Friday, April 27, 2012

16 - Dear Ma

Dear Ma,

The Milari War School is weird, they teach more than just fighting but I don't have any of those classes yet.  It’s a lot more than just war.  It’s all kinds of things that they think warriors need to be able to do.

I hurt all over.  I’ve got sore muscles that have sore muscles.  My wind is terrible.  And I’m in the baby class.  They are all six or seven.  You’d like the kids.  Jashi and little Maylissen are wonderful and they are already treating me like their big brother though they giggle that we’re in the same black-staff class.  There are a handful of others and I tower over all of them.

I got your letter, it arrived almost the same day I did, at the Unity.  They have a post office that accepts from everywhere on the rock.  They even take mail from the Nadumar who are the descendants of legitimate settlers and far above us rebel trash and the Rumon who make the radical Milar look like sand-grain counting monks.  There’s rumors of another group... another country on the other side of the Nadumar, right up against the sea of sand.

Anyway.  I’m here.  I’m safe.  I’m a student of the school at Viltaria.  My teacher right now is Zon Elemfias, a woman who looks and sounds like the war birds all along Screech Lane.  She doesn't call me a lot of names... just 'bee-eater' which is almost a pet name here.  And she's running my ass ragged up and down this valley of theirs till my wind improves.  I'm running along all the shovelled alleyways of snow, not doing much else.  But everybody says that's the first part of the training.  So I'm doing it.  I'm coughing up more junk and my spitkerchief is disgusting.  No veil to filter out the crud.

The surdeniliarch is giving me house-space and I’m sort of one of the kids.  It’s the weirdest thing.  He’s acting like he’s a step da of some kind.  I guess he feels guilty.  But I’m paying for my training just like any other Milari kid, by doing chores for the whole city, though only fifteen thousand isn’t anything like the size of Lainz.

Ma, you’d love it.  Everybody does chores.  Everybody.  Nobody gets up on their high-bird and looks down on anybody else.  The surdeniliarch even does laundry.  He and his daughter were up to their elbows in foaming water, laughing while I struggled to turn off the hot tap so I didn’t flood the room.  Really.  We were all working together.  No bleaching stuff for the newbie since I could take my skin off with the bleach here.  It’s a lot stronger than at home.  I guess we use more peroxides, at least that’s what Haraklez – that’s the surdeniliarch’s daughter – says. 

She’s half Lainz, and speaks it like a noble.  She’s been training at the school for years and is a greenie... someone who has a green staff. 

Green staffers teach browns and blacks.  There’s a greenie named Werfas who is hanging out with me... Ancestors alone know why but he’s a good person.  A big guy.  Quiet.  Doesn’t take shit from anybody.  He has a big enough fist already that if you pissed him off he could pound you into the ground like a tent peg just waving his hand around, upset.  He wouldn’t even have to mean it.  He’d probably go red and apologize.  He’s my best friend here... near my age, too.  I’ll write more about him later.  Like I said, he’s like Haraklez, a greenie.

There’s yellow staffer’s next and then there’s white staffers.  The Zon.  Just like us at home.  But they teach with white wands only the length of your forearm.  As the staffs get darker, they get longer and heavier with more and more iron on them.  My black staff is taller than my head and has a head and foot band a couple inches deep... of iron.  Some of the black staffs have a central band as well.  They are so heavy they make my fingers ache, but I’m going to master it if it kills me.

It won’t kill me, ma.  Really. Don’t worry.  It’s... dealable... people can make it work, to put it in polite Lainz.  Smoothable.  Slideable.  Na flung of’en t’edge wi’ only fart ta make yah rocket.

The snow just melts and leaves less holes in cloth than rain.  It hasn’t killed me yet.  There’s more water here than in all the Basin at floodtime.  They have these really big reservoirs dug into the rock underground  so during the hell time the sun doesn’t steal the water away.  Kind of like the pipes and channels behind the terraces all up and down the canyon.  Did you know that they get hell time here too?  But the plants don’t fold up into dead-looking sticks or coat themselves with toxic wax to keep the water in.  The leaves shrivel up but they don’t go brown.  When the water comes back so do the leaves.  Ilax – the surdeniliarch – says that’s kind of what some plants did around the home star.
I’d love to get at all the water we can see glowing on the moon.  It’s thick enough so it shines in the night like some hive lord’s nose ring.

I’m not use to all this frozen white stuff falling out of the sky, like the falling stars, the falling ice.  It’s weird.  It should be sand trying to scour my skin off, not cold.  Please pass on my love to the shades of my sibs.  I’m working hard to be their shining beacon in the land of the living.

I love you ma, in case you didn’t remember.  And if you don’t remember I’ll have the monks read you that line back, as many times as is necessary to make it part of your memories.  That one monk... what’s his name?  Sounds like he’s really good for you.  I’m sorry... please tell Yasna thank you for taking the time he has been, with you.

I don’t have extra money to send home... my chores cover my keep here.  I’ll come up with something to sell if the EnDarkened need more for you, ma.  You are always in my thoughts and one day I hope to set us up in a loggia all our own, where no one can bother you if you come unhooked from now and where you can dream your dreams and not make them be nightmares, all right?

I’m working harder than I ever have in my life and my teachers say I have talent for it, even if I’m a fumble-brained idiot.  I’ll learn, ma.  I truly will.

Your loving son,


15 - Caging Birds

In his study, Nadian leaned over the scraps of parchment. Diriyish hadn’t been the same since the funeral. I suppose he doesn’t have anyone left to bury. But he hadn’t given up and just died. Somehow he’d hardened into a stick of boot leather and just as responsive sometimes, even while still being the stone adder dangerous he’d always been. Nadian pulled out his magnifier and dismissed the Emperor from his thoughts. That was a daytime problem when everyone was under the Beneficent Light.

This was his time, the time when he could indulge in what his true passion was. It was criminal that there was no one to teach him how to be a Cliner, no one to promote him from the Ahy all the way to the dizzying heights of the Deei with all the attendant pomp and power.

It was that power that had smoothed the sides of the city hundreds of years ago, Cliners pulling the spaces and holes in the solid stone and bringing the molten rock to the Manders who could take it and form it into the deep basin to hold the water at the top of the column. And then made the Loggia grow out of that like stone flowers until they towered another five hundred feet over the canyon rim, the flower island homes delicate as lilies. It was the power that built the ancient pumps capable of pulling water all the way from the canyon bottom to the top and the kind of power that made the seamless columns of hollow stone that held the liquid wax that heated the city at night. It was the kind of power that had died away in Lainz and no one remembered how to teach it, how to foster it in its own children. It was a power that was dead as far as the Empire was concerned and could not be resurrected, for all that everyone prayed to their Ancestors.

Except him. He knew he had the power from his father before him. And it was a power he would claim if he had to defile a thousand graves to wrest the Deei’s secrets out of their rotting hands. It was the kind of power that made the office of Emperor look like a children’s poppet.


Nadian deliberately adjusted his hood and accepted the ceremonial mace from his valet. The stone entry of his loggia was polished to a high gloss, white as salt, and he could see his own reflection, the dashing figure he cut. He looked plain as a deep-desert nomad, all in black hood with only eyes showing, bloused black tunic and pantaloons, soft boots, the black sash with gold trim and tassels falling past his knee. He didn’t bother to pose with the gold and gemmed short mace in his fist.

I look like a brigand about to lead a howling band waving our weapons over our heads. But I certainly wouldn’t be wearing anything as crass as plain cotton. The silk makes it bearable.

It was his turn to witness the day’s punishments, representing the Emperor. The old fool actually insisted that nobles play that part, rather than letting some lesser officer do it. It was such a throwback to when the nobles were personally responsible for people... Honestly archaic and uncivilized. When I finally find a spell to kill the old man... when I am Emperor... THIS horrible little custom is going off the edge of the canyon. He stood, mace in hand, the heavy head resting in the folded crook of his elbow, just back under the archway enough to be in the shade and out of the vicious wind.

The moa handler brought the white riding beast around to the bottom of the stairs. The golden hood and tassels winked almost blinding bright, glare made worse by the mirrored chips of silvered glass. They shifted all around the restlessly moving head, hanging from pendants and bobbing wires, the best armour in the desert sun. Make it nearly impossible to see the target to strike at it.

The softly flowing feathers fell clean and smooth, the beak clamp and chain in gilded steel, vicious, curving claws gilded to match the saddle over smooth-plucked shoulders. “Chechi looks good, Maki. How many times has she tried to kill you today?”

“She’s gentling right down, Naser. Only a handful of times.”

“Feed her more live meat then, Maki.”

“Very good, Naser.”

It was vile that there were only minor offenses for him to witness and the Emperor, damn his eyes, and his ears, and his mind that should have been failing by now, would hear if he shirked his duty. It meant riding all the way across the bridge from the city to the south rim where the minor cages hung.

The cages of punishment nearest the city, the ones meant for murders and poisoners and traitors, were all empty, their supports arching out gracefully, up overhead and out over the drop like flower stems. Each ugly bud, hanging out over hundreds of  feet of space to the bottom of the canyon, swayed gently at the end of their chains.

They were meant as methods of execution and had no bottoms for the condemned to stand on, only a single bar across the centre. A man in one of those had to balance, or cling. Stripped naked and shaved they could not even have the means to tie themselves to the bars to sleep. The moment he lost consciousness, of course he, or more rarely she, would fall to their deaths.

Nadian thought that was most appropriate, that criminals be forced to kill themselves. The thought that should he be caught he would be in one of them, never crossed his mind. 

Chechi’s slow gait, in the witness procession, was smooth and he was tempted to pull on the reins to open her blinkers more but she would outdistance his honour guard and want to run out into the desert beyond the open Rim Gate.

The cages in the centre had more bars across the bottom, giving the criminals a chance to survive their sentences. And the most cages, ten on each side both the in-bridge and the out-bridge, forty in all, had full bottoms. It was a waste of time, trying to deter, as far as Nadian was concerned. Far better to fling lesser criminals off the edge before their degeneracy could infect more of the lesser classes.

Nadian knew the court records keeper, an amiable enough fellow named Uriken. He nodded as the man made full salaam.

The guards behind presented their raised fists in salute. Now that I could get used to, except for hanging about with sweaty warriors. “So, how many birds do we cage today, Uriken?” Nadian let go the reins, the eye-caps of his moa’s hood snapping shut, stopping it in its tracks.

“Only two, Naser.”

“Ah. Present the first.” For only two he would not bother getting off his bird.

They dragged a younger man forward, already shaved naked. A guard stepped on the chain between the ankles, pushed him over so he fell on his face. “One Akinter Viden condemned thief.” On the rim side a woman knelt, crouched over her children, covering them with her veils. They held their silence to give her husband and their father what honour they could.

As he had to, Nadian asked. “Do you plead mercy or reason?”

“Reason, Naser. I stole food for my wife and children.”

“Myrmidon? Does this man have a family at all?”

“Naser, this man has a wife, four children and another about to be born.” He half turned to indicate the little group kneeling outside the warning lines in the bridgestones.

“And you, man, why could you not work?”

“I was ill, Naser.”

The man was obviously lying and seemed hale enough. “His sentence?”

“Two days, one night.”

Naser raised the mace a fraction. “I witness. Cage him.”
The man made no other sound as the myrmidon on the chair grasped the levers and began peddling the hanging cage in. The whole mechanism rotated around the chair, turning to bring the suspended cage up, and in, and down onto the roadbed. The traffic out of the city waited, patiently behind the swing-line in the stone, watching.

The newly filled cage swivelled up and out and over the gorge. No need to lock it. If the condemned opened the door there was no way to climb out without committing suicide. He sat in a huddled lump of humanity, arms clutched around his knees as it bounced and settled, swaying slightly against the wind. It looked as though he didn’t have many enemies. No one waited to hurl things at him.

The myrmidon locked the mechanism and it sank down into the bridge so the road was again smooth.

“And our second bird?”

The old man brought forth for the cage on the other side, said nothing. His old skin hung in wrinkled folds and there didn’t seem to be any friend or family there for him.

“Corruption of youth, Naser.”

“And the youth he corrupted?”

“Already suspended for a half-day, Naser, and sent to a house of re-education.”


“Mercy or reason? No?” Even if the man had tried to speak, Nadian wouldn’t hear him. He turned to Uriken. “His sentence?”

“A single day as a deterent, Naser.”

“He is a first-time offender? And in regard to his age I suppose.”

“Yes, Naser.”

“I witness. A day for deterrent. I add a night to teach this old lecher more balance toward the light, let the dark teach him as well.”

“Heard and obeyed, Naser.”

Nadian barely stayed for the old man to be cranked out. Men like that made his skin crawl. I need my wife and my zardukara to get the slime of you off me. “Witnessed?” He asked even before the cage was locked in place. The guard raised their fists and he handed the mace off to the Court official. “Finished. Uriken, I ride!” He grabbed the reins hard, snapping the eye-caps open on his moa. It shrieked and charged for the open gate, stubby wings half open, feathers blowing.

Thank the dark that’s over. Very conscious of the picture he presented he rose into a warrior’s half-crouch, bouncing, letting his knees take the shock. People scattered out of the way as the warbird charged out the gate, wheeled away from the road and turned to come back to the in-city gate and bridge. 

He yipped his way through the crowd weaving between shying draft animals and clumps of foot-traffic, barely keeping Chechi’s vicious beak out of people’s spines.

Scatter, you scum. I will one day have power over all of you

Thursday, April 26, 2012

14 - Meeting the Zon

Kyrus went all the way under when the naked teacher woman came strolling in.  White women’s nipples are very very pink instead of galanal nut dark.  And they have freckles.  All over their skins… everywhere… Ilax and her… Elemfias were just talking as if they weren’t both naked in the same tub of water.

“Lad.  You look faint.  Too-hot baths can make you light headed.  Go fetch a glass of water.”

It was the Zon speaking.  He fixed his eyes resolutely on her face.  “Yes, Zon.  But I don’t know where the well is.”

“Ah,” Ilax said.  His naked arm came up out of the water to point.  “Over behind that row of cubbies… before you get to the door of the showers… there’s a basin and a tap you turn to get water.  There should be a cup on a chain there.  Rinse it out when you’re done.”

“Yes… N… Ilax.”

At least I can imagine that the water has made me flush, not that even my backside is blushing. The rock and the wall of wooden cubbies distorted the sound and made their voices wobble and fade and then, when he figured out the tap thing, the pounding of water under pressure was loud enough to drown out everything.  Despite the anxiety he was feeling, he was charmed by how easy it was and had to turn the tap on and off several times just to watch.

The water was cold enough to make his teeth and head ache fiercely for a moment but tasted so clean, so good.  Even if it were melted out of snow it must have been filtered a dozen times to make it taste so good.  The water pumped from the river had time to settle out but still had to be strained through bleach-soaked nearcotton twice before it could be drunk.  If you were lucky enough to own a Raghnall tree you could tap the tree and drink the water filtered through it, instead.  But that was if you were a terrace farmer… or had a water garden in your loggia.

He heard the slosh of the two getting out of the bath.  “Kyrus, you slept in those clothes,” Ilax said.  “Put them in my family bin here.”

“But I can’t go anywhere naked!”  He didn’t manage to keep his voice quite from rising a bit and coughed as if it were phlegm instead of outrage that made him squeak.

“There’s good clothes here for you at the school.  Elemfias has them here.  Sometimes students forget to bring their clean ones.”

“I don’t understand,” was all Kyrus could say when he was handed a stack of Milari felt.

“I’m on laundry this week.  In a city this size we have communal kitchens as I explained about the ceekits.  We also have communal laundries.  Since I have access to the school, I and my family do our laundry with the school, not our section.”

“Do?  You do your own laundry?”

“And for others at the school… students and teachers.  It’s only a few days rotation… I do less when the Unity is sitting.”

“I should hope so,” Kyrus blurted out and Elemfias chuckled.

“Young bee-eater, we don’t see ourselves diminished by working for each other.”

She looked like a human war bird with a beaklike nose and a wide mouth and her stare felt as dangerous as one.  Kyrus didn’t argue.  “I guess then I should do my share of the chores, at the very least,” he said.  He felt very satisfied when both her eyebrows bounced up her forehead.

“Indeed.  Laundry, kitchen, snow… tending the cities working animals… things like that,” Ilax said.  “Sometimes we actually do wood splitting bees, sewing and mending, baby care…”
Kyrus gulped and closed his eyes.  “I’ll hope that no one thinks I’m going to eat their precious babies and drink their blood.”

“No.  Most people have let the war go, really,” Ilax said, but Kyrus caught the look that Elemfias threw him and the way she shook her head.

“Ilax, you’re an idealist,” she said and waved them both out of the tub room now that they were dressed and into her office.

“So, bee-eater,” she said as they all sat down on cushions next to her low desk.  “You are going to feel awful at first,” and Ilax nodded confirmation. “It’s my job to drive you away if I can. If I can discourage you, you are not meant to be a warrior. I hold no favorites, nor scapegoats.”

“Yes, Zon!”  At last something he understood.

“You will be starting with the rest of my beginners and you will be careful of the children, they are half your age.”  One eyebrow went up and she smiled.  “Do you have a problem with being taught with the babies?”

She obviously thought he had pride.  “No, Zon!”


13 - Studies of Anathema

The light in Nadian’s study made the creamy stone glow luminous, the walls still radiating gentle heat even this late at night. Outside, in the desert night, there was the swirl of light snow blowing down in the canyon below and it was most pleasant to have one of the ancient Loggia where one had the view down the river and the pleasant atmosphere provided by curtains of stone, cool at the height of the day and warm in the depths of night.

Nadian delicately lifted another shred of book away from the decaying body the snatchers had delivered. He turned and laid the gossamer, crumbling piece out on the quartz table before turning back to gaze down at the body. Aside from being Dark on the old texts, it was a good thing the Ancients had themselves wrapped in their books or their mandery would be almost impossible to find at all. The body, though desiccated, had decayed before it dried and was barely recognizable as having once been human. There was nothing but a faint moldy, dusty odor. This time he wouldn’t need the clove orange to hold under his nose, though it lay to hand on his desk next the beeswax lamp.

It was also helpful, in finding the texts themselves, which the Manders and Cliners, every one of them, had all had themselves buried in caves along the north rim rather than in the cemeteries along the south road and the edge of the sand.
  Ordinary Hive Lords had no such winding sheets, so were usually just dumped in the canyon as useless, since no one would pay for a body like that.

He looked at the bared teeth, the rime of flesh reduced to a leather flap fallen into the center of the face. The bottom jaw had disappeared long ago. Nadian tightened the bands around his forearms, keeping the cloth away from the corpse. He leaned over and with his tiniest blade, teased away at the last discernible rag of parchment pasted over the chest wall. It fell into three pieces as his knife slid between it and the body, tipping flat onto the palm of his other hand. The bottom edges were ragged where the body had rotted the text away completely, lying on it. He reverently placed it on the table to work with later, carefully laying priceless pieces of desert
glass over the fragments of parchment.

No one knew what had destroyed the ancient school a generation ago. It and the last Deei in Lainz had vanished in a tremendous accident that had taken the highest Loggia, cracked it off its foundation and crumbled it and the school and every last possible teacher into the canyon below. The vast libraries had been the last winding sheets of those Deei and no one – not even the best-paid snatchers -- dared disturb that grave near the base of the south wall. Pity, that.
It was claimed that the pile of rock was haunted and not only could one hear the screams of the Deei but one could still smell the stink of sulfur. It was seen as a judgment of the Light and now only amulet hawkers in the Basin claimed any kind of esoteric powers in Lainz. At least officially.

For himself Nadian was more annoyed, by them destroying themselves, than traumatized. He took it personally that they had all died before he’d been born, much less could be taught by someone other than his own, half-trained father.

The body crumbled together as he gathered the edges of the sheet, folding up the remains into an anonymous bundle as brittle as dead leaves. From his worktables it was only a step or two down to the balcony stretching out over the abyss. As he slid the door open the cold wind slammed inside as though it had been lying in wait for the opportunity, thrusting icy fingers into his clothing and hair, plucking at the sheet.

Nadian liked the wind. It was honest in its ability to kill with cold, its ability to pick you up and hurl you against the stone so far below the way a man would smash a clay pot. A wet clay pot but a pot nonetheless. The wind took his mind off his nervousness. Ripping apart these old bodies didn’t bother him, even though any decent citizen of Lainz would be crying for his Exposure in a bottomless cage if they found out he was desecrating Ancestors. He didn’t much care. After all, none of their vengeful ghosts had ever shown up to haunt him. Perhaps because they weren’t HIS direct ancestors. Or perhaps they left him alone because he was joining various groups of ancestors together on the bottom of the canyon. That particular why was unimportant to him as long as the ghosts left him in peace to pursue his studies.

He stepped to the edge and unfurled the sheet, letting the wind take what it wanted. The crumbly old bits wouldn’t last long enough to hit bottom, blown away as if they had never been. He opened his hands and let the defiled sheet follow. If the wind and the river didn’t take it, then some bottom dweller would be grateful for it. One more layer to keep the heat in, in the bottom of the canyon where ice sat in the cracks all year round. He untied his sleeves and let the wind shake the dust out before retreating back inside the warmed stone walls, sliding the night doors shut in the wind’s face.

The Emperor had kept him dancing attendance on him, all day and would probably want the same tomorrow. As an old man, he no longer slept much and could even call for company in the Dark of the night. He’s like a fussy child, cranky about going to sleep in case he doesn’t wake up again, keeping everyone around him sleepless and completely helpless to hand the infant in question off to a competent wet nurse. 

He paused, hovering over his new batch of fragments. Perhaps he should be looking for a spell to incapacitate the old man rather than kill him. That way he’d be off, locked into a quiet room, crapping into his sheets, being sponged off by nurses and leaving the work of Empire to others.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

12 - The School

The school was set into the brittle, razor sharp mountain rock, and the snow tunnels gave way to open streets and the plaza before the school.  It was the second largest building he’d seen in Milar, though when he thought back through his trek upcountry he’d seen other mounds of buildings in the bigger towns.

This building... the first and the oldest of the famous Milar war-schools... had peaked windows all around top like a half-circle of eyebrows, each one mounded with snow, giving the building a surprised look. On the plains this building could not be built into the mountainside like the original, but the back of it could be plated with sod.

The doorway had its rows of hooks just inside to anchor safety lines should the snow start again in this most volatile of water seasons, before it was all sucked away south.  It was warm inside and Kyrus put up his outerwear where Ilax pointed.

The hallway behind had a row of doors, and as they stepped in, one of those doors burst open, letting out a gout of steam and several children, wet, squealing, shrieking with laughter, apparently in the middle of a water fight.

They have enough water that they can use it so?  I suppose when there’s manheights of snow outside.  Many feet of snow… they have enough.  But… they’re… naked.  Not just face-naked.  Naked naked.  And that person… that… um… Kyrus had to turn his back on the scene.  That person was a woman and was also naked. And wet. And had soap on her all over.  “You rapscallions!  Get in there and get rinsed or you won’t be allowed to come to class tomorrow and tomorrow we are doing first weapons!”

“Sorry, Zon.  Sorry, Zon.”  A chorus of apologies and the lot of them apparently trouped back into the wet room to ‘rinse off’.  Except the woman who, when Kyrus peeked and then covered his face with his hands, still stood in the door holding it just off her body.  “Ilax… and my new student.  Why don't you wait in a tub?”

“Thank you, Elemfias.  We’ll do that.”

“We will?”  Kyrus just couldn’t help the squeak that finished that sentence, as if his voice were just breaking.

“You convinced me to teach you.  Start doing that now.”

“Yes, Zon.”  Kyrus set his teeth and smiled, as practiced as any sex worker in Lainz.  Don’t ever let anyone see what you really feel.   

Ilax led him into and through the great teaching hall.  From inside, the peaked-eye windows showed the Milari mastery of glass by letting in light and keeping heat inside in a ring of clerestory windows. Other narrow, two story windows, placed prudently between stone buttresses allowed an odd, sliced view of the valley and part of the city below even with their bottom thirds obscured by white. It was warm enough inside even though Kyrus had not yet seen a brazier or a fireplace.  How do they keep such a glass-filled room warm?

Below the windows was the round training ring. In the middle a ring of lighter wood marked out a separate space on the palee, smooth wood floor worn to silky softness by generations of bare feet. “The floors will need refinishing soon to knock down the rippling bumps of those knots,” Ilax said. “They wear down slower than the rest of the floor.”

He turned to the stone wall that was actually inside the mountain and opened another purplewood door.  “The weapons and training equipment is stored in those closets there,” he said and unlocked a door that was apparently for adults or teachers only, backing onto the wet room.  At least they’d come all the way around behind.

There were a number of pools and shallow pits dug out of the rock, with water running from the highest and shallowest… and hottest from the bubbling and steam rising out of it… to what looked like cooler and cooler puddles.

“Mind the stairs here… someone dropped a bench and chipped the step, it hasn’t been smoothed yet and it’s razor sharp.”  Ilax stripped off his clothing as he spoke, indicating a set of steps into a middling pool that roiled and the water from higher up made it foam.

Kyrus tried not to swallow his tongue and took his own clothes off.  Ilax stopped him as he did and took him by one shoulder. Kyrus braced himself.  Is this where we talk about payment for all these lessons?  “You never mentioned you’d been in knife fights.”

“How can you tell?”  The scars on his side were faint.  Sand sickness was worst inside, not scarring much on the skin. It had been just after his mother had fallen the worse sick.  He’d run under Stinking Shadow’s boys and had made enough money to keep their rooms in the Basin.  “It was with a Lainz gang.”

“I see.”  Ilax looked at the thin, faint scars.  “They look like stone knives, and if I know anything about Lainz Basin life, coated with toxic sand.”

“Sick sand, yeah.”

“You’re lucky.  And fast.  That’s good.”

“It was dumb luck.”  Kyrus didn’t want to talk about it.  He’d gotten cut up by two Sunfire kids and had been almost as toxic sick as ma.  It gave him some real understanding of her talk of being unhooked from here and now.

Ilax just nodded thoughtfully and waved him into the water and Kyrus sank down into the heat up to his chin.  It was the first time he’d really felt warm all day, since he’d been pried out from behind the stove by the call of breakfast.  And he could pretend he was being modest since he was covered to the chin, but the surface foam just wouldn’t cooperate and kept drifting off to float down to the next pool.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

11 - We're All Mad

“Wake up, Kyrus.  Wake up.  I have news for you.”

It was the Surdeniliarch’s voice and he’d fallen asleep again.  “Mmmmph.” He opened his eyes to discover it was morning, at least it seemed so though the light was dim and lamps were still lit.  He struggled to wake up bright-eye’d and appealing.  It was hard, especially since he seemed to have wedged himself into the space next to the chimney and the cat was curled up on his stomach.  His eyes weren’t completely open but the first words out of his mouth were, “Are you saying yes now?”

Ilax snorted a laugh.  “Persistent.  Yes.  Time for starting the day, kid.”

He managed to untangle himself from the blanket and the cat who stalked off, miffed. He ran a hand through his hair, scrubbed his face with both hands.  “Good morning, Naser.”

“Ilax.  Good morning.  Breakfast is on the table.  The kids brought everything over from the ceekit.  Once I start teaching you, you’ll call me ‘Zon’, that’s the word.  That’s the word you’ll use to Elemfias when I introduce you at the school.  You need to learn some basics before I take over in a year or so.  You’ll need daily training and quite lengthy as well, to get to where you’ll be able to take advantage of what I can teach you.”

“What? Um? What’s a ceekit?  And... Zon?  School? A year or so? I’m confused.”

Ilax grinned at him.  “You wanted to change your life, kid.  You’ve succeeded.”  Kyrus slid out of the niche behind the chimney, flinched at the cold floor on his bare feet, slid into the corner spot on the bench that Kyrus indicated.  The children came clattering out of the back, apparently where their bedrooms where.

Haraklez came in just as elegant as if she’d had a servant to tend her.  How else could a pristine robe and perfectly combed hair waving down to her shoulders, loose, be that perfect.  Kyrus was suddenly very aware of the state of his mouth and his uncombed and... um... “Excuse me, but I need...”

“Ah, yes.  The wc is in the back, right between Miks and Ilia’s bedroom and Haraklez’s.”  Kyrus was impressed with the room actually in the house, though he supposed that going outside in the freezing weather would tend to stop you up a bit, in all senses of the word.  He felt sticky having slept in his clothes, though he would rather have had his toenails pulled out and replaced with quills than get caught sleeping in the nude in Ilax’s house.  If I’d been naked last night that frilly would just have walked in on me like that.  It’s bad enough that their faces are all naked.

Haraklez and Ilax had pulled the table out a bit to let him walk around to the last bench seat, rather than scooting through to his corner.  “There.  Since you’ll be staying with me till I take over as your teacher we’ll shift around to make some accommodations.”

“Thank you, N—“ he caught Ilax’s look.  “Ilax.  How may I pay you for the room and the board and the lessons?”

“We can talk about it later.  You’ve met Haraklez – “ she smiled at him from her chair opposite.  “These two are my youngest.” He indicated the boy “Maksim.”  He ducked his head and made a sketchy minor salaam in the Lainz way.

“Maks!” His sister corrected him.  “Like this!”  And she salaamed.  “I’m Ilimirimian, or you can just call me Ilia.”

Kyrus half rose from his bench and offered his own genuflection.  “I’m Kyrus, of Lainz.” Ilax raised one eyebrow but said nothing until all the plates were filled with the sweet bread slices soaked in cream and tree honey.

“I’ll take you across and introduce you to your teacher.  Her name is Elemfias and she’s a good Zon.  You’ll learn a lot from her.”

“I have to run, Pa,” Haraklez said, stuffing the last of her breakfast in her mouth.  “Or I’ll be late.”

“Certainly, dear.  We can take Maks and Ilia when we go.”

Kyrus just sat in his corner and listened.  It seemed so... homey and so strange.  His siblings had been younger, and there had been less food on the table.  Ma had always been so tired since she lost her zardukar, however unofficial.

No weeping, no yelling, no one getting smacked.  Ma didn’t smack often but she’d smack the table to try and get quiet, so we wouldn’t wake the neighbours.  I don’t hear the neighbours having their daily screaming match or the old guy on the other side of us doing his moan-snores.  There’s no alarms in the distance, or screams from the warbirds on patrol in the Basin during the Dry.  They don’t have to hang on to every drop of water for that hell season, where the sun tries to steal every drop of water in your body and put it out of reach on the moon.

He wiped up the last of the tree syrup with his bread and looked to Ilax.  “Time to go, Naser?”

The look he got, at his use of the honourific made him quail inside but he set his teeth on a pleasant smile.  Ilax shook his head.  “Let’s go.  You asked before what a ceekit is... the communal kitchen for this part of town.  It’s easier to have central ovens and centralized cooking... less wasteful of either gas or fatwood.  Our sun isn’t strong enough to heat food in glass jars and ovens.”

“I see.”

Kyrus followed along as Ilax explained, grateful to have the warm scarf before his face, even if it meant going out into the biting cold.  “No offence meant, Naser,” he gasped as they stepped outside and the wind stuck icy fingers into his clothing, looking for skin to bite.  “You Milari were mad to settle here.”

“Yes,” Ilax smiled.  You could see his face because he wasn’t bundled up like Kyrus was.  “We’re all mad.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

10 - Bee Flies Home

Mariush stopped on the wind threshold of Mother’s Loggia and smiled to herself under triple veiling. Just as she wore the extremely formal second veil, that covered her hair and half way down her back, and the third and final gossamer covering as thin and light as a whisper of wind over her head falling all the way to her feet, to honor her patron and her Mother --- Mother Thriti, knowing she was coming, had ordered the wind screens removed.

Behind her, her escort weren’t concerned, because they had seen this often enough since she had become the Emperor’s First concubine. All the Loggia grew suspended over the canyon like vines, scoured by the wind, the only thing showing they weren’t living, growing things was their imperviousness to that wind.  On either side of the path, carved screens protected guests to keep people from being swept away by the wind, except for the last twenty feet before the door. That was where the permanent safeguards dropped to knee high, unless the servants had set the movable screens. It could be either a compliment, or an insult and Mariush knew that Mother meant it as a compliment to her. She wasn’t going to be forced to drop to hands and knees to approach the front door.

She nodded to her myrmidons and they settled down on the carved stone seats to wait. Then she gathered her veiling firmly into one hand so she wouldn’t be dragged away like a kite, settled her mind and stepped into the form ‘Bee flies Home’. As she set foot onto the polished pink stone she heard the young Emir-al behind her sit up somewhat straighter. He actually didn’t realize he was doing it. A young, attractive man, by the name of Shiadan. She sighed. He was already half in love with her and would never say anything to His Radiance’s First. Mariush shook off the unworthy and distracting thoughts.

Half way along the bridge, she could even slow down to admire the smoky blue light along the depths of the canyon, the river below a shining thread of silver in the greenish-black shadows. And though the wind plucked at her it couldn’t seize hold. In ‘Bee Flies Home', the wind was her friend and companion, not her killer.

The carved wings on either side of the Loggia’s door enfolded her in lace shadows and the door-girl waiting for her, opened the gilded stone panels smoothly. Mariush smiled and nodded at her as she passed, the endless tug of the wind falling to a fitful and desultory fingering of her veils and clothing before reluctantly letting her go.

When she’d been in training, she’d been the door-girl for a year, from Dry to Dry. Once the door closed behind her she knelt down, made the ladies’ salaam, and removed her veils of honor before giving them into the girl’s hands.

Inside, the walls were the garden, with the plants set into rows and rows up the stone, with the biggest and tallest along the bottom rung, the smaller, more trailing plants higher. The girls watering, and pruning, planting new and deadheading the flowers waved at her from their positions like butterflies lighting on the vertical face, bare toes curled around the stone lips of the wall pots. Watering was the hardest training since one climbed the walls either hauling the water up, or passing the smaller containers from girl to girl.

She smiled to herself, remembering when she graduated and found out that there were mist fountains all along the tops of the garden walls that could be turned on with the flip of a lever right by Mother’s door. The school was full of the girl’s laughter, their eyes bright over their playful, beaded veils, daringly showing a bottom lip.

“Mariush!” It was Mother coming out to meet her, leaning on her moa-headed stick. Some of the younger kids thought it was the most original joke when they giggled over the fact that Mother looked a lot like her cane.

“Hello, Mother!” She gave the minor salaam. “I’ve brought you candied orange blossoms.”

“Come in and have some tea.”

Mother Thriti’s inner rooms were actually outer rooms, in the form of an unopened stone blossom suspended over the canyon even further than the bulk of the school. During the day she could have all the windows opened like petals, letting the wind pour through, though they still sat in shade. The outer rooms were empty save for cushions set tight into the floor so they would not get blown away when the windows were open.

In the middle, where the centre of a flower would be, was Mother’s sleeping chamber with walls; entirely carved lace screens, giving the illusion that one could see in.  People believed they could see every portion of the room when in fact the inner face of each ‘hole’ was a mirror chip. The inside was dark and lined with cushions and curtains and soft padded surfaces.

It was on one of the padded filing boxes that the tea-set sat, the elegant swooping lines of the cups and pot fashioned out of Trovian silver. The bee-serving dish held golden skewers of sweet roasted honey’d bees like a flower. Mother sat down, folding her hands in her lap and Mariush knelt down to serve.

In the dimness of Mother’s room her hands flashed pale, a gentle rhythm against the silver. “Mother, who is graduating?”

“Aramina and Ziva, both. Silvish has finished her grieving and is ready to be hearten-wife once again.”

“Ah, her zardukaro died?”

“It is unfortunate. He was very close to the Emperor, my daughter.”

“She developed feelings for him,” Mariush said thoughtfully. “Mother, the Spymaster, speaking to Diryish, said he suspects someone close of being an assassin... attempting to remove the Imperial line.”

Mother snorted, took up her cup and added another crystal of honey. She examined one of the skewers of bees, before pulling one off the rod and crunching it between strong white teeth with relish.

“We sent you to the Emperor because you would please him, my daughter, and because you are no fool.” The irony of a dark Lainzar woman calling a pale Trovian daughter slipped by without either of the women commenting. From the moment Mother had bought her as a six year old and adopted her there had been no question over who held her loyalty.

“It is good that Diryish is a man devoted to Lainz’s welfare.”

“Yes, Mother.”

For a time the two sipped tea and ate bees together in silence, the older woman leaned forward and patted her daughter’s hand. “How long have you suspected?”

There was no confusion on the younger woman’s serene gaze, and only the barest hesitation. “Just this morning, actually, which is why I asked to have tea with you.”

“So if this unknown assassin does not get wind that you carry the Emperor’s child, when will the baby be born?”

“Deep Dry, Mother.”

“I suggest you begin ‘being unfaithful’ so that everyone will think the child is not the Emperor’s.”

Mariush pinched her lips together hard. “I am not happy with that, Mother.”

“It is up to you whether you wish to inform your zardukar of the truth of the child’s parentage. It is unfortunate that many of the Emperor’s daughters had inopportune accidents as well as their children.” It was a pointed comment that she held her own life in her hands as well as her child’s, at least until the unknown assassin was found and stopped. Mariush clenched her hands on top of her silks. “I hear, Mother. I just…” she took a deep breath. “He will be so disappointed in me.”

“I am sure he will survive the experience, daughter.”

“Blessed Light. Blessed Dark.”

“Blessed Both.” Mother’s tone was only faintly ironic as she gave the traditional response. “I am sure there is a young and honorable myrmidon who would be terribly upset with himself for loving you.” Mariush thought of her Emir-al and her cheeks pinked. “Daughter, you have no wish to become ‘The Lady Clothed in Sun’? If your child survived… perhaps even if female… you would be Regent and the most powerful person in the Empire.”

Mariush set her teacup down with a harsh click. “No! I will have to use everything I have just to keep this child alive. I am not a Regent, or a Politician! The hive lords would…” she paused. “They would destroy me.”

“Not with me and your sisters to support you, my daughter. If the Emperor dies in the next five years… and this is likely… You will be in this position.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

9 - A Sleepless Radiance

Diryish sat upright, refusing the lulling too-soft pillows, pulling his silk nightshirt snug around his wrinkled old neck. He’d been in the Hive most of the day.

Here in private chambers all his veils were removed though everyone of lesser stature still went covered. It was late enough he was alone in what would have been darkness, except for the alabaster lamps on the stone posts of his bed. His concubine’s veil fluttered slightly where she’d hung it on the hook, a faint blue and gold salute out of the shadowed red silk depths.

He didn’t seem to do much in the bed nowadays, having aged to the point where sleep was a rare visiting friend and sex more an exercise in cuddling warm young flesh to his withering body than anything else.  I have grown so cynical in the last forty years.

This night he’d worn out his young courtiers, the last of whom he’d sent to bed an hour ago, wrung hollow. He’d tired his masseurs and his current favorite musician, who had left his Unkalo leaning drunkenly against the wall when he’d been dismissed. 

The soft, even breathing of Mariush, his zardukar, was as silken as her exotic blond hair as she slept over on the edge of the bed, snuggled alone, wrapped in a feather quilt. It made him feel protective, even fatherly, considering that he kept her, cherished her, more for her beauty than anything else, the way an art collector cherishes his elegant Trovian Marbles. It was odd that the young, with all their boundless energy during the day faded so quickly in the long depths of the night. Oh, not at first but night after night had them wilting like flowers in the desert Dry sun.

He was tired, but not in a way that sleep would help. He cherished no illusions that even could she fire him to the point of forgetting his age, and engender a child on her, it was unlikely that he would still be alive long enough to see it born. He looked over at the closed door where his secretary had laid out the scrolls of relation, the records of the Imperial line, for his perusal after Ty’s funeral.

The Empire deserved a strong Heir, preferably a man grown. He frowned at the memory of his fine sons, Racinein, then Hakum, both riding off to war and glory, one brought home, crushed and mummified, the other buried in the Trovi desert. Then the elder Tyrian, dying suddenly of the lung-seize fever.  The youngest three, Little Diryish, Raghnall, and Billiph had all died young, their lungs full of stone as well.

Accidents, illness, war, disaster. In the night he counted the role of his dead. The girls – Jeannu, Ciari, and Stetira -- dead in childbed or soon after, despite all the best physicians and the best they could do. He rubbed his hands over his face, now that there was no one to see his weakness. Uncles, Aunts, cousins.  The Dry ate everyone in the end.  It just seemed to be very hard on shareholders now.

He worked his way quietly to the side of the bed to not to disturb her, put his thin feet into embroidered slippers. He tightened the tasseled belt before tucking his leathery, age-spotted hands into his sleeves so he didn’t have to look at them. In his gut, on the good days, he was still the dashing young warrior, with the dangerous eyes, ready to leap onto a warbird and lead his troops into slashing, bloody victory. On his bad days he felt as though, perhaps, he’d missed his own death and was merely sitting in the immobilized corpse, in too much pain for it to be truly dead.

He closed the door softly behind himself and sat down, waiting. A tap on the inlaid door, a servant slipped in with a tray, bearing hot milk. I am an infant again. The Emperor thought, half disgustedly, half compassionately for himself. I used to drink coffee, even this late, and sleep sound after.

“Dukir.” He address the man who’d set the tray down and against all protocol sat down on the cushion opposite as though he were an equal.

“Your Radiance.” His bow was deferential enough. He was a thin, quiet man who could pass for servant in a plain veil, or a Radiant Lord in black lace. The Emperor’s spymaster was losing most of his hair but the mind under the shining scalp was one of the reasons Diriyish was still as solidly on his throne as when he’d appointed the man. He was the fourth who had occupied the position and was, perhaps, one of the best.

I’ve worn out three other spymasters as well as my own flesh and legitimate blood. Now I am forced to the same decision my own ancestor was. Dukir was also old enough that the Emperor felt almost comfortable with him, the closest thing to a friend the Radiance of Lainz could have, especially in the writhing snake-pit of courtiers scraping and maneuvering for every scrap of power they could accrue to themselves.

“What word, old man?” The Emperor asked, smiling over the heated milk that he held but didn’t yet raise to his lips. Spiced brandy had, certainly against the advice of the Enlightened doctor, been quietly added. Water Blessings on you.

The spymaster snorted. “Old man, indeed.” He filled a cup for himself and raised an eyebrow. “You are my elder brother in all things but blood.”

“Indeed. My compliments to the apothecary.”

“This apothecary would have preferred mulled wine but that would have been too easy to scent.” They shared a,  secret smile and sipped together, for an instant merely two old men sitting together on their cushions. It was an indulgence the Emperor seldom had and had only Dukir to offer him that particular gift.

The spymaster set his cup down with a sigh. “Radiance, none but one of your bastard sons had children of their own, as you know. But Riyish Talain, your old friend…married well and though he died before the last war with the Milar and his eldest son died in that campaign, there is a possibility that he may have had a child or children; only rumors and one or two of those speak of girls.”

“Riyish always was a good friend. And he did his duty by his Empire and his friends. And I made certain that the marriage went well, especially once my own Father went down to the Dark.” One bastard line that only two people knew of, all of the other principals being dead. It wasn’t enough to give any true relief. Less like a wadi in the desert and more like a darker patch in the sand hinting at a hope of moisture below. It could yet be a frenzied hallucination brought on by a dying man’s desperation. Diryish let out his breath with a puff of lip. But before he could say anything, Dukir… still thoughtfully sipping his spiced milk broke in.

“One thing I have noticed, Radiance.” He rubbed one hand on his veiled cheek. “Not only is your own line peculiarly prone to dying young… so are your known bastards. And all their male children.”

“Ah. Not just the usual accidents of a warrior house?”
Dukir’s eyes were bleak in their nest of wrinkles. “No. But with your permission I will look into it.”

“Yes. Personally, I think.”

“Of course, Radiance. But I have very good investigators following up on your potential Heirs.”

“I’ll leave it in your hands. At the moment I will not begin any kind of scorpion hunt in my own court yet. That would be premature.” A snort of laughter from the spymaster.

“Yes, Radiance.” He rose and bowed himself out at the Emperor’s dismissing wave, taking the tray with him.

As the door closed behind him softly, Diriyish set his empty cup down, staring blankly across the piles of scrolls delineating the Pollus clan lines. He was angry that the pattern hadn’t become apparent until now, until after little Tyrian’s death. Until after the deaths of all his children and grandchildren, but there was no one to focus his rage on. Not yet. He had to leave the searching up to Dukir and trust that he would flush out the assassin.

Creaking, he rose and blew out the lamp in the office, before drawing his robe off, dropping it by the side of the bed for a servant to pick up in the morning. He pulled the feather quilt softly away from Mariush; gazing down at her smooth, calm features. Some day she would realize the marks of her life on that glowing face but for now it showed nothing but smooth, alabaster skin.

He laid his brown old hand on the pillow next to her face, enjoying the contrast, watching the quiver of her pale, pale lashes against her cheeks as she, in the depths of sleep became aware of his gaze. When those luminous eyes, the color of the Dry season sky, opened and blinked in bleary surprise to see him so close. He smiled at her as he waited for her mind to come back out of the country of sleep.

She stretched and smiled back. “Radiance, you like seeing me all mussed like this?”

“It is the best place to see any woman, not the worst, whatever they believe.” He leaned closer and laid his thin, cool lips against hers. He might be old. He wasn’t dead yet. 

She started giggling as he began to tickle her out of her feather nest. While he no longer had the physical stamina of a young man he certainly had technique to compensate, rising out of long years of diligent study. With her help, they’d both get some sleep. After.