They say that no trip to Himalia is complete without a visit to Cloud Village. If that’s the case, it had taken me four attempts to get it right. I said as much to the fella behind the kiosk in the travel agency, but he didn’t seem to appreciate the joke. Good humour (or lack thereof) aside, it was time to find out if the posters and billboards were telling the truth.
Regular readers of mine will know that I haven’t long been away from Himalia, and many of you may be wondering why I was in such a rush to go back after my ordeal in Circadian City. Well, I had a chat with the Marchioness recently (don’t be so surprised, the two of us go way back), and let’s just say that something she said inspired me to get out and see this pinnacle of Himalayan culture while I still had the chance. I don’t want to say much more because, I don’t know, spoilers, but if you’ve been thinking you’d like to visit Himalia then you’d probably better do so sooner rather than later.
The first thing to note about Cloud Village is that it’s a lot bigger than the name suggests. It’s almost impossible to navigate on foot (unless you’re a particularly able climber), and so much like everywhere else on this bloody moon, a lot of time is spent just waiting around. I’d finished my customary coffee (what would I be without it?), and a quick look at the clock above the gondola station told me I still had half an hour before the next vessel arrived. Fortunately there was still plenty to do on this side of the village, so I headed up some nearby stairs to see what the local shops had to offer. There was of course all the usual garbage, tacky souvenir shops that a seasoned traveller like me couldn’t possibly be hoodwinked into, unscrupulous tour scandals that all seemed to offer the ‘the one true authentic Himalayan experience’, and then of course the usual kinds of small businesses that constituted a thriving local economy. Almost as if to prove my point about the lack of urgency amongst these people, I spotted a delivery pilot asleep inside the basket of his balloon, no doubt exhausted from a whole morning of doing absolutely nothing.
Like I said before, this village was BIG, and by the time I’d climbed another flight of stairs, my curiosity was giving in to fatigue. I decided that close was better than credible, and made my way into the nearest shop. This was a decision that was made somewhat easier for me by the fact that there was only one building on this level, a three-story monolith with a garden terrace and so much junk outside it made the Bohemian Ambit look tidy.
I pushed open the door and somewhere above my head a dull bell rang. They might as well not bother with the thing at all because I barely heard it, so whoever it was presumably meant to alert had no chance. It was dark inside, and just as cluttered as the outside. There was a strong smell of incense burning, although there were certain tones to the aroma that lead me to believe that perhaps the burning wasn’t purely for aesthetic. It made my nose itch. There was nonsense filling every available space; hanging from the ceiling, climbing up the walls, on shelves, under tables and inside cupboards, and of course thoroughly and remorselessly consuming all vacant floor space save for where a very narrow path had been cleared for those bold (or stupid) enough to navigate their way through the chaos. There was something deeply alluring to me about such a place, as though I’d stumbled upon a hidden treasure cache, and there was a mystery surrounding what kind of individual might own such a place that I absolutely had to solve.
I picked my way through the confusion, passing under bridges of ornaments and over walls of trinkets, following the incense trail to its source. Several times I had to retrace my steps because there was no way through, and at one point I almost fell into a deep vase hopping between two stacks of books. Eventually — as I slid down an empty picture frame and landed with a soft poof onto a ridiculously oversized Khasgari pillow — I reached the other side.
That was when I heard the whispering.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea? What if the others find out?’
‘They won’t find out.’
‘But how can you be sure? They have ears everywhere, someone might even be listening right now!’
At that I slipped behind a vintage dimerlute — whatever they were talking about sounded like the sort of thing they wouldn’t want to be overheard, which absolutely made it the sort of thing I was keen to overhear. It’d be a travesty if they were to cut their discussion short on my account.
‘You need to calm down. This’ll work, and when it does we’ll both be rich. Don’t you want to be rich?’
‘Well yeah, but surely there are better ways to do it. I don’t trust this guy, there’s a lot of rumours going around about him and his weird shop.’
There was a brief pause that sounded a lot like hesitation. I popped my head around the lute to see if there was anything to be seen and saw that I could in fact see quite a bit. The counter was just beyond my hiding place, and just beyond that were two gentlemen who didn’t look like they were old enough to be deliberating over such subterfuge. One of them was wearing novice Artisans’ garb (painters’ crimson, if I’m not mistaken), which I found to be very interesting indeed; the other was wearing normal merchants’ clothes, which I found to be comparatively less so. If the others being referred to were the Artisans, then I may well have just walked in on the conspiracy of the century (or at very least, the decade).
‘…I know. I wish we didn’t have to involve him, but I can’t think of any other way. Believe me, I’ve been trying.’
‘But we don’t even know anything about him! How do we know he’s not working with the Artisans—‘ aha! ‘—to try and catch us out?’
‘You’re overthinking it. They have nothing to be suspicious of, and we’ll keep it that way. Mitch, you need to look at the bigger picture here. These designs are worth an absolute fortune. And not just on Himalia, like, across the whole lunarscape. I’ve got buyers interested on Rhanavar, Vera, Sophia… man, the profit we could make at auction? It’s actually crazy!’
‘And you’re sure they’re not gonna come here looking for them?’
‘Why would they? Look at this place, I bet even you couldn’t find anything in here.’
Mitch made a noise that was halfway between indignation and doubt. ‘I can usually find things when I need to.’
‘Never mind, it’s not important. What’s important is we can do this. We’ll be sunning ourselves on Caerys before they even realise what’s happened.’
Being so close to the incense was making the itchiness in my nose unbearable. Knowing what was coming next, I braced myself to suppress a sneeze, and in doing so sent the dimerlute tumbling to the floor with an almighty crash. The two conspirators spun round to see me staring up at them, and the first thing my genius brain thought to do was crack a nervous smile.
‘Oh, err, hello fellas! I was just perusing the store, don’t mind me, I certainly didn’t hear anything I shouldn’t have, fur in the old ears and whatnot, sorry what did you say? See, you’ll have to speak up. Oh look at the time, I simply must be—‘
‘Vince, grab him! He’s a spy!’
I can be nimble when I need to be, but evidently not nimble enough, as my escape was thwarted by a large wooden carving that had the audacity to topple over just as I was trying to slip through a gap in the clutter. The one called Vince grabbed me by the collar and hauled me over the counter, putting any plans of making a break for it firmly to bed. It seemed I’d have to rely on my natural charisma to get me out of this one.
The pair loomed over me, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t finding it just a little bit intimidating.
‘Who sent you?’ demanded the one called Mitch.
‘Who sent me? Nobody sent me, I sent myself here. Say, could you help me pick out a nice memento for the wife, nothing too pricey just—‘
’Stop playing us for idiots!’ The one called Vince grabbed me by the collar once again (he really seemed to like grabbing people by the collar, which honestly isn’t the most charitable trait) and prodded my chest with a stubby finger. ‘Was it Yaxley? I bet it was Yaxley, he’s been acting all suspicious around me lately.’
‘I thought you said nobody suspected anything?’
‘You did say that—‘ I interjected, forgetting my little hard-of-hearing ruse from earlier.
‘Quiet, cat!’ said Vince, giving me a shake (I didn’t feel it’d be prudent at that point to inform him that I was not, in fact, a cat). ‘I know what I said, I was just trying to reassure you so you didn’t bail on me. But I suppose it doesn’t matter now, seeing as though we’ve been rumbled.’ Vince emphasised that final word with another shake, and at this point I have to say I was getting a little tired of his attitude.
‘Listen, you’re getting it all wrong, I’m just a tourist — look;’ I fished my travel pass out of my pocket (with considerable difficulty, mind) and held it up to profess my innocence. Mitch snatched the book from my hand and leafed through it, muttering to himself.
‘Well?’ asked Vince, loosening his grip on me enough for me to wriggle free and drop down onto the counter top. ‘What does it say?’
‘If you fine gentlemen will allow me to explain,’ I said, adjusting my shirt and straightening up to my full height (an impressive four foot six, for those who are interested — and yes, for those who are interested, the mention of a wife was also part of the ruse). ‘You can clearly see that I have only been on Himalia since this morning, and before that I spent the last three months on Khasgar, fishing on Crystal Lake actually, very lovely at this time of year, you should—‘ the murderous look the pair were sharing was enough to prompt me to turn the charisma down a notch ‘—urm, yes, well, anyway, as you can clearly surmise, I am incapable of being in two places at once, so naturally, there is simply no way I could be spying for this, Yaxwell or whatever the name is.’ I fixed them with my most convincing grin, and nervously eyed my travel pass still being held ransom in Mitch’s grubby paws.
‘That book doesn’t prove anything,’ said Vince, who was fast proving to be a tough sell. ‘Anyone could have approached you on Khasgar, they have factions all over the lunarspace.’
‘Ehh, I donno Vince. It really does seem like he just did a lot of fishing. Look at all these stamps, there’s pretty much one a day. And they’re really strict at Crystal Lake, my dad took me once, they shred your travel pass if they catch you talking, something to do with this rare species of fish that’s really sensitive to… what?’
Vince was suddenly looking at me in a completely different way, a way that suggested he’d just been struck with a brilliant idea. Not liking this one bit, I once again made a plea for freedom.
‘So anyway, you fellas probably want to get back to the… party you were planning? So if you don’t mind handing me my travel pass, I’ll get out of your hair.’
Vince fixed me with an evil grin. ‘Oh no you don’t. I still don’t buy your story, so if you want your little book back, you’re gonna have to do something for us first. Mitch, are you thinking what I’m thinking?’
Mitch studied me for a long moment, my travel pass loose in his hand yet tragically out of reach. ‘I mean, I guess he’s pretty small…’
‘Hey, I’m big where it counts buddy.’
‘…and it’d mean we wouldn’t have to involve ourselves with that guy from the Emporium, so… yeah, alright, I’m in.’
‘D’you hear that, cat?’ smiled Vince, clapping me on the back (and again, not a cat). ‘You’re going on an adventure!’
What a bloody fine mess I’d got myself into this time ey?
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