1 — Initiation
The new mage was wary as she entered the presence of the city. She was not surprised by it in the slightest; she had lived in it for ages, and that the audience took place in one of the many palatial buildings in the guts of downtown, the entrance hidden in a winding series of twisting alleys a thousand years old, was no surprise. It fit perfectly.
She peeked in. The room was richly furnished; an unused fireplace’s mantelshelf full of photos and statuettes, with a thin gold-and-black lacquer vase. A beautiful table, of solid wood, with a red tablecloth and another huge vase smack dab in the middle, brimming with flowers too gorgeous to be real, too imperfect to be fake. Bookshelves, full to the brim, on every wall that wasn’t adorned with fading paintings and old wallpaper; old and showing every sign of decay, faded, fraying, revealing the uneven stucco behind. And so the tablecloth, and the books, some so old she had the impression they’d crumble, pages thin and ready to be dust, at the merest touch, and the photos, faces indistinguishable on the yellowed backgrounds.
And similarly old was the large armchair, three quarters turned toward the window (and the mage noticed that, despite the sunny day, the light here was harsh, white, filtered as though through clouds, and older still, on it, the city. She looked like an old woman, frail but still straight, her clothing sumptuous — an ermine scarf around her neck, a very faded green jacket with imposing mother-of-pearl buttons, and a ring on her hand just as large. Her head was turned to look outside.
“Um,” the mage started, but the city interrupted.
“Another whelp they send me, as if I didn’t…,” half screamed, half lost in muttering, “another child. No respect. No,” she sighed, “respect.”
“Ma’am, I —”
“You will be quiet!” She snapped suddenly, looking at her. And any response the mage might’ve had died as she saw the city's face — livid, bruised, covered in scratches, and at the sight of her eyes the city recoiled, getting angrier, holding onto the armrests, making the white hands of a frail woman even whiter for the exertion. “You will be quiet and listen, because you will do as I say,” she snarled, “and you’ll mind your place.”
The new mage’s eyes narrowed at that, but she didn’t attempt a comeback.
“You’re new, aren’t you? A hedge witch. Bah,” she nearly spat. “I hate your kind. Always messing at the damned boundaries. Never,” she was muttering, now, “never knowing that everyone should be in their place, in the place. I. Say.”
The city tried to stand. Slowly she rose up, slowly she reached for a stick, taking some steps on the marble floor, short and heavy. The mage met her gaze; an error. She could see her now, millennia of war and death, of isolation and growing old, she could see the plague that made her this way, the greed that consumed her because it was the greed that consumed its inhabitants. She could see and she would later have nightmares of it, sympathetic glimpses at the pain of living without meaning to, to the endurance and perseverance of an existence consumed by folly and the want of generations.
The city looked at her intently. Her face softened a moment, only a moment. “Who hates you so much, dear?”
“Uh, uh,” was all the mage could utter. “What?”
“Who hates you so that they sent you alone, just new, with no elder to placate me, hands,” and she was looking at her right hand now, having taken it in her own free hand, surprisingly strong for such coarse and old skin, “hands disgustingly clean and barely a murder upon your immortal self.”
“The thirteen —”
“Gah!” She spat on the ground. “The thirteen. The thirteen! The petulant children,” she almost screamed now, “playing kings and queens,” and she seemed to grow slightly taller as she looked up at the mage, her jagged features closer, “thinking anyone could rule me. The fools! Thinking I would eat their tributes and just shut up,” and suddenly silence and the city looked at her with a ravenous look and suddenly the mage knew she was the tribute, she was duped into being here, and at the same time she was also fighting that look, because the city wasn’t a woman, and that wasn’t a look, but it was the desperation of a million ruined lives, of a billion immigrants, of infinite lives taken and mashed and bruised and battered and destroyed and eaten, and,
“No!”, was the mage’s yell. “I won’t be — !”
And now rage. “Insolent toddler!” almost screamed, “you are mine through! You’re born here, grown here, became who you are now because you wanted more, because this,” this greed the mage suddenly felt surge, “is part of you! I am your mother! I am your soil! I am —”
“No!” The mage looked away. The room was a symbol and it didn’t exist, shifting around her. “Even forests spread away! Even what grows can leave its soil!”
She didn’t know where that come from, but it had come out, and suddenly, everything was silence.
And when she dared look she saw the city’s face, and it was still the same — but now vacant, lost in memory. “The plants,” and she was barely mumbling now, “they left… it was all plants here, the animals… I was nothing then…” and her eyes welled up, “and then they came and built and drained the soil the animals just went,” her teeth clenched , “because those greedy bastards wanted all of this!”
And the room was the pain of being born wrong, the traffic outside, usually distant, now quiet, for the city was crying. Quiet sobs, clearly unable to be suppressed; and the mage knew what to work.
She took the city’s hands, then pulled her in a gentle hug at her breast, while she wept.
The mage and the city talked all night, sharing secrets, giving each other comfort in the dark, a single lone warm electric light working in the corridor outside the room; they huddled together and the mage found blankets for her and laid her down on the armchair and made sure the cold couldn’t get to her too bad before leaving. Had she looked, she’d have found the door was no longer there once she was out of the building, which had been replaced by a wholly different one, equally beautiful and ruined, if more real. But she was, at this point, experienced enough to not look back.
The mage shivered in her jacket. It was spring, but the night cold still bit the unwary, and she was quickly learning that that was something she could no longer afford to be.
It was early in the night, barely one thirty; the streets were empty save for the few groups of friends walking back from parties and theaters, for the homeless huddled under the centuries-old entrances, for the lone sex worker or thief. They didn’t see her, but not for any reason you’d find out of the ordinary.
She was set up and sent to die. The thirteen — men and women in robes and masks, self-proclaimed lords and ladies of Milan, the bodies sometimes changing but never the number or the attire or the attitudes — they had sent her to die, and couldn’t be trusted any more; and she was still alive, and she knew the failure might smart. She spent an hour just walking, trying to figure out how to survive, as the city slept, even the obnoxious orange streetlights a little softer.
And then she felt what to do,
And decided instead, for now, for tonight, to walk a little further until she found the door — it looks and feels always the same, though it changes spots frequently — and get in the pub with her kind and order a tonic water and sit down and soothe her nerves. And as she opened the door, her hand was shaking, and not for the cold.
Next, Chapter 2: “First of all,”.