The City... Caelondia. Zia felt a foreigner here despite never having left its soil. The crowds were all elbows and shouts, the roads choked by sprawling buildings. On the rooftops where air was fresh, the Rippling Walls dominated every vantage point with garish, clashing colors. The forgotten areas were best, she’d come to learn— cool, quiet ones like the vine-covered square that served as her current refuge.
Heavy overgrowth hid the courtyard gate from passers-by, and she’d never seen traces of any caretaker. The slate fountain in the center of the yard had crumbled into disrepair, its waters still and murky. Zia sought out these neglected places as a respite from her classmates— oh, they were never cruel outright, but they treated her as little more than an object of curiosity. Their endless questions wore away at her:
“Why are you so pale if you didn’t grow up in the Terminals?“
“Do you know any spies?”
“Say something in Ura!”
Ura! How she wished she could. Zia's father feigned deafness when she made her requests to learn the language. The confrontation when she'd tired of his evasions made it clear he would be of no help, and his standing in the community was high enough that the kinsfolk she knew shook their heads when she came to them asking.
She'd tried to teach herself the words on her own, but it seemed that Ura were protective of their language. Zia’s evenings in the library yielded only a guide to simple phrases— which was actually of more use than it initially seemed, the terms printed both phonetically and with Ura characters. It became something of a key in her attempts to decode her father’s books, but it could only take her so far with its limited scope.
After much frustration, Zia decided to take another approach; she might not be able to learn Ura directly, but she could learn of her culture from Caelondian records and translations. This proved more fruitful. The librarians by now were moved by her enthusiasm and helped her find all the texts permitted to Ura citizens.
Zia knew the stories of the gods already, but she read the familiar tales of Pyth and Micia with a smile. Ura myths were more reverential in tone than their Caelondian counterparts, a difference that Zia approved of. A certain degree of respect was only proper when it came to gods, after all. The histories of the war were harder to get through, the books propaganda from the winning side and not subtle about it. Zia studied them anyway for the descriptions of the Tazal Terminals, a place she longed to see if she were one day allowed past the walls of the city.
The last bookshelf yielded Zia’s two most treasured discoveries. First she’d uncovered a set of volumes translated into Caelondian by the Ura author herself. The woman had been of the first generation to be retained in the city after the war, and it seemed she'd traveled widely before that. The series described her adventures in the Wilds to some degree, but the emphasis was on the plants that could be found there— their benefits as medicine, food, and even combat advice for the more unruly ones.
Each new entry was accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations on little squares that looked to have been pasted in from some other source. Zia sometimes ran her fingers over the raised edges, imagining her kinswoman cutting the pictures from the precious originals to transfer them one by one to the Caelondian copies. The reaches of the Wild ruled Zia’s daydreams for months, lush forests and savage jungles populated by plants from the borrowed journals.
Zia's second great find was a hand-bound anthology of Ura songs. One or two she recognized from her childhood, simple rhyming verses sung by the late aunt who'd helped raise her. Zia's memory left gaps in the lyrics and she hadn't felt comfortable asking her father if he recalled any, but here they were in their entirety! Not only that— there were new songs, songs that had Zia dashing home for her harp to slowly sound out the notes, first with the instrument and then with her voice, lack of formal training of no consequence to her.
It was easy to find time to practice with her father’s long absences for work, and an open door led to an impromptu performance for her Ura neighbors that spilled into the street, the children dancing about while the older ones stood by, remembering. Their thunderous applause afterward had her blushing, but Zia's good mood came to an end when one of her audience pulled her aside to caution against singing old war songs in front of Caelondian folk. “Most wouldn't know their meaning,” he said, “but it’s not wise to take chances.” Zia thanked him kindly and from then on made a special effort to continue her learning in secret, because having discovered her music, she could not abandon it.
So that was why at the midday break between classes, while other students congregated in grassy quads and cafes, it wasn't a hard decision for Zia to avoid their scrutiny and sit, strumming her harp, in the forgotten square with the rundown old fountain. As usual, she played an Ura song, improvising at times with graceful flourishes that were a far cry from her once clumsy finger work. When Zia joined her voice to the music, no trace remained of its former thin quality. She paused partway through the song, having thought of a variation on the melody that she wished to develop further. The echo of her notes had barely faded before it was replaced by a clamor of footsteps.
“There she is!” Zia's private courtyard rang with chatter as two girls stumbled in, trailed by a huffy looking boy with freckles.
“Hey, Zia, we’re doing a project on Ura costume and we need one to interview!”
“Don’t you want to help us? Come onnn, do we have to drag you?” Zia recognized the trio of students, but didn't recall their names. The freckled boy pushed his way past the girls.
“I said don't get mixed up with this one. I heard her dad tells her what to play on that thing and it's some kinda code for Ura beyond the Wall.” Zia stood, alarmed.
“No one could possibly hear me past the Wall. You shouldn't have even been able to from the street!” Her teasing had never come this close to genuine confrontation, and Zia was at a loss for how extricate herself.
The girls were the first to speak. “Someone told us you’d be here is all.”
“Aww, look at little Zia. I'm sure she wouldn’t think of passing messages. It’s probably all her dad.”
“Yeah, she's so sweet like a little mouse.”
The boy strode forward. “Either way, we can take care of the problem right now.” Zia felt the the sudden absence of weight in her hands as the boy made his way to the fountain with her harp. He stood on the ledge, dangling the instrument over the water.
The girls tittered. “Bern, that's mean!”
Zia tensed, ready to lunge. Joke or not, she wouldn’t take the chance. The fountain wasn’t far and she knew she’d catch him off guard with enough speed. She’d likely end up in the water herself and have to spend the rest of the school day wet, but the thought of the wood warped, her fine harp ruined, made that irrelevant.
A fair haired boy emerged from the courtyard’s entryway before Zia could make her move. If he joined in...
“Ugh, am I actually seeing this?” the fair haired boy said. “Bern, really?” He appeared to have some clout, as Bern stepped down from the edge of the fountain.
“What are you thinking?”
“Look, her dad’s a spy. He only pretends to work for the Mancers. Everybody knows that.”
“Everybody who believes moronic rumors.”
“I’m not a moron!” Bern raised the harp again and the fair haired boy went for it, wresting it away. Enraged, Bern drew his fist back, but the boy seemed able to predict it, sidestepping the blow to land one of his own. “You’re nuts.” Bern clutched at his mouth. “Don’t feel like sticking around these crazies— come on, lets go.” The three students hurried off.
“Ah, I don’t really know how these things work, but it seems to be unharmed.” The fair haired boy said, handing over Zia’s harp. She examined the strings and tuning pins, letting out a breath upon reaching the same conclusion.
“I wish you hadn’t done that. You were just being kind, but now there’ll be more trouble.” The boy appeared not to hear.
“You know, I’ve come by before to watch you sing once or twice. You have a lovely voice.”
“Oh no, does everyone know about this place? And oh, ah, thank you.”
“It's a good talent. You could make a lot of money that way.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. Hey, have you eaten yet? I’ve noticed you skip lunch a fair bit.”
“Come join me?” Zia hesitated. “It’ll just be us and I promise not to hassle you like those idiots. But if you’re up for talking, I’d gladly listen.” The boy smiled so winningly that Zia couldn’t help but mirror it. They left the courtyard together, Zia sneaking the occasional glance his way, flushing slightly when he met her eyes.
The freckled boy with the bloody lip got a purse full of coin for his trouble.
“Zia.” She stared at her drawn up knees, noticing the smudges of dirt. “Zia, look. My grades haven't been cutting it and there's no way I'm doing a term on the Walls. I had to distinguish myself somehow.” Zia tucked her head down and willed for him to go away. “I'm trying to explain things, but fine! Doesn't matter to me if you know why I did it.”
“It obviously mattered, since you're here. Has your conscience been eased?”
“Ugh, I don’t know. You’re being difficult.” The fair haired boy glanced around the cellblock. “I’m getting out of this place. I have some people I’m meeting in an hour.”
“Enjoy their sympathy. It must be rough, your lover turning out to be a traitor.”
“You’re funny, Zia. You know, it wasn’t so bad being with you.”
“Leave and don’t visit me again.” Zia sat still after that for a long time, her thoughts swirling in the dark.
“Oh Zia, they finally let me see you. I was in the next wing over, but it still felt so far.”
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t do it— I wouldn't even— I was set up.”
“Of course, dearest. Of course you were!” Zia realized she hadn’t been sure if he’d believe her or not. “Everything’s going to be fine now, though. You’ll be released in a few minutes. I’ve seen to it.”
“Ah— I will? Right now? But wait, what about you?”
"Well, I’ll be going back to work, just like before.”
“For the Mancers again?” Zia strained to see his face in the prison light. “Father, the Mancers?”
“Zia, this is so very important, and I need you to listen. I have to return to work right away. No time for proper goodbyes. As soon as they release you, hurry home to the den and lock yourself in.”
“Why, what’s wrong? Tell me what’s wrong! Are you still in trouble?”
“As soon as you’re free, run home!” Her father turned away and joined the waiting escort of guards.
The next morning:
Snow, except not. Zia chanced a look outside and turned right back around for a rag to cover her mouth. Thick ash swirled in flurries. The door had crumbled when she touched it. Zia stepped out onto the carpeted ground, overwhelmed with wonder more than anything else. The walls had nearly torn apart while she cowered in the deepest part of the den all through the night, but now that was over and the strangeness out here was like a dream. Five paces past the front doorway, Zia lost her footing when her next step went into what felt like a deep hole. She scrambled back until both her feet were on solid ground and retreated to the den, heart thudding.
Zia made sure the ashfall was over before trying to set out again. A gentle rain helped clean the ground somewhat and the sky was clear enough to reveal— Oh... What lay beyond the doorway was beyond comprehension. The hole she’d thought she’d tripped in was in fact a sheer cliff with a drop into... could that possibly be the sky? The entire horizon was a blue expanse, wisps of clouds peeking out from under where she stood. Clouds, underneath her. She saw bits of land in the distance, islands suspended in the air against all reason. Zia lurched, finally able to move, crawling her way back down the den more by feel than by sight to curl into a ball amid familiar smelling sheets.
The next few minutes she scarcely recalled. Zia shivered, hands clenching, unclenching. Gradually her shaking subsided, rational thought returning with her composure, and she sprang up, compelled to take a second look.
The Walls. The Rippling Walls. One of the distant islands held no more than a tower and a broken stretch of rampart, but those bright colors were unmistakable. Now, for the first time, she was on the other side. Passing clouds alternately obscured and revealed the Walls’ remnants, distracting Zia until she remembered with a start that she still had absolutely no idea what was on the opposite side of her house.
Zia skirted the long cliff with care and cast an eye at the expanse behind the den. The earth was more substantial here, and she even saw the outskirts of a thicket. The trees still had an ashy cast, and grey trickles of rainwater ran channels in the dirt. More rain and it wouldn’t look half bad, though the plants were a little dense for comfort.
A sudden rumble from the front side of the house had Zia sprinting back for the source of the noise. She watched, jaw tight, as portions of the cliffside groaned and broke off, vanishing down the vertical face. Zia waited for the turmoil to stop and then she made a decision. The den might not be safe soon, and the thicket, though an unknown, was at least not breaking apart. She worked her way past the doorway again and began preparations. First the most important things: food, blankets, jugs for water, a compass, flint, and a striking knife. A waterproof tarp and rope make a nice bundle of it all, which she hauled a short ways into the undergrowth.
On the second trip, Zia cursed herself for her near lapse of memory on something so vital: volumes one through four of Plants of the Wilds, checked out from the library before her imprisonment. She’d get slapped with quite the overdue fine indeed if by some chance that place survived! She had the momentary fancy of a librarian’s shocked face as he received the books from a laughing, grizzled future Zia. The four volumes fit well in a large stockpot along with some cooking utensils, a tuning wrench, spare strings, and finally her harp. Another blanket protected them all from clangs and jostles.
Zia came to a halt at the desk where her father often sat to write in his hidebound journal. What had he known of this disaster? He’d given her a warning... The stockpot thudded to the floor. Those were his last words to her. He was gone now. Really gone. Her neighbors too, gone. Even the librarian she’d thought of so casually just now. Gone. She snatched the journal and added it to the pile. Written all in Ura, it’d be no help to her, but Zia needed a memento.
Zia waited out more rockfalls in silence, growing bold enough for a third trip when it seemed the cliff would hold for a little while yet. Cushions, floor mats, anything that was even remotely useful went with her this time. She overturned a barrel and crammed the lot inside, rolling it out the door and over to her collection. With a long branch, she could hook the bundle to one side and the stockpot to the other, distributing the weight across her shoulders. The barrel she kicked along ahead of her. Zia took a last look back at her house, not wanting to be present when it finally fell.
The thicket was not as overgrown as she’d feared, though her back ached and she nearly had to abandon the barrel several times. Eventually she found railroad tracks, which she followed until they met a patch of flowers. Swampweed, she identified; Prosper Bluff is where I am. This was a plant to avoid, as she needed a clear head, but now she knew there’d be vineapples nearby, fresh water sources, and a safe place to camp.
Zia smiled. The Wilds lay before her— and she was an adventurer.
As long as it took for him to get there:
“...It floats in the air, I don’t know how exactly, but Rucks says that’s where the cores come in. Um, we have another Ura, his name is Zulf and he’s a melancholy fellow, but real polite, so—”
“Don’t worry, I’ll go!”
“Oh! You will? Really?”
“Quite the decision you two stuck me with. And here you go making it sound so simple.”
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking things out myself, mind! And, well, I’ve already evacuated once. Took what I needed and left not knowing where I‘d end up. Now I’m right where I want to be. Um, have you tried the spyglass yet? I mean really taken the time and looked properly?“
“Not in the way you’re saying, I think. Pass it over?”
“Mmm. You know... We talked like the world had been ruined, but there’s still so much of it.”
“And now we have the chance to see everything.”
After all the fuss:
The Kid hammered the last plank of the distillery roof into place and made his way down the ladder to survey his handiwork. Pleased, he hummed to himself, the tune gaining words on its second repetition:
We built a home up in the sky
And now our bastion's gonna fly!
The Kid jumped at the soft giggle behind him. “Ah, hey, I kinda stole your song,” he said with a sheepish grin.
“I like your version. And your singing... you should do it more often.”
“Is that a nice way of saying I need practice?”
“Shush!” Zia said, taking The Kid's hand in her own and leading him to the Monument where they settled side by side on the grass. “I meant I haven’t heard you sing before.”
“Well, you've kind of got the monopoly on that sort of thing around here. I mean, have you heard Zulf's attempts?” Zulf looked up at the sound of his name with a rare smile, one that reminded Zia that he was near their age. She could tell he'd been half listening to the chatter. “I mean it, you have a lovely voice.” Zia went quiet and the Kid examined her face. “Ah, did I say that wrong somehow?”
“No... it’s fine. That’s kind of you.”
“Well, I’m not one to flatter or sugarcoat, so you can take what I said plainly. Actually it relates to something that’s been bouncing ‘round my head a bit, an idea of mine—”
“Uh oh,” Rucks said, joining in. Zulf by this time was paying full attention, his hands idle on the cutting board.
“Here’s the plan,” The Kid continued, undeterred. “We steer the Bastion as far as it can go, stopping wherever there’s land."
“We could even sail across the Boundless Sea!” Zia said, eyes bright.
The Kid grinned. “What’s left of it!”
“How does that differ from the old plan?” Zulf asked.
“Ah, here’s the thing. Wherever we stop, we get the lovely Miss Zia to sing a song. One that winds itself all the way around that scrap of world. Do we have a way we can amplify her voice, Rucks?”
“I reckon I can pull somethin' together.”
Zulf sighed. “I’m still not following. You have the oddest leaps of logic sometimes.”
“Well, the survivors— and I know they’re out there— they’ll hear Zia and they’ll be stricken. Uh, in the good way. They’ll be mesmerized. They’ll walk like they’re in a dream until they find the source, and when they see her, they’ll know they’ll be alright.”
“I appreciate the faith you put in my voice,” Zia said, “But what makes you think that would actually work?”
“Well, it worked for me.”
Zia realized then that she’d been holding the Kid’s hand for an awfully long time. She almost dropped it by reflex, then decided nah, that’d be silly and pressed her lips instead to those of a shocked but very happy Kid.