Savvy shoppers will revel in the Market that coils about the foot of the Tower. Don’t be afraid to walk away while haggling; a little retreat may win a great bargain.
—Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, I. IV
Senlin sat atop a sandstone boulder near the foot of the Tower, eating the pistachios he’d bought for breakfast. His chapped lips stung. Small brown birds scavenged through the shells he dropped, picking at the flakes of germ. He didn’t recognize the species. A few hours earlier, he’d bought a drink, a single ladle of water that cost as much as a dram of good brandy back in Isaugh. Already, he was thirsty again.
He’d brought a little notebook to record his impressions, as any amateur anthropologist might, but he hadn’t cracked it since disembarking from the train. He didn’t wish to record any of this. His copy of the Everyman’s Guide dangled open in his hand. An untidy bundle of women’s undergarments sat at his side. He felt dizzy with exhaustion; his fingers quaked from it. If he laid back on the sun-warmed rock and closed his eyes, he would fall asleep in an instant. He was afraid of doing just that.
It was now two days since they’d climbed down from the train, two days since he’d first glimpsed the Tower through the tattered awning, two days since she’d turned away and gone laughing in search of a frock. Something scandalous.
The Tower of Babel swelled before him like the step of a great plateau, a rock face that surged without apparent end. Except for the arched entrance that yawned about a deeply shaded tunnel a hundred yards away, the lower span of the Tower was unbroken by windows or ledges. Higher up, Senlin could discern a few structures jutting from the Tower like thorns from the trunk of an old rosebush. Airships clung to these thorns, their gondolas made as small as aphids by the distance. Skyports, Senlin supposed. He’d read that most levels of the Tower, or ringdoms, had several such ports. If only he had come with Marya by airship! But traveling by air was prohibitively expensive; two tickets would cost nearly a year’s salary. Worse yet, he was prone to seasickness. The locals of Isaugh often teased him for it: The headmaster of Fishtown can ring his bell, but he can’t ride a swell. He hadn’t wanted to spend their honeymoon voyage dangling over the rail of an airship, seeding the landscape with the contents of his stomach. Besides, the walk up to their eventual destination, the Baths, had been part of the adventure, and Marya had looked forward to it.
A sudden realization made him jump and nearly tumble from the rock he sat perched on. The paper sack of pistachios slid from his hand and bounced down the boulder to the ground, the pale shells skittering every which way across the red hardpan.
He knew it would be there before he looked, and yet he tore into his satchel, rummaging through the side pocket, past spare pens, his coat brush, and blank postcards until, at last, his hand closed around the cause of his alarm. He pulled free the pair of train tickets.
He had her ticket home.
He had been only momentarily distracted by the loss of her luggage and had gone charging off through the press of hagglers and tourists without any sense of which direction the thieves had gone. It wasn’t long before he conceded that the luggage was lost. He returned to the stall, nearly certain it was the same display of socks they’d stood by just minutes before, and there he spent the first afternoon and then the first night of their honeymoon in Babel, rocking on his heels, all alone. He was certain she would find her way back. He focused himself on being level and rational and even occasionally optimistic. This wasn’t a very great inconvenience. Perhaps it was an adventure, the kind that made vacation stories enjoyable to recount. She would return.
But over the course of that night, he’d watched as first one stall and then another was packed up, their stock dragged away by camel and mule, on sleds and in wagons. New merchants arrived. New awnings and tables were raised, changing the topography of the alleys between vendors, changing even the cutout shape of the sky above him. Now it made sense why the Everyman’s Guide didn’t include any maps of the Market. One might as well try to draw a diagram of tomorrow’s sunset. The Market’s evolution never ceased. When the sock stall where he’d promised to wait was transformed into a vendor of oil lamps, he realized that she would never find her way back to him. He couldn’t stand idle any longer.
The next day he undertook a systematic search, beginning with what remained of the silk district of the Market where she had disappeared. He searched in an expanding spiral as best he could manage, buying from every few merchants a silk slip or a pair of stockings, some trifle sufficient to get their attention long enough for him to ask if they’d seen a woman in a red helmet in the past day. He was glad, at least, to have an easy way to describe her: a woman in a red helmet. She’d been more clever and prudent than he’d given her credit for. After a day of this, he had accrued an embarrassing bindle of women’s clothes. But there was no news of Marya. The clothiers began to turn into potters, and the tables of silks were replaced with galleries of crockery and stoneware.
Where the awnings and tents were sparsest, he clambered up on kegs and crates to scan the crowd for her, certain she would stand out, vivid as a cardinal in a tree. But it was impossible to really see anyone distinctly amid the throng. Almost unconsciously, his search began to take him closer to the Tower, which turned out to be farther away than it had first seemed. Or perhaps he had only wandered farther from it. He couldn’t be sure.
As the hours of the second night swam by, he became less organized, less restrained. He wandered about heedlessly, calling her name. When he saw even a glimpse of red, he’d crash over stalls and vendors, shove aside milling shoppers, shouting breathlessly, “Marya, Marya!” only to find a man in a red fez, or a boy carrying a red paper lantern on a pole, or a red blanket peeking from under a horse’s saddle…
He wasn’t accustomed to feeling panic, nor did he know how to console himself when despair descended upon him. Their honeymoon was ruined, that much seemed certain. They would have to fabricate some fable of luxury to tell their friends, and he would, of course, make it all up to her with a quiet weekend in a pastoral cottage, but for the rest of their marriage she would remember what a terrible trial their honeymoon had been. It was an inauspicious start.
Everywhere he looked now he saw groups of people roped together. Any movement through the crowd was made more difficult by the web of leashes. Why had the Guide neglected to mention that little nugget of wisdom? Bring a good rope.
Senlin tucked the train tickets into the pages of his Everyman’s Guide, cursing himself for having been so shortsighted as to carry both of their fares. He wondered if she had enough to buy a new ticket and did the quick sum in his head. He had seven minas, sixteen shekels, and eleven pence to his name, and unless she had been robbed, she would have about the same. A ticket to Isaugh, even third class, would cost ten minas at least. No, she hadn’t nearly enough. Marya was stranded here.
A wishbone of an old man, bald and naked to the waist, staggered past Senlin’s boulder lookout, bent double under a sack. Blackened rivers ran down his back from where sweat mingled with the coal he carried. The old slave, goose-necked and tottering, watched only the boot heels of the well-dressed tourist ahead of him. Both were part of a column of travelers streaming toward the entrance at the Tower’s base. Otherwise, the ground that collared the Tower was noticeably empty. This no-man’s land extended a hundred paces out from the foot of the Tower. Senlin couldn’t imagine why this space should be left empty while the Market behind him was choked with people.
“Are you lost?” asked a young man standing near his feet at the base of the boulder.
“Why do you ask?” Senlin said. The youth winked in the sunlight, his thick, dark hair glowing with the luster of oil. He had the broad shoulders, short stature, and narrow waist of an acrobat, and his complexion was a rich olive color that drew out the gold flecks in his eyes.
“Most people don’t lounge about in the Skirts. That stone you’re sitting on…”
“Is it sacred?”
“No more than a headstone. It fell a few days ago and landed on a tourist.”
“Fell from where?” Senlin asked, appalled. The youth only pointed up in reply.
Feeling conspicuous now, Senlin clambered down the smooth face of the boulder. “I don’t understand,” Senlin said, dusting his hunkers and straightening his jacket. “The Tower of Babel is the surest construction in the world. It’s built on deep bedrock. It doesn’t shed boulders like an oak drops acorns. It’s a miracle of engineering!” Senlin wagged his Everyman’s Guide at the youth as if the book proved his point.
“Oh, it’s a miracle for sure. But sometimes it dumps a little miracle on us,” the youth said. “It doesn’t matter if something falls from the second or the twenty-second ring. It all crashes on the same ground: the Skirts. I wouldn’t pitch my tent here if I were you.”
This discovery did not jibe at all with Senlin’s studies, nor with what he had taught his students about the Tower, which were always his favorite lectures. He’d draw schematics of the Tower and the network of railroads that radiated out from it. He’d introduce the Tower’s murky history and the venerable historians who debated its age, original architects, its internal machinations, and its purpose. He even taught them about the Baths, famous for its therapeutic spas, where he’d promised to take Marya. “I’ve read a dozen accounts of the Tower. I’ve never heard of the Skirts.”
“Maybe your books are out of date.” The youth straightened his expression when Senlin didn’t return his smile. “My name is Adamos Boreas. Call me Adam.” Senlin shook the youth’s strong hand and introduced himself. The youth’s mature tone and self-confidence were a little disarming. Though his beard was still a patchwork of youthful fuzz and tougher bristle, he seemed entirely adult in his address. “I take it you’re in the silk trade.” Adam nodded at the bindle of women’s garments, still sitting atop the morbid boulder. Black silk stockings dangled from the mouth of it.
Gathering up the bundle, Senlin felt momentarily flustered, and his embarrassment was only made worse by the statement, “They’re for my wife.”
“Where’s your wife?” Adam asked, craning his neck about searchingly.
Senlin’s tongue felt as dry and stiff as a leather belt. He thought he might gag if he tried to swallow. He would’ve given a king’s ransom for a drink of anything, and yet worse than his thirst was the confession that stood lodged in his swollen throat. He felt as he had on his first day in front of a class: like a fraud. What sort of husband loses a wife?
Tugging the parcel of silks down from the boulder and clamping it under his arm, he squared Adam with a singular, miserable smile and said, “It’s odd you should mention my wife. I seem to have lost her.”