A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

1.2 – Urbana {City Girl}

Elena was woken by a gentle hand brushing through her hair, and she blinked a few times before she rose from her mother’s shoulder.

“I thought you would like to see the city, your first time approaching it.” Joanna said with a smile, and Elena rubbed her eyes and looked out across the final field of quorley. Her mother was right.

Elena knew the layout of Milia by heart, but she realized in that moment that she had been mistaken when she imagined it would be just like her small home village of Carpi, only bigger. She hadn’t ever thought about it in concrete terms, but she had been preparing for it to be a series of wooden houses, thatched rooftops. A little less farmland perhaps, and maybe a great wooden wall, but essentially the same sort of place she had grown up in.

“Umbrae terrae.” Ele swore under his breath, looking up at the vast stone walls that ringed the city, higher than Elena would’ve thought possible. The stones were a tan that was bright in the evening sun, straight and even, surrounding the heavy iron gates. In her half-asleep state, it looked like the gates of heaven. In her mind the City of Milia had always been the center of the world, and in the flesh it was no less impressive.

By the time the cart rumbled its way beneath the gates, Elena had started to clear the sleep from her system, and was busy letting her gaze rove over the stone walls.

“How much weight do you think each wall carries?” She asked excitedly. “And how did they know how much the load-bearing stones would support when they put in the arches?” She was forgetting herself and speaking to Ele, but her mother wouldn’t know that.

“I’m sure I don’t know, Elena.” Her mother replied. “But you can hardly be the only Fabera in Milia. It will be good for you to finally meet your own kind, maybe they’ll have patience for your constant questions.”

“It’s hard to estimate.” Ele ignored Joanna and answered Elena, just as excited as she was, but he had already turned his attention inward toward the city. “But they’ve got some master stonecrafters living here, just look at that!” He gestured at the smooth stones that made up the street around them, as the cart began moving more smoothly.

It was all too much to take in. As Ele pointed out, the streets themselves were works of art. Each piece was laid into the ground in odd angles, as if they had just happened to fall where they lay, but each fit so perfectly with the others that no weed had space to grow between them. Along both sides of the street lay deep smooth grooves in the stone, worn and clean.

“What are the grooves for?” Elena asked. Her mother gave her a disapproving look, but she couldn’t help herself. Without even waiting for an answer her eyes flicked skyward, following the precisely aligned buildings around them until her gaze reached the small castle that stood in the center of the town, visible even from its edges.

When they stepped down from the cart and moving through the city on foot, Elena contented herself with drinking in the sights and listening to Ele chatter as if he could talk enough for the both of them.

“Do you see how all the shops have signs of about the same size? I’ll bet that’s a regulation so that no one sign overwhelms the street, but it’s also forced each shop owner to be unique in their signage.”  He observed as they walked through the Street of Yellow Merchants. “They can’t just rely on size to catch the attention of passersby.” Joanna walked briskly and stared straight ahead through the entire merchant street, which Elena thought a little unfair. Given that their family had always sold goods until she had come along, Elena thought of her family more as merchants than as nobles.

When she was a young child, Elena’s aunt Jiani would visit them once a year, and a young Elena would pester the woman non-stop to describe the streets and shops of Milia. She sat enraptured through every word, until her mother invariably told her to stop monopolizing her aging relative’s time. Slowly, visit by visit, Elena had made a map of the city, and she thought she had known it intimately. To see the sights of her crude sketching brought alive with noise and people and smells was almost too much to take in.

When a low hiss rumbled around the street, Elena finally placed the small that had been bothering her, and she smiled as she looked down at the grooves on either side of the street. A burst of water shot down each channel, moving so fast it foamed at the edges, taking with it any garbage that the people of the city discarded. The stream dried up a few instants later, leaving behind only the clean grooves and the smell of water on stone, like the smell just after a short rain.

There were eight artisan streets, spread out in the city like the spokes of a wheel, with the castle at its center. Merchant shops and houses were arrayed in various configurations, but one was guaranteed to find a studio if one followed the spokes from the castle. Since the two Luccianos had entered by the southern gate, that meant they would be reaching the Street of Yellow Artisans as soon as they reached the corner, and from there she would finally be able to see the studio of Bernardo De Luca.

“Look, look!” Ele had run ahead and was standing at the street corner, his face alight with uncharacteristic awe as he called back to her. “It’s so beautiful!” Elena’s pulse quickened, but she maintained a dignified pace next to her mother as they made their way past the storefronts.

It wasn’t just beautiful; the sight was a painting, a sculpture, a song and a home all at once. Not a speck of dirt marred the surface of the artisan’s street, and the few small homes and outer buildings that ran along either side of it were a uniform light stone. Elena’s attention was arrested at once by the giant studio that lay on the other end of the street. Its tall walls of white stone seemed to shine out light instead of just reflecting it, every line of its arches and embellishments speaking of art and craftsmanship.

Even with her mother walking beside her, Elena had a quite undignified skip in her step. Other people filled the street, but she didn’t notice them, and she wove her way around carts and crates without really seeing them.

“Elena, look to your left.” Ele interrupted her reverie. “It’s a Rhetor.” Even with the studio in front of her Elena turned to look; another chance to see a creature she had only heard tales of was too good to miss. The woman was surprisingly normal; tall and delicate, with pale skin and nut brown hair. If not for the contraption of black metal that covered her mouth, she might’ve passed for a regular human.

The metal was thin, shaped like the lower half of a mask and strong enough to hold the woman’s mouth shut firmly, with a thin curling design of silver in its middle. With her mouth hidden, the woman’s vibrant green eyes seemed to shine with mystery and secrets. Elena realized with a start that the Rhetor was staring right at her, and a shiver went down her spine. If it wasn’t for the Rhetorguard who stood closeby, the curling silver and black metal of his armor matching her mask, Elena would be terrified.

True, he was speaking to someone in front of the house, not paying attention, but his simple presence was enough. If he wasn’t there, after all, what would prevent her from removing the mask that held her mouth shut? Elena shivered again as they walked past the woman and her Rhetorguard, passing just a few feet away from them.

“Her eyes are pretty.” Ele remarked as they continued towards the studio. Elena stopped herself from shooting him an exasperated look.

Leave it to Ele to be bewitched by a pair of eyes. She thought. When they were next alone she would have to tease him about finding a Rhetor attractive.

It happened in a single instant, so quickly that Elena barely had time to process it. The Rhetor turned her head towards the pair and stared directly at Ele, then dropped a mischievous wink with one of her pretty eyes. Ele froze in the middle of the street, staring in a mix of shock and horror, and Elena felt as if someone had poured icewater through her veins.

There had been no one walking behind Ele. No one even stood in the general direction. In all her life, for the past sixteen years, no one had ever been able to see him or talk to him. Elena had decided she was mad many years ago, simply accepting her friend as a part of her madness and living her life with it as best she could. The Rhetor’s green eyes were fixed on her now, and even with the mask it was clear that the woman was smiling.

“Are you well miss?” Standing as she was in the middle of the street, Elena had gained the Rhetorguard’s attention, and his hand was resting casually on the hilt of his sword.

“Elena, come along.” Her mother fixed both the Rhetor and her guard with a contemptuous stare, but for once Elena didn’t mind her mother rushing her. Without answering the Rhetorguard she hurried after Joanna, her mind suddenly occupied with much more than her upcoming appointment.

As soon as they entered the studio, the overbearing autumn heat melted away, as did all of the noise from the outside. Walking into the cool quiet of the studio antechamber was like entering a god’s own private world, which in a way, Elena reasoned, it was. Long marble benches lined two walls, on which two girls and two boys sat. On the third wall was a single doorway and a dayglass. The sand that trickled down showed that it was half-past twelve-stroke, a little after midday.

“Your appointment isn’t until one-stroke.” Her mother said briskly, her voice breaking the antechamber’s peaceful silence. “You wait, and I’m going to go collect from that cart-driver’s master the money that he owes us.”

“Mother he doesn’t owe us any-” Elena began, but Joanna had already left. She turned and sat on the very edge of one of the marble benches.

“You know your mother.” Ele said dryly. “She thinks everyone owes her something.” Elena half smiled, and took a better look at the occupants of the benches as Ele took a seat beside her. On the other end of her bench, a very tan young man with short dark hair sat with his back against the wall, leaning his head back with his eyes closed. A little closer to Elena, a girl with red hair tied up in a ponytail fidgeted and bounced her leg up and down.

On the other bench, a boy about her age with a mop of brown curls was focused on a sketch, holding a piece of paper on a stone tablet in one hand, a nub of charcoal in the other. Next to him sat a young woman with blonde curls and a long paintbrush stuck behind one ear, who was fixing Elena with a look of such frank and open curiosity that it made her smile.

“Hello.” Elena said. The word seemed to bounce off of the walls of the quiet antechamber, and she suddenly had the attention of everyone in the room. Even the man who leaned against the wall opened his eyes and fixed them on her. Elena felt very aware of herself again, and wished she hadn’t said anything.

“Oh! Hello.” The girl with the paintbrush responded simply, but she smiled so warmly that Elena felt emboldened enough to try to continue conversing, even though to her left Ele was smirking.

“My name is Elena. Are you here to petition Bernardo as well?” Elena asked.

“Oh no, I’m just here with him.” The girl gestured towards the boy with the charcoal who sat beside her. “I’m Arta, by the way. And what’s your name?”

“Um…Elena. My name is Elena” Elena repeated, uncertainly.

“Oh, no, I heard you.” Arta laughed. “I was asking your friend.” She pointed very deliberately towards Ele.

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9 responses

  1. Oh I like this :D


    2014-07-14 at 9:12 pm

  2. DeNarr

    There’s a line that just says [hr]. Not sure what that is supposed to mean. Is that saying it’s been an hour?


    2014-08-21 at 1:57 pm

    • Nope, that’s actually a formatting error, which I’ve now fixed. Thanks for catching that!


      2014-08-22 at 11:58 pm

  3. It would be hilarious if Ele was actually just a normal person that Elena’s mother pretended didn’t exist.

    Liked by 1 person

    2014-09-06 at 11:22 pm

    • This now my new hope for the story (even if Ele’s hands were incorporeal last chapter).


      2015-04-13 at 7:53 am

  4. I am in love with the idea of Rheters. I don’t even know what they do, and that one already made me think they’re fantastic.

    So, what, everyone can see Ele? Either Elena’s found herself next to the only other two who can through extraordinary luck, or her village is really into teamwork and practical jokes. :P


    2015-04-13 at 7:53 am

  5. Zephy669

    You did a great job at describing the city, and you’re great at creating tension and suspense, i.e. with the people now being able to see Ele.


    2015-05-16 at 9:56 am

  6. stumbled here from a review on webfictionguide. thought i might read a chapter or two to help me fall asleep, but know i’m thinking it might keep me up for a while!

    this world, or maybe the story, feels a bit like his dark materials (which is fabulous) and i can’t wait to find out more! thanks for writing.


    2015-08-28 at 7:34 am

  7. Typo:

    -placed the small that had been-

    the smell

    Love to come back and reread this story after a chunk of updates come out. Fantastic story.


    2016-12-12 at 2:21 pm

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