Songs of Sa‘bahr
In distant Saithan, holy hermits have labored for a hundred generations over a great celestial machine of flawless design. In its whirling stars and planets, vast as a mountain, shining as the sea, they can read every story that was, is, or ever will be. Crafted from gears fine as dust, all the world’s beings dance out their appointed tales—mighty sheyks and roaring djinn, cunning camels and sultans of fire. But one thing is missing. The hermits skipped what didn’t matter, and the women have no mouths, no hands, no expressions but a painted-on smile. I defy them. Let my mother’s jests shake the earth; let my beloved’s insults ignite the sky. Let my tale be told with as many voices as the sky has stars, though it sunder their creation to the foundations of the earth. Perhaps, in the wreckage, a dust-mote girl will find a tongue that works.
Look at Serzhen, my homeland. The gods fled long ago, some say, repulsed by the harshness of an arid land. So say those incapable of seeing beyond the surface—who know there can be nothing of goodness inside that vile, papery glob from which the rest of us take honey. Are there no gods here? During the Time of Rains, the earth itself comes aflame with flowers enough to drown the sky, while children dash about with tiny umbrellas for butterflies. When the rains pass, those same children set adrift seventy thousand paper herons (formerly tiny umbrellas) painted every wild color of madness and dreams, which cluster in dwindling puddles and finally fuse into sculptures both wondrous and grotesque. When the irrigation channels run low, even then, patience and care provide all we need, more or less. Where else can you swap tales until you’re wise, then drink sura until you’re stupid? Where else can you behold colorful explosions of fire powder as the apothecary cheerfully tries to set the whole world aflame? Where else can you listen to the world’s wisest man breathe dread tales under a starless sky, bestowing upon terrified children his oddly perilous idea of universal benevolence?
Are there no gods here? So claim the soldiers of Majra. Since their invasion and occupation, yoking us to their one sole truth, only one voice has been allowed. I defy them. If only in secret, we speak with a desert’s dune of voices. If only in whispers, we paint our very souls into our words. Under watchful eyes, we share cunning glances and secret smiles, as we find we must.
Look closer. There in the great celestial machine of Saithan, a dust-mote maiden dances unafraid into the churning cogs, for shattered gears and broken metal may tell a tale her tongue cannot. Therein lie the bandit of bees and Sultana of roses, child-stealing ghools and child-freeing fools, the girl with a thousand shadows and the city that devoured itself—culminating in a cheat so grand it would steal Truth itself.
So it is told, and so it must be…
* * *
Mother tapped meaningfully on my breakfast bowl. I hardly noticed, staring raptly out the window. The dawning sky was red—red!—which meant the Time of Rains was near. Every single festival, feast, and celebration on the calendar would have to be crammed into what little time remained. Call it craziness. Call it madness. Suggest, if you want your mother to clutch her chest and gasp and pretend to be dying (well, that’s how MY mother reacted), that a couple dozen festivals might be canceled to make room. But never for a moment doubt that times are about to get extremely odd.
Our house is not large. There is the main room, two small sleeping areas to either side, and the space under the eaves which is mine. Father had already gone out into the fields, so I sat cross-legged in front of a story-woven mat while Mother reached over and tapped my bowl again.
“Aris,” she repeated. Dark and sly and to my eyes lovely, she long ago persuaded silver itself to leap from the earth and form individual strands here and there within her hair. Perhaps the most pervasive memory of my childhood is her subtle smile—the one, I now know, that means she’s tricked me into doing exactly what she wants. I’m almost embarrassed to think how often I defiantly did all the chores she forbade me from doing.
“No,” I said, just to be contrary. Her smile broadened, as if thanking me for making her day slightly more interesting.
“I need you to go into town and open the stand for me,” she said. Just that. No tricks, no tales, no moon-shattering universe-enslaving wizards who needed to be shocked into silence at the sight of my clean room. Just a month ago, I would have been grateful. Now I was suspicious.
“Curious,” I said, lacing my hands together. “My ears must be idiots, for they’re making it sound like you’re trying to get rid of me.”
Mother glanced sidelong at me. “It’s the garden shed. It’s full of rats. Big ones. Also fire-breathing.”
“You’d murder me by denying me the sight of such wonders?”
“They’re oddly boring for giant inflammable rodents,” she explained. “I’m saving you from being murdered with disappointment.”
“Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Eyla had crawled into our shed to sleep again,” I suggested, “and let’s further imagine you’d fallen prey to those ludicrous rumors that I, well, like her. Keeping us apart would only make me more interested, yes?”
Mother just smiled at me. “Many thanks, Aris, for agreeing to open the stand today.”
My eyes narrowed. “I love you so much, I could never allow you to risk your life battling incendiary vermin,” I said judiciously. “I’ll take the rodents. I insist.”
“As you wish.” Mother coughed into her hand. “Of course, hearing that you were coming, all the rats squeaked in fear and ran off to hide in my seller’s stand—so I suppose you’ll have to fight them there, while you’re opening up for business!”
I shook my head ruefully. “I never had a choice, did I?”
“What did I do to deserve such a cruel child, attacking his poor mother with baseless insults?” she demanded, staggering as she clutched her chest.
“I’m the soul of fairness!” she insisted. “Just to prove it, we’ll let fate decide.” She looked around, spotted some dry rice, and sprinkled it over the hard earthen floor. “Whoever picks up the most grains with a single grab, wins!”
I looked at her. I looked at the rice. I looked at her again. I shrugged and grabbed what I could.
“Three… no, four!” I said proudly.
Mother lazily licked her hand, pressed it down—and came up with at least a dozen grains.
“LOOK!” I cried, “THE MAGNIFICENCE OF KALASH!”
Startled, she glanced out the window: I licked my own hand and patted it repeatedly, eventually coming up with two dozen grains. Mother turned back to me. I tried to look innocent. She smiled.
“I’m not sure how, but apparently you’ve won! Very well—I’ll bow to the inevitable. Sadly, reluctantly, I must permit you to go into town and open the stand!”
“But I won!” I protested.
“Aris, certain strange folks—for the sake of argument, let’s call them ‘the sane’—like to find out what they’re competing for before they enter the contest. Yes, you won. You won the right to do my chores. Be glad I didn’t award your backside the right to make the intimate acquaintance of my foot.”
“Are you questioning my fairness?” Mother asked sweetly, eyebrows rising. Go ahead, she seemed to be saying, try me. You will lose, and oh yes—I do keep score.
“As you will,” I said. She smirked, but said nothing as she began gathering the things I’d need. Which is worse—that she always wins, or that she makes losing so much fun?
Mother loaded the cart with flowers, rose petals, honey—everything we could sell in town. Then she ostentatiously pretended to fight me off while I gave her a kiss, before finally seeing me out the door. It didn’t take long to cross our fields, but I didn’t go into town. Not yet. Studying the rise and fall of the somewhat hilly land, I picked out the steepest hill with the nastiest grade, evil-looking thornbrake tangling every bit of it. Certain exploding rodents I know insist that life’s rewards come in direct proportion to how hard we fight to get them. Leaving the cart for the moment, I made my way up the hill, gritting my teeth against thorns that seemed all too eager to make the intimate acquaintance of my face.
I didn’t have long to wait: Branches rustled, thorns snapped, and a young woman enthusiastically thrashed her way up the hill.
“Aris?” she demanded, gaping at me. I bowed as best I could, getting thoroughly scratched in the process.
“Eyla,” I said, unable to suppress a smile. Eyla grinned back, eyes dancing. There was danger and reward there, like the flaming maidens of Mehrat. What’s the old saying? ‘Wrap yourself in fire powder, take her in your arms, and count yourself lucky for your scars’. My heart beat a little faster. Over the past month, I’d seen courage in her, kindness and beauty—and stolen one timeless kiss that broke the world and lasted forever. (All right, technically we’ve kissed twice, but how am I supposed to fit conflated infinitudes into a single poetic phrase?) I wouldn’t say that she was mine. Taking someone like Eyla for granted can be hazardous.
“Do you have to sneak into our shed quite so often?” I asked. “Mother’s started building an extremely large mousetrap, and I’m concerned about the way she cackles and pinches my cheek whenever I ask what she means to bait it with.”
“It’s pretty simple,” Eyla said, climbing the rest of the way to my level. “Your mother keeps finding me and kicking me out. Do you know what it’s like, matching wits with a woman that sharp every single day?”
“Yes,” I said fervently.
“Two blazing souls joined in battle, blistering the firmament with riddles and tales, insults and lies, until one lies crushed and the other stands over her laughing in triumph! Which, I’m sure, will be me. Someday.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, shaking my head. “I tried to outwit her so that I could have the honor of kicking you out, but…”
“You? You?!” Eyla stood over me, hands on her hips. “All right, Aris—force me to leave. Go on, I dare you!”
“Ah, but I cannot!” I said, pressing a hand to my heart. “I surrender to your inescapable superiority. Stay all day. Stay forever! Which reminds me, for no particular reason, of a tale.”
“I’m sure,” she said wryly.
“It is and is not, but there was once a princess so daring that she learned to fight with a hundred swords at once by means of skilled juggling and some extremely intricate footwork. When her father tried to arrange a marriage, she announced that she would marry whom she pleased, when she pleased. Oh yes, and she looked almost exactly like you.”
“Naturally,” Eyla said, fighting to conceal her interest.
“Hearing this, her chief suitor roared with fury and split in half, a horrible ghool stepping from the empty shell. ‘The prophecy says your husband shall rule the universe!’ he roared. ‘Marry me or everyone you love shall die!’ He seized her father and vanished in a howling whirlwind. What could she do? She ran up mountains and down valleys, searching out every ghool in the land and recruiting them by explaining how their brother intended to enslave them all. Swarming like rats, an army of ghools followed her to her enemy’s island lair, each of them wearing the shiny, shiny armor she’d given them. No sooner had they reached him, however, than he shouted ‘Tear her to shreds, my brothers, and we shall each of us marry a piece!’ Ghools enough to blot out the sun surged toward her, horrible hideous monsters with claws like lions and jaws like sharks. In the single moment left to her—”
I bowed to Eyla, stood, and simply walked away. Eyla watched me go, mouth hanging open. I climbed down the hill to my cart, never once looking back, and whistled a merry tune as I headed into town. It wasn’t long before running footsteps caught up to me. I carefully kept the smile from my face. Eyla dropped to a walk, still panting as she fixed me with a glare that could have curdled stone.
“Then what happened?!” she demanded.
“Oh, I’m sure I’ll remember sooner or later,” I said lightly. Disgusted, Eyla turned as if to leave. “Don’t you dare ride on my cart!” I added warningly. So of course she hopped on, kicking her legs and taunting me as I labored to climb the next hill. I’m still not sure who won that one.
“Do you remember how it ends now?” Eyla demanded as the walls of the city rose into sight.
“Hmm. Not sure. Being plagued by small, insidious women has a way of messing with my memory.”
“Faugh! What have I done to deserve this?” she groaned.
“How much time do you have?” I said wryly. “There’s the insults—”
“Oh, come on! I make helpful little suggestions for self-improvement! You’d have to be dumber than a desert’s dune of demented dogs to think I was insulting you!”
“You appear, far too early in the morning, in disturbingly strange places—”
Eyla snorted. “I think it says more about you than me that you find my presence in a garden shed disturbing.”
“You put spiders down my neck, you claim, because I ‘need the practice’, whatever that means—”
“Oh, please! I only did that once.” She paused. “Twice. Wait, do bugs that look like spiders count?”
What I really needed, I decided, was about a dozen more lungs to sigh with. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like, were I surrounded by ordinary women instead of crazy ones. Probably a lot duller. Plus, I wouldn’t get to do a saucy, rump-shaking victory dance on those rare occasions when I actually defeat one of them. Not that I’ve tried that on Eyla, but it’s important to have hopes and dreams.
We soon reached the South Gate of Durbansq. The city didn’t use to have walls: It was our beloved conquers, the missionaries of Majra, who built them. Assigning us papers and stamps, levying taxes and fines, tying our very livelihoods to our continued obedience and improvement—that wasn’t enough, surely. We cried out with joy when the missionaries of Majra sliced us into bits with their walls. Well, we cried out, at least. Presumably with joy.
Today, though, the gates stood open and unguarded. No soldiers or clerks manned the walls. My fellow Serzhi poured through unmolested. I had to smile. A certain legal trick had won us the advantage here, and some people even claim I had something to do with it. I tend to profess an ignorance as vast as the burning deserts of Balaqut when it comes up. I’d rather people didn’t know. They might get the rather bizarre idea that I could do it again.
Perhaps the gates themselves weren’t manned, but they were still useful as chokepoints. No sooner had we passed into the city than a clerk and a soldier descended on us, the soldier’s white-painted armor clicking and clacking. Silence spread like a disease as they passed, for lies are not allowed in the pacified territory of Serzhen. I shook my head. Take a wild and twining idea, nail it down, slice it up, torture it into the artificial straightness of Truth, and see if there’s anything left worth saying.
“Passbook,” the clerk demanded. Eyla and I handed over our papers. His keen eyes moved over Eyla’s, then rose to her face. “You’ve been disowned by your father, I see, abandoned by your family—”
I took her arm, silently urging restraint. From the look on her face, the only thing saving him was indecision over whether to go for his eyes or items equally round but quite a bit lower.
“—much to be learned,” he lectured her, oblivious to the danger he was in. “Come to our compound and learn our ways. There are many rewards for those who desire to improve themselves. You could have the food, the shelter, the purpose in life your family has so cruelly—”
Eyla actually began to growl, deep in her throat. I hastily stepped in front of her. The clerk shrugged, handed her passbook back to her, and looked at mine.
“Interesting,” he said, fingers tapping. “You, Aris. You’ve taken no classes, attended no lectures, made no effort to improve yourself…”
A second clerk arrived, ledgers clutched in his hands, and my interrogator turned aside to question him.
“I must respectfully disagree,” I muttered, keeping my voice low so only Eyla would hear. Anything to distract her, to salve the frustration of having to stand passively by and do nothing. “I’ve worked relentlessly to improve myself, mostly by capturing butterflies,” I said, watching her struggle to hide a smirk. “As there is only one God, there is only one right and proper way to be a butterfly, and I’ve been lovingly correcting them by means of very tiny whips and chains. Some day, I’m sure, they’ll abandon their tawdry colors and dissolute patterns to be pure, plain white. Perhaps the iron antennae-crushers will do it.”
“LIES!” cried the soldier, who for all his armor had somehow managed to hover silently over my shoulder. “HE’S TELLING LIES!!”
“I see.” Turning back to me, the clerk pulled a little book from his pocket, linked back to him by a fine golden chain. “‘Leniency is not a mercy’,” he read, “‘for wrong behaviors corrupt the soul and cause greater pain than any mere punishment’.” He gazed evenly at me. “You have no seller’s stamp. You are not permitted to bring those things into the city.”
I glanced at the cart, startled. “I don’t, no, but my mother—”
“I would have told you wait until she arrived—perhaps—had your attitude not made it abundantly clear that you are in need of correction.”
He gestured. With a single savage heave, the soldier flipped the cart over. Roses spilled across the earth, petals swirling into a most alluring dust-devil. It was the rolling clay pots I watched, holding my breath. The roses could be replaced, but the honey—
The soldier walked across the heaped flowers, crushing them underfoot—then quite deliberately stepped on the clay pots. I flinched, trying to imagine how I could explain this to Mother. Suddenly, hiding out in garden sheds didn’t seem like such a bad way to spend one’s life.
“I see you work for us,” the clerk said, handing back my passbook. “Be glad you’ve accepted that chance of self-improvement, or I’d have barred you from the city entirely. You are dismissed.”
I stood, hands clenching and unclenching, blackness and fire whirling in front of my eyes. Eyla glared at me, daring me to stand up to them. But in the face of overwhelming force… I righted the cart, hands shaking, but didn’t dare try to salvage the bleeding pots and broken flowers while the soldier watched. There must be something wrong with me, that even I can’t invent tales cunning enough to make the Majeri beautiful.
I pushed the empty cart, Eyla right behind me. It wasn’t long until we reached the table where Mother sells her roses. I had nothing to set up, nothing to sell. I sat on the table’s edge, thoughts whirling in eighty directions at once.
“A figure clad in black pops out of the earth!” she narrated, “puts spiders down the back of that soldier’s armor, then looses a swarm of starving birds to peck him to death!” Eyla suddenly looked thoughtful, and started to move back toward the South Gate. “I just remembered the end of my story,” I hastily offered.
“You can’t manipulate me! I defy you!” Eyla paused. “But tell me anyway. I want to know just how insulted I should be.”
“More ghools than a hill has ants swarmed toward the princess! In the single moment left to her, she ripped off her veil, causing her reflection to appear in the shiny, shiny armor she’d given her troops. Needless to say, in trying to attack her, the stupid creatures tore each other to shreds. Only one ghool survived: She bet him she could juggle ten thousand spears at once, and failed, but since he somehow got stabbed through the head ten thousand consecutive times, it didn’t really matter. So it is told…”
“…and so it must be,” Eyla said thoughtfully. “That was a good story. Not enough princesses cackling with bloodlust amidst mounds of gruesomely splattered beheaded bodies, mind you—”
“Of course,” I said wryly.
“—but I’ve decided to forgive you for luring me into town.”
“Oh, yes! I won’t attack you, I swear. Sadly, my hands hold grudges a lot longer than I do.”
“Of course,” I said wryly.
I sat at my mother’s empty stand, trying to figure out what to do next while Eyla paced back and forth.
“Come on!” she said. “It is and is not, but my father’s rich enough to replace all this!”
“Ah, yes, your father,” I said calmly. “The man you forced to disown you so the Majeri couldn’t use you as a weapon against him. The man who can’t talk to you—and who won’t talk to me because, well, he hates me with an ardor that makes volcanoes blush.”
“Right! He inspects his holdings twice a month, and today’s the day. All we have to do is set up an ambush! Easy!”
“Eyla…!” I cried, but she was already striding purposefully toward Market Street. I considered slinking back home and trying to explain to Mother how I’d lost everything she’d given me. I gulped. Suddenly, following Eyla didn’t seem like such a daft idea.
If I ever made the laughable suggestion that life doesn’t give me enough wonders, I’d only have to walk so far as Market Street to be proven wrong. Has there ever been a place of such chaotic bustling beauty, such appealing clashing sounds and glorious wafting scents? Hundreds of people flow like a river of humanity, eddying around carefully positioned merchants. Hear old grandmothers rattle amber and malachite, musk and myrrh, and sing the songs of their glory and power. Smell the fabulous curries of far-distant lands, each unique blend telling a thousand tales in a single scent, and struggle not to buy. See the crazy-mad patterns of overdyed metallic cloth, the comically overwrought facial expressions inscribed into bulging fruits, the drawings so salacious that they clearly don’t exist at all, and marvel that just one place can hold it. I followed Eyla down the street, struggling to look everywhere at once. Hawkers described their poor starving babies, whose numbers increased in proportion to the buyer’s disinterest. Children sprinted past playing their mad wand-and-ball games, whose rules seemed to shift as swiftly as the breeze. Gamblers pragmatically wagered on whose goods the children would break first, and gave a few helpful nudges in the right direction. A veil-dancer girl swirled toward me—what a delicate deception, that veil, what mysteries it concealed and what promises it breathed!—and I caught my breath in hope and anticipation… until Eyla stepped in front of me and bared her teeth.
“I, uh, forgot—” the veil-dancer girl mumbled, and fled. The little sister who’d been standing behind her shrugged prosaically.
“Want to buy a flower anyway?” she asked.
Eyla pulled me down, claiming a spot just opposite Gudra Woodcarver (“You must buy these shutters! Close out the world and be as depraved as you want! Close out your enemies, and infuriate them with the thought that you’re having ten times more depraved fun than they are! Carry them around town and make dozens of new friends as intrigued strangers try to find out what delightful depravities you’re planning! Plus, as a special bonus, they also work for non-depraved people!!”). I was just starting to fidget impatiently when I heard a low rumbling noise coming fast down the street. I spotted the ratha about the same time Eyla did. Horses aren’t allowed in Durbansq, so the great wheeled booth was pulled by a delegation of whooping, laughing youths who seemed far more interested in tipping the ratha over than reaching their destination. Where everyone else pulled back to make room, Eyla calmly walked directly into its path, bending waaay over as if to pick up a dropped coin.
“STOP!!!” bellowed a commanding voice.
The pale-faced servant atop the booth was “steering”, I suppose, in much the same way that someone who argues with Mother might think he is “winning”. He shouted helplessly. The boys yelled the last verse of a cheerfully insulting song and skewed to a halt, very nearly managing to tip the whole business over. The servant began tossing down their pay of candy and coins, looking like he’d rather be throwing knives. The door of the booth opened. The first man out was huge and imposing, effortlessly grand. His robes were red, overdyed so deep and rich they were almost black, twining vines of real gold wrapping around and around his body and blooming in unexpected places.
“Daddy,” Eyla whispered. Her father, the richest and most powerful man in Durbansq, looked right through me as though I didn’t exist. I couldn’t imagine why. Sure, there were the two… or three… or four times he’d caught me with his daughter, but it was really all quite laughably innocent, and I’m not even sure how I ended up kissing her right in front of him, and if he’d just hear my side of it I’m sure we’d laugh and laugh. I wiped the sweat from my brow. There is something appraising in Sar Efrem’s eyes, like a lion who hasn’t decided yet whether the mouse perched pleading on his nose is worth snapping at. It is not a comfortable gaze to suffer, even when it officially can’t see you.
The second man to step from the ratha couldn’t have been more different. He wore the stiff white costume of Majra, though in far finer cloth than that of the clerk we’d seen earlier. I required no introduction: I was quite familiar with Majra’s Chief-of-Mission for all Durbansq—and I could see, by Sar Efrem’s dour look, that he wasn’t at all happy to be playing host to him.
“Interesting,” said Dhrevos Scarb. “A daughter, supposedly disowned by her father—yet here she is, standing in the middle of the road, forcing him to stop. Why? To pass him a message?”
“You putrid excrescence,” Eyla breathed, “on a pustulant boil on the ass of an aborted pig. You can’t use me against him, not anymore. I am not your weapon to stab him with.”
“Is that so?” Scarb mused. A wonder tale villain could have made those words delightfully wicked. Scarb just said them. He was a man doing his job, a functionary going about the everyday business of pacifying a savage people. There was no joy in hating him; he denied us even that small pleasure. What could be more despicable than a villain who refuses to be gleefully and outrageously vile?
Sar Efrem cleared his throat. I knew it had been hard on Eyla, ordering her own father to disown her. What I hadn’t realized was that it had been just as hard on him. Sar Efrem’s eyes flicked toward her, coming dangerously close to seeing his daughter, dangerously close to acknowledging her existence. Eyla glared at his knees, silently lending him her determination, her fury, her strength. “I see nothing,” Efrem whispered. “She fades from my eyes. She does not exist.”
“So it seems,” Dhrevos Scarb replied. “Yet this rootless, unclaimed child has insulted me. Perhaps it would be well to take her in. Not that she’d be a high priority for interrogation, but we could hold her under lock and iron until we had time. Say, a year from now?”
Sar Efrem flinched. “I… I don’t…”
“Come now,” Scarb said coolly. “Inferior minds cry out for improvement. It must be done; I have no choice. Unless… of course…” His eyes slid toward the most powerful man in Durbansq. “…someone offered concessions that would do an equal amount of good?”
Several Majeri soldiers had stopped to watch, but Eyla still looked as though she were seriously considering trying to take Scarb’s head off. Sar Efrem slowly shook his head, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the man’s words. I walked calmly up to Scarb. Well. Outwardly calm. So long as you charitably assume that the Time of Rains had come early and with extreme specificity on my face. And that it smelled, this year, for some reason, like sweat.
“This doesn’t concern you, boy,” Scarb said, irritated.
I bowed low. There are certain advantages to working for the Majeri. And secretly studying their laws. And learning how to knot truths so tight around their necks, their very law books gasp for breath.
“Your pardon, Master,” I said humbly, “but when you file your Incident Report, and under ‘Circumstances of Observation’ confess that you illegally accepted favors—that is, a ride—from a savage, and step down in disgrace as Chief of Mission, why, who will take your place?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Scarb snapped. “I’ve done nothing wrong!”
“Then I’m sure, perforce, the Justicemongers will agree with you.”
Scarb hesitated. He was a powerful man—but the Justicemongers were enduring as stone, immovable as mountains, and imposed the dictates of Law on high and low alike. They probably wouldn’t remove him—but the possibility couldn’t be dismissed.
“I can’t be bothered with this idiocy. I have work to do,” Scarb said curtly. “Consider yourself lucky,” he told Eyla, and strode briskly toward the Majeri compound. Eyla released a shuddering breath. Men of Majra were still watching. She couldn’t acknowledge her father, lest she get them both in trouble, but—
She glanced at Gudra Woodcarver, who was just over Sar Efrem’s shoulder. “Magnificent woodwork,” she said quietly. “I’ve never seen anything so fine, so strong, so good as what I’m looking at right now. Call me a fool,” she said, “but I love that… bowl… with all my heart.”
She vanished down a side street. Gudra, who didn’t seem to understand what had just happened, looked at the bowl with new respect and promptly doubled its price. Sar Efrem just stood there, looking at nothing, seeing nothing, as the soldiers resumed their patrols and left him alone. I found my thoughts drifting to the overturned cart and all the goods I’d lost. Here stood Sar Efrem, the wealthiest man in Durbansq, and even if he chose not to hear me… well…
“I’d better go, too!” I said loudly, “since the sky has dawned red, and so many festivals are coming, and PEOPLE WILL BE CLAMORING FOR ROSE PETALS! Which any good and generous Sar would buy for them—IN VAST QUANTITIES—so they could cheer his name while they celebrate!”
Sar Efrem didn’t say a word as he got into his ratha. I shrugged. It had been worth a try, no? I headed for the South Gate. It was past time I pushed the cart home and tried to explain things to Mother.
* * *
In distant Qarami, vivisection is so prized that no one is considered beautiful until they’ve been rebuilt into something monstrous. Consider Arvand Ironspikes, who was so sharp he accidentally trimmed bushes just walking past. He adored Dazira of the Rocks—her iridescent scales, the forked tongue flicking past her alluring smile, her independently moving eyes. The only problem was the great heat that radiated from her skin, veiling her body with curling tongues of steam every time she bathed. It was just too uncomfortable. So he thought, at least, until Dazira persuaded her cousins the Merry Molten Maidens to greet him with many, many hugs and kisses. Arvand ran, screaming and blistered, back to the arms of his beloved, and never complained about her warmth again.
Rarely had I seen the south road so crowded, and it didn’t take long to find out why; Sar Efrem’s ratha had pulled up in front of our house, and the Sar himself was handing out coin and directing people into various fields. Women sang gathering-songs as they harvested roses to enhance their curries. Children filled great baskets with petals, and then—when they thought no one was looking—threw them at each other, each fistful exploding in colorful, splashy bursts. Old grandfathers cut the very finest blooms, telling each other the great romantic adventures of their past. More than anything, I enjoyed the stunned expressions of those who’d never seen Father’s fields before. Serzhen is arid, a desert, is it not? Indeed, outside of our fields, the whole world seemed hunched in on itself, awaiting the Time of Rains: Grasses gone tan and rust, dry honeycomb pods rustling where flowers had once bloomed, gnarled trees weeping tears of pungent incense. Where the irrigation channels flow, however, persistence and hard work can elicit wonders.
I stepped into the fields and was promptly smacked in the face with a mingled confluence of thirty thousand heady perfumes. A rugged wilderness lay before me, every last span of it draped, bursting, gouting with roses. Let every artist in the world upend their paint-pots, let them dance about swirling the color with hands and hair, they will never match this. With the eye of an artist and the patience of a saint, my father has bred roses a shade redder, a trifle larger, a bit more elegant than before. Given enough time, he insists, he could do anything. Perhaps so. Perhaps our roses spit venomous pollen at their enemies when I’m not looking. Perhaps they whisper dread secrets under the dying moon when I’m asleep. Perhaps they fill their petals with fire, rise twirling into the air, and die in blazing pyres of their own making, but my shocked mind refuses to admit it’s beheld such wonders. Until they allow themselves to be seen—and sold—we may remain destitute. Such is life. Father doesn’t care: His eyes are filled with the beauty of roses.
“Aris!” Mother gestured imperiously toward the shed, though the rest of her words were lost in the general tumult. I saluted her and hurried over to the splintered building. It was larger than our house, and in better repair. The door was open, revealing the same exuberant mess as always. Earth and stone and shredded bark lay in sacks and bundles, bales and bins; tools ranging from the inescapably weird to the inexplicably bizarre hung in patterns that would make sense only to an artist or lunatic; field-maps and endless breeder’s plans papered the walls like a privileged glimpse into the mind of madness. Father was almost in tears as he tried to figure out which fields could be sacrificed to the ravening hordes: True, he desperately needed the room for new crosses, but what man with rose-roots growing through his brain has ever been sensible? I gently pushed him outside, directing him toward Mother.
Someone else stepped into the shed. A tall man, lean as a shadow, the sword at his side shimmering in the sunlight. For years beyond reckoning, my mother’s father the Sheyk Sindba had led his tribe across the Qabdi desert. Does a hard land require a hard man? Not if he answers harshness with generosity, injustice with honor, implacable fate with the honor and dignity of a man who knows what he must do. His was a magnificent sword, forged by the Sword Genius himself, and utterly unique—the more so since none of us Serzhi wear such things. He saw me. He smiled, or so I assume from the way his moustache twitched. He strode over to meet me.
“There is something I wish you to do…”
There was something disquieting in the Sheyk’s glittering eyes. “As easy as that, eh?” he muttered. “Perhaps you think you honor me with your obedience. Not so. A man would defy me, debate me, slash his bonds with words fast as lightning-strokes. Each man is a reflection of those who made him what he is. So tell me, my reflection, am I mighty and strong… or a pathetic trembling failure?”
“I defy you,” I promptly said. “I laugh derisively in your face, I make wind upon your beard. Just try and stop me from being respectfully subservient!”
“Good. Because we’re going to confront Sar Efrem, you and I.”
My knees tried to disappear, a feat complicated by the fact that they were attached to my legs. There are some things I would rather face than the cold hatred of the most powerful man in Durbansq. Like trying to play a zither… that a madman had strung between the teeth of a sleeping tiger. I groaned brokenly. There are times, I think, when my grandfather is far too much like his daughter.
“As you will,” I said faintly.
Sindba led me down into the fields, past valleys of red like lava-streaked pits, past hills of yellow like fallen suns, past ridges of white cresting like sea foam. Sar Efrem counted out coins to Mother, who caught my eye and winked. She led the next group to their places, and Efrem turned to watch the continuing harvest.
“Esteemed Sar,” Sindba bowed. “I will not call you deficient in sympathy, but consider the benefits of illuminating the world with kindness and joy! If everything you touched turned to gold, what magnificent ornaments mosquitos would make once they attached themselves to your skin!”
“Esteemed Sheyk,” Efrem said wryly. “If I’m deficient in sympathy, it’s only because I’m slavishly emulating you, a man I adore and admire, as he insults the very guest who’s pouring coins into his daughter’s pockets!”
Sindba plucked a rose, a great dew-beaded globe of perfect white. “I, of course, do not gossip. But birds, being birds, chatter madly about everything in sight…”
“You understand the language of birds?” I interrupted, impressed.
“No. But their body language is surprisingly nuanced. I have heard rumors. That Aris grew close to Eyla, your daughter, and this angered you. That you paid certain monies to the Majeri. That Aris will be sent to Majra—ripped from family, home, and city—a month or so from now, as soon as the Time of Rains has passed.” Sindba’s eyes rose to Sar Efrem’s. Here was a Sheyk, a ruler, a leader of men. Let stone stare in despair, it could not be so hard as this—but Sar Efrem did not budge. The high realms of power are more treacherous than any brigand, deadlier than any tiger, and as dangerous as a hundred of the former knotted together with three dozen of the latter—yet Sar Efrem juggled fortunes and made them dance to his pleasure. He was no fool.
“Perhaps I should smile pleasantly as thieves march in and out of my treasury,” he said, a hint of irritation coloring his voice. “Perhaps I should meekly bow to the line of men waiting to steal my wife. Perhaps I should watch with a sad shrug as my children are carried away. Strangely enough, certain persons insist a man has a right to protect what’s his.”
“Of course.” Sindba spat on the path. “And camels can fly if they piss hard enough. Aris winked at your daughter—let’s rip swords through his body until his blood waters the earth! I’ve stolen a few moments of your precious time—crush my fingers with stones, put my eyes out with sticks, sear my flesh with flaming brands, please, I beg you, and I thank you for it!”
Sar Efrem snorted, amused. “It may be that I regret his exile, now. It may be that I overreacted…”
“It may be you should do something about it,” Sindba shot back.
“…but who can persuade the Majeri to take back their perilous ‘gifts’? Politely ask the yolk to jump back inside the egg and see what happens. Certain things cannot be undone. Sadly, however much money I throw at sundials, time still refuses to flow backward.”
“We thought you’d say that,” Sindba said, “which is why Aris employed his knowledge of Majeri law to give you a very special gift. Your son, Dayib, will be ‘forcibly privileged’ with a trip to Majra on the very same caravan as he.”
Sar Efrem’s eyes went deadly black. I took a step back, and then a second. I’ve seen dust storms race across the desert screaming their hate that were less impressive than that. Sheyk Sindba met his gaze and equaled it, not looking away for a moment.
“What an amusing jest,” Efrem breathed.
“Is it, now? You’re a good and fine man, yes, despite the wrong you did him? Well! Just like you, Aris will admit he wronged you, then shrug and decline to lift one little finger to fix it. Just like you! Tell me, grand and mighty Sar, how wonderful you are! Better yet, tell your son when he’s born away, screaming for the father who failed him!”
Sar Efrem started toward the Sheyk, but Sindba tossed the white rose he’d been holding into the air, drew his magnificent shining sword and with a single overhead slash sent its two halves spinning in opposite directions. He sheathed the blade, turned, and walked away without looking back. Sar Efrem watched him, breathing heavily. And then—slowly—his eyes turned to me. Nearly a month ago, he’d solemnly sworn that he would never again hear my words, never again see my face… and yet, to a man seared by molten metal, steam-cloaked scales may suddenly appear cool in comparison. Sar Efrem slowly nodded. He seemed to come to a decision.
“Tell me it’s a lie,” he said softly, “tell me it isn’t so.” Still not meeting my gaze. Still not acknowledging that I even existed. Anger flared in me, and with it, a strength I hadn’t known I had.
“But I yearn to share the wondrous gift you gave me, of so many long years’ education in Majra itself!”
Efrem snorted. “You’ve had my apology—”
“Some wounds cannot be healed by words,” I said softly. “It would have been kinder had you ripped out my mother’s heart with your own two hands. It would have been quicker had you sprinkled tiny spikes among the roses, to bleed my father to death drop by individual drop. It would have been more honorable had you struck my head off in the middle of Market Street and screamed ‘THIS IS THE LAW!!!’ instead of paying someone else to dirty themselves for you.”
Efrem snarled, finally meeting my gaze. I managed not to reel back, desperately reminding myself that this was what I’d wanted.
“Show me a man who is never impulsive,” Efrem snapped, “who has never had cause to regret anything he’s done, and I’ll rub off the paint and show you a statue! Yes. I’m a man. Stand and stare in amazement—I too make mistakes! I’m sorry. I am. Yet the dead don’t rise because we rue their passing: Some things cannot be undone. So tell me, Aris—what am I supposed to do?”
I looked into his eyes. The truth, sadly, was there for anyone to see. All his wealth, all his power couldn’t reverse my exile. In a month or so, after the Time of Rains, I would be sent to Majra. So-be-it.
“I hope you enjoyed my grandfather’s ridiculous jest about Dayib,” I said softly. Efrem’s eyes closed, his breath sighing out. “As to what you can do,” I hazarded, “why—you could always buy more roses.”
He almost smiled. Almost. In time, Sar Efrem called Mother over, to her great surprise, and paid her even more coin. She went to consult with Father, shaking her head at this unexpected good fortune.
“Don’t think I’ve forgiven you,” Efrem told me, contemplating a pink-streaked rose that seemed to have been caught in the act of bathing nude in dye. “If I catch you with my daughter—”
“Your daughter? The one you’ve forsaken? The one who doesn’t even exist to you?”
“I have, of course, signed legally binding papers to that effect,” he admitted, “and what is written on paper is necessarily true. But tell me, Aris, what will you do when I write down, ‘Aris will be pollinated forever by adoring bees?’ Be he king or commoner, no one harms what is mine.”
“Go ahead—tell Eyla she’s yours, that you own her,” I suggested. “Just make sure she can’t reach anything pointy when you do.” I paused to consider. “Also, spiders.”
“So you equate familial responsibility with ownership?” Efrem said drily. “I’ll let Eyla know you were negotiating to purchase her for your herd.”
“I intend to maintain a herd of untamed beasts from hell. She’ll be delighted.”
“And in certain fabulous lands,” the Sar agreed, “children are free to marry anything they wish, any time they wish. Ah, the number of grown women who grimly wish they hadn’t bound themselves to toys or dolls or charming rodents during their sixth summer! It’s all for the better they had no guidance, no direction!”
“Forgive my humble arrogance for suggesting that guidance and direction are most necessary!” I argued. “Surely you agree that Eyla should be subject to a man who knows what’s best for her, who’ll tame her whims with proven wisdom…”
“You?” he asked suspiciously.
“Dhrevos Scarb!” I said, enjoying the involuntary spasm of revulsion on his face. “The missionaries of Majra know what’s best for us! If we’re to choose her life for her, why not use the best?”
Sar Efrem snorted, amused. “No, no! You and Eyla must be permitted to do whatever you wish! Think of all the women you’ve wooed in your life—all one of them—and the overwhelming experience, maturity, and wisdom you’ve gleaned from a few days’ infatuation! Surely a father has no place in judging whether the fascination of a moment is grounds to bind two lives together until the end of the world!”
“If only there were some simple solution to the problem of immaturity,” I sighed, “some sort of continuing force that gradually made children bigger and young people more experienced. In time, perhaps we’ll find it. Then you could swear that—if Eyla and I still favored each other in a year—you’d give us your blessing!”
“Surely, but if you consider—” Sar Efrem paused as a horde of shrieking children ran past, throwing petals at everything that moved. He ruefully shook his head. “Didn’t I once swear that I would never again give you my tales and lies, never again allow you to know me as I truly am?”
“You may have been lying.”
“That does sound like me,” Efrem admitted. “Fare well, Aris. Stay away from my daughter. I can’t be held responsible for what the words I write force otherwise innocent bees to do.”
I headed for the house. Midday was approaching, along with the blasting heat that would send one and all fleeing to the nearest porch. After that… well, then I’d have to report to my job with the Majeri. Grimacing, I searched for Mother. There’s one advantage to letting her enslave me with sparkling words and diamond wit; it makes it very hard to think about anything else.
* * *
The center of Durbansq used to be a great open park, its beautiful gardens maintained by wealthy Sars and individual families. Storytellers and songsmiths, acrobats and artists performed for free—and what a marvel for children, a vast green place to run and run, fighting with sticks for swords or sending up horrific scowling tiger-kites! Father even helped me plant a rose bush, a poor drooping thing of which I was immensely proud. There’s nothing left of that now. Every plant, every tree was scraped clean to make way for the Majeri compound. Bare earth scorches and cracks beneath the blasting sun, and buildings white as sun-bleached bone march one after the next in mind-numbing sameness. I like to think that my rose bush is still there, patiently waiting beneath one of those windowless tombs: Someday, when the Majeri flee, when their buildings sunder and fall, there amidst the wreckage will rise a single hopeful bloom.
I showed my passbook and was allowed into Justicemonger’s Hall. From clerk’s chambers and libraries echoed the scratch of quills, the murmur of scribes, the quiet shuffling of legal forms. Was it strange that I found it relaxing? The missionaries of Majra are certain that truth’s shining light will convert any who behold it, and they recruit the brightest young men to assist their truth-finders: I myself had been employed here for some time. I knew the rhythms, understood the rules. A man of the Exalted class, like Scarb, has to be watched out for, but most Majeri are almost fanatically lawbound. A Justicemonger doesn’t sweat, the other boys insist—their pores just squeeze out tiny forms marked “permission to perspire”, each awaiting its own individual signature.
I passed through the waiting room into the book-bound chamber of Doctor Salaal, the man I was meant to be assisting. Salaal is a great broad-chested man with a voice like the rumble of unseen thunder and a simple well-meaning honesty that I very much appreciate, for all that he still wants to bring me to Truth. Besides, if my knowledge of wonder tales is at all accurate, doctors have all kinds of bizarre powders that turn people inside-out, which has a way of commanding respect. We hadn’t spoken much since the Majeri walls had been defeated; whether or not he understood the full depth of my involvement, he surely suspected something. Most days it was easier to quietly ask permission to go and continue my legal researches. Reluctantly, I decided it was finally time to talk to him. I’d been putting it off for far too long.
“A pleasant enough day, isn’t it, friend Salaal?” I ventured, gesturing toward the blank, windowless wall. Doctor Salaal just folded his hands together, looking at me.
“Tell me, friend Aris, why is it,” he said, “the times a Serzhi says what I most want to hear is when I can be most sure he’s lying?”
“I am your friend. Truly.”
“Truly. And tricking me into betraying everything I stand for, friend, what sort of delightful little jest was—?” Doctor Salaal stopped himself with an effort. “Be quiet, Aris. You may watch, and work, and learn. In silence.”
“If there’s anything I can do, any promise I can offer—”
“And I’m to believe your promises, am I?” Doctor Salaal drew a rasping breath. “Or is that another of your delightful stories? Really, I should thank you for pointing out my weaknesses. A man who’s too eager to trust…” His grip on the desk tightened. “You told me you were a liar, I knew it, and still I let wide-eyed hope goad me into believing I might be reaching you.”
“I’m sorry, I truly am—” I sighed. “But those are just words, as you’ve so helpfully pointed out, and right now you seem to value a Serzhi’s words about as highly as a snake values socks. There has to be something I can I do.”
“If you hope I’ll offer a detailed plan for exploiting me again,” Salaal said grimly, “you’ll be sorely disappointed. Which, at least, would make two of us.”
There didn’t seem to be anything more to say. It was strange. Usually I can’t run away from Majeri fast enough (sometimes literally), and I’ve certainly enjoyed choking Scarb with his own rules. Doctor Salaal’s pain was different. It hurt to see. It hurt even to know it was there. So I stayed, talking awkwardly about this and that—not wonder tales or anything that could be construed as a lie, just simple little moments from my life. He didn’t answer, and might have gone spontaneously deaf for all I knew. Maybe I wasn’t reaching him at all. Maybe I was just making things worse, stirring him to greater and greater fury. All I knew was, I had to try.
“Fare well, Esteemed Fever Unweaver,” I finally told him. “I hope someday we’ll sit again beneath the Banyan’s boughs and look together at the missing spaces where flowers once were.”
Doctor Salaal sat at his desk, seeing nothing, saying nothing. I gave my head a little shake and left.
I wandered through Justicemonger’s Hall, pondering the problem of Doctor Salaal. This thought led to that, which led inevitably to the other, which eventually forced me to ponder (as I’m sure happens to all of us) whether a single colossal all-monkey could defeat a thousand thousand talking apes, assuming they had spears but it could cast spells, whereupon—
A hand landed on my shoulder with force enough to bend bones. Sadly, there was an arm attached to it. Even more sadly, there was a Majeri soldier attached to that. “You are summoned,” he rasped. Soldiers never say these things in perky falsetto voices. I’m not sure why—it would certainly make them easier to take. I was led upstairs, into the richly appointed realm of the Exalted. We paused in a waiting room, and then I was shown into the opulent chambers of Dhrevos Scarb himself. With a thin smile, the Chief of Mission for all Durbansq waved me to a seat, then proceeded to ignore me as he finished up some paperwork. I’d had trouble understanding it, the first time someone tried to explain the Exalted to me. You didn’t take a test, or prove yourself worthy through bravery or age, competence or wealth. You didn’t even have to quote daft truths from a musty old book. You had to be born to the right womb, just that. I suppose it has sense. Dhrevos Scarb’s innate superiority was proved by the fact that God assigned him to the womb of an Exalted mother. It couldn’t be more clear… right?
Scarb finally looked up at me. “Well met, Aris.”
“All things bow before truth,” I said doggedly.
“I know that,” he said, holding me with eyes as entrancing as a cobra’s. “You know that. The Justicemongers know it. Amazing what the law will do, though, for one who really understands it. Would you like me to prove that your parents are deviants for raising such a troublesome son, and must be displayed in cages to the edification of all?”
“You can’t do that,” I said, hating the damnable tremor of uncertainty in my voice. Scarb’s smile widened.
“Do you really want to challenge me, Aris? I enjoy a challenge.”
“It isn’t right!”
“Aris, Aris! Right comes in degrees. Killing a man is wrong. Standing by and not killing a murderer as he takes forty victims is even worse! If I wrong you to save so many more, why, it’s very right indeed.” His fingers drummed rhythmically on his desk. “Just not for you, more’s the pity.”
I was starting to sweat. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” I said desperately. “My passbook… totally clean…”
“Passbooks are a wonderful tool for those who lack the eyes to see. I look at you, Aris, and I see trouble. How long do you think it would take me to persuade a panel of Justicemongers to see the same?”
I could only shake my head, afraid to speak lest he twisted my words against me.
Dhrevos Scarb leaned close, his eyes boring into mine. “Keep in mind—right comes in degrees! I could let you go, if doing so enabled me to bring about a greater good. What do you know about Durbansq’s true men of wealth and power? What do you know about the Sars?”
I sat back. Dhrevos Scarb waited patiently.
“Sar Dabran grows plants,” I offered.
“I knew that, Aris. Thank you. Now here’s an idea,” he said, with the air of a man about to confer a special favor, “what if I convinced the Justicemongers to double all taxes and fees—and every time a payment was extracted, our men would very carefully credit you for being its cause? Your neighbors would wish to thank you for their swift and inexorable improvement, would they not?”
A chill wind seemed to blow straight up my spine. If I’d shuddered any harder, there would have been two of me. “Sar Lajal…” I started, but Scarb’s eyes bored into mine, warning me not to stall.
“You have a grandfather, yes?” he said quietly. “Surely his dissolute life could be redeemed in some last spark of goodness. Tell me, how much weight do you think he could bear?”
“I know… a little… about Sar Efrem,” I admitted.
“Go on,” Scarb said.
I wasn’t about to betray Eyla’s father, or Eyla herself, or any of her five sisters. I stuck mainly to things that were common knowledge or popular gossip. I did wax poetic once or twice on the subject of Eyla’s sole brother Dayib, a boy of nine or ten years who has a particular talent for being annoying. When I finally rambled to a halt, Dhrevos Scarb wore an expression I found vastly disturbing: He looked thoughtful.
“Thank you, Aris. You may go.”
Wondering what—if anything—he’d gotten from me, I fled that place without looking back.
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