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Transactional Cities

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I made the long journey from Berenice, the unjust city, despite the obstacles that all travelers are subjected to. It started with the obstreperous officials, whom I had to bribe not once, not twice, but three times, starting with simple lucre and then progressing to rare ginseng from a faraway peninsula and counterfeit paintings, before they would provide me travel papers. The aggravation did not end there. The caravan master with whom I booked passage questioned the authenticity of the papers. By then I was prepared, however, and she seemed well content with the fourth bribe, an atlas that purported to show where vanished templars had secreted their plunder.

The journey itself brought further tribulations. We passed through the dust-plains of Giuliana, where currents of finely ground lapis lazuli swirled through the ever-shifting topography. Dust settled over all our food despite our best efforts. I almost began looking forward to that subtly flavored grit. And that itself was nothing compared to the trouble I had making my dietary requirements understood to the caravan's cook. Having grown up among the just of Berenice, I was accustomed to simple but delicious fare, and the enthusiasm with which the cook seasoned our meals, apparently out of a desire to subject us to an abecedary of spices, often left me in distress.

For all the exhaustion of the long days of travel, my heart soared when we first saw the spires of Euphemia, splendid Euphemia. We had arrived in time, a mere two days before the summer solstice. Other caravans crowded the trade roads, the wide approaches. The air was thick with dust and the fragrance of fruits, the smells of camel dung and comically distressed goats.

I explored Euphemia's streets and byways in a daze those two days before the equinox. Indeed, it is a wonder that no one waylaid me. In Berenice I would have expected some further barrier to my heart's desire: more bribes to secure a trade license, or difficulties adding myself to the registry of foreign visitors, or even something so banal as a hard time locating a public restroom when I got lost in one of the bazaars.

Instead, fevered with anticipation, I drank deep of Euphemia's pleasures. While it is true that the trade of rare incense and bolts of richly dyed linens is secondary to the trade in memories, nevertheless it is a city accustomed to the bounty that commerce brings. Although I sampled fried grasshoppers dipped in honey and indulged in a fine new pair of boots, fitted to my unusually wide feet, the finest hour I spent was walking a high street overlooking the bay, with black-headed gulls fighting for scraps of fish and shirtless workers, glistening with sweat under the punishing sun, unloading mysterious crates. I amused myself imagining their contents: a dowry of embroidery silks for the heiress of a textile concern, fossilized insects for the delectation of scholars and jewelry-makers, geodes with healing properties for the spas and bathhouses.

The day of the solstice itself was nigh unbearable. I drank demitasses of tea sweetened with jam in an attempt to soothe my nerves. At that particular teahouse, women and men only lightly clothed performed skits for our amusement, with an interpreter translating the dialogue, which was in an ancient and holy language. Eventually I relaxed enough to laugh and cheer. I even ordered, and ate most of, a snail-shaped pastry stuffed with sweetened poppyseed paste.

Still, as the shadows grew long, I paid up and left behind the teahouse with its astounding variety of teas and jams, and made my way to the nearest of the fires. I had not reckoned with the length of the lines, which any rational person should have expected; in my naivety I had supposed that I could simply show up and be accepted to the solstice trade. Yet Euphemia's magic was such that even a first-timer such as myself, by elbowing my way through the crowds, could eventually find a seat, however humble, by one of the legendary fires.

The people gathered around this particular fire differed from me in every imaginable aspect. Some were older, and some younger--one scarcely more than a youth. They came from the seven surrounding nations and beyond, with skin of all hues, eyes dark and light and all the chameleon in-betweens, adornment that ranged from elegant piercings to tattooed hands, from jewelry of cowrie shells to ropes of graduated pearls. And yet our desire for the fabled trade in memories bound us more surely than blood and bone, made us a fraternity unlike any other.

A man of middle years, his eyes colorless behind lenses of owlish glass, spoke first, beginning the evening ritual. "Moon," he said, and I listened to stories of the moon caught in a puddle of spilt wine during a family quarrel, medicinal herbs gathered beneath the full moon for their ability to ease the pain of childbirth, the splendor of silver moonlight over a tempestuous sea during a voyage far from any shore. When my turn came, I spoke haltingly of a superstition in Berenice that I had run afoul of once or twice, that a romance initiated during a waning moon would ebb away, and that no fruit could come of such union between woman and man.

The next word was "chair," and we spoke of chairs significant and insignificant, from a chaise lounge of petrified wood and velvet cushions where a deaf white cat liked to nap, to a palanquin decorated with gilt cockatrices in which the seeress-priest of a certain unnamed god traveled to the silent mountain shrines twice a year. Next the word was "pen," and stories ranged from a humble stylus used to scratch glyphs into the dirt while learning to write, to an illiterate man's memory of a scribe expertly writing a curse-scroll against an ill-mannered in-law with bird-strokes of a telescoping dip pen, its holder gleaming silver. Round and round we went, trapped in the net of stories.

Toward dawn, the middle-aged man spoke for the last time: "City." It was as if my entire body was a bow strung for that moment. Enraptured as I was by tales of cities ringed by clouds, and cities that clung to the sides of a crevasse, and cities drowned so that only divers could explore their mermaid treasures, all of that evaporated once I began to speak of Berenice, beloved and detested, where the unjust and just exist in such delicate and parasitic codependence.

I spoke of the feasts that the unjust lavished their wealth on, and the simpler yet fulfilling meals of the just. I spoke of conspiracies whispered in homes of marble and silk, and advocates who worked with the poor and destitute. I spoke of the way the unjust, in seeking to further their reputations, sometimes pushed for reforms that helped the city's lower classes, and how some of the just coveted the manses of the unjust. I spoke for a long time, until all my grievances had poured themselves dry.

All around us the fires had burned down, and one by one we made our way back to our camels, our ships, our caravans. I stumbled through the crowded streets until I found my own caravan. Dazed as I was, I could not fathom what future remained in store for me. I had come this far--and for what? For a phantasm of camaraderie, the assurance that there is nothing so exotic that it cannot be shared with strangers?

Yet all throughout the journey home, my thoughts of Berenice were fractured, like a kaleidoscope fallen to pieces. My memories told me of towers that pierced the clouds, of which Berenice had none; of careless drunkards falling to their deaths into the crevasse that sheltered the city, of which Berenice had none; of palaces and stadiums sunk beneath the waves, of which Berenice had none. And so it was that by the time I arrived at Berenice, I did so as a stranger, no longer disillusioned by a lifetime of the involute struggles between the unjust and the just, but ready to appreciate it as newcomer.