Thursday, 3 April 2008

Travelogue 3: Tal Mallan

Haruspice is farmed on the hills within the walls of Tal Mallan and nowhere else. As the name suggests, it is used by diviners and prognosticators to accurately see the future, and Tal Mallan jealously guards them so as to take best advantage of this unusual spice. I came to Tal Mallan by the only safe route, on board a ship that had left from Port Sinistrex under license from the Emir of the city.

Tal Mallan is on a peninsula, and is surrounded completely by walls that are ten feet high at their lowest point. The walls are well maintained, built from the dense, egg-yolk-yellow-veined grey rock that is quarried from higher up the peninsula. The cubic blocks cut from the quarries are each half the height of a man and are either dressed, if being used for the foundations of the walls, or carefully carved if being used for the visible area. The carvings are images taken from the Tal Mallan religious beliefs, and hard to describe and unpleasant to see. The Gods of Tal Mallan are despotic.

Guards in uniforms of ochre and brown patrol the walls both inside and atop and are fiercely loyal to the Emir. Although no human agency has attempted an assault on the city in two hundred years, there are periodic incursions from the large phlogistonic mammals that live further up the peninsula, beyond the quarries, and where the land is in a constant state of tectonic upheaval and volcanic activity. Looking north at night you can see a dull red glow on the horizon from the active lava lakes and rivers, and when the eruptions are in full swing the sky sometimes seems filled with fireworks. Rains of ash over the city are commonplace.

Tal Mallan is annular for visitors. You enter through the port and pass through the customs house where there is a simple visual inspection to check that you are not on a list of people banned from the city or wanted for crimes. You may bring anything you like into Tal Mallan, but you leave with almost nothing. If you look across the customs house to the queue of people leaving they are empty handed and all wear the same ivory shirts and trousers. These clothes are provided by the grace of the Emir to replace your own, and are soft and comfortable, though not entirely suited to a sea-voyage as they become see-through when wet.

Visitors may travel anywhere between the outer and inner walls, but not beyond the inner walls. Inside those walls are the central hills of Tal Mallan where Haruspice is farmed, the temples to the pantheon have been built, and the Emir's palace stands.

When I entered the city for the first time, I was warned not to stay any longer than two weeks. The guard who warned me was a middle-aged woman wearing a brown and ochre uniform and carrying a bone-handled da, the weapon they use to kill the alligator-sized salamanders when they swarm in the mating season. She had a lined face that made her seem older than she was, and hazel eyes that never quite focussed on me when she was talking, but constantly slipped away and looked over my shoulder. Haruspice, she told me, permeated the air and the water of the city because it was farmed from the centre. Haruspice is addictive over long exposure times, and the longer I spent in the city, the harder I would find it to leave.

I stayed only four days that time, but she was right, and I've not been able to stay away for longer than eight months at a time. I woke last night to find I was sweating blood and my fingernails had turned a deep green, like the colour in the depths of the abyssal ocean just before the light gives out. I could remember fragments of a dream about things I would be doing today, and I've been experiencing deja vu all day. I've been expecting it, and so I walked down to the Sinistrex harbour this morning and booked passage on the next ship. It's time to return to Tal Mallan.

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