Thursday, December 10, 2009

8 - That Could be Trouble

A voice out of a vertical crack, echoing out of a cavern in the tsingy.  “Love, wake up... wake up... Yes, what I said was true... it’s all right.  No matter what, we’ll make it work.  Ancestors fuck you, wake up and... oh.  Sorry.” 

A murmur in the icy silence of the rock spires.  “Sorry.  I’m sorry love. Yes.  It’s true.”


A banging on the door of the war-school in Viltaria.  “What... what... the Lainz attacking again?  Wait... I don’t have my slippers on.  Ancestors!  Curse you, quit all that banging... oh.  Surdeniliarch.  Well.  A problem?”  The shuffle of slippers on smoothed stone.  “Come in then.  I’ll make tea.”

Ilax shut the inner door behind himself and followed the older woman into the school.  She led the way to a training room off the main hall.  “We should have quiet enough here.  My inamorata are all snoring and we won’t bother them this far from the apartment.”

“I’m sorry to bother you Elemfias,” he said, running his hands through his hair, pushing the snow and wet out of it, looking sheepish.

The war-master caught her own hair up at the nape of her neck and threw a tie around it, waved at Ilax before putting the kettle on to boil, dropping chama leaves in.  “That should wake us both up.”

Ilax sank down on the cushion, silent.  One of her greying eyebrows went up.  “It’s serious if you aren’t twitting me about how bitter my hot drinks are.”

He twitched a smile.  “You probably heard about the Lainz kid wandering around town?”  Viltaria wasn’t that big a city and the boy hadn’t tried to hide what he was doing or who he was looking for.

“Yes.  And he’s given you a problem that has you in a knot and you need my help for it, obviously.”

She hitched up her sleeves as she sat down and picked up a sword hilt in her off hand, looked down the blade before setting it down again.  He nodded and she let him gather his words.  The kettle ticked and clicked as it heated.  Her black and tan dog, Lem trotted in and lay down by the brazier.  She picked up a heavier handle, examined the hammer head, shook her head before laying it down again.  “My arm has changed, and I’m not adjusting for the muscle shift yet.”  She picked up the handle again, re-examined the head before nodding with satisfaction.

Ilax finally shrugged.  “I have a new student for you.”
She blinked and paused, in the act of reaching for an atlstick.   
“The Lainz boy?  You want him to learn war mandery?”

“I’m going to teach him myself, once he has the basic lessons down.  I thought... if you could take him on and teach him basics... I’ll teach your advanced classes, with him later.”

 “So how long has it been since you taught?” She grinned at him.

He shrugged.  “I need to brush up on basics too.  And how long have you been after me to teach your advanced students?”

“So you’re offering me that to teach the Lainz boy?”

He grinned and picked up the atlstick from under her hand, ran a finger down the dart and from a sitting position flicked it across the room to slam into the outline of a war moa target.  “I’d be a poor Surdeniliarch if I came to every negotiation empty handed.”  The dart sublimated leaving the empty puncture in the target.

“That’s one reason we pay you so much to do those negotiations anyway.  The kid has it in him to be a warmander?”

The kettle steamed in the quiet before Ilax answered, and Elemfias leaned over to pour the chama.  “El, he’s Kyrus Talain’s boy.”

Her eyes flicked up to lock on his face and she set the kettle down, perhaps a bit too firmly.  “You’re certain.”

“Yes.”  Ilax didn’t go into details and she sat for a long moment looking at her knotted together fingers.

“That...” she drew a deep breath. “That could be trouble.  Especially if he is anywhere near as strong as his father.”

“I don’t know that yet.  I couldn’t get a reading on him.”

She nodded and picked up her cup.  “You feel responsible.  And you have a history of falling in love with Lainz.”

“He could have been my son, if...”

“If.” She pushed the other cup over to him.  “It’s past.  War’s over.  Drink that, you’ve been neglecting your mandery for negotiations.”

“Yes, Zon,” he said and picked up the cup.

“Zon my ass,” she said.  “You are as much as I am... Zon.”  She held up her cup to him and he clicked the lip of his against hers.

“El...” his voice trailed away.

“I loved him too,” she said quietly.  “Not like a bed partner, but I did love him too.”  Ilax squeezed his eyes shut.  “You’ve got to let him go, Ilax.  It was ten years ago.”

He shook his head.  “You don’t understand, El.  He’s with me every day.”

“Of course.  You never did give up anyone easily. So now you’ll teach his son. I may be too rough on him.”

“I trust you to be true to your art,” Ilax said quietly.  “He’ll be staying with me.”

“I’ll expect the two of you tomorrow then.  And the Unity has some business so you’re going to be busy again.”

“Aren’t we always?  Thank you, El, and wish Stey and Oash a good night as well?  I hope I didn’t wake them.”

“You’re welcome, I will.  Ilax...” She hesitated, then shook her head, obviously giving up an old argument.  “Good night.”

7 - What's Sinking, Frilly?

Kyrus snapped awake, his mind fighting its way out of the haze that had settled on it at this altitude, aware that there was a girl sitting, quietly watching him.

“Wha’s sinking, frilly?” he said muzzily. “Basin firin’? Howja Loggia crack?” It was in the street tongue that he’d grown up with. He pushed himself up from the padded couch, before his thoughts caught up with him, appalled at himself. He’d just asked her what emergency was going on and how she broke into the house. As well as implying she was a child whore.

“Excuse me, Nassera,” the polished accents immediately back in his mouth as he came to himself. He pulled the aurochs robe close around him as he sat up, feeling the cool room sucking away the lovely warmth. “I meant nothing by it.”

It was the
Surdeniliarch’s oldest child, Haraklez, who sat looking at him. “I can’t be rightly offended if I don’t understand the insult,” she said in fluent aristocratic Lainz. “I speak the language but I didn’t understand what you just said.”

“Ah, well…” he blinked and closed his mouth. “Aren’t you supposed to be over at the neighbors?”

“Yes, but I thought I’d see how you were doing, since pa left you to go up on the mountain. He won’t be back until late. He never is. But you avoided answering. I won’t be embarrassed, honestly.”

She had her father’s eyes, though her skin was quite dark for a Milar. Her hair was a loose brown wave down to her shoulders. It had been a quite a scandal apparently when Ilax had married a half Lainz woman who had had his eldest child.

He was very, very aware suddenly of how he must look with his own hair loose all over his bare face. His hand flew up to cover his mouth before he made himself drop it. “Um. It’s street talk. You wouldn’t have been taught that by any good teacher.”

She smiled. “I should. Learn it I mean. After all it’s not just the nobles who can talk.”

He shrugged and began folding the blanket so as not to look at her. “Nassera Vania I certainly do not mean to intrude on your life, nor expose you to such crudity.” He hadn’t meant to fall asleep on the bench but had sat down after he’d cleaned up after himself in the cooking area.

Haraklez actually giggled. She got up and swept him a bow and a salaam that wouldn’t have been out of place in the High court. “So formal. I don’t give up easily.” Her eyes were twinkling and he had a sudden vision of how fascinating they would be over a proper veil.

He bowed back stiffly, determined not to be mocked, shocked at himself for his imaginings. “I’m sure your esteemed father would have words with me should he find you here unchaperoned.” He offered the minor salaam. “I’ve sworn no harm to any in your father’s house and would not harm you by ruining your reputation. Please, return to where your father asked you to be.” He didn’t see that anything he was saying was funny at all. Why the Dark was she laughing like that? At him? His mouth tightened.
I’m not that funny, Milar.

“It would be my pleasure, Naser.” She tossed her head, slightly spoiling the effect of her grand manner. “If you need anything, we’re at Mina’s next door, the neighbor you borrowed the axe from? Her place. Just knock.”

He confined himself to a curt nod, his face hot with embarrassment he knew she could see. She smiled again. “My pa will be pleased that you did all those chores, you know. We could see you outside.”

Kyrus was trying to figure out how to answer this when she let herself out to the coat hall. “Ah, goodnight, Nassera.”

Her reply was muffled as the outer door closed behind her. “Good night, Naser.”

When the girl had safely gone, Kyrus sat down again rather more abruptly than he’d intended. He desperately wanted to lie his head back against the wall, but knew that if he did that he’d be asleep again in moments. She’d ruffled him, with her smiles, her bare face, and her unconcern about being alone with a young man.
Who does she think she is? Laughing at me. His indignation snuffed out. The daughter of the Surdeniliarch talking to a Basin rat. She wouldn’t care. I’m as significant to her as the house cat. Or a mouse in the wall. Something for the serfs to squash with a broom not worry about whether I’d compromise her. His daughter. Surdeniliarch. His mind circled around again, dismissing the disquieting girl and focusing on her father.

He was so close. He’d actually gotten his story out, to the
Surdeniliarch without stammering too much, lapsing into street talk, or trying to gut the man with his bare hands. The War Master was too easy to like. It was very hard to keep hating him now that he’d actually sat and looked into his eyes.

Left alone in the house, he’d been uncomfortable at first but had found bread and the slowly bubbling stew on the back of the hob. Once he’d eaten and dipped water to wash the bowl it had been easier. A full belly always made the world a more pleasant place.

Then since he’d thought he should do his case with the
Surdeniliarch the most good, he’d gone looking for some work. The most he’d been able to find, without being too prying, had been outside. The snow was high enough that he’d had to work hard to carve the path to the door a bit wider. That chore had been accomplished by the light of the lantern at the door that he’d refilled and lit with supplies from the coat hall cupboard. It was so dark, so soon and he wondered at the Surdeniliarch being up on the snowy mountain alone in the dark. But no one seemed terribly concerned about that.

He hadn’t taken a bodyguard with him. He was an acclaimed warrior, certainly, but he was as important a head of state as the
Konsiliarch, the head of their weird Administration, who handled the day to day running of their Unity. Theoretically they had bodyguards, the Fysilios. He hated trying to translate their terms; the best word wasn’t really bodyguard, but Brother or Colleague. He’d known that they didn’t hover around the War Master… that wasn’t the right term either. It sort of translated as Negotiator of Peace or War. The Surdeniliarch was really supposed to maintain peace.

The Unity even penalized him if the country went to war by cutting his pay down to the minimum since, according to their weird world view, that their Negotiator wasn’t doing his job properly. Kyrus had never understood that and had asked Oltarios a dozen times what that meant when he’d read it.

At least the Milar were lucky that this
Surdeniliarch was a kick-your-sorry-ass Warrior, unlike some in their history. When His Immutable had invaded the War Master hadn’t hesitated but taken up their sword immediately. It was part of what had saved the country.

His head tipped back. Why was he trying to stay awake? The girl had said her father wouldn’t be back until late. Surely he didn’t expect to find his unwanted guest awake and waiting, would he? He got up and put another of the logs he’d split that afternoon on the fire, making sure the iron doors of the stove were secure before sitting down again. He’d try to stay awake a bit longer. Perhaps he’d trying parsing some of their more obscure verbs in his head.
A noble accent and a good language, boy, that’ll get you far. Don’t you forget that now.

No, Oltarios. I won’t forget.

He was asleep before he could get through the first declension.

6 - Tell Me About My Father?

Kyrus helped the Surdeniliarch replenish the stack of wood under the eaves and Ilax opened the outside door of the wood box. The inside door stayed securely latched against the cold and they filled it before dusting the wood chips off their clothes before they went around the front.

Like all Milari houses there was a hall that could be closed against the winter, walls draped with coats and cloaks on their hooks, boots lined up, leaning against each other like drunks in an alehouse, the smell of wet wool. He saw a row of children’s cloaks and mittens as he hung up coat and hat on one of the guest hooks, set his pack below. He hesitated and unwound the scarf, desperately wanting his indoor veil, in the bottom of his pack right now. It had been very hard to go naked-faced in Milar but it made for less confrontation. To them, the face covering screamed ‘enemy’. He rubbed his hand over his eyes and turned away from his things.
I will not let this bother me.

Beyond the inner door the house was warm and in the room behind the fireplace he heard children giggling. To the right, behind the door, was a cooking area, to the left a table against a window shuttered and completely buried in snow. In the center of the room, a big fireplace with closed metal doors. A ladder-like stair next to it led up to a loft.

The War Master motioned him to sit at the table and pulled open the fireplace doors to place another chunk of wood inside; poured hot water into a pot of the vile leaves they called tea, all in silence.
Is he playing for time?

“Your people invaded our country.”

“Yes, Naser.”

Without answering immediately he set out the honey pot on his side of the table and to Kyrus’s gratification, a small bowl of butter and a set of four small bowls of chutneys.
He’s treating me like an adult, not just assuming I’m young enough to want the sweets. “I had to kill your father because he was such a champion for your cause; an enemy of my people.”

“My father always did his duty, Naser.”

“You can stop calling me that. My name is Ilax. Why should I teach you? I truly don’t owe you anything.”

“I can see your point, Nas -- Ilax, but I thought you knew my father, and didn’t just kill him. My mother said he was your captive for at least three and a half months before that.”

He nodded as he got up. “And was decently ransomed.” He poured tea into bowls. Kyrus put a spoon full of butter in his bowl and wrapped his hands around the vessel, not wanting to drink it, but holding it anyway, for the warmth, thinking ‘
I’ve got to convince him’.

“Naser -- Ilax, I know that I’m old to start training. I may not have the talent for it. I hoped my father might have gifted me with more than just his look.”

“I know you’re your father’s son because you take butter in your tea.” Ilax laughed sharply, suddenly. “You do look like him.”

“Thank you, Naser.”

“How did he not know of you?” The look was direct and clear as a hunting bird’s, and as opaque, giving nothing away.

Kyrus grimaced to himself but tried to keep it off his face. A cat leaped onto the table between, thankfully blocking his gaze. That would make it easier. He took a deep breath. No waffling, now.

“My mother was a whore, Naser.” The cat lay down in time for him to see the
surdeniliarch’s eyebrows fly up. “I mean no shame to my honored father and I realize that I am not untainted, but I do try to rise above it.”

“Untainted? Of course. How could that ‘taint’ you?” He shook his head at the boy's confused expression and waved a silencing hand. “Never mind, your father and I had such confusions all the time. Just put it down to Milari strangeness.”

“Of course, Naser -- Ilax.”

“Why should I teach you?”

“Naser...” He paused, wondering how blunt to be. The Milari were always shocking in what they would just say straight out. “People said you loved him.” He could feel himself blushing, wished again for his veil. Those odd, dark gray eyes seemed to flinch and the Ilax looked away. His hand, that had been stroking the cat, stilled.

“I hoped to ask for his sake, and for his sake I hoped I might prove worthy of being his son. I might not even be suited to a warrior.”

He shook his head. “You’re suited. But I can’t just give you an answer straight I’m afraid. ‘I’ll think about it’ is the best I can do.”

“I understand, Naser.” I’m not giving up if he says no. I’ll keep coming back until he says yes. “Naser, I don’t mean to trouble you, but would you out of the goodness of your heart tell me of my father?”

There was a long silence. Kyrus knew not to rush this, sat and waited. There was a giggle and shuffling around behind the chimney corner. Ilax stirred and called “Haraklez, can you go to Mina’s for tonight with the girls?”

“We get to sleep overnight?”

“Yes, would you ask for me? Something’s come up.”

A heavy sigh and a peeking eye around the corner, gray like her father’s. “Of course, Pa.”

He sat and waited during the tumult of three children… Haraklez was the oldest, about his age… getting ready to go out over night. Politician’s children, they did not pester to be introduced. The outside door slammed and they were gone.

“My neighbor and I have an arrangement, since my inamour died,” Ilaxsaid as he came back to the table.
I translate that as ‘wife’ though they used the same word for male or female marriage partner. “Your father.” He continued, closing his eyes and sipping tea. “Your father was in every way the embodiment of honorable. He was the best person I ever met and one of the best warriors. He was my so-called prisoner for half a year and I could not understand why you people would not ransom him at first, even though I had to set the amount high. It was what he was worth, to you and yet your general… Adwild d’Molfe, you may recall… tried to throw him away.”

“Yes, Naser. Anyone with a brain… no, half a brain would understand how valuable my father was.”

The War Master coughed and smiled, somewhat painfully. “Ahem. Yes. Then someone who valued your father replaced him. Though I understand that general d’Molfe is actually lobbying your Resplendence for the post of Head of your Armies of Light.”

Well, there aren’t very many generals left, competent or otherwise because of you,
Kyrus thought. “That is actually so far above my station, Naser, that I do not choose to have an opinion.”

Ilax burst out laughing. “You sound exactly like your father.”

Kyrus looked away, both embarrassed and pleased. “My father. You were talking about him.”

“Yes. Ah. He was an excellent man. And you don’t need to prove your parentage, it’s written all over your face and body… even, as I said, in the way you speak.”

“Thank you, Naser.”

“Now, I need to go up-mountain to meditate on all of this, and I am going to trust you here in my home. You’ve found that we don’t have a lot of inns or alehouses.”

“Yes, Naser.”
Travelling Milari have so much family that they tend to stay with kin, and they’re insular enough that only the biggest cities have inns for foreigners at all.

“You may eat – my kitchen is open to you.”

“Thank you, Naser.” He offered the minor salaam, fingertips to forehead. “I pledge no harm to you or your house. Further, as long as I am a guest, I offer you my arm in defense.” Ilax’s eyebrows shot upward at the last.

“You needn’t –“ he started.

“Yes, Naser. You don’t know me. I give my word to you that you may go with an easy heart.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Of course, Kyrus.” He showed the boy all he needed, shrugged into a heavy, wool-outside coat and was gone up the mountain.

5 - The Great Hive

Diryish Pollus, Emperor of the Hive Lords of Lainz, Descendent of A Major Shareholder, Queen Bee of the Great Hive, paced away from his balcony, having watched the funeral procession into the heat-shimmer of the distance, ignoring the smooth chatter from Nadian at his one elbow and from Billiph at the other.

The clatter and buzz of the rest of the court behind was almost less than the neutral buzz of the Great Hive and Diryish stopped in the centre of the hall.  “Shashi,” he said imperiously, holding out his hand.  Nadian’s eyes blinked over his veil and then narrowed.

“Wife,” he called.  “Attend.  His Radiance demands.”

From the butterfly garden of veils in the crowd, Nadian’s wife came forward, her delicate hand coming out of the formal third veil, gossamer black spangled with sequins of platinum, to rest upon the Emperor’s proffered palm. It wasn’t that Nadian was terribly concerned that the Emperor would take his wife... after all, everyone knew that His Radiance was probably too old to concern himself with petty thoughts of sex.  It was a coup for him, actually, that the most Luminous called for his wife to adorn his arm, rather than anyone else’s.

“We shall enter the Great Hive.  Everyone but Shashi Basserus... remove yourselves.  I shall call you when I want you.”  Diryish hid his own smile behind his veil.  They’d be gnawing themselves into a frenzy trying to figure out how to be first at the Great Hive door when he came out.

“Of course, Radiance.”

Do they ever think, Diryish thought as he stepped to the hexagonal door that supposedly marked the entrance to the Great Hive, that an old man might wish to be alone to mourn the last of his own line?  Did they even mark that it was my baby Ty who died?  The little boy who had my grandaughter’s eyes and her laugh?  Who danced with the bees like my daughter?  Who cried when his kitten died, like my youngest son?

You fools, it’s not about power.  It’s about family.  It’s about survival. It’s not about power but about love.

The door clicked behind him and Shashi and she didn’t just let go his hand.  Her fingers squeezed and she turned to stop him walking downstairs.  “Diryish.”  Her eyes, misty through the three formal veils, were as direct and intense as her father’s, unveiled.  “Are you all right?”

He paused, looking down into her face.  “I... must be all right, my dear.  I will be.  There is no one else, right now, to keep the people of Lainz balanced and surviving.”  A single bee squeezed through a crack in a partly open door below and buzzed up to land on his hand.  He looked down at it and raised a single fingertip to stroke the blue/green coded wings.  “Little sister,” he said quietly.  “Help me be calm. Let me continue well.”

The bee shivered her wings and when she stung him it was almost gentle.  He did not flinch.  The bee buzzed away down the stairs ahead of them.

“Shashi.  Thank you.  Thank Mother Thriti for all of your care for me and mine.  I will find or engender an heir.  I just need to mourn this little boy right now.”

Shashi nodded, yanked the third veil up unceremoniously and threaded her arm through his as if to give her as much of her support as she could as they proceeded downstairs.  “I understand.  He was a good boy and I hoped he’d play with my girls for many long years.”

“As I had hoped,” Diryish said.  “Command authorization code “Zero two point four.”  The door at the bottom of the stairs eased open.  It didn’t matter if Shashi heard the codes.  The city wouldn’t respond to her bloodline with those numbers.

The hum of the hive as the door opened was soothing.  He swallowed his grief as he had swallowed dozens of other griefs in his life, smiled at Shashi and sent her off to her own design space.   

When you are an old man you have practice at dealing with these things, endurance is the purview of the old.

His office, once his only means of expression in the city when he was a mere prince and his father looked to be likely to live forever, felt like an expensive, well made old shoe.  He sat down and looked from the small wax designs waiting on his desk, to the massive beeswax image of the whole city of Lainz.   It was on a pedestal that mimicked the mesa, melded to it, growing out if it, in the middle of the room.

The ceiling shimmered with the moving bodies of the workers in the hive, bees buzzing around the model, delicate feet, delicate feelers, tasting, modifying, dancing the city that would eventually support a full million strong.  Right now it was barely limping along to support eight hundred thousand or so.

The air was full of the sweet scent of the wax, the soothing hum of construction.  He leaned back in his chair, looking out the open door of his office at the rows of designer’s desks, the zardukar of Lainz, the elegant, perfect women, with their veils thrust back off their faces and back from their hair, their hands clutched in it as they thought about their designs.

Most of Lainz thought of the young women... and the young men... as only as sexual workers.  They heard everything.  They knew what happened in the city, from every bedroom, from every pillow.  And their Radiance knew it.  Their Radiance, if he cared a whit, would fit the wishes and dreams and prayers of the people into every machine designed in the Great Hive.

4 - I'm Not Saying Yes

The fourth person gave Kyrus better directions even though none of the houses were numbered or named. If there were something as sensible as a street name to look for it would be easier than ‘turn left at the next crossroads, angle right, count three houses and dodge down this alley...’ Mentally he threw up his hands. It worked for them.

A house near the tree line, on the edge of town, had someone working outside. A load of bucked up logs had been dumped in the side yard, only half were split. The man swinging the axe should be able to tell him where he could find the War Master.

Dark hair, pale skin, like all Milari. Lean and muscular like most Milari - they made a point of training almost everyone for war, even the women, barbarians that they were. A slight hitch as he swung the axe -
an old wound? He wore only a wool sweater despite the cutting wind. Well, he was working so he must be warm enough. Kyrus waited politely until he turned, pulled off his hat though he left the scarf modestly in place and asked in his best Milar. “Excuse me, --” These people had no word for ‘sir’; he’d had to use the Lainz. “—Naser, but could you tell me where to find the Surdeniliarch?” He had to be careful not to let his low birth paint the words in his mouth, but speak as though his father had taught him. He reminded himself again not to let any gutter speech slide into his mouth no matter whom he was addressing.

“You’re looking for the
Surdeniliarch?” The man just repeated his question. Perhaps he was mentally defective. Kyrus nodded.

“You’ve found him then.”

This is the man so feared? This is the man who practically single-handedly stopped my country from conquering his? This man is the war-leader the known world talks about? I thought he’d be taller. But then he looks at me as if he could see into my soul. Yes. If you were dishonest you’d hate that gaze. Obviously not a mental defective.

Kyrus reached up and slowly pulled his scarf down to bare his face.
For my argument, he has to see my naked face. He saw my father’s. The man’s gray eyes widened in shock and the axe sagged in his hands, then he shook his head like a horse throwing off a fly. Why is he so startled? Do I look so much like my father? He visibly seized control of himself. Surely that can’t be because of me?

Then he thought, ‘oh’, ‘oh, no’ dropped his pack and touched heels of his hands to forehead, fingertips to mouth and crossed his hands on his breast. He hadn’t meant to be disrespectful. It was the minimum due anyone higher in station and to forget to offer it to someone as exalted, as this man, would have gotten him Exposed at home.
Oh sweet Dark, I’ve offended their version of a King.

Kyrus repeated the salaam and was about to offer it on his knees when he stopped. The Surdeniliarch had closed his eyes and had a pained look on his face, one hand raised to stop him.

“Resplendence? Have I offended you? My abject --”

“-- Stop,” the War Master said, opening his eyes. “I am no Resplendence. I am only myself. I have this problem with Lainz. I understand you need to finish that salaam but don’t call me anything like ‘Resplendence’. Call me by name if you can.”

The icy fear that had leapt up into his throat faded somewhat. Of course. Milari weren’t like that.

“Of course, Il --” he just couldn’t do it. He had to have something more respectful than a plain name on his tongue addressing this man. “Naser. My name is Kyrus.” He’d had a long time to rehearse this in his head so it wasn’t too shaky. The Milari
Surdeniliarch was known for admiring plain speech, so he forced it out, even in the face of that gray stare. “You were forced to kill my father Kyrus Talain.”

“Your father.”

“Yes, Naser. He never knew of me.” The War Master set the axe down as he listened, still gazing steadily at him. “And Naser, since my father never had the chance to know me, to teach me, I’ve come to you to ask if you would teach me to be a warrior.”

He blinked, surprised. “I’ve never taught anyone.” Then he looked up at the sky. “I want to talk about this, but I have to get this bit of wood split up. There’s another axe against my neighbor’s door. Do you know how?"

“Yes, Naser.” Oltarios, his old patron, – who’d taught him polite Milari among other things --- had taught him that particular skill as well.

“Good. You can help me here and we’ll get in to talk faster with both of us splitting -- before it starts snowing.”

It was bright sun now, about an hour off setting. How could he tell it was going to snow? Kyrus shrugged and nodded.
It is Milar in the winter, it is always snowing.

He set his pack down by the door and fetched the axe, a single-bit, light, long in the haft. He preferred that over a heavy head and a shorter handle. He was careful to set his scarf back across his face before he started. It was so raw to have a naked face, so wrong.

As he brought the axe over to the woodpile a number of old fears chased through his head, just as they had when he’d first conceived of this idea, to get Vania to teach him.
  That the Surdeniliarch had to teach him.

Maybe he’ll just kill me as too much of a problem. Or maybe he’s expecting me to try and kill him? A wood axe is just as effective a weapon as a battleaxe. I mean... I want to bury this in his body for my father’s sake. If he’s expecting me to try he could say it was an honorable fight because I was armed and attacked him.
It was all too convoluted and in the short walk back from the neighbor’s he’d worked himself into a wild confusion that he had to struggle to suppress. Maybe he just wants to get the wood done faster, like he said.

And that was what happened as far as Kyrus could see. If there was any strain in the man, he certainly wasn’t showing it, not by so much as tension in his hands on his own axe. And for an odd, surreal half an hour, Kyrus worked beside the War Master, torn between his hatred and struggling to impress the man with his diligence. It helped that he could throw his confusion into the stubborn damnoak they were splitting, feeling only satisfaction when a tough chunk sprang into two or even three pieces.

Between the two of them they were done long before the light went. As he worked he could feel the Milar looking, could feel him watching, like a pressure on his skin. As he worked he was able to smother most of his resentment and think of him without the weight of hatred.

Surdeniliarch was, as Oltarios would have said, easy on the eyes. He was fit. Kyrus could see that in how he moved, even with the bulky clothing, and the fact that he could split wood faster than he could. He found himself speeding up, to try and match him, breaking a light sweat even in the cold.

He reconsidered how he could pay for lessons if he could convince Ilaxindal; more than just chores? To be honest he’d thought that he would
need to offer his body as partial payment, but now it seemed a better idea. It wouldn’t be a bad way at all, considering. He isn’t like some of the clients I took on to fund my trip here. I quite like the way he looks, if he just hadn’t done what he did...I’ve never hated a client before, but he’s not disgusting. And he has a better reputation than those terrified, hidden old men who could never admit their urges for fear of being Exposed.

He smiled a bit at the hypocrisy in his own land where no man was supposed to crave sex with other men, on pain of exposure, but where a thriving business of male whores flourished in the Basin; right under everyone’s nose but steadfastly invisible.
  Of  course it was usually just a token few hours nowadays, since the Immutable had softened the punishment, whereas in Radiance Hannuman’s day it had meant a death sentence.

Then, finally, the
Surdeniliarch set his axe down under the eave and gathered up an armload. “Come inside; once the wood box is full, we’ll talk. I’m not saying yes.”

3 - A Mother's Letter

My Dearest Son Kyrus,

I will send this letter to Viltaria, since there is somewhat regular posting happening over the border.  I am practicing my writing, as you can see.  You will be happy to know that the right honourable Yasna is teaching me.  I am still living with the Kivrush and they keep the curtains well dampened and the light dim and cool for us, poor, afflicted souls.

My lungs are very much better and I can once more walk without losing my breath, or coughing up a green waterfall.  I’m sorry. Yasna says that though that is very descriptive, it is perhaps a little bit disgusting.  He has never lived in the Basin in the Dry so I will be nice and not tell him about what it is really like.

I have been well enough that Yasna has taken me out to the white sands to sweep your brother’s and your sister’s graves, so you don’t need to worry about that. Rahagan and Kirin are not being forgotten.  If I am better next week we will go out to pour a drop of water there and remind them which star is home.

Yasna says that a drop of water might be enough to get a lace-veil vine to root and that will keep the stones more clear of sand.

I am talking about all this, because I am trying to not write you about how worried I am about you being in Milar.  I don’t want to lose you, to them, like your father.  If you find his grave, please lay a hand on it for me, would you?  Remember his zardukahr to his spirit.

Graves.  I should stop talking about graves, but what are our lives but our mothers’, our breathing and our graves?  Please the Light and the Dark that you be safe in that savage, wet, violent land.  I’m afraid you will drown there.  Look up and remind yourself which star is home, if you would, to please your mother.

Remember, be polite and keep any of your feelings behind your veil.  It is none of anybody else’s business.  And it will not get you killed.  Words unspoken cannot offend.

I’m sorry.  I’m in a mood.  The very first word I learned to write, my son, my Kyrus... perhaps Talain one day... was my own name. ‘Dagdohva’.  I write it down in the mornings to remind myself where to start.  I open my eyes and clean sleep off my skin like desert dust, drink bare flux-tea down to its bitter dregs... I had to ask Yasna how to say that properly... he is sitting here reading and helping me write this.  And then I pick up a pen and write my name.

Since His Radiance wrote it into law that Lainz must become more scholarly, around the time you were born in fact, I have hoped to find a teacher and now one of the sweetest, gentlest men... one of the healer monks in fact... has been generous enough with his time to bear my fumblings.

My hand, with a pen, is as clumsy as when I first began ‘lifting veils’, so to speak.  Also a topic I don’t really want to get into but the ink seems to like leaving such baits on the paper’s white sand... so one day, perhaps, I will follow it and unbury the carcass of the idea.  Someday, when we all go home to the correct star.

Have you found the Milar who murdered Kyrus?  Is he teaching you? Is he good to you? It was a crazy scheme Ky, and I have been terrified ever since you told me how you would learn to be a warrior like your father.  He probably won’t feel he owes you anything.  If that is the case, come home and I swear I will be well enough that you can take the funds you are paying the Kivrush and use them to pay a teacher here in Lainz instead.

I will be able to care for myself, even on the bad days, when the colours go wrong and I am unhooked from my proper time.  I do not like those days and they are getting fewer.  I am getting better.

I know.  He is one of the best warriors and bested your father... I understand.  You are as stubborn as your father and his father before him.  You are even as stubborn as your great-grandmother, even if the lot of them refuse to accept you as family.

I love you, my son.  I worry about you my son. They are surely not feeding you correctly, or enough. I hope and pray to Light and Dark both that you come home safe.

Your loving mother,


2 - Name Me Heir

The funeral procession for His in Resplendence, Tyriu Paghemar stretched along the entire length of the Avenue of Prayers, coiling through the whole city, stretching outside the gate onto the causeway and out over the chasm, with every noble Lainz house determined to show their grief over the death of the Immutable’s last Heir. The other side of the Avenue was empty, lined along the whole way with the Rasheem, the Bodyguard, to keep the cobbles clear under a sun that bit deep into uncovered skin.

In the formal silence the roar of the river in the canyon echoed up to the highest balcony, almost drowning out the bass vibration of the pumps that moved water from a thousand feet below below. Even the dry Basin and the streets were still, honoring the dead. No sound from the closed market, the street birds in their cages covered to ensure their silence. Strung along under the causeway like a huge string of beads, even the Exposure cages had been emptied and silenced, swaying slightly in the constant wind.

The body at the head of the waiting procession, gilded and standing in the chariot of honor, swayed slightly, giving it an odd semblance of life. Two charioteers stood on the stone, waiting his Resplendence’s signal, one leading four white horses that would be sacrificed to the Light at the White Mound, the second leading the black team that drew the chariot. For the last time, Tyriu would leave the Sunrise Loggia and make his way all the way through the city that would have been his, had he lived longer than his Great Grandfather.

Above, in the Sunrise Loggia’s only public balcony, weighed down by years as much as the heavy red gold and white robes, the Immutable sat, leaning forward on his staff of office. Every wrinkled, bony, finger winked with two rings, one above and one below the arthritic central knuckle. Gold painted his long nails and gold powder dusted his sunken eyelids. It gave him a blind, golden stare when he closed his eyes, as they were now, his breath gusting to belly out the fine woven white veil over his nose, mouth and chin.

He looks like a snapping turtle in a golden shell,
Nadian Basserus thought, not letting his slight smile climb over the top edge of his own face covering. He didn’t want the old man to get the idea that he was anything but grief-stricken at Tyriu’s -- his own distant cousin -- untimely demise. It was ironic that the Lainz nobles below were displaying all their finest horses and battle banners in honor of his Resplendence’s life, given that Tyriu had only been five years old.

“The river has risen.” It was a dry croak from the old man, talking emptiness.

“Of course your Resplendence. The rains are coming.”
As if you needed me to tell you that, he thought, leaning forward slightly to hear the almost whispered word. You’ve seen more seasons turn than I and my father and my grandfather combined.

The shriveled golden figure nodded absently, his eyes on the funeral chariot below, then his eyelids closed again, giving the golden look to the world.

What the Dark is he thinking? He can’t have cared for the little brute.
Nadian turned away to cough, smothering his urge to laugh at the fuss. He’ll name another Heir and everything will go back to normal. The thing that bothered him was that the Immutable was starting to become more unpredictable. Why, he’d even held a hero’s funeral for his granddaughter, what’s her name, Tyriu’s mother, when she’d died in childbirth a few months ago. I wouldn’t have stooped to killing a mere female except he was starting to look at her, at women of his line, as Heirs, rather than where he should look. Me.

The horses were getting restless in the heat and down in the city there was a minor commotion, quickly suppressed as a lesser family’s moas tried to start a fight, or perhaps eat someone. Only the great nobles had both horses of honor and moas as draft animals, and the number of trainers necessary to keep them apart in such processions.

Nadian was dressed, head to foot in black properly reflecting the Immutable as his shadow, everyone in the court was.
  The only concession to mourning was the gold lace along the bottom edge of the veil, that scratched a bit of dry skin on his bottom lip. If only the old fart would open his eyes and give the word for the stupid procession to start, winding down the empty side of the Avenue, out to the private burial mounds where every Immutable or his family had been laid to rest under a blindingly white dome.

It was a pity the boy had died. Nadian hadn’t meant the ‘cline - the spell of diminishment - to work quite that way. He had actually been aiming at the old man, hoping to be the boy’s Regent. After all, wasn’t that what all villains aspired to? Not that he considered himself a villain, just the next best Immutable, even if the old man didn’t see it yet. He wondered again what had gone wrong with the ‘cline.
His father had taught him some mandery, the old, forbidden ways of the Brotherhood of Independent Ones.   

But he was thinking he was probably a cliner.  Both rare.  Both anathema.  Only a hundred years ago he could have been a Dee-mander or a Dee-cliner, one of the great mages of legend, but the Lainz hadn’t had a full-fledged and acknowledged Dee, in all that time. Perhaps the old man had his official mages, not that anyone ever saw them... Nadian had resented the lack of teacher almost as much as he resented not having been Heir. He shrugged to himself, long reconciled to the lack. He’d just have to go back to his solitary studies. It had startled him that the cline had made his own nose bleed, even as it killed the boy.

He raised his eyes to that distant speck of white in the desert. The old man’s burial space was a gap in the white shimmer, with all the relatives that had been buried in an ever-expanding spiral around where he would rest. He’s old. Why doesn’t he just give up and die and let someone young and competent take the High Seat? Like me.

“Nadian.” The Immutable’s voice was a harsh croak as he addressed the man standing opposite Nadian, his younger brother.

“Yes, your Resplendence.”

“I must let him go, mustn’t I.”

Yes, you greedy old man. Nadian addressed him in his head, words locked behind his veil.  Name me Heir and I can afford to quit killing everyone around you. I’ll be able to wait till you die of old age. “Give him to the Gods, your Resplendence. Let the Darkness give him peace.” He leaned over to pour a golden cup full of water, lifting that damnable lace off his lip to taste a sip before offering it to the Immutable. 

Over his Resplendence’s back, Nadian could see his brother’s glare.  Rivals all, every one of the Hive Lords, for the Old Queen Bee’s favor. He was used to their harsh looks.

His posture gave nothing way except, perhaps, to his brother who knew him. He stood plank stiff watching Nadian whisper in the old man’s ear. The Immutable’s eyes, trained for almost a century of reading his court, even with their faces covered, opened, shifted to one side, taking in the by-play before coming back to settle on the young man offering him water.

Far from being rheumed with age, his bright blue eyes gleamed bright in his dark face, sharp and clear as the eyes of a predator. “Basserus, your grief does you credit.” There was no trace of irony in his voice but Nadian could see it in his look. He drained the cup and handed it back, his touch dry as a serpent’s belly.

The hive lord couldn’t let the opportunity to gently fence with the old man slip away. The Immutable liked to think people dared stand up to him. He let a faint touch of irony color his answer. “You see everything, your Resplendence.”

“No. I’m not so far gone in my own legend that I believe in my own infallibility. I just know you.”  turned away, his grip tightening on the staff, even though it caused him pain. There was no sign of weakness when he raised it so that the cruel sunlight winked off the mirrored top, signaling the end of his great grandson’s stay on earth.

The lead charioteer stepped forward with his magnificent, doomed charges. With a groan the funeral procession creaked into slow motion, down the spiraling road to the gate and the white man-made hills beyond. Nadian, straightening up from the Emperor, watching the door to the Throne itself open before him, missed the single tear in the old man’s eye that evaporated unobserved in the thirsty air as he watched the body of his great grandson into the distance.

1 - Icy Letters

Welcome to the re-launch of Kyrus Talain.  Things are being re-done and re-shuffled.  Let me know if you you think the name works or if I should re-think it.

I shall be leaving a blank chapter between the new posts, and the old ones, so if you insist on forging ahead there will be a huge jump-cut in the information.
The snow burned under his bare fingers as he dug them into the letters in the headstone, kneeling in front of it. He dug his nails under the thick rime of ice on the rough black stone. A blast of wind nearly knocked him forward into it and he used the stone to brace himself. The ice cracked away and the two words cut into it came clear and black out of the snow.
Kyrus Talain.

My father. Who died when I was four. Was killed when I was four. The Milari killed him, actually their War Master who I’ve come to this country to meet. I supposed some people might blame him for that. Ilax Vania by name. I doubt very much that I will ever stop hating the man.

He was the only one ever to defeat Kyrus Talain on the battlefield. By all accounts he’s an honourable man. Like my father was. I am supposed to hate him. I do respect him. It might be possible to persuade him to teach me.

Me. My father never knew I existed, thankfully for him. My existence would have brought him great shame, since he was never married. Me. Whore’s son.

He didn’t know who he really was. But he spread his numb hands across his father’s name carved into the gravestone and swore that he would find out if he were worthy to be called ‘son’, worthy to earn a surname. Especially that one. Talain.

His father’s father would blow a lung if that happened.  When mother had tried to have him acknowledged, Grandfather had had them shown off Water’s Hope Loggia.  Kyrus snorted softly to himself.  It was more like thrown them off.  They’d had to beat mother to make her leave.  It had not been a good Flooding festival.

By the time he got up, his fingers were turning blue and he could barely feel his knees. It wasn’t bad weather according to the Milari. Just another winter day with blowing snow, and a misty blue sky above the peaks. Every time one of those wispy clouds blew across the sun the wind whipped new snow to mix with the ice-scree already there. What a country. I wonder that my father fought so well in the thin, cold air.

His heart pounded in his chest like a galloping horse and his lungs laboured to clear themselves of what felt like icy slush. He pushed his fingers up under the scarf covering his face to breathe on them, trying to warm them quickly. It was the one time of year that the Milari kept their faces decently covered, going unveiled every other season of the year, but it had nothing to do with modesty, or righteousness, only with cold.

His track up from Viltaria was easier to follow down to the misty gray cluster of roofs below, as alike as a cluster of mushrooms, the wildly bright walls all hidden, buried under snow.  It reminded him vaguely of honeycomb in a way and was comforting.

He slogged down on his snowshoes, past the avalanche baffles, protecting the city below. It was time to see if he could convince the Milari Warmaster… The Surdeniliarch, to teach him the sword; time to find out if his father gifted him with his skill as well as his looks. Kyrus carried proof of his parentage in his face and build, though his eyes were more green than blue, from his mother.

He was dark as any noble Lainz, like chocolate next to the pale Milari. Was their skin so cream pale because of the cold? He scrubbed mittens under the scarf across his cheeks, made them burn and wondered if his father had been this cold all his time here.

The Milari high city was a cluster around a town square, their holy fountain in the middle shrouded and buried in snow.  The houses were similar in size, the streets were all narrow, dug out snow canyons or tunnels, with doors in them. From the moment he’d set foot across the new border he’d seen the difference, even on the plains, though the Milari plains houses had more windows than the mountain ones. 

These were all single dwellings even though they were often connected one to another with protected walkways between the roofs; tunnels if snow got deep enough. It was hard to see where one started and another ended. 
He’d kept looking for hovels, or loggia, the great palaces of Lainz, and had seen neither. No one in this country seemed to build loggia -- It was all related to their odd ideas that all men were equal. It made finding anyone more difficult, he’d found, at least for a Lainz used to easily seeing anyone’s status in their clothing or home.

Once he reached the snow-packed streets he had to ask four separate people for directions to the Surdeniliarch’s office. The first sent him to the odd building that looked like a cluster of peaks where their Unity sat, and found only a single small room with a clerk open, who told him that the Unity was not sitting now and that he should try Ilax’s house, toward the west side of the city.  First name basis with their equivalent of a Hive Lord?

A house? Like all the rest? Did they not even honor one of their princes? Why would they not even honor their War Master, the man who had literally saved them? The man who had taken the role of Head of State when the war broke out and then just gave it up again afterward, when the Unity sat to re-elect their peacetime Konsiliarch.  Kyrus had been trying to understand that the whole way into the country. Dark, he’d been struggling to understand the Milari since he’d learned to read.

The clerk told him how to get there but the directions were complicated and he tried to ask a third person on the street but was spat upon before the man turned his back. It was a reaction he’d had a lot of but still didn’t have to like. The war had been ten years ago. War-bird eat you, Kyrus thought, but said nothing.

It hadn’t been his war. First of all, the Immutable of Lainz would never have asked someone of his lowly birth to fight for his country, at least in any way other than as an Ass of Lainz, the untrained foot soldiers. It had made him laugh when he found out that the Lainz word for draft beast was the Milar word for backside. Not for nothing were the lower class soldiers called the Asses. The death rate among them was ferocious and any chance of advancement through merit nonexistent. But then he would never end up buried on a strange mountainside.

He shrugged the disrespectful thought away. He wanted to be a trained warrior more than anything else in this world. It was the way out of a shameful life, and held some hope of honor. He wiped the blot of spittle off his sleeve with a mitt-full of snow.