Chapter 12 Episode 3 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
Alleine fell silent for so long Adewole wondered if she'd run out of ichor at last, until she began again. "But I spose Maria Kyper's dead, huh? I can't really figure it, their all bein' dead."
"I am afraid so, my dear," said Adewole, trying to keep her thoughts more cheerful for the moment. "Tell me now, what else did they sell in the marketplace, and how big was the place?"
Alleine prattled on about dresses in soft cottons and warm wools she wished she could have bought for her Mam, tin lanterns, copper pots, bright carpets from Dumastra--Cherholtz knew of far-off Dumastra but not of Jero. Always she returned to the food: sweet pickles from great big barrels, sausages wrapped in flat bread, little grilled river fish on sticks, roasted chickpeas in paper cones. "Sometimes at end of day a stallkeeper'll gives me a leftover fish or somethin', especially if it's burnt. Usually they just kick at me, but that's all right, I'm faster'n they are," she said cheerfully. "And when they don't miss, well, it's worth the askin'. Some days that's all there is to eat. I never ask the sausage man, though. Once he held out a sausage and then he took it away and fed it to his dog right in front of me. Never ast him again, the bastard. Oh, I'm sorry, Ollie, I shouldn'a said that word."
"Never mind, child, go on," he said, smiling into his notebook as he wrote.
She said the marketplace went on for miles and miles; scaling down for a young child's eyes and from other clues, Adewole estimated it must have taken up Risenton's large market square and at least three adjacent ones just as big, now vanished under the improvised housing built after the Rising. From her description, Adewole figured Cherholtz must have boasted at least 100,000 people in a city spilling out from walls near what was now the Great Road. She told him about running through the city sometimes in a pack of neglected children--workers and servants like herself, beggars, thieves, and the unluckiest who hid in alleyways and shadowy doors, selling themselves for coins to take back to whoever sent them out. "Least I never had to do that," she shuddered. The sewage now composted and used in the fields had run through deep gutters carved down the middle of Cherholtz's streets into the river, and she said the children sometimes made little boats of paper scraps or nutshells and ran after them, dodging horses and barrowmen, as the tiny craft floated down the chutes to the river. All of it she described as if the bustle, noise and smells were just outside the Library.
"It sounds like Cherholtz was a horrible place," said Adewole, imagining his own sister running ragged through dirty streets.
"Naw, it's grand! I like it." She sighed. "Then step-da decided I ate more than I brought in, so he sold me to Master Vatterbroch. He paid step-da ten solidis for me, and told me he overpaid. He probly did."
"People are not to be bought and sold," said Adewole. "Were there slaves in Cherholtz?"
"Slaves? Naw. I was sposed to be a house servant or some such. Step-da got paid for the loss of my work, or so he told Master, but I weren't no slave. Once I got to be eighteen, I coulda left. Woulda. I guess I don't get to be eighteen, huh?" Her sudden silence wrung his heart. "Well," she resumed, "wishing don't change nothin', like you said yesterday. I told you, now you tell me what Cherholtz is like now. Are the Gates still there? I never been past 'em. Kolbsgate is in the north and all covered in pink marble, and Eichelgate is in the south and all covered in green marble. You seen 'em?"
"They are still there, and are still called Kolbsgate and Eichelgate. The Kolbs and the Eichels are important families. Neither gate is covered in marble any more, though the marble facing Councilman Eichel's townhouse is suspiciously green. The city walls are gone as well. A road rings the island where it once stood, and I am sure it is paved with the wall's stones."
"You talk about this island," said Alleine, "what's it like?"
Adewole described how the city had crumbled into farmland, the people had dwindled to a few thousand, and no one sold bright ribbons in the marketplace any longer. "They sell little oaten sweet cakes topped with jam, though, and people eat the big beetles you made."
"People? I made those for the birds."
"Even so, the people here are often very hungry, and they eat what they can catch."
Alleine made a snuffling sound. "I didn't want to hurt anyone, but it sounds like I did. I don't like hurting people, at all. I couldn't even hurt Master Vatterbroch, and I hate him. I'm not sad he's dead but I'm sad he died from something I did. Was any city left down below?"
Adewole considered what to tell her. Now and again, workers digging a basement for a new building near Lake Sherrat would find ruins and artifacts; anthropologists and historians would get a brief chance to sift through the rubble, and then it would be covered once again in concrete and stone. All evidence pointed to a devastating, overnight collapse; no books or papers had been found, not even an inscription on a wall, and few stones stood one on top of the other. Scorch marks found on almost every artifact suggested whatever city had surrounded Lake Sherrat had burned to the ground in one cataclysmic event. When Alleine raised Cherholtz, she'd destroyed what was left behind as well.
He settled on a story. "The river filled the hole you left. We call it Lake Sherrat now. It is quite beautiful. I take water taxis across it now and again when I can afford to. A new city has spread from its shores, called Eisenstadt."
"It sounds pretty."
"Pretty?" Adewole considered the cold city's geometric lines spreading out from Lake Sherrat, the clinical precision of the buildings and their oddly contrasting, lavishly decorated interiors. He'd come to recognize the beauty of such precision in the University of Eisenstadt campus and the soaring vault of the acoustically perfect Opera House, but otherwise he found Eisenstadt gray and unwelcoming, especially compared to Jero's warm, ancient, gracefully meandering streets and colorful buildings. "To some eyes it is beautiful. To mine, it lacks a certain something. I hear Mr. Buckan outside, I must put you in my satchel before he comes in."
"Tell me first, Ollie, have you found a way to help me yet?"
"No." He had hoped she'd forget, even while knowing she could not. "That is one reason I must stop talking now. I must begin translating the spells today. If I find something helpful, I shall tell you. Speak quietly, now, and when I say hush, hush."
Adewole pulled the manuscript toward him. He didn't hold out much hope of finding a spell to ease the girl's pain--Vatterbroch had no regard for anyone but himself--but he might find one to release her spirit from the heart. If he did so, he was sure she would die. How could he kill a child? A craven voice deeper still added, how can you kill such a valuable historic resource?
But Alleine was already dead, a waking death but a death nonetheless. She had no body to return to, nothing but a never-ending, tortured imprisonment and the fear the Machine God might be resurrected. Once the ichor wore out she might sleep through eternity, but like any sleeper she dreamed, and like any dreamer, she might be awakened again. Ending what life she had would be a mercy, if it came to it.