The hall was wide enough for two fat carriages with drunken drivers to dance past each other comfortably, but the crowd had still slowed to a sluggish crawl as they turned down it. Kadelyn slowed as she arrived behind the knot of people. Her bodyguard, Noach brushed her hand, by accident for once, as he tried to match her pace, and they both came to an uncertain stop. Kadelyn blinked at the backs of the man and woman in front of her, then turned and gave Noach her questioning look as well.
She had never been stopped in this hall before. She considered for a moment, if she had ever walked through this hall for any reason other than to get somewhere else as quickly as possible, and determined that she had not. It was bare stone, windowless, and wide, and no one had even bothered to hang paintings on the walls. It was a thoroughfare, and that was all.
“What is going on?” she murmured, eyebrows high.
Noach shrugged helplessly.
At the sound of Kadelyn’s voice, the man and woman in front of her turned, and blinking, bowed quickly from the waist. Kadelyn nodded to allow them to rise again, and they did, but pulled back a step as well, keeping their eyes down. Ahead of them, two more women heard the shift and looked up as well. Bowing, they moved aside. The taller of the two touched the arm of the next man and the crowd began to split in front of her. Taking a breath, Kadelyn moved forward. Twenty feet ahead, the crowd ended, and Kadelyn’s first step crunched into sand.
She pulled her foot back immediately, staring at the wide loops of colored sand that wove their way across the flat hall. Blue met green and green met gold and gold faded elegantly into black or white or purple or red however it pleased. There were whorls in some places, like a polite little twister had come and smeared the colors into starbursts around a narrow circle of stone. There were criss-crossing vines and pointed flowers, and something looked very much like a red rounded sun rolling into a field of yellow clouds. An ocean lapped at the walls and some gaudy lines just lay wherever they pleased, as if the sand liked nothing better than ordered disorder.
Ahead, some people were walking through it, with no greater purpose than the sand. Women’s skirts dragged and marred the face of it. Some of them lifted the extra cloth off the ground and walked in halting, high steps with some of the men, but all of their heels scraped down to the stone and left half prints behind them. Other men and women followed behind them, with brown cloth sacks tucked under their arms. They poured out sand in steady streams, erasing each track, and building some new design over the old. Kadelyn stared at them, but they worked calmly, as if they had expected nothing else from their day.
Looking back at Noach again, Kadelyn tried to find another question to ask, and couldn’t. “What is going on?” she repeated.
“You’re supposed to walk on it,” Brance said behind her. She looked back quickly as he strode carelessly toward her on the sand, hand in his pockets and his boots scuffing through a white flower. He didn’t even look down, just smiled at her while a woman moved behind him and started to fill in what he’d smeared. Quickly, the flower turned into the jagged white trunk of a tree coming out of the grass around it.
Kadelyn’s eyebrows came down quickly. Darkly, she held his eyes. “What did you do?” she asked.
Brance’s smile stretched, as if he might make up for her lack of humor with a little extra of his own. He leaned toward her. “It’s art,” he said.
“It’s a mess,” Kadelyn returned.
“The Lysaans think that art has to be impermanent,” Brance told her. His tone remained light, ignoring her response as cleanly as if she’d said nothing at all, though he did turn away to survey the floor. “They say that the greatest treasures that heaven forged were the sky and the ocean, both of them changed by the wind at every moment, so that they may never hold the exact same form for more than a moment. They say they are the perfect art because they are the perfect cycle. The wind tears them apart without ever destroying them and they break without ever needing repair.” He tilted his head for one last appraisal of the floor and turned back to her.
“They call these sand oceans, and they let them be destroyed and rebuild them, never the same as before and always using the change of whatever destroyed it,” Brance said. “They have to see the shape already there and fill in the gaps to create something, not plan some new work to cover over the mistake.”
“Why is it here?” Kadelyn demanded.
“Oh,” Brance said. “I wanted to put it in the throne room, but they said there were to many windows. Apparently, only artists with a specific license are allowed to make a sand ocean where the wind is the destructor. I didn’t know it when I paid for them to come, and it seemed a waste to send them home without having done the work, so we made do here.”
“Of course,” Kadelyn murmured. “You do what you can to overcome such vast and forbidding obstacles.”
“Clean it up, please,” Kadelyn said firmly.
Brance nodded. “Soon.”
“Sooner, please,” Kadelyn said again, her voice dropping lower.
Brance hesitated. He leaned back on his heel and the sand ground at the stone. “No,” he said.
Kadelyn let out a long breath. “Then, may I?” she asked him.
He considered her and let one moment stretch into ten in silence. He caught the steadiness in her eye, and returned it mildly. Then he noted the straight way she stood, and the low, squareness of her shoulders. And he rested his hands back in his pockets.
He bent his head into a shallow bow. “If you have to,” he said.
My friends are all thieves! They stole the first line of this piece to write bits of fiction on their own blog. Be sure to check out all the different crowds they wrangled in their own halls.