Chapter Seven: The High City
It took almost ten more days for them to reach their destination. They approached the High City from the northwest, circling around and passing through a dense forest not far from the city gates. They stopped in the middle of the forest and dismounted.
Kendan held up two curiously made bags. “These have false bottoms where you can conceal your Shimat belongings.”
He helped her to transfer everything from her saddlebags with an amused expression. “With all their high morals, they are still a nosy group of people. Be careful of that.”
Adesina nodded in acknowledgment.
He gave her some clothes to change into and made a small tent out of their blankets to give her some privacy.
Her cover story was that she hailed from one of the northern tribes. They were mostly nomadic people and there were over a hundred different tribes. Both of these facts made it an ideal fictional background because it made verification difficult. She had been given all the information necessary to impersonate a tribe member. Now all she needed was to look the part.
Adesina repressed an incredulous snort as she held up the clothing given to her. She had never worn a dress before, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to start now. The skirt was a rough brown material and the bottom was lined with a frayed, multicolored fringe. The bodice was cream colored and lined with the same fringe as the skirt. The laces down the front of the bodice and on the sleeves were a vibrant green. Adesina struggled with the clothing, hoping that nothing was out of place.
She twisted her silver and black hair into an elaborate braid and pinned it up, in the manner of the northerners. A piece of green ribbon matching her laces was worn across her forehead as a headband. When all of this was done, she took a deep breath and moved out from behind the blankets.
Kendan smiled when she reappeared. His first real smile since before the whispering forest. “You look…” he paused, then his expression became sad and he cleared his throat. “From here you must go on alone. Remember your instructions, and report here in one month’s time. If there is an emergency, send the signal.”
Adesina nodded, her mind was racing with all of the information that she needed to remember. She slung the two bags onto her back and began walking towards the city gates, leaving Kendan and the horses behind her. Ravi kept up with her pace easily, humming quietly to himself.
“How do you plan on getting into the city?” she asked her invisible friend.
Ravi smiled at this question. “Does this mean you have decided that I am not merely a figment of your imagination?”
Adesina laughed softly. “No, I am just being practical. An imagination such as mine would have an answer.”
“Hmph. Well, in that case, perhaps it would be a better question to ask how the city could keep me out.”
She didn’t have an answer to this query, and discreetly let the subject drop. As she came to the edge of the forest, she got her first look at the outside of the High City.
The walls around the city appeared to be constructed from the logs of large trees. The walls were quite a bit taller than what was usually seen surrounding a city and they had been painted white. Sentinels were stationed along the top of the wall every few feet, keeping a stern eye on anyone who might approach. There was a single steel door set into the wood that served as the gate. There were also a series of small huts that served as waiting rooms for those hoping to get into the city.
The guards spotted Adesina the minute she stepped away from the cover of the trees. She moved through the tall yellowing grass like a whisper, and Ravi made even less noise. The sentinel above the gate eyed her suspiciously as she approached.
The guard wore a uniform that was modest in cut and material, and rich brown in color. He had a black sash draped from his left shoulder to his right hip and a bow in hand. When he spoke, it was in the common tongue. “What do you want, young woman?”
His tone made it sound like he was much older than she, but Adesina doubted he was more than nineteen years old. He had chestnut hair and mischievous hazel eyes that openly appraised her.
She assumed a meek expression and reminded herself to speak in his language, but with the accent of one from the far north. “I wish to live and work in the High City.”
The guard looked skeptical. “Why would one of your kind want to do that?”
Adesina frowned in confusion at the way he asked the question, as if there was more to it that what she was aware. “My kind? Do you mean a northerner?”
Before the guard could reply, he was distracted by someone below him on the other side of the wall. They conversed for a moment before the gate slowly began to rise. An elderly man dressed in a simple black uniform and a light blue sash greeted her and showed her through the gate.
“Come along, young one. Do not dawdle.”
Adesina did as she was told and walked through the gate. Ravi followed her quickly and silently. The large room on the other side of the gate was filled with tables and chairs, but was otherwise bare. The old man led Adesina to the center of the room, but Ravi seated himself by the wall where he could observe more easily.
The man offered Adesina a chair and sat down across the table from her. “Please forgive Nordin. He has a strange fascination with…the north.”
The man noted Adesina’s bewildered expression and asked, “You are from the north, are you not?”
Adesina nodded slowly. “I was raised in the Northern Tribes.”
The old man’s wrinkles became more pronounced. “Well, I assumed…that is to say…you bear an unusual likeness to a certain group of northerners of which we in the High City are rather wary.”
Her curiosity was immediately piqued, but she did her best to keep it from her face. She had never borne a “likeness” to anyone before. She made a mental note to find out more as soon as she was within the city.
“I am an orphan. I have never met anyone who looks like me.”
His face cleared with this information. “Ah, I see. What is your name, child?”
He leaned back and rested his fingertips together lightly. “As I am sure you know, Adrie, we of the High City are selective of whom we allow through that door.” He pointed to the door on the far side of the room, opposite of the gate. “You claim to be a member of the Northern Tribes, but even if that is true there is no way we can verify that story. Do you know someone within the city who can vouch for your character?”
Adesina shook her head. The old man smiled and spread his hands. “So you see, there is nothing I can do for you.”
The young Shimat did some quick thinking. She had to find a way into the city. “Surely there must be some way that you can determine my character.”
The old man hesitated. “Well, yes, we do have people who interview prospective immigrants, but that is only done after someone of established character vouches for you.”
Adesina carefully arranged her expression to one of disappointment. “I have no family or friends.”
She saw his face soften with pity. Adesina lowered her glance and forced her eyes to fill with tears.
The old man reached across the table and patted her hand. “There, there, child. No need for tears. I am certain there are many other places you can go and find work.”
She made her breath shaky as she drew it in. “But I will not be safe anywhere but here.”
He frowned in confusion. “What do you mean, young woman?”
Adesina forced more tears out of her eyes and spoke in a quavering voice. “Ours was a peace-loving tribe, but our possessions were coveted by our enemies. They attacked us and killed everyone. My mother, my father, my baby sister…”
The old man’s eyes were filling up with genuine tears, but Adesina pressed on with her tale of woe.
“I suppose they only kept me alive because of how I look. They were going to sell me into slavery,” she sobbed.
He gasped in horror, and she hid her face in her hands, lowering her voice to a pained whisper. “I escaped and fled to the High City. I knew I would be safe once I reached here.” She paused for effect before going on. “If you turn me away, I will surely be captured again.”
The old man now had a firm hold on her hand and was squeezing it as if he would never let go. “Now, now, dear. I am sure there is something we can do for you. I think we may forego that formality, if I get permission from my superiors.”
Adesina thanked him while wiping her already dry eyes. The old man excused himself and left the room. She glanced over at Ravi, who had an amused expression on his face.
“You are quite an actress.”
She gave him a sarcastic look, but didn’t reply. She kept her focus on the information she had been given to prepare her for her entrance into the High City.
When the old man returned, several minutes later, he was followed by four more men in black uniforms with light blue sashes. They seated themselves across from Adesina and began asking her questions.
The man directly in front of Adesina seemed to be the one in charge. He had iron-grey hair, but his face was surprisingly youthful. His dark blue eyes had a somber feel to them, and his thin mouth was pressed together.
“Your name is Adrie?”
Adesina nodded, lowering her eyes deferentially. The man looked pleased with her manner.
She kept her face neutral as she watched the various hints of expression that crossed his face. He was the key to her entrance into the city, and she knew exactly how to manipulate this man.
“I am called Ston, and I am the head of the Entrance Council.”
She widened her eyes and looked at him with exaggerated respect and a hint of awe. “I hope I have not inconvenienced you, sir, with my request.”
Ston waved a hand magnanimously. “No, no. It is no trouble. However, we do need to ask some questions. We must be thorough, you understand.”
She nodded quickly. “Of course, sir.”
The next several hours were filled with the drone of Ston’s arrogant voice, the scratching of several pens, and the flawless performance of Adesina’s facade. The questions began with Adesina’s origins—the type of family she came from, the occupation of her parents, her childhood, her education, and so forth. They took special care to make sure that her presence in the High City would not endanger any of its citizens.
When they were satisfied that her background was benign, they moved on. They questioned her on her opinion over various subjects, asked her reaction to hypothetical situations, and drilled her for details about her future plans.
Adesina answered in a way that she knew would flatter the self-importance of the man in front of her. She kept her expression one of youthful innocence, and her tone well-mannered. When the question of her occupation was brought up, Adesina assured them of her skills as an apprentice carpenter. A gleam of excitement flashed through five sets of eyes.
At the end of the interview they excused themselves and left the room to discuss their decision. The young Shimat sat motionless for more than a half hour, her mind going over several contingency plans. When the door opened to readmit the first man she had met, she had a number of ideas on how to get into the city if this course of action failed.
The old man gave her a grandfatherly smile. “Well, I think we can find accommodations for you here in the High City, young woman. We have been looking for carpenters for quite a while. We have only one in the city now, and he is quite overworked. You will begin as his apprentice. When he feels you are ready, there will be other options available to you.”
He handed her a book of laws and social mores to study. “We are contacting your host family right now, and it will probably be settled by morning. You may read this while you wait.”
Adesina took the book and followed him out of the room, with Ravi close behind. The man showed her to one of the small huts just outside the city in which she could stay the night. He offered his services, if needed, and bowed out of the room.
The young woman was unable to think of anything else to do, so she curled up on the simple cot and began reading. Ravi laid down on the ground and went to sleep.
There were many rules associated with living in the High City, but Adesina was certain that it would not be a problem. Being raised as a Shimat definitely had its advantages when it came to following outside rules, for there was no society more stringent.
When she finished reading the book, Adesina closed her eyes and tried to sleep. She found it strangely difficult and could not understand the reason. Perhaps it was her nerves. Perhaps it was the unusual silence. After all, she had grown accustomed to Ravi singing her to sleep.
In spite of these struggles, Adesina was finally able to get the much needed rest. Morning arrived far too quickly, but she skillfully pushed her exhaustion to the very back of her mind. A timid knock announced the arrival of her aged guide.
“Come,” he beckoned.
The old man led her and Ravi back through the gate and through the room with the tables and chairs. He opened the door to the city and stepped back, motioning Adesina through. She walked past him and into the busy main square of the High City.
The city was bright and clean, but everything from the buildings to the streets was in strict, straight lines. Every building was whitewashed and uniform, and every street was paved with cobblestones that were also painted a dull white. There were neat rows of well-behaved flowers that lined the streets, walkways and houses.
As she was led through the main square, her eyes darted around her, taking in as much information as possible.
The merchants were all dressed in the same simple uniform as the guards and the Entrance Council, only their uniforms were green in color. They all stood by orderly kiosks, assisting customers in reserved voices. At predictable intervals a brown-uniformed guard with a red sash would stroll through the square, nodding amiably to the citizens he passed.
Everyone walked in an unhurried fashion, stiff with dignity. There was not one surprise to be found in sight, and Adesina practically stared in disbelief. She could have overthrown the city single-handedly and no one would think to object. She glanced at Ravi in the hope of finding similar dismay on his face, but he walked along as sedately as the citizens, as if such sights were common to him.
She was led through the business section of the city and into the residential. Each home was white, but the shingled roofs were various pastel colors. Women in light brown dresses worked industriously in their yards, occasionally accompanied by a small child. Adesina tried to ignore the curious stares that she was getting, but it became more and more difficult the farther into the city they went.
When they arrived at the cottage that was to be her home, her guide turned her over to the small family waiting at the gate. The house was white, of course, and the roof was a pale green. The front of the house was lined with flowers, as was the path that led to the street. The man looked to be in his early forties and the woman was only slightly younger.
The man wore a dark blue uniform with a white sash, and his greying brown hair was neatly cropped. He had a full beard, also neatly trimmed, and jovial black eyes. The woman wore a simple light brown dress with white flowers embroidered on the bodice. Her white-blonde hair was pulled back in a simple bun, but a few stray hairs escaped to curl pleasantly around her plump face. Their daughter, a girl of nine or ten, hid behind her mother and peeked out from time to time. Her honey hair was plaited into an orderly braid, and her brown eyes sparkled with excitement.
The man extended a large, calloused hand. “Welcome to our home, Adrie. I am Hass.”
She looked at his hand with an air of uncertainty. Adesina was familiar with the custom of shaking hands, but Adrie was not.
Hass smiled kindly. “Do they not shake hands in the Northern Tribes? Well, no matter. It is just a little custom we have here.”
He presented his wife and daughter. “This is Jelana, and our child, Fia.”
Adesina smiled hesitantly at them while Hass approached her. He took her two bags and beckoned to her. “Follow me and I will show you to your room.”
Jelana, followed closely by Fia, made way for them to pass. Hass heaved the bags over his shoulder and walked up the path towards the house. The white door stood open, and upon closer inspection Adesina could see that there were no locks.
The front room was bright and cheerful. Pale yellow curtains hung from the windows and potted flowers stood on each sill. A conservative fire danced in the stone fireplace on the left side of the room, not far from another wooden door. A table and four chairs sat opposite of the fireplace, and a loom was set up against the far wall. Opposite the loom were a couple of chairs, a small stringed instrument, and a shelf with a small stack of parchment.
In the center of the far wall was a doorway that led to a set of stairs. Hass led Adesina up these stairs to a narrow corridor. There were three doors along this hallway. Hass gestured to the first as he passed it.
“This is Fia’s bedroom.”
He did the same for the second door. “This is a storage room, of sorts.”
Hass stopped at the third door and opened it wide to reveal a sunny, meticulous room. It was easily twice the size of her room back in the Shimat fortress, but that still wasn’t saying much. The window, shielded by the same type of curtains as the main room, faced the street. A small table sat near the window, directly across from the door. A bed occupied the far left corner of the room, which had a patchwork quilt laid over it and a trunk at its foot. The near left corner of the room had a mirror and a washstand, and a screen with birds and flowers painted on it.
Adrie sucked in her breath and drew her hands up to her face. “It is so beautiful,” she exclaimed.
Behind the act, however, Adesina was taking careful mental notes as they had walked through the house. She spotted good places to hide things in her room, quick escape routes, possible places for ambushes, which floorboards and stairs made noise when stepped on, and so forth. She was genuinely pleased with her arrangements.
Ravi, who had been following them silently, settled himself at the far end of her new bedroom and looked at her expectantly. She returned the look and then turned her back on him.
Hass set down her bags on the floor near the bed, a bit flustered by her compliment. “It is not much, but we hoped you would like it. I suppose you want to get settled in. Come downstairs when you are finished, and Jelana will see to you. I need to get to work.”
He gave her a brusque nod and shut the door behind him. Adesina took a deep breath and let it out audibly. She turned to the window and opened it to let in some fresh air. There was a small group of girls huddled across the street whispering to each other and pointing to the house. Adesina ignored the instinctive suspicion that rose in her mind and turned her back on the window, letting the curtains fall back into place.
She began unpacking her things. She first pulled everything out and laid it on the bed. The things she needed to put away first were the items hidden in the bottom of her bags. Her weapons, the medical kit, a store of ingredients for various concoctions, private documents, and so forth. All of these she put underneath her mattress for now. She would find a better hiding place later that night.
All the while, her mind turned over all she had seen and heard, trying to figure out how she would be of the most use to the Shimat order during her stay in the High City.