Friday, June 29, 2012

56 - Hive Defended, Jashi Feeling Very Grown Up

Insect hive invaders are not stung. The voiceless quiver, the cry of ‘defend the nest’ sent on currents of air and hair too thin to see, galvanized the whole hive. Diryish sat up as thousands of bees shrieked into his bedchamber to defend the royal cell.

They flung themselves on the much bigger spider, clinging to legs and abdomen and head and stinger, while it struggled to hang onto the mattress, fought to squash itself between two layers of padding, trying to scrape bees off itself, kicking and flailing its legs to fling bees off its body.


“You know you can’t see weeks away. Even as the crows fly,” Werfas snorted. “And you came from there on your own two feet so know how far away that really is.”

“Yeah, well. You can imagine it though, can’t you?”

“I think so,” Haraklez said. Werfas just snorted into his teacup.

“Both of you are touched. Just bonkers.”

“And you’re a stodgy boy who cannot see past the end of his nose,” Haraklez said tartly, but without any sting. The words were smooth worn with speaking; an argument that she and Werfas had had for years before Kyrus ever came.

The spring was far enough advanced that the short grasses had begun to grow, the thumbnail-sized starflowers barely taller than a finger, towering over their shorter, slower-growing brethren. They could just see the tops of the Ancestor stones below them, safely within the baffles. Kyrus assuaged his conscience by telling himself they were only a little way out on the unprotected mountainside. And there was no snow above them, so no danger that he could see.

“So how’re these new lessons working out?” Haraklez demanded. “Da says we’re not to badger you about it but he’s working with you as much as he can, his work permitting, up here. And it’s having an amazing effect on your extra lessons with Elemfias.”

“They’re... wonderful. They’re amazing but I can’t tell you about them, really. You know, they say every warrior finds his own path?”

“But there are similar paths that warriors can follow,” Werfas said. “I mean you’re learning something new practically every day now and passing it on, just by example.”

“Even doing the warrior mandery,” Haraklez said. “You’re able to almost manifest your own sword now. And you’re good even with an iron bar messing you up. If you can fight in an iron suit, or with steel in your hands, then you can fight anywhere.”

“You Milari,” Kyrus said. “You have to make it so hard, right at the start.” He had to smile at how badly he’d felt sparring his father when he’d insisted they both wear some of his old armour. He’d gone back to feeling like a tigerbear on ice skates, at least at first.

Below there came a whistle... Jashi had tried to learn some of the whistles from Kyrus but he sounded more like a demented colony of marmots rather than a deep desert riding warrior.

“Werfas, did you tell him we were sneaking out here?” Haraklez sounded cranky. “He’ll tell everyone and get us in trouble.”

“Oh, Ancestors Unsleeping!” Werfas scrambled up to look and see if he could see the little boy. “I didn’t tell him,” he glanced back at Kyrus and Haraklez. “Honestly.”

“We know,” Kyrus answered. “Call him up before he lets everyone under Sunlight and over Earthdark know where we are.”

Da will already know, if he heard Jas whistling for me. But he’ll be all right with it, I’m sure. He certainly didn’t warn me against going up mountain or outside the baffles. Werfas yelled and Jashi, carrying his own tea jug, though not with the alcoholic addition the teenagers were sneaking, with Tizzie undulating along behind him, came running up to join his heroes. Haraklez rolled her eyes as did Werfas. Kyrus just sighed. “Hey, Jashi, you found us. Good tracking, have a seat.”


For every bee the mal-spider flung off, or bit or stung, or ripped to pieces, there were hundreds more to replace the fallen one and the spider, smothered in a ball of workers and drones, claws unable to hold the weight tore loose. The whole mass of bees, with the spider subsumed in the middle, thudded to the rug below.

Diryish reached to light a candle, set it in the sconce, not moving from the centre of his bed, watching, bees covering his bedclothes and his hands and head as if to put their bodies between the threat and him. The ball of bees was now almost as big across as a person’s head, the violent twitching of the spider buried inside reduced to ripples in the organic mass smothering it.


Nadian, at his worktable, fell forward, head hitting his forearms with a crack, struggling to breathe. He managed to open his jaw against enormous pressure, as if he were crushed, buried under the city’s weight of sand. He spat out the pooled blood onto the table, onto the picture under his arms, turning the image of the spider into a sodden smear of blood and ink.

As the image dissolved, the link dissolved, he drew a ragged breath and sat up, shaking. What in all the EnDarkened world was that? It was as though the Emperor had something enormous enough to crush a jewelled spider in one blow. He’d never seen any kind of sign of such a creature in the bedchambers and could hardly go rushing to the Sunrise Loggia now.

He might be venal, but he certainly was not stupid enough to do that. He loosened his collar, and cuffs, wiped streams of sweat from his face. When had the heat gone up so much in here? The cold night air should still have been pressing in around the shutters and it was just so hot. His silk shirt and trousers were soaked through with sweat and his hair hung in messy, sodden tendrils, dripping. What happened? I obviously ran afoul of the Emperor’s protections but I have no idea what they are and I thought, if I did not succeed in my dear ambition I would at least find out what they were!

But the link with things like the spider had never been good for him. He could not see through the insects’ eyes, or hear through them. It was like trying to control a horse or a moa through ten-foot long rods, blindfolded, ear-muffled, trying to figure out the beast’s reactions through the quiver through the hands, which had gloves on as well. He stripped his disgusting clothing off, moving like an old man, the inside of his lip raw. I must not be impatient. Time is on my side. I’m the logical choice for the old man to choose as his successor. There is no one else.

He considered waking Shashi to calm him. Sex always settled his mind. But she would wonder at him chasing after her after days of her chasing him and him gently pushing her away. He was trying too much too soon. Too fast. Impatience will kill you, boy. Slow and steady will get you what you want. Let the flashy ones burn out and die. He could almost hear his grandfather’s measured words.

That was enough to settle his racing heart. He bundled his fouled clothing into the bin for the slave. I need to sleep. That will be enough.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

55 - A Swarm of Topaz and Onyx

In Milar, the rains had been falling steadily, washing the mountains of snow away down to Lainz. The thin biomass and soil had thawed and then soaked up every drop of rain it could hold, poor sponge that it was, a slick film of clay over sharp-edged volcanic rock.

The rain filled the soil and trickled around the loose scree mixed into the clay that was rapidly becoming slurry. And then the rain stopped, the sun drying out the top layer, making it seem as solid as it ever was, a smiling mountain face, glowing warm up at the clear blue sky. Below the surface there was nowhere for the water to go and it sat between the clay particles, putting a slick layer of lubricant between each tiny grain.


Nadian, sat, still bleeding gently from his lip, the iron/salt/oil slick puddling just under his tongue. He waited, growing more and more impatient. What is taking so long?


Under the pressure of his impatience, the mal-spider shifted, crawled out along the edges of the ornate table. It was not a direct line to the bed but there was a screen close by, that threw a long shadow in the right direction.

It stopped at the corner, its pearl head swivelling to scan for bees. Apparently chilled down again, they were still as if soldered onto the tips of the Immutable’s crown. The spider crawled down slowly then made the tiny leap at the bottom into the deeper shadow of the screen, diamond feet hitting the tile with an eightfold click and froze once more.

The sound was enough. The bees rose again. A few more flew in, circled the bed room. A single bee landed on the vanity table, its feet tasting the jewel box. A second joined it and the two began buzzing around one another in a zizzing circle. Then a third. And a fourth. A fifth hovered over the knot of dancing, seething bees and the hum rose to a higher pitch; high enough to make teeth start to quiver in the mouth.

Suddenly the vanity table was covered with a glittering mass of yellow and black bees, a swarm of moving topaz and onyx. The spider darted along the shadow of the screen straight toward the bed, a stream of bees following after it as thunder follows the lightning, screaming a buzzing threat, other bees pouring in to thicken the wave.

The stream of bees hit the mal-spider, knocking it off its target, tumbling it, losing bits of gemstones as it clattered against the tile and smacked against the trailing bedskirt. The bees rippled under the bed after it, surging, but hummed in confusion. Where was the spider?

It lay still under the heavy puddle of silk, waiting as miniscule diamond claws wiggled across the tile to re-join it, then stealthily set its forelegs on the trailing bedclothes. 

Gently, softly, it pulled itself up the bed while bees blundered underneath, sensors all but blind. But bees live in dim or dark in the hive and live by touch, the faintest quiver of a neighbour, the wiggle of the queen across risers. The spider had just dug claws into the mattress when the workers found it.


“The view from up here is fantastic,” Haraklez said, holding out her cup for Werfas to re-fill. He obliged with a pour of hot liquid from the flask and with a solid glug from a little jug as well.

“But you’re too good a girl to ever disobey and you’ve never been up this far past the baffles.”

“They’re old. People keep rebuilding them but we haven’t had an avalanche in years. The snow just never builds up that deep anymore,” Haraklez said. She leaned back on her blanket, sipping her tea.

Kyrus leaned on one elbow. “So it’s an old rule that nobody’s bothered to get rid of?”

“I suppose,” Werfas said. “My folks still think I’m not supposed to come out here.”

“I wrote my mother about this view,” Kyrus said thoughtfully. 

“And that we came up here sometimes.” The three were stretched out on their blankets in the lee of a rock outcropping jutting out of the mountain, straight up over their heads, using the sun-warmed rock as a warm shelter from the wind that blew constantly so high. “You can almost imagine, if it cleared a little more, that you could almost see straight to the Lainz border from here.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

54 - I'm Doing Okay, Ma

Dear Ma,

I thought I should write you and let you know how I am doing. If your eyes are bothering you and you have trouble reading this letter I’m certain Yasna Kivrush will be able to read it to you.

I have two warriors who are my main teachers... my ‘Zon’ and they say I am doing well. The one’s name is the surdeniliarch Ilax and the other – mama you’ll think it’s funny but his name is mine... he’s named after da too...

I am carefully tending da’s grave, every day since I am here, and my one teacher insists that I continue school other than war-school, so I am learning Nadumarian and Rumon both, on top of better Milar.

Werfas is becoming my wing-brother... sort of, because we’re truly not old enough to swear that oath but he’s already stopped me doing a couple of rash things. There are some of the students at the Sword Hall who are good to be with and when I have some time we have tea together on the mountain.

Ma, you know how the world opens up when you sit on the edge of the canyon? When you can look away down the river so far below you feel like a bird and then away away down the valley? The mountain is like that, but instead of white and red and black edged in sun, it’s green and soft and full of water. Water everywhere instead of confined to stone walls, with white plumes of dust blowing off the tops to sift down to its brown and wrinkled surface.

The mountains are like a green blanket, rucked up as if there were a whole family of giants sleeping under them. You can almost see the outline of an arm, or a shoulder, where the founders blasted the spikes of tsingy down and made these valleys. When the light hits it just right it’s a woman. 

You can see the sparkles of the water falling from the sky sometimes even in the daylight.  Ilax says that one day we will have seas that stay in place all year instead of swap from north to south.  Once we have enough water from the moon.

I finally believe it.  In the desert it's hard to imagine.  It seems impossible there.  Here it's like the water and the green are spreading, slowly, burying the white sand, and locking it down away from where it can hurt people.

Sometimes I imagine the mountains as if they were the sea. I’ve never seen the sea, at the pole.  But I suppose we see it all as it heads south in the rains and then north again in the fall. But people describe both that place and the white desert like a sea.

I’m sitting on the Viltaria ancestor stones to write this, and a ferret – an offering left here -- is playing around my feet. No my knees. No, my shoulders... my head... my feet again... you know how they move. Very funny.

Ma, I’m eating really well... not to worry... there’s a place here with a cook by the name of Brakayus -- and yes, he’s a Lainz/Milar citizen -- who cooks a lot of good Lainz food and and I’ve grown a full handspan and not one with fingers closed, either! My one Zon tells me I’m going to be as tall or taller than da was, if I keep growing like this.

I’m probably going to be here in Milar for at least another year, maybe two, before I can take my white-staff. It’s not the end of warrior training, not really but it’s the most obvious mark of mastery.

I hope you are well and happy, Mama. Two years isn’t so long. I’ll be home and be able to apply to be a ‘feather-spitter’ and buy us a little loggia all our own. Maybe I’ll be able to afford to marry soon and get started on making you a grandma. Haraklez, the surdeniliarch’s daughter – a nice girl, ma, you’d like her – she says she thinks I will be a ‘catch’ one day. These Milari, they are so blunt.

Oh, the Nadumar ambassador is coming in to Viltaria... I can see the parade from here. Did you know they have these feather monstrosities of birds that are even bigger than war-birds? But they’re not meat eaters. Each one can carry two men, ma, a driver and a passenger trying not to look like he’s about to slide off the bird’s bum.

Ma, I’m not explaining well, but everything is going just perfectly. Better than I could’ve imagined or dreamed before I left Lainz the city.

I cannot imagine anything that could disturb my life and I’m really glad of it! When life is good it should stay that way!
I need to go. All my love under Light and Dark.

Your son,


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

53 - A Stable in the Rain

The Amir Isfahsalar -- at least on the surface -- sat on an upturned bucket, listening to the birds hiss and moan and complain, even as they scratched and picked comfortably at their bedding. They sounded much like enormous chickens and the image made him smile. It was raining still. Very much like the last time he’d been in Milar in the Emperor’s train.

At the end of that war, it had been an interesting trip, seeing as the old spymaster had been killed in that plot against the Emperor. Dukir… Isfahsalar, for now… had been promoted to Master of Secrets on the spot. Just being here was bringing back interesting memories.

Like the taste of wine, instead of kivi, on a lover’s lips. The sound of rain on the broad leaves of the trees, so different from the sound of rain on stone and sand. He shook himself. It’s a sign of age, old man, reminiscing like that. You have to pay attention to what is going on now. Keeping our young Emir-al safe for Mariush. Finding the Heir for your friend – the far from Immutable – his lip curled a little at the old joke. Keep your mind straight and straight truths will follow.

He looked down at the last letter from his daughter and smiled. The girl was so good at what she did. So like her mother, Light and Dark hold her safe. He cracked open the seal just as the Emir-as showed up. He kicked another empty feeding bucket over beside his ‘Amir’ and sat down next to him.

“Naser,” Dukir acknowledged him. Technically he was on duty but the Emir-al had insisted that no one could be on duty twenty-nine hours in the day, so he didn’t leap to his feet. Shiadan might yet learn sense as an officer.

“Amir.” With his hair slicked back and his face un-veiled – policy since the last war – he looked very young. “You’ve been here before.”

“This inn, nah. The country? Yes, Naser. ‘Bout the end of the last war. As I said, I’s a junior man then.” Junior to whom, he did not say. “Honoured, I was, ta bein’ in His Radiance’s escort, I was.” He tucked his daughter’s letter back into an inner pocket of his field tunic for later.

“Did it rain like this then?”

“We were later in the season, Naser. ‘T spring rains ease up.”

“I never thought I’d get tired of rain.”

“’s why ‘t court does ‘rain watchin’, Naser… You know. By ‘t time the Basin’s full and ‘t city’s pretending it’s water rich…” It was part of the whole cycle of life in Lainz. Desert brutality most of the year with water pumped drop by precious drop up from the river below, but for a few moons the Basin was filled by the spring rains, the reservoirs on the rim. That was when water was not only merely cheap but a force to be reckoned with, even feared.

That was when the floating rooms in the Basin were uninhabitable, pressed up tight against the bottom of the city, in the dark.  It was only when the water level fell that people moved in again and those little bubbles settled onto their stilts once more.  Once, as a young man under Emir-al Sufish’s command, he’d almost been caught by a miscreant he’d been stalking and been forced to find a pocket of air pressed up under the rock of the city.  It had been ironic then thinking he might drown in the desert.

“’ser, we get higher in these hills and the whole thing… everything’s so green ‘talmost hurts. Gets tah you.” He thumped himself in the chest. “… here. Like you have to remember every mornin’, oh yeah that green. Kinda like flowerin’.  Home planet green. Birds’ll quit moanin’ and start fishin’ in every ditch, turnin’ over every rock if ye let ‘em. By ‘t time we get up high… they’ll be fat, ‘n happiest war-birds around, ready ta kill anythin’ that moves.”

“Wonderful, Amir. Just what we need in a peaceful trek. I inquired at the inn here.” This close to the border there were actually inns for strangers, especially since the trade agreements had re-built this whole area. Lainz weren’t seen much as interlopers here, more as new customers. Emir-al Raghnall had been able to make his inquiries in Lainz, even.
“They did see the boy, and warned me that further inland there’s some people unwilling to let the war go.”

“So they saw him. Did they say anything about him?”

“The name matches. Just Kyrus, no last name. Polite. Well spoken. Didn’t get involved in a bar fight that happened the same night he was here… nothing to do with him. Signed the book, paid his bill. The innwives said they remembered he was heading to Viltaria itself. They gave him the same warning, they’re sure they did.” He looked satisfied. “So we’ve not got to trace him from little village to little village but can go straight there.”

“Ah, Naser,” Dukir said. “We might could check along ‘t route. Make sure he din’t fall foul o’ some of those… war-rememberers.”

“An excellent plan, Isfahsalar! I thought you should know.” He got up in a way that Dukir remembered from when he, himself, was young. No joints cracking, even in the damp and the rain. “I’ll leave you to read your letter. I have several to write myself.”

Shaidan’s bird, His Radiance's Lesser Number Fourteen, feathers mottled green and yellow, clashed its beak across the wire mesh as he walked by. He reached over to the feeding bucket and grabbed a metre long meal-worm, held it for the bird. Fourteen turned its head to him, unblinking eye brought down to where the worm squirmed, suspended in his fingers. The leather tongue thrust through the mesh.

Its beak was only allowed enough play for it to eat, not rip the stalls apart, so it tossed its head back and gulped down its treat whole.

The once a week letters to your parents. Dukir thought to himself. Along with the letter you write every other day to Mariush. It took her a panicky long while to persuade you to love her. That one treason seems to be all you are willing to do against your Emperor. Good man. He watched Shaidan out the door. The little fact he was willing to feed his own bird treats, not seeing that as beneath him, like some, he added to his growing assessment of the young officer.

Monday, June 25, 2012

52 - Spider Versus Drones

In the hive on the Emperor’s balcony the hive hummed. The bees sang to themselves and danced and drowsily fanned their wings to keep the hive warm and humid in the frigid desert night, black and yellow topaz bodies glimmering as they moved gently in the moonlight shining into the nest, turning its cold silver light golden, caught in memories of sun and flowers.

A drone on the outer lip of the hive, still as every cold bee, shifted in the chill wind on the one side of its body, prism eyes small rainbows as it moved, clicking one leg up over its head to clear and clean the eye on one side, then the other. Its crystal clear wings quivered once, twice.

In the Emperor’s bedroom, the mal-spider sank down and then sprang as if the metal legs were sprung wire and landed with a thump on the silken rug under the dressing table. It glittered forward smoothly as if on wheels, emerald eye-cluster aimed at the Emperor’s trailing bedclothes, venom glistening greasily in stinger and fangs.

As the spider hit the floor, the quiet hum of the hive rose to a disturbed roar. The single drone, moving where it would normally have been still, jumped into flight, wings quivering as it zipped into the air. Hundreds of its fellows followed, clicking and whirring. Zooming in through the opening from the balcony, they circled the Emperor’s rooms, rainbow eyes pulling in information, light and shadow, glass wings whirring.

The spider crouched in the shadow where it had frozen at the first sound of the bees, pressed tight to an ornate table leg, head tilting as it tracked first one, then ten, then struggled to follow a hundred bees in flight. A dozen bees settled into the silken curtains around the Emperor, who stirred, rolled over again, his sleep disturbed but not yet broken.

The hive’s hum rumbled, a low, boiling sound. The spider crawled on its glass-furred belly up the table leg on the inside, in the deep shadow.

For a time everything grew still again, save for Diryish’s occasional snore, the hive slowly settling, the mal-spider crouching still as a non-living thing underneath the table top, wedged into the joint where the table-leg was cross-braced, glittering faintly in the dark. The drones and workers all through the bedchambers settled and grew still in cornices and curtains and on the edges of unlit stone sconces.