23 May, 2009

Gren post 12

Chapter Four

Finally, Finghus could run no more. He had turned often, but always kept his path downhill, toward the river. He had to walk now, sucking in air in great gusts, his side hurting, his legs tightening and stiffening the way he'd heard corpses did.
The sweat pouring from his forehead was stinging his eyes, and freezing him through. When he brought his coat sleeve down from wiping his brow, it was covered with blood. A cut from the fall? He had no handkerchief, so daubed at it with his sleeve again.
People. He must find people, like a crowd of some kind. Surely, if it had gone to such pains to hide from him like that... He jerked his head around anxiously... Surely it wouldn't want to confront him with other people around.
The cafe district was nearby now. Even though he thought it late, there must still be people there. A hot tea would be good too, a nice strong one. He turned east and downhill again at the next intersection, going through his pockets to see how much money he had. He could see the river through a gap in the distant buildings down there now.
People began to appear along the streets. Not many, but enough to let him slow his walking pace to normal. More windows were filled with light, and even movement as well. He tried to stay in shadow, looking down at the paving stones, and he didn't notice any strange looks. He brushed his coat off as well as he thought he could without attracting attention, and tried to ruffle his hair down over his forehead to hide the cut.
In a few blocks there were street lights here and there, billowing out their dim lavender-blue-white wash over the street and buildings, like glowing ink dripped into murky water. It made the surviving shadows stronger instead of dispelling them. Turning another corner and heading downhill one last block, he saw the street down there was much brighter, and he could hear people.
He realised he had been seeing more and more people, and now to hear them as well encouraged him further that he'd made the right choice. Not just voices, but the whole symphony of plates and knives, cups and saucers, scraping chair legs, and even carriage wheels on cobblestones.
He walked past a cafe on the sloping street, full of people and wrought iron tables, all on display upon a great terrace, bordered by towering bare trees. Too dark and near the edge.
The handful of shops were closed, but all the cafes were humming with people as he began walking by them now on the district's nearly level main street. The cobbles were far more worn here, and the streets wider, and he could see several splendid carriages making their way along the avenue.
Nearly all of the cafes had taken in their parasols, knowing the sun would be a welcome heat during the day at this time of year. All the people were dressed heavily, many of them in expensive furs, their hot dishes and drinks steaming up into the evening. He didn't know any of the cafes by name, but continued walking by several in expectation of passing one which would catch his interest in some way.
How odd that all these people were talking to each other, and he could hear them all, but couldn't really understand anything they were saying. Some were in large groups around big tables, some were in pairs. Some seemed excited or happy. Some seemed heated or angry. He tried to pick out single voices as he passed, but it was difficult to hold on to one for very long.
"... he just doesn't understand, it's like he's smart or something..."
"... into the can, without hitting the green one or the other desk..."
"... I wouldn't have a carriage. I mean, it's the smell, isn't it. You're sitting behind there all the time, with no..."
"... such an instrument, it was incredible, but when he started drinking the blue ones..."
It was disturbing him, and he let it melt back into the general clamour. Why had it been so unsettling? It was all too pedestrian. They should be talking about bodies being found in the mountains, or monsters hiding in cabinets. They should be talking about some great conspiracy surrounding the Grand Test. Ridiculous. They knew nothing of anything like that. Did he? He shouldn't. It no longer seemed completely real that he did. He should be talking to some friend about the woman over there with the disgusting hair, who actually wouldn't look bad if not for that. What friend?
He smelled strong tea, hot with spices. One of the cafes ahead was some sort of tea house. Thin, carved wooden latticeworks, with masses of dry vines entwining them, stood at intervals atop the exquisitely tarnished railings and balusters which enclosed the tables. A warm orange-yellow light came from beyond the people, back within the building itself, filtering through the people and then the vines. It seemed somehow more removed from the avenue. Although he picked nothing out of the conversations, the overall tone was more serious and intelligent.
He walked beneath the curving archway which vaulted from the railing on one side of the entrance to the other. Bare, dark vines twined through the wrought metal. He couldn't even read the name in the intricate wrought Morvalian letters, there were so many vines. He stopped, wondering briefly what he should do. Should he just go sit somewhere? It was so full, but there were open spaces. Should he go to a waiter? Should he go inside first? He glanced at his hands and clothes. It didn't really matter, did it?
There was an empty table near the front left corner, looking out to the avenue, the direction which he had originally come from. He made his way toward it, trying to be inconspicuous. Did conversation lessen or quiet as he passed? Just imagination. The table was a smaller one, meant for two or three. It was all intricately wrought metal, vines and leaves and flowers, all black. Or was it very dark green? It wasn't solid, being made up entirely of the vines and leaves which it modeled.
He looked up, though still keeping his head somewhat down, and gazed around the patio. The people were well dressed, but not as expensively as at some of the other cafes. He wasn't sure how to describe it, but as he looked around he came to realise that many of the patrons here had taken pains to dress very carefully, but in a way which differed slightly from what must have been current fashion, judging by the cafes he had already passed. It occurred to Finghus that they wanted to dress with more depth of character. Fur was expensive, but it took no effort of forethought to wear fur. Were these the intelligentsia?
A man wearing an apron was coming toward him. He had hoped it would be the dark haired woman he had seen tending the tables on the other side of the entrance. And what would he have done if it had been? Nothing. As always. Especially now, what could it matter?
Yes, he was coming over to Finghus, and he quickly spent a bit of effort to not notice the dirt and dust, the torn coat, or the blood on his forehead as he asked the usual questions. Could he see the blood? Could anyone? Perhaps. Finghus ordered tea, strong, spicy, and hot. Under the surface, he thought he would be best advised to stay awake this evening.
After the waiter left, he realised he would greatly desire something to eat. Something warm and comforting. He looked through his money, and decided to ask for something when the man brought his tea.
He looked down, toward the railing. The vines seemed to come forth from cracks and breaks in the paving stones, then finding their way up the balusters and along the railings, and occasionally out into the tables. He was behind one of the latticeworks, and they were thick with the dry vines as well, of course. He tried to imagine what he had looked like as he walked down the avenue to this spot. Pathetic? Furtive?
How practical the tabletop. With all the open space in its surface, no crumbs or bits of anything would stay on the table, but it would hold everything it needed to. It was like a filter. It held the plates and cups and utensils, but let the dross pass through. He stared into the table. Staring at one of the openings, between the metal vines. Staring through it now. Staring at the paving stone below. Staring at the crack in it. How many crumbs were down there? How many were simply blown away with the leaves? Would they make a whole loaf, altogether? If they did, it wouldn't be warm or savory. It would be cold. Dirty.
A large cup of steaming tea sailed into the midst of his view. He thanked the man with a slight nod and smile. He was watching him walk away now. Some sort of meat pie, perhaps? He had forgotten to ask. He watched the thick white fog rise from his cup into the cold evening.
How odd that only a few minutes ago his life was so different. He was scrambling around for his life in rubbish, and now he was having tea in a cafe. How strange. Would he be able to go home again? Ever? Could everything change so much, so quickly, so out of his control? Of course he would go back to his flat, after this was all settled. He had to, that's where all his things were. But what was he going to do tonight? Surely the cafe closed at some point.
He could be comfortable with people like these, perhaps. They thought about things, rather than just existing, day after day, doing the next thing required or expected of them. Did they go to mundane jobs like his every day, then come here and act as if they existed on a plane above all that, merely tipping down into it as a formality each day? Perhaps they could do that. Work in an office like his, but not become the person. Only a job. Just a source of money, a necessity, the money itself just a bothersome meaningless detail, an onerous societal obligation.
He would have liked to be rich. How many of these people, deep down, beneath their erudite blasŽ exterior, felt the same way? Were the intelligentsia as deluded about themselves as everyone else?
Air left him as though he were deflating, and he watched it rise above him, visible in the cold, mingling with the steam from his tea. It was like watching his soul ascend. His idiotic and unrealistic hopes and dreams rising up, no longer supporting him, letting him collapse. Maudlin. Stupidly maudlin, and dramaturgic. He sat up and looked about as he drank a sip of his tea.
Even if the tea was able to keep him awake all night, he would have to choose some course of action come morning. The constabulary was out of the question. They would want to bring together all the parties, form some sort of coherent story, then try to get everyone to reconcile. All it would do is make it even more imperative that he be dispatched as quickly and transparently as possible.
Somehow, Admonast Fenn was part of all this. That's what started everything, it had to be. Or why would those files have been changed? And how could he do anything about Fenn when it would only bring the whole thing down upon him. He might as well have gone and knocked on the door of his own flat.
The tea was good. It was helping him think without spiralling off into terror.
He allowed himself to savour the little vision of himself leading a group of constables into Mr. Fenn's office. How satisfying. How delicious. He was very superior as he did it. Self-righteous.
It was ultimately Fenn's doing that the man's face had been removed from that file. The man Finghus had killed. He took another, longer drink of the tea. He liked how the spiciness stung him slightly.
All this over the Grand Test. It made a kind of sense though. A Grand Test winner held all sorts of formal and informal power and influence in the Morvalian government. If it was known that someone's entry wasn't verifiably his own, it would mean disqualification. Disgrace even. Yes, that would be worth altering an illumination. It would be worth killing a little file clerk in his sleep, even if there was only a chance he might be figuring it out.
The histrionic association of his breath to his soul occurred to him again as the vapour once more caught his eye. How preposterous, because the steaming breath just kept coming.