He turned and seemed momentarily surprised to see the woman who stepped forward. She wore an ankle-length white dress of some obscure natural fiber, corseted in a rich, dark sienna brown of the same material, only heavier. The brown lined her dress, peeping out of the long, slit sleeves, hood and side slit. Looking closer, Tay saw that the rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed, crimson blonde was almost as tall as she, bearing a beauty mature yet fresh. Perhaps thirty, thirty-two terrayears?
Teloa tentatively reached for her hand, calming her inner shaking. Braan walked briskly to the solar car and hopped in.
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In a daze Teloa was led down into the center of the city. Pedestrians thronged around her, and she found herself still tall, but not excessively so—most Nualan men were at least her height. Genetically altered to be so? She kept her gaze on the buildings—strange buildings—or on the flagstone road, avoiding the interested and admiring looks of the men. She felt dirty, ugly and exhausted, and, at the least, a man was responsible for her current problems. A man had also remedied them, at least temporarily. Perhaps she could call that a fair trade. It was too much to think about. She understood this was an older section of the city—what city was this?
Everything was stone, and she was aware of towers.
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She felt so tired, so confused. They left the narrow walkway and stepped out into a wide open space, grass-covered and thick with late-blooming flowers, bushes and trees whose leaves were just beginning to darken to a greenish indigo.
Off to the right, among dark trees, a small lake sparkled. Tay gasped as she realized the source. There were other buildings within the Axis alliance with more gold-and-silver inlay, more jewels; taller, more extensive, even more ancient. It was unlike any existing building—totally unlike secular Nualan architecture.
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The priests and priestesses are often seen there, busy with personal prayers or special requests. Elana led Teloa to an area directly below and to one side of the temple where they found a moving, snake-like metal runner. It seemed to have no track or containment, yet moved smoothly along at a moderate pace. It felt good to stop walking; tiring to stand. Elana noticed. There are some guest rooms there, and you can sleep as long as you wish. The catwalk was totally silent, hence its name. Teloa looked down to see she was now standing on a step, and the walkway was moving swiftly uphill, approaching a small tunnel.
Had she stepped from flat to stairs, or had the runner created its own stairway? She was almost positive she had not moved, so the runner must have done it for her. Elana either did not notice, or pretended not to—she indicated that Teloa should step off on an upcoming platform. Tay jumped again, to avoid catching her decorative heels, and watched the sheen of the walk as it passed, like a river of silver amphibians. They entered a wide natural-stone corridor lit by shafts leading to the surface.
The area was cool but not cold. It was immediately lit, revealing a color-coded set of block catacombs, most of the cubes having a yellow dot in their center. Sheer luxury. Had Tay been alone, she would have become lost in the bewildering maze of rough white stairs and walkways, although she noticed several blank panels and assumed they were also maps of some kind.
Finally the woman reached tall double doors and opened them. She opened another set of tall double doors and stepped into brilliant starlight, which was just beginning to angle past the doorsill. As Tay walked into the room she discovered that the living quarters were built right into the side of the hill. Looking out the doorway she saw the mountains, their foothills covered with homes. For a moment she said nothing; she had never seen mountains.
She could think of no words grand enough. Teloa tore her gaze away at the sound of running water. A small, enclosed garden was off to one side, lit, as was the room, by more shafts. A fountain set in the wall bubbled merrily. She breathed deeply of the scent—lush, exotic plants whose names she did not know. Tay smiled in return, her look taking in the high, deep ceiling arches, her fingers lingering on the rough-hewn walls of stone. Come and look. Tay stood in the warm starlight, closing her eyes and enjoying the sensation.
So long since she had felt natural heat … Between the star and the murmur of the water … even the odor of the plants conspired to put her to sleep. Many of the indoor trees were taller than she, and the variety of colors ranged from soft yellow-greens through blues and purples.
One plant had brilliant yellow and orange blossoms. Elana reached out to touch a vine, and Teloa followed her example. So long since she had worked with living things …. She touched the wooden hot tub, studying the marble facilities.
The myth of autarky
Do not worry about all the water; it goes straight to irrigation. I shall get you some towels and some bath sands. I must apologize for the lack of sands and oil—all four grades of sand are to be kept here at all times. What with the festival and feast, she is much too busy to monitor the younger priests and priestesses who keep these rooms stocked. But is important to her, all the same. I shall tell my godson, her eldest, and he will carry the message. She is the second wife of Arrez. Tay digested this information. Mariah because her prophesies are disturbing and often violent, and only he and I can deal with her.
And Chaka, out of sheer … cussedness, as our ancestors once said. I shall get the towels and sand and be right back. Play with the tub as you wish!
Tay turned slightly and looked out the thermapane windows at the dazzling soft yellow light. It was a young world, she decided. Capricorn V had been young. Her thoughts swirled back to the hot agra planet, its fertile fields stretching to the horizon, the glittering irrigation canals opening their wash gates.
Older sister Meer had desired only to leave the planet, and brother Tyr was always confused.
Fires of Nuala
Then the luna bombs came, the whistling luna bombs—and it was ambitious Meer who stayed, forever, and naive Teloa who became the wanderer. She had not seen Telen since the halfway camp, when she had given him her last hundred cubiz to aid his attempts to enter a trade. Being guildless, he had a small chance to build a new life.
She wondered if he still lived. The exhaustion, the release of tension hit her like a tremendous weight, and she was crying, a torrent of tears, almost hysterically, something she had not allowed herself since the luna bombs devastated Capricorn V.
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