At midday, under a partly cloudy sky and far from home, Prince Adrian, the twelve-year-old heir to the throne of Tasavalta, was standing at the top of a truncated stairway, a broken stone construction that curved up the outside of an ancient, half-ruined, and long-abandoned tower. A brisk wind blowing from the far reaches of the rocky and desolate landscape ruffled Adrian’s blond hair. He carried a small pack on his back, and wore a canteen and a hunting knife at his belt. His slim body, arched slightly forward, wiry muscles tense, leaned out from the upper end of the stairs over the broken stones meters below.
The boy, tall for the age of twelve, was gazing intently, with senses far more discerning than those most folk would ever be able to call into use, across a threshold so subtle that it was all but invisible even to him. He was trying to see into the City of Wizards, inspecting the way ahead as carefully as possible before advancing any farther.
The curving stairs on which Adrian was standing came to an abrupt end halfway up the side of the moss-grown and abandoned tower. Once the steps had gone up farther, but not now. They terminated at this point in abject ruin, giving no hint to ordinary eyes of any reasonable or even visible goal that they might once have had. An observer equipped with no more than the usual complement of senses, and standing in Prince Adrian’s position, would have seen nothing ahead but a bone-breaking drop to the nearest portion of the forbidding landscape.
In fact, the only other human observer on the scene had perceptions that also went beyond those of ordinary human senses-though not so far beyond as Adrian’s.
Trilby, the Princeling’s companion and fellow student in the arts of magic, was only two years older than he, but physically she was much more mature. With a pack on her back and a wooden staff in hand, she now came climbing the curved stairs to join him.
Reaching the top step, Trilby stood beside Adrian in momentary silence, gazing ahead to see if she could determine exactly what it was he found so fascinating; she knew that his extraordinary vision was almost always able to see more than hers. Having now shared approximately a year of study and occasional rivalry under the tutelage of old Trimbak Rao, the two young people had reached a plateau of mutual respect.
Trilby was coffee brown of skin, with straight black hair, full lips, and dark eyes that displayed a perpetually dreamy look, belying her often acutely practical turn of mind. Her shapely and rather stocky body, dressed now like Adrian’s in practical traveler’s clothing-loose shirt, boots, and trousers-was physically strong. A more experienced student, she was still marginally superior to Adrian in one or two aspects of magic, though after a year of cooperation and competition she suspected that he had the potential to be ultimately and overall the greatest wizard in the world.
“What d’ye see?” she asked him presently.
“Nothing special.” The Prince almost whispered his reply. Then he withdrew his gaze from the distance, relaxed his pose somewhat, and spoke in a normal voice. “Just wanted to check everything out as well as I could, before we go in.”
Trilby took a long look for herself. Then she said: “The road is there, am I right? Just about at the level of our feet?”
“Right.” Adrian sounded confident. “As far as I can tell, it starts here, right at the place where we’ll be standing when we step through to it from the top of this stairs. Then it runs in a kind of zigzag way, but free of obstacles, for a couple of kilometers, until it gets close to the tall buildings.”
“That agrees with what I see.” The girl paused for another careful look before continuing. “The next question is, do we go in immediately, or take a break first?” They had already hiked for half a day since leaving the studio of Trimbak Rao, early in the morning.
Adrian hesitated, not wanting to appear reluctant to get on with the test they faced. But it was uncertain what problems they might encounter immediately on entering the City, and Trilby’s suggestion of stopping for food and rest soon won out in his mind.
Both of the young people were carrying canteens, as well as a modest supply of food. And each of them, if pressed, would have been able to create food by magical means. But that kind of magic was costly in time and energy; it would be much wiser to conserve both of those resources against a possible later need.
Sitting near the foot of the ruined stairs, they opened up their packs, retrieving sandwiches and fruit. There was no need for a fire, and neither explorer suggested making one.
Trilby and Adrian had taken their last meal early in the morning, before setting out on foot from the studio and workshop of Trimbak Rao. They had hiked a good number of kilometers since then, but the required path through the desolate terrain had included many turns; now, sitting at the foot of the half-ruined tower and looking back along the route they had come, they could just descry the buildings of the wizard’s complex halfway up a distant hillside. These were fairly ordinary-looking buildings- now, and most of the time. But appearances here, as in much else, could be deceptive. In fact, these structures had the habit of changing their appearance drastically, depending upon the viewer’s distance and angle, as well as the quality of his or her perception.
Chewing slowly on a sandwich, Adrian remarked: “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble actually getting in. Do you?”
Trilby shrugged. “I don’t see why we should.” She was not as totally confident as she sounded-she thought that perhaps Adrian wasn’t either-but they had discussed the situation many times before, and she had nothing new to add at the moment.
This field trip was part of an examination marking the end of their first year of study with Trimbak Rao. Trilby and Adrian had been assigned the task of entering the chaotic and mysterious domain called the City of Wizards, obtaining a certain object there, and bringing it back to their teacher.
The object desired by Trimbak Rao was an odd-shaped ceramic tile-rather, it was any one of a number of such pieces that were to be found uniquely in the pavement of one small square in a certain park like space within the City.
Probably-the master had been vague about background and history-the space had once been part of a real park, the grounds of some great palace perhaps, originally built in a distant location somewhere out in the mundane world. By some unspecified power of magic a portion of the palace grounds had been transported to its present location. And in the process-like most of the other components of the City-it had probably been altered drastically.
Trimbak Rao had repeatedly warned his two students, before they set out, about several potential dangers. The chief of these, if the emphasis of his warnings meant anything, was the Red Temple that adjoined the present site of the park:
“The main room of that particular Red Temple was dedicated to a particularly abominable vice. But now it should be safe enough for you to pass nearby. If you are reasonably careful.” The magician hadn’t clarified the statement.
Also, before he dispatched the two apprentices upon their mission, the Teacher had called their attention to the east wall of his study. Hanging there, carefully mounted in a reconstructed pattern, were a series of tiles, dull brown and unimpressive at first glance, similar to the one they were to obtain. Only the pattern, still just beginning to emerge with the growth of that series, was interesting. It seemed to depict a human body, or more probably more than one.
The number of tiles, twenty or so, already collected by the Teacher might be taken as evidence, thought Adrian, that some substantial number of Trimbak Rao’s earlier students had successfully concluded missions similar to their own.
Now, while Trilby and Adrian ate some food, and rested on the bottom steps of the stairs encircling the old tower, the young Prince wondered aloud whether there might be some special reason why Trimbak Rao himself was not allowed to, or chose not to, make repeated journeys to this mysterious City park, and bring back the whole paved square if he desired it.
“And I wonder what’ll happen when he has the entire pattern completed on his wall?”
“There must be some magical reason why he can’t go himself,” Trilby decided. She didn’t know what that reason might be, and she had no opinion to offer on the subject. It was better to keep one’s mind on practical matters. As the older and more experienced of the two students, she had been placed in command of this mission. But, as usual when teams were sent out, there had been a strong indication from the Teacher that all major decisions should be shared if possible.