The inside of the Thread Court was almost as busy as the bustling streets outside. There was only one other black-robed raveller in sight. He sat behind a large desk near the entrance, surrounded by a queue of waiting people, wafting a sheet of paper in an attempt to dispel the warm estervan heat that had built up in the windowless room. The stuffy room and Tahnner’s weighty robes soon caused his skin to prickle as sweat trickled down his back. The unabashed stares the room’s occupants directed his way enhanced his discomfort.
Hands grasped him from behind, tugging at his raveller’s robes.
“Please?” a raspy voice asked. “Please- My boy, you must find him. Please- I can pay, I can. I-”
As Tahnner turned to investigate who clutched his robes, he caught sight of Fedan entering the guild before a wide-eyed woman stepped between them, clasping at the front of Tahnner’s robes, the whites of her eyes yellowed and lined with red.
“I’m sorry?” Tahnner asked, stepping back to extricate himself from the woman’s grip. “Do I know you?”
He turned around to find the now irate-looking raveller, scowling at them from behind the desk, his make-shift fan stilled in mid-air.
“What are you doing down here? Get yourselves upstairs now, are you trying cause a disturbance?” the raveller huffed his breath out in an exasperated sigh as he returned his attention to the man in front of him.
“Excuse me? Sir?” Fedan called out, struggling to make his way through the crowd towards the man. “Where-”
The raveller jabbed a finger towards the ceiling without diverting his attention from the man before him. Fedan turned back with a questioning glance, but Tahnner ignored him and set off towards the winding staircase at the far side of the tower.
When he reached the first floor landing he stopped, unsure where the raveller had been directing them to. Fedan caught up with him and Tahnner was struck by the strange sense of unity he seemed to feel with the other boy. It might be down to nothing more than that Fedan was the only one familiar to him in the entire guild, but he didn’t like the sensation.
The door to the first floor landing opened and a familiar voice drawled, “If it isn’t Pelston’s latest protégé.”
Kheelan, the raveller who had badgered Tahnner for information about his uncle all those years ago, stepped forward, blocking the doorway. Although the raveller’s expression was less severe than it had been back then, there was still no happiness in the wry twist of his lips as he leant back against the doorframe.
“Welcome to Girona, boys. I’m sure you’ll prefer it to that backwater, but you won’t be here long if you’re anything like the idiot who trained you. I wouldn’t bother to unpack.”
Without saying any more, Kheelan brushed passed them, almost knocking Tahnner back down the stairs. Judging from the way the raveller’s eyes swept over him with a look of disinterest, he gathered that the raveller had forgotten all about him, or at least he hoped he had.
Laughter burst through the entrance to the first floor. Tahnner met Fedan’s questioning gaze before entering the long rectangular room with closed doors lining its walls. The chamber was extravagant with beautiful paintings hanging from its windowless walls, lit by the warm glow of oil lamps which looked more like intricate pieces of art than functioning necessities. A number of ravellers reclined on expensive-looking plush chairs.
A heavy spiced tang of smoke assaulted him as he stepped inside, causing him to cough. He tried to smother the sound as Fedan entered after him, muttering a muffled expletive at the sight before them. Neither moved as they struggled to absorb the opulence. A door to their left burst open and Tahnner’s mind blanked as a woman who was naked from the waist up bounded out, shrieking at a dishevelled raveller with skewed robes who fell out the door after her. Tahnner barely saw the raveller though because his gaze was fixed on the woman’s bare chest as she turned and fled through the room, accompanied by the raucous laughter of the other ravellers lazing about. Even after the woman had gone, Tahnner couldn’t stop staring at empty doorway.
“New arrivals!” called out a dishevelled raveller, wrenching Tahnner from his reverie. “Welcome to Girona!” He attempted a bow even though he was sitting. “Threads, look at them,” he said to a companion, another man with whose robes were hanging off his shoulder. “We weren’t ever so staid were we? Just looking at them makes all the mirth in me splutter out.”
His companion laughed and proceeded to take a long draw on a pipe, the apparent source of the heavy, spiced smoke filling the air.
“We are sorry for disturbing you, Sir,” Fedan said, his voice sounding strained, as if he was trying not to cough again. “We were looking for someone who might know what our orders-”
Laughter broke out amongst the older ravellers and smoke huffed from the nose of the man breathing in the white fumes. They shared mocking glances with each other before the first man addressed them again.
“Your orders are to shut up and get to work extracting whatever they stuck up your arse in Pelston. Setting’s ages away. If you go upstairs now then you’ll only end up getting mobbed by the crowd. Come over here. Join us! You’ll be here for the rest of your lives, so I’d like to find out if we’re going to get along.”
He shot them a grin before returning his attention to the pipe being passed around. Tahnner glanced at Fedan and was reassured by the uneasy look on the other raveller’s face. After spending the last six years with his life revolving around Rising and Setting, he had developed a sensitivity for knowing when the Threads were drawing close. Even being indoors in a windowless room as they were, he could feel the gentle tug of them building around him. Had they been in Pelston, they would have already positioned themselves to the best advantage for watching the sun’s descent. The unconcerned attitudes of the other ravellers was unnerving.
They made their hesitant way over to join the men, the taste of the smoke heavy in the air and growing thicker the closer they got. Neither Tahnner nor Fedan sat, instead they hovered on the fringes of where the ravellers lounged, deep in conversation. The half-dressed man who had spilled from the side room joined them, causing the conversation to turn in a direction which had Tahnner flushing with embarrassment. Soon though, a low ringing sound echoed through the room, causing the ravellers to heave reluctant sighs as they dragged themselves to their feet.
“This way, boys,” the first raveller called to them as he straightened his robes and led the way back out of the door.
More ravellers joined them as they climbed the six spiralling flights to the top floor. Tahnner reached the roof without his breathing becoming laboured, unlike the other ravellers who puffed and muttered curses under their breaths.
“Excuse me, Sir?” Tahnner asked the raveller who had spoken to them downstairs. “Do you know what the particulars of my orders are? I’m to be the king’s personal raveller. Is there somewhere I must to report to?”
The raveller laughed. “I wouldn’t say that too loudly if I were you. The last of the king’s personal ravellers didn’t meet with all that happy an ending. Your best bet would be to not mention it and hope no-one remembers.”
“You don’t understand. I have to. It’s what I’ve trained for. My- my father- it’s why I was sent to Pelston in the first place.”
“And I was sold because my father had too many sons and not enough land.” The raveller frowned, glancing over his shoulder at where the sun approached the western horizon. “Look, you’ve been in Pelston for a while so you’ll have to trust me when I say that the king is not someone you want to work for. He’s had ravellers killed before and he’s done far worse to others. Haven’t you heard the rumours of how he killed his brother and sister?”
Tahnner couldn’t understand it. The description of the king sounded nothing like the man he had met six years ago. That king had been worthy of the respect of his empire. How could he have changed so much since then?
The raveller shook his head and muttered to himself as he hurried to stand on one of the fifteen raised pedestals in the centre of the Thread Court’s rooftop. A crowd had gathered at the perimeter of the roof, kept away from the ravellers by a number of blank faced guards.
Tahnner blinked a couple of times in disbelief as he stared at the grey-garbed honouri. He had never seen so many in one place before. The members of the honouri guild were the deadliest protection you could purchase, if you had enough money. Each grey-garbed man keeping the crowd at bay, stood blank-faced, intimidating the masses by doing nothing more than being there.
“You- boy? Come over here!” The raveller Tahnner had spoken to called out to Fedan from atop his pedestal.
Fedan frowned, but made his way over to join the raveller, leaving Tahnner alone. He glanced around at the other ravellers. There were two ravellers waiting beside each of the pedestals, conversing with various civilians who, from their clothing, Tahnner guessed to be some of Ilyia’s elite. Ignoring the rabble at their backs, the finely dressed petitioners spoke with their assigned ravellers, gesturing as they held out various objects for examination.
Poorer Thread Courts were often unable to afford the luxury of sparing two ravellers on the same task, but the practice was common in Girona. That way, each raveller assigned to find the truth of a matter would be supported by a witness, whilst also receiving the added benefit of having another raveller there in case they ran into trouble in the Threads.
Each of the fifteen ravellers on the pedestals was already partnered with another. Except for one. Tahnner felt a wave of uneasiness as he spotted Kheelan watching him from where he waited atop his raised dais, nodding at what an old man in a heavily embroidered tunic said. Kheelan waved his hand, indicating for Tahnner to stop dallying and join him, shooting him an impatient glare before returning his attention to the old man. When Tahnner reached them, he realised that the patron was explaining about his missing ship which should have arrived in Wenadir three weeks past. The man wrung his fingers before handing over a small piece of wood to Kheelan which Tahnner guessed came from the ship.
“Please? That cargo is all I have left.”
Kheelan nodded then glanced at Tahnner, raising one eyebrow in a silent question. Tahnner nodded, trying to convey that he understood what was expected of him. He felt a rush of excitement at the prospect of achieving something worthwhile from the Threads for once.
Glancing over the western side of the Thread Court, he received his first glimpse of the thousands of rooftops below. Even from high above, he felt surrounded by the bustle of city life. He could imagine the vendors on the streets and bawdy laughter exploding from the many inns which they had passed on their journey through the city. The sight was distracting. For the first time, he longed for the simplicity of Pelston, with its empty corridors and vast, bare horizons. How much easier would it be to concentrate on the Threads without the distractions of the city?
As the golden haze of Threads suffused his vision, Tahnner focused on blocking out all but those of the strip of wood Kheelan held, even as his hand slipped into his pocket, feeling the edges of the small box which he kept Senara’s lock of hair in. He pushed down the desire to pull it out and fixed his attention on the Threads of the strip of wood, following them back through the months, not slowing down until he reached the time when the small strip had been taken from a broken board on the hull, an insurance in case the owner might ever need the help of a raveller.
He felt the draw of the Threads and wanted to explore all the journeys the ship had made, but forced himself to jump to those of the plank next to it, latching onto them with his mind and following them forward. He sped through the weeks, witnessing the ship’s journey to Itrantus and the vernal storms which had plagued its passage.
He navigated his mind back to his own Threads before the last of the gold disappeared. As he pulled his mind back out, he felt a wave of embarrassment as he glanced at the scores of men and women staring at the ravellers and the Threads, their eyes wide and as tempered by fright as they were filled with wonder. The attention made him uncomfortable, unused as he was to the Threads being a performance. His eyes met Kheelan’s. The older raveller was watching him, a mocking smile playing about his mouth before he turned his back on Tahnner and gestured for the old man to step forward.
“Your ship was blown off course south of Ellethe by a storm two weeks ago,” Kheelan explained, handing back the fragment of wood to the old man. The merchant took the timber and placed a chinking pouch into Kheelan’s hand as he waited for more information with rapt attention. “The ship is stranded off Ilyia’s southern coast, I’ll have a map brought up and I’ll mark its location for you.”
“You mean it’s not sunk?” the old man asked, a whimper of happiness slipping out. “The cargo? What about the cargo?”
Kheelan paused, already half-turned from the old man. A frown flashed across his face and it was clear the raveller had not thought to check the condition of the cargo.
“The majority is currently undamaged,” Tahnner said, drawing the surprised attention of the two men. “There has been a little water damage to some of the silks and the sailors who survived the wreckage broke into a couple of barrels of Itrantian liquor, but otherwise the cargo is salvageable.”
The old man beamed a watery smile, his hands clasped together before him as he began stammering his thanks to Tahnner. The weight of Kheelan’s stare prickled the back of Tahnner’s neck and he turned to meet the other raveller’s gaze. Kheelan watched him with an unreadable expression, ignoring the pleas of the onlookers as they begged to know what the Threads had shown, their cries taking on a fanatical edge. As Kheelan turned and made for the staircase, Tahnner wondered if the older raveller had been impressed by the multiple Thread jumps which Tahnner had performed in order to check the condition of the cargo.
“Sir?” Tahnner called out. “Where should I make a record of what I saw?”
Kheelan stopped in his tracks, shaking his head. “Haret’s student through and through,” he muttered before disappearing down the stairs and out of sight.
Tahnner turned to find another raveller to ask but a hand clapped him on the back. It belonged to the dishevelled-looking raveller who had greeted them downstairs. Fedan stood beside him, his face lit in an excited grin.
“We don’t bother with all that here,” the raveller said, urging Tahnner towards the stairs, away from the shouts of the crowd which were growing louder with every moment. “Most readings are personal so there’s little point recording them. On the rare occasion we do anything official then the scribes record it for us.”
“But what about everything we learn in the Threads? Have you considered the uses for all we can-?”
“My dear boy! Uses? Cast such thoughts from your mind, leave it free for far more important matters.” The raveller wiggled his eyebrows as he spoke, leading them down the spiralling staircase. He wobbled as if his excessive paunches would topple him off balance at any moment. “My name is Bertren by the way. First class raveller and philanderer extraordinaire.”
He gave a mocking bow before showing them around the rest of the guild, explaining that outside of Rising and Setting, the rest of the time was their own. To Tahnner, the lack of restrictions felt both freeing and daunting all at once.
All the rooms of the Thread Court were lavish, each filled with more trinkets and fineries than Tahnner knew existed. The memory of the coin pouch the patron had passed to Kheelan after the reading returned to his mind and he wondered just how much money the ravellers earnt from the Threads.
“What about those who can’t afford a reading?” he asked. “When do we help them?”
Bertren barked a laugh. “We don’t,” he said, opening the door to the first floor, “it’s not our problem if they can’t pay.”
“It’s not their fault they’re poor,” Fedan protested, “Only reading for the rich is unfair-”
“What’s not fair,” Bertren said, turning back around to face Fedan, “is that we are the ones bound to reading the damned things. The least the Threads can do is keep us well-kept in the meantime.”
Fedan opened his mouth to protest but Bertren stopped him, “Dear boy, I wouldn’t go spreading that opinion around too loudly if I were you. Relax a little. Try enjoying the benefits of being a renowned Thread Court raveller. It’s better than being trapped somewhere like Pelston.”
“Haret,” Tahnner said without realising he had spoken aloud.
Bertren’s gaze flicked to him, his eyebrows furrowed as he nodded, the joviality vanishing from his face. “Know him, do you? Mmm. He was here once, before he got himself transferred for defying orders. It wouldn’t have been so bad had he not implicated Evenard in matters which our devoted councillor would rather the Threads forgot. Now, I don’t believe alcohol is permitted in Pelston. So, if you would follow me this way, I‘d be delighted to show you where we keep our supply.”
It was several days before Tahnner became used to the jaunty nature of the Thread Court. Everything felt so different from the years of long hours toiling away in Pelston. He kept forgetting that the two places were part of the same guild. He worked with Kheelan at every Thread reading, but managed to avoid the older raveller elsewhere.
On the fifth day, Tahnner and Fedan left the Thread Court to explore some of the upper squares in the city. He had an uneasy feeling about the fanatical way people gathered to witness the ravellers’ proclamations every day. It left him with a desire to escape the Thread Court for as long as he could before having to return in time for Setting. It sickened him that people flocked there to queue all day long just for the chance a raveller might take pity on them and read their Threads.
“The ravellers used to be better, you know,” Fedan said as they exited the Thread Court. “Once, back in Pelston, Haret told me we used to exist to serve the people and not the highest bidder.”
“Bertren says the fanatics would be better off being banned from the Thread Court,” Tahnner said, gesturing to the queue of sweltering people. “He might be right. At least that way they wouldn’t waste their time hoping for something that’s never going to happen.”
“You don’t really think-”
Fedan’s words were cut off as a pair of hands grabbed his black robes. The same old woman who had accosted Tahnner the other day, with deep lines of exhaustion etched into her face, pulled Fedan towards her. Her grip looked weak and Fedan should have had no problem breaking free, but for some reason he made no effort to remove her. Instead he seemed entranced as he listened to the woman’s pleas for help. Tahnner grabbed Fedan’s arm, jerking him away to leave the woman to her long day of queueing.
Fedan seemed out of sorts for the rest of the morning. When they returned to the Thread Court rooftop in time for Setting, Bertren waved at Fedan, signalling for him to wait a moment whilst he finished conversing with another raveller. Fedan barely seemed to notice though, his attention already fixed on the crowd gathered on the rooftop.
Bertren joined them a few moments later, running a nervous hand through his hair.
“Listen Tahnner,” he said, “Kheelan’s been requested for a private reading so he won’t be here for Setting. I wouldn’t normally ask this of someone who’s only recently finished training, but how would you feel about taking point? Kheelan said you’re decent enough with the Threads and we’ve already promised a reading to Lord Hinnaren. I’ll assign Fedan to you as well so you won’t be going solo. How about it then?”
He stared at Tahnner, waiting for an answer and pride filled him at Kheelan’s complement. He glanced to Fedan to see what he thought, but the raveller was still staring at the crowd, transfixed.
“Erm, yeah, sure,” Tahnner said, excitement surging through him. Here was a chance for him to show the other ravellers how good he was at reading the Threads. He might not be at Senara’s level, but he was certain he was better than at least half the Thread Court’s ravellers, even though they had years more experience than he did.
“That a boy!” Bertren said, clapping Tahnner’s shoulder before he left to assume his solitary position on a pedestal to await the Threads.
Tahnner turned to Fedan, expecting to see excitement mirrored upon the other boy’s face, but Fedan was still staring into the crowd.
“Come on,” Tahnner snapped, making his way over to the pedestal Kheelan usually occupied. He wished Bertren hadn’t bothered pairing Fedan with him, he could handle it on his own and didn’t need the help.
“What?” he turned back around, sneering at Fedan. “Don’t tell me, scared you’ll get lost in the Threads? Don’t ruin this for me-”
“It’s not that,” Fedan said in a low voice, glancing around. “It’s just… this is a chance to do some good.”
“You think I don’t know that? That’s why we’ve spent the last six years training to-”
“I don’t mean it like that,” Fedan said, glancing around again. “Think about it, we could use this opportunity to read the Threads for someone who really needs it.”
Tahnner felt his mouth fall open. He stared at Fedan, trying to figure out if he had misheard him. His gaze slid past the raveller to the crowd behind him, landing on the familiar face of a haggard old woman, her bloodshot eyes fixed on the back of Fedan’s head. It was the same woman who had accosted Fedan outside the Thread Court after Rising that morning.
“No,” Tahnner said, holding up his hands as if that would stop Fedan explaining his hair-brained idea. “Don’t even say it. No. You heard what happened to Haret. He tried to be a man of the people and look where that got him. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy being sent back Pelston.”
He turned but Fedan jerked him back around by his robes. “Tahnner stop! Just listen for a moment.” Fedan’s eyes were wide as he pleaded and unease crept back into Tahnner’s stomach. Fedan’s gaze had taken on that same frantic look that lingered in the eyes of so many who crowded onto the Thread Court’s rooftop each day.
“Please? You’re good with the Threads. Better than I’ll ever be. You don’t need me to watch out for you during a reading. If you do it without me, then I can help her and no-one has to know. We’ll still get the credit for doing what we’ve been paid for and we can help someone who really needs it!”
“If anyone is watching us then they’ll know-”
“They’ll know I didn’t follow orders. Not you. Please? Let me do this. I can’t- I can’t stand by and do nothing when I can help.”
Before Tahnner could argue further, Bertren waved for them to take up their positions. Tahnner did his best to ignore the furtive, questioning glances Fedan kept shooting his way as Lord Hinnaren explained what he desired from his reading. He was so distracted that he had to request for Lord Hinnaren to repeat his explanation about the investment he wished verifying. When Tahnner eventually had enough information, Lord Hinnaren stepped back, looking so bored by the entire proceeding that Tahnner couldn’t help but wonder why he had bothered paying so much for a Thread reading if the outcome meant so little to him?
He climbed onto the pedestal and felt as if every pair of eyes in Girona were upon him, as if they all knew his guilt for even considering Fedan’s suggestion. His father had sent him to the ravellers so he might serve his king and do well by his family. He might have failed in the first part, but here was his chance to build a reputation for himself at the Thread Court. It was his opportunity to show how capable he was. It was also an opportunity to temporarily appease the growing need inside of him. A need to do something more with the Threads, to try to bridge the ever growing breach between everything they could be and what little they were used for.
As the sun began to dip beneath the horizon, Tahnner met Fedan’s stare and saw the excitement burning within. Without saying anything, he nodded and Fedan’s face broke into a nervous smile as the Threads suffused about them, intensifying until Tahnner saw nothing but the golden haze. Beside him, Fedan threw himself into the old woman’s Threads, searching out a way to help her with whatever problem she had confided to him earlier.
Spurred on by Fedan’s recklessness, Tahnner focused on finding the Threads Lord Hinnaren was interested in, easily discovering the trickery the Lord’s partners intended to bring upon him. He extracted himself from the Threads and watched Fedan as the golden lines faded from view. Panic hit him as he realised that Fedan was still entrenched. If Fedan became lost in the woman’s Threads and ended up a raver, then it would draw the attention of the other ravellers to what they had been doing.
He was about to throw himself back into the Threads after Fedan when raveller’s eyes refocused and a smile burst across his face. He met Tahnner’s gaze and the exhilaration spread like a contagion.
“We should request being paired together again,” Tahnner murmured.
Fedan nodded, his enthusiastic smile fixed as he turned to catch the eyes of the old woman. He gave her a small nod and Tahnner watched as the woman broke down, collapsing into the other members of the crowd.
As a distraction from the commotion, Tahnner turned to the still bored-looking Lord Hinnaren and explained the details of what he had read in the Threads. The Lord’s eyes widened and he turned an angry shade of red at the news. In a loud voice, he applauded Tahnner for his reading then handed him the payment before turning and pushing his way through the crowd. Tahnner caught Bertren’s gaze and returned the raveller’s grin, feeling as though the smile would stay fixed on his face forever.
He still felt that way as he made to step down from the pedestal, but his elation dropped away as he stumbled at the sight of the familiar censorious eyes observing him from within the crowd. Lord Rhanick Turro stood watching him, a small smile curving the corner of his mouth as he surveyed his son.