Hawkeye shouldered her pack and hobbled around to the other side of the dune. One hundred paces farther South, the Neighbors stood facing Seaside, the donkeys clustered around them – and their own packs on their backs. Apparently, they had learned something from Hawkeye’s loss. Or perhaps they had suffered losses of their own, though if was hard to imagine anyone would dare to offer that sort of insult to a Neighbor.
But not impossible. So here they stood, their packs in tow, and when Hawkeye joined them, did she imagine their faces looked grim? Or at least more serious, if that were possible. Empty Seaside might have been enough to inspire grim expressions, certainly Hawkeye felt that way when she contemplated this city, once full of laughing, working, living people. All scooped off the face of the world in one night.
She felt apprehensive, too, but she saw nothing like that in the Neighbor’s faces – or nothing she could recognize as such.
“Where first, Hawkeye?” asked Boss.
She really had no idea. Before she could say so, Brat trotted forward, his tail high, his ears erect, his nose thrust toward the city. Wolfy and Daisy followed, casting looks over their shoulders as if worried the people might not follow them. But the people did, letting Brat lead the way, and the rest of the donkeys brought up the rear.
Hawkeye wondered which route the Scavengers would take into the city, surely they wouldn’t pass up a chance for strange salvage. But she saw no sign of them – perhaps they weren’t awake yet. Perhaps they had used her pain pills as a recreational drug, and now they were sleeping it off. If that were the case, it might almost be worth it to have lost the pills.
Brat lead them from a branching road onto a much wider one, and Hawkeye marveled at how new the pavement looked, as if it had just been resurfaced. Of course, no vehicles had been over it for centuries, so maybe this was no surprise. But shouldn’t the sun have taken its toll over the years, shouldn’t the wind have blown dirt and scouring sand over it? It practically gleamed in the morning light, the whole city did. As the morning grew older and they got closer to the city, her apprehension began to dim. In its place she felt a growing curiosity, tempered with a happiness that seemed entirely inappropriate. As if she were visiting an amusement park instead of a Forbidden City.
Wind whistled over walls and through empty streets, another thing that should have filled Hawkeye with apprehension, but she loved the sound of the wind, and this city seemed to have been designed to give it many voices. She had thought Lark would have been a lovely place to live, a place she might have been happy to settle in if the Southern gods had not made it a ghost town. But now she knew that Seaside would have been the place for her, despite the fact that its dwellers must have had to drill deep for water. She could imagine sitting on her own little terrace and listening to the wind, contemplating the passage of aeons across the dunes.
Brat led them through a city gate shaped like a giant seashell. When the last donkey had passed under its scalloped edges, time Fractured. Hawkeye could tell by the sound of the wind, which stopped whistling and began to sound like waves under water, as if they walked at the bottom of a brightly lit lagoon. Now the buildings of Seaside looked like a vast coral reef, and she and the others were bits of seaweed that drifted along the ocean floor, teased to and fro by eternal tides, yet still moving forward, following one small cat whose nose still pointed like an arrow. Happy eons seemed to pass as he led them up a wavering boulevard and finally in through double doors flanked by two lions of Seaside, much like the lions of Lark, except that these had bottoms and tails like seahorses, manes of seaweed, and eyes that peered through glimmering depths.
“Another library,” remarked Hawkeye, as everyone climbed the front steps and passed inside – including the donkeys. They seemed unwilling to stay outside, possibly because they were afraid of the Fracture. Inside, time seemed to be running more or less normally. Brat continued like an arrow toward a staircase at the far end of the lobby, and the donkeys looked like they might try to climb those, too.
“Brat,” Hawkeye called, “Stop.”
Brat paused and looked at her over his shoulder.
Hawkeye stroked the spot between Wolfy’s ears. “Will you tell Daisy to wait here with his herd? Will you wait with them?”
“Es,” promised Wolfy. He touched noses with Daisy and sat down, indicating his intention to stay put.
Brat resumed his role as leader, his tail twitching with minor annoyance. Hawkeye and the Neighbors followed him through the vast, shadowy lobby, to the foot of the broad staircase, which spiraled upward like a Nautilus. Brat ascended easily, but he slowed his pace when Ivory called, “Wait for Hawkeye!”
Hawkeye wished Brat would try the elevators instead, but probably they didn’t work. All of the machines had quit after the disappearance. She accepted Boss’s assistance to climb the stairs, grateful for his strength and patience. No one had ever assisted her this way, certainly not Bertie. Somehow she had gained the impression that he felt it would be bad for her to rely too much on others, that she might lose her independence. Later she realized that Bertie never helped her because Bertie only helped himself. And any other would-be gentlemen may have feared she would take offense. Boss did not harbor those assumptions, he merely did what was right.
Brat ran ahead a few steps, paused and waited for them to catch up, then ran up a few more. In this fashion, he led them past several landings, all the way to the top. As Boss helped Hawkeye up the last step, she took a moment to thank the Almighty that time had not fractured during that long climb. That would have been very wretched timing indeed.
The cat waited for them in the middle of a narrow hallway. Emergency lights glowed softly along the bottom of the walls, and Brat’s eyes reflected this light. He sniffed the air, walking cautiously now. Hawkeye wondered if he had lost the trail, until he pointed his nose at the spot where the hall turned a corner, his ears aimed forward. He froze like a statue. She stayed very still, hardly daring to breathe. The Neighbors did the same.
Brat walked stiff-legged and peered around the corner. He remained frozen again for a long time. When he finally moved again, he allowed his hind quarters to join his front, sitting in the fashion of ancient Egyptian cat statues and wrapping his tail tightly around his body. He turned his head to look at Hawkeye and meowed with the same voice he customarily used just before he threw up.
Here, his expression seemed to say. You must come and look.
from Spirits Of Glory, by Emily Devenport