The Great Celestial
Machine of Saithan
In distant Ke’phar, where towering jungles pull ceaseless rain from the clouds themselves, the Lord of All Birds ordered his subjects to illustrate his glories with a play called, simply, “The Complete History of Everything”. After a decade’s arduous rehearsal, the bright little birds did a remarkable job of portraying everything that had ever happened—until they came to the part where the Lord of All Birds (played by a squint-eyed old bustard) commanded his subjects to perform “The Complete History of Everything”. They had to put on a play within the play, and one within that, and on and on until they’d recruited beetles and caterpillars and fungi to fill all the roles. True suffering, one buttonquail later remarked to another, was watching a slime mold attempt to grow in a way that expressed the poignant tragedy of two lovers kept apart. Centuries passed, the trees themselves growing into endless renditions of the same old tales, but the Lord of All Birds was not there to see it. His old heart gave out around the fiftieth performance-within-a-performance, and by the hundred-and-ninth, there was nothing left of him but a twining crown of exquisite orchids.
See my homeland, Serzhen. An arid land, a hard land, where trees like gnarled old men weep tears of amber for want of water (but what of the Time of Rains, when the wounds struck by each and every raindrop spew forth a mad profusion of flowers, blazing with color enough to shame the gods?) A savage land, a barbaric land, where the backward inhabitants don’t even know how to tell the truth (but which is more honest—hiding behind plain unpainted words, or weaving a twining artistry of tales and lies, insults and exaggerations so breathtakingly personal, it exposes your very soul for all to see?) It was right and good for the missionaries of Majra to conquer us, to yoke us to their absolute truths and rigid laws (but what of the taxes and fees, plunder and dominion which are the “accidental” side effects of their struggle to improve us poor lying savages?)
There is wonder in the past, yes, and it provides invaluable lessons for the story we all of us are writing right now. Bound by their laws, though, the men of Majra see only the past, hear only the old tales, think only what’s already been thought. If the insidious Black Cabal has started to oppose them at every turn, if I myself have gained the power to fight them with their own laws—what does it matter? They stare resolutely backward, and may be very surprised to one day look up and see nothing but an orchid crown and a scattering of feathers.
In distant Ke’phar, beetles and worms still perform the stories of our struggle. Therein lies a city whose veins decided to dance, the merrily lethal ghosts of still-living women, and the smirking jungle cat who took my life—concluding with a cheat so grand that the universe itself held its breath, stopped, and watched wide-eyed to see what would happen.
So it is told, and so it must be…
* * *
Clouds banded the sky, and the cool wind breathed tales of lost lakes and mysterious seas. The Time of Rains could break at any moment—today, tomorrow, a week from now—and all the land seemed to be holding its breath waiting. True, the wilds had long been reduced to leafless thornbrake, dead grasses and rattling seedpods, but even the fields were starting to turn sere and brown as the irrigation channels began to fail.
I walked a step behind Father, as was proper, or tried to. Anyone who wants fifty thousand pretty brothers and fifty thousand spiky sisters is advised to have a father who breeds roses for a living. His reverent patience is something to behold as he crosses and chooses, judges and selects. His flowers are not perfect, not yet, and so we are poor. Or perhaps they are perfect, forcing every would-be buyer to stare in enraptured ecstasy until their head swells with beauty and they float away on the breeze… in which case, since their money floats away with them, we are still poor. Either way, his eyes see only the beauty of roses, and his feet tend to fall where the lay of the land takes them. He’s quite surprised, at times, to discover where he’s been.
Since Father’s steps were so haphazard, I tried walking behind my mother’s father the Sheyk Sindba, to no better result. He saw instantly what I was doing. How could he not? It takes a keen mind and sharp wit to lead one’s people across the Qabdi desert as judge and father and king combined: There was power and command in those old eyes, and I’ve sometimes thought fish would forswear water and learn to hop if only he exhorted them to. Mischievously, he tried to walk behind me, with the result that the three of us described a series of breathless jerky loops on our way to the city gates. To my father’s eyes, at least, I’m sure they described roses.
My grandfather touched his sword, a Qabdi weapon for a Qabdi man, since none of us Serzhi carry such things. “All right, Aris, let’s simplify this. Am I perfect?”
“Yes,” I said promptly.
“Do honor and justice shine from my mighty sword?”
“Yet when my sword is sheathed, it points behind me,” he noted. “To walk behind me is to claim you’re worthy of basking in the glorious light of my transcendent blade! The only way to be meekly subservient, I’m afraid, is to walk beside me and not be subservient at all.”
I started to answer. Sheyk Sindba drew his sword half a handspan. My mouth snapped shut. He sheathed the sword and smiled. To his credit, he didn’t smirk. I kind of wish he had. It’s hard to be angry at a man for being reasonable in victory.
We came to the South Gate of the city, pausing behind a line of people waiting to get in. There weren’t any men of Majra at the gate—my legal maneuverings had won us that much, at least. No, the soldiers and missionaries were lurking just beyond those stark white walls, hidden where the latest convolutions of the law permitted them. It was an imperfect checkpoint—some of my neighbors managed to slip off to one side or the other—but many were inspected by white-clad men with suspicious faces and rigid minds as they sniffed out disobedience, assigned punishments, assessed fines and taxes. We hung back, milling with the other Serzhi, hoping for a clear way through. The easiest way to deal with the Majeri, of course, is not to talk to them at all.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it, the concern they have for reforming us poor ungrateful savages?” Father muttered.
“Oh, most certainly,” I agreed. “Me, I’ve been perfect for ages, but I keep pretending to be a liar so I can bask once again in the warm glow of their healing love. Plus, how could I deny them the pleasure of shaking tiny-glowing-eyeball-filled pomegranates at me and wailing ‘repent, repent!’“
Sheyk Sindba raised an eyebrow. “I don’t recall that I’ve seen them do that.”
“You obviously need to commit a more egregious class of crime against decency,” I advised him.
“Oh, I will! And I’ll tell your mother it was your idea!”
“Many thanks, Aris. You’ve given a useless old man reason to live!”
“Gah!” I said, raising my eyes to the heavens, though I’m not sure which gods I expected to intervene. Some tasks are too formidable even for them.
Amazingly, a gap did open. Quick as that, the three of us slipped through. None of the Majeri even looked up.
“If glorious Majra allowed us to pass, why, we must all be perfect!” Sindba said, cheerfully picking his nose. “So tell me, Consummate One, what writs are you bringing against our beloved conquerors today?”
I shrugged. “Hiranya Sindahar lost his sellers’ stamp—and much of his livelihood—for wickedly and quite intentionally telling a story to his children. Stories being, as I’m sure you’re aware, things that didn’t happen described as though they did, rendering them lies and therefore evil. The fact that Majeri soldiers were hiding outside his window surely has nothing to do with the power he wields as a member of the City Assemblage.”
“Of course,” Sindba said drily.
“Naturally, Majra’s perfect system of perfect laws must punish him—the more severely, the better! It’s respect for that very perfection that forces me to point out certain procedural errors. Loving truth as I do, how could I ignore even the tiniest imperfection in the case?”
“And how long, exactly, can you stall his punishment?” Sindba asked, smiling openly now.
“Oh, not more than nine or ten years.”
As we neared Market Street, a great rumble of thunder boomed from the clouds above. I gasped. The Time of Rains! I sprinted into the great open market of Durbansq, somehow wanting to share this singular moment with as many people as possible.
I’ve heard tales of vast laughing giants in whose tangled beards whole civilizations have risen and fallen; misers who trained so many ants to fetch up gold from the earth that their homes sank into pits and vanished forever; and princesses of such exquisite loveliness that they were struck dead with wonder at the sight of their own reflections—but none of these are as amazing as Market Street. Smiling men rattle amber and obsidian, promising amazing discounts to anyone who can solve their riddles. Wide-eyed young women tell tales that end in such soul-wrenching tragedy, passers-by are forced to stop and demand the real ending. Saintly old grandmothers cheerfully insult everyone in sight, reeling them in the moment they stop to defend themselves. Bright clashing colors and delectable scents, waving flags and battling kites, laughing children and weeping merchants (who miraculously forget their tears the moment someone decides to buy)—walk the Market for a thousand years and you’ll still find something new. Today, I spotted a matronly woman wearing a headdress of a dozen tiny lantern-balloons, each with its own little flame raising it toward the heavens. While she looked away, I was astonished to see several brigand-puppets stealing her goods, talking in high-pitched voices about the amazing virility and fortune such wondrous cloth granted its wearer. Fortunately, before I could intervene and so seal my fate, thunder rumbled again, loud enough to hear even over the shouts and pleas, tales and songs. I ran to the middle of the street. Children raised their faces to the sky. Grown men and women jumped up and down in anticipation. Thunder growled and gamblers drew grids in the dust, taking wagers on which square the rain would strike first. Merchants pragmatically tried to strike deals with their distracted customers, hoping they wouldn’t notice the abruptly doubled prices. Veil-dancer girls loudly wondered whether their delicate clothes would hold up to the rain, whereupon their grinning little sisters popped up out of nowhere to sell “a flower for your love!” to all the young men who’d clustered around desperately feigning disinterest. I could only shake my head. When the rains struck, those flimsy silks would conceal about as much as the vitreous veils of the notorious glass-garbed maidens… not that you’d be able to see anything for all the heaps of flowers their admirers had bought for them! Or, ah, so I’ve heard. From a friend.
A single large drop of rain suddenly smacked into the dust—there! I ran to it (I’m not even sure why), ringing it along with a gaggle of children, looking wildly for the next one. It didn’t come. One heartbeat passed into the next. Merchants slowly began calling again. People shook their heads and moved on. I waited until everyone else had gone, but the Time of Rains didn’t break. Not today. Not yet. But soon.
It isn’t wise to linger on Market Street if you don’t intend to buy. I hurried back toward the South Gate. There, where Market Street blends into the Artist’s Quarter, Mother sat behind her table selling whole roses, baskets of petals, and pots of honey. She didn’t have to shout or rage: People came to her, eager to share their gossip and hear her advice. Sheyk Sindba sat beside his daughter, a wry smile on his face as he silently offered miscellaneous luxury goods. There were few takers, but then, his sales technique of sadly shaking his head at would-be buyers was tenuous at best.
“It wouldn’t kill you to try,” I suggested, “unless, of course, the exertion rendered you such an effective salesman that you were crushed to death under vast ringing piles of gold!” I paused. “Still, I’m willing to risk it.”
“Many thanks, Aris,” he said drily, “for giving an old man yet another reason to live. Did you find me enemies to fight? Feuds to settle? Warriors to train? No! I get to sit here, buttocks chafing from sheer immobility, actively trying to hurt people—forcing upon them what they don’t need in exchange for coin they do. My reward for a day’s triumph is to trudge home weeping in shame!”
I looked over the goods spread in front of him, trying to judge what—if anything—he’d sold. “Is it possible to cry half a tear?” I asked.
“Hmph.” Sindba tried not to smile. “You’re a good boy, Aris, or so the brigands who sneak into my room at night to stab my tongue—stealthily training it to say evil things—apparently believe, but this wasn’t one of your cleverer ideas. I’m no merchant.”
“You don’t have to be. Consider the man who tried to be a bird. The Sultan laughed and laughed and forced the poor man to run all around the palace, flapping his wings and squawking, before he was finally dismissed in shame. Ah, but the wings hadn’t been made for flying! They’d been made for stealing, with sticky wax carefully brushed across the bottom of each feather. The Sultan stopped laughing when he realized he was missing four candlesticks, eighty gold coins, nine jewel-encrusted necklaces and three nubile harem girls. As for you, O Sheyk, are you selling to make money—or to become respected and known, earning an invitation to rule as a member of the City Assemblage?”
He grumbled. “I still say it would be quicker—and easier!—to stab everyone in the world who isn’t me. Then they’d have to pick me.” He picked up a tiny bottle of perfumed essence, scowling at it. “Then again, if selling half a vial of myrrh is enough to earn their respect, I’m not sure I want to be on their stupid Assemblage.”
I smiled. “A dancer’s veils are the flimsiest of lies, but what finer lie is there? And you, a man of strength and wisdom, a man who’s summoned armies out of nowhere to defend this city—twice!—why, does it matter how flimsy a lie gets you onto the Assemblage, so long as it works? I name you a merchant, whether you like it or not.”
“Given the number of sales I’ve made, it would be as accurate to name me Jarada of the Dancing Veils!”
“Beholding the awesome dignity of your virile moustache,” I said judiciously, “I sincerely hope your veils are both many and opaque.”
Rolling his eyes, Sheyk Sindba cupped the vial of perfumed essence in his hands and began extolling its virtues to passers-by:
“Wildly unnecessary! Prove how mighty you are by throwing money away on curdled stink-sauce! Guaranteed to make you smell in the three heartbeats before the wind disperses it!”
“Please, grandfather!” I shouted, “stop greedily trying to keep the Consummate Beauty of Ultimate Pleasure all to yourself by driving customers away with your lies!”
A crowd suddenly formed around him, extremely interested in his protests. I slid over to sit next to Mother. She’s small and dark and to my eye lovely, with a sly grin and clear evidence of past thievery in the individual strands of silver that grace her hair, right where anyone can see (stolen gold she keeps in her eyes, I’m told, but only my father gets to look into their deepest depths).
“Aris—” she said, but the accompanying smile got lost on the way to her face. Following her gaze, I spotted a Majeri clerk lurking behind us. Maybe he thought he was inconspicuous. You know—white costume far too heavy for our hotter clime, starched creases so sharp that bread explodes into slices just from looking at them, an expression as solemn as it was condescending. Wildly inconspicuous, if you make the simplifying assumption that everyone in the world is blind. I fell silent. Mother sorted through her roses and calmly flicked bugs at me.
“Aris of Durbansq,” the clerk said, which put a bit of a strain on his inconspicuousness. Maybe everyone in the world was deaf as well.
“Aris Al-Sindba,” I corrected him.
“My form says Aris.”
“And what appears on paper is, necessarily, more true than what actually is. But beware, friend, lest you swat a fly with it! Then my name would be ‘Glorrrrghfbbb’, and there would be nothing either of us could do about it!”
“Jumara Sul-Aris,” he continued, looking at Mother (and no, she doesn’t name herself after me, but after her husband, who is my father, who named himself after the son he hoped he would someday have, which isn’t as… no, wait. It’s exactly as stupid as it sounds).
“Jumara of the Western Winds,” she corrected him. The clerk didn’t even bother to check his papers.
“You—” He indicated Mother. “—have been disowned, legally forsaken, by your father. Is this so?”
A guarded expression came over her face. “What choice did he have? Glorious Majra, in all its radiant wisdom, states that women belong to their men. Well. Do you blame the table for collapsing, or the carpenter who built it poorly? Do you punish a woman for her crimes, or the man who taught and disciplined her poorly? Given the risk she poses him, can you blame the owner of a rebellious, disruptive, criminal woman for forsaking her forever?”
“Yes, yes,” the clerk said, “and yet I see that your father is sitting right next to you. If he legally disowned you, but continues to see you as if nothing had happened… why, there are penalties for telling lies. And there most certainly are penalties for falsifying legal documents.”
For the first time, Sheyk Sindba seemed to notice what was going on. His eyes narrowed. Wise men, at this point, would start running in the opposite direction. The clerk pulled a little book from his pocket, bound to him on a fine golden chain. Sindba started to draw his sword, but Mother calmly stopped him, whispering something in his ear. Grandfather stared at her. I think I heard him whimper. Mother said something more: Very reluctantly, Sindba drew his table-knife and bent down, disappearing behind the table. The clerk, oblivious to all this, snapped open his little book and read:
“‘Wrong deeds are symptoms of wrong thoughts. There is no remedy for evil but forcing proper, correct thoughts into the erring mind.’“ He snapped the book shut. “Your father is old. Still, there may be time to reform him yet. It will be interesting to see how much correction one man can take.” His eyes slid to me. “Unless, of course, someone offered an alternative that brought even more good to the world…”
Bile rose in my throat. So that was it. It wasn’t about Mother, it wasn’t about Sheyk Sindba. They saw in me a threat, and meant to see it ended. Before I could say anything, however, Mother smiled up at the clerk.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen this man before. You can tell the difference because he hasn’t a moustache.”
Sindba sat up, sheathing his table-knife. His lip was angry and red—and mostly bare. The clerk looked from the Sheyk to his papers… but the description on his form must be true, more true than reality itself, yes?
“I… I don’t understand…”
“Wrong thoughts lead to wrong deeds!” Mother gasped. “If you don’t understand… why, that could be a symptom of turning evil!”
The clerk scowled, looking once more from paper to Sheyk. At last he turned and walked stiffly away. Sindba put a hand over his upper lip. “Throw me on a pyre and light the tinder,” he said morosely. “There’s only so much humiliation a man can bear.”
“I could paste it back on with honey,” Mother offered.
“I stand corrected. There’s nothing so horrifying, so utterly emasculating, that a cheerful daughter can’t make it a hundred times worse.”
“It’ll be well,” Mother assured him, “it will.” She snapped her fingers at me. “Isn’t that right, Aris?”
There’s one little problem with being the only person in a very large city who can (occasionally) baffle the missionaries with their own laws. People expect me to accomplish things. Shaking my head, I headed for the Majeri compound.
* * *
There was once a tired old elephant-head god who fell into the habit of always walking the same straight and simple paths. Every day he saw the same sights, met the same people. Every day, he forgot more than he learned, and his head shrank smaller and smaller until a passing bird mistook it for a grain of rice. If you’ve never seen a god running around screaming with a bird attached to his head, it’s well worth looking for. The people of Durbansq don’t take such risks. Oh, Market Street is straight, as well as Craftholder Street and some of the Artist’s Quarter, but all else is madness. Colorful houses smash into each other at every weird angle, narrow corridors and meandering little stairways open onto quintuple-split intersections and back-cut alleys. Walking from here to there, how can you not follow a beckoning, unfamiliar little turn? There’s always something new to discover, someone new to meet, something bizarre to—
I woke from my reverie as I passed a crew of Majeri disdainfully looking over the exuberant mess.
“Right through there,” one said, pointing. “Six roads we’ll cut, and bring some honest order to these poor devils.”
So now I had another battle to fight. Shaking my head, I took a narrow trail up a breath-stealingly steep hill, an ancient worn track I was certain hadn’t been there yesterday. I knew this part of Durbansq like the back of my hand, yet here was an entire neighborhood I could have sworn didn’t exist. Houses glowed with paintings of sunsets setting clouds aflame, or bold interlocking patterns of red and gold and green, or the deceptively simple color-splat vistas painted by children at play. I looked at the back of my hand with new respect, wondering if there was anything else it could do. Other matters were altogether more mysterious. Who had carted in sap and dumped it until it formed a boulder of amber higher than my waist? Who was “Dalira Sul-Izabek”, and why did the most ancient trees each have one branch twisted and trained to spell her name? Who had built a complete little house into the base of a hollow tree, and who (or what) would answer if I knocked on its tiny door?
Sadly, I’d hardly even begun to ponder these mysteries when I arrived at the Majeri compound. The center of Durbansq used to be a great open park, filled with flowers and gardens and graceful trees. I’m sure there is beauty, also, in hulking white-painted buildings all squared off and the same, falling with such thudding regularity you can only tell one from the next by counting. Someday I hope to find someone who can see it, so they can point and tell me where to find it.
A clerk studied my passbook, sniffed, and let me into the compound. I crossed the great courtyard, showed my passbook to a pair of soldiers, and was allowed into the vast windowless hulk of Justicemonger’s Hall. There is architecture, they say, that can take one’s breath away. The stifling wet heat of Justicemonger’s Hall does that, too, but I don’t think it’s intentional. I made my way down a very familiar hall to a very familiar office.
“Esteemed mucous-mystagogue!” I cried. “I must send a note of thanks to my eyes, for it’s so very good to see you!”
I made a deep and elaborate bow, hands twirling in emphatic curlicues. Doctor Salaal just shook his head in despair. Despite the crisp white outfit, he doesn’t much look like a missionary. He’s thick and compact with a very deep voice, and (as any storyteller would assure you) must be extremely adept at out-riddling magic wish-giving eels (the questions are easy; it’s holding your breath that’s the trick). Doctor Salaal has been many things: A doctor, yes, and then (when his superiors considered the need greater), a truth-finder, and he recently completed his studies to become a lawbringer. He certainly does better against me than the usual run of clerks, which I suppose is why his superiors keep using him; as often as I lose, though, I somehow can’t bring myself to mind facing him. I took my usual place on a stool by Salaal’s side, overlooking the great table with its stacks of dusty old tomes and peculiar charts.
“So, what legal challenges are you bringing against us today?” Doctor Salaal said wryly.
“Against? Never! I work with you. Can I be blamed if the ineffable truths of your Majeri ancestors, for some inexplicable reason, keep stopping your kinsfolk from crushing boundless possibilities into dead, flat certainty?”
“And dead, flat certainty is the worst thing in the world, is it?” he asked.
“So claim the holy scriptures of Majra!”
“Interesting,” said Doctor Salaal. “Then teaching children to speak must be the vilest of tortures, since we give them a miserly one meaning per word, instead of showering a rainbow of endless possibilities upon their heads! Ideally, we should hoot and screech and wave our arms randomly every time a child says anything. We won’t know we’ve succeeded until they can’t speak at all!”
“I do believe you’re growing a sense of humor,” I grumbled.
“I do believe you’re evading my question.”
“Today,” I hastily said, “there’s the matter of Hiranya Sindahar and his punishment…”
“A simple case, until you started dragging it out.”
“I love precision and adore truth. Tell me that’s wrong.”
Doctor Salaal glanced sourly at me. “Truth is looking at the universe and stating, honestly, what one sees. Our books are an imperfect human attempt to capture Truth. Your method is to pick out those imperfections and beat us over the head with them. You don’t care about truth, honesty, or law—only the cheats, tricks and exploits you can use to get your way.”
“If the law is perfect, and the system is perfect, Truth will always win,” I said piously. “Can I help it if perfection takes time… sometimes lots of time?”
Doctor Salaal snorted. “The system does work. It will prevail. By obeying our laws and practicing our ways, you’ve sown the seeds for your own eventual defeat.” He paused. “I just wish I knew how eventual.”
“Then,” I said, “there’s this matter of knocking down neighborhoods and paving straight new roads. I need to run a discovery before I take any action.”
“I’ll stop you, Aris. Right will prevail. We’ve crafted these laws over a thousand years; one quick-witted young man will not be our undoing.”
“How many do you figure it would take?” I asked innocently. Doctor Salaal laughed. He’s been doing that a lot more lately, and it’s a pleasant sound. Still, when he leaned forward and tapped my knee with his quill, he had that deep-thinking expression on his face that meant I should pay attention.
“You can’t escape your ‘exile’, as you call it—your education, really, the moment you’ll afterward regard as the beginning of your life. After the Time of Rains, when the caravans start up again, you will be sent to Majra. You rail against it now, but ah! when you learn to open your eyes and see! The man who’s lived his whole life with eyes screwed shut may scream and cry, but I pry them open not to punish him… but because I genuinely wish he could see as many wonders as have I.”
“Truly it is amazing,” I said dubiously. “And finally, there’s the matter of these disowned and forsaken women, unclaimed wretches who are technically wards of Majra…”
Salaal snorted. “Even you have to admit there’s something suspicious about dozens of women suddenly being disowned all at once.”
“I, ah, don’t know what you’re talking about. But I happen to know, when one of these women is found close to a man who used to claim her, it’s considered evidence that he lied and filed falsely. Is this wise? We should encourage men to see their women, to remember all the good times they shared. Let daughters see their fathers. Let husbands see their wives. How will these men be persuaded to take them back—and take responsibility for their crimes!—if they’re not even allowed to meet?”
Doctor Salaal grimaced. “We should remove the consequences from their actions, you mean. Forsake a woman, be rewarded with immunity from her crimes—but suffer no ill effects whatsoever! What, then, is supposed to motivate these men to take their straying women back?”
“Love?” I ventured. “I’m sorry, I keep a talking rat where my heart is supposed to be, but he assures me that marriage goes over big in certain quarters.”
“There’s a challenge I wouldn’t be upset to lose,” Doctor Salaal mused. “It’s a nasty business, arresting people for being together… but no, I think I’d better oppose you. Your logic, as usual, is suspect.” He paused. “Also, I respect you so much, I could never crush boundless variety into deathly dull sameness by agreeing with you.”
I glanced sharply at him, but he was far too solemn to be joking. I think. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
We got to work, hammering out the exact wording of the statement to be argued over. Doctor Salaal pored over his charts and index books, calculating the exact verses and quotations he would need to fight me. Somewhere in the great vaults of Majra lies all the truth in the universe. So claim the Majeri, and I’m sure it is so. No doubt a djinni with a well-developed sense of irony wrote all the world’s knowledge on a mote of dust and planted it on the spine of one of their books, too tiny to see. Me, I did some preliminary calculations, asked after the health of Doctor Salaal’s wife (better, since I put him in touch with Gatma the Apothecary), and took my leave. The vaults were not open to the likes of me. Fortunately, I had my own resources.
I’d nearly left the compound when an explosive hiss caught my attention. I think it’s a sign of how degraded my life has become that I didn’t for a second think it odd that someone was hissing at me from beneath the locked grate of an irrigation channel. I’ve also started to yawn when masked fiends dance naked under the ashen moon waving curvy knives and announcing they’ll need just a little of my blood for their own craven purposes. You know. The usual.
“Aris!” she hissed. “ARIS!”
It was Eyla, of course. She’s small and quick and canny, and there’s always something going on behind those all-too-knowing eyes. Not that I can figure out what; there may be fire in her brain, but all I can see is the smoke coming out of her ears. Intellectually, I knew that getting engaged to her was sheer lunacy… but when I looked into her glowing, rodentine eyes, all logic flew away and I only wished I could experience the magic of asking her once more. Then again, maybe I’d better not. Knowing her, she’d say ‘no’ just so she could have the fun of making me chase her all over again.
“Aris! Get down here! Quick!”
I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no Majeri were in sight, then knelt by the grate.
“Wouldn’t it be easier if I walked twenty paces that way and met you outside the compound?”
“Oh, and that’s fun,” she said derisively. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I lent it to a minuscule dragon who was too timid to attack the amorphous blobs of pure evil he had sworn to fight, which is why some kinds of cheese don’t have holes in them. Yet.”
“Cheese is evil?” Eyla asked.
“Metaphorically, I think it represents the moral challenges of a fast-changing world, but in a literal sense, yes, it is solidified and coagulated evil. Which explains why it’s so tasty!”
Eyla glared at me. “Get down here now,” she said distinctly, “or I’ll tell everyone what we did last night. Your mother, too.”
“We didn’t do anything!”
“Right. But do you honestly think they’d believe me?”
“You wouldn’t!” I said, alarmed. Eyla gave me one of her most charming smirks, which really shouldn’t work but somehow does. I sighed, opened the trick lock (we Serzhi have needed unobtrusive ways in and out of the Majeri compound before), and slid down to join her.
The irrigation channel was almost empty, just a trickle of water splashing beneath our feet. It would be a vastly different story after the Time of Rains, but for now I only had to duck my head and watch my step. Eyla led me on a meandering course—’to confuse our enemies’, she rather mysteriously proclaimed. Of course, it also happened to lead us past various places where a collapse admitted great rays of sunlight into lost realms of moss and ferns and tiny bright frogs.
“So.” Eyla stopped in front of me, hands on her hips. Then she thought better of it and scrambled up a pile of collapsed rubble so she could tower over me. “So. We’re engaged, right?”
“That depends on whether you told the truth when you gave me your promise, or whether it was an elaborate lie of such breathtaking beauty that—when you finally confess sixty years from now as I lie on my deathbed, thus completing the greatest prank in human history—I’ll scream ‘NOOOOOO!’ and my eyes will actually shoot from my head and become comets.”
“Hmm,” Eyla said, smiling. “Tempting. Very tempting. Come to think of it, I have promised you’d spend the rest of your life with me, but then, that could also be said of a tigress and her prey. Anyway, my point is, we’re engaged. You asked. For the sake of comedy, I fed you hallucinogenic spores which made you think I said ‘yes’. My father gave his permission. It’s done.”
“So some would claim,” I cautiously agreed.
“Therefore,” she said, leaning down and twining her arms around my neck like a trap, “when we’re alone together, we can do whatever… we… want.”
“Alone?” I said, half-panicked and half-intrigued, looking nervously around the dark and echoing tunnel as if to check for unexpected cousins. Eyla grinned, bent down, and kissed me. My heart accelerated by about fifty times. If she’d kissed me any longer, I think it would have started spinning in place.
“Ahhh,” I said. I took a step backward. She didn’t let go and ended up hanging around my neck, grinning up at me. “I’m… I’m not sure.”
“I don’t believe this.” Eyla dropped to the ground, eyes sparking with challenge. “No one will know! No one will see! What are you waiting for?!”
“I’m reminded of a story…”
“Oh, go on,” Eyla said, doing a terrible job of concealing her interest. I sat down on a pile of rubble, carefully choosing my words.
“In distant Sa’bahr,” I said, “where cunning fish cast nets for men to trade back for their kin, a young prince was furious that his father wouldn’t let him explore the island’s many caves. One day, after his father left to hunt the mighty legged-serpents-that-devour-men-weeping, the prince snuck away to see one of these forbidden wonders for himself. He gazed in astonishment at the bats that covered the ceiling—and mourned as they poured out into the night. Unwilling to see such a marvel lost forever, he robbed his father’s treasury and paid all the greatest artisans in Sa’bahr to carve and cement stone bats to the cave roof until it was EXACTLY as it had been.
“The work began, but it did not end. The cave was never EXACTLY as it had been, because the bats came back each morning and made it different. When the whole ceiling was filled, the artisans had to carve the real bats that hung from the stone bats, then the real bats on the stone bats on the stone bats, and so on through a hundred iterations. Longer and longer the chains grew, like demented hanging roots of bat-shaped stone until the cave was utterly filled. The real bats, having nowhere to roost, poured into the palace instead. The prince, with a look of vast surprise on his face, tripped down the stairs into a pool of guano where once had been the treasury, and was never heard from again.” I smiled tightly. “There are certain things I want, but that doesn’t mean I should have them NOW. It is not a bad thing, I think, waiting for the time to be exactly right.”
“That’s a wonderful story,” Eyla admitted, “except for being COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT!!! Let’s ask a rhetorical question—and it had better be rhetorical or I’m going to cut off your balls—are you nervous because I might be the wrong person for you?”
“I’m nervous because I’m not sure you are a person,” I countered. “When they last counted the horrendous tiger-clawed cannibal ghools in the area, they came up one missing.” My expression softened. “Other than that, no, that’s not why I’m nervous. You’re the right person for me. I couldn’t be more certain were I a Majeri reading it from a piece of paper.”
“Right. Therefore, you’re nervous because it’s going to be something new. You, the man who calmly walked into a fight carrying a sword he had no idea how to use. You, the man who stood before the assembled elders of the city and told them what to do. You, the man who defied the might of Majra itself… and won! Just because we haven’t spoken a few idiotic words as part of a daft ritual, you’re paralyzed with fear… even though it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when! Get it over with! Jump in! By the gods, Aris, if you’d been ‘nervous’ about this whole ‘being born’ business, your poor mother would be weary beyond measure and ours would have been a very different courtship!”
“Certain rituals are extremely helpful to people like me,” I noted, “as they render certain events both permitted and obligatory.”
Eyla’s eyes narrowed. “I think maybe I’d better keep kissing you until you start seeing things my way.”
“AS YOU WILL!!! IT SHALL BE DONE!!!” I bellowed at the top of my lungs. It echoed for quite a while; from the broken hole up above, I could hear footsteps and the voice of a confused citizen:
“Sounds like we’re not alone any more,” I said regretfully. Eyla glared at me, though she couldn’t quite suppress a grin.
“I’ll get you,” she said affectionately.
“I sure hope so,” I muttered. With extremely mixed feelings, I followed her down the passage.
* * *
The soldiers of Majra well know the dangers of the House of Forbidden Delights. Yes, the colors are bright, the windows veiled, the barely-garbed young women (and some men) quite enticing—but the bushes are crammed with more nosy little sisters than seed ticks on the world’s tastiest dog. Any soldier who dares approach will find himself hauled up before his superiors before he negotiates so much as a coy glance, while the little girl cackles and runs off—coin pouch jingling with reward money—to share the bounty with her older sister. And so the House of Forbidden Delights remains utterly taboo, one of the few places in Durbansq guaranteed to be utterly free of Majeri interference.
I bowed to one of the more enticing girls… Barathi, I think it was. “May I humbly thank you for being so radiantly beautiful that all the spurious suns that rose this morning sighed with longing and sank back below the horizon, leaving only the one and thus sparing us all a horrible searing death?”
“Still working out compliments for Eyla?” she grinned, waving at one of the bushes. It wiggled in answer.
“Insufficiently tested material has been known to put her in a biting mood.”
“Too wordy,” Barathi decided. “A girl likes a compliment where she’s not asleep by the time it’s over.”
“Ah,” I said sadly, and went inside.
Great airy galleries opened before me, gracefully rising and falling in wide steps and opening onto the riotous growth of verdant courtyards. Scholars pored over books, sages held forth on the mysteries of the ages and City Assemblars ardently debated matters of justice and mercy. The bright salacious exterior was a lie, yes, but a finer shield than anything crafted of metal or bone. Garbed in deception, we could plan our resistance in peace, much as tasty children wear a layer of snot and dirt to ward off ghools (at least, I hope that’s why; if children were actually that unsanitary, I might have to side with the ghools).
An entire section of the House is dedicated to Majeri law; the City Assemblage employs a number of young men and women to do research, and I quickly got them poring over our copies of the Majeri lawbooks, searching out quotations and obscure legal details. A handful of older researchers eagerly helped me build my case: Though I’m not sure Gatma’s amazing varicolored charts helped much, with all their eccentric loops that bloomed into flowers when you spun them just right, it wouldn’t have been the same without him. Sula the Stork played the Majeri side, prodding at my arguments and looking for weaknesses, while her husband, Ala the Stork, shored me up with endless quotations. Truly Majra must be amazing, where the words of corpses dead and worm-mulched these thousand years count more in our lives than the pleas of those actually living them. Shaking my head, I reviewed the legal arguments my researchers had found, trying to decide which to open with, which to close with, and which might advance the points I was trying to make…
A distant rumble drifted in through the window. My mind immediately said ‘thunder!’, which shows just how obsessed I’ve become with the Time of Rains: Normally, my mind would say ‘a mountain-sized nut from the Tree That Holds Up The Sky which is rolling toward us with lethal finality!’ It was neither. The sound grew steadily closer, accompanied by the cries and curses of a bewildered driver. It was a ratha, and as horses and camels aren’t allowed on the streets of Durbansq, only a vastly rich man could afford the labor needed to use it. I hurried to a window just in time to see the wheeled booth veer into sight. Indeed, about half a dozen laughing young men were pulling it; from the way the terrified driver was shouting out scores and point totals, I guessed it was a contest, with the winner receiving the bulk of their pay. Did the men respond by doing their quiet best? Of course not. They went all-out to sabotage each other, trying to veer sideways and scrape rivals off on walls, or bounce the ratha over rocks and through holes in a wild effort to shake off their opponents. Toward the end, a couple even got tripped under the onrushing wheels of the ratha, though they leapt up to hastily re-take their places. The ratha finally skewed to a halt, very nearly tipping over sideways. Looking like he’d rather be throwing tiny sword-wielding monkeys (tiny monkeys; full-sized swords), the driver tossed a pouch of money to the cheering competitors.
The door of the ratha opened and Sar Efrem stepped out. He looked every bit the wealthiest and most powerful man in Durbansq, carrying himself with a quiet dignity I would have thought impossible after such a ride. He was a great large man, his robes the vivid overdyed orange of a volcanic chasm, talismans like long and slender dragons of real gold sporting in the flames. Here stood a man who’d held fortune and might against all challengers, who moved lesser mortals as others move game pieces. Under his formidable gaze, some of the girls fled and others simply looked away. He could unmake their careers, or that of their parents, with the wave of a hand; what if they said a wrong thing? Watching him come up the steps, I suffered the peculiar thought that it must be very difficult for him to make friends.
I turned back to my charts, but I didn’t really see them. I had an idea what was coming next. Sure enough, Sar Efrem soon entered the Jasmine Library (and no, no jasmine grows here, but as the artisans who built it went mad carving every lewd, lascivious, and utterly inappropriate tale they could think of into the ceiling, pillars, and bookshelves, there isn’t anything evenly remotely wholesome we can call it).
“You’re looking well,” I offered. “Too well. Please, friend, try not to be so exuberantly healthy, lest all the world’s leeches fly through the air, irresistibly drawn to your beautiful blood!”
“I can’t help myself,” he said laconically. “I overflow with joy at the thought that you’re engaged to marry my daughter. Just ask my wife, I wake up every night in a cold sweat of… appreciation… for such a wonder. Some people might question your generosity were I to die under a heaving mound of leeches because you selfishly insisted on making me so happy, but I would not be one of them.” He hesitated. “Particularly as I’d be dead.”
“I’ll give out salt as a wedding present,” I promised. “At night, happy dancing leeches. By morning, sad little puddles of slime. You’ll be safe.”
Efrem rolled his eyes, but chose not to challenge my obviously true statement. “My ears, for some bizarre reason, insist on hearing about today’s cases…?”
I hastily explained what I was working on. Sar Efrem isn’t just a member of the City Assemblage—he’s the closest thing it has to a leader. Here in Serzhen, we like to talk issues out, debate them with tales and stories until we’ve teased out every last nuance. It can take a long time. The wealthiest of the wealthy, those who have earned the right to call themselves ‘Sar’, are the ones to ask if you need quicker action; anyone with the wealth and will to make things happen can stay about seven and a half steps in front of the Assemblage at its bogged-down worst. Efrem himself funded at least half my work—perhaps because he was a good man with admirable common sense, for I’ve certainly never begged. Then again—perhaps because he was a prudent man who knew what Eyla would do to him if he refused.
“…so you’re not fighting your impending exile to Majra?” Efrem mused. “A spectacular way indeed to break an engagement! Ripped away by uncaring soldiers—very dramatic, most entertaining! I admire you deeply, even while deploring your sad, sad loss. Pardon me while I do a little dance.”
“Some men would murder themselves, straining to roll a boulder up a thousand-pace dune,” I said philosophically. “Others merely wait a day for the sands to shift. Perhaps I’m crazy, pushing what moves and leaving what doesn’t, but I like getting things done.”
“It’s easy indeed to carry pebbles, and what a feeling of accomplishment!” Efrem agreed. “Of course, if the boulder was the only thing that mattered—well, I’m sure the thousand-pace dune that now covers it will shift again. Eventually.” He gave his head a little shake. “Leaving that aside for the moment—how are you coming on winning legal rights for all of us Serzhi?”
“Fine, fine. How are you coming on winning my grandfather a spot on the City Assemblage, as you promised he’d have almost a month ago?”
“Fine, fine,” Efrem said wryly. “Don’t roll boulders up shifting dunes, that’s what I always say.” He bent to examine my papers, studying the arguments that would allow forsaken women and their men to be together. “But in this… in this, you have my unreserved support. Ever since Eyla forced me to disown her…” He shook his head, his eyes seeing places that I could not. “It would be good if I could treat her like my daughter again—very good. Bait the devil but it’s so.”
“Good enough that you’d stop complaining about our engagement?”
Sar Efrem looked pained. “Ask yourself, Aris, was it entirely fair to extort my agreement in the midst of a surging, dancing, delighted mob just after we’d dealt the Majeri such a blow? If an engorged tick’s lurid vomit had acquired a semblance of life and asked for my daughter, they would have screamed their approval! A man can be carried along by the mob. A man can forget sense in the surge and pull of the moment.”
“You gave your word…”
“…and I will obey, precisely, to the letter,” he promised, with that all-too-knowing smile of his.
“For no particular reason, tell me—” I cleared my throat. “Have you heard any of those stories about certain clever djinn and their exceedingly, ah, literal interpretations of wishes?”
“Hundreds of them.”
“Bite the devil’s nose!”
Sar Efrem started to leave. He paused at the door, seemed to change his mind a couple of times, and finally stepped back inside to offer his arm. I clasped it, smiling ruefully. Efrem went out to his ratha, whose driver sadly called out the rules and rewards for another “contest”. Shouting gleefully, the competitors came.
* * *
Many years ago, in a land far away, there was a childless old Sultan who decided that the birds themselves would be his children. He did not find happiness until he married a woman, remarkably, whose breasts were made of seeds…
“…clearly states that reform, not punishment, is the essence of the mission,” I argued. Books of law covered every wall of the great legal library and hearing room, whose vast high ceiling disappeared into cave-like darkness and at least gave the impression of coolness. Of course, in distant Argamay, where clouds swirl so chaotically that lightning and rainbows regularly mate and give birth to endlessly-hued djinn of smokeless flame, humans are woefully outnumbered: Their wishes are granted in so many different and contradictory ways all at once, it’s usually better not to have wished at all.
“…cannot and must not interfere with legitimate implements of reform,” Doctor Salaal insisted. The five Justicemongers watched us impassively, so stolid and lawbound it was a wonder their hearts didn’t leap out of their chests and crawl down to a clerk’s office to file a lifetime’s worth of ‘permission to beat’ requisitions. I tried to keep my mind focused on our arguments, but there was something hypnotic about their awesome and earth-shaking dullness. I found myself reminded of the Zawar desert, which is so vast, so howlingly empty, so much a pit of utter non-being that the longest story ever told about it is only two words long: “Still nothing.”
Another man entered the legal library, and this one I knew all too well: Dhrevos Scarb, Chief of Mission for all Durbansq. All the other Majeri were dressed in plain white, and so was he, but his was noticeably finer—and noticeably more elaborate in its not-so-subtle decorations. Clerks and scribes looked away as he passed, avoiding that knowing smile, unable to meet those oddly cold eyes. Scarb stopped in front of Doctor Salaal’s table. Salaal stared at the ground.
“I was not informed that Aris was trying a case,” Scarb said. “I thought I made my wishes clear?”
“Master.” Doctor Salaal bowed awkwardly. “However much you wish it, it is not part of the law.”
“What caste were you born into?” Scarb inquired lightly, lantern-light shining from his balding head. Doctor Salaal grimaced, then bowed again.
“I am of the Aspiring, Master.”
“Are you saying that God makes mistakes? That I was born of a womb I neither earned nor deserved?”
“No, Master, please Master—”
“I cannot explain ‘red’ to a man without eyes. I cannot explain the truest, purest depths of truth to a mind like yours. I have made my wishes clear.”
Doctor Salaal’s jaw tightened. “Yes, Master.”
Dhrevos Scarb picked up Salaal’s charts, looking them over with interest. “Perhaps I had better argue this case.”
“Your will, Master.”
If the Justicemongers found such interference strange, Salaal’s acquiescence seemed to seal the matter. I picked up my papers and resumed where I’d left off, plod-plod-plod, building my case point by stultifying point—
“Ridiculous,” Scarb scoffed. “Didn’t Vaisal say, ‘women are a curse’? ‘All things bow before truth,’ is one of the Rudiments, and laws therefore cannot be discarded just because they’re inconvenient. Also, women are often seen in the whereabouts of the Black Cabal, meaning they’re either complicit in their crimes or insufficiently opposed to that dread, insidious cult. Also, the women wouldn’t have been disowned if the men weren’t criminally negligent, so if the men suffer for their separation, it’s a punishment they richly deserve.”
“Actually,” I said, “If you take Vaisal’s full quote…”
But it was hopeless. The Aspiring are almost feverishly lawbound, but the Exalted have no such compunctions. Where Doctor Salaal had met me quote for quote, argument for argument, Dhrevos Scarb flung shards of truth at me like a feverish mirror-maiden coughing up clouds of glittering glass. Everything he said was technically true, or a piece of the truth—but by the time I could defend myself against just one charge, he’d spewed out a dozen more clever, memorable quips. I soon got so far behind, I might as well have been digging up a corpse just to slap him around and tell him how wrong he’d been in life. Finally, as I stood sweating in the heat of that dank and wretched place, my papers ran out. I had no arguments left to make. Scarb didn’t even have the decency to twirl his evil moustache while cackling a wicked high-pitched laugh (I’ve never seen him wear a moustache, but presumably it would come in long and thin, eminently twirlable and irredeemably evil). Even at the end, defeating us utterly, he didn’t have the grace to give us a proper villain to hate. He was merely a man doing his job, and that may have been the most despicable thing of all.
“…and therefore,” Scarb said, “we must certainly defeat this attempt to, ah…” He glanced at the documents. Come to think of it, I’m not sure he ever knew precisely what he was arguing against. He gazed at the papers for a long while, his mouth a thin, expressionless line. He finally raised his eyes to the Justicemongers. “We withdraw our objections. Our honorable opponent’s arguments have convinced us and we adopt his cause. We ask you to decide in his favor.”
The Justicemongers hardly needed to confer. The decision was unanimous: Serzhi men could see the women they’d forsaken, without fear and without penalty. I watched Dhrevos Scarb leave the room, trying to figure out what he was up to. Maybe he’d suddenly sprouted a full-blown sense of decency. Right. And maybe Majeri didn’t have nightmares in which pieces of paper mockingly refused to tell them what to do. Doctor Salaal met my eye, shrugged, and gathered up his things. There was nothing I could do but follow. I’d find out what Scarb was up to sooner or later. The question was… how late would prove too late?
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