Monday, January 21, 2019

Looking Southward and Backward, Part 20.

The days pass, and winter settles deeper around us. Our wagons reach the outskirts of the muddy land on which Porylus was founded, and are relieved to find that the earth has frozen up substantially. Rather than mucking through trackless fields for an extra few days, we are staying on schedule while serenaded by the constant, uncanny crackle and crunch of frost beneath our feet, wheels, and hooves.

It reminds Hraela of the sounds of the rivers back home, and we are treated to another one of her tales of Gertish folkways, which I am always more than happy to hear. After the burning of children in effigy has been taken care of and a village is settled in for the long haul of winter, ice becomes a source of occasional diversion. Apparently it is a custom to strap bones to one's feet and use them to glide across the surface of a frozen river. The rivers can produce a fine layer of thin, blackish ice which apparently makes a very eerie sound when glided upon, or when stones are skipped across it. Skilled ice-gliders are able to produce series of sounds and notes bordering on music. Unskilled gliders tend to fall and sink, their ghosts lingering below the river's surface and adding to the intensity of other gliders' performances by chancing them around under the ice during subsequent winters.

Sarq asks her if her people have any traditions that don't involve someone dying horribly in some way.

She scoffs, but does not otherwise reply.

We are jarred from our discussion by the sound of shouting up ahead. Not particularly spirited or angry shouting, but the kind of shouts used to carry a conversation long distances through cold air. We stick our heads out from below the wagon cover and crane our necks, and eventually spot a figure on a hilltop overlooking our procession, body dark against the pale grey smoke which rises up from a squat chimney behind it. They wave a rather large grain scythe around in our general direction. Apparently the snow cover obscured a series of property markers, and we've torn through some farmer's field. Fortunately it is fallow this time of year, so we've done no real damage, and the farmer will not be bringing that scythe and two-dozen relatives down to speak with us personally- assuming we are quick to extract ourselves from their property.

I can already tell that I will enjoy our stay here.

While cresting the next few hills we are far more cautious about staying on the road, and we begin to see towers in the distance. The tallest catches our eyes, and for good reason. It is the tower which was once the heart of the Ivory-Campus-at-Porylus, and its architecture is a clear hearkening-back to our beige city. In fact, for the past two hundred-odd years it has been said to be even more ITU-like than the tower of the ITU itself, stature notwithstanding.

The exact details of the controversy (if it could even be called that) are vague to this generation, but what is known is that the damage sustained by the former study-observatory of Laizij was damaged during or immediately after the events of the Rupture. The domed roof of the tower collapsed and a section of wall on the top level sloughed off to one side. The damage to the Eternal Scholar's personal study was a severe blow to the ego of the University. Curiously however, instead of working to erase the memory that it had ever happened, the Directorate decided to embrace the wound. The debris and top floor remain untouched, except what was needed in order to shore up the integrity rest of the building, and Board meetings continue as they have for centuries, just one floor lower than previous generations enjoyed.

Damaged relics and artifacts, including the section of wall, were incorporated into the ritual practices of the University's religious functionaries, adding a dimension of grief and mourning to the previously stuffy and emotionless practice of the Eccentric's most devout followers. If money was ever presented for the tower's full restoration--as many have suspected must have been the case at one point or another--it never saw the light of day. Rumors of embezzlement or deep, generations-long rivalries between Board members and their successors are popular among freshmen and library wall graffiti to this day. I suspect the story could be blown wide-open and exposed, if anyone ever took an interest in that sort of high-tier budget trivia and administrator gossip.

But that is a story for another time, and hopefully another person. More than towers are creeping into view now.

Roofs of red, white, or black checker the outskirts which grow organically outward from the center-most cluster of the city. Mud brick, wood, stone, and other materials make up the walls supporting them, none of them ordered together or separated in any manner that suggests a rigidly-enforced policy of hereditary decorum along family lines. And amid that refreshing forest chaos can be seen people stamping along in the cold or driving wagons this way and that along streets of raised earth and cobblestones. They don't pay us any mind as we near the outskirts. No one stops to stare or make a crude remark relating to graduate students or mistaken associations with wizardry. We are nothing special here. It is almost like we are back in a nicer district of the False City, though Porylus has only a fraction of the former's population.

Our caravan splits at a forked street, the majority of our help going right to find suitable lodging for the night. We continue on toward the left, into the city center. Taller, older, and more stately buildings are here, from the better decades following the city's founding. And nestled amid them, delineated by little more than a waist-high stone wall with wide openings, is the campus proper. The school here is arranged spirally, with the gradual inward, rightward turn of the main road culminating in the historical tower at the hill's crest and center. I don't know the reason for the spiral shape, though my guess would be that it was seen as an auspicious sign by those old alumni of Laizij's entourage.

Before we are able to reach the beginning of the incline, we see a crowd forming as if out of thin air. They are an irregular bunch of mostly young folk, with a few comparable to my age or a bit older peppered throughout. I count between twenty and thirty.

And they are all staring at us.

And they are... smiling? And waving?

We do not realize that they are students of Porylus until they tell us so, and we do not believe this for a good couple of moments afterward. But apparently our coming was announced, and these people willingly, without duress or threat of academic discipline, chose to come and welcome us. Several of them even introduce themselves as members of the university's representative sporting team, and they seem confused by our momentarily frightened questions of where they are hiding their spike-toed boots and wooden clubs. Evidently "sport" means "sport" in the local dialect, and not "heavily armed and bored children of wealthy families harassing people for fun and profit", as in Deneroth. Hraela is hesitant to let go of the grip of her training sword until they convince us of their peaceful intent, all while the rest of the students or off-duty faculty laugh at what they perceive to be a big joke.

Gradually, the others are compelled to hop down from the wagon and join with the small crowd, which picks up a few stragglers as we make our winding way up through the campus. Hands are shaken, names exchanged, and interest in the Ivory way of things is piqued. I even hear something resembling a compliment about the school uniform, which Porylus entirely lacks. Sarq, Ciudo, and even Hraela seem to enjoy themselves.

As I watch them, I am overtaken by a deep, wounding nostalgia which I've no right nor reason to feel.

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