It's been another long dry spell but I did manage a small story, it's finished and I hope kind of interesting. It's really an excuse to set up a city for me to play with and set other stories in. Hope it's acceptable.

Pictures at an Exhibition

Chapter One

Tourmaline woke early, a habit he cursed daily and still couldn't shake.

He looked around the small room, a reassuring inventory of the familiar. It was sparely furnished, one chair in front of the fire place on top of a rag rug that had seen better days, a spindly table holding a candle, the make shift bookshelves along the near wall. The kitchen area held his elderly stove and an empty sink; his little selection of dishes was neatly piled in an open cupboard with the cutlery in a box on the counter. In the alcove where he lay there was a small wardrobe, the futon he lay on and the rack of patches. That sight always brought a smile, when he'd returned from the wars with a simple cloth patch over one eye Jade had leapt to work and the collection just kept growing.

Now he chose his daily clothing based on what patch he wore, which would it be today?

He by passed the most whimsical to settle on black with a subtle spiral pattern etched into the surface and an all black outfit to match. Not as colorful as most pedicab drivers but the difference would draw the eye and earn him extra fares, he could feel it. It would be a lucky day.

His prediction proved uncanny, by mid morning he'd garnered some rare city scrip and an only slightly battered copy of The Pickwick Papers along with the makings of a good lunch.

As usual he decided to share his bounty with Jade, who left to his own devices dined on air.

Even though this would take him to the Wall.

He rubbed sweaty palms on his thighs and rolled his head to stretch tightening muscles. If Jade could work there, he could stand an hour visit.

He threaded his way down side streets, sneaking up on his ultimate destination. You could feel the damn thing before you could see it, in his opinion; it cast a cold shadow a solid block away. The surrounding neighborhoods got tattier the closer you got to the grey expanse although there was always some committee or other working on reclaiming the area. None of them had made much headway as far as Tourmaline could see but the newest one was putting scrip in Jade's pocket which was all to the good.

He slowed as he entered the area directly around the wall, a collection of make shift shacks incorporating the structure as the most stable anchor for building, a smaller area striving for shabby chic and a few struggling business. Mostly pawn shops and smoke shops with a smattering of bars. Farther along across from a vacant lot that was posted with signs optimistically identifying it as a park in the making was a large unobstructed area of concrete and there Jade was working.

He drew to a halt at a slight distance, watching Jade at work was a stolen pleasure he indulged in whenever he could.

The small figure was facing the Wall, brush in hand, an array of paint containers scattered around him. His spiky hair was dotted with color, Tourmaline knew his clothing would be similarly spattered; Jade in creative mode was a mess in motion. Yet his work was tight and controlled, he'd never understood the dichotomy.

This project looked good so far, a series of trompe l'oeil openings in the wall. They ranged from ornate archways to rough breaks along with the illusion of falling rocks and there were a wide range of scenes visible within the openings. It was hard to make out details through the shadow of the wall itself, the work drew you to close in and examine it.

If you didn't mind the tiny drone zipping around over Jades head.

Tourmaline took a few deep breaths and consoled himself with the fact that the drones hardly ever did anything these days, not that you heard about anyway.

Not since the last days the gates opened for sweeps and that was years back now.

Trust him to get snagged in the last sweep, sometimes you just couldn't win.

Still, he'd got back mostly intact. Something to be grateful for.

And Jade had been here, waiting. Something to be very grateful for.

"Hey, how long have you been lurking there?"

Tourmaline laughed.

"At last he notices! Come on over, lunch is served."

Jade cleaned his brushes and jogged over grinning. The drone zipped off over the wall and vanished from sight, much to Tourmalines relief.

"You're looking ominous today, extorting fares through fear or what?"

"I thought I looked charmingly piratical, I romance them out of fodder. Here, see what treasure I've been gifted with."

"Apples and is that fresh bread?"

"Baked this morning, got a loaf from a baker on her way to market. And mint tea to go with, sweetened with…"

"Honey! You scored honey!"

"And perhaps I'll share."

"Perhaps I'll mug you for it, or perhaps I'll trade you an egg. I've got a share in some hens now."

"Fresh eggs? That I can't turn down. Here, have some honey. And explain how you get a share in chickens."

"You know Cara down the block from me? She has a decent plot of land and bought some hens, we, the share holders, all kick in for feed and share in the bounty. Part of what I bought with the proceeds from the job. Which is coming along nicely, I might add. Another week or two and I'm done."

"How surprisingly responsible of you, I'll be over for breakfast frequently from now on."

"You'll be welcome; someone has to cook the damn things. Come on, there's a fairly decent spot under that tree, we can eat and relax a bit. How long can you hang out?"

"Hour or two, then it's back to work. I got a new book too; I think you'll like it."

"Shame you can't stay and read it to me, perhaps later in the week?"

Tourmaline gave a quick glance at the wall and shrugged.

Jade rolled his eyes.

"How about I come over some night soon instead? We can hang at your place in front of the fire, I'll bring some wine."

"Sounds good. Sorry but this is not my favorite locale as you well know."

"I know and I can't blame you, bad memories aren't so easy to overcome. Might be easier if you shared some of them though."

The hint was ignored and the moment passed.

It was several days later that Jade dropped by in the evening with wine and two precious eggs. Tourmaline added some rice and mushrooms and dinner was declared sumptuous.

Dishes were cleared and washed and the two settled down in front of the fire with wine cups in hand.

"How's the project going?"

Jade smiled.

"Going well although the drones are getting pesky."

"I hope you don't attract too much attention, those drones may seem harmless now but that hasn't always been the case. You have reason to know that. And on that tack, how are you feeling? You look a little tired."

"I'm fine; I've been fine for ages. I don't think I've had one set back since you left. If you don't believe me you should check with Sister Aster, she'd like to see you anyway you know."

"I keep meaning to do that. I gather you kept in touch? How is she?"

"She's as daft as ever, the new class is being named for spices. I'm glad we got the year she was doing gem stones, I don't fancy the thought of going through life as coriander or garlic powder."

Regardless of Jade's claims to health he still looked too thin and drawn to Tourmaline. The firelight highlighted the sharpness of his bones and the hollows of his cheeks.

"I'm going to have to feed you up, you're skin and bones."

"It's the growth spurt; I got taller as I hope you noticed."

"That inch really becomes you too, good job."

"I like to keep it subtle. You're taller too; they must have fed you well at least."

A shrug in reply.

"You were gone three years; surely there is something you could say about it. It's a pretty big gap to ignore."

Tourmaline stared into the fire.

"I missed you and now I'm home."

"I missed you too and I'm glad you're home but surely…ah never mind. Someday though you'll tell me stories about it, I missed your stories."

"Yes, someday."

Another week went by before he gathered his nerve to visit Sister Aster. The home was as he remembered; floors scuffed and worn and the walls held together with crumbling mortar and hope.

The sound of children laughing echoed in the chilly halls and he was tossed about by occasional whirlwinds of them charging hither and thither on some quest or game. It was like stepping back in time, he half expected to see himself and Jade amongst the group so little had changed.

Sister Aster hadn't changed either, her long hair was a little grayer but her eyes were still kind and bright.

"Tourmaline? Come along to the kitchen, it's good to see you."

She whisked him off to the familiar room and fussed with various herbs and hot water, finally setting a steaming cup redolent of grass clippings in front of him.

"Drink up, it's good for you."

Force of habit made him take a sip; it wasn't half bad and left an aftertaste of lemon and mint on the tongue.

From the corner by the wood stove a black cat rose to observe him, yawn hugely and return to his nap.

"You've still got that cat? He must be ancient!"

"He's grown beyond aging; he'll outlive me at this rate. He seems to remember you."

"And I still bore him; you'd think there'd be a bit of gratitude shown to his onetime rescuer."

She laughed and shook her head.

"You didn't bring him in out of the cold for thanks and it's a good thing too, save you a world of disappointment. Jade though, he was always grateful."

"He had no need to be, he would have done the same for someone in trouble."

She sipped her tea, eyeing him over the rim of the mug.

"You've grown up a bit while you were gone, how are you keeping?"

"Well enough. You've a full house still I see."

"Full enough, Jade comes by from time to time and holds drawing classes. They love him, especially when he lets them paint on the walls. He did us a lovely mural in the dining hall, you should go see it."

"I will."

"Good, you can bring your cup."

She stood up and swept off, leaving him to follow.

"I hadn't really meant right this…"

"You'll love it, don't drip tea hither and yon, keep up, you've gotten slow in your old age."

He had never figured out how someone with relatively short legs could move at such a fast clip, he put one hand over the top of his cup and jogged along beside all the way to the dining hall.

The mural covered one entire wall, it was a wooded scene with cuddly looking animals scattered about the trees and a winding path leading off into the distant hills. Only one character graced the path and Tourmaline shuffled closer to peer at it, it seemed vaguely familiar.

The figure was tall, caught in mid stride as it walked away from the viewer.

"Ah, you noticed that did you? You've been immortalized, how does it feel?"

"It looks a bit like me but…"

"You're remembered here as the word man, what do you think of that?"

The figure was clothed in rolled scrolls and ripped pages, a hat made of several books and shoes of the same. Even his hair was tiny strands of printed letters.

"I'm speechless."

"That worries me; you were rarely speechless as a child. You appear to have lost an eye, not your tongue. And what happened to the eye? You're not scarred that I can see."

He stared at her; he'd rather forgotten her total lack of tact.

"It's complicated. It's one of the things they do just because they can. Like the drones."

"Ah, they are like that sometimes, I tend to forget."

He settled at a table and set his tea down.

"I forget you're from outside, how much do you remember?"

"It was a long time ago; I think things will have changed since then. Tell me about it, what did you do? What did you learn? Who are you now?"

"Tourmaline, same as yesterday."

She stood waiting for more, waiting for him to fill the awkward silence. It had worked on him well as a child, it still had some effect.

"It's cold out there, a cold hard place. I did cold hard things and had them done to me. Was it always like that?"

She sat down with a sigh.

"I suppose it might have been different once but as I remember it yes, cold to the bone. Comes of the endless wars perhaps, who are they fighting now?"

"I'm not sure, they never specified. Some vast shadowy threat that they never fully named. No one seemed to really want to know."

"Same as I remember then, always easier not to ask. I still remember how overawed I was at the war and science compounds, the buildings so shiny and blank, like something from another world. How hard we were all exhorted to work to keep the machine humming along."

"It's falling apart now, the drones, the war, half the tech is broken down and no one knows how to fix it. Or has the time or inclination. They still run their experiments, they still kill but I don't think they know why they do it; it's just what they do. They sting out of instinct like wasps."

"At least they've left us in peace for a while The soldiers haven't made a sweep since the one they took you in. The drones still buzz about but even they're rarer from what I've heard. Perhaps they've found some other interest."

"I don't know, they're still out there, still waiting and watching and who knows when they'll open the gates again?"

He set the cup down abruptly, putting sweaty hands in his pockets.

"I don't like Jade by the wall, there's no place to hide there."

"We can't be hiding all the time and Jade's grown. He's not the child you left behind. "

She absently mindedly sipped some of his tea before continuing.

"He was that mad when you went, I thought he'd lose his mind. And did you have to hit him that hard? I feared concussion."

"Nothing less would have kept him still, he wouldn't split off from me and they were closing on us fast. You always said to run and hide, he couldn't run fast enough. Neither could I. Was he mad long?"

"Ages but only because mad is easier than sad."