoped it always would be. There was something about its dirty streets and overcrowded squares that called to him, that made him feel at home.
The window looked out onto a balcony from which he could leap across to the nearby baker’s rooftop, make the short hop down to the stairs at the back, make his way down to street level, and nab yesterday’s bread by the rear ground window before anyone noticed his coming or going. That was the plan and it was the one which had worked without fault for the past three days. Pol successfully navigated the transition from balcony to rooftop and the descent to the small yard behind the bakery. He reached up for the burnt, slightly stale bread by the windowsill when a hand caught hold of him and pulled. Looking up Pol saw the baker’s heavy moustached and sweaty face and hoped too much of him didn’t end up in his bread.
“So you’re the little rat,” the baker said with a grimace as he hoisted Pol up through the window. The man was much too strong for him to fight, so Pol resorted to the only thing he could think of and spat directly into his eye. It worked, with the baker dropping him and cursing as he ran for the door, stopping only to grab two fresh buns, and rushing onto the street.
The baker charged to the front of his store and shouted for the guards who were quick to follow in pursuit. It’s going to be one of those days. Pol did not look behind him as he ran faster, making his way into the warren of alleyways between the grand squares of Alays. There were any number of paths he could take, and Pol knew the city well enough to be familiar with the places one simply did not go if you valued your life. He hoped the guards did not, but chided himself, they were only doing their jobs, pains in his arse though they were.
Beneath his feet the cobbles gave way to mud and the sound of pursuit died. He allowed himself a moment to catch his breath and sighed, tonight he’d need to find another empty house or sleep in one of the rafters of the city’s warehouses where he’d just have to hope the rats wouldn’t consider him a snack while he slept. There were stories about such things and while they were most likely myths, he always suspected there was probably some truth to it.
With him safely out of the guards’ reach, Pol walked through the alleys until he reached the square by Grand Patrician Ikar’s Palazzo. Most thieves were reluctant to enter the head of the Council’s home, but Pol wasn’t there to steal. The window to the the patrician’s studio lay open, as he knew it would be, and careful that there were no guards about, he lowered himself through it. Boxes had been stacked high against the wall and he easily navigated to the ground.
“Took you long enough,” Atalia declared as she watched him hop to the ground. She was too perfect, it seemed that whenever he closed his eyes he could picture her short crop of blonde hair and darker skin than most in Alays. She did not have the pale sickly look of most in the city, but the city had still left its mark on her; a brand upon her cheek signified that she was a slave.
“Had some trouble with the guards,” he tossed her one of the buns he’d stolen and she deftly caught it. Though a slave, she ate and slept better than he, Atalia served as Ikar’s personal assistant in his laboratory and workshop (he was an inventor when he was not politicking) and he had even taught her to read which, to Pol, was quite a feat. The jumble of carvings on a letter or the pages of a book made no sense to him and he only knew which store provided which service thanks to the icons on the signs outside. As they ate he said, “you wanted to show me something?”
Atalia’s eyes seemed to glaze over for a moment before she slowly nodded and scratched her nose, it was something Pol had seen her do often. He was quite certain she wasn’t even aware she did it. By one wall of the warehouse rested the frame of a great winged machine which, like everything else in here, had been envisioned by Ikar in the spur of a moment’s brilliance and forgotten, never to be used. Atalia shifted it carefully aside to reveal a tunnel leading into the caverns, the labyrinth of paths beneath the city. Mothers scared their children by threatening to send them into the darkness but she showed no hesitance in stepping through and he followed quickly, not wanting to be left behind, though there was no chance he would admit to that, of course.
The rocks of the cavern glowed green and though none knew why, it was thought an ancient magic lingered in the depths. It was not something he ever wanted to encounter for magic was dangerous and it seemed the older it was, the worse it became.
Atalia hurried on and she looked sickly in the pale green light, Pol supposed he did as well. The drip drip drip of water and the scurry of a rat filled his ears, unnaturally loud, and his breath rose on the air. Is it always this cold? She stopped ahead and he narrowly avoided stumbling into her. “We’re here,” she said softly, but looking around he could see nothing.
Walking to the wall to their left Atalia pointed to a crack in it, just wide enough to squeeze through. He fought back the bad feeling churning in his stomach and clenched himself against the rock. A few feet ahead the space opened out and Atalia knelt beside a glowing orb which she cupped in her hands protectively, as though it were a child.
It was clearly magic and probably ancient too.