In distant Sa’bahr, divinely inspired lunatics spend their lives inscribing every story ever told upon the backs of giant tortoises. The tortoises spend their lives weeping, for they cannot read the wondrous tales written upon their own backs. Here among grandmother’s tales and drunken boasts, teaching legends and fabulous lies is at least one true tale. I know, for it is my own.
Some say that Serzhen has no gods, for it is barren, and desert, and forsaken by goodness. Those same people are apt to scorn seeds for not being flowers and eggs for not being birds. Are there no gods here? In the Time of Rains do trees bow under wreaths and heaps of flowers that can be dried and eaten as candy, do all the sedge and fields paint themselves a floral masterpiece to shame the sky, do the young women of the Qabdi anoint their bodies in oil, thence to roll in flowers and walk forth clad in beauty. Are there no gods here? Sap flows down resinous trees, which children scrape into balls and sell as incense. The wisest man in the world whispers outlandish secrets and draws us into wonder tales as only he can. At festival time, the old apothecary hurls packets of fire powder until the whole sky seethes with sparks and flame.
But these dangerous truths we keep to ourselves. The devil, in his mischief, sprinkles small truths upon the tongues of those who think themselves wise. How can we deceive the deceiver? We tell our tales, and they are lies. We sing our songs, and they beguile. Let our larger neighbors see a barren land, never knowing the fruitfulness that subtlety and persistence can bring forth. Let their leaders see the nomadic tribes of the Qabdi, who pitch their tents under desert skies, and assume we are the same. Let them dismiss us as fools and liars, unsuited for conquest. What is not valuable is not coveted, and Serzhen’s lie has been a finer shield than any army.
Until now. There on the back of a tortoise is written the story of Serzhen, and its occupation by the missionaries of Majra—glorious Majra, populous and fertile, whose armies could wash over Serzhen like the sea but choose not because, after all, it is harsh, and a desert, and a place without gods. Therein lie tales of honey-drenched bandits and swordless Sheyks, smirking ghosts and the oddly terrifying benevolence of a kindly old sage—as well a cheat so grand it could save a city or be its doom.
So it is told, and so it must be…
* * *
The morning dawned hot and clear. It would be months until the Time of Rains: Though irrigated fields still flushed green, the rest of the land could only wait—scrubland turning tan and rust, trees shedding thick tears of amber. Father and Sheyk Sindba, my grandfather, walked together, discussing nothing of consequence. I walked a step behind, as was proper, and did not speak. It was compliment enough I’d been invited to this meeting, a meeting of men, and one where politics were likely to be committed. No good could come of overstepping my bounds, so I watched, and listened, and remained silent.
Father—how can I describe him? His back permanently stooped, just a little. His hands and nails always grimed no matter how he washes them. A rumpled little field-tender with distracted eyes and an amiable gaze, or so it surely seems. But have you seen him kneeling before his flowers—selecting, considering, evaluating cross after cross as he gradually brings his roses to perfection? His roses do not speak, yet, nor fly about in the air dropping presents on happy children. He has wrought no miracles. He is not a Shandiki, merely a master of his art. And it is an expensive art. Father knows roses well. He knows money, and people, less well. He does not see why we must beg for patronage. He does not see that we may starve if Sar Efrem chooses to withhold his generosity. Or, more properly, since every artist knows that coins are but a transitory dream whose only purpose is to convert completed art into the capability to create more art, let it be said that I found myself contemplating the transitory dream of slowly and artistically starving to death. My father’s eyes were filled with the beauty of roses.
Fields gave way to houses as we reached the city of Durbansq, but no one seemed to be getting inside. White-uniformed men of Majra blocked the road, talking to each person who wanted to pass. Field-tenders with their produce, crafters with their goods, travelers returning from Salabasq all waited in a confused knot as the missionaries conducted their inexplicable rituals. Several groups of Serzhi laborers, including some of my own neighbors and friends, worked under Majeri supervision to stack white-painted stones into the beginnings of a wall.
“All hail the inestimable wisdom of Majra!” Sheyk Sindba rasped. “They wrap us in walls to make us free; prohibit tales so we can learn; tax us dry to ensure our wealth. Pray they’ll outlaw brains so we can all be wise.”
“It won’t take long,” Father said complacently.
Sindba snorted. “Yes, it doesn’t take long to collar a dog, does it?”
“Let them bless us with new laws, if it makes them happy. We’ll be past soon enough, and then… well, what they can’t see, they can’t be offended by, yes?”
Sindba watched the proceedings with hawklike eyes, fingers idly tapping the hilt of his sword. “But do we deserve so many blessings?” he asked. “Perhaps we should prove our humility—deny ourselves the pleasure of obeying the Majeri. That wall’s not half finished. Let’s go around.”
“It won’t take long,” Father repeated.
Sindba shook his head and went over to some men with furtive eyes and hidden hands. When he came back, he was eating a mango. All commerce is controlled and taxed, the Majeri assure us, and there is no black market. I’m sure it must be so. Doubtless Sindba was as surprised as anyone when the sheer inherent mango-ness of a certain part of the universe coalesced unexpectedly around the force of his desire.
I watched my grandfather pace. My mother’s father the Sheyk Sindba, steeped in the four Admirable Traits of generosity, justice, mercy, and warcraft, had for thirty years led his tribe across the Qabdi desert as judge and father and king combined. Well did I remember the visits of that imposing figure—thin, bony, angular; a dark smiling face and a moustache the color of coffee. A man who suffered no fools but played games as long as I wished, who always had stories of brigands and treasures, who always gave more than he stole. Then his tribe wandered south, and for many years I didn’t see him at all. A month ago he’d suddenly appeared, without a word of explanation, and come to live with us. A changed man, or a man no longer colored by a child’s eye? The former Sheyk seemed irritable and impatient, sardonic, dismissive. And so I avoided him. Was I intimidated? Fearful? Desperate to preserve my childhood memories? It matters not. Even in that tiny house, I found ways to avoid him. Much to my shame.
The line moved slowly. Some of my fellow Serzhi passed through: Others, looking both furious and ashamed, were turned away. The man barring the gate didn’t look like a clerk. He was dressed too well, and carried too much authority in his eyes. A random spot-check, then. I glanced at my grandfather, a bit worried about how he might react. When the Majeri came, there was talk of fighting them, seas of talk, week-long debates over various stories and legends that might advise our actions. At some indefinable point, it became too late. The occupation was bloodless. They assigned us passbooks, set down rules and taxes, and got to work civilizing us. It’s all for the good of us poor filthy liars. So say the Majeri, and who but a fool would distrust their intentions?
“Passbook?” the man said.
“And a good day to you, too.” Father awkwardly fumbled in his pockets. “My name, some say, is—”
“Your passbook will tell me your name,” the man said. “Present it. Now.”
“Yes, yes,” Father blinked, “and a pleasure to meet you, ah…”
The man gazed impassively at my father. “My name,” he said, “is not essential to this transaction, and you are wasting my time. Your passbook. Now.”
Grandfather smiled humorlessly, studying the signatures on various forms piled next to the Majeri.
“Dhrevos Scarb,” he read. “Appropriate. An ugly name for an ugly…”
“Here we are!” Father gasped, finally finding the document. Scarb flipped it open and took it in at a glance, his eyes coming alight with something dangerous.
“You’ve attended no lessons, made no effort to improve yourself. Ignorance can be excused—but clinging to ignorance cannot. This seller’s stamp was granted you for free, I see, because you could not afford to pay.”
Father looked away. Our friends and neighbors, waiting just behind, suddenly found the clouds immensely fascinating. Scarb pulled a tiny book on a golden chain from his pocket, snapped it open, and read. “‘Poverty is a symptom of wrong thoughts and wrong values. All charity must strive to correct those faults or it is no gift at all.’“
Father rubbed the back of his neck, looking at the ground. I can only assume that everyone else had spontaneously fallen into a standing sleep, for not one of our neighbors witnessed his humiliation. None except Dhrevos Scarb—and Sheyk Sindba, who glared at Father with burning eyes that dared him to be a man.
“I will, ah, surely consider… many great wisdoms in your words… many benefits, I’m sure…”
“Over the past months, Majra has seen where being lax gets us—namely, nowhere,” Scarb said, drawing a slim blade and using it to snap the wax seal from Father’s passbook. “If you refuse to improve yourself, at least you can serve as an example. You are prohibited from selling. You are prohibited from buying. Back your noble words with nobler actions and I may reconsider.”
He handed the passbook back to Father. Father hardly had the presence of mind to take it, his hand trembling. Sheyk Sindba walked forward, eyes gleaming, long dark fingers stroking the hilt of his sword. A weapon fit for a leader of men, that blade, forged by the Sword Genius himself from finest Dhajaputra steel. A Qabdi weapon for a Qabdi man, since few Serzhi carry such things.
“And what would you ask of me?” he said.
Scarb barely glanced at the old man. “You may pass,” he said.
“Are you sure?” Sindba said courteously. “Have you no truths for me? Perhaps I should throw water in your face. You suffer a curious astigmatism, my friend, that sees a dog where stands a man. Apologize to my daughter’s husband.”
“Sindba!” Father hissed. Dhrevos Scarb stared in frank amazement. He raised his hand as if to summon guards, then thought better of it.
“Go,” he said. “Go while I still allow it.”
“But I would breathe the air of truth,” Sheyk Sindba said, “and roll in my mouth the spittle of wisdom, and sneeze from my nose the mighty phlegm of righteousness! Fool that I am, I show the open hand when I come in peace. Majra, glorious Majra, speaks of peace while showing the sword. Perhaps I should emulate Majra’s perfect truth,” he said, touching the hilt of his sword. “Perhaps I should prove how peaceful I am by stabbing at you while trying very hard to almost miss.”
A strong hand clapped down on my shoulder. I yelped, spinning, and found myself staring at a Majeri so broad-chested and thick-limbed he must be a marvel at wrestling magic wish-giving baboons if my knowledge of wonder tales is at all accurate. He started walking, herding me off to one side. I didn’t want to leave Father and Sindba, but I didn’t have enough nerve to defy the Majeri, either. I went with him.
“No, don’t flinch, I’m not here to lecture you,” he rumbled in a deep, amused voice. “We’re taught, ‘Placing truths before a savage, he cannot help but see their rightness and agree.’ Maybe so—but only if he trusts you enough to open his eyes! My own view’s a little different. ‘Befriend a man, and his curiosity will do all the work for you.’ I am Doctor Salaal.”
“Some call me Aris,” I replied, “but they are very disreputable and should not be trusted.”
We stopped in a broad, dusty alley not far from the gate. I craned my neck. Father and Sindba were still talking to Dhrevos Scarb, but at least I didn’t hear shouting. If my grandfather spitted three men on his sword at once, presumably they’d be selfless enough to delight one and all by gasping their lives out in mellifluous harmony. Until I heard that music, perhaps I was safe.
“Let me see your passbook.”
I handed it over: Doctor Salaal flipped through it, eyebrows rising slightly.
“You have your letters. You have your numbers. Good, good. You’re a bright young man, Aris. Just the sort I need.”
“To be a doctor?” I said, startled.
“What? No! I tend to people when I can, of course, but the need for truth-finders was greater. I’ve been… reassigned… for the moment. But enough of that. Imagine yourself preaching the truth, dragging your hidebound, self-injuring elders into the glorious light…” He looked over my passbook with canny eyes. “…but what’s this—no stamps? How many classes have you attended?”
I looked away.
“Aris—” He pinned me with a piercing gaze. “You have taken classes, haven’t you?”
“I would never deny it.”
“All things are possible,” I mumbled.
“Aris.” His eyes, though grave, were not hard. My chin lifted slightly.
“I’ve attended hundreds of times, and the proof is, my passbook is blank,” I said. “I love truth so much, I always wash off the stamp of attendance. How could I stand being barred entry if my education were considered complete? How could I forgo this compulsory betterment of myself?”
“No classes?” Salaal said wryly. “How do you know we’re wrong if you won’t even listen?”
“Those who aren’t allowed to speak are disinclined to listen—I could say—but I won’t, as it would be quite too immodest for the spectacular humbleness for which I intend to become famous.”
Doctor Salaal started to chuckle, caught himself, and turned it into a cough. “Don’t you see, that’s exactly what I’m talking about! Here you are, clever as can be—”
I ducked my head, embarrassed.
“—and your gifts are wasted, squandered on lies and deception. Imagine what you could do if your potential was realized, your talents unleashed in the service of good!”
“Truly it is amazing,” I said dubiously.
“Please, Aris, let me help you. Our measures may seem harsh, but that’s because you haven’t learned enough to see the good we’re doing. It hurts to pull a tooth—but what relief once it’s gone!”
“That rather depends on whether there was anything wrong with the tooth,” I said delicately.
Salaal touched my messenger’s pouch, his smile knowing. “Still doing the work of children, Aris—and at your age?”
I looked away, unable to meet his eye.
“In Majra, boys four years younger would be starting their careers. We need you, Aris. We need your—”
A hoarse voice rose into a shout. My grandfather’s. My head jerked up, and Doctor Salaal sighed.
“—but perhaps this isn’t the time,” he said, giving back my passbook. “When you’re ready, come to our compound. I’d like to offer you a job. Take it or not—you’ll be paid just for listening!”
I ran back to the gate, unsure what to make of Doctor Salaal. In tales, villains generally declare themselves by boiling children in pots and laughing at the misery of butterflies. Only rarely are they reported as being patient and kind. It’s a little hard on the storytellers. How are we to enthrall future generations with the gripping tale of Doctor Salaal and the Many Shades of Grey?
“NO!” Father shouted. Grandfather reached for his sword. Someone screamed. Dhrevos Scarb dove for cover. But Sindba fumbled, struggling to undo the bindings. The guards were on him in an instant. One grabbed him by the shoulders, and the other merely seized the wrist of his sword arm. The old man struggled to draw, face dark with fury, but couldn’t overcome the younger man’s strength. Startled by how quickly and easily the fight had ended, the soldier let out a bark of laughter. Stormclouds filled the old man’s eyes, but still he could not break free.
“Take him,” Scarb said, sounding bored. “Either his relatives will take classes and pay taxes enough to stand ransom for his deeds, or he’ll make a fine example for a very long time. Confiscate the sword: I’m sure we can find a use for—” He stopped as a guard took the weapon from the struggling Sheyk and began to draw it, revealing the crazed rings and whorls of Dhajaputra steel. “Tainted,” he said, lip curling. “They can’t even make steel plain and bright, honest and true! Leave it. I said leave it! It’s not fit for any man.”
The guard shrugged and let the half-sheathed blade clatter to the ground. Two soldiers dragged Grandfather away. Scarb moved on to the next person in line. My father seemed paralyzed. I darted forward and retrieved the fallen sword. Numbly, we turned our backs on the city.
One of the men with furtive eyes and hidden hands beckoned to us. He led us this way and that, dodging patrols and following a route so complex that only a smuggler could have remembered it. In a surprisingly short time, we’d bypassed the checkpoint entirely and found ourselves in the city proper.
Our guide stopped, waiting for us. I didn’t know him, but from the many scars on his bald head, he could only be Candle-Of-Truth Hameen. Though he calls himself an artist, he’s notorious for extracting donations from people’s pouches when they aren’t looking.
“I give you this for free,” said Hameen, “but there is more you might buy, yes?”
“Buy?” Father asked, still shaken.
“You cannot sell. You cannot buy. Unless—” Documents bloomed in his swarthy hands. “Never would I defy our wonderful friends, the Majeri. Yet men do strike their heads on rocks and forget their identity. It happens. Shouldn’t you be prepared? Shouldn’t you buy a surplus identity, just in case you someday strike your head on a rock and find yourself in need? Perhaps today your name is Jymuda Jalabar. Perhaps you will buy this passbook, and this stamp, and—”
Father held up his coin pouch and shook it, eliciting a forlorn rattle. Hameen looked crestfallen.
“Another time, then.”
“Take care. If the Majeri catch you—”
Hameen shrugged. “I am small. I am nothing. The men of wealth and power, the great ones, they make noise enough to be heard. No one ever notices the squeaking of rats, for it is quiet, and we are everywhere.”
Hameen left us. Father beckoned over a messenger-girl and had me write out a note for Mother. We’d keep our meeting with Sar Efrem—such a rare opportunity, such an imposing man, how could we not?—but immediately afterward, we’d ransom her father from the Majeri… if we could. I stared at the paper for a long time, wishing I could think of words spry enough to mask the simple brutality of what had happened. Once the girl dashed off with her message, I looked at Father, feeling like I had to say something, to express some of what I was feeling.
“In distant Saithan,” I said, “where the murderous greed of treacherous lords— where rivers and seas of blood—”
The words choked off in my throat. And now a new shame: One of the few opportunities I’d had to speak with him about something truly important, and I could not.
“We’d better go,” he said quietly.
* * *
Market Street in Durbansq is a place as vibrant, as varied as any place I’ve been or ever will be. I force myself to stop sometimes, to clear my thoughts and look at it anew. Few enough things of wonder are given us. The man who has lost his awe through familiarity and spares no time to find it again, perhaps will not notice when other parts of him become unimportant and slip away also.
Buildings stand two or three stories on either side, individual and eccentric, painted with children’s murals or the warm gentle colors of dreams. The road is a canyon, the people its river. Sellers croon of rice and saffron, salt and dates. Old women sit on their blankets rattling coral and carnelian, musk and ambergris, and offer the same stories their grandmothers told them of how these came to be and how they acquired their special powers. The scents of curry and spices, incense and overripe fruit dance on the breeze, while music and tales and sellers’ chants clash into accidental harmonies, fragments of bright swift beauty that can never occur again. Children run, laughing, and drag little kites past men who groan and roll again to win it all back. See acrobats contort, hear storytellers hold forth, try to understand the ramblings of holy fools as they rattle their begging bowls. Hope a veiled dancer will dance just for you—a flimsy lie, that veil, but how much more enticing to let her remain a mystery—and hope her little sister doesn’t follow selling paper flowers “for your lady” as the dancer gazes longingly at you. The man who could refuse them both I do not want to meet.
Father and I walked quickly down Market street, acknowledging friends but not stopping. Three times we crossed low lines of white-painted stone where walls and gates might soon be built. Sensitized, perhaps, by Grandfather’s capture, I saw things I hadn’t noticed before. Too many stalls stood empty. Had more merchants been denied their seller’s stamps—or barred from the city entirely? The haggling, always florid to begin with, had an additional edge as buyer and seller proposed, accepted, and executed secret deals, concerned more with deceiving the tax-collector than the devil. Some of the shadier sorts were absent, although—in deference to the perfect truth of Majra—they surely couldn’t have gone to join the bustling black market. There must be a more reasonable explanation. Perhaps they all drank tainted sura and turned yellow, then ran screaming from the bees that mistook them for flowers and lovingly pollinated them until flowers burst gouting from every orifice, whereupon a passing djinni mistook them for bouquets and abducted them all to give to his love. That certainly seems plausible.
Sweat prickled my brow as the sun approached its zenith. In Durbansq, as in any city, the sun at its highest glares down upon empty streets; any who are not addled or wish to become so must take to the nearest porch, their own or their neighbor’s, to rest and sup until the heat is less. This midday we would meet with Sar Efrem to beg his support for Father’s roses, and it wouldn’t do to be late. Then—just as Thieves’ Hill came into sight, just as our timely arrival was all but assured—the tastiest trap in Durbansq snapped shut upon us.
“Hai!” cried an appealing voice. “Mighty hero-champion-wizard-thief! I outriddled a thousand djinn the size of mountains this morning—you have to see what I won! Your eyes will bloom into lizards to spite your face if you deny them the sight of these amazing treasures!”
The widow Essaffah has one of the widest and most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen, and she uses it often: Some say water did not used to sparkle until Essaffah laughed and delighted bathing in it. She sells dried honey spice-cakes, the best in Durbansq, and very few Serzhi escape her without lightened pouches. Father stopped, pretending utter disinterest in her goods. Essaffah grinned at me and I stared helplessly at the ground, blushing just a little and pretending I didn’t have the same crush on her as all the other boys.
“And what treasures, exactly, did you win from them?” Father asked.
“Just a few mere cakes,” she said modestly, “which grant long life, incredible virility, and the ability to fly. You must buy one!”
Father reached for his pouch. I didn’t want to leave her so soon, and so—blushing even more—put my hand on his arm.
“On the contrary,” I ventured. “What shameful thieves we’d be, denying you such wonders! Keep the cakes for yourself. We insist.”
“Ah, young hero-prince,” she cried, eyes coming alight, “I’m sick of them! I’ve lived so long, I’ve already outlasted three universes (the last one was upside-down). I’ve flown so high, usually without meaning to, that I keep waking up with moon-shaped bruises on my back! And I’m so virile that—” She paused. “Well, perhaps we don’t need to discuss that part. Please, I beg you, relieve me of this burden!”
“Very well,” I said, “how much will you pay us to divest you of these horrible, damaging treats?”
“You must have this cake!” Essaffah admonished me. “This morning a djinni appeared to me in a cloud of smokeless flame and bought a cake; and he was so impressed, he declared that I would fall madly, passionately in love with the first person who ate one!”
My ears bright red, I turned to father. He handed me a small, clipped coin. “Two, please,” I said. She handed them over. I took a bite, daring to look into her dancing eyes.
“…and so, of course, I made sure I was the first person to eat one!”
“Of course,” I said ruefully, giving the other to Father.
Essaffah leaned forward, her voice falling to a husky whisper, her demeanor turned instantly from business to gossip.
“Not that I would pry—never!—but I overheard certain indiscreet birds wondering how a Sheyk’s sword ended up alone in your hand…?”
“That—” Father shook his head. “That is a story I am not ready to tell. The Majeri—”
Essaffah winced in sympathy. “For all the gods clamoring to fill the world with wonders, sometimes I think there is a devil.”
At the mention of the devil, Father drew a fancy shape in the air, and so did I. The actual symbol against evil, of course, is made with the toes. So we deceive the deceiver. Essaffah looked like she was getting the urge to sell us more cakes, so we hurried off. Pleasurable as our defeat and enslavement had been, we’d lost more than enough time.
The way became steeper as we resumed our trek, switchbacking up the side of Thieves’ Hill. The road was paved, now, and the buildings sparser as we entered the realm of the supremely wealthy. Somewhere out of sight, I knew, teams of oxen labored to turn great wheels and draw water up from the irrigation channels. There were many trees here, and numerous well-tended gardens balancing the requisite elements of water, wood and stone. The lower houses looked like what they were—the pretensions of half-rich men desperate to look like a Sar. Here was a house like a forest of minarets, there a replica of the famous palace at Kaidra, further on a bizarre conglomeration of domes and buttresses. Higher—much higher—the estates simply were. No pretensions were needed at that level.
Father and I paused as we neared our destination, reluctant to approach that imposing manor with its expensive gardens and exquisitely groomed beds of stone. There is something in a man that hesitates to place his fate in the hands of another and wait to be judged worthy. Nonetheless, we knew it was time to go in.
Midday was upon us, and Sar Efrem was waiting.
* * *
A greying servant woman met us at the door. Just before I stepped inside, I almost thought I saw a cluster of young women studying me from an upper window, but I may have imagined it. “Girls that are interested in me”, like nacreous serpents and rice-grain-sized elephants, fall into the category of “creatures that I’m certain exist and someday hope to meet”.
The entry hall was huge and circular with stairways winding around both sides to the second level, all of it roiled-cream white accented with turquoise. I started to sit on a bench, assuming we’d have to wait, but the servant kept going. Father and I exchanged glances and followed. We passed through a second room, a third, a fourth… I stared at my surroundings in growing amazement, wondering why anyone would build a house so big or what they could do with it all. Everything we passed glowed with simple, expensive quality. I didn’t see any piles of gold lying about—they were probably buried in secret pits revealed only by mystic poems and moonlit maps—but Sar Efrem’s other treasures more than made up for it. The walls were murals, the floors mosaics, the wooden beams carved into remarkably detailed scenes out of legend. Everywhere I looked, his patronage of the arts was evident. In the eighth room we entered, claiming the sole place of honor among a constellation of paintings and sculptures, jewels and glassware, stood a simple case containing the Sar’s greatest treasure.
It was a piece of naan, thin flat bread bubbling with bumps and furrowed by creases. Spices colored it, painting a wild landscape across which flew peacocks and birds-of-paradise and parrots so riotously colorful they brought tears to my eyes. The bumps and creases didn’t detract in the slightest—in fact, the artist had anticipated them, used them, making his birds so real I almost expected them to burst from the bread and fly away. And the colors! Here was the rosy warmth of sunset, the steely blue of clouds aching to give birth to rain, the green blush of fields having received that rain and returned their devotion of life. I could see why the naan had not been eaten, for surely anyone who experienced such perfection must immediately be assumed bodily into heaven.
“Efrem does not understand art,” Father mused.
“So it seems,” I agreed, amused. “This is quite the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
“No—” Father shook his head. “Forgive me, I spoke plainly. Efrem does not understand. The naan was to be eaten. Imagine the anxiety, the anticipation, the reverence toward something so fragile that must so soon end. Shandiki Bhakir imbued it with the tragedy of life itself. Yet here, forgotten, it becomes merely an object to be hoarded like any other.”
“Yet I’m glad it’s here.”
The servant led us on, but I remained pensive. Each town has a Shandiki, or wants one—an artist so deeply obsessed with his craft that life and art become one and his works, years though they take to fashion, are true miracles. Not far south, a Shandiki weaver creates amazing story-tapestries whose successive layers of dye wear off over time and so allow scene after scene to be revealed in which characters love, fight, and grow old together. To the west lives a Shandiki swordsmith whose blades sing different songs as they pass through the air. Shandiki Bhakir is our own, having devoted his life to crafting food marvels and thereby assured his sainthood, and this is what Father aspires to. Sometimes I wonder if it will ever be so. Roses are capricious, and fate even more so. Certainly he never intended to catch the eye of a Sheyk’s daughter while trekking the Qabdi in search of exotic desert flowers. Certainly he never intended to have a child other than the plants he struggles to nurture. He has made sacrifices. His roses are only a trifle redder than others, a trifle lovelier. With a wealthy patron, he says, he could do anything. Until then, he can only tend his fields and hope Mother finds ways to sell even more flowers than she already does.
“Wait here,” the servant said, leaving us in one of the “smaller” rooms—which is to say, only a little bigger than our house. Father immediately lost himself studying a painting with a few indistinct maybe-roses tucked away in a corner. I settled into a chair. Everything around me was so fascinating, it might have been quicker deciding what not to look at.
Movement caught my eye. In the room across the hall, an arm was waving. Just an arm—the rest of the body was hidden. Then again, maybe it really was just an arm. You never know when a doctor will accidentally do an amputation backwards, leaving the person dead and the arm alive. A servant walked down the hall, oblivious: The arm jerked back and disappeared. After a pause, it came back, this time dangling a coin pouch and jingling it enticingly. A second hand appeared and beckoned to me. The hands were small, but I didn’t think they were a child’s. Perhaps one of the girls I thought I’d seen earlier?
The grey-haired woman returned, followed my gaze, and spotted the gesticulating extremities. “Oh, not this again,” she swore, and strode grimly into the next room. I, of course, take a dim view of eavesdropping and wouldn’t dream of listening in. Sadly, my ears are of far lesser moral character.
“…can’t believe, after I specifically told you… when your father hears about… catch you sneaking out one more time…!”
There was more, but I couldn’t make it out no matter how hard my shockingly wayward ears forced me to listen. The servant finally came back, regaining her composure through sheer force of will.
“He will see you now.”
She led us to yet another doorway, this one blocked by a silk screen painted with sportive garuda birds. The servant woman nodded to Father. He took a deep breath, then clapped his hands twice.
“O esteemed master of earthly beasts and mortal men,” he called, “I find myself trapped outside, this storm of storms raining upon my head. I bid you, let me enter before I am washed away.”
“Who are you that asks me thus?”
“I am and am not the Rose Master of Durbansq.”
“And your companions?”
Father hesitated. “The rain, it washed Sheyk Sindba away. He could not be with us.”
“A pity. Now: Come you as supplicant, to beg and cheat and steal my wealth?”
“Never, eternal master. My roses turn to gold. I am twice as rich as you. I come to tell stories and hear them, and to bring blessings upon your house.”
“Then come in, my friend, and wait out this storm of storms.”
The servant led us inside. The audience room had its share of rich tapestries and complex story-carpets, but Sar Efrem was the only thing I saw. He reclined on a fine couch, impressive in bulk, imposing in his absolute confidence. Here was a man who had inherited a fortune and built it into ten fortunes: He was no fool. His eyes took in everything—appraising, judging, calculating. A man could be made to feel like a worm under those eyes, certain he had been weighed and found wanting. Certainly Sheyk Sindba, with his dark flashing eyes and dangerous smile, could have met the Sar as an equal. Looking at Father, I suffered the unworthy thought that Sar Efrem was as far beyond him as the moon is beyond the moths who love her. I could only hope I was wrong—or that the Sar was in a generous mood.
Father took a chair facing Efrem and accepted a cup from the servant—not tea, as I would have expected, but exuding a rich scent of coffee. I sat on the floor at Father’s feet.
“You’re looking well,” Sar Efrem offered. “Too well. A man might mistake himself for a corpse in comparison to your radiant healthfulness.”
“Ah, but you’re quite a beautiful corpse,” Father said, and then paused. “That is… everyone else would kill themselves, if that were so, to be more like you. And your family? They’re well?”
Efrem grimaced. “Too well. I’ve thought about dipping my daughters in gold and turning them into nice obedient statues, but my wife objects for some reason. Now,” he said, “I fear I must beg forgiveness. As your host, I would like nothing more than to delight you with one wonder after another, but my winged elephants flew away (who knew?) and I have nothing left to discuss but despicable, lowly business.”
“I regret that I cannot forgive you,” Father said, “for no offense has taken place. I myself have greatly enjoyed the last six hours of our conversation.”
“I am overjoyed to hear it. Let us begin.”
Father sipped his coffee and frowned, gazing into the air.
“Truly, Durbansq is blessed by the miraculous person of Shandiki Bhakir,” he said meditatively, “but still, why should we have only one Shandiki, when cities half our size boast two? How can we risk having none at all, should anything happen to him? Consider distant Padresh: When a camel there grew as high as a mountain, the Sultan ordered all other camels slaughtered for a feast in its honor. Sadly, camel tandoori seemed to disagree with the beast and it died, leaving Padresh with no camels at all. So it is told…”
“And so it must be,” Sar Efrem said. He sipped his own coffee, considering. “I’m sure it is so, for I met a man who had seen it. ‘I will be the Camel Genius!’ he cried. ‘I will be the Shandiki of Camels!’“ Efrem paused wryly. “I gave him a great deal of money so he could perfect his art. He spoke of the wondrous camels he would breed, with eleven humps or eighteen legs or the ability to sing such sweet songs that birds, in their wonderment, would forget how to fly and come walk beside us. Perhaps someone should have told him that ivory, metal, stone, bread—these things are worthy of Genius, but camels are an inappropriate medium of artistic expression. I never saw my money again. Perhaps when you are the Shandiki of Roses, you will find it for me.”
“An inappropriate medium?” Father choked. “Certainly you must— Ah, I mean, of course it is true.” He moved the coffee to his lips, mechanically. “But there is, there is something else you should consider.”
“I am dying to hear it,” Sar Efrem said, shifting his considerable bulk on the couch, “so unless you wish to be counted a murderer, please do continue.”
“Few Shandiki survive by their own means,” Father said, “so certainly a new one cannot arise without support. In distant Sa’bahr, we all know of the wondrous tortoises on whose backs all stories are written. Can we not agree that the tortoise justifies its own existence—that its very presence in the world has enriched us all? Yet it takes years to inscribe such tales on a single tortoise, and such creatures can never be sold. Should the inscribers then be encouraged to starve, their wondrous craft lost forever?”
“Surely not,” Efrem mused. “Indeed, inscribing such tales is the highest of arts. Curiously, just one island away in Ma’bahr there live tortoises who are born with stories already inscribed upon their backs, stories which are inherent and the work of no man. I understand there are men in Ma’bahr who place pairs of tortoises next to each other during the breeding season, and when the young are hatched take credit for the tales that are found therein. If those men were encouraged to starve, the tortoises would go on being tortoises, and the world and its art would go on being much the same. Wouldn’t you agree, O breeder of roses?”
“I’m sure it… is… but…” Father shook his head, face reddening. “How can you… if you would just come to the fields and see… balancing number of petals against size against density and rows and layers and which asymmetric offset most conveys the… where color becomes colors by blush or streak or shading, petals full curving or slashing to points, back-curling blooms or in-grasping and tell me how to choose and balance each of a hundred traits to perfection, except by art…!”
Sar Efrem sighed—not pleased, not victorious, merely distracted. “Perhaps the weather has improved and our stories are done,” he suggested.
“No—no!—there will be one more.”
“As you will.”
Father paused, brows contracting. “Very well,” he said, sitting stiffly on the edge of his chair. I watched his face, striving to find some cause for hope. “You must surely admit,” he said, “that generosity is in all men a virtue. In distant Jiriya, it is told, a certain man claimed he could capture the moon in a bottle and by its rays make anything beautiful. Others laughed at him, and allowed him and his family to grow thin. Many years later, they had reason to question whether they had been good neighbors. And now—no one knows if the moon can be caught in a bottle, because no one has ever tried.”
“The weather is quite clear,” Sar Efrem said softly. “I do thank you for coming to share your stories.”
Father shook his head in mute protest, but Efrem rang a chime to summon his servant back. There was nothing we could do but follow her to a porch where we could wait out the rest of midday’s heat.
Just like that, it was over.
* * *
The idiot Djeha loved drink above all else, but no matter how much grain he sold the brewer, no matter how much water he hauled, he never seemed to get much sura in return. One day, a great storm came and drowned all the fields for miles. The other townsfolk wailed and tore their hair, but Djeha only smiled placidly at the floodwaters. ‘Why don’t you weep?’ they cried, ‘don’t you see your crops have drowned?’ ‘I do indeed!’ Djeha said heartily, ‘and ah!, how much I’ve paid other men to combine water and grain for me!’
There can be value, I think, in acting the fool. Father and I were shown to one of Sar Efrem’s lesser porches, an intimate niche that was open at the sides, pleasantly breezy, and green-swarded as a porch should be. The support columns were wreathed in climbing roses, and Father was instantly lost in contemplation of how these variants differed from his later crosses. Seeing his utter absorption, his simple pleasure in practicing his art, I couldn’t help but admire him. Some might think him a fool for smiling placidly as the floodwaters rose, but… when nothing else can be done, what use is it to wail and weep? Taking Father as an example, I sought to overcome my sense of defeat, to channel anger into artistry. Mostly, I daydreamed about covering Efrem in spices and letting curry-hungry children poke him with spoons until he begged for mercy.
“Aris,” Father said, looking back from his roses. “You should… you might…” He hesitated, and I understood. Father is a man to whom the multifold speech of tales and lies does not always come easily. “Forgive my unadorned words,” he finally said, “but think on this—how Mara Sul-Efrem and your mother have become friends, how often they meet, how many years it took to cultivate such a unique breed of relationship. Sar Efrem will consider anything twice, they tell me, to be sure he hasn’t been rash. We can arrange a second meeting, perhaps in just a few days. We still have a chance—” He smiled. “—so perhaps we should not despair, yes?”
“Ah,” I admitted, and said no more. But in my mind, saffron-stained tears streaked a blubbering Efrem’s cheeks as the Great Poking With Spoons continued.
Not long afterward, a servant girl hurried out to our porch, glancing cautiously to either side. She was perhaps a few years younger than myself, a slight little thing with canny eyes and a habitual smirk, all but lost inside a robe too large for her.
“Esteemed friends,” she said, belatedly thinking to bow to us. “Dayib… that is, Dayib Al-Efrem, son of the Sar—humbly though he admits his incompetence to properly entertain guests, or don his own clothing without extensive written instructions, or even breathe at times without a servant pressing on his chest and calling him a good boy— Dayib has requested that the esteemed… ah, the esteemed son of our esteemed guest, whatever his name may be, should join him for the remainder of midday.”
“You can go, Aris,” Father said placidly, counting the petals on a rose. He sniffed it, trying to fill the passages of his head with its scent. Seeking a new perspective, he suddenly engulfed the bloom in his mouth and simply stood there, the stem trailing from his lips as a slightly moon-eyed expression drifted across his face.
“Ahhh,” I said, embarrassed. The servant girl smirked again, but I refused to rise to her wordless impudence. “Dayib has nine or ten years, yes?” I mused. “And he’s the lone, spoiled son of a Sar, with all that implies? I’d love nothing more,” I confessed, “but sadly, I fell ill this morning and have been sporadically dying throughout the day. Please do send my regrets.”
“Gmma mmrr…” Father said, then paused—looking startled—and remembered to extract the bloom from his mouth. The servant girl chortled, and I resisted the urge to bury my face in my hands. “Go see Dayib,” Father said. “Best to maintain such relations as we can, yes?”
“The wind murmurs, I hear nothing else. Many thanks, Aris.”
Grumbling, I allowed the girl to lead me back into the manor. “Such a generous man, Sar Efrem,” I noted. “Breaking my rest so I might be made to see his son. I thought he’d given us nothing, but no—he’s giving us orders.”
“Shh!” the girl hushed me. She peered around a corner, then scurried down the hall, impatiently waving me on. I broke into a jog and followed, feeling increasingly put upon.
“I’ve changed my mind,” I muttered. “I just died again, I can’t go.”
She fixed me with a piercing gaze. “If you’re dead, how are you still moving?”
“Carrion beetles. They’re jerking me around like a puppet. Surely you admit I can’t be blamed for what they do. Beetles, it turns out, have a curious predilection for spanking the sons of Sars.”
“I think I’d like to see that.” The girl pressed herself flat against the wall, edging cautiously past a window. I stared at her, beginning to wonder. Her overlarge clothing, her imperious manner…
The girl hissed to get my attention, then dashed up a flight of stairs. After a moment’s hesitation, I followed.
“I think you’d better tell me what—”
“Shhh! We’re almost there!”
With ill grace I allowed the annoying little rodent-girl to lead me. She came to a door and knocked. Taking a deep breath, I braced myself to the necessary unpleasantness of meeting Sar Efrem’s son. Then the door opened, and I found myself face to face with the most beautiful girl I think the world has ever known.
Let it never be said that the pain of life goes unbalanced by its marvels. It isn’t until the hero has been brought low that he happens upon vast treasure caves or stumbles into a harem of oh-so-willing nubiles. And if a quick, furtive dash through Sar Efrem’s manor is not quite comparable to raiding vast subterranean treasure caves, and if a collection of five or six more-or-less attractive Sar’s daughters is not quite comparable to a harem, some allowances must be made. After all: One man sees a cloud and says, “that is a cloud”. Another sees a cloud and says, “that is a mighty flock of pearls migrating to their summer shells”. Which has had the richer day?
And aside from that. They had Her.
Lustrous, gorgeous, perfect skin. Eyes shining obsidian, full lips pursed in a small frown. Waist-length hair, black, full. A face to make poets weep at their inadequacy, a figure to make men speak the otherwise ludicrous wish they’d been born into the world as garments. Some things, you need not question.
“You brought him here?” the Vision of Limitless Perfection demanded, lip curling. “Eyla, what if father catches us now?”
Eyla grinned, shedding her plain servant’s robe to reveal a passably rich garment underneath. “This is better. No misunderstandings.”
“Ah…” I ventured. I might even have added a second syllable, but then they all looked at me. I, of course, was even then a suave and experienced traveler of the world, so lest you get the impression I was intimidated by so many girls, let me assure you that a very tiny djinni had just conjured my tongue to a far-away land as a final favor to a dying, tongueless old man. It returned tasting of sura and loved ones’ tears.
“Oh, come on,” Eyla said, grabbing my burnouse and pulling me into the room. One of the others shut the door. Sweat broke out on my brow—but then I caught a sidelong glimpse of the Vision of Visions in all her divine radiance, tapping her foot and scowling impatiently.
“Perhaps, if we were properly introduced…?” I ventured.
Eyla looked me up and down with a gaze disturbingly similar to her father’s. “I’m still Eyla,” she said caustically. “And I’m sure you care that these are Sudha, Dhira, Varema, and Aya.”
“And then we have Sayyad. No, no, keep gawking. Years from now, when your eyes finally fall out from the strain, we’ll build a life-size statue labeled, ‘he died as he lived’. It’ll only be embarrassing to your family. Well, and human beings.”
I smiled and bowed to Sayyad, who rolled her eyes in what I must assume was a delighted swoon.
“Hey! Up here!” Eyla snapped her fingers under my nose, a sheaf of papers in her hand. “See these debt vouchers? You’re a messenger, yes? You’ll take these and buy what we want. Oh, and don’t tell anyone,” she said breezily, “especially not Daddy. He hates being bothered with trivial things. Bring the goods directly to us.”
I straightened up. “A word of advice,” I told her. “It’s rather impressive you’ve managed to be annoying AND presumptuous in less than a dozen words. Don’t over-extend yourself trying to be a murderer, too. I don’t steal from Sars.” I shuddered. “There tend to be… consequences.”
“Steal?!” she cried, outraged. “How dare you accuse me!”
“If those are legitimate, why did you sneak around and lie to get me up here?”
“Because it’s fun!”
“And if your father really wrote those, why were they signed, apparently, by an arthritic ape with three missing fingers?”
“Told you!” Dhira hissed.
“Smarter than he looks,” Eyla muttered. “All right. The debt vouchers are fake. But we’re not really stealing. We’re… borrowing against our future inheritance! Daddy’ll never notice a few dodgy signatures, we’ll never get caught… and there’s a fat profit in it for you! What could go wrong?!”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Last I looked, there wasn’t a hole in my head where used to be a brain. I will not, ah…” I caught sight of Sayyad and stumbled over my words.
“Oh, fine,” Eyla sighed. “Sayyad, you’re going to have to seduce him.”
I smiled nervously. The sisters ooohed and aaahed, and glorious Sayyad turned a shade of red which immediately became very special to me.
“He can stay in the stable with the other animals as far as I care!” she snapped.
“Ooh, naughty!” Eyla grinned. “Should I fetch you a saddle before you go down there?”
The sisters whooped. Sayyad made a grab for her sister, but Eyla cackled and danced just out of reach. “What’s the matter, Sayyad? Can’t find your spurs?”
“Someone will hear!” one of the others—Sudha?—said in a worried tone. “Come on, let’s figure out what we’re going to buy!”
The sisters huddled together, hashing out their hypothetical plunder. I glanced longingly at the door. I didn’t want any part of this, but I couldn’t just leave. What if Sar Efrem caught me sneaking out of his daughters’ room? I couldn’t even think about it. My spine wasn’t long enough to hold that many chills. I’d have to wait until someone was willing to lead me out.
I studied my surroundings. In yet another display of transcendent opulence, what I’d taken to be a room for all the daughters turned out to belong to just one of them. Off in a corner, apart from her sisters’ merry larceny, a fevered little girl sat in bed and walked her toy animals back and forth in a sort of bored stupor—
Perfect Sayyad snorted, instantly catching my attention. “Not this again! A fever’s cured by time, not some white-clad lunatic reciting laws at it!”
“And why should Aya have to hurt for a week?” Eyla demanded, drawing herself up to her full insignificant height. “Gatma’s philter isn’t working. The Majeri doctor said—”
“They’d say anything to get us on a leash!” Sayyad said, her lovely eyes flashing. “Bark and obey, bitch, or do you have the strength to stand on your own two feet!”
Eyla hissed. Sayyad cringed back—
“Wait, wait!” I cried, for who wouldn’t come to the defense of Beauty itself, especially when rescued maidens (according to seven out of eight wonder tales) tend to have delightfully intimate ways of expressing their gratitude? Eyla paused, startled by the interruption, and I nerved myself to continue. “I mean, it’s clear enough that Sayyad has the right of it…”
“Is that so?” Eyla bristled, stalking toward me. “What wit! What wisdom! I prostrate myself in hopes that your personal radiance doesn’t burn me to a blackened cinder! All hail Gaja Aris, graced with the holy talent of discerning right and wrong when he’s not even listening—because,” she said fiercely, stabbing a finger into my chest, “I know you’re not the kind of mind-rotted obsequious little dogbastard who would soil his honor, betray his dignity and make wind upon his reputation just to impress Sayyad! Or should I stuff a pair of melons down my shirt and see if your opinion changes?”
I stepped back, dazed. Someone sniggered rudely, and I started to flush. Eyla snorted and turned her back, mercifully ignoring me as she gathered her sisters together. I still couldn’t leave, not without a guide, so I wandered over to the sick little girl.
“I don’t like you,” she said. I sighed and started to turn away. “No—you’re supposed to say why,” she explained, “and I’ll say you didn’t give me a story, and so you will, and so I’ll like you, see?”
“What?” I asked, blinking.
“Give me a story! If you don’t, I’ll scream until Daddy comes,” she said, eyes dancing, “or, well, maybe not that, but I’ll burp and wave it at you.”
I sat down on the edge of her bed. I don’t tell tales often, except to myself. There’s little need to. With Mother always sharing her jests and warm humor, with Father always going on about his roses, with my own reluctance to say the wrong thing or look the fool…
This time was different. There was no one I needed to impress, no worry of failure, only a little girl too sick to notice whether the tale was fine or poor. That was all it took. I gave her a story, and it flowed easily, a simple and pleasant little thing. Aya smiled and informed me that she maybe didn’t totally hate me, and mustn’t I tell another just to be sure? So I gave her another story, longer, richer:
“—clearly, the living saint hadn’t moved for over half a century. Dew dripping on his tongue was his only water. The very flies buzzing about his head became convinced that they, too, must give up all worldly things and dropped dead on his tongue, and this was his only food. I can only assume he was too holy to excrete—”
A sigh of sorts distracted me. Looking back, I encountered the unnerving sight of all five sisters looking at me.
“Right!” Eyla coughed. “Back to work!” They turned their backs on me with a great deal of noise and bustle. The sick little girl tugged on my sleeve.
“And then what happened?” she demanded. So I finished the story, and she judiciously decided she needed one more to be absolutely certain that she didn’t hate me. Smiling, I complied. It took a little longer to get through the various twists and betrayals and tales-within-tales, but the way she covered her mouth with her hands in fascinated horror was well worth it.
“—but to escape from the gem-within-the-bottle-within-the-mirror-within-the-pancake, the sorcerer told me, I’d need to perform the Double Spinning Lotus of Eternal Abrogation!”
“Did you make it?” Aya breathed.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” I winked. “Though I’m still disappointed that animals can no longer speak.”
“Ooooh,” she said. Chuckling, I glanced back to see what else was going on.
The sisters were staring at me. Again.
And then, lovely Sayyad—who must surely be forever on guard lest the sighs she elicits build to a whirlwind and carry her away—smiled at me. Do birds feel this sort of joy just before they explode and turn into pillows? A man can only guess, but I feel the answer is “yes”. And then—eyes narrowing, smile changing complexion—she rose and walked swayingly toward me. My muscles locked rigid in near-terror. In my dreams, this is where she would smile at me again. But she didn’t.
She leaned down and kissed my cheek.
“Umg,” I said.
“That was a wonderful story,” Sayyad whispered, dropping a pile of debt vouchers in my lap. “I’d really like to hear more. And I just know you’re going to buy me everything on my list. I’ll see you tonight?”
“Tonight,” she whispered, kissing my cheek again, and swayed gracefully away. What tiny fragment of my mind wasn’t spinning around in great dizzying circles managed to marvel that she was as entrancing from the back as from the front.
“I liked your story, too,” another sister—Dhira?—offered, bringing only two vouchers for the shopping trip I’d apparently agreed to undertake. Sudha came by, and Varema, and finally Eyla. She seemed a bit more thoughtful, less smugly irritating than before, but—flushing as I remembered the blistering insults she’d laid on me right in front of Sayyad—I scowled and waited to see what she’d try next.
“What a shame,” she said, shaking her head in mock-sorrow. “My quest to find the world’s greatest fool delayed yet again. I had such hopes when you removed your spine and begged Sayyad to stick her hand in its place.” She paused, starting to look irritated. “Well?” she demanded. “It’s customary to thank someone when they apologize.”
“That was an apology?” I cried, “calling me a spineless puppet?”
“You want me to crawl?” Eyla demanded. “You want me to mewl and beg and whine? Refresh my memory, go talk to Sayyad so I can see what it looks like!”
“Listen, you snickering little cat—”
“These are for Aya,” Eyla said, dropping the remaining vouchers in my lap, “and for me—” She held out the last one. “Common clothes so I can sneak out without having to dress like a servant.”
I held the vouchers, unsure what I should do. I couldn’t defy a Sar. I’d have to refuse. Except…
I glanced at the waiting sisters. Sick little Aya, who liked my stories and whose fever might be eased by these herbs. Irritating Eyla, whose smugness could not be left unpunished. But most of all, Sayyad. I could return to her tonight as savior and hero—or turn my back and never see her again. There was no choice.
“Very well,” I said nervously. “It will be done.”
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