Orson Scott Card
To Mark Park, Who knows the Little King From the heart out.
O Palicrovol, with death and vengeance in your eyes, I write to you because over the centuries there are tales you have forgotten, and tales you never knew. I will tell you all the tales, and because my tales are true, you will withhold your blade-filled hand, and no longer seek the death of the boy Orem, called Scanthips, called Banningside, called the Little King.
The Exiled Rebel and the Flower Princess
This is not the earliest of the tales, but it is the first that I must tell, because if you remember this, you will hear me to the end.
He came to her in the garden, where her women were draping her with flowers, which they must do every day of the spring. "What is the name of the girl?" he asked.
Her women looked to her for permission to answer. She nodded at sharp-tongued Cold-in-the-Western-Waters, who would know the proper words to say.
"Our lady will know the name of this man who walks boldly in the holy garden, and risks knowing all the secrets that only eunuchs know."
The man looked slightly surprised. "But I was told I might walk anywhere in the city."
Again the women looked to her, and this time she chose Bent-Back-from-Birth, whose voice was high and strange.
"You may walk where a man may walk, but you must pay what a man must pay." To her surprise, the man did not look afraid. By his fearlessness he was a fool. By his clumsy accent he was a foreigner. By his presence in the holy garden, he was new to Isle-Where-Winter-Is-But-One-Day-in-the-Mountains. But above all, by his face he was strong and beautiful and good, and so she nodded to Born-among-Falling-Lilac-Petals.
At once the stranger dropped to his knees and bowed his head, but he did not bend his back. This was remarkable. She nodded to Truth-without-Torture.
"If you are a king in your own land, Man, why do you kneel? And if you are not a king, why does your unbent back pray for your death?"
"I am Palicrovol," said the man. "I am one battle away from death or a throne. My enemy is Nasilee, who rules by right of blood in Burland."
Truth-without-Torture took the challenge of his words. "If he rules by right of blood, how do you dare oppose him? Answer truthfully, for your life is in your tongue."
"Because I am a good man," answered Palicrovol, "and Nasilee is one of those who rule by right of blood, but earn the hate of all good men. Still, I would not have rebelled if the gods had not chosen me."
"If the gods have chosen you, then why are you an exile here in Isle-Where-Winter-Is-But-One-Day-in-the-Mountains?"
Palicrovol leapt suddenly to his feet. For a moment the girl was afraid that he meant to harm her, and even more afraid that perhaps he meant to flee. But instead he flung out his arms and half-chanted the tale of the battle. In her language the words were clumsy, but she soon realized that the awkwardness was because he was translating from poetry. You know the poem. He told her that he stood on a hilltop late in the evening before the battle, the campfires of the largest armies ever brought to war in Burland spread out before him, and he saw that whether he won or lost, too many men would die. There would not be army enough left to defend the borders against the raiders from the inland mountains, or the coasts against the raiders from the sea. So he told his great general Zymas to break the army into pieces and send them into hiding before morning. Let all men think that Palicrovol is a coward, and then Palicrovol will come and win his battle when the cost is little and the prize is greater. In those days, Palicrovol was wise.
And she smiled at him, for he was a fit king.
"May I live then?" he asked her.
"With my lifelong accoutrements intact?"
The women giggled, but she did not laugh. She only nodded, gravely, once again. "Then may I risk my life again, and tell you that you are only a child, and yet I have never seen such perfect beauty in all my life."
"Of course she is beautiful, Almost-King-of-Burland. She is the Flower Princess."
"No," he said. "I do not speak of her perfect face or the flowers that look harsh beside her perfect skin or the way her hair looks deep as a new-plowed field in the sunlight. I say she has the perfect beauty of a woman who will never tell a lie in all her life."
He could not have known, unless a god told him, that she had taken that most terrible of all vows when she was given to the sea at the age of five. She was bound to the truth, and though she had said not a word to him, though not even the Sea Mothers knew of her vow, he had looked at her and seen it.
"She is not a woman," said Born-among-Falling-Lilac-Petals. "She is only eleven years old."
"I will marry you," said Palicrovol. "When you are twenty years old, if I am King of Burland I will send for you and you will come to me, for I am the only king in all the world who can bear the beauty of a wife who will not lie."
She stood then, letting the flowers fall where they would, ignoring the gasps of her women. She reached out and touched his wrist, where he opened his hand to her. "Palicrovol, I will marry you then whether you are King or not."
Palicrovol answered, "My lady, if I am not King by then, I will be dead."
"I do not believe that you will ever die," she said.
Then her women wept, for she had now betrothed herself, and it could not be undone however her father might grieve or rage at her choice.
But Palicrovol cared nothing for their keening. "My lady," he said, "I do not even known your name."
She nodded to Bent-Back-from-Birth. She could not say her own name, for in those days her name was not true.
Bent-Back-from-Birth found her voice despite her weeping, and said the name of the Flower Princess. "Here-Is-the-Woman-with-the-Joy-of-All-Women-in-Her-Face. The-Pain-of-All-Women-in-Her-Heart."
Palicrovol repeated the name softly, looking at her lips. "Enziquelvinisensee Evelvenin," he said. She listened joyfully, for with his love she was sure that someday those words would be true, though she feared the path that would lead her to her name. "I will send for you," he said, "and you will be worth more to me than the Antler Crown."
He went away, and the Flower Princess waited for him. In all her life she has never regretted her betrothal, nor grudged the terrible price she paid for him, nor lied to Palicrovol, even when you wished her to lie, even when you commanded her, so cruelly, not to speak.
Palicrovol Becomes a King in His Heart
This is the story of how God taught an unambitious man to seek a throne.
The Dream of Zymas
Zymas was the King's right arm, the King's right eye, and—so the irreverent said—the King's right cobble, too. Zymas was born to a stablehand, but first his strength, then his skill, and at last his wisdom brought him such fame that now he was general of all the King's armies, and the terror of Zymas spread throughout all of Burland.
Zymas had only five hundred soldiers, both horse and foot, but this was a day when a village had five families and a town had fifty, so that five hundred soldiers were quite enough to subdue whoever needed subduing. And if some group of barons or counts combined their petty forces so that they outnumbered Zymas, they were still foredoomed. If there were ten such barons, they could be sure that one had joined the rebellion as the King's agent, two had joined as Zymas's men, and the rest would hang before the month was out.
Zymas had known days of glory on the frontier, where wild tribes from the inner mountains destroyed themselves against the pikes of Zymas's army. And there were days of glory on the littoral, when the raiders from the east beached their craft and died by the hundreds before they could get beyond the tideline. Oh, Zymas was a mighty warrior! But now, with the King's outward enemies all broken and paying tribute, Zymas led his men from mountain to coastline, not to defend Burland from attack, but to protect the tax collectors, to punish the disobedient, to terrorize the weak and defenseless.
There were those who said that Zymas had no heart, that he killed for pleasure. There were those who said that Zymas had no mind of his own, that he never so much as questioned any order that the King gave him. But those who said such things were wrong.
Zymas camped for the night with his half a thousand men on the banks of Burring, high on the river, where the locals still called the stream Banning. The village was too small to have a name—four families, recorded in the books as "seventh village near Banningside." It was recorded that this village had not paid their assessment of thirty bushels. This was causing resentment and was a bad example to the other villages. Zymas was here to punish them. Tomorrow he would come with fifty footsoldiers, surround the village, and then call for their surrender. If they surrendered, they would be hanged. If they did not surrender, they would be spitted and hung over fires or seated on sharpened stakes or some such thing, the normal these days, men and women and children, the normal. Zymas contemplated tomorrow and felt his heart drain away as it always did, so that he would not be ashamed.
"If you take away the rat, what will close the great wound in the hart's belly?"
Zymas looked closer, and now he saw that the rat's teeth were holding together the lips of a long and vicious wound that threatened to split the stag from breast to groin. Yet he knew the rat was poisoning the wound.
Then a fierce eagle stooped, and landed brutally on the hart's back. Zymas saw at once what he must do. He took the eagle in his hands, turned it upside down, and thrust its feet under the hart. The talons reached and seized, spanning the wound, binding the edges together far more firmly than the rat's teeth. Then, still upside down, the eagle devoured the rat, every bit. The stag was saved because Zymas had set the eagle in its place.
"Palicrovol," said the voice, and Zymas knew it meant the eagle.
"Nasilee," said the eagle, and Zymas knew it meant the rat.
Nasilee was the name of the King. Palicrovol was the name of the Count of Traffing. Zymas awoke then, and lay awake the rest of the night.
Before dawn he took his fifty men and went to the village, and in moments the people had surrendered. The patriarch of the little village tried to explain why the taxes had gone unpaid, but Zymas had heard the excuses a thousand times. He did not hear the old man. He did not hear the moans of the women, the crying of the children. He only saw that each one stood before him with the face of a great old stag, and he knew that his dream had not come to him by chance.
"Men," he said, and all heard his voice, though he did not shout.
"Zymas," they answered. They called him by his unadorned name because he had made it nobler than any title they might have given him.
"Nasilee gnaws at the belly of Burland like a rat, and we, we are his teeth."
Puzzled, they did not know how to respond.
"Does the true King hang these helpless ones?"
Unsure what kind of test Zymas was posing, one of the men said, "Yes?"
"Perhaps he does," Zymas said, "but if he is the true King, then I will follow a false King who is good, and I will make him true, and the people will no longer have to fear the coming of the army of Zymas."
Zymas let them choose freely, but all five hundred marched with him away from the bewildered villagers, toward Traffing. He did not tell them whom he meant to put in the King's place. The dream had said Palicrovol, but Zymas meant to see the man for himself before he helped him to revolt. Dreams come when your eyes are closed, but Zymas only acted with his eyes open.
The Guard and the Godsman
In the land of Traffing, in the dead of winter, a figure in a white robe walked like a ghost upon the snow. The guard at the fortress of the Count trembled in fear until he saw it was a man, with his face reddened by the cold, and his hands thrust deep into a bedroll for warmth. Ghosts have nothing to fear from the cold, the guard knew, and so he hailed the man—hailed rudely, because the guard had been afraid.
"What do you want! It's near dark, and we do no work on the Feast of Hinds."
"I come from God," said the man. "I have a message for the Count."
The guard grew angry. He had heard all about God, whose priests were so arrogant they denied even the Sweet Sisters, even the Hart, though the people had known their power far longer than this newfashioned deity. "Would you have him blaspheme against the Hart's own lady?"
"Old things are done away," said the Godsman.
"You're done away if you don't go away!" cried the guard.
The Godsman only smiled. "Of course you do not know me," he said. And then, suddenly, before the guard's very eyes, the Godsman reached out his hands beseechingly and the bar of the gate broke in two and the gate fell open before him.
"You won't hurt him?" asked the guard.
"Don't cower so," said the Godsman. "I come for the good of all Burland."
From the King, then? The guard hated the King enough to spit in the snow, despite his fear of this man who broke gates without touching them. "The good of Burland is never the good of Traffing."
"Tonight it is," said the Godsman.
Suddenly the sunset erupted, hot streams down the slope of the sky, and the guard became a Godsman himself from that moment. The Prophecy
The Godsman looked about him at the nearly naked men sitting on ice-covered rocks around a fire. "I am invited to the feasts of all the gods." Palicrovol was young and beautiful, even with the treebark mantle on his shoulders; the Godsman loved the sight of him, even though the Count was
angry. Anger would pass. The Count's beauty would not.
"My guard is impressed with you," the Count said.
"Such men are easily impressed," said the Godsman.
"I've seen magic before," said the Count, for beside him sat Sleeve, the pink-eyed wizard who
served only the master that he chose.
"Then I will give you what no other can: I will give you truth."
Palicrovol smiled and looked at Sleeve, but Sleeve was not smiling, and Palicrovol began to
wonder if he ought to take this Godsman seriously. "What sort of truth?" "Words can only tell two kinds of truth. Words can name you, and words can say what you will
do before you do it."
"And which will you do?"
"To name a man is to say what he will do before he does it. So I will name you, Palicrovol. You
are King of Burland."
Suddenly Count Palicrovol grew afraid. "I am Count of Traffing."
"The people hate King Nasilee. They have given him their life's blood, and he has given them
only poverty and terror. They long for someone to set them free from this burden." "Then go to a man with armies." If Nasilee heard that Palicrovol had even listened to this
Godsman, it would be the end of the house of Traffing.
"General Zymas will come to you and follow you to the day he dies."
"Which will be very soon, if he dares to rebel against the King."
"On the contrary," said the Godsman. "Three hundred years from now you and Zymas and
Sleeve will all be alive, with a man's life yet ahead of you."
Sleeve laughed. "Since when does your magic-hating god give gifts to a poor wizard?"
"For every day that you're glad of the gift, there will be five days when you hate it." Palicrovol leaned forward. "I should have you killed."
Sleeve shook his head. "There is no poetry in this man's prophecy."
"True," said Palicrovol. "But there's a tale in it."
"This is not a prophecy," said the Godsman. "This is your name. Zymas will come to you, and in the name of God you will conquer. You will enter the city of Hart's Hope and the King's daughter will ride the hart for you. You will build a new temple of God and you will name the city Inwit, and no other god will be worshipped there. And this above all: You will not be safe upon the throne until King Nasilee and his daughter Asineth are dead."
These words spoken, the Godsman shuddered, his jaw went slack, and the light departed from his eyes. He began to look about him in tired surprise. This had no doubt happened to him before, but plainly he was not yet used to finding himself in strange places—particularly in the midst of a very serious Feast of Hinds.
"What bright servants this god chooses for himself," said Sleeve.
Palicrovol did not laugh. The fire that had left the old man's eyes had left a spark in Palicrovol. "Here before you all," he said, "I will tell you what I have not dared to say before. I hate King Nasilee and all his acts, and for the sake of all Burland I long to see him driven from the throne."
At these treasonous words, especially spoken at the Feast of Hinds, his own men grew still and watched him warily.
"It is good that we love you," said Sleeve. "We will all keep silence and tell no one that you spoke against King Nasilee. And we will pray to the Hart that you will not be seduced by the flattery of a strange and jealous god."
Sleeve's words counseled against rebellion, but Palicrovol had learned that Sleeve's words rarely gave Sleeve's meaning. Sleeve might mean that it was already too late for Palicrovol to change his mind, for now he would live in constant fear of betrayal by someone who had heard his words. And as to the Godsman's prophecy of victory, was Sleeve doubting? Or testing? Palicrovol looked at the unnaturally white face of the wizard, his transparent skin, his hair as fine and pale as spiderweb. How can I read your strange face? Palicrovol wondered. Even as he wondered, he knew that Sleeve did not mean his face to be read. Sleeve probed others, but was not himself probed; Sleeve comprehended, but remained incomprehensible. "You came to me for no reason I could understand," said Palicrovol. "Until now. You came to me because of now."
Sleeve pursed his lips contemptuously. "I follow the entrails of animals. I use the power of their blood and in return they teach me where to go. Whatever plans God has for you, they're no concern of mine." But his denial was a confirmation, for never had Sleeve bothered to explain himself before.
A trumpet sounded outside the palisade. Count Palicrovol leapt to his feet. The treebark mantle slipped from his shoulders as he stood. "The King," whispered some of the men, for such was the terror of King Nasilee's Eyes and Ears that they thought he had already heard of this treason and come to punish Palicrovol. They felt no easier when they saw an army of five hundred men gathered outside the fortress.
"I am Zymas, once general of the King's army. And who are you, who stand naked at the battlement!"
Palicrovol felt the winter cold for the first time in the Feast of Hinds: the prophecy was already being fulfilled. In that moment he made his decision. "I am Palicrovol, King of Burland!"
But the army did not raise a cheer, and Palicrovol felt the giddiness of despair: he had spoken treason in front of the King's right hand, all because he had believed the mad prophet of a foolish
"Palicrovol!" called Zymas.
"Can these gates keep you out if you want to come in?" asked Palicrovol.
Zymas answered, "Can these soldiers keep you in if you want to come out?"
"If these soldiers are my enemies, then I will not come out. I will stay here and make them pay in
blood for every step they take inside my walls."
"And if we are your friends?"
"Why did you come to me?" cried Palicrovol from the battlement. "Why do you taunt me?"
"I dreamed of you, Count Traffing. Why did I dream of you?"
Palicrovol turned to Sleeve, who smiled. "It is the Feast of Hinds," said Sleeve.
"It is the Feast of Hinds!" called Palicrovol.
"The tripes were heavy, and the womb was all but five days full," said Sleeve.
"The tripes were heavy, and the womb was all but five days full!" called Palicrovol. As he echoed Sleeve's words, Palicrovol was relieved. When the hind that gave herself at the Feast of Hinds was utterly full, the enterprise of the master of the feast could not go wrong. Someone's enterprise, anyway, and it was usually polite to read all good omens for the host.
"I know nothing of augury," said Zymas. "Who is the wizard who is teaching you what to say?"
Sleeve spoke for himself then. "I am Sleeve," he said. "The Sweet Sisters showed me a heavy hind. God spoke to Palicrovol through an old fool. And the Hart has come to you in a dream. If all the great gods are with Palicrovol, what will withstand him?"
Zymas had not said there was a hart in his dream. "What need has he of me?" "What need have you of him? It is enough that you are both committed to treason now. If you work together, you can bring down this King. If you oppose each other, Nasilee will find his work much easier."
"I will be the same sort of king as I have been Count," said Palicrovol. "My people prosper more than the people of any other lord. I am a just judge, as far as any man can be."
"If that is true, I will follow you, and my men will follow you," said Zymas.
So the Godsman's prophecy was perfect, though it had predicted an event as unlikely as Burring flowing backward. Zymas had come to him, and come even before Palicrovol himself had taken one single act toward rebellion. God was now his god. "And I," cried Palicrovol, "I will follow God."
And I, whispered white-skinned Sleeve, pink-eyed Sleeve, I could shake the earth and unmake this fortress, and with my left hand I could cause a forest to rise in the place of Zymas's five hundred men. Why should I link myself to these unmagicked men, particularly if they fear that ridiculous god named God? They have no need of me, nor I of them. But Sleeve felt the hind's blood hardening on his arms and hands, and he was content that Palicrovol should be king, even if he did it in the name of this angry young God.
And that is how Palicrovol began his quest for the throne of Burland.
The Girl Who Rode the Hart
Three times in her life, Asineth learned what it meant to be the King's daughter. Each lesson was the beginning of wisdom.
Asineth's Lesson of Good and Evil
When Asineth was only three, the ladies who cared for her walked her in the palace garden, in the safe part, where the gravel walks are neatly edged and the plants all grow in animal shapes. One of her favorite games was to sit very still, dribbling sand or gravel from her fingers, until the watching women grew bored with her, and got involved in their own conversations. Then she would quietly get up and walk away and hide from them. At first she always hid nearby, so she could watch the first moments of panic on their faces when they realized she was gone. "Oh, you little monster," they would say. "Oh, is that a way for a princess to run off and leave her ladies?"
But this time little Asineth hid farther away, because she was getting older, and the world was getting larger, and she was drawn to that part of the garden where moss hangs untrimmed and the animals are not rooted to the ground. There she saw a great grey beast drifting slowly through the underbrush, and she felt a strange attraction to it, and she followed. She would lose sight of the beast from time to time, and wander searching for it, and always she caught a glimpse of it, or thought she did, and moved after it, farther and farther into the untamed garden.
"Not you," said the soldier who carried her. "Never you. King Nasilee is your father. What man would dare to take a whip to you?"
So it was that Asineth learned that the daughter of the King can do no wrong.
Asineth's Lesson of Love and Power
King Nasilee's favorite mistress was Berry, and Asineth loved Berry with all her heart. Berry was lithe and beautiful. When she was naked she was slender and quick of body, like a racing hound, and all her muscles moved gracefully under her skin. When she was clothed she was ethereal, as distant from the world as a sunburst, and as beautiful. Asineth would come to her every day, and talk to her, and Berry, beautiful as she was, took time to listen to the little girl, to hear all her tales of the palace, all her dreams and wishes.
"I wish I were like you," Asineth told her.
"And how would you like to be like me?" Berry asked.
"You are so beautiful."
"But in a few years my beauty will fade, and the King your father will set me aside with a pension, like a housekeeper or a soldier."
"You are so wise."
"Wisdom is nothing, without power. Someday you will be Queen. Your husband will rule Burland because he is your husband, and then you will have power, and then it will not matter if you are wise."
"What is power?" asked Asineth.
Berry laughed, which told the six-year-old girl that she had asked a good question, a hard one. Adults always laughed when Asineth asked a hard question. After they laughed, Asineth always studied the question and the answer, to see what made it such an important question.
"So power is naming people?" asked Asineth.
"And something more. Power is to tell the future, little Asineth. If the astronomer says, Tomorrow the moon will come and cover the sun, and it happens as he said, then he has the power of the sun and the moon. If your father says, Tomorrow you will die, it will also happen, and so your father has the power of death. Your father can tell the futures of all men in Burland. You will prosper, you will fail, you will fight in war, you will take your cargo downriver, you will pay taxes, you will have no children, you will be a widow, you will eat pomegranates every day of your life—he can predict anything to do with men, and it will come to pass. He can even tell the astronomer, Tomorrow you will die, and all the astronomer's power over the sun and the moon will not save him."
Berry brushed her hair a hundred times as she spoke, and her hair glistened like gold. "I have power, too," said Berry.
"Whose future do you tell?" asked little Asineth.
"What do you say will happen to him?"
"I say that tonight he will see a perfect body, and he will embrace it; he will see perfect lips, and he will kiss them. I predict that the seed of the King will be spilled in me tonight. I tell the future—and it will come to pass."
"So you have power over my father?" asked Asineth.
"I love your father. I know him as he does not even know himself. He could not live without me." Berry stood naked before the glass and drew the borders of herself, and told Asineth how her father loved each nation of her flesh, told her which he came to as a gentle ambassador, which he dealt with sternly, and which he conquered with the sword.
Then her voice softened, and her face became childlike and peaceful, even as her words became colder. "A woman is a field, Asineth, or so a man thinks, a field that he will plow and plant, and from which he means to reap far more than his little seed. But the earth moves faster than a man can move, and the only reason he does not know it is because I carry him with me as I turn. He only plows what furrows he finds; he makes nothing. It is the farmer who is plowed, and not the field, and he will not forget me." Asineth listened to all of Berry's words and watched the motion of her body and practiced talking and moving like her. She prayed to the Sweet Sisters that she would be like Berry when she grew; she knew that there was never a woman more perfect in all the world.
She loved Berry even on the day she spoke of her to the King. Nasilee let her sit beside him in the Chamber of Questions, and though she was young, he would sometimes publicly consult her. She would give her answer in a loud voice, and Nasilee would either praise her wisdom or point out her error, so all men could hear and benefit, and so that she could learn statecraft. This day the King asked his daughter, "Who is wiser than I am, Asineth?"
"Ah," said her father. "And how is she so wise?"
"Because she has power, and if you have power you don't have to be wise."
"I have more power than she has," said the King. "Am I not wiser, then?"
"You have power over all men, Father, but Berry has power over you. You can never get a farmer to plow the same field twice in a year, but she can get you to plow twice in a day, even when you have no seed left to sow."
"Ah," said Nasilee again. Then he told the soldiers to bring Berry to him. Asineth saw that her father was angry. Why should he be angry? Didn't he love Berry as much as Asineth did? Wasn't he glad that she was wise? Hadn't he poisoned Asineth's own mother because she was angry at him for taking Berry into his bed?
Berry came with manacles on her wrists and hands. She looked at Asineth with a terrible hatred and cried out, "How can you believe the words of a child! I don't know why she is lying, or who told her to say these things, but you surely won't believe the tales of my enemies!"
Nasilee only raised his eyebrows and said, "Asineth never lies."
Berry looked in fear at Asineth and cried, "I was never your rival!"
But Asineth did not understand her words. She had learned her first lesson so well that she was incapable of imagining that she had done something wrong.
Berry pleaded with her lover. Asineth saw how she used her beautiful body, how she strained against the manacles, how her robe parted artfully to show the swell of her breasts. Father will love Berry again and forgive her, Asnieth was sure of it. But Berry's lover had become her King, and when all her pleading was done, he sent for a farmer and a team of oxen and a plow.
Out in the garden they did it, plowed Berry from groin to heart with a team of oxen pulling, and her screams rang in the palace garden until winter, so that Asineth could not go outside until winter changed it into another world.
It was a cruel thing her father did, but Asineth knew that he, too, heard Berry's screams in the night. Berry dwelt in every room of the palace, even though she was dead, and one day, when Asineth was nine, she found her father slumped in a chair in the library, a book open before him, his cheeks stained with half-dried tears. Without asking, Asineth knew who it was he thought of. It comforted Asineth to know that even though Berry had not so much power as she had thought, she had this much: she could make herself unforgotten, and force her lover to live forever with regret. Yet Berry's death itself was still a half-learned lesson, with the meaning yet ungiven, and so Asineth asked her father a question. "Didn't you love her?" asked Asineth.
"Why did you kill her, then?"
"Because I am the King," said Nasilee. "If I hadn't killed her, I would have lost the fear of my
people, and if they do not fear me, I am not King."
Asineth knew then that of the two powers Berry taught her, the stronger power was naming. It was because Nasilee was named King that he had to kill what he loved most. "You did not love Berry most of all," said Asineth.
Nasilee opened his eyes, letting their light shine narrowly out upon his young daughter. "Did I
"More than her, you loved the name of King."
Her father's eyes closed again. "Go away, child."
"I don't want to go, Father," she said. I loved Berry more than I loved you, she did not say.
"I don't want to see you when I think of her," said her father.
"Why not?" asked Asineth.
"Because you made me kill her."
"If you hadn't told me of her treasonous words, I wouldn't have had to kill her."
"If you had merely laughed at the words of a child, she could have lived."
"A King must be King!"
"A weak King must be what other Kings have been; a strong King is himself, and from then on the meaning of the name of King is changed." The words could have been Berry's, for Berry understood these things, and Asineth only still guessed at all that she meant.
"What does it matter?" said the King wearily. "You said the words, the King heard them and had to act, Berry had to die, and now I mourn her and wish that you had died in birthing, and taken your mother with you, by the Hart I wish it, by the Sisters I swear it, now leave me, little girl."
She left him. Until that time, she had been the one person in all Burland who did not fear King Nasilee. Now there was no one left who did not fear him, for he was King, and could break anyone with a word. Asineth's Lesson of Justice and Mercy
The terrible rebel had roused all the people of Burland against the King. With that traitor Zymas he had defeated army after army, not in open battle but by cutting off their supplies, separating, wooing soldiers, troops, whole armies to desert and serve Palicrovol. Now, at last, after fifteen years of a war that had never come to battle, Palicrovol's army was outside the walls of Hart's Hope. Hart's Hope, the great city on the Burring, the capital; and Nasilee looked out and saw no help.
For the last ten years tax payments had fallen steadily, ceasing first in the outlying counties, and finally diminishing to almost nothing. The commerce of Hart's Hope itself had failed, for Palicrovol had built a highway in the west and forced all the river traffic to travel overland, though it raised prices; Hart's Hope was starving, and the people fled. Now Nasilee waited inside the impregnable walls, watched as Palicrovol, a Godsman, gathered his white banners, each with a hundred men around it, until the land outside foamed white as the crests of the sea.
Asineth also waited. She watched her father consult his wizards—the few that remained. She watched him wander the half-empty halls of the palace, haunted by the knowledge of his own death. Everyone knew that the walls of Hart's Hope could not be breached. They were miles long, rods high, yards thick; even the few soldiers Nasilee had left could hold it against Palicrovol's army, even with Zymas the traitor in command.
But Asineth was afraid. She was old enough now—twelve years old, with her womanhood newly on her—to know that her father was a wicked man, that the people were right to hate him. Asineth knew that Palicrovol was beloved of the people, for even the servants in the palace, loyal as they were, talked wistfully—and quietly—of the freedom and prosperity that Palicrovol brought wherever he conquered. Asineth feared that her father's soldiers would betray him and open the gate for Palicrovol. And so she prayed to the Sweet Sisters. She brought the blood of the moon with her to the altar of women in the secret place, and said, "Make the hearts of these men loyal to my father, so we are preserved from our enemy."
The morning after the night when she burned blood for the Sweet Sisters, the gates of the city swung open, and the soldiers of the outer wall raised the white banner of Palicrovol's God. Word was that Zymas had come to them alone in the night, unarmed, and with his stirring words had won their hearts.
Asineth took four strong guards with her to the Sisters' shrine, where no man had ever been brought before, and commanded them to break the altar in pieces. They broke in with four blows of a sledgehammer. Inside, the solid rock of the altar was hollow. Like a little pot it held ancient water that had been there since the world first gleamed upon the point of the Hart's Horn. The water spilled upon the floor, and Asineth trod in the water and muddied it with her shoe. "I hate you," she said to the Sweet Sisters.
Now Palicrovol's army held even the city of Hart's Hope itself. Word was that Palicrovol had changed the city's name. Now he would call it Inwit, and he was causing half his soldiers to work on building a great temple to his God. He forbade anyone to offer blood at the shrine of the Hart.
This gave Asineth hope. Even though the Hart was a strange god to her, as to all women, she was sure that the Hart would listen to her. Weren't they allies now? Wasn't Palicrovol an enemy to both of them? She prayed to the Hart, then, to be a shield around the Castle walls. There was no chance of treachery now—only a few guards remained, and King Nasilee himself held the only keys that would open the rooms where the gate could be lifted or the postern door unblocked. But Palicrovol had Sleeve, the greatest wizard in the world, and what no man could do, Sleeve might do. So Asineth prayed to the Hart to protect them.
Asineth ran searching for her father through the labyrinth of the Palace. She looked in every hiding place; she did not know her father as well as she thought. He was not in a hiding place. So she did not find him until the soldiers did, in the Chamber of Questions.
"Father!" she cried.
"Fool!" he shouted. "Run."
But the soldiers knew her at once, and caught her, and held her until Palicrovol came.
I hate you, Hart, said Asineth silently.
They came into the Chamber of Questions within the hour: Palicrovol, tall and strong, with the light of God in his face, or at least the light of triumph. Zymas, the traitor, with arms and legs like the limbs of an ox, and the look of battle black in his eyes. Sleeve, gaunt and ghostlike with his white skin and white hair and pink eyes, drifting like a fog over the floor.
"He should die as so many thousands of his people died," cried Zymas. "Sit him naked on a stake, and let the people spit on him as he screams in agony."
"He should be burned," said Sleeve, "so that the power of his blood is returned into the world."
"He is King," said Palicrovol. "He will die like a King." Palicrovol drew his sword. "Give him your sword, Zymas."
"Palicrovol," said Zymas, "you should not take this risk yourself."
"Palicrovol," said Sleeve, "you should not dirty your hands with his blood."
"When the singers say that I vanquished Nasilee," said Palicrovol, "it will be true."
So Asineth watched as her father raised the sword they gave him. He did not attempt to fight—that would have been undignified. Instead he stood with the point of the sword upraised. Palicrovol beat twice upon the sword, trying to force it back, but Nasilee did not flinch. Then Palicrovol thrust his sword under the King's arms, beneath the breastbone, upward into the heart. Asineth watched her father's blood rush gladly down Palicrovol's blade and wash over his hands, and she heard the soldiers cheer. Then she stepped forward. "I am the daughter of the King," she said in a voice that was all the more powerful because it was so feeble and childish.
"The King my father is dead. I am Queen as of this moment, by all the laws of Burland. And the King will be the man I marry."
"The King," said Zymas, "is the man that the armies obey."
"The King," said Sleeve, "is the man clearly favored by the gods."
"The King," said Palicrovol, "is the man who marries you. And I will marry you."
With all the contempt she could manage, Asineth said to him, "I scorn you, Count Traffing."
Palicrovol nodded, as if he honored her verdict upon his honor. "As you wish," he said. "But I never asked for your consent." He turned to one of the servants cowering under the gaze of the soldiers. "Has this girl her womanhood?"
The servant stammered, as Asineth answered for her. "Why don't you ask me? I do not lie."
At those words Palicrovol's face brightened, as if in recognition. "I knew another woman once
who would not lie. Tell me, then, Queen Asineth. Have you your womanhood?"
"Three times," said Asineth. "I am old enough to marry."
"Then marry you shall."
"Never to you."
"Now. And to me. I will not have it said that I do not rule in Burland by right."
They dressed her in a wedding gown that had been made for a child bride eight generations before her. It had never been worn, for the child had died of a plague before her wedding. Now, as they carried Asineth in a prison cart through the streets of Inwit, with ten thousand people jeering at her, cursing her though she had never done them harm, she prayed.
She prayed to the only god left, Palicrovol's God, whose temple was rising in the southeast corner of the city. God, she said to him, your triumph is complete, and I also scorn the Sisters and the Hart. Be merciful to me, God. Let me die unmarried to this man.
But there was no miracle. No unwatched knife lay near her hand; she stood at no precipice; there was no water larger than the contents of an urn. She could not slit her throat or leap to her death or drown. God had no mercy on her.
The image of the Hart had been torn from its place at the Shrine and now stood shabbily in front of Faces Hall. A thousand generations of wizards had stood upon the back of the Hart to pray for Burland and offer the blood of power. Now only Palicrovol stood there, waiting for her, dressed in the short tunic of the bridegroom. There would be no Dance of Descent, no rites; it was plain to anyone with eyes that Palicrovol intended to consummate this marriage in full view of ten thousand witnesses, so that no one afterward could say that he had not been the duly wedded husband of the daughter of the King.
They forced a ring upon the thumb of her left hand—it was Palicrovol's only gentle gesture to her at that time, to name her Beauty at her wedding day. She saw also that he had his ring upon the thumb of the right hand, signifying strength. "Now everyone will know how strong you are," she said, "to conquer a dangerous enemy like me."
He did not answer her. He only watched.
They tied padded boards to her hands, making them so heavy and unwieldy that she could hardly lift them. They put a gag on her mouth, with barbs in it so if she so much as touched it with her tongue or tried to clamp her teeth upon it, it cut her painfully. Then they lifted her to the back of the Hart, and before all the citizens and soldiers of Inwit her husband said the words of the vow, then cut her dress from her. Asineth felt the breeze on her naked skin as if it were the darts of ten thousand eyes. I am the daughter of the King, and you have made me naked and defenseless among the swine. You gave my father the dignity of a King's death, but me you will degrade as the worst of whores is not degraded. Asineth had never known such terrible shame in her life, and she longed to die.
But her maidenhead was Burland, and Burland would be his. Zymas the traitor took Palicrovol's clothing from him; his wizard, Sleeve, anointed him for the marriage bed. And as he was anointed, Palicrovol looked upon the girl he meant to defraud of all she had, saw in her anguish how terrible a thing it was that he must do to this child, and yet for the kingdom's sake he did not flinch from what he must do.
Because she was the daughter of the King, she looked back at him. These gawking churls will see a princess broken, but they will not see her bow. She bit savagely into the barbs of her gag, hoping to drown in her own blood, but the barbs were too slender to draw the heavy stream she needed, and she could not keep her throat from swallowing.
Then she saw the pity in his face, and she realized for the first time that he was no monster of power, but a man; and if a man, then an animal; and if an animal, then a prisoner of his body. Palicrovol was not as strong as a god, for the gods had no mercy, and the gods were weak or malicious anyway. Palicrovol had the power to ensure that she would be alive when he broke into her secret chamber and left his slime. But did she not have the power Berry had taught her: to make this man remember her? She began to move her girlish body as she had seen Berry move. She saw Palicrovol's surprise, and then Palicrovol's eyes filled with—desire. Her movement was so subtle that it could not be seen by anyone but Palicrovol; but once he saw it, he could see nothing else. Asineth was not surprised at his fascination—she had learned from Berry, and Berry was perfection. Palicrovol trembled as he took her, and Asineth ignored the pain and tried to use him as Berry had said a woman must use a man if she is to be remembered. When he was done at last, he stood, her blood glistening upon his triumphant horn, and she watched them set the Antler Crown upon his head, and put the Mantle of the Stag upon his shoulders. His eyes were distant, and his knees were weak, and she knew that she had shaken him. She thought he was trembling with the memory of her body, as men had trembled for Berry.
The rite was finished, and the few participants withdrew from the crowd into Faces Hall. "Kill her now," said Zymas. "You have what you need from her. If you let her live, she will only be a danger to you."
"Kill her now," said Sleeve. "Women can take vengeances that men cannot understand."
Kill me now if you dare, Asineth challenged him, her tongue flicking painfully against the barbs. All gods have forsaken me, I have done what little I could do, and I long not to live. Kill me now, but I will haunt the inner chamber of your heart.
"I will not kill her," said Palicrovol.
And Asineth believed, for that moment, that she was Berry's true disciple, that he had found her body too beautiful, too desirable to be slain. Of course the others, who had not known her flesh, did not understand his need.
"Mercy to her is injustice to Burland," said Zymas. "If she lives, you promise us all a future of war and suffering."
Palicrovol's eyes flashed with anger, and he said nothing for a long moment. Asineth waited for him to speak of his love for her. Instead he looked at her and tears came from his eyes and then he said, "I can kill a King, I can ravish a child, all for the sake of God and Burland, but in God's name, Zymas, wasn't it to stop the killing of children that you first came to me?"
Sleeve touched the King's shoulder. "She is Nasilee's daughter. Imagine how much mercy she would have if she ever had the Flower Princess in her power."
At the mention of the Flower Princess, King Palicrovol bowed his head. "I remember the Flower Princess, Sleeve. I have not forgotten. This girl is so much Nasilee's daughter that even as I took her, she tried to seduce me. That is the sort of animal that was bred in Nasilee's palace."
Asineth went cold, for he sounded horrified at the memory. She had tried to be Berry, but this man only pitied her, and the others looked at her with contempt. Her shame before had been the shame of a King's daughter degraded; now her shame was of a woman despised, and she hated herself for having tried to make him love her, and hated Berry for being so much more beautiful than she, and hated Palicrovol and Zymas and Sleeve for knowing her pitiable attempt at womanhood, and hated most of all this unknown Flower Princess who never would be raped upon the Hart. She cried out against the gag, and Palicrovol ordered them to free her tongue. "If I am an animal, kill me!" she cried. With no crowd to watch her now, with all dignity gone, she was willing to beg. "Kill me now! Like my father!"
"But never Enziquelvinisensee Evelvenin," said Sleeve.
"No," said Palicrovol. "But we ask the gods for only one miracle in a lifetime."
"You have broken and humiliated her," Zymas said. "Nasilee's daughter will not forget."
"I have broken and humiliated her," Palicrovol echoed, "and killed her father before her eyes, and taken away her kingdom, and to harm her any more would make me despise myself more than I can bear. If I do not temper my victory with one act of mercy, even one that is dangerous to myself, then how will I look in the crystal and say to God that a better man than Nasilee now wears Nasilee's crown?"
There was a moment of silence, and then Sleeve stepped forward and took Asineth by one of the clumsy boards that encased her hands. "If you insist that this broken creature live, then put her in my care. I alone am strong enough to guard her in her exile, and hide her from the eyes of all your enemies who would love to find her and use her to destroy you."
"I need you by me," protested the new King.
"Then kill this woman."
Palicrovol hesitated no longer. "Take the little Queen, then, Sleeve, and be kind to her."
"I will be as kind to her as you will let me be to one whose only desire is to die," said Sleeve. "By my blood I wish that you had truly been merciful."
Sleeve enclosed her in the folds of his own robe, so that no one could see the naked body of the little Queen. Little Queen, thought Asineth. I will remember the name he called me, she told herself. He will know someday who is little, and who is great. Are you the strongest of all men, so strong that you can be merciful to me, a weak woman? Here is the undoing of your strength: I am not a weak woman. I am not a Little Queen. And your mercy will be your undoing. You will regret leaving me alive, and someday you will remember possessing me, and yearn to possess me again.
What was the third lesson that Asineth learned? She told me herself, many times, when she dwelt in your palace and you hopelessly wandered the forests of Burland.
Asineth learned that justice could be cruel, and crueler yet necessity, but mercy was the cruelest thing of all. That would be useful to her. She would remember that. That is why she left you alive for three centuries when she had the power to kill you whenever she wished. As the Godsmen say, no act of mercy goes unrewarded. Ah, Palicrovol, will you not learn that mercy is as good as the person to whom the mercy is given? You spared Asineth, who should have died; now you will not spare Orem Scanthips, called Banningside, whose good heart should be born a hundred thousand times upon the earth. Are you like Asineth? Will you learn all your lessons backward?
The Descent of Beauty
This is how Beauty came into the world, struggling to find her true image among many faces.
The Priestess of Brack
The wizard fisher came in a smallish craft and without greeting built his hut on an unused place at the bottom end of the bay. The other fishermen of Brack eyed him carefully. His ship was too slow for a pirate, which was just as well—a pirate would starve on what he could steal from their fishing boats. His ship was rigged for just one man, and from the look of him he was not a sailor. So it was not jealousy that made them fear him. It was the way he kept himself covered in all weathers, as if he feared the sun; it was the stark white hair of his head, the gleam of pink in his eye like a crazed treehopper; it was his secret way. He knew more than they did, knew more than the wind as it teased the sea, knew more than the air-breathing octopus that spread himself on the water, knew more than the priestess of the Sweet Sisters who tended her burning stones at the point of the bay.
"What is he?" the fishermen asked their wives. "Who is he?" the wives asked the priestess. She touched the hot obsidian; the flesh of her finger sizzled; and she looked deep into her pain and said, "He rules by the power of blood. He finds shelter from storms in the open ocean. He finds shoals that make no whitecaps on the sea. He can dip into salt and bring up fair water. And the fish follow him dreaming, dreaming."
A wizard then, but not to be dreaded. So they took to watching him respectfully, and in a matter of weeks they learned that he meant to be kind. For if they followed him out to sea in the early hours before dawn, he would sail in his clumsy fashion for an hour or so, then stop and cast in his net. If the fishermen cast in their nets at that time, they found nothing. But if they waited until his net was full, if they watched as he laboriously brought it aboard, then he would sail back home, and they could then dip their nets into the sea and catch well, every day that they followed him, boats full to the brim with fish on some days, and never a day that the fish escaped entire.
So the coming of the pink-eyed wizard brought good to Brack. Not that they ever became friendly with the man. It's never good to mingle with folk who draw their power from the living blood. Besides, even if they had lost all their fear of the wizard fisherman, there was his daughter.
It seemed at first that she hardly knew she was a woman. She never left his side, and when he drew in his heavy nets, there she was beside him, pulling on her side, and pulling well—when the fishermen still thought she was a lad, they praised the boy among themselves for his hard work, if not for his skill. They knew soon enough that she was a woman, though. If the wizard dressed too much under the hot sun of the southern sea, his daughter dressed too little, wearing dungarees like a man, and casting away her shirt when the day was blazing, until back and breast alike were burnt dark: She seemed at first to care nothing for their gaze; as time passed, however, they began to think she was something of a wanton, shedding her clothing deliberately, so they would see her. They saw how her breasts grew fuller and more sluggishly pendulous as she worked. They saw how her belly swelled. She could not be more than a year or two into womanhood, and yet she was full of a child.
The priestess of the Sweet Sisters knew better, however. She, too, could count the months, but when she poured tears, sweat, and seawater drops on the hot pumice, they beaded up and stayed, skittering for a moment, then drifting across the rough stone like a fleet of sailboats in a bay, runing for her the message of the Sweet Sisters to this watcher by the sea. It was no incestuous child that would be born, but a daughter whose blood was filled with awesome power: a ten-month child ruled by the moon from her birth.
What should I do? asked the priestess, terrified.
But the water evaporated at last, leaving thin trails of salt upon the stone. It was. not for her to do anything, only to watch, only to know.
Some of the wives saw the fear in her face as the priestess looked across the water to the wizard fisherman and the hut where the babe already crawled in the sand.
"Should we drive them away?" asked one.
"Wizards come and go as they like," said the priestess. "The Sweet Sisters do not ban, they quicken what they find in the world."
"Should we leave, then?" asked another.
"Do your men come home with empty boats or full?" asked the priestess in return. "Does the wizard do you good or ill?"
"Then why," asked another woman, "why are you afraid?"
And the priestess caressed the quartz crystal at her throat and professed not to know.
At last the priestess could bear no more. She got onto her feeble raft and poled her way across the placid water of the bay until she beached before the wizard's hut. The fisherman's daughter was playing with her child in the cool afternoon of early spring. She looked up curiously at the priestess who picked her way along the kelpy sand. The babe, too, looked up. The priestess avoided the baby's eyes—a ten-month child is not to be caught in the gaze of a stranger—and so stared instead at the mother. She was younger than the priestess had thought, watching her from a distance. She might have been the babe's sister. Her eyes were hot and challenging, cold and curious, and for the first time it occurred to the priestess that the mother might be more dangerous than the child. But it was the wizard she had come to see, not the women, and so the priestess of the Sweet Sisters went to the door of the hut, pushed aside the flap, and went inside.
"I need a good day on the sea," said the priestess. "I rarely travel."
"You witches, who use the dead blood, you don't ever seem to have much life in you at all."
"Out of death comes new life," she answered. "And out of living blood comes old death."
"May be true. I don't much care, actually. You women never teach us your rite, and you may be
sure it's a fool who teaches a woman ours." She looked around the hut and saw that it was better equipped with books than with the tools of
fishing. "Where do you mend your nets?" she asked.
"They never break," he answered. "Child's play."
"The child must die," said the priestess.
"A ten-month child is too powerful to stay in the world. You must know that."
"I've never studied the lore of births and bindings," confessed the wizard. "There's not much use
a man can make of it anyway. I'll look it up, though, now that you've mentioned it."
"I've come to do it for you."
"No," said the wizard.
"You cannot use the blood. It would consume you."
"I do not intend to use or not use the blood. I don't intend the child to die."
"My tears stayed forever on the pumice."
"It's not in my right to decide. The father of the child extends his protection over the girl and over
her little one. Both will live." "A wizard who draws the fish up from the sea, and you let the father of the child keep you from
acting for the safety of the world?"
"The child's mother loves her."
The priestess saw that he did not mean to listen to her, and so she said no more and left. As she came from the hut she looked to where the childmother and the ancient child had been playing. They were gone. And then the girl's voice came from behind her, and the priestess knew that she had heard all that was said indoors.
The priestess considered the question, and shuddered. "No," she said, and walked quickly away. And all the way across the bay she cursed herself for coming to see them: for the girl had asked the question that no decent-hearted woman would ask, and the priestess feared the girl was wise enough to know that her answer was a lie. There were living bloods that a woman could use, but no woman who was not a viper ever would. Let her not use them, she prayed all night, washing her hair again and again in the tidewater that lapped against her skirts. Forgive me for having raised the possibility in her mind, and undo my day's work.
The Careful Wizard
Warned by the witch, Sleeve watched the babe more carefully. He had had little to do with children in his life, and so he had not kept track of how quickly the infant was learning things, how bright her mind seemed to be, until now. And now he began to find the passages in his books and pore over them, trying to learn what it was that the witch so feared. The hints were vague and obscure, and Sleeve grew more and more frustrated with his books. They spoke so little of women's magic, for only men wrote and read these works. The ten-month child—they dreaded her, it was plain, and called for the child to die at birth, its blood poured out upon mouldering vegetation. But why the child was so dangerous they did not bother to explain, not in so many words.
All the while the child grew. In spite of his fears, Sleeve found himself liking the little one; even more surprising, he liked Asineth as well. She was not just enduring captivity, but thriving in it. Her habit of fishing with him bare-breasted was annoying, since it was obviously meant to discredit him with the local fishermen, but now that she had the child, she seemed alert and alive and the hate left her face for hours, for days at a time. Asineth was no more friendly with Sleeve, but she babbled on with the child.
"What will you name her?" asked Sleeve.
"Let the father name her," she answered coldly.
"He never will."
"Then let her go unnamed," she said. That was the only sign that she had not forgotten her woes. No matter how much her love for her daughter cheered her, she would not name the child.
"Is it fair to punish the child because you hate her father?" asked Sleeve. Then he heard his own words, realized that it was a question Nasilee's daughter might well have asked him, and left the conversation alone after that.
The visit from the witch undid him, really, though no doubt the woman thought her mission a failure. Sleeve had been growing contented there on the edge of the sea. Even though Asineth almost never spoke to him and the fishermen shunned him, still this life was the least solitary he had ever been. The fleet of little ships that put out to sea with him in the morning—they were a comfort to him. Though his fragile skin could not bear the sunlight, so that he remained forever clothed against the eyes of the Other fishermen, still there was friendship in this: that his arms knew what their arms knew, that he lived as they did with the smell of fish and salt spray and sunlight hard on the wood of the boat. For the first time in his life, he felt at one with other men, and if they could not match his wit, they were still brothers of the flesh. Asineth and the child had been a comfort, too; he had almost come to understand the home-feeling that he had always despised because it turned other men weak.
What he never noticed was that Asineth spent all morning every day inside the hut, reading whatever he had read, studying also to learn women's magic from the books that were written to men. What he never guessed was that she knew enough of the Sweet Sisters' lore that things that meant nothing to him meant much to her. Every book began with a page of warnings to guard these secrets, especially against the prying eyes of women—but Sleeve was careless of women, since only men had ever tried to steal knowledge from him. It did not occur to him that Asineth could understand what was written there.
On a day late in summer, when the child was nearing her first yearday, Sleeve finally understood a passage that had long eluded him. It was while he was on the boat, feeling the rhythm of wind and current with his feet, his buttocks, and his arms; suddenly he trembled with discovery and nearly capsized himself as the jib went flying. Only one person had anything to fear from a ten-month child, and that was the child's mother. Sleeve turned about at once and tacked back into the harbor, right among the fleet of fishermen who scrambled to maneuver their boats out of the way. They asked him for no explanation, and he did not offer any. True, the infant had done no harm till now, but now that Sleeve knew the truth he would not delay in taking precautions. It would not do to report to Palicrovol that Asineth had died because Sleeve had to finish his day's fishing before getting back to save her life.
Sleeve did not know that Asineth matched his reading day by day, and that she, too, discovered what he knew. She understood even more, however, much more, and when Sleeve got back to the hut, Asineth and the child were gone.
He tried to follow her afoot, but she lost him in the rocky hills behind the shore. He bled himself copiously to buy power enough to search magically for her, but his searching eye could not see her. He knew then that he had moved too late. The infant already understood some of her powers.
It was only when he realized that four of his books were missing that he first suspected that it was not the infant, not the daughter of Asineth and Palicrovol who was thwarting his search. It was Asineth herself, for the babe could not yet read. He cursed himself for having let her study what it was his duty to protect. But beyond that, there was nothing he could do. And so he waited, and built up his strength against the return of his adversary. He was not sure just how strong women's magic might be, and he wanted to be sure of the victory in case the contest proved to be a difficult one. He was almost pleased at the prospect—he had not had a difficult battle in decades, for there was no wizard that he knew of in the world who was a match for him.
"Berry," he said. "I thought that you were dead."
She smiled and raised her eyebrows. "And I had no idea that you knew her."
So this woman who wore Berry's flesh was not Berry at all. "Asineth," he whispered. It was a bad sign, if she had the power of changing shapes to such a degree that it fooled even him.
"Asineth?" she asked. "I do not know her."
"Who are you, then?"
"I am Beauty," she answered. "I am the most powerful of all the gods." With a single perfect, graceful motion she was naked. "Am I not perfect, Sleeve?"
"You are," he freely admitted. To see Berry's body again, so perfectly recreated—Asineth could not have known that he had been Berry's lover long before Nasilee had her, but the sight of Berry there on the beach unnerved him as no other ploy could have. Still, Sleeve was not one to be completely distracted by his own memories of love. "You are perfect—but you are not a god."
"Am I not? I came from battle to you, Sleeve," she said. "I had learned so much, and I had to try it out. First I challenged the brute Hart, for I thought he would be easiest to rule. I was wrong, for my first battle was the worst of all, and he nearly won, and as it was I still fear him a little. But no matter—he is in chains at the root of the world, and you will have no help from him."
She was mad, of course. To challenge the Hart and win—absurd.
"The Sweet Sisters next, for I had a quarrel with them. I was surprised at how easily they bowed—they have no weapons for the kind of war I wage. They have been born into the most amusing bodies, and in flesh they will stay, bound up as long as I want them there."
"And God?" asked Sleeve, amused.
"He's slippery. I'll have to keep him where I can watch him over the years. But you, Sleeve. You I do not fear at all."
His love of theatricality would have made him say some heroic epigram in answer, but he had learned at an early age that theatricality is no substitute for sure victory. So he bit down upon her heart with the teeth of his left hand, to fell her at once with a single magical blow. Even if she endured it she would be too shaken to fight him after that.
But she did not so much as flinch, and as he squeezed with his cruel inward hand, he was surprised to find that he felt the agony in his own chest. He stopped, but his pain went on, and in a moment of anguish he realized that her words were not brag. There was no help for him from the Hart, and that presence of gods that he had always felt underlying all his power—it was gone..
"Took you by surprise, didn't I," she said. "Oh, never mind, Sleeve. If the gods could not resist me, how could you?"
The pain in his heart eased, and he found himself lying on the sand, looking up at her through blurred eyes.
"Can't you see me well?" she asked. And suddenly his eyes were clear of tears. It was that which frightened him most of all. A magic that could break the power of gods was terrible indeed, but a magic so delicate it could take the tears out of a man's eyes—that was a thing he had never heard of before in all his reading, in all his life.
"Look at me," she said again. "Berry was the most beautiful woman I know, but I am Beauty,
and I thought of some improvements. Here, is this better? And this?"
He lay in the sand and told her yes, yes, it was better.
"Well, now," she said at last, dressing herself as she spoke, "well, now, Sleeve. I suppose you'll
want to come with me."
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Why, to Palicrovol," she said. "Am I not his wife? Did he not marry me with many, many
"I told him he should have killed you."
"I remember that," she said. "But he didn't, and here I am. Do you think he'll find me beautiful?"
It was impossible that she could mean to live with him as his wife.
"Oh, I don't mean to," she said. "Live with him? Absurd. But I heard that he was bringing the Flower Princess to him from the southern islands. She is of age, I hear. And apparently he thinks that he can marry her. While I still live, he thinks that he can marry her. When he sees me, will he still think that she is beautiful?"
Sleeve took a bit of satisfaction in telling her, despite his fear, "Asineth, improve on Berry all you like, but no woman of flesh has ever been so beautiful as Enziquelvinisensee Evelvenin."
Suddenly his tongue was thick in his mouth, and he felt snakes slithering inside his clothing, a forked tongue tickling at his throat. "Never call me Asineth again," she whispered.
"Aye, Beauty," he answered. "You will come with me to Palicrovol. I will keep you as a pet."
She giggled, and the snakes were gone. "Get up," she said.
He got up, and in the process discovered that she was not content with changing her own shape. She had changed his, too.
"Tell the truth," she said. "Don't you like yourself better like this? Weren't you tired of standing out, a pale giant among other men?"
He did not answer her, just stared at his hands and nodded. This is what defeat feels like, he told himself, but he knew it was not true. This was only the beginning of defeat. He knew that Asineth had plans. And he pitied Palicrovol, for there was no hope for him now. It was plain that all the warnings about the power of a ten-month child were feeble compared to the danger of its mother, and now it was too late to think of how he might thwart her. Asineth's power was so beyond his that she could swat away his strongest effort with a laugh. It would be something besides the power of the living blood that would undo her now, if anything ever did. He had never been so afraid in all his life.
Only when he had packed his books and hoisted them on his back, only when she led him away from Brack on the end of a golden chain, only then did he invent a role for himself that might just keep him alive. He wrapped the long chain around his legs to hobble him and toddled after her like a child, singing loudly,
I have captured Beauty,
I have her on a string,
I keep her in the cupboard,
And poke her with my thing.
She looked back at him in annoyance and pulled on the golden chain. Immediately he fell forward against the rocks, gashing his shoulder. Ignoring the pain, he sat upright and poked the wound with his finger, then licked off the blood. "The wine is strong, but the vintage is wrong," he declared solemnly.
Looking down at him, she smiled in spite of herself. She had given him a ridiculous shape; now he was living the part she had assigned him. It pleased her. "What is the name of the wine?" she asked, playing along.
"Splenetic Red, from the fields of Urubugala."
"Urubugala," she said, and she laughed aloud. "Urubugala. That is the language of Elukra, isn't it? What does it mean?"
"Little cock," answered Sleeve.
"My little cock," she said. "My Urubugala." It was a good name for the creature he had become. And the name did not displease Sleeve. If it kept him alive, he was happy with it. Sleeve was not one of these weak, proud men who can be controlled by the threat of humiliation. There were times when he even enjoyed the freedom that he won through his fool's part. Beauty's daughter
Did you wish
She were a fish?
At that Beauty glowered, but Sleeve immediately raised his tunic and strutted toward her, showing off his grotesque genitals. "If you like to be a mother, I'll gladly sire another!"
"You are not always funny," said Beauty. "I don't like you when you aren't funny."
Sleeve sidled up to her and whispered, "Where is the baby?"
Immediately he felt an excruciating pain in his head, as if his eyes were being forced out by the pressure of something growing behind them. After a few moments it stopped. He refused to be so easily vanquished. "The baby is dead! It lives in my head!"
"Shut up, Sleeve."
Sleve drew himself up to the full height she had left him. "My name, Madame Beauty, is Urubugala." He whispered again. "You are a very quick learner. Was all this in those books you read?"
Asineth was only fourteen years old—she was susceptible to flattery. She smiled and said, "The books were nothing. They knew nothing. All I learned was how to get the power. Once I paid the price for it, the power was its own teacher. So far, I need only to think of a thing, and I can do it. And the most delicious thing of all is that Palicrovol himself gave the power to me. Gave me the power, but only a woman can ever have it."
"A man can have it," said Urubugala.
He saw the fear leap into her face. She was not secure yet with her power. "How can a man have it, when a man cannot create a child out of his body?"
Again he answered her in rhyme:
If we fasten our balls to the walls,
And then if we feed on our seed,
The power will come in an hour
To pee like the sea and to fart like a flower.
"You are disgusting," she said. "No man can have a power that is the match of mine. And no other woman, either, for no woman has enough hate in her to do what I have done." She said it proudly, and Sleeve again hid his fear of her behind mockery.
"I am your minstrel and you are my monstrel. Where is your teeny one, tinny one, tiny one?"
"Oh, we had an argument." Beauty carelessly tossed her head and smiled. "I won," she said. Sleeve fancied he could still see the blood on her tongue. 4
How the Flower Princess lost her body, her husband, and her freedom all in an hour on her wedding day.
The Royal Progress
She came to the mouth of Burring with her father's fleet of tall ships. Palicrovol had a thousand singers meet her at the port. So perfect was their singing that the deafest sailor on the farthest ship heard all the words.
She was rowed up the river on the only galley that her father ever built, but the oarsmen were free, not slaves, and all of them wore robes of flowers. Every day of the voyage, a hundred women sat below deck, winding fresh flowers into new robes, so that every day the robes were new. And when she reached the great city Inwit, a thousand bags of flowers were released upstream, and all of Burring, from shore to shore, was a pond of petals for the coming of the Flower Princess.
Palicrovol himself met her at King's Gate, with the white-robed priests of God surrounding him, and white-robed virgins from the nunnery led the Flower Princess from her father's ship. Palicrovol knelt before her, and the carriage that met her began the Dance of Descent.
The Dance ended in the palace, in the Chamber of Answers, a room not opened for a century because it was too perfect to be used. Ivory and alabaster, amber and jade, marble and obsidian were the walls and floor and ceiling of the Chamber of Answers, and there the Flower Princess chose to wear her ring on the middle finger of the left hand, but high on the finger, to promise fecundity and faithfulness; and lo, of all miracles, Palicrovol also wore his ring on the middle finger of his right hand, high on the finger, to promise worship and unwavering loyalty. The watching hundreds cheered.
And then an imperious woman walked out onto the floor, leading a grotesque black dwarf on a golden chain, and Enziquelvinisensee Evelvenin turned to face the woman, and the wedding was broken at that moment.
The User Used
"I see," said the strange woman.
The dwarf piped up in a strange little song.
Ugly Bugly, Mercy Me,
You are not as fair as she.
Palicrovol spoke from behind the Flower Princess. "Who are you? How did you get into the palace?" "Who am I, Urubugala?" asked the strange woman.
"Sleeve," said Palicrovol. "Came home to Sleeve."
"Do you know me, Palicrovol?" asked the strange woman.
"Asineth," he whispered.
"If you call me by that name, you do not know me yet," she said. Then she turned to the Flower Princess. "So you are what he loves best in all the world. I can see that you are beautiful."
Again the dwarf chanted in his strange voice.
Beauty is fair, Beauty is fair,
But Beauty chose the wrong body to wear.
"I can see that you are beautiful," said the stranger, "and so it is only fitting that Beauty should have that face and form."
Enziquelvinisensee saw the woman change before her eyes, into a face that she knew and did not know. Knew because it was her own face. Did not know because it was not mirrored, as the Flower Princess had always seen it, but exactly as others had seen it. "This is what others have seen in me," she whispered.
"Do you worship?" asked Beauty. "Am I not perfect, Flower Princess?"
But Enziquelvinisensee Evelvinin had taken a vow to tell only the truth, and she had none of her women beside her to lie for her, and so she destroyed herself by saying, "No, Lady. For you have filled my eyes with hate and triumph, and I have never felt such things in all my life."
Beauty's perfect nostrils flared a bit with rage, and then she smiled and said, "That is because you have lacked the proper teachers. So let me teach you, Flower Princess, as I was taught."
The Flower Princess did not feel a change, but she saw the watching people look at her and gasp and turn away. She was afraid of what had been done to her, and spun on her toes to face her husband, gracious Palicrovol, who loved her. But Palicrovol, too, was revolted at what he saw, and stepped back from her. It was only a moment, and then he came to her again, and held her close to him, but in that moment Enziquelvinisensee Evelvinin knew the truth: Palicrovol thought of her beauty as part of herself, just as everyone else did; he did not know her without her face. Yet she was comforted that he still embraced her, and that he spoke with courage against Beauty.
"Did you think I could be so easily deceived, Asineth?" he asked. "You may startle me, but my heart belongs to another heart, not to a face."
Beauty only smiled again. Suddenly the Flower Princess felt Palicrovol take her brutally by the waist and throw her from him onto the floor. She looked up at him in horror, and saw the anguish of his face as he cried out to her, "It wasn't I!" Then, though he tried to speak, he fell mute, but the Flower Princess had heard enough to understand. It was Beauty, it was Asineth who had used his arms to hurl her away.
So Palicrovol's hands cut the clothing from Beauty's body, which was the body of the Flower Princess. And Palicrovol, act for act, ravished her as he had ravished Asineth two years before. Only this time he did not disdain her attempt at seductiveness. Now when the body of the Flower Princess moved so subtly for him, he cried out with the pleasure of it. Now when his arms lifted his body from her, he moaned in protest. Let it not be over, cried his flesh. Let it not finish. And as long as he looked at her naked before him, as long as he remembered the pleasure that her body and her power had given him, his body again and again convulsed in pleasure; even after his seed was spent, even after the pleasure had turned to agony, he writhed against the impossibility of having her, the memory of having her, the longing to have her forever.
"Kill her!" he cried, but his guards had long since fled.
"Help me," he whispered to Urubugala, but the dwarf only said a little rhyme:
In the morning
Heed no warning.
In the night,
"Weasel," said Queen Beauty, "you know how I was served. Tell me—is my vengeance just?"
"You were wronged," said the Flower Princess.
"Is my vengeance just?"
"You are just to take vengeance."
"But is my vengeance just?" Beauty smiled like the blessing of a saint.
"Only if you avenge yourself on those who harmed you, and only if your vengeance is equal to the wrong done you."
"Come now, I heard I could count on Weasel Sootmouth to tell the truth. I ask you a fourth time—am I just?" "No," said the Flower Princess.
"I'm the one who wronged you," Palicrovol said. "Take your vengeance on me."
"But don't you see, Palicrovol, that it is part of my vengeance on you, that you know your woman and your friends suffer unjustly for your sake?"
Palicrovol bowed his head in helplessness.
"Look at me, Palicrovol," said Beauty.
Against his will he looked up and convulsed again in passion for her.
"Here is my vengeance. I will not kill you, Palicrovol. I despise you even more than you despised me when I was weak. You may keep your army—as many as you want. Fill the world with your armies and bring them against me—I will vanquish them with a thought. You may keep your Antler Crown—I need no crown to rule here. You may govern all of Burland outside this city—I can overrule you any time I please. You will send me tribute, but not so much that it will harm the people—I do not have my father's greed. I will not undo your laws or your works. This city will still be called Inwit. The new temple you are building to your God may continue to rise. All the worship they give your God will please me, for I also rule God. I will leave you everything except for this: you will never enter this city again while I am alive, and you will never be alone again while I am alive, and you will never know a moment of peace again while I am alive. And Palicrovol—I will live forever."
Urubugala somersaulted and sprawled on the floor between them. "There are limits on the life of a daughter and a wife!" he cried.
"I know that," Beauty said. "But when my power wanes, I will simply have another child. Next time, I think, a twelvemonth child. Find some wizards, Palicrovol. Have them study that in their books. She laughed then, and compelled Palicrovol to gaze upon her, throwing him into paroxysms of rapture until he sprawled on the floor, exhausted and retching.
As she laughed, a powerful-looking man strode boldly into the hall, carrying a sword and wearing heavy armor, though the helmet was cast away.
"Zymas, run!" cried Palicrovol.
"Oh, stay, Zymas," said Beauty. "Today would not have been complete without you."
Zymas did not pause to listen to either of them, just kept moving relentlessly toward Beauty, his sword rising above his head. He was nearly upon her, and they all knew a moment's hope that perhaps Zymas's direct action was the antidote to this sudden sickness that had come upon the world. But no. Suddenly his hair turned steel grey, his face went old and wrinkled, the sword dropped from gnarled, arthritic fingers, and he staggered feebly under the weight of the armor.
"Zymas, so bold, so brave, is dead," said Beauty. "In his place is the Captain of my palace guard. Craven, I call him. Craven, we all call him. Because he was such a coward that he was afraid of a woman."
Outside the city waited a few of his bravest men, who dressed his naked body and carried him away. A nun was there, and she prophesied that the man who killed Beauty would enter through that same gate. Because of that, Beauty had the gate sealed up, never to be used again.
Within a remarkably short time, the city of Inwit was back to normal and better than normal. All the laws of Palicrovol remained in force, and all the freedoms he had granted remained intact. Beauty ruled gently enough in her city that the people did not mind the change of rulers. And her court became a dazzling place, which the kings of other nations loved to visit. They soon enough learned not to visit Palicrovol's court themselves, for they found that if they gave Palicrovol the honor due him as King of Burland, they would develop the most uncomfortable infections. So they had to send ambassadors, who soon learned to revile Palicrovol whenever they spoke to him, in order to avoid the plagues that otherwise came upon them.
Beauty ruled in Inwit, and the exile of Palicrovol had begun. Yet as the years passed, she knew that her vengeance was empty and incomplete. For with all her abuse, she did not change you, and she did not change your three captive friends. Our flesh she could alter, our lives she could fill with misery and shame, but we were still ourselves, and short of killing us she could not make us other than what we were. We remained always beyond her reach, even though she had us always within her grasp.
The Captive King
This is how a man may be a slave, though he is free to go all places in the world but one.
The Torments or Beauty
Shall I catalogue the suffering of your exile for you, Palicrovol? The foreign ambassadors reviled you, or their bladders would burn when they urinated.
No matter how the cooks labored, all food served to you was covered with mold, all drinks were filmed with slime.
You fenced yourself with wizards, to give you a few moments' respite now and then; Beauty tore away their feeble barriers whenever she chose, and whatever wizard helped you was incapable of coupling from that moment.
You called also upon the priests, even though God had lost all power and was silent in the world; the priests that comforted and honored you all developed huge goiters and tumescences on the head and neck.
For a week she would make you strain at stool, to no avail; then for another week she would give you dysentery, and open your bowels in public places, so that you were forced to diaper yourself out of courtesy to those who kept you company.
You awoke itching unbearably in the middle of the night. You froze in summer, could not bear clothing in winter because of the heat she forced on you. For days terrible dreams would waken you; then for weeks you would doze off even as you sat in judgment, or led meetings of your generals.
One of her worst tricks was to trade vision with you. She would look out of your eyes and see whatever was going on around you, and at the same time you would see whatever she saw within the palace. She did not do it in order to spy on you—she had her Sight, and could sense the whole Kingdom of Burland at will. She did it so that you would be forced to see Weasel being beaten for some offense or other; Craven feebly carrying some burden, or leaning on a serving boy; Urubugala cavorting before a laughing audience of baronets and scions of wealthy merchant families. Your friends, suffering for your sake, and you helpless to save them. So you fashioned golden cups and covered your eyes with them, so that no light could enter at all. That was how you came to be known by one of your names: the Man with the Golden Eyes. They also called you the Horned Man, the Man Who Cannot Be Alone, and the Husband of Far Beauty. And your people were not fooled: You might be Beauty's toy, but you were a good King, and they prospered and lived mostly free, and paid your slight taxes willingly enough, and submitted to your judgment with trust.
Yet, ironically, her plagues did you good as well as harm. You knew if a man stayed to serve you that he was not with you for pleasure or honor, or even because he pitied you or hated Queen Beauty. Those who stayed with you in those hard times, who lived closely with you, and were privy to your inmost thoughts—you knew that they served you either because they knew your heart and loved you or because they loved good government and endured you and the life they had to live with you for the sake of the people of Burland. You had a gift few kings are ever given—you could trust everyone near you.
That good was matched with evil. With bitter injustice, your very justice made it all the harder for you to raise and keep an army—for whose heart stirred to oust Beauty from Inwit, when things went so well for Burland as it was? Only adventurers came to your army, and the Godsmen who hated her for silencing God, and the ne'er-do-wells who had no hope of any other trade. To fill your fifties and your regiments you had to conscript soldiers, which gave you an unwilling, weakish army, on the whole. It was enough to keep the enemies of Burland at bay, but rarely enough for you to hope to overcome the Queen herself.
Three times you brought your army to the gates of Inwit. Three times Queen Beauty let you hope for deliverance. And then she sent terror into the hearts of your soldiers, faced them with whatever they feared most in all the world, and all but the most resolute handful of them fled from your army, and you retreated from the city that you had won from her father so many years before, forced to begin again, ashamed again before the other nations of the world.
The Harts Hour
After three centuries and more of exile, on a day when you wore the golden cups over your eyes, there came a vision to you. At first you thought it came from Beauty, but in only a moment you knew that it did not. You saw the Hart, the great shaggy stag, the one that Zymas had seen. The eagle clung to his belly, holding closed the wound there. And the Hart stopped, and turned his heavy head to face you, and you saw that he wore an iron collar around his neck, and his hooves were also banded and chained, and he bade you follow him, and set him free.
I cannot, you said.
Come, he told you, though you heard no words.
It will do no good, you said. Beauty will see me, and thwart all my works.
Come, he said. For this hour, she sees not, and sees not that she sees not.
So you took the golden cups from your eyes, and walked forth from your camp into the forest, and armed with your bow you followed the tracks of a deer into the wood, and went where the deer chose to lead you.
It was all the power that the gods could muster, exercised for you that day in the woods not far from the town of Banningside. Did you not wonder why they led you where they led you, why you did what you did? Will you now kill what came from that hour? It was your salvation, Palicrovol. It was your only son.
The Farmer's Wife Now the life of Orem Scanthips, the Little King, began this way: with a man following a hart through the wood; with a woman bathing at a stream.
Molly the farmer's wife had her six sons and didn't long for more. Six sons, three daughters: too many sons to divide the farm among them, too many daughters to marry them off with any sort of dowry. It was not a son she longed to make when she went that spring morning to her hidden place on the banks of the Banning. She went with a twist of magic in her fingers, so none could follow; but she was followed. Or rather, she was found.
It was a dark place, a still place, where the river ran narrow and deep and so swiftly that a twig was lost in an instant, so quietly that all songs were heard, all footfalls noted. The trees reached out over the water and met in a dense roof so that the sun did not dance upon the stream. It was cold here, even in the summer. A cave made of leaves and water, all the cold and terrible things of a woman: it was Molly's truest home, the place where she dared to call herself by her most secret name.
Bloom, she whispered, naming herself.
Hush, spoke the river in reply. Hush, for the end of your life is coming, following the traces of a deer.
The Pandering Hart
A great grey hart stood across the stream from her. Molly knew him well, knew that in the hart and hind were magics beyond the reach of the silly farm women of Waterswatch. Beyond even her own reach, and she was the best of them. The blood of the Hart, they say, stains all the world. So she watched as the hart condescended to drink from the stream; watched as water fell silver from his mouth back to the river; watched as behind the great beast a hunter came, arrow nocked, bow down but ready to be drawn in an instant.
Do not dare to harm the horned head, she cried silently.
And, as if obedient to her utterance, the hunter stood and watched the deer drink, letting the nock slip from the string, letting the bow grow slack. No death today for the hundred-pointed head.
Molly studied the hunter as the hunter studied the hart. He was a strong-looking man. Not tall, and as dark as men of the west always were. He wore the deep green of the King—a soldier, then. But not like most soldiers, for Molly had never seen a slogger who had the wit to recognize the beauty of a deer; nor did she know any man at all who could fix his attention on one thing for such a long time. The man's eyes gleamed in the darkness of her green and silent cave. He was so still, and yet even slack his arms had power in them. Even silent, his lips commanded attention. And she knew, or thought she knew, or dreamed it even as it happened: she knew that this was no common soldier of the King. It was Palicrovol himself, yes, Palicrovol the Exile, the Husband of Far Beauty. No wonder, she thought, no wonder he stares with such longing at the hart. He wishes some god could be freed to bring him ease. Well, Queen Beauty, if you watch today, see how I bring him ease, thought Molly, thought fecund Daughter Bloom, for I will have this man, will have the life of him in me.
But a part of her answered, with peace only the Sweet Sisters could bring, My children are not bom monsters, and a woman is not truly chaste if she refuses what man the Hart brings. Her womb, which had been so often full, cried out to be filled again. But this time, this time with a King's son, this time with the Hart's child.
"Man," she whispered. Such was the stillness of the place that he heard and yet was not afraid.
"Woman," he said, and his face showed cold amusement.
"Are you strong as this river?"
"Are you," he answered, "as deep?"
In answer she lay upon the grassy, leafy bank and smiled. Come to me, if there's as much man
as king in you.
As if he heard her taunt, he crossed the river, naked now except for his knife—for he would not be unarmed. He fought the current bravely, but still he came ashore far downstream from her, and she watched as he came dripping and exhausted from the water. River Banning was called unfordable and far from safe to swim. Yet the King had crossed it for her. Molly's legs trembled.
He stood over her, leaves and grass and dirt clinging to his shins. He had no beauty to him, and yet there was a quivering deep in her belly as she looked at him.
"Woman, what do they call you?" There was neither lust nor affection in his gaze. He would not pretend that she was young and beautiful, for she was neither. Her belly sagged within her skirts, her thighs were heavy and her dugs hung as loose as the udder of an aging cow. What the Hart brings together is what would not have come together without him. Beauty or not, it was plain that he desired what she desired, and as much.
"I am Bloom," she said, giving her secret woman's name to him, though he was a man. The Hart
had led him.
"Has the forest given you to me?"
"I have a husband," she said. "I will not be yours."
To her surprise, he looked angry and stepped back, as if her wifehood would be a bar to him.
"Man," she said, "I will not be yours. But will you not be mine?"
"Yes," he said, "Yes I will. Yes."
He took her as the hart mounts the hind, and she cried out in the pain and pleasure of the giving and the taking. He put the seed of a son in her, and then kissed her at the small of her back, behind her womb. "What comes of this only God will say," he said to her. But she only hummed and lay naked on the bank, not even turning to watch him as he plunged again into the flood and swam away. God had not brought him, didn't he know it? No, it was not God but the Hart that would say what came of this; the blood of the Hart, the blood that flowed from her belly even though she had not been a virgin, as though he had secretly pierced her with his knife. What you have made in me, O Palicrovol, she said to her memory of his flesh, what you have made in me I will make stronger than you. I will make him large and strong. Nine children I have born alive, and always my husband's own. But this one is not my husband's. This one is mine. I will name him Orem, for silver water flowed from his father's body on the morning he was made.
The Birth of Palicrovol's Son
These are the signs that came when Orem Banningside, called Scanthips, called the Little King, was born.
The Signs of the Mother
As she lay on her childbed, her eyes swimming with the pain that never eased no matter how often she went through it, Molly saw the midwife lift the baby up, and in the sunlight of early morning that streamed through the spring window of her east-facing house, he gleamed silver to her; covered with the blood and mucus of birth, he gleamed silver as the water from the hart's mouth.
She held him, she sang to him, she talked to him long before the infant could possibly understand. Silently she told him in every way she could, You are the son of the King, my son, you are born to be great. The words were never spoken, but the child still understood. He learned to walk when he was only eight months into the world, because it did not occur to him that he could not; he spoke boldly from the first word, expecting to be understood no matter what he tried to say. A bright one, all the neighbors said to Molly.
But for two reasons she was not pleased at what they said. For one, she knew that there were other things said as well, for the child did not look like her blond giant of a husband. For another, there were her own doubts and fears. Quickly she learned that when her seventh son was with her, all her subtle powers were gone. Her cooking spells were meaningless when he was in the house, no matter how many dead mice she bled into the hearth. Her loom magics made no pattern in the homespun cloth if he looked on at her labors. The household goms were free here, where once they had been held in the tightest rein of all High Waterswatch.
But the worst was when she made the signs that hid her path from mortal eyes as she wandered off into the wood. He could always follow her, could always see her despite the blood she pricked from her own finger. What have the Sweet Sisters given me? she asked herself in fear. But it was neither God nor the Sisters, she knew, for the Hart had also found her in her secret place, and Orem was the child of the Hart. These were the signs of the mother, and instead of love for her son, she soon felt fear, for he had made her weak, and she had once been strong in her small and vegetal way.
When Molly was in her childbed, Avonap her husband waited impatiently in the other room. Nine other times, six times sonned and three times daughtered, he had waited this way. Nine other times he had felt the same impatience. The fields are waiting, woman, he wanted to cry, the soil has called. Did she not know what a farmer's work was?
With the soil as with a woman, it was his work to plow, to plant the seed, to tend, to reap. But the corn did not require that he sit and wait in the next room for the grain to ripen in the husk. No, the ripening, the fruiting, that was the business of God who gave life, or the Sweet Sisters, after the woman's reckoning, which he dared not despise. His business was out with the uncut soil, the unripe corn, the unbound sheaves, not waiting, waiting for—what this time? A daughter to dower? A son to raise to disappointment? Five times he had had to tell a boy of his loins that the fields would never be his, and ever since he had felt their hatred at his back, scythe in hand, or harrow. Not that he feared them; just that there was a weakness hidden in Avonap's heart. He loved his children, and wanted to be loved by them. Not unheard of in a man, but not something to boast of. He spoke of it to no one, but still when he felt the heat of their anger like breath on his sweating back, Yes, he would think, Yes, they hate me, yes I am undone.
So when the midwife came from the room and said, "A son," she was braced for the dark glowering on his face. However, she knew that there was worse to come. For Avonap was one of the blond giant farmers of High Waterswatch that had earned the land the sobriquet "Straw Man's Land," and the baby that was brought forth to him did not have the white-down-covered head of all of Molly's other babes. The baby was red and dark, longer and thinner than the others had been, and worst was the shock of blackish hair on the top of the head. The infant bawled piteously, but the sight of him kept Avonap from pity.
"Changeling," he murmured, and the midwife made the circle upon the cloth of the baby's swaddle.
Changeling? Oh, no, it was no child of goms or wandering Sebastit. It was something worse, he feared. He saw the child and dreamed of the towers of the west, where men grew lean and dark-haired, and women were white of skin and ebon of hair. He dreamed of such a westerner coming somehow to the east. In the army, no doubt. Dreamed of a west-facing tower, and Molly perched at the top, combing her long blond hair to tumble down and cover the face of the soldier leering up at her below. He dreamed of the volcano he had seen erupting in his youth, on his one journey to Scravehold. And he hated the child. Leave him to his mother, thought he. Whatever he is, and whoever his sire, he's none of mine, none of me, and for once I'm glad to be sharing none of my land with him.
But the years will bend all things, even the blond and mountainous men who farm the hilly riverside land of High Waterswatch.
First, it soon became clear to him that Orem would be his Molly's final child, and he remembered the saying
Richest bee of all the hive,
Cheater of the beggar's grave,
Thief of all his father's love.
Second, there was the matter of the child's hair. He was a woman-raised child, of course, and so there was some foolishness of combing and washing more than a boy should be combed and washed. But sometimes when Avonap saw the brooding child at supper, glowering over his plate, he saw in the firelight a tough of red gold in the boy's dark hair, and saw in the wan and whitish face what had been kept from all his other sons and daughters—the grace of young Molly, the greatest prize that he had won in all his life. And of a sudden one day he yearned for the boy.
Third, and most of all, he saw soon enough that despite Molly's total rule over the boy, she shunned him. Wouldn't let him play beside the loom, wouldn't let him help her at the stove. Too often Avonap saw him playing strange games in the lee of the house in summer, being neither inside his mother's walled factory nor outside in his father's field, where the men forged wheat and tawny barley in the fires of the sun.
So it was that one day, by chance the fourth yearday of young Orem's life, Avonap let fall his hoe when he saw the boy, let it fall and walked to where he played.
"What are you doing?" asked the father.
"I'm making armies in the dirt," said the son.
And the boy touched with the point of his stick where the army of Palicrovol stood, a series of circles concealed behind weeds or perched at the tops of inch-high mounds. "And here," said the son, "is the city of Inwit, Palicrovol's capital, which he shall recapture today."
"But those are only circles in the dirt," said Avonap. "Why aren't you inside with your mother?"
"She sends me out when she has work to do. She works better when there are no boys around."
What did Avonap see in the boy's face? Molly's face, yes, that for sure, and perhaps he felt the old yearning for his young wife; but more than that, for Avonap had a soft heart. He saw a child who had no welcome in either world. Not in the still, enclosed, soft world of women, not in the tooled and bristling, windy world of men. Avonap was touched with pity for the boy. A boy should be strong and hale and blond; this strange child was plainly not. Yet a boy should also have a ready smile. When this boy was an infant he had had such a smile, and now it was gone. That much surely could be set to rights.
"Will you come with me, then, since you're not too busy here?"
And the rejoicing in the son's eyes was enough for the father. From that time on his weakness and his darkness were no barrier between them. No thought of cuckolding, no murmurs of changeling children. Avonap did with Orem what he had not done since his oldest boy was little. Said some, "Young Orem is the fruit of the basalak, growing whole from the bark of the fathertree," for that was how it seemed, that Orem grew whole from his father's shoulder, or sprang from the ground beside his father, tied at the stem, tied at the hand. Root and branch he became his father's son. These were the signs of the father.
And what of the other tales the common folk tell? How Queen Beauty wept all night the night that he was born? How Enziquelvinisensee Evelvenin woke up and saw her face beautiful in the mirror for that single night? How Palicrovol himself was overcome with power on the night of Orem's birth, and stood at the door of his tent naked and large with potential, all to be fulfilled in the birth of his bastard son? How stars fell, and wolves mated with sheep, and fish walked, and the Sweet Sisters appeared to the nuns of the Great Temple of Inwit?
Such tales were all made up so the Tale would have more magic. Not Orem nor Molly nor Avonap—no one suspected what had been wrought in the world. There were these signs only: The signs of the mother, who loved and then feared the boy; the signs of the father, who hated and then loved the boy; and the sign of the boy.
This was the sign of the boy: He followed his mother often to her river cave, where the trees were so tall they arched to both sides of the deep and fast-rushing Banning, so only green light could touch the water, and all was rich with the power the women called Sisterhood and the men called God. And there, he watched her bathe in the edges of the tugging current, saw her dip her loose and sagging breasts and belly into the flood, and as these touched the water, he saw a great stag, a hundred-horned head, appear among the leaves, watching, watching. For just a moment he saw; then he glanced away and when he looked again the hart was gone. He did not wonder then what it meant; only feared for a moment that his naked and vulnerable mam might be in some danger from the deer. He did not know the Hart had already pierced her once, as deep as a woman could be pierced. And that was the sign of the son.
The House of God
Here is the tale of the only true miracle of Orem's childhood, and how he came to be a clerk.
The Seventh Son of Avonap
Because Avonap loved his seventh son, he tried to get him away from the farm as soon as he could. It was no good for a lateborn son to stay long on the farm, for the older he got, the more he ate, and the more he ate, the more the elder sons saw their inheritance being wasted, perhaps being threatened by a child their father loved more. Such lateborn sons had a way of dying in strange accidents. Avonap had no reason to think that Orem would be safe.
Orem took the news well. He could see that his father grieved that he must go, which comforted him. He could also see that his mother was relieved that he'd be gone, and this hurt him enough that he did not want to stay.
So it was that at the age of six Orem was carried on donkeyback to the town of Banningside and delivered into the hands of the clerics in the House of God.
"You will learn to read and write," said Avonap, though he had no notion of what reading and writing were.
"I don't want to learn to read and write," whispered the child.
"You will learn to count money," said Avonap, though never in his life had he held a coin in his hand.
"You will learn to serve God," said Halfpriest Dobbick, taking the boy into the door of the house. And at that Avonap touched his forehead and bent his knees a bit, for God was treated with respect in all the lands of King Palicrovol.
Orem wept when the great wooden door closed, but not for long. Children are resilient. No matter how they are battered, they have a way of thriving.
Friends and Enemies
The House of God was dark and dead, filled with the white figures of dour-faced men and frightened boys. There was never a great booming of laughter echoing through the corridors and cells of the House of God, as there had been in the tavern of the village or through the great colonnades of the wood. The children sneaked their laughter as subtly as they sneaked the oblatory wine. Yet Orem soon found himself at home there. Home is anywhere that you know all your friends and all your enemies.
His enemies were the older boys, the stronger boys, who were used to wielding power in the darkened rooms at night. Orem had somehow grown up with a belief that unfairness was to be, not endured, but corrected. So when he saw injustice being done, he corrected it. Not by telling the halfpriests—he knew adults never take seriously the wars and struggles of children. Instead, he taught the younger boys to organize in the darkness. It took only two times that Orem out-generaled the bullies in the dark before the younger boys began to find themselves safe and more free than they had ever been before. The older boys did not forget. Orem had undone them when they thought that they were strong, and with the directness of children they plotted Orem's death.
Orem's friends were not the younger children, however. Once they had their safety, they stayed as far from Orem as they could. They were content to let the hatred of the older boys fall upon him, and stay clear of it themselves. Orem bore their treachery calmly. He did not expect them to be any better than they were. He was his father's son.
"Don't you see what you have done?" asked Halfpriest Dobbick. "Here, where you do the sum of the suns of winter, you also spell out 'warm snow.' "
"I'm sorry," said Orem, thinking he had been caught in a secret vice. But he soon saw that Halfpriest Dobbick was pleased with him, and several times Orem noticed that when priests came in to observe the class as they studied, they would look over his shoulder the whole time, never particularly observing anyone else at all.
Once Orem discovered that the teachers were his friends, he turned to them gratefully, and escaped the dangerous solitude of the playyard by spending the free hours indoors, reading and talking with his teachers. Only one of Orem's teachers understood what was happening. Halfpriest Dobbick. "You don't know yet the cost of your power," said Dobbick.
"Power?" asked Orem, for he did not think he had any.
"You acted bravely and wisely when you first came. You must act bravely and wisely among the other children now, if you are ever to do well with them."
"They aren't my friends," said Orem.
"Will they love you better if you ally yourself with us, the teachers, the oppressors, the foes of every child here?"
"What do I care who they love or why? I'm happier here in the dark with the books than there in the light with them. If you don't want to teach me, leave me alone with the library."
But Halfpriest Dobbick would not be dissuaded, and he saw to it that Orem was forced to play outside, forced to take part in the games. When the other boys pitched stones and batted them with sticks. Orem learned to be adroit at dodging the stones thrown straight at his head. When the other boys swam in the waterhole, Orem learned to be long of breath and wriggly as a watersnake, so they could not hold him under water longer than his breath. When the other boys slept, Orem learned to move stealthily and surely in the darkness, and he slept every night in some different corner of the House of God, far from his bed, so they could not murder him in his sleep. He hated Halfpriest Dobbick for compelling him to live and play among the other boys, but against his will he became sure of hand and foot and eye, strong-gripped and quick-witted, and his body was hard and could endure much. No one in the House of God could run as fast or as long as Orem; no one could live on less sleep; and no one could read and write as Orem could. He thought that he was miserable, but he would look back on this as the happiest of times.
The boys who hated Orem most were Cressam and Morram and Hob. They had not ruled before Orem came, but because of their ruthless torture of the younger boys they had been valuable enforcers for the smarter boys who did rule. Now they had no role at all within the House of God: they were fools at their schoolwork and none of the boys' games rewarded cruelty and ruthlessness. So they plotted Orem's death, partly for lack of anything else to do, and when they had settled on a plan, they practiced until they were sure they could bring it off quickly and unnoticed.
It was the day the offerings of hay came in. Orem stood with the other boys watching the stack grow higher and broader as the farmers brought their gifts to the House of God. Orem hoped to see his father, though he knew the chance was small that his own family would draw the lot to bring the village tithe.
Suddenly Orem found himself gripped by many hands and thrust under the hay. He writhed and twisted, but he was not in water, and they had practiced well. Orem did turn enough to see that Cressam held a torch. Then the hay fell down to cover him. He saw the whole plan at once. Cressam would stumble. The torch would fall. They would count the boys when the fire was out and only then discover Orem wasn't there. If any of the other boys saw it, they would not dare to tell; if Cressam and Morram and Hob had murdered once, they would not fear to do it twice.
So he did not try to leap forward out of the hay, where the flames would first erupt. Instead he plunged backward, burrowed deep into the stack. Behind him he heard the sudden roar, the shout of Fire. He could not see the flame, but he could hear it, and the heat and smoke came quickly. He did not have to think. His arms knew to burrow deeper into the hay, his feet knew to kick down hay behind him so the smoke would not be funneled in to where he meant to hide.
It was black as a sow's womb inside the hay, and because his eyes could not see, his mind did: remembered vividly the haystack fires that he had seen before. It never took more than a few seconds for the fire to reach all the way around, and only a minute or two for the flames to die down. Within the haystack there was always an unburnt core, a place where the flames could not reach. That was his hope.
But he also remembered raking through such a fire once, and he found the corpse of a mouse in the unburnt portion. There was no mark upon it, not a hair was singed, but he was still dead, eyes staring wide. Fire or not, the heat or the smoke had killed to the center of the stack, and Orem wondered what form his death would take and how much it would hurt. Then came the only miracle of his childhood. The haystack had been built upon firm, dry ground, but now his hand reached forward for support and found none. He slid and splashed into a pool of water that could not have been there. He had presence of mind enough to take one sharp, deep breath as he went under; then he let himself drift downward, downward in the water, not moving, trying only to remember up and down, and to estimate how long till the fire was out.
The priests looked at him in awe, and Prester Enzinn said what they all thought. "We drained this marsh a century ago, and just for you the water came up again and made a spring under the stack. God must love you, Orem. You are not meant to die."
From then on the priests and the other boys knew that Orem was protected, and they raised no hand against him.
In his learning he excelled. His hand was so fine they took him from the scribal class and set him to making manuscripts at the age of twelve. They let him do a new transcription of the prophecies of Prester Cork, and when he finished it they commended him for discovering seven new and hidden meanings in the rhymes and the diagonals. But whenever their praise tempted Orem to be proud, to speak boldly with the other boys, or to presume a friendship with a priest, he felt himself slip helplessly forward into a pool of water, felt his lungs wrench at him in a desperate plea for air, and he could not speak.
So the years passed in the House of God in Banningside, until the day his true father found him.
The Man with Golden Eyes
This is how you almost met your son, though you did not know you had a son, and how you set him on the course of life that led him to do the things you wish to kill him for.
The End or Education
Orem sat in tutorial, Halfpriest Dobbick across from him, studying his copy of the Waking of the Wines. He had, on a whim, written the words bud, bloom, blossom, and blood in the castings of the ages of the coops, and other such figures throughout the book. Dobbick frowned now and then, and Orem feared he had laid too many meanings into the book. He wanted to speak, to apologize, to explain. But silence, he knew, was the best policy.
pretending to be deaf, he was good at it.
If I were hungry enough, would I become a beggar, too?
Dobbick set down the book. "You have excelled yourself."
Orem did not know how tense he had been until he felt himself relax. "Is it good enough, then?"
"Oh, yes. I will certify it as your masterwork."
Orem was shocked. "My masterwork. But I'm only fifteen years old."
Dobbick sat back in silence, forcing Orem to wait patiently for him to speak. At last: "Your
education is finished, Orem."
"It can't be finished. I'm not half through the library, and my work is still raw—"
"Your work is the best we've seen in Banningside since God was first taught in this land. Who
do you think wrote the manuscript you copied of the Waking of the Wines?"
"I don't know. They're never signed."
"The prophet who first taught Palicrovol the ways of God. And you improved on his work. Not
slightly—markedly. What more will we teach you in Banningside? The books you have not read contain nothing that you need—you have taken our most difficult books and swallowed them whole."
Orem had known he was doing well, but he had not conceived, not yet, that his education was through. "I am not a man."
"You are a man," said Dobbick. "You're the tallest creature in the House of God, will we still call you a boy?"
"I am not wise."
"We never said that we could teach you wisdom. Only that we would teach you what the wise men wrote." "I cannot take the vows."
for years yet.
"Why not?" asked Dobbick quietly. "The life is not bad here. You have been happy with us."
Orem looked out the window.
"Is it the wide world? Is that what draws you? But you need not stay within the House. You
could be a mendicant—"
"Or even an outrider, our purchaser—or we could send you to the Great Temple in Inwit, they'd
be glad of you there, and we'd be glad of you upon your return."
"You don't understand."
"Do you think I don't?" Dobbick said. "You worry because you think you don't believe enough
to be a priest. It's a disease of the age of fifteen. When the flesh is stirring, the spirit seems unreal."
"If my flesh stirs I don't know it," said Orem. "My problem is not unbelief. My problem is too much belief."
Dobbick's eyes narrowed. "You were a child when you came here. Haven't you broken yourself of foolish superstitions?"
"There is magic in the world. The women who love the Sweet Sisters don't deny God. Why
must Godsmen deny the Sisters and the Hart?"
"The world is more complicated than you think."
"No, Halfpriest Dobbick. The world is more complicated than you think. I will not live in
one-third of the universe when I might wander through it all."
"So you'll leave the benison and orison and psalm in order to do obeisance to a household gom?"
Orem laughed. He could not help laughing when Dobbick went into rhyme, and Dobbick knew it.
"Come, Orem. There's no choice that must be made today. As long as you're not bored with it, there's plenty of copywork to be done. When a man is certified a master cleric, he usually takes the vows or leaves, but we can make you a brother unsworn—it's an honorable role, and it recognizes that you are our equal in education, if not in holiness. But I'll no longer pretend that I'm your teacher. I don't read your manuscripts to correct them—I read them to learn what bright new things you have made them mean." Orem spoke the blunt truth then, though he knew it would hurt Dobbick. "How can you look at my work and find truth, when I am only playing games? If my jokes and riddles and puzzles look like truth to you, what can I think but that all your other truths are nothing but jokes and riddles and puzzles?"
Ashamed at having hurt his teacher, Orem again walked to the window and looked outside. There was a stir, a hurry about the people passing back and forth, and it wasn't even a market day. And then trumpets in the distance, getting closer. Was the army coming early, then? And would King Palicrovol ride in at their head? It was the only thing that really interested Orem much these days; the mere mention of King Palicrovol's name awakened something in the boy. What sort of man is King, Orem wondered, what sort of man is it who speaks and armies obey, who calls out and a thousand priests pray for him?
"You seem drawn to the window."
"It's the banners caught my eye. You can close the window."
"Which means you want it open. Do you think I don't know your way?"
"You are not different from other boys. You dream of Palicrovol and his wicked and hopeless quest for a city he stole in the first place."
"He's a Godsman, isn't he?" Orem retorted.
"In name only. He keeps a few priests for show. It's with wizards that he guards himself against the Queen, more fool he."
Outside the window, the gate of the town's stockade was opening—yes, the King was coming, for outside the gate were soldiers ahorse and soldiers afoot, shining with steel breastplates and helmets. It was a dazzling sight, but soldiers held little glamour for Orem. It was the magic that drew his dreams. Not the magic of the Sweet Sisters, but the magic of the hundred-pointed head, the Antler Crown. It was King Palicrovol, whose wizards battled daily with the Queen. And as he thought of the King again, Palicrovol rode through the gate of Banningside, on a high saddle on a tall grey horse, and on his head the gilded Antler Crown of Burland. He looked every inch a king. He turned his head not at all, just stared straight ahead as the crowd cheered and threw roses at him.
He came closer, and Orem winced as the sun shone brightly, reflected off King Palicrovol's eyes. Where his eyes should have been there were two gold balls, shining in sunlight, so that the King could not possibly see anything. "The Queen looks through Palicrovol's eyes today," said Orem. "Why does she do it, when she has the Searching Eye?"
Dobbick was surprisingly angry when he answered. "If you had ever learned anything of God, you'd know that her Searching Eye can't penetrate a temple or a House of God, or the seventh circle of the seven circles. So why do you think King Palicrovol doesn't surround himself with priests to keep her sight out? Because he's black, too, at heart. Because he's the kind of man who'd rape a child on the steps of Faces Hall in order to steal the crown that was her only gift to give. God has no part of him, Orem. And God will have no part of you, if you draw yourself to magic the way you—"
The King turned his blind eyes from one side to the other, as if he could see to search. "No!" cried a strange, moaning voice, and it took Orem a moment to realize that it was the King who spoke so mournfully. "Oh, Inwit, not here, not through my eyes!" And then the King looked up, and the golden balls seemed to fix on Orem's face, and the King pointed at Orem's heart and cried, "Mine! Mine! Mine!"
Soldiers leapt out of line, and suddenly Orem felt himself being jerked back into the House of God. It was Dobbick, and his voice was thick with fear. "O God, O God, O seven times seven the dark days that come from incaution. O God, Orem, he wants you, he wants to have you—"
Orem was confused, but made no resistance as Dobbick dragged him out of the room. Compliance had so long been Orem's way that he had no strategy to escape the halfpriest's grip as he pulled him up and down stairs, through doors usually locked, and finally into a trap door leading to a hidden path.
"The House of God is old," said Dobbick, "from the dark days before God had His victory over all the strangers and all the powers. This path comes out near the river, well outside the stockade. Go home. Go to your father's farm and bid good-bye to your family, and then get away. Far away, to the sea, to the mountains, wherever the King can't find you."
"But what does it mean!"
"It means the King has some use for you in his battle. And you can trust this—it will be to your cost. A man like Palicrovol hasn't lived his three black centuries by paying his costs himself. In the games of power, there are only two players, and all the rest are pawns. Oh, Orem—" and the halfpriest hugged the boy at the secret postern gate, "Orem, if you had only stepped within the seven circles, just a step, you would have nothing to fear from him. God knows I hate to let you go."
"What's happening to me?" Orem asked, frightened as much by Dobbick's sudden expression of love and regret as by what had happened with the King.
"I don't know. Whatever it is, you don't want it."
But in that instant Orem realized that he did want it. In that instant he knew that the safety of the House of God was itself what he most hated. In the House of God he would never make a name for himself, or find a place, or earn a poem. Here at the postern gate he was at the verge of all three, he could feel it in the fear of his belly and the clarity of his vision.
"You're fifteen, you're only a child," said Dobbick. But Orem knew it was the age when soldiers went into the army, the age when a man could take a wife. Only in the House of God was fifteen young. "Ah, yes," said Dobbick, drawing the seven circles on Orem's face with a tender finger, "I was not wrong, you're no tool of Palicrovol's war, Orem. You're God's tool."
"Oh, we're all a tool, every one. You don't want to be a servant of God, do you? Well, serve yourself, Orem, and I think you'll end up serving God anyway."
And then it was God-be-with-you and gone, the gate closing behind him. Orem tramped down a short run of what looked like sewer but wasn't, and then clambered out of the end of the pipe, where it was fouled and tangled with silt and shrubbery. He heard the halfpriest call to him down the pipe: "Orem! Anywhere but Inwit!"
Anywhere but Inwit? Oh, no, Orem answered silently. Only Inwit for me. Whatever the King's pointing finger might have meant, it did mean this: Orem had a poem in him, and he meant to earn it out. And if Inwit was where God's man thought he must not go, then Orem knew that it was Inwit that called him. First home, as Dobbick had said, to bid good-bye, or his father would grieve. Then Inwit, where the world's water all flowed.
I am fast as a deer, Orem said to himself as he ran the country roads. He ran untired forever, it seemed, and then walked until the air came back to him, and then he ran again. His legs did not hurt him; the pain in his side came and almost killed him and then went away, abashed. And sooner than he would have thought possible, he was home. All those years that he yearned to come back here, and it was only this far all the time.
"Why not stay here?" asked his aging father. "I'll be glad of you."
But it was an empty offer, for Avonap would not live forever. His brothers scowled, and his mother Molly only stared into the fire. Orem laughed. "With you I'd stay forever, Father, but would you stay with me?"
"What will you do, then? I can teach you the way to Scravehold. I went there once, with my father."
"That's not the fire I yearn to see."
Orem's eldest brother laughed at that. "What does such an ashen one as you know of fire?"
"More than the straw," retorted Orem, for he was not afraid of his brother, who knew nothing of astronomy and numbers and could not write his name.
"Inwit," said Orem's mother.
Orem looked at her in surprise, and for the first time his enthusiasm was paused. What his mother wanted for him could not be good. Or was it possible his mother might actually share a dream with him?
"It is Inwit," said Molly, "where the tenth child and seventh son must go." "Hush, Molly," said the anguished father.
So it was that Orem did not leave flying as he had come home. He walked, and his step was slow and his thoughts deep. What did it mean, that his mother also wished a poem for him?
He stood at the river's edge, in his mother's own secret place, waiting for some vessel to come to bear him out, to carry him away and down. As he waited he wrote in the mud of the shore, wondering what his mother would make of the strange signs when she came here again to bathe. He wrote:
Orem at Banningside
Free and flying
And the numbers added downward to say:
See me be great
He did not notice what Dobbick would have seen, that the numbers added upward to say:
My son dying
He did not know yet that a man could be playing riddles and accidentally tell himself the truth.
Near sunset came the raft of a grocer, keeping timidly to the edge of Banning at this treacherous place where the current was far too fast. The grocer was on the far side, struggling and looking afraid. Orem hailed him.
"Do you want a hand to trade for a river trip?"
"Only if you can swim!" came the answering cry.
So Orem hitched his shirt and tied it around his chest, held his burlap bag in his teeth, and swam his backstroke across the surface of the water. He measured well, and his flying hand struck the edge of the raft. He tossed his bag over his head and climbed aboard. The grocer glanced at him, grimaced, and said, "Your voice is a liar. I thought you were a man."
But Orem only laughed and took the little oar while the grocer kept to the pole, and together they fended the raft through the cave of leaves until the river broadened and slowed and it was safe again. Then Orem laid down the oar, unfastened his shirt, and let it fall to cover him again. He turned to face the grocer and said, "Well, if I didn't do a man's work, say so and I'll leave you here."
The grocer glowered at him, but he did not say to leave. My adventure has begun, thought Orem. I am my own man now, and I can make my name mean whatever I like.
The Grocer's Song
How Orem Scanthips found his way downriver to Inwit, where he would earn his name and his poem, but no place.
His Fathers Water
"How far are you going?" Orem asked cheerfully. The grocer only eyed him skeptically for a moment, then turned to study the current, using the long pole to keep the raft to the center of the river. Orem knew from the talk of travelers in Banningside that the currents of Banning were dangerous enough, but where the river was slower the dangers were worse, for there were pirates whenever Palicrovol's army was far away, and foragers whenever it was close, and both used about the same strategy for about the same purpose, with the difference that Palicrovol's men didn't kill half so often.
"The King's in Banningside," Orem offered. If the grocer heard, he gave no sign; indeed, he was so silent and surly-looking that Orem wondered that such an unfriendly man would have taken him aboard at all.
Night came quickly from behind the eastern trees, and when the last of the light was going, the grocer slowly poled the raft nearer the shore, though not closer than a hundred yards from the bank. Then he took the three heavy anchor stones in their strong cloth bags and dropped them overboard at the rear of the raft. The current quickly drew them from the stones until the taut lines held them.
Orem watched silently as the grocer crawled into the tent and pulled out a large clay pan. In it the grocer built a fire of sticks and coal. On it he placed a brass bowl, where he made a carrot and onion soup with river water. Orem, was not sure whether he would be invited to share, and felt uneasy about asking. After all, if his host chose silence, it was not his place to insist on speech.
So he opened his bag and took out two sausages.
The grocer eyed them briefly. Orem held out one of them, thin and white and stiff within its casing. The grocer took his knife and reached it out. Orem thrust the sausage onto the point. The grocer grunted—a sound, at least!—and Orem watched him slice the meat so thin that it seemed he would cut the one sausage forever. When the grocer made no effort to reach for the second sausage, Orem put it back in his bag. There would be meat in the soup, then, and Orem had done his part to make the meal. He would stay aboard this ship as long as he wanted now, for it is the custom of the high river country that whoever makes a meal of shared food may not refuse each other's company.
They ate together in silence, spearing the lumps of carrot and meat with their knives and taking turns drinking the broth from the brass bowl. The meal over, the grocer rinsed the bowl in the river, then dipped his hand to bring water to his mouth.
Orem held out his flask. "From my father's spring."
The grocer looked at him sternly and, at last, spoke: "Then you saves it, boy." "Is there no water where we're going?"
"To pour into your father's spring. What, is God forgotten on your father's farm?"
Dobbick had often wanted to tell him the rites of the Great and Little temples of Inwit, but Orem
had never said the simple vow. Still, it wouldn't do to have the man think his family unbelievers. "We pray the five prayers and the two songs."
"You saves the water. For your life."
They sat in silence as the wind came up, brightening the coals in the clay firedish. So we are going to Inwit, Orem thought. It was, after all, the likely place for the grocer to be headed; indeed, most downriver traffic was going there, for all waters led to the Queen's city. "I'm going to Inwit, too," said Orem.
"Good thing," said the grocer.
"Because that's the way the river runs."
"What's it like there? At Inwit?"
"That depends, doesn't it?" the grocer answered.
"Oh which gate you goes through."
Orem was puzzled. He knew gates—Banningside had a stockade, and there were the walls of
the House of God. "But don't all the gates lead to the same city?" The grocer shrugged, then chuckled. "They does and they doesn't. Now, I wonder which gate
you'll go through."
"The one that's closest, I expect."
The grocer laughed aloud. "I expect not, boy. No, indeed. There's gates and gates, don't you see. The South Gate, now, that's the Queen's own gate, and only the parades and the army and ambassadors uses that gate. And then there's God's Gate, but if you goes through there, you gets only a pilgrim's pass, and if they catches you out of Between Temples, they brands your nose with an O and throws you out, and you never gets in again."
"I'm not a pilgrim. Which gate do you use?" "I'm a grocer. Swine Gate, up Butcher's Road. I get a grocer's pass, but it's all I want. It lets me go to the Great Market and the Little Market, to Bloody Town and the Taverns. Aye, the Taverns, and that's worth the whole trip alone."
"But they doesn't have Whore Street, does they?" The grocer grinned. "No, there's no place else in the world has Whore Street. For two coppers there's ladies'll do you leaning up against the wall, they ups their skirts and in three minutes you fills them to the eyes. And if you've got five coppers there's ladies'll take you into the rooms and you gets fifteen minutes, time to do twice if you're lively, which I am." The grocer winked. "You're a virgin, aren't you, boy?"
Orem looked away. His mother and father never talked that way, and his brothers were swine. Yet this grocer seemed well-meaning enough, though Orem found himself thinking that the trip had been more pleasant before the grocer started talking. "I won't be for long," said Orem, "once I'm at Inwit."
The grocer laughed aloud, and darted a hand under Orem's long skirt to tweak his thigh perilously near his crotch. "That's the balls, boy! That's the balls!" It was a pinch that Orem remembered too well, and it was with a bit of loathing that he heard the grocer regale him with tales of his sexual exploits on Whore Street. Apparently Orem had passed some kind of test, and the grocer regarded him as a friend of sorts, one who would be interested in all he had to say. Orem was relieved when at last the grocer yawned and suddenly stood up, stripped off all his clothing, bundled it into a pillow, and pushed it ahead of him as he crawled into the tent.
Orem caught a glimpse of the inside of the tent as the grocer crawled through, and there wasn't room for him. The grocer took no further notice of him, so Orem curled up on the deck, nestled against the leeward side of the grocer's load. It was chilly, especially where Orem's shirt was still damp from the swim a few hours before, but it could have been worse.
The Corthy Price
In the morning, the silence reigned again. This time, however, Orem did nothing to interrupt it. He helped in the work of the raft, bringing the grocer water to drink as he manned the pole, and from time to time dipping the oar into the water to help when the work became hard in swift currents or shallow sandy water. Orem shared his own small bread for nooning, which the grocer wordlessly took. But this time when night fell, the grocer beckoned for Orem to cast the anchor stones with him, and the talk began at once when the meal was done. The grocer got merrier and merrier, though he touched no beer, and he told Orem more and more about Inwit.
"There's Asses Gate, but you're no merchant. And Back Gate is only for them as lives in High Farms, which you doesn't and never could, those families being older than the Queen's own tribe, and near as magical, they says. No, boy, for you there's only Piss Gate and the Hole. For Piss Gate you gets a three-days' pauper's pass, and if you doesn't find work in those three days, you have to leave again, or they cuts off your ears. Second time they catches you on an old pass, or without one, and you gets a choice. They sells you as a slave or cuts off your balls, and there isn't as many free eunuchs as there is horny slaves, I can tell you!" Three days. In three days he'd find plenty of work.
The grocer suddenly got quiet. "It's the Hole, boy, not just any hole. That's closed, and there isn't passes. Not from the Guard. But there's ways through the Hole, and ways to get around in the city from there, but I don't know them. No, I'm a Godsman, I am, and the ways through the Hole are all magical, them as isn't criminal. No, you takes your chances with Piss Gate and a three days' pass, and when you doesn't find work, you goes home. No good comes from the Hole. It's magical black and God hates it."
Magical. There it is, thought Orem. They say Queen Beauty is a witch, and magic flies in Inwit, even though the priests do their best to put it down and the laws are all against it. Maybe I'll see magic, thought Orem, though he knew that God wouldn't truck with wizards, and there were seven foreign devils to take your soul if a man should do the purchased spells. The clean spells of the Sweet Sisters, the magics the women did on the farms, they were different, of course. But the magics of the Hole would not be that sort, Orem was sure. And he found himself drawn to the idea of passing through the Hole, to find the city that he wanted to see.
"I don't like the look of your face," the grocer said. "You're not thinking witchy thoughts, are you?"
Orem shook his head, at once ashamed of having so betrayed Halfpriest Dobbick in his heart. "I'm on my way to find a place for myself, and make a name. And earn my poem, if I can."
The grocer relaxed. "There's poems to be had in Inwit. I met a man there whose poem was as long as his arm—I mean it true, he had it needled right into his skin, and a fine poem it was." Suddenly the grocer was shy. "I have a poem, given me by three singers in High Bans. It's no Inwit poem, but it's mine."
Suddenly the mood of the night became solemn. Orem knelt on the hard logs of the raft, and reached out his open hands. "Will you tell me your poem?"
"I'm not much for singing," said the grocer. But he put his left hand in Orem's hands, and his right hand on Orem's head. He sang:
Glasin Grocer, wanders widely,
Rides the river, drifting down,
Turns to north, town of Corth,
Feeds the frightened Holy Hound.
"You," said Orem, in awe.
Glasin Grocer nodded shyly. "Here on my shoulder," he said, baring himself so Orem could see the scars. "I was lucky. It was the Hound's first day, and he took little enough before he went back to the Kennel."
"Weren't you afraid?"
"Peed my winders," Glasin said, chuckling. Orem laughed a little, too. But he thought of how it must be, the huge black Hound coming out of the wood without a sound, and fixing you with the eyes that froze you to your place. And then to kneel and pray as the Hound came and set his teeth in you, and took as much flesh as he wanted, and you hadn't the power to run or the breath to scream.
"I heard about that year. They said the Hound took an angel."
Glasin laughed and slapped his thigh. "An angel! I never!"
Whenever Glasin laughed, his breath took the odor of his rotting teeth in foul gusts to Orem's nose, and Orem would have turned away but for the failure of respect. And Glasin was worth it now—only one bite from the Holy Hound, and a good crop, too. "You were the Corthy Price," Orem said, shaking his head.
Glasin punched Orem in the shoulder. "An angel. They doesn't."
"Oh, they do," said Orem, and Glasin sang his song again. He sang it many times on the way down the river, the two weeks as Banning turned into Burring, and they passed the great castles of Runs, Gronskeep, Holy Bend, Sturks, and Pry. The souther they got the more the river was crowded with other rafts and other barges and boats, and the fouler the river got from sewer streams of the towns along the way. But the odors and noises and arguments with other boatmen were no damper to the excitement of knowing that Inwit was hourly nearer. The only thing that marred Orem's days was Glasin himself. There were many times, in fact, that Orem wished devoutly that he and Glasin had not become friends, and he missed the old silence dreadfully. Glasin had a small enough life, after all, to be contained all in only a few nights' talk, and Orem had to force himself not to say, But your whole song is because by chance the Holy Hound found you, and you were clean. Being clean is just a list of the things you've never done. An empty sort of life, and Orem thought, I will have a poem so long and fine that I will never have to sing it myself, but others will sing it to me because they know the words by heart.
One morning Glasin began to talk even as he first poled the raft back out into the current. "I bet you thinks I can't hold my tongue," he said, "but you sees how I keep my counsel. Did I tell that today would be Inwit day, and landfall at Farmer's Port? If I'd said a thing, why, you never would have slept a wink, and today you needs your rest, I said to me, today you needs your sleep. But you looks there, and sees Ainn Woods, and that low hill ahead, that's Ainn Point, and Ainn Creek is just beyond." It wasn't on Glasin's raft alone that the excitement was high. "Clake Bay!" cried a woman on a nearby boat. "Boat Island!" a man shouted.
And then they fully rounded the bend and there, on the lefthand side of the river, there was Inwit, a high stone wall bright with banners, and below it the docks of Farmer's Port, and rising high behind it the great walls of King's Town—no, Queen's Town then—and the gaunt Old Castle highest of all. Glasin named all the places until he nearly missed his turning, and only made one of the last slips of Farmer's Port.
The nearest portman tied their line to a post at the slip, and Orem was all for jumping ashore. But Glasin glared at him and ordered him to stay. They waited, and soon several men in gaudy southern trousers came to eye them and their raft. "A weaky ship," said one.
Glasin turned away from that man, and faced another. "All oak," he said defiantly.
"Bound with spit and catgut?" the man retorted.
"Good only for lumber," said a third. "And three days' drying to boot. A cart in trade."
"Cart and twenty coppers," said another.
Glasin snorted and turned his back.
"Cart and donkey," said the man who had called it a weaky ship.
Glasin turned around with a frown. "That and four silvers gives you raft and tent."
"Silvers! And what do I want with a tent?"
Another man nodded. The third turned away, shaking his head. The first man, who had the eye of a hawk, staring open always even when the other was closed, he raised his hands. "God sends thieves downriver disguised in grocers' shirts," he said. "Two silvers, a donkey and cart, but by God you keep the tent."
Glasin glanced at the other bidder, but he was through. The sale was set then.
Or almost set. Hawkeye looked at Orem. "Boy for sale?" he asked.
For sale? Orem was appalled—how could anyone take him for a slave? He had no rings in his
face, had he? He had no branding! But there was the man asking, and the grocer not saying no, but standing, thinking.
"I'm a freeman," Orem said hotly, but Hawkeye made no sign of having heard, just kept watching Glasin. The grocer at last shook his head. "I'm a God's man, and this boy is free." The buyer said nothing more, just tossed two gleaming coins to Glasin, who caught them deftly so they didn't slip down between the logs to get lost in the river. The buyer waved, and four men came up, one leading a sad-looking donkey and cart while the others quickly unloaded the raft and put all that would fit into the cart, piling the rest on the dock. When all was done, the portman nodded, drove a red nail into the post, and walked away.
"They takes it to Boat Island," said the grocer. "They trims it into boards and builds sea ships with it. From Boat Island on out to the sea, the big ships comes and goes. Half my profits is from the raft—the donkey alone would bring me twice that lumber in the north, and the cart is worth all my cargo when I'm buying at the country markets. Now, boy, what is our business?"
Orem didn't understand.
"If you stays and watches my things, if you doesn't let anything get taken whatever they offers you, I give you five coppers when I get back."
"Where are you going?"
"To the market, to get a stall. If I go now, while all the other morning grocers is loading their carts, I get a better place, see. But can I trust you?"
Orem only looked at him angrily. Asking a man if he could be trusted was like asking an unwed girl if she was virgin. The question mattered, but the asking of it was gross insult.
"All right then," said the grocer. "I'll be back. You talks to no man."
Orem nodded, and immediately the grocer was off, trotting heavily among the crowd.
Around him Orem watched the other grocers as they quarreled and traded and disparaged each other's goods. Here and there were portmen standing guard as Orem stood; he suspected that they were being paid a good deal more than a few coppers. It didn't matter. He had learned the abstract values of coins at the House of God, but never in his life had he been forced to learn just how much living could be done on how much money. And even if he had learned, at Inwit all values were changed. Six coppers would keep a good-sized family for a month at Banningside. It was different here.
There were other differences. Orem was not so naive he didn't know what was happening when a golden-trousered man gave a small heavy bag to a man standing guard. The guard turned his back as two wagons were drawn to the absent grocer's pile and the goods were loaded on. Orem listened for the cry of thief to arise, waited to see the crowd giving alarm; but there was no sound. Neither did Orem make a sound, for he was afraid to raise the cry of thief in a place where a crime could be committed in the open. He guessed that the bribe was only half the transaction. There was a hint of violence in the rough-looking men who did the loading; he wondered if the man who resisted might end up swimming for his life.
"I have a bag of coppers here," the man said softly, "which I'll pay to a boy with a wandering eye who stands and watches the river. Twenty coppers have I, my boy."
Orem did not know what to say. It was a fine offer indeed, and gave him some notion of how ungenerous Glasin had been in his payment. It occurred to him that Glasin trusted him rather much—or else was convinced that Orem was a fool who had no notion of money.
The man drew conclusions from Orem's silence. "I'll go to fifty coppers, then. Fifty coppers, but I tell you, boy, the fishes of the river can be hungry, and we try to keep them fed on stubborn flesh."
There it was—the bribe and the threat, and he only a boy of fifteen. The rough-looking loaders, there they were waiting at the empty wagons. What chance would Orem have if they threw him into the river? They'd have the grocer's goods whether he wanted them to or not; so why not have the coppers in the bargain?
But there was no poem in a hundred coppers, none at all, and no name or place in that, either.
"What, are you deaf? Well, do you know what this means?" And there was a dagger in the man's hands. For a moment Orem was tempted to try a trick the sergeant had taught him long ago; but no, it was too long ago, when he was little, and Orem did not know if he had the strength or quickness to do it against such a man as this. Who could say what a man with trousers might do? But there was an idea in the man's words about deafness.
"Oh you are generous sir!" Orem bellowed. "Oh you are kind and wise!" He hadn't the lungs of old Yizzer at the gate of the House of God, but his voice was strong enough from his years of canting at the prayers. "Oh your face is a kind one sir, and God knows your inmost hidden name. God and I know your inmost names and we shall name them!" And with that Orem reached out his hand and drew his palm lightly across the dagger's point. It drew his blood and hurt with a sharp sting, but Orem knew from the magics observed on his father's farm what such a thing would mean. He held up his hand and let the blood trickle down his arm into his sleeve. "I will name your names!"
It was enough, oh, yes, see the man run, hear the hissing of his trousers as his legs brush against each other. Orem did not know, however, whether he had done right; it was a terrible thing to pretend to have magic. A terrible thing to spill blood without purpose, to pay a price without petition; but it was all that he had thought of at the moment, and there, the man was leaving, he was glaring back at Orem sure enough, but he and his rough servants were fleeing. It was enlightening to Orem. Yes, he said to himself again and again, Yes, this is a deep and high place, but they are still afraid of magics here, in Queen Beauty's own city they cannot tell a deaf wizard from a desperate wandering boy.
More than the would-be thief had been frightened, too; the other grocers eyed him suspiciously. Only the nearest portman seemed to understand—he winked and drew a circle on his trousers. But was the circle to congratulate him or to fend his pretended power? Orem guessed the first; and also realized that the portmen must charge high fees indeed, for no thief bothered to approach the ones of them that stood on guard. A hundred coppers wouldn't tempt them, and with hundreds of the green-bloused men around, Orem guessed that even the most desperate men wouldn't dare to drop one in the river, punctured or not. Life in Inwit was more openly criminal, but there were protections, and a good one was the protection of being in a company of loyal men. Orem wondered vaguely how he would look in the portmen's green.
By now Orem had come to understand how much the grocer was gaining by his services. Glasin had not had to pay a portman, nor had he had to give pick of stall in the Great Market to some other grocer for watching his goods on the wharf. And it occurred to Orem that Glasin had considered claiming that he was a slave and selling him. Glasin might have been the Corthy Price, but he was too shrewd by half. What if he only left behind on the dock the things he didn't need to sell? What if Orem waited all day for him to come back, and he never came?
"First my five coppers," said Orem.
It was a calculated risk; an honest man might have dismissed him on the spot, for sheer rage. But Glasin only laughed. "Six coppers, then, for waiting again."
So he did mean to cheat him. "First the five I earned."
It was only now that Glasin's eyes went narrow. "What, so I can return and find you gone with my five coppers and my goods as well? I pay you only when your work is done."
Orem could not bear the accusation of thief when he had taken risk already to save Glasin's goods. "A man offered me fifty coppers and would have killed me! I frightened him off for you, and all for five coppers!"
Glasin plainly didn't believe him. "What sort of man could you frighten off? You won't cheat me by such a silly lie as that!"
By habit Orem turned to the nearby guards and grocers for confirmation of his tale. "I did, you saw me!" he called out. But no one gave a sign of hearing.
"Why should anyone witness for you?" Glasin asked. "What could you possibly pay them?"
"I could pay them my five coppers," Orem said.
"Off with you, then! I have no use for you! Trying to cheat me! After I let such a useless boy as you ride my boat for free! Here's the five coppers, which you didn't earn. Now away, before I call the guards and name you a thief! Off! You gets away!"
And now, to Orem's surprise, the other grocers began to take notice. "Is the boy cheating you?" one called. "Into the river with him," cried another. "Get rid of a boy like that!" What could he do, then, but leave? He was furious at the unfairness of it, but it was plain enough that just as portmen found safety with each other's company, so the grocers were a band together, and they'd stand up for another grocer however much the right might be with a wandering boy like Orem. It was a weakish, undependable company, for they had said and done nothing when a thief took the goods of one of their number—but it was a company, all the same. Where was Orem's company? Who would protect him? It was the House of God again, and his enemies able to throw him into the fire because he had no friends.
Orem Sees the Forbidden Gate
Where now? In all his talk on the downriver trip, Glasin had said much about ways into the city. Now Orem felt little desire to follow Glasin's advice—but in this place what other guide did he have? Glasin would have had little to gain by lying to him in his tales of the city. Orem had no choice but to trust his hints. What had Glasin said? Piss Gate, of course, and three days to find work before they thrust him out. Well, nowhere to go but there, for the ways into the Hole were dangerous, Glasin had said; and what would those dangers be, if the open dock was full of such traps?
"Don't buy anything outside the gate," the grocer had said. "And don't buy anything from anyone who offers to sell. They'll spot you as a farmer from the first second, and they'll up their price by tens." It was all the wisdom Orem had right now; it was his only armor as he found himself on Butcher Street, where four great lines of carts and animals and men waited to get past the guards at Swine Gate.
The guards wore skirts of plated metal, and breastplates of brass; plainly they were not the soldiers who defended the city, for Palicrovol's men wore steel mail shirts and carried swords that would bite such brass as a candle bit through paper. And though the walls of the city were high, the huge wooden gates stout, Orem wondered why it was that King Palicrovol, with an army that they said was the strongest ever known in all the world, had never been able to mine or breach the walls, or even, they said, slay a single one of Queen Beauty's soldiers. Surely the Queen had some terrible army hidden away, and these antiquely costumed guards were all for show.
All for show, except that they were as good a bar to Orem's entry into the city as any men in steel mail with steel swords might have been. He watched, and they did not let the huge press of cursing grocers and butchers hurry them; every pass was checked thoroughly, and more than one man was made to stand aside while others went ahead of him. And over all were the archers perched on the tops of the gate towers, alert always to what was happening below them. There would be no way for Orem to slip in unnoticed even if he had wanted to.
"No use looking, farmer," said a voice behind him. Orem turned and saw a weasely looking man near four inches shorter than he, smiling at him. Smiles like that, Orem thought, are worn by dogs who have cornered their squirrel.
"Then you'll not get through Swine Gate, will you?"
"I'm looking for Piss Gate."
The man nodded. "They all are, boy, they all are. Well, when you're done with Piss Gate, you find old Braisy here, and he'll get you through. He'll get you into Inwit for the very small fee of five coppers and a favor, he will." And then Braisy was gone, and because he was so short, Orem quickly lost him in the sea of heads moving in every direction on Butcher Street.
Unfriendly as the city might be, Orem had to find his way. He asked questions, and among the surly replies was information enough to get him to Shit Street, which led between the reeking stockyards and north into Beggarstown. "You'll find the towers of Piss Gate easy enough, if you just look up and keep the wall on your right," said a man with a bloody butcher's apron. But Shit Street quickly became narrow and kept turning away from the main path of traffic. There were fewer and fewer signs the farther he went; who could read, after all, in such a place as this? For Beggarstown was made up of people who had not found work on their pauper's passes and could not stay inside the city walls; it was a poor place, with seedy wooden shops gradually making way for boarded-up buildings that were lived in despite their sag and filth, and even these began to look fine as hovels sprouted up in every space the rickety old structures left between them. The shacks grew out into the road; the people squatting in the shadows of the east side of the street looked hungry; Orem began to be afraid of thieves, for in this place even five pennies might be worth taking another man's life.
Soon he was lost. Only the wall remained constant, high and grey, looming over the filthy town that was already three times as large as all of Banningside. Orem dared not ask directions of any of the people along the way. He kept as far as possible from the buildings. And the farther he walked, the fewer people he saw, until there was no one about when he spotted the twin high towers of a gate.
The streets were utterly empty near the gate. The buildings were boarded up or, even more haunting, left to hang open, roofless and shutterless, as if they were half-completed. Not a person was in sight; there was not even the banging of an open door to break the silence. He knew that this could not be Piss Gate, where paupers passed into the city of Inwit. But that did not deter him, for he knew then what this gate must be, and he wanted all the more to see it.
He stood at the foot of the gate towers, looking up. The street had widened to a plaza and then disappeared. Where the vast wooden gates should have stood open, houses rose steeply to lean against the towers, covering the space where only at the top was there any of the lumber of the gate visible. There was an odd shifting of the view: at one moment it seemed the gate was holding up the buildings; at the next it seemed the buildings were holding up the walls, keeping them from falling outward to crush Orem where he stood and looked.
Orem was startled, for he had thought he was alone. "Ho, what are you doing here?"
"I'm looking for Piss Gate," Orem said. "I'm here for the first time. Have they closed the gate, then?"
The guards glanced at each other, then smiled. There was derision in their mirth, and Orem felt uncomfortable.
"Not Piss Gate, that's sure, you can tell Piss Gate by the stink of thieves and farmers who come down the river hoping to get rich in the city." The guards approached him, and now Orem saw that there were more than a dozen of them; they had been concealed in shadows or, he suspected, inside the shells of the buildings that were not totally boarded up.
"I'm not hoping to get rich," Orem said, trying to sound frightened and succeeding better than he had expected.
"Where you from, boy?"
"A farm. My father's farm. Upriver, near Banningside."
Now the guards were more alert, and Orem noticed that hands were on hilts and fingers had closed around ax-hafts. "An illegal person is near Banningside," said a guard.
"Illegal person?" The King, of course. And for a terrible moment Orem feared they would suppose him a spy. Spies, he knew, were skinned alive and forced to eat their own hearts. Should he pretend that he didn't know Palicrovol had been in the area? No, they'd never believe it. It was impossible not to know when that vast army came foraging in a countryside. "All I know is the sergeants were out pressing soldiers. I didn't want to go in the army."
The guard who seemed to be in command looked him up and down pointedly, then laughed. "If you were in danger of pressing then the rebels must be more desperate than anyone thought."
At the laughter, Orem tried a smile, hoping to join in the camaraderie. His mirth offended them. The commander did not take him by the shirt; he took him painfully by the skin at his waist, a crushing grip that brought an unwilling cry from Orem. "Do you know how close you are to death?"
A guard had opened Orem's bag. In it was only his flask, still full of his father's spring water, and the last bit of bread that now was like rock. His coppers were in a better place.
"A rich one, that's plain," said the guard as he tossed the bag back to Orem.
Orem dared to ask a question. "Why is this gate closed?" he asked. "You're better off if you never learn the answer to that question."
"I say question him," said another.
The white-haired guard spoke even more softly. "I say eat shit. The spies all know their way into the city, and it isn't the Hole in midafternoon."
The commander pushed Orem from him, hurting his side again even as he released him. "Get away from here, boy, and don't come back. If you want Piss Gate, follow the north wall and stay close to the wall always."
"Or go home," said the white-haired guard. "There's nothing in Inwit for you. Don't you know this city devours children and flays strong men alive?"
Orem smiled uncomprehendingly and backed away from them. "Thank you, sirs. Good day to you. I'll never come here again."
"Your name, boy!" called the commander. "And don't lie!"
"Orem ap Avonap!"
The white-haired guard laughed aloud. "What a name! Only a farmer would think of that!"
The other guards nudged each other and laughed also. But they watched him out of sight all the same, and he suspected that one was following him much of his way north.
It made Orem angry that they laughed at him, but what made him angriest was that he had earned their laughter. A fool, that's what he had been, and it had not been a pose, no, not half.
The Beggars' Way of Death in Life
The farther north he got, the less dead the place appeared; a child played in the street, and then a beggar sprawled in sleep, and at last litter began appearing at the sides of the road and the sewer down the middle of the street began to be fetid with decomposing filth. Beggarstown was alive again, now that he was away from the Hole, and the faces that had seemed frightening to him before were a welcome sight now. Orem began to see, not their strangeness, not their darkness and filth, but their weakness and grief. They wore elegant clothes, most of them, but so tattered and soiled that the color that had once been bright was now a dull brown or grey. There was a dullness in the eyes, too, as if something in Beggarstown took the mind out of the head, as if the people could go through their days without ever quite awakening.
Orem began to pity them, and almost lost his fear, until a man with just such an empty face walked up to a man near Orem and calmly stabbed him deep in the eye with a dagger. His victim fell without a sound, blood pouring up and out of his face onto the road. Orem felt more anguish than fear, for if a man with such a dead face could kill, when the dead could reach out and drag the living into their graves, then what chance had he to hold onto his life here?
The knife stood upright from the victim's eye. On impulse Orem strode to the body and reached down to take the knife; at that same moment a long thin hand also reached to the corpse. For a moment Orem thought someone was challenging him for possession of the weapon, but no; it was an old woman, and she was holding a cup, catching the last of the flowing blood. A witch, then, who could make use even of unearned blood. Orem wondered what sort of filthy magic could be made of found death even as he backed off and let her take what she wanted.
She finished. She looked up and smiled at him. She bent and kissed the knife. For a moment Orem thought not to take it after all; who knew what the kiss might mean? But then he thought better of it. Even a boy trained as a priest could make use of a dagger if need were, and in this place he had no intention of passively submitting to what the walking corpses might decide for him. So he stepped forward again and drew the knife upward, drawing one last bubble from the man's eye. He cleaned the knife, for lack of a better place, on the man's clothing; then he put the knife in his bag.
The woman spoke, her voice hissing like the last breath of a butchered sow. "There are three things in nature that know no moderation, in goodness or in foulness." She cocked her head and waited.
Orem shuddered. He knew the litany, and knew as well that it could not be left incomplete. If she chose to stop and wait, he had to go on for her. "When they are governed by goodness," he said softly, "they are most excellent in virtue."
"The tongue," said the woman. "And a priestly man."
"But when they are corrupted, there is no bottom to stay their hellward plunge." Is that enough, or must I name the third name?
"And a woman." She smiled and nodded wisely at him, as if they had shared something lovely; then she took her cup of cooling blood and carried it away.
Orem felt the knife in his bag like a small fire, burning his skin though it could not touch him directly. What had she meant by making him chant the Ambivalence? Was she warning him to curb his own evil desires? But I have no truly unspeakable desires, he thought, and besides, I'm not a priestly man anymore. Why should I worry about the warnings of a woman already so corrupt as to use found blood? Yet still he shuddered. Still the knife burned his back. Still the knife froze his back until he had walked far enough and thought enough of other things and inwardly sung songs enough that the litany of the three boundless friends and enemies of God fled his mind and he forgot even the knife he carried.
Piss Gate at last. From a distance it looked like Swine Gate and the Hole; close up it had a character all its own. This place did not belong to the permanent residents. It was not silent and despairing. The line was long and jostled rudely, and only the presence of many guards kept quarrels from erupting into fights. As for the guards, they were grim and busy, and six of them were ahorse, patrolling up and down the line. There were no dead looks among the people in the line. They might be angry or stupid or frightened or awestruck or jocular, but they were not dead. Orem recognized himself in many places along the line, at once ashamed at the plain naivete of the others his age and relieved that it was indeed possible to stay hopeful here. People from the farms; people with dreams of finding some treasure in the city; Orem took his place in the line and felt smaller—but safer than he had in the streets of Beggarstown.
No sooner was he in line than the queue was a hundred people long behind him. The guards had let the grocers in three or four abreast, but here the guards were in no such rush. The huge gates did not stand open. Only a narrow door in the gate served for the paupers to pass. Yet the people themselves had the same sense of urgency that the grocers and butchers had. The belief was strong that if you could just get through the line ahead of someone, then you would get the job that that man might have had. Within that gate was the answer to everything, if you could just get through and ask your questions first. A job; a workingman's pass; the right to stay within the city; this was the gate of heaven and the angels in their bronze breastplates held the chains of salvation. Orem could not help seeing the world as the priests saw it; he also could not help being amused at the thought of these foul-faced soldiers being angels. Are these the silver bridge and the golden gate and the chains of steel? Try that for doctrine, Halfpriest Dobbick.
It was the man ahead of him, who bore three thin scars on his cheek, two of them old and white, the other just a little pink. He did not look friendly, but at least he had spoken.
"Yes," Orem said.
"Well, take a word. Accept no jobs from the men just inside the gate."
"I want a job."
The man's mouth twisted. "They promise to take you for a year, but in three days they turn you over to the Guard without your permanent pass. How's that? And they don't pay you, either. They just get three days' work out of you for free and turn you out. The real jobs are farther in."
"Where?" "If I knew, would I be in this line again?"
"Still red, Rainer, dammit, are you blind?"
"Got no mirror," Rainer answered. "Woman told me it was white."
"Like I thought, only a blind woman would have you. Get out and come back when the time's done."
And now Orem was at the front of the line, only vaguely aware that Rainer Carpenter was still standing nearby. "Name?"
The guard waited, then said impatiently, "Your whole name!"
Orem remembered the laughter at the Hole over his patronymic. Rainer had used his trade as a surname, as Glasin had. Well, Orem had no trade. Why had they laughed? Perhaps they didn't admit their fathers' names here. "Don't have more. Just Orem."
The guard was amused. "From a village so small, eh?" He looked at Orem's body and his smirk grew. Orem cursed his thinness and lack of height. "We'll just put you down as Orem Scanthips, eh? Scanthips!" He said it loudly, and the other guards laughed. "Business?"
"Looking for work."
"What kind of work?"
"Any kind, I guess."
"Any kind? No one hires a man who can't do anything. What, do you think there's farms in there needing another ass to bear dead burdens?"
Wouldn't they let him in without a trade? What did he know? I can say all the open prayers by heart. I can name the letters capital, the letters corporal, the letters spiritual, the numbers real, the numbers whole, the numbers variable. "I can read and write."
The guard made a face of mock surprise. "A scholar, eh?" But the amusement was over. The guard reached out and took away Orem's bag and opened it. A flask of water, a lump of bread, and a dagger with a little blood still clinging to it. Not the safe little dinner knife Orem wore at his waist—that was for slicing cheese. This was obviously a killing knife, long and sharp pointed. The guard held it up. "Read and write. Oh, I've heard that before. And what is this, your pen?" Orem didn't know what to say. The dagger had seemed desirable as he walked through Beggarstown; now it might be what blocked him from the city, or worse than that.
"Yours!" said the guard.
"Last time in here I was robbed and I damn well wasn't going to do it again. I didn't think you'd look at the boy's bag. He didn't know it was in there."
The guard looked back and forth between Orem and Rainer. The look of bewilderment on Orem's face was sincere enough, and nothing could be read in Rainer's eyes. Finally the guard shrugged. "Rainer, you're a fool. You know we'd have you whipped with a glass pipe for that, if you once got it inside."
"Glass pipe or a crackhead's leaden rod, tell me the difference," said Rainer. And the guard wrote again on Orem's pass. "Citizenship?"
"Banningside, in High Waterswatch."
The guard looked at him suspiciously again. Again Orem was forced to claim that he ran from the pressmen of Palicrovol's army. Again his body was laughed at, and he wanted to strike out at the guards and break their brittle, mocking smiles. But at least he would get inside, at least he held the pass in his hand; and all thanks to Rainer Carpenter, a man he didn't know. Just when Orem had concluded there was no kindness in this place, a stranger lied to let him into the city. Orem dared not turn and thank him—that would undo it all. But part of his name and poem would be repayment of such debts. Rainer would find it was not unprofitable to help Orem ap Avonap.
He was guided into the gate by the careless, efficient hands of the guards. And they were not through with him once he had passed inside. There was a guard with a short razor, and before Orem could be sure what was happening, two guards had seized him. They held his head still while the cutter sliced his cheek. The cut was thin and not deep, but still the blood dripped quickly from the stinging wound and stained his shirt.
A mouth spoke at his ear. "Mind you, we know from experience when this wound is healed enough that you ought to be back outside. Any guard who sees this scar will check your pass, and if you're overstayed he'll have your ear. Understand? Get caught twice, and it's your balls. You have three days. Sundown, clear? And once you're out, the scar has to be plain white before we let you in again. And stay off Stone Road. Go on." With a push at his back, Orem stumbled forward into Inwit.
The Sweet Sisters
This is the tale of how Orem, called Scanthips, called Banningside, went to Whore Street and left unsatisfied. The Whore and the Virgin
In the Taverns, all roads lead to Whore Street, and by not knowing where he was going, Orem soon ended up there. He did not know it was Whore Street at first. It looked, to him, like the richest town he had ever seen, for here the buildings were high and clean, and there were trees in the middle of the road, many trees and bushes, so it was like walking in an open wood. The houses were simple and graceful and well-proportioned, and more than one of them was made to look very much like a House of God.
The nature of the place was revealed when a half-drunk, giggling bunch of masked boys stopped two women and handed them each a coin. It took only a few minutes for all the boys to be satisfied, whooping as they leaned the women against trees and slobbered drunken kisses on them and lifted their skirts high while they discussed which was better. The intercourse was like little boys urinating, giggling as they compared each other's equipment and loudly counted to see how quickly each was through. Orem was not ignorant—he had lived on a farm. But he had never seen it done by a man and a woman before, and he could not take his eyes off the scene. Only when it was over did he look at the whores' faces. He saw them just as the boys were leaving, just as the women's smiles were fading and they sighed and rearranged their clothing and pooled their money. They picked up an interrupted conversation in midstream; the interlude with the boys had meant nothing to them. As Orem told me of this night, he was still awed that a man could dip in the Sisters' fountain and the woman would not rue it.
An hour later, Orem leaned against a tree, watching one of the more elegant orgies, where the men and women held forth on philosophical topics for an hour or so among the trees before the coupling began. He did not know the woman had come near him until she touched his arm.
"Unless you have more money than you look to have," she said, "you might as well go home. The deeper you go into Whore Street, the more expensive it gets."
She was all breast and teeth—at least to Orem she was, for all he could see when he looked at her face was the way both rows of teeth were visible when she smiled, and when he didn't look at her face all he could see was the way her breasts hung provocatively within her blouse.
Perhaps she was one of those few whores who haven't lost their taste for beauty or for love. Not that Orem was beautiful. But he had a kind of gangling grace, like a colt first running, and he could look at once childlike and dangerous. (Perhaps only I saw the danger in his face; Beauty would have prospered better if she had seen it sooner.) Whatever her reason, she accepted an offer he did not make. He was so trusting that when she asked, he told her he had but five coppers. She had a conscience—she only charged him four.
His new-engaged whore brought him past the fierce guard at the door of a nearby house, announced in loud tones to all who cared to hear that she had found a virgin stalk to reap, and pushed him toward the stair. She walked behind him, and twice reached under his tunic and pulled his wrapping cloth down below his buttocks. Each time he jumped in surprise; each time she giggled.
"That costs a silver, no bargaining, that's what the house charges and I got no choice." Off they went up another flight. This time the carpet ended at the turn of the stairs, the moment the steps weren't visible from the carpeted hall. "It's like a hundred houses in one," she said, "depending on what you pay." The next flight creaked. And the fourth flight of stairs wobbled underfoot. "It's the cheap rooms, forgive the fleas, but four coppers ain't exactly money."
They walked carefully down a dark corridor, lit only by a torch at each end. Orem glanced into the rooms that were open. Just glanced, until what he saw made him stop and stare.
They sat side by side. Two women, just sitting, still as trees. They were dressed like any other whores, and had bodies perhaps more lovely than other whores. But their faces: which was more terrible? The one with a single eye, and a mouth that opened only on the side, and a nose skewed around so the nostril pointed more up than down? Or the one with no face at all?—neither brows nor eyes nor nose nor lips, just a circumference of hair and a blank of flesh interrupted only by a thin slit that could not be called a mouth, for there were no lips and it hung open in a limp O that dripped a steady stream of saliva down on her open bosom.
"Twins of the flesh, they were," said Orem's whore in a whisper, and she drew him away. Though he could not bear to look at the women, he hung back; she pulled harder and he drew away from the door. "Twins of the flesh. Born of a noble house, it's said, and they got the finest physicians and the finest wizards, not to mention priests, who blessed them till they damn near sprouted wings. Then they cut them apart. Twins of the flesh, joined at the face, except that the one was looking away from the other just a little, so she had an eye and half a mouth and half a nose, but the other nothing at all but a tiny hole that was letting air in from the other's mouth. They widened the hole. The blessings worked, for they lived. And the spells worked, for they grew flesh over their bloody wounds. But what was there for them? And which is worse cursed, do you think? The one who cannot see? Or the one who knows mirrors? We call them the Sweet Sisters. Kind of a joke, you know."
Orem had never known a woman in his life who would joke about the Sweet Sisters.
His whore opened a small door and ducked to go in. Orem also ducked, but still banged his head. "Low roof," she said.
His whore pulled her blouse from her shoulders; her breasts pulled up and then jogged back down when she lowered her arms. Orem saw, but all he could think of was the slack face with the hole that drooled. The whore undressed him, but all he could think of was the face with the single eye and the canted nose and the half-mouth. His whore stroked him and kissed him but it did no good; he lay trembling and unable and cold on the thin rug on the floor. Whatever he may or may not have wanted as he came up the stairs, the whore had nothing of him, because he had seen the twins of the flesh who had once been joined at the face and could think of nothing else.
"Fifteen," his whore said contemptuously. "Might as well be five. What did you plan to stick there, your knee? God knows it's skinny enough to fit. You got the balls of a mouse and the cod of a flea, that's what you got, so don't go telling me it's my fault, I'm still pretty enough, I didn't hear you telling me I was ugly down there on the street, did I?" She dressed quickly, then stooped and took four coppers from where they lay on the floor. "You pay for my time—it's not my fault you didn't use it. You're damn lucky I don't take the other one, for the insult." She spat on his loin wrap where it lay pathetic and empty on the floor, then stepped on it. "That and piss is all you'll ever find in your wrap in the morning. Find your own way out, dingle. When you turn ten come back and we'll see what we can do." And she was gone.
Ashamed, Orem tried to wipe her spittle from the wrap by dabbing with his shirt. Was this how his poem would begin?
He dressed and ducked back into the cluttered, shadowy hall. At once he saw the wall of light from the door where the monsters called the Sweet Sisters waited for him to pass. He was at once drawn to them and terrified. He stepped carefully, he trembled at the knee, he stumbled, he lurched against a wall. He was all the noisier for his efforts at silence.
"Who is there?" said a thin, high, wavering voice.
He kept his silence, kneeling on the floor of the dark hall. Don't come out and see me. Stay where you are, go to sleep, die. Let me pass.
"Answer. You know it makes my sister angry when you don't answer."
The last thing Orem wanted was to make a sister angry. In the name of God, Orem said silently, don't be angry at me. "I fell," he said.
"The voice of a child, yes? The voice of a clumsy child, yes? The voice of a boy who was charged four coppers and given nothing. But think, but think, she took nothing from you either. For the price of just four coppers, you're still a lake undrained by any stream." And then a slight laugh that angered him. His whore had been too loud; they knew his failure.
"Come in," said the voice.
"Must I come get you?" He got to his feet and walked weakly forward, turned at their door. The single eye of the one face was looking at him, but if he looked away, the only place for his gaze was the other, the blank flesh, the steady trickle of drool. He forced himself to look about the room. There was a single chair besides the ones they sat in, old and frail and ready to break. There was a small loom, with a cloth half-finished in it, a ragged cloth which was also rotting, and the loom was so strung and clotted with webs and dust that it was plain it had not been used in years. And then the rug on the floor, just like the rug where he had lain helplessly with his whore: only this rug glowed in the light, and Orem realized it was woven with gold thread.
"Sit down." He did not try the chair, but sat on the floor.
To Orem's horror the lipless mouth tried to answer. A moan, a modulated moan like a song of pain, and the one-eyed sister nodded. "Yes, fifteen, but scrawny of body. My sister says your will is stone—you may crumble under the hammer, but long after the hammer has rusted away, you will
remain. Isn't that pretty? What's your name?"
"Orem." He still had not learned to lie.
"Orem. Do you want your four coppers back?"
It had not occurred to him that it was possible. "Yes."
"Then you must entertain us."
"Tell us a tale of two sisters, who were both twins of the flesh, joined at the face, and who by magic and prayers and surgery were separated, the one with a single eye, and the other with no face at all except a mouthhole that drools constantly and leaves a trail of spittle between her breasts down to her belly."
"I—I don't—I can't tell you that tale—"
"Oh, we won't believe it, mind you. Such a thing could not be. Tell us what these pathetic
women are doing in a whorehouse."
"They—sit. In a room upstairs."
"And what do these women do while they sit?"
"And what do you think they hear?"
"The sounds of—of—"
Orem nodded. The one-eyed sister shook her head.
"Not love," Orem said.
"What then?" "The sound of—of birds."
What was above the birds? What was this tale supposed to mean? "The sound of wind across the roof of the house."
The blank one moaned, and the other hooted with laughter. "Yes, he knows, he knows, he has many many ears inside his head, yes, and what else do they hear?"
He understood now. It was a game, like the riddles and puzzles of the manuscripts. "The sound of the sun rising and falling. The sound of the stars as they pass overhead. The sound of God closing his eyes upon the world. The sound of the Hart as it shakes its head and tosses the planets."
The one eye opened wide; the hole of the mouth emphatically stopped drooling for a moment, so that the mucous spittle broke in midstring, and the top of the thread was drawn up into her mouth like the body of a dangling spider.
"The mouth opens and it speaks," said the one-eyed sister.
"Nnnnnnng," said the other.
"We are bound about with magic," said the one-eyed woman, "yet he speaks with our tongues. Beauty has silenced us, yet our own gifts come from the boy's mouth. Ah, Hart, you have more wit than we."
"What does it mean?" Orem asked.
"Nothing to you, forget, forget, tell no one what you have seen, for it is no favor, you are just an ordinary boy."
His stomach clenched with fear at the force of her words.
"We are whores, too, did you know that? We left our father's house and came here because we knew that without faces we had only our bodies. Do you know what it costs to take us? A thousand of gold or a hundred acres of farmland. For a single night. And we are busy twenty nights a year. Oh, we are rich, we twins of the flesh, we sisters of beauty. We are blessed. And not all who come to us are men. There are women who come and spend the night exploring us, trying to discover what makes us so beautiful. They cannot guess. But you know, don't you?"
"No. I don't."
"That's right. You cannot know if you think that you know. We hear another thing, we listen to another thing, not just the stars. Not just the heartbeat of the great thousand-horned Hart who holds the worlds on the points of his horns. Not just the great eruption of the sun that ejaculates its gusts of light to inseminate the world. We hear this also:"
And she stopped. And after a long, long silence, in which Orem heard nothing but his own heavy breathing, she said, "Did you hear it, too?"
"That is why they pay so much to have us."
The one with the eye opened a small chest beside her. It was filled with jewels that glistened in the torchlight like a thousand tiny fires.
And the one whose face was as featureless as fog, she stood and made a single motion with her hand. Abruptly she was naked, and her face glowed like the sun itself; there was no hair on her body, and her skin was deep as amber, and she was so beautiful that Orem could not keep his eyes from flowing with tears so he could no longer see.
"It is as I thought," said the one who could speak. "His eyes cannot be closed except by his own weeping and his own trust."
The blank-faced woman was sitting again, as suddenly as she had stood; how could she have clothed herself so quickly?
"Hunnnnnnng," she moaned. "Ngiiiiiunh."
"Four coppers, says my sister, and a kiss."
It was not for the coppers that he kissed them, but for fear of them. He kissed their mouths, such as they were, and the coppers fell into his hand, and he fled the room.
As he ran along Whore Street he could hear for the first time in his life the song that his mother had loved best: the steady hissing of the sap up the trees, the song of capillarity, ah, it was beautiful, and he wept until the spittle of the fog-faced woman's mouth had dried upon his lips.
A cot at the Spade and Grave cost only a copper for two nights, not as expensive as he had feared. He lay for some time with both hands pressed between his legs, because of the great ache at the base of his belly. He could hear the sap flowing also in himself. Why have I come to Inwit? he cried to himself. But he knew that the question itself was a lie. He had not come at all. He was shoved.
That is why Orem was a virgin when Beauty needed him.
How Orem learned what life was worth in Beauty's city. The Song in the Cistern
As he passed the innmaster the fellow tossed him a chit. Orem looked at it. "I don't want to carry this all day."
The innmaster shrugged. "As you like. But I warn you, I'll cheat you if you let me."
Orem put the chit in his bag. "Thanks. Will every thief in Inwit be so thoughtful as to warn me?"
The innmaster regarded him calmly. "I'm a Godsman. I only cheat them as want to be cheated."
Nothing in Orem's life had prepared him for the daytime streets of Inwit. The flow of the crowds led him to the Great Market, and for some time he was swept back and forth in the eddies of the buying and selling. In all his life before he had never seen so many people as were in the marketplace that day, rags and velvets, uniforms and livery, all bumping together in the battle to get much for little. Orem gawked, and so marked himself as an easy target for thieves.
A boy brushed up against him and a small hand reached under his shirt, and as fast as Orem could realize what was happening his coppers were out of his wrap. Without a thought Orem swung out and caught the child a blow on the chin. The boy fell soundlessly, and as silently scrambled to his feet—but Orem had learned to be quick in the House of God. He had the boy by an ankle before he was fairly afoot. The child kicked viciously at Orem's face. Was the battle worth an eye? Orem's few coins were his life and hope here, and so he struggled on despite the blows.
No one seemed to notice the cruel battle going on in the street, except to leave a space for them to roll in the sand. At last Orem got the thief in a coward's hold, legs bent painfully and Orem's hand firmly tucked into the boy's crotch, ready to inflict that irresistible pain. "I want the coppers, little bastard," Orem said.
"Or in Sister's name I'll have your balls off."
"God's name, I haven't got your money!" The boy's wail was loud and pitiful. Now that the fighting was done, people began to take notice.
"Leave be," said a voice in the crowd. "It's a coward who takes down a little child."
The little swine was winning sympathy. Orem leaned down and whispered in the boy's ear. "I'm a farmer, boy, and I've made bulls into steers with my bare hands before." It was enough. The boy's eyes went wide and he spat four coppers into the dust. Orem released the boy and quickly grabbed up the coins. From the corner of his eye he saw the thief moving in a way that he feared might be an attack—what, a kick? Yes. Orem dodged out of the way just in time, then leaped to his feet to prepare for the next onslaught.
"Don't you know all pissers keep them in the same place? And half of them have soil in their wraps, it's filthy work to put them in my mouth."
"If you don't like it," Orem said, holding his coppers tightly, "find another line of work."
"You hire me as soon as you find work."
It stung Orem that the boy assumed that he would fail. "I will hire you," Orem said disdainfully. "I'll have a job in days, and take you on."
"Oh, yes, and the Queen wears a codpiece." The boy whirled around and flipped up his shirt to show his buttocks to Orem for a moment. Then he was gone in the crowd.
Orem wandered north, where the Great Market empties into Queen's Road. He marveled at the great houses, he gaped at the spider-wheeled carriages, he stared at ladies as naked as they could decently be above the waist and gentlemen as naked as fashion required below it. And he stood at the base of the hundred-stepped pyramid that led upward to Faces Hall, where Palicrovol had stood and ravished the little daughter of Nasilee, spilt her inmost blood and so became her husband and so became the King and then cast her away. The start of all the woes of the world, there at Faces Hall.
"Damn your liver to be eaten by the eagles!" A guard had him by the shoulder, shaking him. "Didn't they tell you at the gate to stay off Queen's Road? The Stone Road? Are you deaf? Have you the brain of a pudding?" More kicks and blows as the guard took him down an alley, bashing him against one wall and then another, until Orem gratefully fell on his face in the dust of a back street. "And don't come back on Queen's Road or I'll have you hung by your ears till they tear!" Orem lay in the street listening to the footsteps as the guard left. He hurt everywhere, yet he was not so much angry as glad that it had stopped. Even glad that it hadn't been worse. He winced and gingerly got to his feet.
"Gentle, an't they?"
Orem turned painfully to meet the face that went with the voice. It was the child who had robbed him, smiling cocky as you please, hands on hips, legs spread, like God astride the world.
"You look pretty poor, you know." The boy smiled at him maliciously. "Had me by the balls and you were rich and fine."
"You were taking all I had," Orem said dully. He winced at the pain of breathing in.
"And you took all I had."
"But it was mine." "Not while I had it."
"What's it worth to you to know?"
"Nothing." Orem looked around. All he could see were the backs of common buildings on one hand and on the other the high garden walls of the great houses, with their cruel spear-topped iron ridges. Except for the alley to Stone Road, there was only one way to go, so Orem set out along the dirt street. The thief padded behind him.
"Get away from me," Orem said.
"I followed you all this way."
"You'll never get my coppers."
"You said you'd hire me."
"If I get a job." But suddenly the boy was not so neatly catalogued as a clever thief. "You
"You look too stupid to lie."
"Then what makes you think I'll get a job?"
"Because you wouldn't let me go when I kicked your face." The boy giggled. "You're a bad
fighter, you know. A girl could beat you."
Orem felt himself flush with anger, but he said nothing. The road was widening, and now there were some sleazy shops fronting on the street. In the middle of the road was a short round wall like a well housing, made of crumbly bricks. Orem made to go around it, but heard a sound. Like singing,
coming from the well. He stopped.
"It's the cistern," said the boy. "All the time singing. Means nothing. Cistern's empty."
"They're for a siege. There's never a siege of Inwit. Besides, you'd drown the voices."
Orem stepped to the cistern rim and leaned over to listen. Along with the sound he was greeted
by a smell so fetid that he reeled backward and gasped and choked.
"Since it's empty," said the boy, "everybody dumps their slops in. And shits quite direct." As if to demonstrate, the boy jumped up and sat perilously on the wall, his backside leaning far over the edge. Unceremoniously he defecated, then waited with his head cocked. "Hear the splash? It must be half a mile down."
"What about the voices?" "Probably a choir of rats. They live fine on manure. Aren't you a farmer? Don't you know about the magical properties of manure?" While he talked, the boy wiped himself with his left hand, then spat on it and rubbed it in the dirt till it was dry. "Here," he said, gesturing at Orem's bag. "Let us have a little water." Orem shook his head. "Oh, won't share even water, is that it?"
"What are you, a pilgrim? You have a priest's face. Like a hungry rat."
"I studied with priests."
"That's it, then." The boy nodded wisely. "I knew you could read. I can read a little. Taught myself."
"The voices from the cistern. How long have they been going on?"
The boy shrugged. "All my life."
Orem recited the Seventh Warning of Prester Zenzil: "Do not learn the songs of voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells."
The boy looked at him quizzically. "You can't learn them. They got no words. An't no one understands them, anyway."
Orem pulled his wrap halfway down and hoisted himself to the lip of the cistern to empty himself. The voices came more clearly, an echo of wails and high singing that suddenly filled him with fear. Why should I be afraid? he wondered. Then he looked at the young thief and thought he saw murder in his eyes. Yes, murder, and what better time than now, with Orem helplessly over a pit that went deep into the earth where no one would find the corpse even if anyone bothered to look for a scrawny young man with a pauper's pass. The boy could just run up and push him and he'd be dead. And there—yes, the boy was poised, wasn't he? And leaning in! "Stay back, or by God—" And then his bowels opened and emptied and he sprang from the cistern wall and backed away from the thief.
"Just a fancy," the boy said, smiling. "Didn't mean nothing. Meant just to put a scare in you."
Orem did as the boy had done, wiped himself and then his hand in the dirt. Then he pulled up his wrap. He was trembling. Not just because the child had thought to kill him, but because the voice in the cistern had seemed to warn him so. Was this, perhaps, a touch of true magic? For the first time in his life had a spell touched him?
"I'm sorry," said the boy, watching Orem's face. "It was a joke."
Orem said nothing, just walked from the cistern and out into the road. Only a few steps and he knew where he was, Piss Road, with Piss Gate at the western end of it.
"Don't leave me," said the boy.
Orem faced him angrily. "Don't you know when you're not wanted?" "My name is Flea Buzz."
"I'm telling you anyway. It was the name my mother gave me. She's from Brack, it's ever so far to the east, she was stolen by sea pirates and eventually ended up here as a pisser. She got a pass. They give names like Flea Buzz there, because it was the first thing she saw and first thing she heard after I was born. Her husband is dead at the bottom of the sea. He has pearls instead of eyes."
"What makes you think I care?"
"You're listening, aren't you? Anyway, it's all lies. My father, he's alive enough. He calls me Pin Prick, and worse things when he's angry. He's got no pass, so he has to hide in the Swamp when the guards come. I get no pass until my mother marries another pass man. So I steal. I do all right. I'll
steal for you, if you like."
"I don't want you to steal for me."
"The truth is my father's dead. My mother killed him when he went at her with a club. We buried
him in the garden. He'll be flowers all over if the dogs don't open him up. Only last night."
"It's a lie."
"Only partly. Let me come with you."
"Why? What do I have that you want? If you think I'll give you a copper to leave me alone
you're going to weep at the tale I have to tell."
"My mother's gone, pass and all."
"What's that to me?"
"Her lover took her away after they killed my dad."
Lover. It was a strange word. What part had love in Inwit? Yet the boy looked afraid, his eyes
looked weak and he was ready to spring, ready to run at a word. Was this true, then? Had he no parents?
"I've got nothing," Orem said. "Little enough for me, nothing for you."
"I know the city. I'll be useful."
"I'll find my own way."
"If the guard catches me I can be your brother, and then I won't lose an ear for having no pass."
It hadn't occurred to Orem. That they'd take an ear from a child.
"They wouldn't." "God's name they would."
Flea Buzz grinned, and suddenly all the pathos was gone. Was he a fraud, after all? Orem
cursed himself for a fool. Yet he did not send him away, even so.
"What's your name," asked the boy.
"They call me Scanthips."
"By God, a name that's worse than mine."
"I'll call you Flea. That's not a bad name."
"And I'll call you Scant."
"You'll call me Sir."
"Like hell. Come on, them as I've heard was hired was hired on Shop Street." And they plunged
into the crowd on Piss Road.
Flea was a companion such as Orem had never had before. He was so jaunty that even the coldness of the shopkeepers was cause for laughter. Flea would bow and elaborately compliment the shopkeepers that they met—those that didn't drive them out immediately. And when they had been sent away, Flea would parody and mock. "Oh, I love you like a son, but if I had a son I'd have to send him away without work, lads, you must understand, times is so hard that if it goes on like this another twenty years I'll waste away and die myself, die myself!"
Orem laughed often because of Flea, and covered far more ground because Flea knew his way through Inwit, but by late afternoon it was clear there'd be no work for him on Shop Street. He needed to rest, and Flea led him into the huge cemetery. The trees were a haven to Orem, like a touch of home, even if there was no underbrush and the trees were cropped and tame. A touch of home, only there were no birds. Orem noticed it and said so.
"The dead take them and ride," Flea said. "They go everywhere on birds' backs. It's why you
never kill a bird. There might be a spirit there who can't get home, and he'll haunt you forever."
"The dead are gathered up in the nets of God," Orem said.
Flea looked at him blankly. "I thought you weren't a priest."
"I'm not anything if I don't find work," Orem said. "A man is what he does to earn his bread. A
carpenter, a farmer, a halfpriest, or a beggar."
"Or a thief?" asked Flea. There was an edge of anger to his voice.
"Why not, if it's how you live?" "I steal, Scant, but that's not what I am."
"A man is the greatest, boldest thing he dares to do. I play the snakes."
Orem shrugged. "I don't know what that means."
Flea grinned. "Then you'll have to see, won't you, Scant."
At the Snakepit
Orem guessed they were near the Swamp when the smell of the town became a reek, and what huts there were stood on stilts. "Got to stick tight to me," Flea said. "There's sinking sands here, and clay sucks you down, if you step in the wrong place. Stick tight."
Orem stayed right behind him, imitating as best he could the intricate path that Flea followed among the great-rooted trees and the cattail stands. After what felt like a mile through the meaningless maze, Flea abruptly stopped. Orem jostled him.
"Stand back," said Flea. "You never know what the snake's going to do."
Flea picked up a stick with a short fork at the end—it looked as if it had been cut that way. He dug with it, scraping dirt away from a board hidden in the ground. Then he pried under the edge of the board. A high whining sound came from the hole. Orem flinched involuntarily. Not a child in Burland didn't know that the whine of a keener meant death if you didn't get away. They lived only in places like this, where the country couldn't decide whether it was lake or land. It was as good a reason to stay away from swamps as any.
Flea laughed, but not at Orem. "Three days, and he didn't suffocate. Now that's luck, that's luck!"
Orem watched with fascination as Flea inched the board open, always with the stick. When a keener moved, it moved like a bird, quick and invisible until it stopped again. And there it was, a flash of green skittering over the ground, straight toward the nearest standing water. It got no farther than a few feet away, though, and then it lay wriggling, neck neatly pinned under Flea's stick.
"Can I trust you with my life?" Flea asked.
"Then hold this stick and don't let up the pressure."
"Once this keener hits water and drinks, it'll follow us out of the swamp, you know that." "Tale to frighten children."
Orem walked over and took the stick. At the faint change in pressure the keener let out a high wail, but Orem held firm. Flea laughed nervously. "That's right, that's right, hold her tight, they say she's just like a woman, lots of music and death when she bites." Orem knew that Flea was just talking to hear the sound of his own voice. The snake began flapping its whole body from the stick down, slapping out with the tail. Flea showed no sign of paying attention to that—he reached out his hand and pinched the keener tightly right behind where the stick had it, then pulled slowly backward until the head was drawn tight up against the stick. The keener made a choking sound, but Flea was humming. Now he dared reach right up behind the jaw; he took a tight, tight grip. "Not yet," he whispered. The snake wailed. Flea drew his left hand down the snake's writhing body until he had hold of the tip of the tail as well. "Now let go."
Orem waited another second, afraid.
"Let go, you want to strangle it?"
He let go. Immediately the snake writhed violently in terrible shudders and spasms; Flea held on. The snake whined, the snake cried out, for all the world as if its child had died. Flea giggled in relief. "Tricky, that. Tricky, tricky. If you don't hold the tail it flips you in the eye, you know, and you drop it and it gets you. Now come on. The pit's a ways on."
Orem had hoped that catching the snake would be bravery enough for one day. He would gladly have left Flea then, but he didn't know the way out of the Swamp.
The snake pit was not deep—there could be no deep pits in the Swamp, for the water would seep into any cavity. They had only been there a few moments when other boys began arriving, each holding a keener by the neck.
"Flea!" called several, and "Buzzer!" Flea thrust his keener's head toward them playfully. A few of them eyed Orem.
"Scant," said Flea, by way of introduction. "He's a pisser, but he'll do."
One by one the boys came to the edge of the pit and cast in the snakes. Each keener immediately rushed to the water and drank. Then they began trying to slither out, toward the boys. Each snake that came close to the edge was flipped back with a forked stick. The sound of a funeral filled the clearing as the keeners wailed and whined.
"You, Scant," said a boy. "You got no stick, you do the rats."
Rats? Flea was quick to fill in what Orem didn't know. "Off to your right, there, in the castle."
The "castle" was a fence of stones, roofed with wood. Inside were whimpering and scurrying rats. Orem was not delighted at the prospect of reaching in to take one out. Again Flea advised him. "Take the bag and hold it ready and open a stone in the wall." Orem did it clumsily once, and the first rat got away; the second two went into the bag, and then he was able to kick the rock back into place well enough to keep the others in. The rats fought each other and struggled in the bag, lunging every direction and making it hard to hold.
Orem nodded at the boy who spoke, the only one who looked to be about Orem's own age.
"I suppose you don't want to grab just one."
Orem shrugged. Not good to label himself a coward. "Whichever way you want it."
"One then. And heave it right in the middle." The older boy didn't bother watching him—he had to keep flipping keeners back into the water in the middle of the pit.
Orem held the mouth of the bag with one hand and used the other to squeeze the bag between the rats. The one in the dead end of the bag he sealed off by holding the bag between his knees at that point. Then he carefully worked the bag smaller until the rat at the open end was tightly trapped and squealing so it could not move. Carefully Orem manipulated the rat until its back was to the mouth of the bag. I may get piss on my fingers but it's better than teeth.
Carefully he opened the mouth against the resistance of the fingers of his other hand and probed the body of the rat until he found a back leg. Then he released the mouth of the bag and pulled on the rat all at once, and with a single motion flicked it out into the snakes.
If he had hoped for a murmur of admiration he was disappointed. The rat landed near the middle of the pit, but immediately the boys were watching the performance of their snakes. The keeners went dead silent and the rat hung between the mouths of a dozen snakes, all of which had a hold. The rat hardly had time to squeal, it had so much poison in it: blood spurted from its mouth, vomiting forth from the deepest part of its bowel, and then it was just fur and mange and meat. The snakes struggled and pulled, and the rat fell apart. Some snakes came away with nothing, some with patches of fur, and finally there were two snakes left attached to the rat, both swallowing furiously until they met fang to fang, jaws distended by the rat they held.
The two boys whose snakes were thus joined hooted congratulations to each other. They had won the first part of the contest. It was the end of their snakes' part in the proceedings, however, for now the other snakes began howling and snapping at them. Keeners are not easily poisoned by their own venom, but with a dozen bites they began to sicken, and with a hundred bites they died. Now the other snakes began biting and trying to eat everything. Some of them died with the body of another keener halfway into their bellies; some died with nothing; and at the end of it, when all was still, the boys came nearer to take a tally. Which of the snakes had swallowed how much of the others?
Orem tried to decipher what the game meant. Those whose snakes were off alone, neither eaten nor eating, apparently were out of things—they grumbled and wandered off. The rest of the boys estimated how deeply a snake had been swallowed before it died, and the boys paired off according to the pairing of the keeners, always with one boy triumphant, the other grim-faced. For the first time it occurred to Orem that none of these boys had money. What was the wager, then? What was the forfeit for those who lost?
"Yours most eaten," said the oldest boy to a younger One. "Chew yourself," said the loser. "It was a short snake."
"I said chew yourself. Yours is most eaten."
Orem looked at the snakes and thought the younger boy might well be right. He also thought that unless the forfeit was something dire, it wouldn't be worth arguing the point, for the older boy had an air of cheerfulness that was frightening.
"I say not."
The younger boy looked frightened, but still defiant. "I didn't come here to get cheated by a chewer like you," he said loudly. The other boys began backing away.
"Not I," said the older boy. "I think not I. I say not I. You say it too. Not I."
Now a touch to the chest, a step back, a shove, a step. Orem had seen the look on the older boy's face before—it was the faces of Cressam and Morram and Hob when they thrust him into the haystack to burn him alive.
"Hop, it's nothing," said Flea. Who was Hop? Was Flea trying to placate the older boy or reassure the younger one that losing to him wouldn't be too bad? Orem couldn't tell, for neither boy gave a sign of hearing. The argument was no longer about the snakes. It was about who would do the other one's will.
And then it ended. The younger boy pushed back, just once, and the older one had him by the hands and flipped him pitward in one motion. At first Orem was only sickened at the thought of landing on the corpses of the snakes. Then he discovered that the keeners were not dead. They were only sluggish, only quiet. When the boy landed on the snakes in the water, some of them came alive, quickly enough that the boy came up with five or six snakes dangling from him. Orem could not help himself—he screamed with the boy's own terror. Bad enough the fangs puncturing the skin like sewing needles, but the one snake hung from his eye as if it had grown from there. The boy doubled over and seemed to vomit all the blood of his body. Then he dropped and lay still as the rat had lain, with the snakes fruitlessly trying to open their mouths wide enough to swallow him whole.
For some reason all Orem could think of was the Hound taking Glasin Grocer's shoulder in its maw and tearing away at the flesh. Yet this was no such worthy sacrifice. The boy was acrawl with snakes that fondled him with their bodies and tickled him with their darting tongues, yet Orem could not turn away.
"Seen enough?" Flea asked softly.
Orem could not speak.
"We go now," said Flea, "or we don't get out of the Swamp alive, it's that short. Coming?" "In High Waterswatch," Orem said, "we wrestled and spun tops. That's how we played."
Orem followed Flea out of the Swamp, hearing the wails of the keeners behind him all the way. Only when they reached the shanties did Orem realize he was still holding the bag with the rat.
Impulsively he swung it hard against the wall of a house.
"Name of God!" cried Flea. "What are you doing?"
"Is the rat so precious to you?" Orem asked.
"Not the rat, Scant, the house. If you break a hole in their wall, you might as well have killed
them come winter, if they can't find a patch."
The house was sacred, but a boy could die for nothing in the Swamp. Orem handed Flea the bag. Flea turned it upside down and let the rat out. The animal was not dead, but the blow against the wall had left it dazed. It lurched drunkenly forward. Flea aimed a kick at it and sent it flying thirty
yards, wriggling in the air as it flew.
"What was the forfeit?" Orem asked. "For the boys who lost."
Flea shrugged. "Just a little game of plug-the-hole. Hop shouldn't have argued. He has a sister to
pay it for him."
"Do you have a sister?" asked Orem.
"No," Flea said. "But I don't lose." He grinned. "I'm a good judge of keeners."
"Why do you do it?" Orem asked. "Why do you play so close to dying?"
Flea shrugged. "It's who I am."
The Secret of the Fountain
Orem insisted he could find his own way home from Wood Road, and they parted, planning to meet in the morning to continue Orem's search for work. Orem had one errand to run before returning to the inn. He found his way through the darkening, emptying streets to the Little Temple, and a halfpriest showed him the fountain where strangers always came.
The fountain wasn't much. No one asked him to pay or even wanted a gift; he went to the fountain and poured out his flask of spring water. He wasn't sure what prayer it was they said here, so he murmured a prayer for his father, then dipped the flask again to take up the sacred water that Glasin had told him was so valuable.
Before he left, he looked into the water to see how the fountain was filled, to find the place where the water of spring came in. He looked for a little while before he realized there was no such place. It was just a pool, not a fountain at all. He poured out the water untasted. The fountain was filled by all the visitors to Inwit, who left the water of their home behind and took away nothing of Inwit at all, but just the half-evaporated gifts of the other fools. A fraud, of course, a cheat. Orem almost spat into the water, but stopped when he remembered that the next visitor did not deserve any harm from him. He could have shared his water with Flea, if he had known. That's what made him angriest, that he had been ungenerous with his water.
"But I paid last night for two nights."
"I know it. The other copper's for tomorrow."
"But that's one night. It should be a half-copper."
"Stay and use it twice." And that was all. The pass was for three days, the rooms for two and two, take it or leave it. At least they let Orem have a bowl of soup. They had consciences, too.
I never knew what seeing was except coming out of the fog. So said Orem, the Little King; so he said to me when he thought he was not wise.
The Queen's Water
It hardly seemed morning when Orem came out of the inn, the fog was so thick. Buildings across the street were invisible until he was in the middle of the road. Other walkers in the early morning loomed suddenly, nearly colliding with him. He had to walk slowly and watch carefully. There were curses here and there; now and then the sound of an argument about whether someone was blind or just a fool. Orem was afraid of getting lost, and wasting his last full day in the city, but Flea found him.
"What's fog?" Flea said. "If we let fog keep us indoors here, there'd be damn little work done in Inwit. For me it's a golden day. I've had three coppers already without even a knife to cut a purse."
It made Orem uneasy to know he was companioned with a thief, but he had no other guide, and on a day like this he needed Flea more than ever. They had tried the north side yesterday. Today they went east, hoping to find work for Orem in a counting house, somewhere that his literacy might make him valuable.
But it was not readers and writers and counters that they wanted in the eastern part of the city. It was boys, for the cruel sports of Gaming, for the beds of the pederasts—boys who could disappear and no one would care to look for them. Twice Orem talked them into a place where they should not have been; twice Flea had to get them out, and not by talking. They left a gamer nursing a well-kicked crotch. They were in more danger in the Great Exchange, for when they refused the lucrative offer of a pimp of a banker, he raised a cry of thief. The fog saved them, that and Flea's ability to find his way through places that adults would not think to look. They found themselves in late afternoon, exhausted from running, near the end of the aqueduct.
"Thirsty?" asked Flea.
"Would it be safe for us to wait so long here? Are you sure they won't follow us further?"
Flea grinned. "Let's see if we can make the line shorter." He walked between queues to a place fairly near the pool, and then with a broad gesture he loudly said, "The kindness of the Queen."
Someone close by hushed them softly, but the others pretended not to hear. "Water," said Flea, "from the great Water House in the Castle. A spring that runs strong all year, without digging, just flows, and out of her kindness the Queen lets fully half the water flow down into the city. And after water has been piped down into the rich houses on either side of Queen's Road, and after the Temple has its water and the Guilds have their water and the water falls in the Park, then there's a bit that dribbles out here and fills a pool for the people of Inwit."
The speech did its work. They were alone at their spot at the pool, for those ahead of them and behind had moved away, separated themselves from the loud discussion of the Queen. Yet nothing treasonous had been said; the guards could only glower as Orem dipped his flask into the water and brought it up brimming. He did not drink, however. Rather he handed the water to Flea, deliberately letting a little spill on the boy's hands as he reached to take it. Flea looked at him in surprise, and then gravely sloshed the water back at him. It was only fitting to do the sharing of water, even if Flea was a thief, and Orem once nearly a Godsman.
A Servants Servant
They rested north of the pool, by the mouth of a wide alley that ran between two great houses. Liveried servants made a heavy traffic in and out of the alley. Orem watched them, all so busy, all so important, yet time enough for a smile or a nod at each other, regardless of livery. Oh, there were some who passed cold as you please, Orem saw, but even that was so pointed that it was a sign of a quarrel—there were no strangers among the servants.
"Forget it," said Flea.
"You'll never get hired by one of the great houses. You'll never get past the gateman." "Then let's not go to the front gate."
"We got away once," said Orem.
"We damn near didn't," answered Flea.
"You play with the snakes, and you're afraid of the servants?"
So Flea went in with him, but this time hung back, forcing Orem to lead the way. The street quickly narrowed, and though the fog still lingered, it only greyed the buildings on left and right. At first there were still gates, for a few of the lesser great houses fronted into the alley rather than the street. Then the gates ceased, and suddenly the street widened to a plaza between the high-walled houses. Within the plaza a little maze of streets, and along the streets little wooden miniatures of the great stone buildings. Were there stone colonnades in the great housefronts? Then there were intricately lathed wooden posts here. Were the great houses pierced with many large windows, all barred? Then these small homes were festooned with small windows, and wooden bars echoed the bronze and iron of the masters. The servants imitated their masters as best they could, though their small homes stood among the kitchens of their lords.
Orem had no notion where to go, now that he was here. He had expected someone to challenge them, but no one did. In fact there were others without livery, dressed as simply as he. It gave him hope. There might indeed be work here.
"It's like a little city," Flea whispered.
"Come on," Orem answered. He strode boldly toward the back gate of a great house, where the kitchen fires burned hot and smoky, sending more fog to thicken and yellow the light.
"Ho, boys!" An old man watched them from the portico of a wooden house.
"Ho, old man!" Orem answered.
"You want work?" the old man asked.
"Nothing less," said Orem.
"Ah, yes, wanting work, all the world wanting work except those who presently have employment. And except for me. I'm handsomely pensioned and I sit on a porch all day and hollo to boys in hopelessly rustic clothing. Do you know that within the house, those who buttle and those who kitch and those who bake and those who wait, they know you're coming?"
"They know? How?"
"The odor of a farmboy and a Swamptown lad can be smelt from rods off. The uncouth clop of your sandals on our stony walks can be heard even farther off, and the rough accents of your speech betray you more than anything. You were seen as you walked from the public fountain. You were noted as you squatted by the portals of our humble alley. And now you are being examined by an old man who has nothing better to do than turn away the pathetic strangers who think there's work for them here."
The old man cackled. "Oh, you should, you should—but you can't. Any man can learn to be a noble or a beggar, but you must be born a true servant."
"I was born to be a cleric or a soldier," Orem said. "I'm not meek enough for the one and not strong enough for the other. Why shouldn't I learn to do what servants do? Someone had to be the first servant—who taught him?"
"There, that's the first thing you have to lose—that insolent manner."
"Let's go," said Flea. "He just wants to talk."
The old man heard him, and shouted angrily. "Go away, then! If you don't want what I have to offer, go away! You'll get no second chance from me!"
"What are you offering?" asked Orem.
"A job and a pass. Does that mean anything to you?"
So they stayed and listened. He beckoned them within his gate, and soon they stood before the old man, who grinned toothily up at them. His teeth were all bronze. It turned him into a statue, at least at the mouth. It was like a miracle watching him speak.
"Stand, yes, stand, that's what a servant does when his lord speaks. Stand and look at me respectfully, and don't glance away, no, and listen to every word in case I ask you a question. You can't ever be caught not hearing what I say. And stand with your foot back so, with a bow always ready, and an answer quick to your lips. You call your own master 'honored sir,' and his son is 'new master' and his second son and all his daughters are 'blest one' and his third son and later are 'hopeless sir,' said always gravely with the right respect and a touch of irony so they'll know you are their friend, though their father is not. And if the man is master of another house, he is 'esteemed sir' unless he and your master are not on good terms, at which time he becomes 'most high and noble eminence,' which is said utterly without irony lest he take its phallic meaning, and his wife you call 'esteemed lady' if she is a friend, but if your lord despises her she is 'most fecund mother of a noble lineage,' and if your lady despises her she is 'envy of nations' and if both despise her you say nothing to her but bow low and touch your brow to the ground, which will be unbearable insult to her but she dare not answer. Have you understood that? Can you do it now?"
"It's all shit, if you ask me," Flea said.
"But you, young fellow, tall and thin as the last smoke from a censer, you have another idea."
Orem smiled. "We had it just as hard at the House of God. If you speak to God with sins heavy in your heart, but there is other company and you want no questions, address God as Holy One Who Dwelleth in Heaven. If you're willing to confess your sins and your repentance, then you address Him as Holy Father Who Loveth the Weak. If you're praying for a company of your betters, the name of God is Master of the Brethren, but if you're praying for a company of common folk or if the company is mixed, you call Him Creator of All, First and Foremost, and if the King is present you—"
"Enough to know I'd never be a priest."
"And never a servant in a great house, either. It's not anyone wishing you ill. Not at all. We wish you well. But a servant's work is to be invisible, to have all done silently; a servant's work is to have no sign that work is done at all. A servant steps his steps like a dancer. An art, that's what it is. An art, and we're born to it and raised to it, and there's no hope for someone stumbling into it. What if the master has had too much wine, and yet asks for more?"
Orem smiled a little and shrugged. How could he know?
"Do you water his wine? Never. Do you refuse him, or give him half a glass? Never. No, you add the strongest gin you can find, so that the next glass puts him out, and then you gracefully stand beside him and bid his guests good-bye in his name, one by one, and they all touch his hand as they leave, so that in the morning you tell him, 'You shook hands with everyone as they left.' No one thinks ill of him because it was done gracefully, and though he knows the truth of what you did he doesn't mind because that's the way it's done. We are what keeps all going smoothly in Inwit. Who do you think serves in the palace? We, the fifty families. We are the only servants of Inwit and have been from the beginning. Back when God was still telling his name to strangers, we were passing the bread and bearing the meat. Does the House of Grell need a boy for stairs? I have a nephew. Does the House of Bran need a woman for children? My wife does children and teaches them dancing, too. My family is the Family Dyer, and we have a man or woman placed in every great house, and with responsibility, too. Nothing happens on Queen's Road but what we know of it."
My feet hurt, thought Orem. What is your offer?
"Do you think these lords rule anything? Nonsense. We do. It's one of us who's major-domo, lording the house. Who is his steward caring for his lands, if not one of us? Oh, the master makes his decisions, but who gives him all the information he uses to decide? We are the masters of Inwit, we are the ebb and flow of everything. We give them allowances and they think that they are the ones who pay us! They even think they hire us!"
"But the offer you spoke of, what could you need us for?"
The old man leaned forward and smiled. "Well, you see, while we're off tending to their estate, what of our own houses? We have lovely houses here, you know, the finest in Inwit, saving our masters' own. Who serves in the house of the servant? That's what we want you for."
The servant of a servant. That's my pass. That's my entry into Inwit. Orem did not feel triumphant at getting work. Instead he kept trying to think if he had ever heard a song about a servant.
"How much?" Flea asked.
"Two coppers a week," said the old man. "Two coppers a week, and an afternoon off, another on holy days if you worship God, and room and two meals besides."
"Here's the best. You'll wed here, you'll bed here, you'll sire here and your sons, your daughters, they'll do what you cannot. They'll wear the livery, they'll learn the words and times, they'll stand at the elbow of great men and be part of our family, the family Dyer, and do us proud forever. You'll be the sires of members of the fifty families, though you'll never belong to us yourselves."
Orem knew then that he must turn it down. He did not understand why, not for a moment. It was work, it was a way to stay inside Inwit, but it was unbearable. His sons and daughters servants, and their sons and daughters, forever and ever, all his children bowing and vanishing, cooking and vanishing, cleaning and vanishing. "No," Orem said. "Thank you, sir, but no."
Flea grabbed at his shirt, pulled so hard that the fabric cut at his neck. "God's name, Scant, this is it! You don't bargain with passes and two a week!"
"The young one's crude but correct," the old man said. "I won't bargain. I know I'm being generous."
"I'm not bargaining," Orem said.
"Then what?" asked the old man.
"Turning you down."
"Then you're a fool," he said contemptuously.
"Yes. No doubt of it."
"What about me?" Flea asked the old man. "Will you take me without him?"
The old man smiled thinly. "At one a week. This one can read. The two a week was for his sake, because you came together."
"One or two a week, fine with me."
"Stay, then, Flea," Orem said. "Thank you for everything. God's gifts with you." He nodded and stepped from the porch. His father had been a mere farmer, too poor to give a portion to his seventh son, but he had been a freeman, and his son was also free, and he would not bring children into the world less free than he was.
He was out of the alley, striding on into the darkening, deepening fog when he heard footsteps behind him. He knew the runner. "Flea," he said.
"You chewer," said Flea.
"That's as may be." "Two meals a day and coppers besides. Why not, in the name of my mother's blood?"
"I thought you came for work."
"Why work? To keep yourself alive. But then, why live? Not for that. Don't blame me. You
could have stayed." "You chewer. I thought you knew what you were doing. A poem! My father's piss!" And Flea
spat on the ground for emphasis.
"Then go back."
"All right then."
They walked on in silence, and stood together at the door of the Spade and Grave. The fog was
deep, the night was on them, all but a faint glow above the roofs; the lanterns were lit pathetically, as if they had a chance to cast a light in air so wet. "What sort of poem?" Flea asked softly.
"A true one."
"Such a poem for you, Scanthips?"
"Heroes do great things."
"I mean to do them."
"My mother's eyes."
"And there's no hope for a servant of a servant."
"So what now, Scant? Tomorrow you got no pass."
"Then I'll go out. And come back in."
"When your cheek is healed! Months from now!"
"I'll come back in another way."
Flea shook his head. "I don't know that end of the city. I don't know them as comes in that way." "Good night, Flea," Orem said. "I'm a fool for sure. Go back to that old man and live well."
Orem slept well that night, to his own surprise, and the next day he went downstairs and cheerfully told the innmaster to chew himself, though he still didn't know quite what that meant. Then he went to another inn and ate a copper's worth of breakfast, which made his stomach ache but tasted no worse for that. It was his gesture of defiance after nearly fasting for three days for his coppers' sake.
And as he left the inn, bellyheavy and content, he brushed past a small boy who was loitering at the door, not noticing who it was until he was a couple of steps into the street. Then he turned and said, "Flea!"
Flea looked annoyed. "You could have saved some of that food for me."
They fell into step, heading north toward Piss Road.
"I thought you'd have breakfast with that old man," said Orem. "I thought you'd given up on me."
"I should have," Flea said. "But I'm so damn dumb I believed what you said last night. If you can
have a poem, Scant, why not me? I'll be twice your weight when I'm grown. My father hefted an axe for the King, my mother told me. Told me other things, other times, but who knows? Maybe."
"Bring me along when you go to earn your song. Promise me."
"By my hope of a name and a poem, I promise," Orem said solemnly.
Flea answered nothing. Just silently touched Orem's hand for a moment. And when his touch went, there were three coins in Orem's hand.
"No," Orem said.
"They aren't mine. You might as well have them."
"I can't take your coppers."
"Because I cut purse for them? I'll lie and say I found them if you like."
"You owe me nothing."
"You're going to put me in your poem. So let me help you get it started." And with that Flea ran off into the crowds of Piss Road. Orem watched him out of sight, and still watched when Flea was utterly lost to him. He was in debt to a thief inside Inwit and to a liar of a carpenter outside. They were the closest thing to honorable men that he had found.
There was Braisy, the weasely man, leaning against a wall watching the discouraged paupers leaving the gate's mouth. Orem walked boldly to the man.
"Five coppers," Orem said.
"A cheerful greeting. Five was all you had three days ago. What do you have now?"
Braisy looked at him, eyebrow raised. "Resourceful little chewer, aren't you."
"Five. I want to go in the other way. If there's work there."
"I promise nothing. Hell, I don't even promise all the way in. I know the first portals, and the names of them as has names. More than you know, that's all. And it's five coppers to there."
"Then let's go."
"Eager little bastard, aren't you." Braisy licked his lips. "I tell you, maybe you're better to wait out here till your cheek's healed."
"What, trying to raise the price on me?"
Braisy studied him a moment, then smiled broadly. If he had had more teeth, Orem would have thought his smile menacing. "Well enough, then. Five coppers. Now."
"One now, one at the first door, the rest when I'm as far as you can take me, if I think it's far enough."
"Two now, three at the door."
"One now, two at the door, two at the end."
"Done. But show them all."
Orem stepped back and showed the coins from far enough that they could not be snatched away.
"Learned caution, have you?" "One now." And he tossed the coin. Braisy caught it deftly, weighed it on a finger, and slipped it inside his shirt, under his arm. Must have a pouch there, Orem thought. I need a pouch, too. For safety. There are thieves who know how to snatch from a man's wrap.
15 The Hole
How Orem Scanthips was first recognized as he came into Inwit through the Hole.
A Shadow Does Not Know Him
Braisy led him on a twisting journey through Beggarstown that led at last to a tavern far from the twin towers of the Hole. It was not a bright-painted tavern like the Spade and Grave, but a dingy place, decayed outside and filthy and corrupt within. Braisy flashed a coin, and the innmaster nodded. The coin spun through the air. Before the innmaster caught it, Orem noticed that it was silver. Not copper at all. It was then that he became afraid. If Braisy's first bribe was so much greater than the whole fee Orem was paying him, it surely meant that someone else was paying Braisy for Orem's passage.
"I need to piss," Orem said.
"Not now," Braisy answered. He would not get out so easily. With a tight and painful grip on his arm Braisy hurried him up the stairs and into an open door.
Only a faint light came in through the cracks of a boarded up window. Someone else was in the room. It was too dark to see more than a looming shadow against the crack of light from the window. Heavy breathing from the shadow, and the stench of a foul mouth.
"Name." It was a whisper, and still Orem could not guess man or woman, old or young, kind or cruel.
"They call me Scanthips."
"Of Banningside. Orem Scanthips of Banningside." More breathing. The shadow still did not believe him.
A sigh like the softest whine of a keener. "I can tell neither truth nor lie."
"Stick him, then?" asked Braisy.
Orem braced himself to run—he'd not die of a blade in a place like this. But Braisy was strong, stronger than such a small man looked to be. And then the shadow's dry hand, crisp and light as paper, stroked his bare arm. "Safe, safe," came the whisper. "Safe, safe." And then a tiny prick on his arm, something edged like a razor or a sharp rock scraping off the blood that surely formed, and the shadow moved away.
"Sweet sweet Sister sister sister," came the hissing from a corner of the room. "Nothing, nothing."
"What then?" asked Braisy. His voice sounded like shouting, the room was so still.
"Pass or stay, stay or pass, all one, what can I tell?"
"I need to piss."
Braisy's hand squeezed tighter on his arm. "Not now, not now, I'm thinking. What are you, boy?"
I'm scared of dying, that's what I am. You've taken my blood, name of God! Let me go. "Orem ap Avonap," he said. "Try that name."
The shadow returned quickly. "The son of Avonap? But that's a lie, a lie, a lie, there's no goldenwheat seed inside of you."
"Swear to God."
"There's word," said the shadow, "of a learned doctor."
"Would this boy be useful to him?"
"Who can say? Take the low way, low to Segrivaun, and ask for the glass of public death."
"Shit," muttered Braisy.
"And I say shit. But yes. Yes, the low way, damn you."
"And damn you," came the whisper. Braisy dragged him now to a far corner of the room, where a deeper black waited in the black of the wall. Braisy stopped there and shoved him in. For a sickening moment he thought he was falling into a pit. Then his foot hit a step. Bad angle. He lurched, he stumbled down three more steps, and when he caught himself his foot was on fire with pain and he was frightened.
"I can't see."
A door closed softly above them. Only then did Braisy try to strike a light. Click; spark. Click; spark. Click; light. A little flame in a wad of dry wool. With his bare hands Braisy gently and slowly moved the burning wool to a small lamp. It took. The stairway went down steeply, and didn't bend. The treads were only inches, the risers a foot at least, and it led far deeper into the darkness than ever the house could be. The low way.
And if I do escape, what then? Must remember my way back. Up the stairs, out this door however it opens, past the whispering shadow, left in the hall, down the stairs, and out. He made it a thread in his mind, a thread of words that became numbers and numbers that became words. Little mnemonics formed. Stone Road Bone Road. The stairs ended in a dirt tunnel that could not go straight for fifteen feet, with turns here and holes overhead and holes down and streams of filthy water crossing the path.
The dirt walls turned to brick, with gaps every few inches, narrow spaces a quarter of a brick wide. Out of some of them came a thin trickle of fluid. Was it raining above ground? Why did they build this place? Fly dog, sky dog, ice water, under water. The thread of the remembered path grew longer, and Orem wondered if he could hold it all in his mind. And all along the walls, the little slits.
The corridor tipped left and down, and the floor was slick hard mud with a thin skiff of water running over it. Orem's foot skidded. He braced himself against the wall. His longest finger slipped into a gap in the bricks. The water flowed down his arm.
"Name of God," Braisy said. "Get your hand out."
Orem retrieved his finger from the slit.
"Look at your arm."
It was wet. Braisy held the lamp over it, studied where the water had flowed. "Should be black. Should be black, boy. It's where they put the ashes of the dead. They fill up the slits with the ashes of the dead, and if you get the water on you, then you—but you don't turn black, do you? What are you, boy?"
They came to a stairway down. The water cascaded over the steps. They descended, a step at a time. Water began dripping from the arched bricks overhead. Now and then the lamp hissed when a drop struck it. Braisy seemed to wince with each drip that hit him.
"Quiet here," Braisy said softly. "The guards have tunnels through here, to listen for people like us, trying for the Hole. And if you think to call for help, remember this—everyone who's taken in the paths of the Hole always says they were forced, always claims they were lost in the Tombs. The guard cuts them up anyway, in little pieces, boy. Cuts them up in little pieces. Think of it before you shout for help."
"What are you going to do with me?" Orem whispered.
"Shut up," Braisy answered.
More twists and turns, and Orem felt the floor of the tunnel begin to incline. They were climbing now, and the water grew shallower and began to run against their path, downward, and finally they were on an upward climbing corkscrew through the rock. When the path had crossed itself three times, the stone walls and steps made way for wood.
"Slowly," whispered Braisy. "No squeaks, no creaks."
A step at a time, placing their feet at the edges of the stairs, they crept upward. Suddenly he cracked his head against a ceiling. There was a roof over them, smooth planks from side to side of the wooden stair, and the stair ran right up into it and stopped.
"That's right, knock," Braisy whispered. "Why not call out a greeting? We'll not pass you for bright, will we?" Braisy clambered awkwardly up beside him and reached with his finger until he found a hole in one of the planks. He waggled his finger around, then held the lamp up against the hole. The flame flattened, then leapt up. For more than a minute he held the lamp there, and then the board flew upward, and the one beside it, and the one beside that, until there was a way to climb out. The boards were subtly hinged and silent.
"Trying to burn us out?" asked an immense fat woman. Her voice was soft but still had an edge to it. "Want to start a flame? Should we roast a rat over the hole? Braisy, you're a rutting hog, that's what you are, come up, come in."
The woman gave them each a hand and pulled them into a room that was lit, to Orem's surprise, by daylight. Wasn't it night? Hadn't he been hours in the dark? Or could it be the next morning already? No, he wasn't that tired. There was no open window; just a few cracks in the wooden wall, with a roll of heavy black cloth tied above it, ready to be let down at night to hold candlelight inside. Orem wondered if this woman lived all her life here. Perhaps. It paid: Braisy handed her two silvers.
"Ah," said the fat woman. Her breasts hung well below her waist, as if she were smuggling grain sacks under her blouse. Her belly wagged to and fro when she walked. Her face, too, was draped with flesh; even her brow hung loosely over her eyes, and she actually lifted her forehead with her hand so she could look up and see Orem's face.
"What is he? Why this way? Surely not for the King, this one!" "A shadow said to take him to you, Segrivaun, and you'd lead us to the glass of public death."
"Said he was wanting."
"Oh, yes, wanting. They brought what he wanted here just an hour ago, cloven hoof and two men binding. Only four horns, but enough, enough, a little one but enough. I want nothing of him. Go on, through here."
She led the way into a cavernous passageway. Forced to bend in the low tunnel, following right behind the woman, Orem couldn't hide from the stench of her; she was foul. But the way was not long. They came to a room with a round hole in the ceiling and two heavy ropes coming down. One rope was taut and tied to a stout iron ring bolted to the floor; the other was also taut but hung free through a hole near the ring, going down deeper into the house.
The fat woman positioned them opposite her and bade them stand away from the ropes, while she fairly enveloped the fastened one in her belly and breasts, holding to the free rope with both hands. She grunted and pulled down on the free rope. The floor rose under them.
Not the whole floor, but a circle of it, and it wobbled madly. They rose past one floor, past another, and finally stopped at the third. Segrivaun lifted them a few inches clear of the floor, then began rocking back and forth. It was a terrifying motion, and Orem couldn't balance fast enough to keep from falling. But when he fell, the platform fell also, and enough to the side of the hole that it stayed as Segrivaun stepped to the caught edge and held it there with her weight.
Braisy quickly took the lamp a few steps away, to where some heavy boards lay on the floor. He took one up, spanned the hole in the floor with it, it, and shoved it under the edge of the circle of wood. Segrivaun stepped off, and now apparently the need for whispering was through.
"Get up," Braisy said impatiently.
Orem stood, stepping back quickly from the circle and the hole. Fire searing, lecher leering, number finger, Stone Road, Bone Road. The thread was complete. Orem knew that now was his chance, if he swung into the hole and dropped to the floor below, then climbed down the free rope to the bottom, then retraced all his steps—
Segrivaun's huge hand closed on his arm. Orem tried to pull away.
"There's some tried it," Segrivaun said. "They're all dead, though. All got lost in the catacombs."
"But Braisy's paid three silvers already, he doesn't want a dead one, does he, doesn't want a lost one. Come on."
Segrivaun opened a door, and they stepped into a tiny chamber. Braisy closed the door after them and set the lamp on a high shelf. He took a deep breath. "Strip," he said. And meant it, for he began taking off all his clothes himself. Orem unbelted his shirt and pulled it over his head, uneasy at not knowing what was going to happen. Segrivaun, too, was undressing; modestly she turned her back to them and pulled acres of cloth over her head. Her buttocks, Orem saw, were as loose as her breasts, and nearly reached the floor.
Orem untied the sandals from his calves, let them drop to the ground. Braisy kicked them into a corner. Then, when Orem was too slow with his winder wrap, he yanked on it, pulled it free. The last of Orem's money dropped to the floor, rolled. Braisy had all three coins before they were still. "The last of what you owe me."
"Never miss a minim, do you?" the fat woman chuckled. She crossed her arms across her chest in a mockery of modesty; the huge black nipples of her dugs hung far below, where her hands could not possibly reach them. "They're ready in there, ready for sure."
Orem reached down and picked up his clothes, bundled them under his arm. Braisy reached out and knocked them down, then opened the door.
It was bright inside. A round room, with stone walls and no windows. A stairway came up one wall, curving. Candles hung all along the walls, and there was a small fire in a clay pot, which stank with some heavy, sweet smell that burned Orem's nose. The stones of the wall were so huge that Orem knew immediately that this was one of the towers of the Hole. One of the towers, and surely the towers were held by the guards; surely he was betrayed.
Then he saw the four-horned hart in the middle of the floor and he had no thought for walls and soldiers.
The Hart in the Tower
The hart was alive, its eyes staring in terror. It lay on its back, a helpless and unnatural pose, its four legs tied and stretched off in the four directions, pegged to the floor. At the joint of the hind leg and the belly a cut had been made, and the hart's blood was pumping out in sluggish flows into a low copper pan held by an old man. An old man who was naked but for a deerskin over his shoulders: a doeskin, for the head was hornless where it rested on his grey and tousled hair.
"Hartkiller!" Orem cried softly. And in the moment that his name for the crime hung in the stony, silent air, the hart died. Its head went slack, its tongue lolled:
It was a deep voice that rumbled out from under the doe's skin. "A boy," he said. "And from High Waterswatch, where they keep the memory of the Hart. What have you brought me?"
"His name is—"
But Braisy was silenced by the wave of a hand. The old man's long-fingered hand seemed to have too many knuckles, too many joints. A single finger rose straight into the air, but from the back of the hand, so that the angle grew painful just to watch: all the other fingers straight down, and this single finger pointing upward.
The fat woman lumbered forward. The old man dipped a finger of his other hand into the copper pan and touched the bright bloody tip of his finger to her tongue. Braisy also tasted, and Orem, too, found the finger reaching for his tongue, and licked the cooling blood. It was sweet, it was sweet, and it burned all the way into his throat.
Braisy and Segrivaun stared at him with wide and frightened eyes. What was wrong? Orem grew afraid and looked behind him, but there was nothing there. It was he who frightened them. What change had the hart's blood wrought in him, that they should look at him with such horror?
"What is the price?" asked Segrivaun in a high voice. "Oh, God, a pilgrim's trap!"
Braisy giggled nervously. "You didn't tell me, boy. Cheater, cheater, God hates all liars."
Orem did not understand. What was this talk of God and pilgrims, with a hart bled to death on the floor, with the taste of hart's blood in all their mouths?
Something hot touched his leg. Orem looked down. It was the wizard's hand, still split wide like a keener's jaws, fastened to him.
"Not a pilgrim, are you?" said the deep voice. It sounded kind. "Not a pilgrim, and yet still we see you, we all see all, when all should have vanished at the taste of hart's blood."
Vanished. They were supposed to disappear. And blamed the failure of it on him.
"Forgive me, Gallowglass," Segrivaun began.
"Forgive you? Forgive you a dozen silvers' worth, that's how I forgive you. What woe you've brought me. What trouble is here in this miserable boy. A dozen silvers, Segrivaun. You little know who guided your footsteps through the low way, Braisteneft. You little know who drew you up the spider's line, Segrivaun."
Gallowglass stood. He was tall for an old man. He faced Orem with gaze level. "And so early, and so young. What haste."
Orem did not know what the old man meant. He only knew that Gallowglass's eyes were filled with tears, and yet his face looked acquisitive.
"How long will they let you stay, do you think?" he said softly, as if to himself. "Long enough, perhaps. Too long, perhaps. But worth this, yes. If you can leant—if I can teach—"
Abruptly Gallowglass's hand flew through the air, paused directly in front of Orem's face, and that single upraised finger lowered swiftly and sat upon Orem's eyeball. Rested on the open eye, yet Orem did not blink. He just stared at the pinkish black of the old man's finger, vaguely aware that it was hot. Suddenly the finger came into impossibly clear focus. Every whorl and twist was visible, and in them he could see, as if a hundred yards below, dizzyingly far down into the finger, thousands of people milling about, screaming, reaching upward to him out of the maze of whorls, pleading with him to release them.
"Oh, but you can," said the wizard. And now his voice was not deep and old. It was adolescent, it was young. It was Orem's own voice, speaking to him out of the wizard's mouth. "You can. It is all I can do with hart's blood to contain you, even that long. What have you stolen from me just by being in the room?"
"Nothing," Orem said. What could he have stolen, naked as he was? The wizard took his finger from Orem's eye. Now the eye stung bitterly, and Orem clapped his hand there and rubbed as the tears flowed to soothe the parched glass of his vision. "Don't you know, Segrivaun, that a pilgrim would stay visible only himself? Yet you are also visible, and Braisteneft, and I, and the hart. No pilgrim. But something that is mine, surely mine. A full purse of silver, Braisteneft. Ten of silver for you, Lady Segrivaun. Enough? Enough?"
"Oh, enough, Gallowglass!" cried Braisy.
"Enough that there is no memory that such a boy was brought?"
"Enough that there is no memory of a hart whose blood failed when it was hot?"
"Already, my lord, forgot," said Segrivaun.
Gallowglass laughed. "You're both a hundred times forsworn a day. No, we swear by the Hart, yes? By the Hart." So they all, even Orem, knelt around the groin of the hart, each plunging a finger into the soft bloody slit of a wound, and all, even Orem, swore. It was a terrible oath, and Orem knew that his thread was cut in that moment. He remembered all his incantation, but there was no returning that way now.
A bag of silver changed hands. Orem knew what was happening. He had been sold. He was owned. He had left Inwit passless because he would not be a servant to a servant. Now he would be—something—to this Gallowglass. And not free.
And yet he did not mind.
The others left, and Gallowglass gave Orem his clothing. They dressed together, Orem in his dirty traveling clothes, Gallowglass in a deep green robe.
"What's happening to me?" Orem asked.
"You've been employed."
"For how long?"
"For life, I think, however long that is. But don't despair. You'll have the freedom of the city, and the best forged passes that money can buy, since with you I can't use spells to blind the guards. And all you have to do, my boy, is serve me."
Gallowglass tossed him his belt. "And you have. Or will in a moment."
"What makes you think I want to work for you?"
Gallowglass only smiled kindly and patted the circled pattern on the front of his robe. It looked at first like the seven circles of a God's man. But it was eight circles. Two twos of twos. It was a fearsome thing to spell. For up it said, My blood. And down it said, Dry water. And spun down to the two and the two and the two and the two, it said, No hope.
"You're not afraid, are you, boy?"
"Tell me, how much magic have you seen in your life?"
"But how much of it has actually worked in your sight?"
None. It was why he longed so for it. Magic was something that the others had spoken of, that
all had seen from his infancy up, but never in his life had he seen the moment of change. For when he was there it never went right, no matter how hard they tried.
"That's right, boy. None of it. Never in your life. Your mother, did she do magic?"
"But sent you out of the house when she did, yes? When she wove, when she cooked, sent you out of the house."
He threatened to undam a flood of bitterness. "Yes," said Orem.
"They always sent you away. Why, boy? Why? When they said the spell of strength on you, it didn't work, did it? Never grew muscled, never grew strong. No village sergeant would have you, would he? For where you are, boy, wherever you are there's a hole in the fabric of the world. You're a Sink, lad. A Sink."
He had no notion what such a thing might be. Good or evil? If he means to punish me for it, I'll not take it without argument. "I'm Orem Scanthips."
"What do you think magic is, Scanthips?"
"Power. Bought with blood." "Bought. Yes, that's the best you'd be able to know, I suppose. But it isn't buying. Not the way the merchants do, with their money. They separate earning from acquiring, with money in between, so the price can go up and down and lose its tie with the labor. So you can be cheated. But the prices in blood do not change."
"Not earning either, lad. For you can't do more and get more. It's there, in you, just there. In every living thing, according to the blood. The blood of life is a web, a net that we draw with us, catching the life of the world in it as we go. All the living blood draws in power, and holds it, so that when one like me, who knows the uses of that power, when I draw the hot blood I can shape, I can build, I can create and kill. But not your blood, Orem Scanthips. Oh, you catch the life as it passes, yes, the power flows into you like anyone else. Better than others, for your web is great, it trails with you, settles out around you, draws life and power from everyone, draws them to you. But do you fill with power? Is there greater strength in you?"
"You rob the magic right from the blood, but then it drains from you, drains back into the earth, waiting for the trees and grass to suck it up, waiting for it to melt into the air, to be eaten by the cattle, to settle into the blood of other men again. You can't use it. It just drains through you and it's gone."
"You drained the blood of a whole hart in an instant, Scanthips. That's power, lad. There's no limit to you. Sisters, Sisters, no limit to you except for the shape of your nets, Lord Fisher, the placement of your web, Master Spider. I will teach you."
"How to place your web. How to swallow power where and when you wish. You will rob for me, undo the magic wherever I tell you. Who can resist me then? Who will compete with Gallowglass? Challenge me, all of you, and my Sink, my Scanthips, he will worm to the heart of your power and drink you dry."
"Because you came to me. It was no accident. Power comes to you, and you come to power. I am the greatest of the learned doctors of Wizard Street. You came to me for power. Oh, it's a risk I'm taking, a sacrifice I'm making. How quickly will you learn? Until you do, there's no magic in my house. You're a danger to me. If you get too dangerous, of course, I'll kill you. So learn quickly, lad. Learn quickly."
"All my life I've read the stories of Sinks, but never thought I'd live to see one. Follow me, lad."
The road out was as difficult as the road in, but now Orem did not bother trying to memorize the path. He had come to the Inwit that he had dreamed of, the Inwit of old magic from the time before God.
Then the wizard sent him out into the street while he magically hid the entrance to the passageway. Sent him with a warning: You have no pass, don't try to escape. But Orem did not want to escape. As he stood in the dusky street he was joyful. Hart's Hope. Hind's Trace. The broken tree that would not die. Shrine Street. The city that was before God came. It was the city Orem had come to find.
The Taste of Power
How Orem learned the death that gnawed at the heart of the world.
In the Wizard's House
Like all the wizards of Inwit in that day, Gallowglass lived on Wizard Street. His house looked common enough and modest from the outside. Its only advertisement was a horseshoe on a nail, for it had once been a blacksmith shop. The hinges were in such disarray that doors seemed more to lean than close, and a shutter flapped clumsily in the breeze that sighed up the street. There was dust on the porch that seemed to have been undisturbed for years. Yet the wizard seemed to see nothing amiss as he climbed the step, took hold of a door, and eased it out of the way.
"In in in," he whispered. Orem went in, ducking to avoid a heavily laden spider web whose surly mistress seemed resentful at being disturbed. It was dark inside, and darker yet when the wizard stepped within and pulled the door closed behind him.
"Lamp lamp," he said, searching in the darkness.
"What is this place?"
"The heavenly hearth, the kindly fire, the keeper of the heart, the place of rest and comfort. In a word, my domicile."
Gallowglass found a match. He struck once, twice; it wouldn't light. Matches had spells on them, everyone knew that, and now Orem understood why his mother sent him out of the house whenever she had to relight the kitchen fire. Gallowglass put down the matches. "We must teach you quickly, mustn't we."
It was a cramped and crowded room, with things stacked in a hopeless jumble on shelves that sagged along the walls. There were piles on the floor, too, and on the steps of the steep and narrow stair that led to a room above. There were three large barrels against the northern wall, unmarked, yet damp and mossy. And everything was inches thick in dust.
"Is this the best place you could find?" asked Orem.
Gallowglass looked at him in annoyance. "It doesn't look like this usually. But you're here, and so I'll have to forego the normal furnishings for a while." As he spoke the lamp went out again. "Damn, boy, will you get upstairs so I can do this properly?"
Orem stumbled to the stairs in the darkness and clambered up into the cobwebs. Then he listened to Gallowglass wandering around below. A fire soon crackled in the hearth, though there had been no hearth in the room downstairs. And he could hear Gallowglass wander from room to room, opening and closing the doors, though there had been but the one room there before. With magic the place was a palace. With a Sink there, it was a foul place. The wizard had never bothered with housekeeping in reality, when he lived in magic all the time.
Then he heard Gallowglass speaking. "I couldn't help it," Gallowglass said plaintively. Then was there a whisper of an answer? No one had come in with them. Orem waited and tried to listen, and finally, after what seemed hours, he grew impatient.
"Don't come down the stairs or I'll break your brains!"
"I'm not! I haven't moved!"
"Good! It's the only thing keeping you alive!"
"I'm hungry! It's dark up here!"
Downstairs a barrel lid was tamped into place with a mallet. Soon Orem heard the wizard's footsteps on the stairs. At first the stairs were carpeted, but then, abruptly, the footsteps changed to the smack of leather on bare wood. "May the bones of your ancestors turn to fungus." The voice was soft, but clear because the old wizard's head was now sticking up into the room. He lifted the lamp to illuminate the tiny upstairs room.
"Oh, dismal," said the wizard. Orem silently agreed. Cluttered, filthy, and reeking of decay, it was not half so nice a place as the rooms at the Spade and Grave.
"This is all I get to eat?"
"It was roast dove when I conjured it downstairs, how can I help what it turns into in your presence."
"I can't help it either," Orem said. "But I can't live on that."
"Then learn quickly," the wizard said. "I was ready for the danger of having you. But the inconvenience!" Gallowglass rummaged through the debris and pulled from it a shabby cot with a tear in the middle of the canvas. "Best I can do," he said. "But there it is. Until you learn."
"My bed?" Orem asked.
"Until you learn, you damnable nuisance! Don't complain when it's your flatulent fault!"
"Then teach me!" Orem retorted.
"I can't teach you, not just like that." Gallowglass snapped his fingers in Orem's face. "I can only suggest, respond, inform—you have to learn. It's inside you, once you learn to recognize and control it. How can I teach you, I've never been a Sink."
"Whatever you mean to do, begin it now," Orem said.
"Imperious little bastard, aren't you."
The wizard made him lie upon the floor with a bundle of cloth under his head. And then strange, soft commands: Reach out with your fingers, close your eyes, and tell me the color of the air just over your head. Hear if you can the sound of my beard growing. Yes, listen, reach your fingers; try to taste the taste of your sweat in the insides of your eyes.
Orem understood none of it. "I can't," he muttered.
The wizard paid him no attention, just went on. You are asleep as you lie there, listening to me, asleep as long as you think you are awake, awake only when you discover your sleep. Feel how the air gets hotter, feel it at the back of your neck, look at the sun shining, look at it through the soft place behind your knees, yes, you have secret eyes there, look how white it is there.
There was something compelling in the rhythm of the old man's speech, the cadences of it, at times sounding like prayer, at times like song, at times like the bark of an angry dog. Orem's senses became confused. He ceased seeing through his eyes, and yet was still aware of vision, or something akin to it. A grey around him, like the fog of the day before. He could hear the rush of time. He no longer felt inside him where his fingers were, but rather tasted them, and his tongue burned in his mouth, then went cold, then wilted and shrank until he lost track of what was mouth, what was tongue, and even what was Orem.
Then something, some command he gave without knowing, caused all the grey fog around him to flex. A quick contraction. He did not know what it was he did, but there! there it was again, yes, and again. Like spasms, but he learned to flex the grey again, again, drew it in, pulled it to him, sustained the pressure. It slipped, it lapsed, he grew tired and felt the weariness as a deep green in his thighs, but this he knew was what was wanted of him. Hold this, draw it in, hold it and hold it and hold it and now he could open his eyes and see, not an old man holding a feeble lamp in a dingy upstairs room, but a young man, blond and beautiful, the man that Orem's father had wished him to be, tall and strong, and it was not a lamp in his hands but a tiny star shining. The room was not filthy and small, either; he was lying in a bed in a room dark with heavily engraved mahogany and brown brocade tapestries, and the young and beautiful man was looking at him with diamonds at the pupils of his eyes.
"This is my home, Orem, when you let it be," said the starholder, said the jewel-eyed lover.
And then it was all too strong for him, and Orem felt something break inside him, and the grey erupted from him and his senses flew madly about the room, about the inside of his head. He writhed on his miserable cot, until at last he fell like a spider gently back into himself, exhausted, surrounded again by the filth. The old man nodded. "Not bad for a first lesson. You'll get better at it as time goes on. If you live through it."
He did get better and stronger, until within weeks he was able to hold the fog just within his skin all his waking hours, much to the wizard's relief. They could take meals together now. And in two months it was such a reflex that he controlled his power even in his sleep. Except now and then, when it slipped away from him, and he awoke again on the cot instead of his soft bed. He told Gallowglass of the lapses. The wizard shrugged and flashed his diamond eyes. "You were probably a bedwetter, too."
The Wizard's Women
"My pickle barrels seem to have caught your eye," said Gallowglass as they read books in his library one night.
"You must be—very fond of pickles," said Orem tentatively.
Gallowglass smiled his bright and beautiful smile. Then he pried open a lid with the crow that lay on the leftmost keg. "What I love best in all the world," said the wizard. "And not held by magic, no, not at all. That's why it wasn't undone when you came in so clumsily and wrecked the place. It's just what it seems to be." The lid came off with a sloshing of water. Orem stood to see. It was not hoarmelon floating in the water, nor onions, nor even a single cabbage as, for a moment, it seemed. For the wizard reached down with his hand, seized a loose handful of hair, and pulled up the shriveled head of a woman.
"My love, my life, my paramour, my wife. Best beloved of all women. The dust of the pouch at my belt, the dust of her blood, here—a shake of it, not much, just a shake, and look, look." The blackish dust settled from Gallowglass's fingers, and Orem saw the body shudder under Gallowglass's hand. The eyes trembled and slackly opened.
"Nn," said the corpse.
"My lady," said Gallowglass.
"I have a prentice now, who wants to see you."
"He's a smart lad, in his way. Has no manners, eats like a pig and smells worse, and there's no help for it but bathing, since he shuns spells like grease sheds rainwater. But ah, he has a compassionate heart. Do you think he'd be touched at your tale, my love?"
The voice was still a moan, but now Orem realized that the sluggish tongue was articulating; there were words. "Let me sleep," she might have said. Or "Dead so deep." Hard to hear it. And Gallowglass only nodded.
"Come so far, such a long and weary way, yes my love? And yet though the journey is long, still you know I love you. That must be a comfort to you in your death, as it is a comfort to me to have your company."
"Nnnn," said the pickled head. A spurt of bile came from the mouth, and then all went slack again. Gently the wizard lowered the head again. When he turned to Orem, his eyes were emeralds, green as the growth on the barrels.
"Did I tell you that I'm the greatest of the wizards of Inwit? It's true, but small honor, small honor. Do you think Queen Beauty would let me stay, if I were strong? A strong wizard doesn't have to let his wife and daughters die of some ridiculous disease. Doesn't have to watch them waste away to nothing. A strong wizard isn't so fainthearted that he lets them die with their blood. Sleeve wouldn't have done it, you know. Sleeve would have seen their deaths, and calmly drawn their blood alive, with the power hot in it. But like a witch I waited, and took it cool, took it dead, found blood. Powdered here, with only enough power in it to bring them back now and then for conversation." The tears flowed down his cheeks. "I grow maudlin, but I will not hide my heart from my disciple. Oh, Scanthips, my lad, my boy, my wife was the most beautiful of the ladies of power, saving only Beauty herself, my wife was lovely, and her loveliness was not diminished even when divided between my daughters. Look at them!" Gallowglass unlidded the other barrels, and lifted up his daughters, and Orem looked, though he had no wish to see.
Orem could not, but he murmured his assent. To him the daughter was as utterly old as the mother, for what years had not done, brine did.
"Golden hair, and her sister dark, like day and night walking through the city. I touched them with no spell to make them beautiful—it was in them, it was them. And ah, the men who pled with me to give them up. But I was saving them for a better lover than any man." Again the bright tears flowed from the emerald eyes. "I was saving them for Death, who crept in and seduced them as I helplessly looked on. Shriveled them, wasted them under my eyes. But I have enough power to waken them. I can draw them back. You saw it!"
"Yes," Orem said.
"Oh, by the Sisters, by the Hart, by that damnable God who broke our power and penned us in, if only I knew what the masters knew! I slay the hart in the tower, so my competitors will see the corpse and worry that perhaps I have more power than they—but I know nothing to do with that blood except foolish tricks of invisibility, and that can be done with sheep! I draw the hart's blood, and what does it accomplish? It proves to me again my weakness." He closed the barrels, tamped down the lids again. "My life is here, shriveling in brine. But with your gifts I will be the strongest in Hart's Hope, the greatest of them all. And yet." He wandered off to the stairway, intoning to himself. "Strongest of them all, and yet still too weak, still too weak, I couldn't save them."
That night Orem did not sleep long. He awoke disturbed, and on the cot, not in the mahogany room. In his dream the pickled head of the wizard's wife had called to him, and so he went to her, because he could not deny her.
There was a faint light in the library. It came from the green luminescent slime on the barrels. He sat on a pile of rubbish in the cluttered, unmagical room. He watched.
It was the barrel that held the wizard's wife that shuddered first; then the others, as if the bodies inside were having silent convulsions, rocking the kegs, sloshing the water. Then a lid popped up loudly; another split in half; the third was sucked down into the barrel, and the water seeped and flowed over the top of it as it was drawn down.
In the dream there had been no danger, but Orem was afraid. Things that were dead ought to keep still, everyone knew that. But when the dead call, only a fool refuses them. And so he stayed and watched as a hand reached up from one, from two, from all of the barrels, long-fingered hands, with green light dripping slow as caterpillars down to the wrists, into the water.
"Don't hurt me," Orem whispered.
Abruptly the hands all thrust out toward him. He gasped, reached out with his power of negation to try to stop them; but this was not magic, not the blood-bought magic that a Sink could swallow up. The hands were undisturbed by his strongest effort. They reached over the barrels' lip, and a single finger of each began to write in the slime. Orem could read the dark lines in the green shining, each woman writing her word, each trembling as if an uncontainable power controlled them. "Sister," wrote the wife. "God," wrote the dark daughter. "Horn," wrote the light daughter. Then faster, as the hands grew more sure.
woman writing her word, each trembling as if an uncontainable power controlled them. "Sister," wrote the wife. "God," wrote the dark daughter. "Horn," wrote the light daughter. Then faster, as the hands grew more sure. Go Ho ter d rn Slu Sla St t ve one Yo Yo Yo u u u M M M ust ust ust Se Se Sa e rve ve
Then the hands shook violently, flew up in the air and splashed down again, then reached out, but kept getting sucked back in, as if they were struggling to write more, or even to leave the barrels entirely, and something fought as hard to keep them. The will to write was stronger: the fingers traced in barely readable letters words that meant only together.
It was over, the hands splashed back into the water; the lids came quickly into place; the broken one seemed to heal as it closed. The slime began to dim, the last letters of the last words faded into a uniform blackness. Orem fled upstairs.
Sister slut you must see.
God slave you must serve.
Horn stone you must save.
Let me die.
He understood nothing, and lay halfway between sleep and wakefulness all night, trying to understand, trying not to think at all. If the last message was the wizard's women speaking for themselves, then whose message was the first part? Or was it meaningful at all? Who could lift the hands of the dead even when the power of a Sink had stolen all the magic?
Only in the first light of morning did he think to do that most obvious, most instinctive thing: he summed the words up, he summed them down, conceiving them both as columns and as rows. The upward sum of rows was Palicrovol. The downward sum of rows was Beauty. And either way the columns were added, they said, Give all, get nothing.
Pranks All through the winter and spring Orem learned to use his new senses. He had no language to describe even to himself what he felt, so he adapted what language he had. When he described it to me, it was all a tale of tongues and tasting, pinpricks and bludgeons, though through it all he usually lay still as death on his cot.
From the first the experiment was a success.
"Orem! My Scanthips! You should have heard the woe! All up and down Wizard Street! Two buildings held up by magic collapsed. One old wizard who only kept his horn with spells is so humiliated he won't go back to Whore Street for years. And never knowing when a spell will work or not. The rats and sheep that have spilt their blood in vain these weeks—ah, if only you could hear the cutters complain. In the taverns where we go, I listen, I complain along with them. They think sometimes it must be the God's men found some terrible incantation. And sometimes they think it's the Queen, putting them in their place, though it's been a long time since she worried much about our paltry powers. Some think the Sweet Sisters, and it's time for women to take the place of power in the world. None of them suspects, none of them dreams that here in my miserable filthy blacksmith shop of a mansion I have found and trained a Sink!"
"It worked, then?" Orem asked.
"Somewhat. There was an assassination over in the Great Exchange, a dearly paid-for murder—was it you that snuffed that out?"
"I don't know. There was a far one. I can't tell what they are."
"It was poison. You killed the power of it, but the taste remained. Luckily the assassin killed himself before letting on who hired him—quite dependable fellow, a rare thing these days—but there was a wizard who stared death in the face, you may be sure, for a few anxious moments."
"Who was it?"
"Me. This isn't going to work well if you don't learn to differentiate between my magics and theirs."
And so they talked through everything that Orem had done, and Gallowglass showed him all his spells and powers, and Orem gradually learned to distinguish one wizard's flame from another by taste or texture or color.
That was why he came to know Queen Beauty first by her magic.
How Orem First Engaged the Queen in Battle It was late in autumn, and Orem ranged far and wide, following all his senses where they led him. He knew by then which points of light were men, and which were women; he had already learned the difference between the whiteness of a man who is awake and the bright silver of a soul asleep. He had learned also that the things done in a place lingered there even when the men were gone, so that he could taste a long and passionate love affair and tell when the coupling was only bought, could smell the difference between a house with love in it and a house with hate, could feel in the ground what sort of man had passed through a certain door. There were the fires of wizards, whose works he recognized now easily; there were the pools of bitter water where the Godsmen made islands in the surrounding sweetness. Orem could follow the life of the world as if it were a map spread before him. He vanquished the other wizards so easily that it wasn't sport anymore. It was boredom in the cold of an autumn afternoon that led him to search for King Palicrovol. It was a game, to see if he could match, in his small way, the Queen's Searching Eye.
So he rose into the air, to see if he could perceive as a bird did, from high above. As he ascended, the sea of sweetness in which he had always moved suddenly ceased, and instead of the dark seeing and faint smelling he had been able to do, he felt as though he could sense all things forever. Except that wherever he dipped downward, there was the sweetness again like the fog of the city, slowing him and obscuring wherever he looked.
He tried to think what it could be, wondered if there were some layer in the air, or if where the clouds began, his magic vision improved. But the sweetness hung too low, never rising much above the height of the tallest buildings—and suddenly Orem understood. The sweet sea of fog was not natural at all. It was Queen Beauty's Searching Eye. It was her magic, pervading everything. Of course she did not bother to maintain it much above the level where a man was likely to climb. It was men she meant to spy on.
Does she see me? Or does a Sink devour the magic of Queen Beauty? Daringly he dipped down into the sweet fog and, instead of moving through it, he tasted it the way he tasted the fires of the wizards. It had no center to it, no potent place to snuff out, but he found that he could easily erase wide patches of it like clearing chalk from a slate, with no effort at all, and what he cleared stayed cleared.
At first he was alarmed at what he had done. Surely Queen Beauty would notice the gap in her vision, would come searching for him. But as he lay on his bed, feeling a little sick with fear, he realized that if he could block her Searching Eye miles from Inwit, he could block it here as well. And so he did, clearing her vision out of Wizard Street, away from the edges of the bitter island of the Great Temple, and from other places, too, so that she could not pinpoint one gap as the source of her enemy.
Enemy? Am I Queen Beauty's enemy?
He remembered Palicrovol, looking up at him with golden eyes at the House of God in Banningside. Had he, or perhaps some god, called to Orem then so he would do this very work, blinding Queen Beauty? He had never heard of a wizard daring to challenge her Searching Eye; he had never heard of a wizard who even understood how she did it. For the first time it. occurred to Orem that his power as a Sink might have been given him, not to play pranks on the other wizards of Inwit, but to challenge Beauty herself. His father had found him soldiering in the dirt, childish games—but could he not now serve King Palicrovol as no other could serve him? Could he not, in fact, block Queen Beauty's power to make cowards of his men, and let his army come against an undefended city?
But before he acted, he remembered the Queen. She was the unspoken breath at the back of every speaker who fell silent, every lover who looked over his shoulder, every thinker who hummed to take a dangerous thought from his mind. He remembered that she was the helpless child raped on the back of the hart. Who was he to judge that her vengeance should be interrupted, that it was time to break her power?
You know what Orem decided, Palicrovol. You remember the night. Suddenly a wizard came in, his face white with terror, to say that the Queen had destroyed all their spells; then another came to say that the Queen's power, too, was gone. You did not dare believe that magic was so perfectly undone, until the itching at your groin let up for a few hours, your long-stopped bowels flowed normally, painlessly for a few hours, and you were able to sleep dreamlessly for the first night in three hundred years. Then you believed.
But why did Orem decide to do battle with the Queen? He did not suspect he was your son. You had done him no kindness. The Queen had done him no especial harm. It was simply this: If Orem had been alive when you ravished Asineth upon the hart's back, and he had had the power to stop you, he would have done it. He was one who instinctively fought against the strong, to help the helpless. It was his way, born into him. He hadn't the heart for necessary cruelty, the way you had. And so he challenged Queen Beauty, in part because he was brave and she was his only interesting adversary, but mostly out of pity for his weak and beaten King. Do not discount that when you judge him. There was a time when you were helpless, and he helped you.
That night Orem attacked incessantly, for hours, not just swallowing up all the magic anywhere near you, but spreading himself over as broad an area as he could, clearing away the Queen's sight, in hopes of disorienting her, distracting her, buying even more time for you. He had no hope of challenging her at the Castle, for his power was negation—he could do nothing to harm her person. But he could undo her work, and so he unwove her nets of seeing as long as he had strength to do it that night.
At last he slept, exhausted, and after several hours of searching, Queen Beauty found you again, Palicrovol, and your suffering began anew, and sharper than before, and many of your wizards died. Orem was young, and he did not know how angry she would be, or that you would bear the brunt of her quick revenge. He assumed she would know what he was, and that she would search for him. But even so, it told you things. You knew then that if Beauty was angry, it meant there was a force in the world that could thwart her, if only for a time. You did not know if one of the gods had broken free of her, or if Sleeve had managed to free himself and work some magic, but you knew that it was a good omen, and that you should try again to bring your armies to the gates of Inwit. Admit it, Palicrovol: It was Orem who summoned you to your final battle with the Queen.
The Wounding of the Hart
He would have slept late in the morning, but Gallowglass awoke him just after dawn. "What have you done?" demanded the wizard.
"Done?" asked Orem.
"Last night the house shivered, and I awoke this morning to hear the cries of a hundred thousand birds. I looked out the window and the sky was filled with them, wheeling and turning, and then suddenly they dispersed, they flew far, but all of them dipped and turned over this house. Was it real or a vision? Did you call them?"
"I don't know how to call."
"No, it was a vision, I know it was. No magic, I'd know magic, I'm not likely to mistake that. Don't you feel how the floor is trembling?"
Yes, there was a low, low hum that shook him in his bed. He was afraid now, remembering his foolish bravery of the night before. He dared not leave Gallowglass ignorant of what he had done, since only Gallowglass would know what he must do now. So he told him of last night's battle for Palicrovol against the Queen.
"Oh, Orem," whispered Gallowglass, "no sooner do you have a grasp than you try to overreach! Touch nothing of the Queen's!"
"Is it she who shakes the house?"
"No! No, not Queen Beauty. There's no way she could know where you are. It's bad enough she knows that you exist."
"She'll know that suddenly somewhere in Burland there's a wizard who can undo her doing. It will worry her. She'll search, she'll ask, and then she'll learn that here on Wizard Street also there are spells undone, and then she'll begin to wonder what's abroad in the world."
Up and down he walked, clapping his fist into an open hand. "It's a fool who tries to pit his power against the Queen! The Queen could crush us in a moment. She lets us wizards be because we do no harm. We can cure warts and other blemishes. We can do love words and vengeances on enemies, and pranks and little spies. We can even keep a hart's blood hot on the city wall and go invisible in the daylight when we have the need. But we do not darken skies or move the hearts of masses in the city. We do not question the Sweet Sisters and we do not shiver the earth. The river's course is beyond our reach, and the wind must not be spoken to, and we may not poison the milk within the breast or dry the semen in a man's loins."
Orem made no answer, for directly behind Gallowglass, stamping intermittently upon the floor, was a hart with a hundred-pointed head, his great neck high upraised to bear that impossible weight. Gallowglass heard the beast almost as soon as Orem saw him, and he turned and knelt, and said, "O Hart, why have you come?"
The Hart regarded him and did not stir to answer.
"Are you real or vision?" Gallowglass cried.
The wizard was afraid, but Orem was not. This was the beast that he had seen before, in the bushes at Banning's shore, watching his mother as she bathed. He looked into the glistening eyes and knew he should not be afraid. The Hart had not come angrily. Orem drew the covers from himself and walked forward toward the great stag.
"Don't do anything to frighten him," Gallowglass said.
"He hasn't come for you," Orem said. "He forgives you for the harts you've bled upon the wall." Now Orem could see that the chest was throbbing with deep, silent breaths, and the hart was wet with sweat, matting his fur.
Where have you been tonight? And running so hard?
Orem knelt and reached for the hart's hoof. The stag lifted the leg, and willingly gave it to the boy; but it was not there, Orem felt nothing, he was holding no weight at all. And yet his hand could not close, and a great dark warmth spread upward through his arm. The Hart, while insubstantial in Inwit, dwelt in flesh within the city of Hart's Hope.
"Why have you come to me?" Orem asked, his voice as reverent as a priest at prayer.
"Silence," Gallowglass softly pleaded.
Orem looked upward, and the Hart slowly bowed its head. The weight of the horns was too much for any neck to bear, but the neck bore. The Hart set its hind legs and braced backward, and the head sank until the horns danced directly in front of Orem's face, until one single horntip rested still as a mountain right where he could not look at anything else. And he looked, and looked again, and looked deeper, and saw:
The city teemed with life below him; boats docked and undocked at the wharves; the guard marched here and there like ants upon the city walls. But it was not the life of the city that gave it the look of constant motion. For even as Orem watched the city was unbuilding itself, as if time had come undone and it was a century, two centuries in the past. Roads changed their path; buildings grew new and flashed as brief skeletons of frames and then were replaced by older, smaller buildings. There were more and more farms within the city walls, and the settlements outside shrank and nearly disappeared. Suddenly the Great Temple was gone, and the Little Temple changed so there were not seven circles over every column, and then the Little Temple, too, was gone, and the city bent a different way. King's Street twisted sharp to the west, and the great gate of the city was Hind's Trace, West Gate, the Hole.
Then this, too, passed; the walls of the city unraveled, revealing smaller walls, and those too unwound themselves and there were no walls at all, and no castle, either, except the tiny Old Castle at the eastmost point of the King's Town Hill. This lingered, this was steady for a time. And then the castle, too, was gone, nothing but forest there, and nothing left of Inwit but a few hundred houses built in circles around the single shrine. And the houses grew fewer and fewer, and the shrine diminished, bit by bit, and Orem fell again until he saw as if he hovered only a few yards above the ground. There was no village. Only forest, and one clearing with a hut in the middle, and where the Shrine would be there was only a farmer plowing in the field.
This farmer did not plow as Orem's father plowed. The farmer himself drew the soil-cutting knife, and his wife guided it, and it made only a weak and shallow furrow in the ground. It was painful work, and Orem could see why the plot was small—there was no hope of plowing more land than that.
Suddenly there was a movement at the edge of the clearing. To Orem's relief, time was flowing forward again, and at a normal pace. A stag bounded onto the furrows, its hooves plunging deep into the loosened soil. It was frightened. Behind it came four huntsmen with bows and pikes, and dogs that barked madly at the deer. The hart ran to the farmer, who shed the harness of the plow and took the hart's head between his hands for a moment, then let it go. The hart did not move. Nor did it show fear of the farmer, and perhaps this was why the hunters stopped, to see such a marvel.
The farmer raised his hand, and the stag took a step away from him, toward the forest on the far side of the clearing. As it did, the hunters also moved, the dogs bounding forward a single leap. The farmer lowered his hand and the movements stopped, and all waited for him again.
The farmer turned to the plow. He picked it up, heavy as it was, and laid it upside down in front of the hunters' dogs. He knelt, trembling, before the plow. Then, behind him, his wife bent and took his head in her hands, helped him lay his throat against the blade of the plow. For a moment they waited, poised. It was not the wife, for her hands drew back at the last moment, too merciful to do the thing. It was the farmer himself who drove his neck sharply into the plow. Blood spurted, and Orem winced with the agony of it. Now the wife finished what the husband had begun; she drove the farmer's head down and down, until the blood spouted and the blade was almost all the way through the neck.
It was dark, and the moon rose, and the man's body still lay broken over the plow when the hart returned to the clearing. This time the hart came with a dozen harts and a dozen hinds, and then seven times seven of them, and one by one they came and licked the hair of the dead farmer. When they were through, they came to the farmer's wife, and the hart whose life the farmer had saved stretched out its neck to her. She reached out and took a small sapling tree that grew beside her hovel, and broke it as if it were brittle, though the leaves on it were lush and green. Then with the sharp and jagged end of the tree she cut the hart's belly from breast to groin. The bowels of the hart lurched downward. The bleeding halt staggered to the man and lay beside him, and their blood mingled on the plow.
Then, as Orem watched, the plow became a raft, and the head of the man and the head of the stag lolled over the edge, drifting in bright water. The raft flowed against the stream. Or did the water flow from the wounded bodies of the two broken animals? Along the banks of the river a million people knelt and drank, each a sip, and left singing.
At last the raft came to rest against a shore. Like wineskins the two bodies seemed empty, and no more water flowed from them.
Orem looked up and saw, standing beside the corpses on the bank, the living hart and the living man, whole again, both naked in moonlight.
And the farmer's face was Orem's face, and the hart was the deer that stood before him in the room, its horn lowered to offer a naked brown point.
Orem breathed to calm the violent beating of his heart. How much of it was true, and if true, what did it mean?
As if in answer came the face of a woman. It was the most beautiful face Orem had ever seen, a kind and loving face, a face that cried out like a tragic virgin starved for a man's life within her. Orem did not know her, but recognized her at once. Only one living human could have such a face, for that face cried out for a single name: Beauty. It was the Queen, and she called to him, and a tear of joy stood out in one eye as she saw him and reached for him and took him into her embrace.
Then the vision was gone, abruptly, and Orem and Gallowglass were alone in the attic room.
"Did you see?" asked Orem. "I saw you kneel before the Hart, and it offered its horn to you, and suddenly blood came from a deep wound in your throat, and I thought you were dead."
"What was it that you saw?"
"I saw how Hart's Hope came to be the name of this place. And what the Shrine of the Broken Tree is for. And I saw the face of Beauty."
There was no ambiguity when that name was said. Beauty wore only one face in Burland, though few there were who had seen it for themselves. Every man held his image of Queen Beauty in his mind, to fear and adore when he was most alone. Every woman knew her, and every woman knew the ways that Beauty mocked their insufficiency.
"Has she found me?" Orem asked.
"No," Gallowglass answered. Abruptly he turned and staggered from the room. It took a moment for Orem to know that he was grieving. The boy arose, pulled on his wrap and shirt and belted his clothing as he followed the wizard down the stairs. When he reached the hall, the wizard already had the lid pried up, and now he pried the next, the next, and then lifted up the women's corpses that floated in the brine, lifted them high and draped them limply over the barrel's edges, face upward and outward, hanging upside down and dripping slime in pools upon the carpet. "You betrayed me!" the wizard cried. "You're oathbreakers! You're thieves!" And he seized the golden daughter's shriveled head and held it so close that he spat into the staring eyes. "What are you to me, you bloated, filthy flesh! You cheated me of your power, cheated me of your lives within my house, and now the Hart has stepped within my home, and where were you? Where were you when the life flowed from the throat of my terrible boy? A sip and you would have lived, you would have lived, you would have lived!"
And the wizard stood, letting the head dangle again, bobbing back and forth a little. To the shelf, to the bag of powdered blood. Orem could not bear to see the women called forth again from the half-death that Gallowglass forced upon them. And so he sent himself out, suddenly, the way a cutpurse flashes forth his knife, and in a moment the blood was empty of its desiccated power. He knew as he did it that he was granting the desire of the dead women and breaking Gallowglass's heart. The wizard cast the pinch of blood, and now instead of quickening the women, it fell like corruption, and their faces blackened, and their hair fell to the floor in gobbets, and their flesh peeled back and slipped to the soggy carpet with tiny slaps, and one by one the heads loosened and dropped, only to dissolve quickly into unrecognizable masses of putrefaction.
Only when the bones had come apart and lay in careless heaps on the carpet, only when the bottom halves of the three women had slid back into the water and out of sight, only then did Gallowglass turn to Orem, and his face was terrible. His eyes shone with ruby light, his teeth were bared like a badger's teeth, and Orem saw murder in the man's hands..
He darted leftward, for the door, and shoved it open. A hand had hold of the nape of his shirt to draw him back, but Orem shrugged him away, letting the shirt tear as he threw himself through the door. He ran out into the bitter cold of the street, his shirt hanging off his shoulders, held to his body only by his belt. He ran out into the bitter cold of the street, under the steady drip of the melting icicles, to race across the face of the frozen street with cold sunlight on his back.
He ran without purpose, more afraid of what he had done than of Gallowglass himself. By the time he was on Thieves Street, though, a plan was forming in his mind. He would find Flea again, and ask his help in hiding. The Queen would be looking for him among the wizards, and Gallowglass would never find him, for he could not use magic.
What he hadn't counted on, of course, was the enemy that always waited for the unwary in Inwit. A troop of guards were patrolling in the Cheaps. One look at the tattered shirt and the frightened face and they knew that Orem was theirs. They did not need to know his crime to know that he was guilty. They cried out for him to stop, demanded that he show his pass.
He had no pass with him; nor did he dare to tell them his pass was with Gallowglass, for they would take him to Gallowglass's house to verify it, and Gallowglass could have whatever vengeance he wanted then. So Orem turned and ran back, ran deep into the Cheaps, dodging this way and that among the narrow, twisting streets.
He was faster than the guards, but they were many and he was one. Wherever he ran they were waiting, and at last they funneled him back until he leaned upon the unkempt Shrine of the Broken Tree. He could see that up and down Shrine Street the guards were coming. There was no avenue of escape. And so he leaned on the low wall around the shrine, and looked down on the stump, and saw that the jagged upsticking point was just as the farmer's wife had left it in the vision. The dream was true, then. It was good to know that something was true. But what, name of heaven, did it mean?
How the other animals kept Orem Scanthips alive until he was recognized.
The Steer Pit and the Zoo
Citizens of Inwit whose papers are in order go to Faces Hall to plead before the Judges. Priests are tried at the Temple. Licenses are fined and levied at the Guild Hall. But the passless go to the Gaols, for they have no right to be in Inwit. Their very existence is a crime.
They carried Orem with other offenders in a cart up Queen's Road and into the vast canyon between the walls of the Castle. The horses strained to draw the cart up the steep slope, and the walls shut out the noise, so that all the prisoners could hear in their misery was the cracking of whips and the straining of animals. At High Gate the prisoners were addressed by an officer.
He told them their choices: Loss of an ear on the first offense, slavery or castration on the second, interesting and exemplary death on the third.
And to underscore the point, they were led past the Steer Pit on their way to the Gaols. The authorities made sure that whenever new prisoners arrived some poor criminal who chose a eunuch's freedom was hanging there in manacles, his hips braced in the clamp, naked and waiting for the binding wire and cutter's shears. The men of justice in King's Town preferred their prisoners to choose slavery, so they made castration look as ghastly as possible. Because of that, the machinery of justice paid for itself in sales of slaves to the black traders who carried their captives west across the sea.
Once he had been given a good look at the Steer Pit, they put Orem in one of the cages. The cages had no floors, no furniture, only crossed bars below and above and on four sides. There was no shelter from the wind, and no possibility of finding a comfortable position. The cells were too short to stand in, and yet sitting meant buttocks pressed against the cold round iron of the cage. Your feet could not be tucked under you because the bars hurt them, and if you lay down, what could you do with your head? Orem tried every position while the nearby prisoners silently watched him. At last he propped himself in a corner, which of all positions was least uncomfortable for a time.
There were two tiers of cages above him, and nothing below but the ground, yet even that was too far to reach if he put his arm through the cage and reached down. He was hanging in the air and helpless and miserable.
"How long do they keep you here?" Orem asked the man in the cage next to him, The man only kept looking at him, saying nothing. "I said, how long do they—" but then he caught a glimmer in the man's eye that stopped him. It was not that the man had not heard, only that speech was not interesting to him. He got up and came toward the corner where Orem leaned. There was no hint of what he meant to do, but Orem was sure he would rather see it from the other side of the cage. The man, clay-faced and silent, pulled aside his wrap and began to piss toward Orem. It struck the floor bars and spattered. Orem retreated to the farthest corner, and for a moment thought himself safe, until he felt the hot-and-cold of his other neighbor's piss against his back, running down into his wrap. He spun to escape, tripped on the bars, and fell. His foot slipped into the gap and his hip wrenched as his body weight forced him to fall over, the leg still tangled in the bars. He was in pain, and still they pissed on him from both sides, and the man above him spat and spat. In his fury Orem wanted to shout at them, to curse them; now more than ever he wished for some power to destroy an enemy instead of the passive, useless power of a Sink.
At last the pissing stopped. The spitter above him walked away and sat down in a corner. Only the wind remained, freezing and drying the urine on his skin and in his hair; the wind and the stench. Orem was soon too uncomfortable to be angry. The piss was like the cold, to be shrugged at and borne. He could do nothing about it now. He carefully extricated his leg from the cage and rubbed his hip where it ached. Favoring that foot, he found another corner and sat in it, warily eyeing the other men. They no longer watched him.
In a few minutes the guards came for the man above Orem. They wheeled the light wooden stairway along the cages and stopped it in front of Orem. The man above did not get up from his corner. Just waited. The guards came and stood at the door. They did not come in, they did not speak. Just waited. The man inside, the guards outside, and Orem could not be sure they were even watching each other. They waited a long time. Then the breeze blew more briskly for a moment. It chilled Orem. Apparently it also whispered something to the prisoner above, for now he got up and made his precarious way to the door of the cell and watched impassively as the guards pulled the door away and slid it off to the side. They manacled his arms just above the elbow and drew the chain tight behind his back, so that his arms were straining at the socket. The man gave no sign of pain, just followed docilely.
The sky was reddening with sunset and clouds when another man was brought to the cell above him. Orem watched impassively as his neighbors also began to piss on him. Most of it also fell on Orem, and could not be dodged, and with the evening breeze rising, it was even colder. But this time Orem did not cower. He did not move from his place. He only closed his eyes and tightly shut his lips, and waited until it was over. The man shouted and shouted and tried to run from place to place. There was no shelter. But because he shouted they kept attacking him. Spittle when the piss ran dry, and the man in the third tier began making as if to defecate through the cage. Finally Orem could bear it no longer. The new man's shouting and cursing did nothing but keep the rain of filth going far longer, and Orem was annoyed. He walked under where the man stood screaming at his tormentors. The man didn't see him—he was watching the silent, expressionless men who spat as often as they could work up the spittle. Orem reached his hands through the bars and fiercely pushed the heels of the man's feet. With a scream of terror the man fell straight down, only barely stopping himself before his crotch bridged the bars. Orem caught and held his feet. "Let go of me!" he cried.
But Orem silently gripped the feet and waited. With the man held still, concentrating only on holding his crotch above the waiting bar while Orem pulled him downward, the spitters found their target enough to satisfy them. With the new man weeping in frustration, they finally quit, and then Orem let go of his legs. With difficulty the man raised himself and extricated his legs from the cage floor. Then he staggered off to a corner and whimpered quietly.
The Gaols seemed nearly full; indeed, it was as if they did not remove one prisoner until another was nearly there to take his place, as if the Gaols required the fulness of misery.
Orem could not sleep; dared not sleep, in such cold. His hands and feet became numb. He got up and walked around the perimeter of his cage, holding the bars so he wouldn't fall again in the darkness, refusing to nurse his sore hip lest that leg become too cold. Toward morning the moon arose, giving little light, just enough to mock the cold. And soon after moonrise the clouds from the west came across the sky. The new man above had stopped whimpering. Orem wondered if he slept or was dead or had simply discovered the uselessness of crying. Orem circled the cage again and again. Once a man's hand covered his on the bar. For a moment Orem feared some sharp and sudden pain, but the hand quickly lifted and Orem realized that his neighbor also was pacing.
At dawn the snow began. It stung Orem when it touched him, falling thick and fast on him. He only walked faster, around and around the cage, until in the scant light he saw that the other men were scooping up the snow from the bars with their fingers and eating it. Of course; he had gone all day without water, and who knew how long these other men had been here without food or drink? Orem also scooped the snow and sucked his finger. The water was cold on his tongue, but so clear of flavor once the first bit of pisstaste was gone that it pierced his throat to the base of his skull.
They soon brought two new prisoners to take the old ones' places. And this time Orem joined in with the others in pissing on them and spitting. Both were brighter than the new man above. Once the shock was over, they did as Orem had done—endured. Then they quickly fell into the pattern of the Gaols, eating the slight snow that stayed for a few moments on the floor bars, circling to stay warm, sitting for a few moments when walking was impossible. When one man sat too long and began to doze, the others silently began to spit at his face, to wake him. Not a word. No voices. We have no voices here, but still we are men: we try to keep each other alive.
The man above him, however, lay still and lay still and lay still and at last the snow built up on his cold body. When it was plain that he was dead, Orem reached up through the cage roof and scooped the snow from part of the man's body and filled his mouth. It froze his teeth, but melted into a full swallow of water. When he had drunk his fill, Orem held out a handful of snow to the man in the next cage, who silently took it and filled his mouth and walked on. To each of his neighbors Orem gave a handful of the snow from the corpse above, and when they were done they took the handfuls and passed them on The snow built up under the cages. A foot by noon, and by midafternoon clear up to the bottom of the cage. Now there was no more need to scrape snow from the dead man—there was plenty within reach of all on the bottom row. Orem saw that his skin was bluing. How long before fingers were frozen and lost? How long before the poisoning set in? How long before he simply grew too weary? Since yesterday morning he had gone without sleep, and now it was near dark again.
They came and took away the corpse at nightfall, and in the night the guards also took the last of the men who had pissed on Orem when he first came. Around the cage, around the cage, around the cage, stay warm, stay warm, and Orem sang and chanted to himself, even prayed, however futile that might be for one who had forsaken God, prayed and wondered if the vision of the Hart had been only a prophecy of his death.
In the darkness the snow stopped, the clouds slid out of the sky, and the real cold came. Now I will die, thought Orem.
For a while he stopped, sat in a corner, and trembled violently as the cold wind slapped him again and again with ever colder hands. It was only the spittle striking his face and shoulders that kept him from the gathering dream of sleep. He shivered one last, vast quake and then bounded forward, caught the bars of the cage roof and clung with all his strength, regardless of the numbness of his hands. I will live, he decided as he pulled himself up and slowly lowered himself. May the guards' children die by fire in front of them. Grimly he swung his feet up and caught them in the bars of the roof. May the guards' wives be raped by a hundred lepers. With small moans of pain he forced himself to rise, sink, rise, sink.
When dawn at last came, Orem was still staggering around and around his cage. There were many who lay still in their cages. Black lumps in the sunlight, casting inert shadows on the snow under the rows. A spiderweb with bundles safely stored in place for later devouring. Perhaps half still struggled in the web.
Yet when they came, Orem did not run for the cage door, did not hurry. The very change in the routine of survival was too hard; it took effort, it took thought to quit moving in the set pattern. Then at last he went to the door and waited. The manacles were cold iron, but felt warm enough on his arms as they clamped them in place. They caught a little skin in the hinge, but Orem was too numb to feel the pain as the flesh tore away and some blood trickled down his arm and froze.
The Coal House
The trial was held in the Coal House. The walls were grey and grimy from the black dust, and in the suffocating air the guards' faces streaked grey with their sweat. The heat of the place was almost more than Orem could bear, and the relief of it made his legs shake so that the guards had to hold him up. The dark morning room was lit only by small high windows and a few torches on the walls. It didn't matter; it was only the floor that Orem watched as it wheeled and spun.
The guards let him fall in the middle of the room. Orem lay gratefully on the unbarred floor and listened as a magistrate's voice intoned, "Crime?"
"Passless and unclaimed."
"Sex and age?"
"Male and younghorned."
"Prisoner, what do you have to say?"
It took Orem a moment to realize that speech was expected of him, and a moment more to remember how it was done. Don't cut me, he wanted to say. I killed the Wizard's women and deserve anything you do to me, he almost said.
"I'm a farmboy from the north, and I lost my pass," he said at last.
A guard pulled him up to his knees and turned his head to show his cheek to the magistrates. "Months healed if it's a day," said the guard.
"How did you stay out of the way of the guards all this time?" asked a magistrate.
Orem looked at them for the first time, now that the guard was holding him up enough to see. There were three magistrates on a high dais with a wire screen between them and him. They wore masks, terrible white and green masks like putrefaction, and looked at him as relentlessly as God, for the masks did not blink. "I was careful," Orem said. "We caught him out in the open, shirt torn and near naked in the snow," said the guard. "Careful ones don't do that."
It was not that Orem was courageous then—courage was beyond him after two nights in the open cage. He did not tell all he knew of the passage through the Hole because at that moment one of the magistrates let out a small cry and said, "Look at his face."
One of them motioned to the guards, who pulled Orem through a small door in the cage and brought him directly before the magistrates' table. They let him lean on the desk as the masked faces looked steadily at him. Orem was now close enough to see the whites of the eyes inside the masks, to see the lips and teeth and tongues of the speakers.
"How did you come by that scar across your throat?" asked a magistrate.
He had forgotten the mark the dream left on him. How could he answer? Only the truth would come to mind, only the truth would bend to fit: "I'm a farmer's son. I cut it as a child on the edge of a plow."
They fell silent, regarding him. Then the middle one nodded, and the others also nodded. "The
Queen's dream, all right," said one.
"And come to us from the cages," said another.
"What's your name, boy?"
Orem thought for a moment, remembered. "Orem."
He couldn't remember. Hadn't he been called Scanthips? Or Banningside? Or ap Avonap?
"He's in no case to make answers."
"Made one that's good enough."
"Well, what now? She said no harm to him, and look."
"How much will he remember?"
"How could we have known? This one was arrested before she ever told us." The middle one made a decision of sorts. "Don't call off the search. Keep it going, and take him somewhere to sleep. Only when he's in better shape than this. Then we stop the search."
"And damned little good to her until we restore him. Blankets and broth and a fire in his room. Hurry up about it! And bring in the next one, quick, quick!"
Orem found himself borne off again, but this time in more courteous hands, and when they came to a small hot room with a fire in it, they unshackled his arms and laid him on a feather cushion in a corner and covered him. He slept before they left the room, and barely woke for the broth they brought him, and again for the pisspot. Finally he awoke of his own accord and crawled from the blanket because he was sweating and the blanket stuck to him prickly with wool. Where the shackle had torn his skin he felt the stinging of the wound; his joints all ached, and he shuddered several times, then vomited the broth onto the bricks of the hearth.
He felt better then, and crawled off to a corner and leaned his head against the walls and watched the fire through half-closed eyes. The scene with the magistrates stayed with him as clearly as a dream not fully wakened from. She had set the guards to looking for him. She could see even now. She had seen his face in a dream. She could only be Queen Beauty, and now Orem understood that he would have to pay a price for having challenged her attack on Palicrovol only a few nights ago. Yet after what he had already been through, he did not bother to be afraid. What could she do to him now to hurt him further? He still had not fully returned to his body; the sensations of it still were not wholly his own again. Let her torture, let her kill, it was all one to him, all one.
Servants came with a tub, stripped his wrap from him and plunged him into the warm water. Some carried out his clothes; others mopped and scrubbed the floor while his back was harshly scrubbed and his hair was sudsed and wrung clean like the mop. The dried urine and crusted spittle of the cages came off into the water; they bore the tub away and came with another and washed him all over again, then toweled him before the fire, cut his hair and combed it, and dressed him in a simple shirt with an elaborately figured chain belt that glowed yellow as gold. Yellow as gold, thought Orem, but even then it did not occur to him that it might be gold. He would not have been able to tell real from sham anyway.
The magistrates looked at him one more time, to be sure. Orem did not care what they decided. It was enough to have felt the smooth cloth on his clean and aching skin, to have felt the heat of the fire, to have touched the warm brick with every finger and found that each one tingled alive, to test his feet and have them respond, living and warm.
Apparently he was the man they were looking for. "Yes. Yes, that will do. The best we can do." They brusquely apologized to him. "A terrible mistake, Orem, my boy. Just a mistake, could happen to anyone, you won't complain of this, will you?"
Complain? What did he have to complain of? Only keep me warm, he said, only keep me warm and clean and dry and I have no complaint at all. He fell asleep again before the magistrates left.
The Dance of Descent
The Tortured Trees
They brought him to the palace in a twelve-wheeled carriage drawn by eleven horses, but he didn't think to count. Though he was still not fully strong again after his ordeal in the Gaols, he was dazzled by the wonders of the Palace, and gazed out the window at the mosaic-covered walls, the gilt minarets, the turquoise roofs, the bright-painted sculptures that grew in profusion beside the whitestone drive. The history they depicted was lost on Orem, but he recognized the perfection of these works of human hands.
But when he saw the sculptured garden in the circle of the palace drive, he was disturbed. Others had seen the trees and bushes growing to form elephants and giant roses and had admired them. The cleverness of the lovers grown in leaves; the heroic sculpture of the Battle of Greyling Mountain—Orem did not think they were clever or noble. He had enough of his mother in him to hate the violence done to the trees; he had enough of his father to be profoundly disturbed to see this verdure in the cold of early winter.
Then came the hands of the servants, so many hands silently touching him, lifting him weak and flexible from the carriage. "Don't the leaves fall here?" he asked.
"For a week, whenever the Queen chooses," said an oldish man. "Autumn pleases her from time to time, if only to have spring again the following day."
It was then that Orem understood the power of the Queen. He marveled that he had ever dared to challenge her. Whatever punishment she meted out to him, he knew now that there was no hope of resistance. He had been a shark trying to gnaw away at the shore, sharp-toothed and dangerous, yet unworthy of his adversary.
The Virgin Dancer
They took him through rooms larger than the town of Banningside, whose ceilings looked as distant as the sky. All the walls were layered seven times in tapestries and metal-work and stone. There was no marble that was not living with the figures of men and animals engaged variously in killing and in coitus. There was no iron that was not silvered, no silver that was not inlaid with gold. The furniture was made of heavy woods, yet all was delicately carved so that there were thousands of tiny windows in the wood and it looked as if the weight of it was borne by dark and insubstantial lace. And through it all no one spoke to him, so that only gradually did he come to realize that it was not for vengeance that the Queen wanted him.
After all, in the villages and farms it was done only symbolically, for they were poor. It was the Dance of Descent, of course, the last thing Orem could have expected. And it was done for real. He realized now that the carriage that bore him to the palace had twelve wheels, that one of the six teams of horses that drew it was incomplete. As he entered the Palace he was surrounded by ten armored men, their shields marked with nine black stones. The red-shirted barber cut his hair in eight passes of the shears, and now seven naked women with blood on their thighs immersed him six times in hot water and five times in cold, so that he was given the sacrament of the Sweet Sisters the only time in his life a man may receive it.
The oils did not reek of animals; they were delicate yet strong of scent, and the boys rubbed them firmly into his skin, each oil in turn, scraping his body between the oils. They did not even speak to ask him to turn himself over; instead, their thin childish arms reached out and their small hands gripped him firmly, and he was turned abruptly without any volition of his own, and yet without any discomfort, either. The odor of the oils went into his head, and he felt a slight aching between his eyes. Yet it was a delicious pain, and the scraping of his body was a pleasure he was not prepared for. It left him weak and relaxed and trembling, and he reached gratefully for the first of the Two Cups when they brought it in.
No rough clay cups here. The Cup of the Left Hand was a crystal bowl set in a lacy gold cradle that rested on the top of a thin spiral stem. The liquid in it was green and seemed to be alive with light, a smooth light that did not flicker with the dancing of the lamps on the walls. As he reached for the cup with his left hand, Orem was filled again with fear. This was the stuff of poems, but he was not ready, had not been warned. I am like Glasin Grocer, chosen by chance for adventures that only the Sweet Sisters could have predicted. I am not ready, he cried out inside himself; but still his hand reached out, and though he trembled he spilled no drop of the green. In the villages it had been a tea of mints; here it was a wine, and when it touched his tongue the flavor went through him like ice, bringing winter to every part of his body, so that he felt it sharply in his fingers, and his buttocks clenched involuntarily. Still he drank it all, though when he was through, his body shook violently and his teeth chattered. Steam rose from the empty crystal cup.
The Cup of the Right Hand was made of stone, plain unpolished stone with no figuring or sculpture on it, except that it was cut to make the proper bent curve required even on the farm. The soul of the woman he had drunk, and now he reached down with his right hand to pick up the soul of the man. The stone was not as heavy as he had expected, and he nearly spilled, but the thick white fluid was heavy and slow as mud, and did not slosh easily over the edge.
This time when he sipped the drink was hot, and did not penetrate as quickly as the cold. On the farm it had been cream, and perhaps it was cream here, too; but it was sweet, painfully sweet and hot enough to burn his tongue. Yet he drank the thick stuff down, and set the cup aside slowly, relishing the heat as it fought the cold within him and won. He knew that his skin was flushing, that his face was red. He gasped his breaths and knelt on all fours, his head hanging down nearly to the floor as his body absorbed the heat of the soul of the man. Then the servants bore away the Two Cups, and others led him to a golden chair covered with a thick velvet cloth, where he sat waiting for the One Red Ring. Not made of painted wood, the ring they brought; it was carved whole from a ruby, a thing whose value was so beyond Orem's understanding that not until long after did he realize that the price of that ring would have bought a thousand farms like his father's farm, with enough left over to buy ten thousand slaves to work them.
He raised his left hand, the hand of passion, without much thinking of the meaning of it, only because that was the hand that wanted to rise. The servant picked up the ring between forefinger and thumb and waited for Orem to choose. And he chose: the one finger no man would ever choose. He chose the last finger, the small finger, the finger of weakness and surrender. He flushed with shame at his choice, but knew that he could make no other. Why? he asked himself.
But he did not know the why of anything today. It was too quick, too strange, too inexorable.