(more to come)
Crafter Becomes Maker
I was given to Noakale to entertain, or to be entertained by. Please allow me, I told her, to share in the needlework. For as Shenath’s visit will have had you guessing, Reader, the household prepared for a wedding.
“Do you do such things? You?”
“I do any chore, as need be. And then, I am happy to learn…happy always to be of help. Vlanna, you do not find me grand?”
“Not at all.” Teasing.
The women I sat with were Noakale and her two maidservants, her cousin Darsale, and Darsale’s sister, Jute. The company being so, you must also guess that Jute was to be bride. I was curious to know Darsale, and what I could know, for she sat mostly silent, was spoken in her frosty coloring, and her armored trimmings. The phrase rose inside me, sarcastic…I thought of Sente, and saw no joy for my friend here.
Noakale, strong bones to her face, wore her dark hair plaited, singly, a furred skin falling from her shoulders as tunic over her gown, and her feet bare indoors. Darsale’s hair sat woven through a golden cage, a headdress not of our people…one I supposed of the north, her particular tribe. It gave her height yet more inches. Her wrists were metaled and her neck collared in metal.
“She should not by rights hold this place,” Jute said to me. I had taken a cushion beside her, in case she would confide. It was Noakale she meant.
“You mean to say the Prince, because she is good and generous, is truly fond of her…and has married for love, not birth.”
I said this, hard with Jute in my determined naiveté, because she invited me to dislike Noakale’s antecedents, for such reasons the northern people disliked one another. I knew none of it, and would have none.
“Oh, is that so, wise creature? Her father paid his price. It is all the price, to gain or to lose, and the bit more, if the bargain comes too readily. The Prince has agreed to take…”
I was in thought, and when I’d sorted her pause, said: “Take? Some other father’s purse of gold…his cattle, soldiers. You are not grateful.” I tested, saying this. I did not think she ought to be grateful.
“At my age! But then, there are old men also who rule countries. Yes, his soldiers are needed. Their blood is hungered after. His younger wives I will put aside.”
“Bless you, then.”
I was not surprised that she made a face as though I’d said curse you.
Noakale kept me at her side during those days the suitor and his entourage filtered into Lord Ei’s establishment. She was certain of her strength, quite untroubled by the loftiness of Jute and Darsale. United the sisters were in this; at daggers, privately, otherwise.
We had not been alone, my Princess and I, so I waited my moment.
“Come help me choose my gift,” she said one morning, and led me by the hand.
I was at the window, watching a rider I could recognize at last as Wosogo. Another I must couch myself with…perhaps beg of my Prince the favor of his arranging it. I spoke when Jute’s stare after us was eclipsed by a falling curtain.
“A gift for Jute? Or does Lord Ei bring back his wife?”
“Lord Ei has no wife. The gift, yes, is to adorn the fine gown, and the gown is a gift, as well. All kindnesses to my cousin Darsale.”
“And no personal kindnesses to Jute?”
“Personal. There’s a word. But this honors me, your piercing eye. My husband puts great store by it, frets putting himself under that eye’s disapprobation.”
“He does not!” I was a bit wondering…
I’d wanted this power. I was cowed to have got it, when I wished…I discovered I did…to have felt more cunning, more victorious. He fretted over his great undertaking, fretted he would fail. I knew the northerners…fail to die at the right moment. Live to the disgrace of diminishment. Had I felt differently, I could have seen my Prince diminished for this…failing indeed. But I saw him endearing.
“Oh, yes. What a creature you are! There is no ill-luck in these stones?”
Rather than hand the collar to me, she drew behind me, and fastened it round my neck. The stones were luminous pearl, not rock. Silverwork in traceries held them.
“I fear asking Ami’s blessing. Jute despises my charity.”
Noakale’s laugh was knowing. My admiration for her husband she knew, and laughed at that too. “You’ll learn to have better fun. Of course she despises charity. Just why we go out of our way to give it.”
A moment, and I asked, “Would you have me bear this to Jute now?”
“Do you wish, at all, to wander the grounds? I have not been keeping you from your totem…? You shall have the garden all to yourself, dear, and I will give the order.”
I made motions towards the obeisant ways I’d been wont to use, when last I’d served a kind mistress, but Noakale had many years’ wisdom on Pytta. She dismissed this. “Go now, and have your lunch. The servants will trouble you long enough to lay it. Nur-Elom, I feel you have been trying to ask me things.”
Catching me with this, as I’d turned to leave.
“I wish,” I said, clasping my hands at my waist, “you would tell me how you yourself came to marry. I don’t conceal my reasons. Jute and Darsale…”
“Are Wolgan. Wolgan himself was the son of a white eagle, and an exiled chieftain’s daughter. I am Kale-Kale. We have no home, our people, but we have wealth, and there is a story how that came about.”
But saying so, she shooed me on my way. I had no time to ask if she could believe a man had been sired of an eagle, if in the north they had even seen such things.
I explored the garden’s squares-within-squares, thick-needled shrubs outermost…but tracing the path to the very wall, I found that outside this were berrying brambles. Access, to steal—and I doubted not most thieves were fourlegged—made too daunting.
Second to the shrubs were the vines, climbing wooden posts and beams, each bunch of grapes threaded into a carved notch, to hang below the netting. Third were the household grains, blue-leaved and yellow-leaved, as much altogether as a small field might supply. Then the fruiting and rooting vegetables, herbs, and in the center square an orchard, where I counted sixteen trees, four each of four sorts.
As you observe, it was not a pleasure garden; but so arranged, it pleased the eye. Stones gave seating at the center plot’s corners. I withdrew my totem. If it would manifest, tell me it preferred a garden…I would then surrender my office…
Or if it would portend for me, in some way, my Prince’s fortunes in war…
In the sunlight, under lucence of pale clouds swept from a shore not far away, the creature was lovely. The purple showed a depth, a maturing. The eyes were closed, and I braced to see them open. I was in error, of course…it seemed my totem helped me only upon this theme. Counsel not good nor bad, but steady, insistent.
You are not right. Solve your problem.
And I had sworn to choose my own path. Who would I be to the zhatabe, arriving at his great Citadel…
Not alone. I saw myself have an entourage, my importance to be impressed upon these people. That was the wiser course of diplomacy. Then, what costume? Did my dress matter? My present state of dress was an embarrassment, and so I guessed that Noakale, in speaking to me of finery, hinted as well. I knew I had been embarrassed before the women; while not feeling this in the least, I saw the apparency of it…information gained to sharpen my picture. Of who, when the balance tipped, would prove my friend.
Bodies clustered at the edge of vision. When I turned to them, I saw Lord Ei’s servants. The cook bore a table to set before me; her minions bore the parts of my lunch. But I sat in consultation with the Cannot-Be-Named, and even the phlegmatic cook showed a dread to enter its sphere.
“Here, there is nothing to trouble you,” I called, standing, and patting the object into its pouch. The little group, who trod each other’s heels, met with a new pressure. Wosogo strode down the path, an old man in plain tunic at his side…falling behind, though, for not quickening his own pace.
Wosogo gave me his two hands. I did not miss, in greeting him, the old man’s signal to the cook. Angry a bit with me, she had laid the table and ordered the lunch be spread…a tray of roast fowl, dainty in size and eight in number. Boiled grains sculpted to the bowl that held them—the first servant turned this over and carried it away, the second pouring on a red sauce lumped with fruits. A stick of bread was torn and arranged in a bowl of cream. Nuts and figs rimmed the tray.
The old man took the jugs of wine and lowered himself, his back to the stone, placing the jugs at his feet. Wosogo and I had room to share.
“Lavish,” I smiled at him, sitting. I was constrained in this smile, but let it be ironic. I was curious to learn what was being played at…
Wosogo, circumspect, praised the hospitality of Lord Ei.
“Why, all the house and grounds are splendid!” I said. “This Kinship of Ei, what besides duty do they owe our Prince? Will it be a cousin marrying Jute?” I discomfited my friend, but felt I had good reason for it.
“Those things I do not know.”
“What are we to talk about, Wosogo? I have been listing my needs…” I tapped my forehead. “But you arrive too soon. Taken out of order, then…the Prince will vouch for the Emperor’s authority? Has the Peddler been found? I do think of it, Wosogo, that to translate my speech to the zhatabe, his to me, weakens our parley, just there. On that point of whom to trust…or…”
I was putting the old man off his guard, and he had gone so far as scooting from the stone to watch our faces. Wosogo from his belt drew beads, undid a knot, and moved one, another, one more. He tied them captive, raised his face to mine.
“Mero,” I said to the old man. “Partake!”
In the Balbaecan language, he said that he was servant to the two of us, guests of the house, and needed nothing. The old man knelt then at our table, to pour our cups of wine.
“That interests me,” I said. I stood, and walked.
A terrace below the house was spanned by this garden, but the house could not be seen. Behind us the fortress wall, topped with pines, appeared natural to the eye. Boulders concealed places of defense; at fearsome labor they must have been dragged to where they sat, grown so mossy…small trees, even, rooted in their crevices.
From the garden’s lower wall—a crafted thing, plainly so, of fitted stone—the terrain fell to a wide grassland, cut by three streams, and ringed in hills that steepened to mountains far distant.
“Interests you.” Wosogo came to my side.
“The zhatabe, in his wrath…we shall say…would pour his army through those passes yonder. They would make their great camp below. Some, sent to forage for food, must climb to this fruitful spot, and…am I right? Lord Ei would not wish them struck down with arrows, though easily he could command it done. He would not have his enemies know he had not fled before their numbers, but held his forces yet within his stronghold. He would take these foragers prisoner. Now the dilemma! How to question them? How useful it would be, to dress spies in the prisoners’ garb and have them slip to the camp by night… How impossible, though…”
Wosogo, I would have said on, I know so little of military matters. Wosogo, given new thoughts to remember, was at his beads again. The old man had come to hear these things, and my role needed no further acting. I met his eye, and he met mine.
“Who is the Totem-Maker?” I asked him.
“Do I understand you?” Lord Ei answered. “I have commanded these watches many and many years. But we are all children, and you… You have some magic, spat at your feet by Mother Earth, the Mother of Ami, in the form of totem-stones. You instruct me that I am blind.”
‘No, Vlan. Will you take the place I held, and let me sit at your feet? That will be more fitting. No, Vlan…” I led the way. “I ask to be given a mission. If I am told the means by which neither to anger the zhatabe, nor be swindled by him…I know nothing of his honor…if I am told what Prince and Emperor would agree to, rather than war-making… If I am told none of your secrets, you mighty lords, I must suppose myself the child. Am I to charm our enemy? Is he to find me precious? Shall he wish to keep me?”
This (though inside I was warning myself to not, in fact, be pert with Lord Ei), seemed a genuine danger…one I hadn’t guessed at. A totem’s advising. The Peddler could speak to the zhatabe; I could not. The Peddler could make this gift of the Prince’s offering, in exchange for open gates, sound dazzling and rare. I, to spare my life, could dazzle, assuredly…I could terrify, I could spin dreams close, very close, to the heart of my subject…
I would not. Not any of it. If I were let well out on the road, with a long journey’s provision, I might forgo the Citadel, make my own way…
A picture rose, of my shedding this go-between, captaining my own company, leaving him bereft. I envisioned a mountain pass, a threat of lowering weather… And blamed this temptation on the totem. All I wanted was to order my mission in practicality. We do business with those who are helpful, useful. They need not be best-loved. But I found it truth, and better faced before any such pass materialized. I, too, could be left behind.
Truth, that I disliked the Peddler; no less for our long separation. I saw his upper hand was my weakness. And this I might remedy.
“Lord Ei. The Peddler is known to you.”
Lord Ei sat stony; I, dutifully at his feet, but laying my argument as an equal…and he had not ventured to his garden expecting to be interviewed, only to see me with his own eyes. I was not at fault, but could fault my approach. I lowered my voice to humility.
“Lord Ei, my reason for asking…”
“Hush,” he said. From his seat he saw, but I soon heard, the descent by stages of a man using a stick. Others, in softer shoes and bearing weapons, came after—but as good household knights will, held back, finding places of vantage.
Wosogo stood first; Lord Ei did not stand at all. I stood…while if I were choosing the rank of servant, I ought to have crouched and studied the earth. In the face of Jute’s intended I stood, as I presumed. He was not greatly old; he might have fallen, even, some years shy of his bride. He was lamed, but not otherwise battle-weathered…an accident, or a bad birth. His face was not handsome, but humorous.
“I see you transformed, Lord Ei!”
Lord Ei made a noise. “Why do you say so?”
“Well, disappoint me if you must. Perhaps the Totem-Maker arrives, and can shed no light on your ignorance. Now, what of mine, Oracle? Tell me a fortune.”
He was more than humorous. He was a wag. “To know your name is of the first essence. And the day and hour of your birth. Me, you may call Nur-Elom.”
As taller people were prone to do, he put a hand on me, clapping me somewhere between the shoulder blades. “Me, you may call Tnoch.”
His Balbaecan speech was of a dialect…at least, his consonants were differently said. Later scholarship gives me the spelling (this ruler of men unlettered as most), that I give to you, my reader, and a pronunciation: Nohsh.
“Pravor Tnoch,” Wosogo said, “is captain of the city of Hudor, the only other of the Alëenon coast.”
I thought, and said after a moment, catching that waggish eye, “Not Lord Tnoch?”
“No. I am a climber. I offend by it. But what land should a bride want, where inheritance cannot be? I give her the management of my house, and if she is wise, she may take my son in hand as well.”
I was owed two stories by Noakale.
I longed for them, and found I’d made a tedium for myself. When there are a thousand things to do, and an ordinary day’s hours in which to do them, good judgment suffers. I chafed, being included in talks among the lords, trying Lord Ei’s patience, bearing gibes from the friendly Tnoch…while I knew I learned things of great value.
Hudor had its troubles with pirates, as had the Emperor at Monsecchers. The Emperor could spare a portion of his fleet, gaining against loss, if it meant the pursuit of them to their hideouts and destruction. The brigands disposed of plunder by the traders’ route, each making, after spoils were divided, for his separate home. The homes were hovels, of small fishers along the coast.
The pirate ships they burnt. A light, fast construction was the practiced skill of this loosely banded people, a thing to be achieved in more or less a trice…with timbers poached from the imperial forest, as why would they not be?
And the ceremony of a maiden vessel’s launch, and the ceremony of her death, were rites of their odd religion. I could damage this faith, if I could speak to them—but the pirates were no concern of mine. They were my Prince’s solution to the problem I’d given him; he had brooded off and returned with this makeshift to busy his men, to teach the virgin warrior his craft.
“The traders, then,” I said. “No one has advanced upon them a persuasion of loyalty; even, I suppose, a leaning to our side. Strangers come blocking their roadways, encamping themselves in their fields, starting the game and trampling the flowers; naturally this argues for their choosing an allegiance…”
“Now you understand,” the Prince cut me short. It was well he did…though he told himself a falsehood. The whole of the Citadel, the reason for making war upon the zhatabe (might I regret I’d viewed this cause without sympathy), was in the traders’ disregard for sides. “The Emperor wills not to rely on a treacherous people, on such as weigh the greater profit in one choice or another.”
“Are they treacherous?”
“Less of that!” Lord Ei spoke. “To be put through paces at every turn! I will answer to Ami, Totem-Maker, and if in your power you can produce him, bring him forth. Great Ami, let my sword shed no innocent blood. There!”
“Well, there,” I said.
By some means, Noakale was inspired to join our conclave. (The means a sign from the Prince to Wosogo.)
I was taken off to—as he had demanded—trouble my host less.
She tugged me by the hand, speeding me through three of the Balbaecan rooms, divided from one another by curtain or tapestry or skin. I did not know the etiquette of this arrangement, and dared never pop round my head…to discover to my embarrassment whose privacy I invaded. But Noakale had the run of Lord Ei’s home.
We arrived at her chamber. “It is all gifts with me, rejoice! Today my treats are for you. One of irreplaceable value with which I am going to trust you, and another very dear to me, for the many hours I’ve devoted to it.”
Speaking, she rummaged in a chest. These threats pleased me not, but if she would trust me, I might exalt upon that and ask my god’s forgiveness later. In this silence of calculating the politic answer, I lost my chance to demur.
“Ah,” I said, as with pride she held the object under my eyes. “A book.”
A bound book, a most painstaking thing to create, each page decorated in colored inks, each left-hand border stitched in looped embroidery, looped again into its place. Of such, my people made none.
“I had said there was a story to my tribe, and this contains it.”
“It bears no curse of holiness?”
My face made her laugh. “Open it now before my witness. We shall both be struck dead, if your Ami, who is not my god, flings down his bolt!”
I opened it, and leafed it, keeping my fingertips from touching any of the text. No part of the story could I have read. The alphabet seemed to run from the top to the bottom of the page, odd to me.
“Why?” I said, simply.
With posturings very self-pleased, but acted in good humor, she gave me her second gift, a smaller chest taken from the other. A tiny key was lodged in a tiny lock, but unturned. I opened the chest, and found ribboned scrolls.
“How is your success at learning our language?” Her hands told me, pick one, unroll it.
I did, and began to understand. “But Depwoto could teach me nothing written, and he is busy with his army affairs. You are making a sort of lettering of that tongue the Prince tells me is never set down. I may use your notes to study the history…”
She smiled. “That history is recorded in the language of the Citadel. Work steadily, Nur-Elom, and master for yourself the mysteries!”
I was little consulted as to the ordering of my own affairs, but proofs of my mission finding itself peopled and supplied appeared daily at the margins of my attention. When permitted, I lay on my stomach in the garden, solving Noakale’s puzzles. She and the women would seat themselves nearby, and when she had finished her dispatches…
(How, I wondered, was Lord Ei ever to return his servants to their old management? And how haphazard might this have been? He ought to marry his cook…I did not suggest it, but had shared the thought, I felt, with Tnoch, a glint of the eye and nod of the head between us…)
I stood and knelt again, to ask my three or four questions.
“Enough of foolery!” Noakale tapped me with her fan. “You must not make such sport with the zhatabe.”
When her women had gone their ways, I said, “I show you respect for their sakes. Most certainly I will play this game wherever I go.”
She laughed then until her eyes wanted dabbing. “Well, you are a courtier, less diplomat…but to your credit, you don’t believe yourself!”
“And so your people, the Kale-Kale, are descendants of those at the Citadel. Tell me this word…tell it in my language and in yours.”
The word was conflagration. Anfer, ashfal. In the beginning, the tribe of Kale-Kale had commanded a great city perched on a plain above black sand, whose bay lay pinched between the finger and thumb of a giant’s hand. Hoto, the defeated, a Mighty Man of their heaven; Toboro…so they had called the city under shadow of a vaulting fire-mountain. Noakale’s people too recorded that life had begun among the clouds, that calamitous warfare had brought the descent of, to the gods, a diminished remnant; but to ourselves, the great ancestors of magic and power, whose gifts—for still they warred with one another—were by their own hands, at length by the anger of Ami, destroyed, denied them.
The Kale-Kale called their Ami Euka.
But he was the same, and the great city might have been Monsecchers.
“We are all cousins,” I said to Noakale. It was on the morning of the wedding, when I was reciting to her as much of the history as I’d translated, then scratched into tablets and pressed onto clean linen. My people used a panel of gold to read our linens, turning the reversed print right…it was a priestly act, done in temples. I had thought of the written word so, cloaked in the hush of sanctity and the light of candles. For candlelight and the reflection of gold were the media of prophecy, the illumination of sudden passages. This, in Monsecchers, we’d known to be the will of Lotoq expressed, such as he ordained his priests deliver to the Lords and Judges of Delia, Decima, Vei, Treiva…
But I spoke to invite. We of the coastal lands were a type, the northerners a different type. As were also, from what I’d seen, the traders…a third type. Noakale had not the face of the Citadel, or properly, of the lands beyond; she had not quite my own face, but we were alike in coloring.
“Yes, I confess to taking some pleasure in the sight of you. I confess too, for you won’t discount me, that I was happy in Monsecchers. More, I mean, than at home.” She was in sighing mood, weary from these preparations. And the greater to come, when her husband and his army left her behind in this house. “A woman of my tribe makes her home where she finds it. You note the Prince and his ilk are only a small thrust…or, to make a picture, let me say better. A drip of water below the roof tiles. The roof looks sound, but it will fall.”
Darsale on a chair held aloft by servants, called to Noakale…from the hilltop, not ordering herself carried lower.
“I’ll go up to her,” my Princess said, the containment in her voice telling all the story.
The Kale-Kale had built Toboro on the strength of their fine craftworkings: the potters, the stonemasons, the jewelers, the weavers. They lived on the sea, they traded by the sea, but did not much sail or fish. The fire mountain left them untroubled, its bowl a lapping turquoise lake. Lotoq…I hardly could avoid filling my imagination with familiar haunts, when all descriptions tallied…had been quiet these hundreds of years past. He had not been summoned by his chosen to rise and rain wrath on the impious…
I might be biased in supposing so. He was quiet, but the malenchantment that invaded the city came from his dominion.
As Monsecchers today (I pray it be; so it was, when these thoughts were in my mind) the landscape was formed of its ridges and terraces. The high places and the fertile were commanded by villas, the low and hardscrabble by the shanties of the poor. The hillsides served with their winding, trampled paths—human figures like ants in file climbing and descending daylong—for the stacking of one structure on another’s roof. A threshold within jumping space of the path made for a shaded perch, very narrow, below the floor beams of an upper shanty; the roof of a lower jutted to make for upstairs neighbors a sleeping place in the night air. And where the chasm walls came nearer meeting, ladders were laid from one side to the other, becoming the by-streets of the shantytown.
A scene for you, if I conjure well, of a jumble of dwellings, four-walled but off-square, balanced at hazard. Gay, though, in the weavings of cloths used to cover drafts, the glaze of tiles pasted on for beauty alone, with that strong clay dug from the bottoms of ravines.
And under the weak light of many a candle, the poor earned their bread, taking the needle and the chisel and the brush into their teeming rooms, and on their backs bearing bundles to the lower town, the Old Town, as I have described it to you, in speaking of Vlanna Madla’s workshops and the house of Mumas.
They walked with their bundles, and odd, fearful things began to plague them. A woman would lay down the weight to fetch a drink, and a deadly asp slither out. A man would feel a sudden sharp pain, and find his cloths afire. The children who trailed their parents would shriek at masklike faces darting from the trees, bone white, with rolling yellow eyes, mouths in the shape of the turtle shell.
It is one of the tiles, which foretells thus: whatever tile is turned after, that fate will be yours and your love’s, twinned. One a windfall, the other bankruptcy. One recovered from illness, the other stricken. But when a child is to be born, the fate takes this shape, that of ending the line, no child ever born to that house again.
Turtles are never touched or troubled among our people. Nor, I must suppose, among these older brothers and sisters, the Kale-Kale.
The people did not live insensible to their vulnerability; they feared and were cautious of fire. But the laborers of the shantytown were not a tribe. Their priests were the city priests. They knew that in the temples they were not wanted, that worshippers with clean shoes and coins to offer commanded these temples, and that when the poor peered in, they were swept aside. One priest, however, a blind man who had taken upon himself a sequestered life, as the unsighted often do, was said to pray day and night for the succor of these least.
A’an, he is recorded, which must in an early tongue like to our own, mean father; he was so addressed by pilgrims seeking his intervention with Euka, or with lesser deities. He was not thought to love children, but a child was lowered to him in his seacliff cave, to whisper the horror of the masked spirits.
“They are not spirits.”
This was abrupt; the child dared: “They are evil men?”
“Why do they invoke the turtle?”
“For, child, that there are other lands than ours. Places of unbelievers, infidels. You must tell your father…your father has given you this task?”
“Tell him he will go to the lake, at the mountaintop. He will see for himself.”
“They give no instruction to children in the shantytown.”
It was a question, stated flatly. The child knew it to contain a snare which agreement or disagreement would spring alike. Such were the comments of adults.
“No learning, no, Lord.”
“No…you do not call me lord.”
The child fell to a wary silence.
“I make a mild point. You will carry a message from me to the Emperor. You will give it to the guard at the gate, by this token.” The blind man went to a basket; he did so with not a pace more or less than needed. He gave the child a tile. “The message is that he must send to me an emissary and…you will hear more of it later. You.” Saying this last, he tapped the child meaningfully on the shoulder.
“I will hear more.”
“That is a business of my own,” the old man said. “I digress. Your lesson is this: when a child is given a chore he performs it. He does not say ‘but’ to an elder. What will you tell your father?”
“That he must go to the lake.”
“His knife he must carry. His two companions wait for him below the ridge that encircles the lake. He will in great stealth approach. With speed and in secret descend, and tell what he has seen.”
Some of these words were new to the child, while the priest’s diction made even the familiar obscure, but the two things assigned he carried out. He later learned himself recommended to that quarter of the city where only the holy dwelt, to be educated there; and in old age had authored my portion translated, this child. He told the reader so at the outset, in preamble, a dedication to his savior.
The father and his companions discovered the bowl with its sulphurous waters, its spined encircling ridge, become a camping place. Strange works were underway, handcarts brought to the lake’s edge by gangways; most, natural in their courses, but cut to widen and smooth. These paths, the men thought found in quiet forays, and the labor, which seemed the hauling of many rocks, proceeded also without a shout. The rocks were placed, not thrown.
The carters made off, at a pace deliberate, zigzagging to what looked a tunnelway. Why should they do it? There was some good in the rocks that made them worth stealing… The men discussed this, speaking low, glancing often over their shoulders. Like maggots, the strangers would eat away at the sacred mountain, leaving bones. Or, until some evil were awakened.
“The emperor…what does it mean, that token your Bani carried to the guard?”
“The old man said. A business of his own.”
“Do we go to the guard ourselves, then?”
Together they sat, having reached a shelf of rock that overlooked their town. They saw past and future in these movements, that passed below in innocence, loved ones and loved homes… They could not speak their fears, each doubting, without words to express it, that the Emperor would not act against the Law. This was never flouted by those Kale-Kale most in need of faith, the law no blood be shed on Lotoq’s flanks. The Emperor was a conqueror from afar.
“Why is it us they terrorize?”
“Here is truth,” Bani’s father said. “Where the tunnel leads, that we must learn.”
And did they learn? And did these events lead to their exile? Yet it was in exile the poor had grown wealthy…
“Please.” The woman was one of Darsale’s. “Please, I am to summon you. The games begin soon.”
“I am in the way, I suppose.”
She ushered, my remark too conversational for her comfort.
“How does my Lord Sente?” I asked her, pushing to my feet and collecting things.
“Please,” I offered in return, a space later. “I will accept gossip. Drop your pebble into this well, its depths cannot be plumbed.”
Now she stopped, now I’d played the expected part, speaking in phrasings of mystery; now she turned, low-voiced. “It was no trouble to him, to wave his wife’s party off.”
“Tell me another thing. Was there a time he tried, or she? Has the match fallen cursed, or was it born so?”
“He lives with a woman at her own villa.”
I felt a touch of joy—Ami forfend—for Sente and Caleyna. Pity, yes, for Darsale. Her happiness no greater than Jute’s, the ambitions of her parents…
And here I stopped, because I would only have said a condemnation, to the daughters, lacking heart. But I must have Noakale’s marriage story to understand the northern daughter’s expectations. I was fond of Sente, because he had been fond of me. I knew, for that, the worst of him—and if rude, short speech and mockery were all he would grudge to Darsale, she lived in high vexation. She envied Jute’s better luck, and this pill was bitter, as Jute to the girl Darsale had been legend only…
And that, one of fatedness. Among a people to whom all fates were deserved.
A kind person, then, who does not intervene, who won’t champion you in your humiliation…yes, more angering than a kinsman’s wife cold-natured, known to be…
The Prince would have Sente’s life if Darsale asked. He would rather not, keeping Sente for use, if his cousin held off, if the matter slept. If, by showing sympathy, Noakale were to breathe life into that slumbering pride…
I laughed, at the intricate irony I had discovered, and Darsale’s woman laughed too, nervous to seem disagreeable to a person such as me. Puzzled, otherwise, and fearful of this outburst, no doubt.
When I’d followed her through the hidden archway, and up the stairs, and out into Lord Ei’s proper playing fields, I’d expected to be seated and to watch. I found the carpets for guests had not been laid…nothing made ready but the roasting pits, the bridal pavilion…
But targets for archery were hung. I saw the gates through which bareback riders charged at the drop of a flag, racing a path to the plain on which the daring plunged over switchbacks, sparing stages of descent.
The gates stood stoppered against the wind. Barked trunks stood fixed in pits, and a guest or performer practiced his acrobatics here, vaulting to alight on one foot, hoisting the pole to spring with it to the other trunk-top, keeping his balance by keeping in a constant motion.
I heard and felt a bundle land at my feet.
“I know you can make a decent showing for yourself, unless…” The Peddler toed my wrapped bow and arrows. “This living inside the scholarly head proves a rusty affair. A poor man like myself must hunt to eat, as he would rather than not…”
“I’ll bow out, thank you,” I said.
“No, you won’t. Not sporting.”
I disliked the way he made his speech a satire, on a manner of speaking not mine.
“Tell me about these games. I’ve seen the races…Lord Ei is fond of them. Shall I guess the targets are weighted, carry themselves downslope, and that the archer places inside the ring to win…to score the prize?”
“I’ll set one for you.”
This was answer, and so I had to scramble, fitting arrow to bow. The target came scuttling, twisting this way and that (the weight in such games was a skin of wine, a deep berry red, to fountain pleasingly when punctured); I saw, too, distracting markers laid, and my mind wished to explain them, thus I missed the ring, missed the sharper portion of hillside, where the painted sack moved its fastest.
By the set of his shoulders, and returning swagger, I knew the Peddler would top this performance, and that he knew it himself. He flapped a hand at me, to run draw a target to its starting place.
I decided I would…sport with him…later to insist he at last give me a name, if we were to travel together; later say, “I am no grand person, Mero, but I prefer to be spoken to.”
He struck the ring, and someone shouted: “None of that!”
The wine had stained my shoes, but—thinking in time—I’d hurried from the worst. The Master of Games arrived with two underlings, one of whom nobly put his mouth to the wound. “These are for the competition. Over there, if you want practice.”
I looked for anyone who wanted me, for events in our few minutes of idling had come in a rush. Now servants unrolled carpets, lowered tables and set them with winecups and baskets of fruit. The guests came to overlook their seats prepared. Servants holding cloths upright made a moving tunnel through which the bride entered her pavilion unseen.
The Peddler tapped my arm. “I, being your instructor, hope to see my pride untarnished. Show me you can still take at least the gourd.”
The gourd was the loser’s consolation. The prize itself whatever some prankster cared to put inside. But also, the loser was toasted by all the winners, a second consolation my tolerance for spirits could hardly have borne.
I fitted another arrow and loosed it where I stood. Bravado rewarded me; my shaft trembled from the bull’s-eye.
The Peddler whooped. “I’ll have a wager!”
Custom required that bride and groom be serenaded, the groom to the taking of his seat among us, the bride calling her answers from the curtained pavilion. I was happy to sing, in a sea of voices indifferent as my own, happy to hear Jute chime in with near gusto. I was happy to drink and eat, of delicacies…
I was sorry I must play, and carry small sums to their owner’s losses.
They seated me with the bride’s family. “Vlanna,” I said to Darsale. “A good day.”
The words were tradition, their meaning impersonal. But she returned me what had preyed at her, what some cover of conviviality permitted. “My husband admired you. I haven’t seen reason for it.”
“Sente spoke of you for a time. Before this journey, nothing.”
“Oh. Well, but he wouldn’t have known me to be at Lord Ei’s.”
She nursed her wine.
“Vlanna, I am not clever. I was acquainted with Sente slightly…you will have the right of it. He has forgotten me.”
She smiled. Within the poverty of her opinion, my small labor had earned me a rise in status. “No. He would much welcome your magic. He loves a woman other than me, he wants not to die for his transgression, he wants…and why should lovers not want? To be free, to be bowered in luxury, to be wholly safe. I pity him, and I love no one, so I forgive more than he supposes. But…”
She said this last, catching me when I’d nodded, deeming her argument fair. “Never so forgiving, as not to wish him pain.”
“Fair enough.” I found my answer the same. Given her vantage, fair enough. “Does the House of Vei die, then? While its master lives in charity.”
“Consult your tiles.”
And she shook her head, but smiled more warmly. I knew this smile forestalled my humble denial, of any intent to get information from my foolish questioning. A time will come—perhaps the totem said it—when you will cease to charm. Can you guess why?
Yes, I could. If I could have stood from my seat to walk myself through these thoughts, I would have left them all at that moment.
The bride and groom held the honored places; the games could not begin until the ceremony had ended…and so began the ritual, which must be lively. The bride was summoned by the groom. The curtains shuddered, but she held herself hidden and sang to the guests, “Shall I marry this man? Teach me his faults, I wish to be sure of him.”
Tnoch was treated to raised cups, and a long round of faults—that he was lame and ugly, that he ate more than he earned, that he was poor at sums, the Peddler’s gull, that he spent too much on tasteless finery, that he had been cuckolded many times by his late wife…
Not one of the male guests defaulted at his turn, and Lord Ei counted off fingers for some minutes.
Jute, at a round of applause, stepped out veiled, and made a pretense of searching faces. “Lord Ei I know, and Pravor Castor, brother of that man Tnoch…”
She spoke to the Peddler, giving me a mild thrill. Also, a minor treasure in information, that I must slot into place at another time.
“But this man you describe must be quite hideous.”
“So I am, my love!” Tnoch, on his brother’s arm, stood.
“Oh, is it only you, then?” The veil was flung back. “Well, we shall be married!”
And they were, with a handclasp and a kiss.
We dined, a Balbaecan feast to eclipse all abundance past, though from the start the Prince’s visit had been celebratory. When the sun fell to its third station of the day, horns were blown.
“Pravor Castor.” I bowed to my new acquaintance.
“Totem-Maker. To the archery field!”
An animal larger than Cuerpha was brought, and I was made to mount without saddle, as did the racers. My stunt, which I learned of only now, would be to drive my horse at a trot around the moving targets…
And I missed them all. I had never hunted this way. I had not ridden this way, either, but the horse was used to being ridden so. Pravor Castor among the watchers, his rueful face a poor disguise, was paying out sums of money. I saw Tnoch, who knew his brother, shake his head and refuse to bet.
The call came from several of my partisans, delighted with this comedy. I stilled my horse at the starting line, worried I’d neglected my totem, that it might jog out of its pouch. I felt fresh arrows fill the quiver at my back, a slap on my horse’s flank—which he wisely ignored. With the barest pressure from my knees, he then hit his pace, and I patted the totem to assure myself.
A bit of luck? I asked it.
I fitted an arrow, gave my horse a trifle more kick. I leant…and the motions of target, animal, arm, hand, flight, these comings together, were suddenly to my higher mind the workings of a machine, every shift sequencing to its apex. I woke from this vision at the spouting of a third wine-sack. I let the arrow fly wide at the last, halted, and the crowd came running with their cups to catch the bounty.
This success was too much, I dared not do more.
Castor took his money back, and I knew he hadn’t meant yet to spring the trap. He came on me quickly to stop my efforts, in the act of springing to earth. Tnoch, limping to his side, handed me a triumphal cup, as I guessed…and guessed again I was meant to toast the gods, lifting it above my head. I did. I downed it.
“Yes, alight,” Castor said now. But when I was landed at his feet, he said, “Toish seems well fresh, do you think, brother?”
“No grass for the lad. See the groom keeps his head up. But have him watered.”
Slip away, I counselled myself. I was not, by the hand of Castor, permitted to do so. “Come, the races begin at the gate.”
“No one will like my attempting it.”
“Why say a foolish thing? The gods favor the Looked For. You, that is to say…supposing you are.”
“But,” I said, low, “I carry the totem. I will surely not win… But I must beg its help, not to be trampled, as I am not that sort of rider.”
“Now, creature. None can tell the turn of the world.” He offered this adage with unbecoming pleasure. “Do you know Lord Ei has held six courses…and that in the normal run of six courses, one rider would die? No one has died. You and I do not want to set off for the Citadel under a cloud of foreboding. Two courses will be run today, before night falls. You understand, I hope.”
“Will you ride?”
“I can’t.” He laughed down at me. “I am not a small, nimble person. That would be far too much fleering at the Fates, to put my weight on a runner’s back.”
All I knew of my own people, and of the Balbaecans, told me this was true and inescapable. The courses were deadly…some perverse deity had chosen not yet to gather in his sacrifice.
“But they know…” I eyed Tnoch, who seemed, for my scarcely having met him, more my sympathizer. I patted the totem’s pouch.
“Oh, more than that. They are all consumed with curiosity. They thoroughly enjoyed your sorcery with the targets. The Prince, Noakale, my wife, all, will be eager to see what next.”
“Then I will lead the prayer myself.”
The brothers patted me along, until we arrived at the steps mounting the rock face from which the race to the plain could be watched. Toish was led to me; I was lifted again onto his back.
“Salo-Ami, Aeantahah, mightiest father of gods, Sala-Aza, Aeantha-aeantha, hidthar sala-leomar, mother of all, Salo-Lotoq, my protector, grant that your hand and grace be in this task you have bestowed upon me.” I withdrew the totem, held its purple to the light, starting a wave of shrinking behind deflecting arms, murmurs of Salo-Ami, spare, from the riders circling me, and over the crowd of wedding guests. I sensed a duty here, a kindness I ought to perform. “Sala-Aza, be openhanded as a loving mother, bless the wedded, Tnoch and Jute, hold no fault of mine against their happiness. Salo-Ami, Aeantahah, take what you will, give what you will. Be content.”
All prayers of ceremony ended with this phrase.
As when my feet had slipped off the cliff’s edge, and but for the scream of the eagle I should have died, I felt in those feet a nervelessness; in my hands the same. The reins were two thongs…one to wrap around each wrist. Six riders their grooms drew to an even line, Toish led center. I sought for some serenity my totem might pity me with, but was very conscious of myself, apart from my horse, and from this enterprise altogether.
If Toish would hold back, I might trail the others, fall, to at least survive. Rise to perform for my audience—a poor inept, and comical. Win with charm forgiveness…
The flag was raised.
I tested with my knees the surety of my seat, crouched low as I could, having seen racers (with, confessing it, some excitement for the mayhem) come a hair’s-breadth from death, barely skimming the undersides of rock shelves. The Prince, high above, stood to give the shout.
The flag dropped. Toish lunged at once with the other five. And this, I thought, barreling and clinging, was my mount’s race, not mine. We flew to a narrow sharp turn. Toish, among stallions, proved a fierce leader, my miracle and my brush with misadventure. He did not intend any turning…he brought his rear legs together and flung at the low wall. We were up, over, plummeting, the leading two charging hard to meet our landing. Instinct, or divine help, made me shift my weight.
Or, the horse might well have known his own plan, with or without this human burden. He kicked again, laterally, the wall making a curve to the next switchback, and Toish’s feet came in touch with earth, one of mine striking a poor rider’s head as we sailed above, no one now in front of us. Toish ran, less inspired, while I felt safe at last; feeling too that my frozen limbs would need breaking to ever remove me from his back. Then a tattoo of hooves, a command shrieked in ragged exhaustion, and a scrabbling noise. We’d come to a shallow straightway, that opened before me just where a rider leaped a broader hump of gravelly stone, and took the lead.
This was what my horse had needed. My hard fast lesson made me wise enough to lean into his sudden thrust, and I and the other rider rollicked to the waiting flaggers. I won, and I lost, though the horse’s delight could not be diminished because his rider hadn’t known the rules.
And if I’d snatched a flag and carried it off, I would have been less the people’s Totem-Maker, of magic too strong for the good Balbaecans. They liked me humble, and even humorous, yet…
This sorcery was nothing of mine. Toish had won his race. I’d had common sense come to my aid—that memory for useful details; that gift for certainty in what to leave aside and what to choose. I was alive. But another had died.
And I’m sorry to say I can never account for that foot of mine. The dead man had lost his seat and been mauled by pounding hooves.
To Jute, before she rode away south and east, to the city of Hudor, I beckoned, wanting her attention. I would have run down the steps, but she urged the white bridal pony, the bells of its harness making music, and came my way. I was with the Prince’s company, aloft on that same viewing place above the plain, waiting to see Tnoch, wife, and entourage, off.
Not minding appearances, I trotted to the first level, then leapt the wall.
And not allowing her head above mine, Jute slid from the saddle.
“Now you had said to me you would divest your husband of his younger wives. It emerges he is a constant man and takes only one.”
“Nur-Elom, do you chide me?”
“I hope I send you to your joy.”
“Well, I am of the north. This is the height of my joy. I have feared worse things than showed themselves true, a fault the gods mark.”
“Let me intervene. No, this bauble carries no more than its own beauty, do you find beauty in it.” I had drawn the stone, which was Pytta’s. A jeweler had pried it from the copper setting, ensconced it again in gold…a ring once, now an ornament for the hair.
Jute’s eyes filled. Truly, I thought her too haunted by superstition; at fault for it, though never would I have chided. “We are bargaining, my dear,” I told her. “You begged me to help you, at a time past, when your pride whispered to you death was better than your sister’s household. You feared your age, the coarseness of long servitude, would render you despised and at her mercy…”
“Enough. That child’s mercy is no punishment, no. You don’t mean to comfort me, reminding the gods how much they have in balance against the weight of my soul?”
“I mean to quit you of an obligation, if you will quit me. We won’t see each other again. But my hand may gain some reach in the fullness of time. Jute, I will always help an old friend. You, though…you won’t fail to live your life, rely on your new friends? Forget me, have me out of your thoughts. Now and then wear this ornament, and remember in peace.”
Weeping still, she gave me a kiss, mounted and rode where her husband bided for her.
Our first stage was to the Tollhouse; the Prince and Noakale, his own and her noble Knights of the Household, escorting us grandly. We settled in the flower meadow, making two camps. Pravor Castor, perverse in his amusements, had me leader, and couched suggestions as servile queries: “Will the Totem-Maker have the scouts survey the road ahead, until the moon achieves her half-night post, and report to us, returning, whether the way is clear for wagons?”
(more to come)