Midsummer – Ardrennan.
I am not the same quesatera I was three months ago. I have spent my whole adult life travelling with the khumos, an outsider among nomads in a foreign land far away from the sea. I feel now as though Ardrennan is the city of my birth, and the quesatera indigenous to this land are my people. I had thought I needed the whole world to explore, to let my mind and my body wander and to find something new every day, but the city of Ardrennan is so large, so magnificent, so impossibly old and complex and colourful, that after months of living here I still get lost just trying to reach the gardens.
Perhaps I should start with the gardens.
I had thought that the eesheeya festival on the edge of the Great Forest was a large gathering, but the Old Queen's Lily Garden here make the festival look like a country market. I have grown my hair long, just so that the eesheeya hairdressers can weave flowers into it. They tell stories continually, their profession belonging to one of the oldest storytelling societies, and if I ever need to know what is happening in the city, I don't need to read a news flier, I just go and see my hairdresser.
I met my hairdresser because I was lost. Being lost has given me so many wonderful experiences, and meeting Loreli started me off on the right foot. I was still muddy from an accidental fall into the river that morning, when Loreli, through a combination of bombast, physical force and a strange flirtatious humour, hustled me into her salon where she had me bathed, shaved and re-clothed in an afternoon of relaxing conversation and pampering I shall never forget. Through her, and her multi-racial network of assistants, customers and a gang of blue haired eesheeya street urchins, my cousin Yassus was found, and informed of my arrival.
I was also introduced to a cousin of Corrina Rivermist Glimmerwing (who I met in Cloudspore), and who did indeed prove to have an eesheeya relation. Zhanese Glimmerwing is her great, great grandmother, and who at an extremely senior age, is still running a Baked Goods Flying Delivery Service covering half the city. So now, through the marriage of my cousin William Splitrock, I have an eesheeya relative. More than that, Zhanese claims she is not native to Telanya, but came here as a child from her native homeland over the Jewel Sea. A country Zhanese only ever refers to as 'Home'.
But I am losing my way in this story already.
The public gardens in most cities are magnificent. They represent the history of peaceful trade between nations, as each city will strive to grow exotic species from foreign lands, as botanists, gardeners, healers and florists all come together to create a resource of both beauty and utility. In cooperation with royal families, governments and wealthy trading companies, city gardens grow to become the floral tiaras atop the brow of civilised society.
The Ardrennan gardens are a city unto themselves. Actually a triptych by design, they consist of the Old Queen's Lily Gardens, the New Arboretum of the Yellow Emperor, and the Royal Herbarium. Ardrennan city is the oldest of all the cities of Telanya, or so Loreli tells me, and as such, the gardens are a physical proof of the grandeur of centuries of civilisation. The gardens are the promise made good of all the Freefolk who have lived and worked and built their lives here by the coast since the Age of Strife. They are beautiful beyond compare, and I find myself growing teary as I reminisce on the halcyon evenings I have spent dining in the lamp-lit restaurants and tea-houses amidst blooming rose trees that are older than my grandmother.
I have lost my way already. To tell the story of Ardrennan is to get lost again and again, day after festive day, night after musical night. I have united with a vast network of family I never knew existed, starting with Yassus who introduced me to my other cousins who work with him in the Great Library, and going all the way out along the twisting branches of my family tree until I met Hester Von Hester, a naspani step-cousin by marriage who told me a story that became the first pages of a whole new journey for me.
The Library archives are beneath the city, in the quesatera district of Nemea. Beneath the archives are the storage catacombs, where the artifacts and archaeological relics of the old times are kept.
Beneath the catacombs are the caves of the Khumoska. The Khumoska are as different from modern khumos, as sindipar are from ashkasi, and from the scant evidence that remains in the caves, it seems they were capable of building mountains, not just carving tunnels into the earth. However, the evidence that does remain is so worn away and fragmentary that the entire collection fills only a single small museum room in the catacombs above. The caves are vast, and still largely unexplored due to the sea water that flooded them thousands of years ago, but what can be accessed is of a scale and design as to blow away like dust, any assumptions I may have had about the world before the Brightsong, or even before the Eldertimes.
All of this leads me to Hester von Hester. He claimed to be the keeper of a legend regarding the Gray Marshes, and the reason why the naspani remained there for so long, despite the Gloomspawn who dominated the land. The 'Old Tower', of legend, said to be deep in the marsh, actually extends deep beneath the marsh, with only the broken tip of the monument visible. Hester showed me an ancient cave painting that seems to depict the marshes, and shows the tower extending down into the caves of the Khumoska. Hester postulated that the whole of Telanya, and perhaps even beyond it, is honeycombed with a tunnel network so vast that rivers and oceans flow within it, and clouds even form in the colossal caves, bringing rain, and seasons. He showed me pictures of underground forests, and what appear to be caves of glowing rocks.
All of this, like the maze of storage tunnels in the catacombs, like the many fingered branches of my family tree, brings my story to the Halkarn Artificery, the Salon of the Grand Senor, and his chief Vizier, Hafiz the Poet.