There’s a bang, solid stone striking thick wood, and you’re awake. You are in an enormous makeshift tent, sleeping on what might have been a bench before you made it a bed. The sheer fabric creates a dull resonance, bouncing half of the crowd’s noise back at you. Because there is a crowd, hundreds of people walking, shouting, laughing, fighting, bartering, proselytizing. So many people that the noises become a buzz in your ears, as if each one of them were a whirring gear jammed too close to a metal plate.
Blinking, just to see the black emptiness after that rush of color and sound, you gather that this is a marketplace and you’re in what passes for a removed corner. Directly to your left is a robed person pounding nuts into paste, and on your right is a stall displaying crystal trinkets. No one so much as glances at you as you rise from the…bench was it? Looking over your shoulder it looks more like a heap of rugs.
Turning your head produces more than just a blur of movement; facing front again, the entire scene has changed. The stall on your left is now selling bowls of thin soup with melon balls afloat. To your right, the light shines oddly through apothecary vials. The crowd still buzzes, each individual indistinguishable from the whole.
Your legs itch. On a whim, you lunge into the chaos and damn the swirling void at the edges of your vision. The unpleasant thought emerges that, if you jumped backwards right now, you would land in a warm stew of pure existence not yet organized into shapes and sensations. So you keep moving forward, through games of stickball and groups of solemn men with official buttons. Walking through the tent isn’t unpleasant. It’s just that the washerwoman up to her armpits in blue froth might have the same set of eyes as the donkey you passed at the last intersection. You can’t tell, since you had to look away from one to see the other.
Comfort is there to be had, in the constant gentle billowing of the tent fabric. Everywhere, it casts faint shadows and you can smell the clean linen when the breeze is crosswise. Even if you’re afraid to look around at the illusion of life – too mortal not to – the pattern of the tent can be seen on everything if you focus.
In your haste to move, you’ve avoided the merchants and gossiping clumps of tent-folk. But up ahead there is a thickening of action. There seems to be a twinkling strand hanging from the apex of the tent, or perhaps a spire wavering up from the ground? More noise and heat push against your walking progress towards the enigma, and suddenly there seem to be more dough-faced people whose paths must cross yours.
Two strides forward, then rock back on the heels to avoid the handcart, and jaunt to the side to get ahead of the apprentice priest rushing a scroll back to his master. A handful of leaps between you and the golden – yes, either gold or brass – structure. Your eyes never leave it, because you would never find it again in this melting mass of confusion.
It can’t be thicker than your own neck, right up close, but it sways only slightly over the untold height. You made it to the very feet of the pole…or rope? Before you can touch it, a voice as real as yours cuts through the clammor.
“Yes, you would like to go up I suppose?”
Turning to look (that midnight-blue parasol used to be a gaudy parrot, didn’t it?), reveals a pretty young boy in an over-large velvet top hat. Red velvet with a thin brim. His eyes are waiting for you to answer.
You look back at the shining thing that drew you here. Even this close you can’t quite tell if the material is familiar or foreign. And it didn’t disappear.
“Hey, I don’t have time for voyeurs. If you want up you’re going to have to pay.”
The boy hadn’t disappeared either. His hat top only reaches mid-throat on you, so you feel quite rude staring so intently down on his face but he doesn’t seem to mind, except that you must be daft to still not answer his question. The thought is certainly jogging around in those steely eyes. They’re the color of old weapons, with all the fight took out of them and tanish added on by time. Maybe he made the gold tube?
Clearing your throat, you respond. “How do I know if I want to go up? I don’t know what the thing is.”
A smile ratchets one side of his mouth up a few notches. Here it comes, the sale.
“And don’t I know it. You looked like a hooked fish being reeled in by the Amazing Sunlight Beacon. Caught you from clear across the tent it did, but that’s how it does so don’t feel too bad. Thing can’t help it, but I gotta be sharp with those that can’t pay. Can you pay?”
Again, it’s the feeling that a quick enough spin would show you nothing but nothing at your back, just a sucking blob of being that shouldn’t be. You might be sick all over that red top hat.
“I don’t have any money to pay you, if that’s what you mean. And how would I go up an amazing sunlight beacon anyway? You can’t climb light.”
“Ah, no, we both have to pay it so that it will take us up. I haven’t found a soul yet who can pay, so I can’t ascend till I do.” The boy looks sheepish, but that doesn’t quite fit with his eyes. “The payment isn’t too much. Just your name.”
“And no one’s got a name that the beacon likes yet? Or didn’t they,” you gesture to the mirage of people around, “buy your spiel?”
Quick as a laser reaching its terminus, the boy’s expression changes to grave calculation. You don’t know what he’s reading in your posture or demeanor, but it all matters a great deal. Finally he speaks. “They aren’t like me. And I think you too…but my name is Corandin, so I don’t know till you say yours if I’m right.”
It doesn’t even require thought. You open your mouth -