Chapter 17.5


It was another year, and another bloom, and Ram stood again on the roof of the Lugal’s Palace. Nothing else was the same.

The most obvious difference was in the sky; overhead stretched a nearly unbroken expanse of flat, empty black, with a single ugly speck of white near the apex. The day was … not cool, exactly, but not warm, as the last bloom had been. One did not feel much of anything on white day, beyond sick and uneasy. And this bloom, by bad luck or divine caprice, fell on a white day, while remaining the single longest day of the year.

The crowd in the plaza below was accordingly smaller, and subdued. There were no peddlers or musicians looking to make a quick copper, no sidewalk preachers, probably not even any pickpockets. No tinapi in the pool. Etana’s green militiamen leaned on their shiny new crowhammers, looking tired and queasy. The crowds of women lining the way to his Temple paced back and forth with their daughters, struggling to keep them from crying. Even the handmaidens at the Temple itself sang mournful songs.

He knew they were all thinking of everything that had happened since the last bloom. Everything had been rebuilt now, more or less, but there was no replacing the dead. Etana had crammed more than a hundred flamekeeper candidates onto the ledge, a few of them looking distinctly younger than fifteen. Every scion the military families could spare. Etana expected every single sword to receive a haranu—he wasn’t even making them hold the blades up in the traditional way—and Ram intended to honor his wishes.

Closer to hand stood the Lugal himself, with Piridur and an honor guard of fifteen flamekeepers in full armor; nobody from the streets could see that they were bearing old bronze swords, and glowering sidelong at their Ensi in his fine robes. The robes weren’t even that fine anymore, if it came to that; the brilliant reds and golds had faded from washing.

Piridur looked at least as impressive in the tacky armor Ram had worn to battle against Mannagiri. It was still hideous, but every man on the roof knew what it was, and Ram wanted it perfectly clear whom he had chosen as his successor. If that were not clear enough from the cold sweat pouring down the man’s face; this was a kind of courage he had never been expected to show before. He hadn’t spoken a word to Ram all day, or even looked at him. Ram didn’t blame him.

When this bloom was over, all these people would go quietly home, with no celebrations—but Ram intended to send them away with something interesting to talk about. For the past three days, he’d awakened in an empty house; word had arrived yesterday that Darun, Bal, and his family were safely ensconced in Dul Atellu. Father was an advisor on their reconstruction efforts. They were as safe as could be expected. Ram had nothing holding him back. There were no prayers left to say. It was only a matter of waiting.

He glanced back behind him. Another novelty: a great black block of granite, eight feet to a side, stood on the highest terrace of the roof. A month of labor, with Father’s help, to inscribe a full and fair account of the past bloom’s events on its four sides, with his commands for the future. Every letter was inlaid with gleaming copper, the edges of the stone accented with topaz. It was Ram’s first, last and best work with stone, and he had never seen a single person stop to read it. That would change.

“Will I make it off this roof alive, I wonder?” murmured a voice in his ear. Long gray whiskers tickled his cheek.

“There’s still time to leave, if you want,” Ram replied. “I’m not forcing you to stay.”

“Ah, but what would I say to your wife if I did? She is counting on me for a full and accurate report of the day’s events.”

“If you really think these men are going to kill you, Shazru, and that scares you less than disappointing Darun, what does that say about you?”

The old doctor chuckled. “That’s a fair question. I suppose I have always been more curious than sensible. I could have left the Damadzus kindlings back, you know, and found work anywhere. Physicians are always needed.”

“Mm-hmm.” He still didn’t like Shazru very much, but he had time before the fire bloomed, and nothing to do with it. “So what kept you?”

“Possibly the same thing that kept you. I would not have been content, having seen human society at its worst, to remain embedded in it for long.”

“You think it’s better to just …”

“Flit around the edges like a bee about the blooms, taking the sweetness and making honey for myself while the flowers fade and die? Not particularly, to speak of objective moral standards—but what are they, to a blackband? It is all a matter of what I could live with.”

“And what I couldn’t.”

“Of course. But do you really believe yourself a better man than me?” Shazru sounded genuinely curious.

“Yes. At least I’m trying to make something right.”

“Hah! Even if you succeed perfectly today, Rammash, the bonded will wake up tomorrow and work the fields as they always have. Seven people out of eight in this pyre, their lives a protracted misery, and you have done nothing to help them. All the death and destruction you have caused—“

“Almost all of it was accidents. Things I couldn’t have expected or known about.”

“A fine consolation for the widows and orphans! In any case, you have, at tremendous cost to others, perhaps ended the abuse of a minuscule subset of the population with your deeds. They may well reward your kindness by setting themselves up as tyrants on a more permanent basis. There, too, you cannot foresee. You work your will, and disappear into history, and the rest of us are left to deal with the consequences. Is this heroic?”

“It’s a matter of what I can live with,” Ram quoted back, and turned away to look at the Temple. “Or die.”

“How many generations will have to pass, before the balance is made right, and you have prevented more suffering than you have caused? Or will that day ever come at all? The wealth you have destroyed will create generations of paupers as well.”

“Are you trying to talk me out of this?”

“No. I don’t believe I could. Only to open your mind to another perspective.”

“Then here’s my perspective: how many lives would you have saved if you’d settled down and been a doctor at some pyre somewhere, instead of patching up the Damadzus for forty blooms? You’ve spent your life doing nothing for anyone, and now you’re acting smug because you think you’ve got it all figured out. Like being lazy and clever makes you better than me, or anyone else. I’m glad I won’t live long enough to turn into you.”

Shazru didn’t answer, and Ram kept his face to the fire.

It was a far easier wait than the last bloom, when he had been a helpless supplicant playing a role he did not understand. There was a sense of expectant purpose about this day; he could feel the fire burning hotter, preparing new spirits inside it. At high noon, Ram would change the shape of the future, and there was nothing anyone else could do to stop him. After almost seventeen blooms of being buffeted about by fortune, he was going to have his way, and then lay down his arms for good—it would be a pleasure, and more than that a relief.

A world without tomorrow. He’d seen it in Darun’s eyes. Now she was gone, and it was here. The fire bloomed.

There was no song of triumph this time, no celebrations. Every man and woman for a mile around fell silent from the instant the golden cloud appeared. The women all along the sacred way held up their baby daughters without a word; the boys on the roof’s edge straightened up and lifted their bare blades at last. The grown flamekeepers stiffened, and as one man glanced back at Ram over their shoulders. Fifteen hands went to fifteen sword-hilts.

Ram ignored them. The shining mist drifted through the air toward them in its usual lazy way, and he let them fall out and indwell as they chose, dooming any number of little girls to a life of privileged servitude. This bloom’s competition was more open than usual; the wealthiest families of Dul Karagi did not care to offer their daughters with an insolent hearth-born mason’s boy in charge, one who might not honor their payment with the customary amount of power and influence.

Thus there were a number of middle-class families in the mix for this bloom, well-off store managers and overseers’ assistants hoping to buy prosperity with their children. It was a kind of progress, and once he might once have applauded, but now he couldn’t help thinking of it as the vices of the wealthy dripping and dribbling down to infect the slightly less fortunate. None of those infants were like Mana; they were losing the hope of normal, happy lives.

He let them indwell anyway. What else was he to do? Indwelling the mothers instead would give him a kind of vengeful satisfaction, but they might well drop their children from the shock, and if they didn’t leaving little girls effectively motherless was hardly justice either. He might seek out other women, grown women, but he only had so much control over the horde of spirits, and no notion who was deserving, if anyone deserved it. Indwelling nobody would create mass resentment, perhaps spark a riot, and leave his pyre significantly poorer in blooms to come, for a token gesture that would not be repeated after he was gone.

There was no just choice. Only different flavors of cruelty. As in so much else he had done lately. So the little lights descended, and tiny screams of pain rose up in return, a fresh offering to Haranduluz, while Ram focused his thoughts on a little clump of haranuu, perhaps a thousand or two, within the still-mighty stream. Few people appreciated the immense speed his spirits were capable of, since they only ever saw them either imprisoned in glass or drifting languidly through the still air of a midsummer’s day. But Ram knew that they could move faster than a thought when they cared to; he’d never even seen the spirit that indwelt him, after all.

He gave his thousand little lights a single command, and as one they rushed for the Palace roof. As promised, every flamekeeper candidate received his due, and stood up shouting his triumph, lifting a suddenly transfigured sword of light in the air. It made a wonderful distraction; even Etana’s own personal guard took some time to notice that their lord was not standing between them. Then they looked down, and saw him panting and gasping on hands and knees, from time to time raising a hand to rub at his chest.

Then every head turned to Ram. Fifteen hands drew fifteen swords—and promptly dropped them, with a barrage of curses and snarls. Every single bronze blade glowed with a hot new spirit, one which refused to attack its master. Ram scooped one up as he strode forward. “That was for your protection, not mine,” he said.

Only two men on the roof were not staring at Ram now. Piridur looked instead at his stricken master, who could not seem to look up from the bricks he clutched at with his trembling hands. Piridur understood at once, as none of the others had, what Ram had done, because he had been expecting it for himself. He couldn’t fathom why it hadn’t.

Ram knelt down beside his new en, keeping the bronze sword in his hand. “I didn’t do this for spite, or because I don’t like you,” he said, in a voice that wouldn’t carry. Etana lifted his head just long enough to shoot him a look of hatred and disbelief. “I don’t like you, it’s true. But that’s not why I did it. I understand why you feel the way you do, and I hope you understand why I can’t agree. We can’t help all that.

“All the same, you’ve convinced me: there’s no way you’d ever let anyone else rule this pyre, as long as you lived. And I’ve told you already, I can’t let you have the power without the price. This was the only way.”

“Liar,” Etana growled at the brickwork. “Could have spoken clear.”

“You wouldn’t have accepted, Etana. We both know you wouldn’t. You’d never have stood within ten miles of that fire today if you’d even dreamed I’d try this. I don’t know what you’d have done if I’d made the offer explicit. Probably tried to kill me.”


“Maybe not. Maybe you’d have just made yourself scarce today, and let me pick someone else. Like Piridur there. Whoever it was, he’d get my memories, a spirit just like mine whispering in his ear, and the same gracious backhanded slap with a smile you’ve been giving me. How long would that last, before there was another war tearing this pyre apart? Or else a new kind of Painted Room?”

Etana’s quivering arms gave out before he could answer, and he lay prone on the roof, with only the odd twitch of hand or foot to prove that he was not a corpse. “You don’t believe me. That’s fine. You’ll understand what I mean soon enough. You’ll understand everything.”

He stood back up just in time to catch Piridur shaking his head at someone behind Ram’s back, silently mouthing the word no. Ram followed his gaze and caught two men’s heads ducking out of sight into the stairwell. He looked back at Piridur, who said only, “Bullspikes.”

“Ah.” He should have known Etana would have a contingency plan. “Thank you.”

“I did it for Etana, not you.”

“I know.”

“That’s why you really did this, isn’t it? To guarantee your own safety, at his expense.”

Ram laughed. “Not at all. That’s just a fringe benefit. I’ll only need it for the next few minutes anyway.”

“What do you—“

“Etana is your ensi now,” Ram announced, to the roof at large. “He inherits my authority, and I’m sure he’ll do everything he can to preserve the rights and privileges of the office—for as long as it’s his. You’ll have a hell of a time supplanting him, and that’s for sure.” Etana growled at his feet, but didn’t move. “I expect the lugal after him to follow in his place.”

“Not happening,” someone snapped—Dezri, was it, or Nishal? One of the two favored toughs, anyway.

“Don’t tell me that,” Ram said. “Tell them.” And he pointed out at the little crowd below, some of whom might have just started to guess that something was amiss. “Tradition is a powerful thing, but that’s why I’m starting a new one. In two blooms, all those people will see Etana burn, and they’ll know who—“

“Twelve blooms,” Piridur cut in. “You mean twelve. Not two.”

“I meant what I said.” He took off the fancy hat and threw it down next to Etana. “I’m not your ensi anymore. I resign from the priesthood.”

He looked around the roof, meeting more than a hundred bewildered stares, plus a twinkling glance from Shazru, who was holding back giggles with his hand. Ridiculous old coot. “I have limited time, so I’ll be brief,” Ram said, tugging off the sash and dropping it next to the hat. “I’ve told some of you before that I don’t want any more lies. But all this—at least, all my part in in—started with a lie I told myself.

“Somebody asked me, on the first day I came here, if I was prepared to die for Dul Karagi. I didn’t know what he meant, and I didn’t take it seriously, so I said yes.” He pulled the bright red jacket off and tossed it aside. “But it was a lie. I like Dul Karagi well enough; it’s been a better home to me than Urapu ever was. But if you asked me today, as a free man, if I was ready to die for it, I would say no, and walk away. This isn’t my place, and I don’t belong here. I never did. And I’m not going to end my life as a lie. You don’t give a god a false offering.”

He pulled off the next layer, not bothering over where it landed. When he looked up, he saw only sullen stares. They still didn’t understand, not that he really expected them to. “I still have to die, of course. I’m just not going to die for this place. You won’t be making another one of those phony statues for me. So the question is … what can I die for? What’s left for me? Nothing but atonement.”

Now he was wearing only the gilded white under-tunic; this, too, he removed, so he stood in his breeches before the crowd. “I can die to put an end to the lies that made me. That’s something I can accept. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

So close to the fire, an eight-foot jump was nothing, and he landed on his feet atop the black granite monument he’d made with Father. The pyre helped him in another way as well; if he were a few miles away, he was sure he’d be too terrified to do what he intended. Sure enough that he’d taken a trip out to the ruins of Urapu, two days back, to see if a safe distance changed his perspective. He’d found a thriving community of hearthless opportunists and escaped bondservants, who scurried away to hide at his approach. But he hadn’t found any real reason to doubt. The world turned, and life went on, whatever he did. Not even the white sun could stop it.

The top of the cube was decorated with a sunburst motif, in the precise center. Just big enough for him to sit down cross-legged inside it, with his knees touching the edges. So he did, and felt the weight of the world leave him. His spirit was confused inside him, but not unhappy. Here was a new way to honor the God, one the world had never seen. It would be pleased to play its part.

As for Ram? If anything, he was curious. Where would the story go from here? One way to find out. “Piridur, you’ll have one more bloom to consider, and Etana that one bloom to decide on an heir. But I don’t think they’ll find a better choice to rule this pyre than I did. And Shazru?” The old man stopped his chuckling and looked up. “Teach my daughter how her father lived.” He’d meant to leave it at that, but on an impulse he added, “You’re not wrong to despise the world, you know. It’s just not enough.” It was a priest’s privilege to claim the very last word in an argument.

It was time. The fire was still fresh from the bloom, but its power was fading. Before long, it would be too late. So he closed his eyes, and gave his own spirit a command, a command no man had ever given his own spirit before in all the years of dead men’s recollections within him. To his surprise, there was no pain. Not even the briefest twinge of discomfort. Only a sudden sense of acceleration—terrifying, exhilarating, yet perfectly smooth—a change in the nature of time itself as the whole world was tipped briefly upside down over a great precipice into another place living human eyes would never see.

For half an instant the sky was lit by an unbearable light, and every man on the roof, and all the people in the crowds below, and the women along the rooftops comforting their newly offered daughters, and the grown maidens of the Temple itself—all had the same identical sensation of a stumbling, of a missed step going down the stairs, of a sudden uncertainty and hesitation in the momentum of the universe.

It passed, as it always did. Life went on. But Etana, who had barely heard or understood a word of his predecessor’s speech, was nonetheless moved by a sense of foreboding to lift up his head and see a bright new hearth-fire shining atop the black granite cube. He could already sense—if not quite comprehend—how the shining copper letters on its side gleamed with a new light, one the others on the roof could not see. It was better than an indwelling, really; the site of a sacred fire could not be allowed to perish. The stone of the Dul Rammash, and the story it told, would last, indestructible and uncorrupted, until the line of Karagi failed, and the pyre itself died. Etana had a moment, as the ripples in eternity settled, to begin to see that it was beautiful.

Then the memories took him, and he screamed.


Chapter 17.4

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Kiziun mai-Rammash was born in the small hours of the morning, three tetrads before the bloom. Weight, a bit shy of seven pounds. Height, about eighteen inches. A full head of black hair, all limbs sound and in the proper proportion. But what mattered most to Ram—and he had worried up to the very minute she came out, after four hours of labor—was that she was not indwelt.

He’d been nervous for some time that the birth would be delayed past the bloom; that would have been, if not totally catastrophic, at least a dire setback to his hopes, a distraction he could not afford. They hadn’t even been sure when Darun was due. There were several false starts, contractions which went away after an hour or two. Completely normal, the midwives said. Completely normal, Mother agreed.

After the last set, Ram went down to Kuara’s shrine and offered the Goddess every last fragment of a tanbir in his pockets. Then he knelt and prayed until well past sunset, when the shrine’s human minders gently asked the lord of their pyre to get the hell out so they could sleep. Darun’s true labor began shortly after Ram went to bed that night, whereupon the midwives kicked Ram out of his own room and did not permit him inside until Darun was sleeping comfortably with the baby at her breast.

He held his daughter up to the rising sun (carefully, so as not to wake her) and nothing kindled inside her. He showed her to his pyre, and nothing changed. She remained, incredibly, simply a baby girl, no doubt one of several who would be born in and around Dul Karagi that day, and she slept peacefully in his arms while he wept silently and swore to the God that he would never have her. Kiziun was born free.

They only got a couple of hours alone. Soon enough, Mother heard, and Mana, and various women and girls whom Darun had befriended or simply made the acquaintance of over the past several months, and by noon it seemed the entire female population of Dul Karagi was trying to enter their apartments, usually bearing some handmade article of tiny and impractical clothing. Every fresh arrival had to coo, and make some inane remarks about Kiziun’s little toes, nose, or other body part—with which the others would agree—and ask to see whatever textiles the newest woman had brought, prompting a wave of applause and commentary.

Darun looked totally exhausted and utterly happy, so Ram threw up his hands and left to have a beer with Father. Or several beers, as it turned out. And lunch, and a walk along the waterfront … and several more beers. Ram paid for admission to a surprisingly funny play starring a nearly life-size puppet on strings—apparently it was a new style of comedy out of Dul Natati—and they both laughed a little too loud at the puppet’s bawdy jokes and misbehavior, so that the other patrons stared.

Then dinner at the Red Flute, where Father, inspired by the play and too many drinks to count, told the dining room a version of “Rasha and the three hunters” Ram was sure he’d never heard as a child. The blackbands loved it, and sent them home with an armload of gifts for Kiziun and Darun, most of them even less practical than the tiny clothes, but all of them more interesting. Ram supposed his daughter might have some use for a foot-long cane-cutter’s blade some day—the woman who gave it to them insisted it was “a girl’s best friend”—but he didn’t like to think how.

Most of the visitors were gone when they returned home. Darun was curled up on one end of their long couch, sleeping under a patterned red and gold blanket. On the other end, Mother, baby Zemni, and Shennai picked through a huge variety box of durdi rolls someone had brought. Mana and her friend Rinti reclined against the low table in front of them, looking drowsy; Mana had a good-sized splotch of syrup around her mouth from the rolls. Baby dresses and used plates littered the floor, somehow putting Ram in mind of bodies around a battlefield.

The only person he didn’t see was his newborn daughter. “Hey, where’s the—“

Mother snapped a finger up to her lips, gesturing with the other toward Ram’s bedroom. Obediently, he cracked the door open, and heard two voices softly crooning in Moonchild. Slowly, cautiously, he opened the door farther, letting a long line of lamplight from the sitting room spill in. It caught two people leaning over the bed, the larger with ghostly pale hair, the smaller with a bulky cloth wrapped around her face.

Ram raised an eyebrow at Mother, who merely smiled and offered him one of the last durdis. Dumping his heap of presents amid the general mess, he took it, and sat down beside her on the few inches of space their couch had to spare. Zemni promptly crawled over his mother’s lap to sit in Ram’s. Father looked for another spot, shrugged, and sat down on the floor, where he scratched Mana’s head like a cat’s.

“How does it feel now,” Mother asked, “to be a father? Now that you have had ample time to reflect.” She looked at her husband as she said it; he wasn’t sitting quite straight.

Ram took his time chewing and swallowing the roll. “About the same as I felt yesterday, really. Maybe it still hasn’t sunk in yet. We both know I’m not going to see much of her.”

Mother nodded somberly. “Your life has changed enough over the last bloom that I would hardly expect even this to be much of a shock.”

He looked over at Darun, still sleeping soundly. “Is she going to be ready to travel in a few days?”

“As long as it is by water, or air, certainly. But I believe we can afford more than a few days for you to spend with your daughter before she leaves.”

Ram shook his head. “I want the lot of you safe in Dul Atellu before the bloom. We’re cutting it close as it is.”

Mother sighed. “Yes, the bloom. I don’t suppose you’d care to divulge any more of your intentions to the woman who gave birth to you, now that you are more familiar with what birthing entails?”

“Nope. You’d try to talk me out of it. It’s appallingly rash. Even Darun was shocked a little, when I told her. But she approved in the end.” It was just her style, after all.

“That is hardly reassuring.” She looked down at the box of sweets, now empty, and pushed it away. “I suppose I should be more careful what I wish for.”


“There was a time, not so very long ago, when I wanted to see you more independent. I even dreamed, though I never said it, that you might find a place in the pyre. Urapu was so very small, and my father would have cheerfully crushed your every ambition.”

“You wanted me to leave the hearth? But you were so surprised when I—“

She laughed. “Of course. That was supposed to be in the future, when you were so much taller, and stronger, and more prepared. The future was not so considerate as to work around my plans for it.”

“It never does,” Ram agreed. “I’m going to try and force it, though. Which is why I want everyone I care about secure and out of the way.”

Father frowned. “You reckon Atellu’s going to be safer, though?”

“I’ve been talking with the ladies there. They’ll be happy to have you, and especially to have Bal. You’ll be solving a problem for them, as surely as they’ll be solving mine.”

“Yeah, Bal.” Father frowned. “I ain’t convinced that’s going to work out so well neither. They just got rid of one crazy son of a bitch, and you think they’ll welcome him?”

“They’ve already met him, a couple of times. They’ve tested his abilities—more than once. They know I’m telling the truth.”

“Lord Rammash is quite right,” Shennai said. “As handmaidens, they are accustomed to dealing with, shall we say, eccentric men. Balnibduka has made quite an impression on them, a very favorable one.”

Father shook his head. “It’s one hell of a gamble.”

“It really isn’t,” Ram said. “Even Bal isn’t much of a threat to a handmaiden who can set him on fire with a look. Imbri’s pretty sure the resh in him won’t ever let him indwell with a haranu, which actually makes him less dangerous than most men. Zemni here’s a bigger risk, from their perspective.”

“And the potential reward is considerable,” Shennai added. “Many of them have told me as much. A man with the infallible ability to sense malicious or violent intent? I would have paid a great deal for such a gift, in my days in the Painted Room.”

“I’m sorry to see him leave here, if it comes to that,” Ram said. “I’m paying a steep price for your safety. So yes, I want you out of here. Really. I’ll be fine.”

Mother still looked worried. Ram didn’t blame her. “I can see how it would be attractive,” she said slowly. “The Atellui will have no need to threaten or control their ensis now, will they?”

“That’s the plan. And if all goes well, they might find another Jackal priest, to take over when Bal gets old; probably there’s more than a few who’d take them up on it, for a comfortable life like Bal has. They could guarantee security for generations.”

“And you are freely giving this precious power away, instead of keeping it at Dul Karagi.”

“Yes. We’ll manage without. No, I’m not telling you how.”

The door to their bedroom creaked open, and Imbri shuffled out. “I have some idea what Ram has in mind. At least, he’s told me some of it. More than he’s told you, I’m sure.”

“You have the whole thing,” Ram assured her. “I don’t think I’ll be making any further changes.”

“It sounds feasible enough. Drastic, but feasible. And it will work much better with all of you out of the way.”

Mother scowled. “I suppose that’s some consolation. But I notice you are not leaving.”

“Of course not. I’ve got lessons set for the next three months, and they’re finally letting me set up an herb garden on the roof. Besides, what would I do with Nerre? Ram isn’t going to uproot me yet again, thank you.”

Mother looked mulish. “The boy ain’t done that bad so far,” Father put in. “You want him to run all his orders past you before he gives them to the pyre? I don’t recall no stories about the Ensi’s mother in the chain of command.” Any further argument was cut short by a loud knock at the door. Father turned to glower at it. “The hell? Ain’t the sun set ages ago? Or did I imagine that?”

“Well, we’re all still awake, so no harm done,” Ram said. “Almost all, anyway.” Another knock. He hurried to get it, before whoever it was could rouse Darun or the baby. He opened it, and had a shiny, jangling copper ball thrust into his hands.

“Congratulations, Lord Rammash,” said Etana with a smile.

“Thank you,” Ram replied automatically, then looked down at the ball. It seemed to be hollow, and filled with little bells. The Lugal was the absolute last person he would have expected to visit, and he had no idea how to deal with him.

Fortunately, Mother would forget her own name before she forgot proper social protocol. “Lord Etana. Thank you for honoring us with a visit. Would you care to come in?”

“You’re very kind, but I’m sure you’re all tired. I only came by to offer my best wishes for the family—and, if possible, to borrow your son for a moment. Would you care for a walk, Lord Rammash?”

“Sure,” he said at once. He had no idea what this was about, but he wanted Etana away from his family before anything else. He set the little ball on top of the gift-heap from the Red Flute. “Let’s go.”

Their present house, along the northern stretch of the river, was the former lodging of a bachelor flamekeeper who’d died at Barenmul. Ram had moved in a few tetrads after the battle, when he grew sick of the wary and grudging hospitality of the Palace, and silently dared anyone to evict him. The question of rent had never come up, and until now, he’d been unmolested, effectively invisible in his home. “Where to?”

“Take your pick,” Etana replied. “I’ve seen it all.”

Ram headed north, setting a brisk pace. It was a quiet, residential neighborhood on the night of peak day, and they didn’t have much company. “Is there some emergency you couldn’t mention in front of my parents?”

“No. Everything is fine. I came to make peace, Ram.”

“I didn’t know we were fighting.”

“Openly, no. You’ve been a model of public cooperation and good manners, and I thank you for it. But of course I am aware of your recent activities.”

“Such as?”

“Your repeated patronage of my militia, for one. Regular visits to the Moon-and-Stars. Quiet meetings with virtually all of the leadership. The business with the new crowhammers. I can’t help feeling that you’re trying to woo them away from me.”

“I’m not plotting a coup, Etana. I’m done with war.”

“I said nothing about a coup. I credit you with more subtlety than that. But you still cling to your hopes of changing this pyre’s government, don’t you?”

“I do. I’ve never denied it.”

“You are one man, doomed to die, and your memories alone cannot rule whoever comes after you. All you can do is add confusion, and undermine my authority for a bit. I will win, either way. Or, if not me, whoever comes after me, or the man after him. The only question is how much time, how much money, and possibly how many lives are lost before nature has its way.”

“That’s what you think.”

“Don’t your memories tell you as much? Sort through all the long kindlings in your head, and fetch up an example of the Ensis remaining in power for more than a few blooms.”

“I can’t. But nobody’s tried my idea yet. It’s worth a shot.”

“And you keep your secrets. But you have made inquiries—inquiries you believed were discreet, I’m sure—about hiring a private boat to Dul Atellu. The timing suggests you are planning to get your family out soon. The bloom is soon. It should be obvious why I am concerned.”

“It is,” Ram agreed, and left it at that. He turned right at the next crossing, so they could see how the reconstruction of the north end was getting on.

“I came to make peace. But if you intend to overthrow me at the next bloom, I am prepared for war. We all are.”

“’We’ being—“

“The flamekeepers, the handmaidens, even the acolytes if they must. You are not the only one who has been asking around. We are united in our purpose.”

“Oh, I bet. All you puppets for the big families stick together, because you’ve got the same hand up your collective asses. Are the big boys ready to fight too, or are they going to stay in their little holes while you sort it out for them?” They weren’t far from Lashantu’s old mansion, currently half-rebuilt by his surviving family; Ram nodded in its direction.

Etana put out an arm to stop Ram. “Are you planning assassinations?”

He threw the arm off, and kept walking. “I wouldn’t mention them if I were, but no, I’m not. Of course not. I’m not Mannagiri.”

“No, but you are the same type of … being. Do you deny that your spirit has compelled you to act rashly, even stupidly, in the past? Are you too proud to consider that it is doing the same now?”

“I’ve considered it plenty. And I’ve considered some other things, too. Why do you think the ensi has to die every kindling?”

“To rekindle the fire. Why else?”

“But why does the ensi have to be the one to do it? Why should the boss be the one who dies? Or, to put it another way, why give all this power to somebody if you’re just going to kill him off?”

“I have no way of answering that question, and I don’t think you do either. Your memories can’t possibly go back to the beginning of the first pyre.”

“Not clearly, no. Just muddled impressions. But if somebody’s going to be in charge, you’d think it would be better to leave him there, so he can get experience. Or, if you’re selfish, to foist off the death on somebody who doesn’t matter, so you can enjoy the top seat. It makes no sense.”

“And you have no reason to believe it could have been done any other way. Is any of this relevant?”

“What I’m saying is, whoever started this obviously had some strong ideas about the way things ought to be, and I disagree with most of them. I don’t want a hundred wives, and I don’t want a war. But there is one thing the God and I definitely agree on: nobody deserves to have power over anyone else unless he’s willing to die for them.”

“Really? I have been to every war since I was your age, or possibly younger. I have foiled more plots than I can count against the security of this pyre, and been injured—“

“I’m not saying you’re a coward! Neither is Piridur, or his father. But you didn’t do that for Dul Karagi. You did that to keep your position.”

“What do you know? You are barely more than a child, a child who spent most of his life in a hearth. Your experience of a soldier’s life has been limited to a few months in the militia. You can’t know how we love Dul Karagi, every brick and stone of it, after spending our whole lives here. My fathers fought, and bled, and died to keep this community safe.”

“Mine were shoved in a little room, told they were worthless, and burned alive, and none of them even had a choice about it. I’m not trying to make a contest of it,” he added, as Etana bristled, “but that just screws up the whole thing from the beginning, don’t you see? They never had a chance to love Dul Karagi. They never even really knew what it was. And you’re surprised that they turned out bad? Mannagiri only thought of himself because he had nobody else to care for.”

“You expect me to pin my hopes for a hundred thousand people on the sentiments of a single man?”

“I expect the God to have his price. Look at that,” he said, pointing up at the Temple.

“I literally can’t,” Etana shot back. “Try not to hold it against me, Heir of Karagi.”

“All it is, is a single man. I’m sure you’ve heard about my talk with the bazuu. All that, all the power, it comes from a single human soul, deflected. Where do we come from? Somewhere they can’t explain. Where do we go? They don’t know or care. But just turning one of us from the road he’s on, temporarily, is enough to make something so strong you can’t even bear to look at it. And you take it for granted.”

Etana shook his head. “All this is miles from the point. Again: I still want peace. I have allowed you a good deal of leeway. I’ve stood by while you spent a tremendous amount of money that could have been spent better elsewhere, I’ve looked the other way while you have colluded with my subordinates, I won’t even stop you from removing your family from my reach.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I am prepared to make concessions, for the time being, to you, Rammash, as an individual. If it will prevent further bloodshed, I will consult with you on all major decisions, including treaties with other pyres, and other matters you are unprepared and unqualified to even offer an opinion on. I will continue the largely hopeless search for the remnants of your hearth, I will honor you in public as my Ensi, I will repudiate the Painted Room and pledge that your heirs—whom you may choose, not that I can stop you—will be free as long as I live. I will sign a binding contract to that end, if you like.

“And yes, I will leave up that ridiculous block of rock you’ve defaced my roof with. In half a kindling it will be covered with dust, and nobody will bother to look at it, but it will stay up until I am gone and my successor repurposes it as road gravel, which will be out of my hands. All this I will freely grant you. But I will not entrust my pyre, which yes, I truly love, to the unlimited authority of whatever tormented lunatic replaces you in the future, and the one after him, and so on forever.

“It wouldn’t matter if I did. Whatever I promise now, the future will be the same, only poorer for the blood and money you have wasted trying to make water flow uphill. So I ask you, kindly—on my knees, if it will please the thing inside you—to put off whatever insane scheme you have planned for the bloom. What are you going to do? Indwell the crowhammers and usurp my militia?”

“I considered it,” Ram said. “Then decided against it. A little too provocative. I ordered the nicer crowhammers because I figured I owed it to them. There won’t be any blood shed at the bloom. Not by me, at least, or anyone acting on my orders. I promise you that.”

“But something will happen. Won’t it? Something I do not expect.”

“I’m going to see to it that the God is paid, Etana. Whether you like it or not. You can’t stop me without killing me, and if you do you know something worse will happen. I’m not just one man, I’m the living power of Haranduluz. If you want to work against that, you’re welcome to try, but you won’t like the consequences. You won’t usurp the priesthood any longer. You won’t get the power without the price.”

They’d stopped walking again. Etana stared at him, plainly wondering how much of what he’d just heard was the young man talking, how much the spirit. “I’ll take my chances, thank you,” he said at last. “Every flamekeeper will be on hand at the bloom, armed with bronze. My militia will have clear instructions as well. We will see how well you love the peace and prosperity of Dul Karagi, and what you are willing to pay to protect it.”

“I’ll pay a lot.”

“But you will not give up your pride?”

“Sorry. I’m not allowed to give up that. I’ve had clear orders. Anyway, if that’s settled, my family is waiting. Good night.” And he walked home by himself.

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Chapter 17.3

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The Tower of the Moon and Stars was a new addition to Dul Karagi’s skyline, and so easily spotted from some distance away; all you had to do was look for the building with the jagged top, where they were still laying down the fifth floor. In the daytime, you could also follow the cartloads of bricks and steel beams, or the raucous sound of construction, as its cheerful all-volunteer crew sang, cursed, and argued the way through their workday. Every militiaman was expected to donate at least one of his off days per month.

The old Moon-and-Stars tavern had been much smaller—the bar itself, plus the owners’ living space on the floor above—but then it had been merely a private business with a devoted clientele, using the revenue from a thousand or so military patrons to pay the rent. The Tower recognized the legacy of the site with its name, and there was a restaurant on the bottom, but it wasn’t sure what else it wanted to be just yet. You couldn’t expect two thousand displaced people to decide what they wanted to do with their lives in a few months.

The outside, even the finished part, was something of a local eyesore; in the rush of reconstruction, nobody had troubled to appoint a supervisor for the building’s aesthetics, so the bottom half was covered in a mishmash of amateur murals, some painted by children, as one group or another had elected to express itself with a scene of Barenmul hearth before its destruction, or militia holding their ground against shabti. In between these large swathes were smaller, more intimate productions, where a grieving refugee had painted a little portrait of his dead wife or child, just big enough to be seen from the street. The steel moon and stars mounted around the doorway were easily overlooked amid the visual clutter.

There was talk of scrubbing it all off and starting over, but Ram doubted it would happen anytime in the next few kindlings. Every inch of the mess was sacred to someone. Ram was already rather fond of the murals; they gave the building a kind of exuberant personality that too much of his pyre, precision-assembled from mass-produced bricks, lacked.

It was late afternoon on a warm spring day, almost exactly two months before the bloom. There was already a bit of a line at the door, as the fledgling staff struggled to handle the early dinner rush. Partly this was Ram’s fault; he’d been eating at least one meal a day there for the past several tetrads, paying every time over their strenuous objections, and being patronized by the Ensi had given them more prestige than they could handle. Ram was happy for them, but he wasn’t hungry at the moment, and besides, he had an appointment. So he went around to the side entrance—the one used by the Tower’s residents, which he’d never used before. A cramped set of stairs led up to a small, clean lobby.

Virtually everyone who lived here was a survivor of Barenmul hearth. All the young and fit men served in the new militia, by Etana’s decree, but the women and children were free, and as eager to assert their independence was they were desperate for money. Many dreamed of returning home some day. Tower apartments were reserved for those who wished to either work the restaurant below or to operate small businesses of their own—businesses whose chief customers were, at this point, either Barenmula themselves or Karagenes in a charitable mood.

Ram ran his finger over the small directory in the lobby. It was a set of metal rails on the wall, the rectangular clay tiles on it listing a maker of perfumes, an herbalist, a jeweler, a musical trio … all high-value, low-volume goods you could churn out in a limited space, or services performed by small groups. The pyre already had established producers for each of them, and Ram had no idea how these pitiful entrepreneurs would survive, even in the spirited, almost frenzied economic climate that attended reconstruction and the opening of the Teshalun. Many of them had no doubt taken out loans to get started. Ram winced just looking at the rows of names.

There was only one person listed who offered a truly unique service, and she was the only non-Barenmula. IMBRI, TUTOR, the tile said. Ram was annoyed to see they’d stuck her up on the fourth floor. She had to be their most profitable tenant. He supposed it was because she didn’t have to haul bulky raw goods up the stairs—or perhaps in the hope that her wealthy clients would stop to buy an herbal remedy or a silver chain on their way up or down.

Ram met one of those clients in the stairwell—a flamekeeper with a sour look on his face that only got darker at the sight of Ram. “Tym purnyet,” Ram greeted him politely as they passed. It was almost the only Moonchild phrase Ram knew. The flamekeeper responded by snarling something under his breath, and stamping his feet down the next few steps. Apparently the lesson hadn’t gone well.

He found Imbri’s door easily enough; she’d gotten one of the amateur artists who did the exterior to paint one of her mounted kinsmen at eye level. It was probably for the best that she couldn’t see it, but it certainly communicated the intended message. He knocked, and after a brief delay the door was opened by a skinny nine-bloom-old girl with a bright red scarf wrapped around the top half of her face.

“I am Rammash,” he announced, “and you must be Nerre.” The girl only nodded before retreating behind a folding screen to the right of the doorway. Ram poked his nose in after her, and saw her sit down at a short table littered with baked clay tablets, the kind acolytes used for durable records. She ran her hands over the recessed script several times, biting her lower lip, before picking up a stylus to copy the lines onto a metal plate covered in wax.

Imbri’s voice interrupted his snooping: “I’ve got two more appointments this evening, Ram—paying appointments—and I have to eat before then. What did you want to talk to me about?”

The apartment had only two rooms; this was evidently the part where they received visitors. Its only furniture, outside the screened section, was a somewhat battered glass-top table and a collection of secondhand chairs. A small copper oil lamp sat on the table, for the convenience of late guests. The closest thing to a decoration was the row of aromatic herbs sitting in pots on the windowsill.

Imbri was sitting in the coziest-looking chair, tucked up against the wall where the sunlight couldn’t reach her. She had on a dress of pale blue linen, embroidered with a simple floral pattern around the edges. Her hair was longer than he’d ever seen it, past her shoulders, and nicely brushed for once. There were definite advantages to not having to wander around hooded all day.

“I wanted to see how you’re getting on here,” Ram answered at last.

“Well, you’ve seen it,” she answered tartly. “Anything else?”

Maybe the last lesson had been rough on her, too. Uninvited, he took a seat across the table from her. “Are you comfortable here? Do you make enough off lessons?”

“More than enough. My rent includes meals from downstairs. And word is getting around.”

“Enough that I heard about it, from more than one person. You, teaching a pack of flamekeepers to speak your language. I never would have expected it.”

“Only about half are flamekeepers. None of them are very enthusiastic about it, but they see understanding our language as a way to get ahead. Not so they can actually use it, because it shows initiative to their officers.” She blew a stray strand of hair out of her face, and scowled. “The merchants’ kids are a bit more practical about it, and actually pay attention. It could save them from being cheated, if they can listen in on our conversations.”

“I take it you mostly focus on understanding the language, not speaking it.”

“None of them have a prayer of speaking it intelligibly. They bray like donkeys. I talk to them, as slow as I can, and they try to decipher it. So, to answer your question: yes, I’m comfortable here. You don’t need to help me. And I do as well with Nerre as anyone could expect.”

Ram looked around at the girl, who was still bent over her work, scribbling away. He lowered his voice. “I don’t suppose she’ll ever see again.”

“Molten glass is tough on the eyes, Ram,” Imbri said at normal volume. “But Nerre’s doing much better than she would have without me—as her parents tell me at every meeting. She’s my most dedicated student.”

“I can imagine,” Ram murmured. Nerre wasn’t the first bonded child to have an accident at the glassworks, but she might be the first to have a hope of a happy life after.

“An acolyte comes by once a tetrad to confirm that she’s learning to read and write correctly; I’ve never been very good at your script. I teach her the rest. She’s actually got a decent ear for the accent, not like the rest of them. She’s not quite as good at bazu, but she’s picking it up.” Ram noticed that the child had stopped writing on her tablet—and also that Imbri didn’t sound so angry and impatient anymore. “Plus everything I can teach her about magic and moonchildren. Once she’s ready, and I’ve saved up enough money, I’ve promised her a little trip into the desert.”

“So by the time she grows up, she’ll be—“

“Nerre. She’ll be Nerre. What that means is up to her. But that won’t add up to much, no matter what she chooses, if she doesn’t get back to work.” The scratching of stylus on plate resumed at once. “So, is this just a social visit, Ram? Do we need to chat a bit? How’s your wife?”

“You don’t care.”

“I’m a little curious. She’s hugely pregnant and cantankerous, I imagine,” she reflected with a smile. “Quite a change of lifestyles.”

Look who’s talking. “Yes, she’s still bearing our child,” Ram said. “Anyway, I’m not here just to talk. I also have something for you. Hold out your hands, please.” He removed her present from his belt, and laid it carefully down.

Imbri ran her fingers carefully over the curved blade in its sheath. “A kypizi? Where did you get it? Did somebody rob a moonchild, or is this some pyre-made replica?”

“Both, and neither. I got it off a poor fisherman, who was using it to gut his catch. And he got it off his cousin, who did salvage work on the wreckage of the Lashantu estate. Neither of them had any idea what it was. Just a good, durable bronze edge nobody would miss.” It had taken three months of asking around, and eventually a lot of petty gratuities to small-time hucksters, to find it.

Imbri’s hand clenched on the grip. “So it’s the one Dad carried.”

“As far as I can tell. Of course, it was battered as all hell, and it stank of fish guts. I couldn’t get the smell out of the handle—which was in rough shape anyway—so I had to have it replaced. Good Karagene oak and leather, should last a—what are you laughing at?” She’d bowed her head, but her shoulders were shaking, and he could hear her muted chortle.

She raised her face again, and it bore the biggest grin he’d ever seen on it. “Oh, Ram. I’m laughing at you. You ruined it. You meant well, but you ruined it.” She shook her head. “Anyone but me would be horrified.”

“I didn’t ruin it, I restored it!”

“Same thing, really. A kypizi isn’t primarily a weapon, Ram. It’s too short, and a lousy shape, for a man to fight with from a brute’s back. It’s more of a talisman; when a moonchild has to go into a pyre, he carries a consecrated weapon, so the Goddess will guard him from sorcery. Shaped like the crescent moon, but sharp enough to gut any sun-worshiper who tries something funny. And, to be consecrated, it has to be made in a holy place, from holy things.”

“What’s holy to moonchildren, though? Kur? You said we couldn’t go there.”

“A gate. This blade was forged in a gate, with imagined fire and equipment. Uncontaminated by anything from the pyres, good enough to purge the uncleanness from the common metal—and as a bonus, they don’t have to worry about carrying fuel or an anvil around. The wood for the original handle came from a wild tree, the hide from a wild animal. All processed outside Ki.”

“… oh.”

“You couldn’t have known that, though, could you? And so you took Nythrys’s divine protection, and made it … a common tool.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s common. It’s totally unique. One of a kind, a foot in two worlds. Just like its owner.”

Imbri smirked. “Nice recovery. But which owner are you talking about? Me, Dad, or Mom? You could say that about all three of us.”

“It was your mother’s, too?”

“For all the good it did her. She lost her first one when the hearth took her captive. When she escaped, she joined a different tribe—if you can call them a tribe. A lot of mercenary raider trash, worse than the group she started with. They let her have this one, since the old owner had died childless, but then they found out she was pregnant.”

“And they let her keep it?”

“Of course. It was contaminated, after she’d owned it. Virtually cursed. She still had it when they sold her to the bazuu, and all eight years inside. She used to pray to it, since it was all she had. Mom was a little cracked, by the end.”

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t know. I’m amazed she held on to it, after everything you went through.”

“Not after the bazuu kicked us out, and we got sold again. Our owners had it, after that. All six in turn. They figured out early on that she wouldn’t run away and leave it behind. They’d threaten to destroy it if she was bad, or to cut her with it. Very pleasant batch of men. When she died, I got sold to Dad, and he talked our last master into throwing the kypizi into the deal.”

Gently she set it down on the table. “It never protected Mom worth a damn, but it gave her something to hold onto, and I’m glad to have it back, ruined or not. Thank you, Ram.”

“You’re welcome. I only wish I could do more.”

“You’ve given me enough already. Even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.” She leaned back, resting her head against the cushion on her chair, and sighed. “I told you once that I had my principles. That I wouldn’t live in the firelight. I thought I meant it.”

“But you don’t now?”

“Now? I don’t know. But I’m starting to wonder if everything I believed was only a way of softening the blow. Telling myself my only option was the right choice anyway.”

“I understand. I’ve probably done more of that myself than I’d like to admit.” He looked out the window, eyeing the sun’s place in the sky. “I’m not making you miss your dinner, am I?”

“Eh. They’ll send it up in a little bit. Never mind that.” She picked up the sword again, and weighed it in her hand. “I’ll never be a real moonchild, or a proper pyre-dweller. Neither group will have me. I doubt if I’ll ever even get married.”

“You might be surprised.” That long hair looked silky and fine, and the dress suited her.

“Don’t flatter, Ram. You’re bad at it.” A long moment of silence passed; the workmen on the roof had evidently decided to call it a day. Imbri continued to fidget with the sword, until Ram worried that the blade would slip out of the sheath and slice her hand open. She didn’t seem to be able to leave the damn thing alone.

He was about to excuse himself, just to avoid having to watch any longer, when she spoke again: “It’s nice to have a chance to do more than just survive, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know.” He tried to say it lightly, like a joke. He saw on her face that it failed.

“I don’t think you were trying for it in the first place. That was never your style; if survival was what you were going for, you failed badly, and I don’t believe you’re that stupid.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Cut that out. You’re no better at self-pity than you are at flattery. Don’t tell me this isn’t what you wanted—not the dying part, but the rest of it. You’ve never told me your whole story start to finish, and now isn’t the time to tell it, but you know well enough how to keep your head down and your nose clean. You just don’t, most of the time. You see the way things have to be, and you throw a tantrum like a small child until they change for you. Frankly, it’s irksome, and it should have gotten you killed a long time before now. I don’t see how it didn’t. That horrid god of yours must be looking out for you.”

“Somehow, I find that hard to believe.”

“I don’t mean that he’s trying to make you happy, or give you everything you want. Gods are vicious, demanding, creatures—maybe even worse than men, if that’s possible. They’re not going to let you sit idle, any more than a Moonchild will leave his brutes to eat in a stable forever.”

“Yeah, I feel like he’s been riding me all over the Dominion. If I’m his favorite brute, I could have passed on the honor. Let somebody else get saddle marks.”

“You’re not the god here. You don’t get to decide.”

“I don’t think I believe that. At least, I don’t want to.”

“What? If you were a god, you’d spend all your time making everyone happy? Leave the animals in the stable, eating and getting fat and doing nothing? People don’t act that way, so why should gods?”

“Because I want them to be better than us.”

“There’s a word for that, Ram. I think it’s ‘hypocrisy.’”


“Imagine what cows and donkeys would say about us—“

“Would you just drop it?” He said it louder than he meant to; across the room, Nerre dropped her stylus on the floor.

“I’m sorry, Ram,” Imbri said. “I’m sorry all this had to happen to you. If it’s any consolation, I do believe you’ve changed this pyre for the better. This pyre, and my life. And probably Darun’s.”

“At a hell of a cost.”

“Nothing good comes free. Darun could have told you that herself.”

“I think she has, several times.” Living by the words was another matter. At least she’d stopped stealing.

“Do you remember the house of Nythrys in Pilupura, Ram? Piridur’s trap?”

“It’s not an easy place to forget.”

“Do you remember what people left on the altar there? You don’t need to say it,” she added in a hurry.

He looked around at Nerre, who’d just recovered her stylus from under the table. He’d wanted to go and help her, but knew Imbri would never allow it. Self-reliance above all. “Yes, I remember.” Glass. Little bits of glass, scattered across the low table. He’d laid down an offering of his own beside them. “What’s that, then? A branding iron?” he murmured.

“Like I said, Ram: gods are vicious creatures. But look at what went on in your temple. Or what happened to me. They taught us well. Or is it the other way around?”

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Chapter 17.2

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Spring had come to High Atellu, but there were few living trees left to bloom. The standing water had long since been boiled away, leaving only bare dry ruin under the accusing sun. Their barque made for what had formerly been a public square, perhaps equivalent to the Plaza at Dul Karagi. It had been enlarged for its new use as an airfield; he could see the traces of old foundations. It seemed they’d made little progress after months of work.

Etana’s assessment was still more blunt. “It’s a midden,” he declared from two hundred feet. “I wouldn’t receive even hostage youth to such a mess, let alone the lord of another pyre.”

“It may be their need to talk is urgent enough to override such considerations,” Shennai said.

“What is there to speak of? There’s nothing left. If they wanted to beg aid, we could have sent delegates. Unless this is a trap, and we’ll be held captive on arrival.”

Ram doubted they would take such an insane risk in their current condition, but Piridur spoke before he could: “Low Atellu is still the east end of the Jatu trade route, Lord. And we’ve already seen the damage this pyre can do when it’s isolated.”

“Perhaps it’s extortion, then,” Etana decided. “They will resume their piracy unless they are aided.” Ram would have argued that point, but was again thwarted; their barque was already descending.

The lone handmaiden who received them was about fifty, Ram guessed, and distinctly plump, with silver streaks in her black hair. She greeted Shennai and Pimna first, lifting her veil to exchange kisses and trivial pleasantries. Only when both of her former prisoners had assured her that they were well did she turn and say, “Lord Etana. Lord Rammash. Thank you for coming. And you are?”

“Piridur,” he said, coming forward with a slight bow. “I have no formal title anymore, but you might call me a liaison between the Ensi and the Lugal.”

“Very well, Master Piridur. I am Jennun, Eldest Sister.”

“Eldest?” Ram repeated. She didn’t seem that old. Had Mannagiri killed off his most experienced women?

“A title, nothing more, and newly invented. It may change. Before the late crisis, I supervised the largest kiln. I was elected last month by a general assembly of all the sisters over fifteen.”

“And now you are in authority?” Etana said. He did a reasonable, but not perfect, job of keeping the skepticism from his voice. He had known of Atellu’s new arrangements for some time, of course, but it was a difficult concept for a man in his position to accept.

“There is very little authority to have,” she pointed out. “One of my sisters supervises our industrial work, another deals with Low Atellu and the field workers, a third tends to the children, a fourth clears the wreckage. It falls to me to coordinate between them, and from time to time welcome visiting dignitaries.” She did an ironic courtesy.

“Who maintains order, then?” Etana challenged. “Who will command in war?”

Jennun chuckled under her veil. “There is no need to maintain order, my lord. We handmaidens are the only remaining inhabitants of High Atellu, and we do not fight among ourselves. No men are allowed up the cliffs except on business, business they rarely have. When they do come, they behave themselves unprompted, because they are not fireproof. Yes, Lord Etana, women are capable of tending their own affairs.”

“It might be better to continue this discussion in a more shaded, private venue,” Shennai suggested, before Etana could come up with a retort. “Not all of us are indwelt, and the sun is high.”

The Eldest Sister put a hand to her heart and tipped her head. “Very true. Come along, then.”

There was a small pavilion set up a short distance away, with ten chairs set up around a low table. Bread and dry winter fruits were loaded on a platter in the center, along with stacks of cups and small plates. “There’s beer and water in the jars in the corner, if you’d like,” she said as she plunked herself down in one of the chairs, seemingly at random. No women appeared to serve; the intended message was clear enough.

Etana blithely picked up a tumbler and filled it himself, though when it was filled he did allow himself the petty satisfaction of tasting the beer, smacking his lips, and giving his head a slight dismissive shake. Through the veil, it was impossible to tell if Jennun even noticed.

Ram sat down directly opposite the handmaiden without bothering over a drink; he didn’t sweat, after all. The others settled in one after another, Etana picking the farthest corner from Jennun. When all the rattling and scraping of chairs was done, Ram cleared his throat. “All the men are gone, you said?”

“To other pyres, one way or another. They had nothing left here but bad memories, and were not bound to stay as we are. Most of the well-heeled survivors had distant relations willing to take them in, and they took the poorer captives with them, down to the lowest street-cleaner. They have pledged to find positions for all of them.”

“Very kind,” Piridur said.

“Kind, but not remarkable,” answered Jennun. “Common suffering tends to draw people together, you’ll find. And, after all, it’s not as though they had any rank or wealth left to stand on. The Moonchildren picked our bones clean, and took a few choice bits to suck the marrow on their way out.”

“A pyre without men,” Etana said slowly, seemingly to nobody.

“Except for Lord Chashran, and counting only High Atellu, yes. That may change in time, if we need help to work the heavier industries. Personally, I’d prefer to admit only women and girls as helpers, possibly from the bondservants, but many of my sisters disagree. We shall see.”

“Those women and girls might want husbands,” Shennai said.

“Who can live at the base of the cliff,” Jennun replied, prompt but pleasant.

Ram held up a hand. “You mentioned Lord Chashran. Your ensi, right? How is he?” Ram had last seen the man bare minutes after he inherited, when he had been trying to gnaw his own arm off.

“As well as he ever was. He has a dark room, and a few of his favorite toys. We bring him food, and keep him clean. Certainly we won’t mistreat him; he’s the most innocent man who ever lived, and none of us fear him.”

“Oh, I didn’t think you’d hurt him.”

“But now you are wondering what we will do when he is gone, aren’t you? We intend to spend the next three blooms asking for old men in poor health, who would like to live out a happy, safe, comfortable kindling. Any who please us will be allowed to witness the first bloom after the kindling, and perhaps be indwelt. I don’t anticipate a shortage of candidates.”

“You seem to have thought this all through,” Piridur said. “But as Lord Etana asked: what about the next war? Will you go out unprotected?”

“We already know what it feels like to be unprotected,” she coldly replied. “We will not count on the assurances of men again. But as for war, it has been proposed that we send out word to the hearthless, offering settlement on High Atellu’s former parklands in exchange for military service. We still have crowhammers.”

“And swords?” Etana prompted.

“We have no need for flamekeepers.”

Ram opted to get a drink after all, purely to escape the harsh silence that followed. He took his time drawing up water, tossing it back, then getting some beer. He only turned back when Etana said, “Trade, then. Will you be restoring previous trade arrangements?”

“On a case-by-case basis. We might amend a few. A council of the eldest sisters will decide, when we find the time.”

Etana thumped his fist on the table. “What in the hell were we invited here for, then?”

“Partly because I wanted to see Shennai and Pimna again. If you need to send further embassies, I would be delighted to see either of them. You specifically, and Lord Piridur, and Lord Rammash, are here to take our message to the rest of the Dominion, because no female messenger would be believed.”

“And that message is?” Etana growled, leaning forward on the table with his crossed arms.

“You have already heard it. The handmaidens of Dul Atellu stand alone and free. We have no ill will towards any other pyre, but we will have no more acolytes, or flamekeepers, and most importantly no more ruling priests.”

Etana smirked. “Someone will have to burn, and he will expect compensation. On his own terms, not what you see fit to give him. If you think you can control a man with priestly authority over your very bodies, you are idiots, to a woman. A hobbled horse would be in more of a position to bargain.”

“Maybe, but you menfolk weren’t doing a very good job controlling him before, either. We could hardly do worse than Mannagiri.”

Piridur held up a hand to stay further argument. “Lord Rammash. What do you think of all this?”

Ram hesitated; he hadn’t expected to be asked. “Obviously, I agree with her that the system has to change,” he said slowly. “I can think of reasons why their approach might not work in the long term, but if they want to try, it’s really none of my business. As long as it doesn’t hurt anybody outside their own pyre, I’m fine with it. I’m thankful that anyone else is around to remind people that things can be different.”

“Well said.” Ram heard a smile in Jennun’s voice. “But what are your expectations of Dul Atellu, Lord Rammash?”

“I don’t think I have any, really.” At present. He was getting some ideas, but it seemed better to keep them to himself for the moment. Etana was listening. “Mannagiri was at least partly my fault, but I got rid of him, too. We’re square. Neither of us owes the other.”

Jennun nodded. “That was more or less our opinion, as well.”

“Good,” said Ram. “So, if that’s decided, I’d like to stretch my legs a bit, and see what you’re doing here. The ride wasn’t the most comfortable.”

“There isn’t much to see, but suit yourself, Lord Rammash. Lord Etana looks like he has many more concerns to discuss with me.” Her tone was dry, and Ram was more inclined than ever to like her. He bowed before he left.

Some distance away, an army of several dozen women was at work on a complicated project. About half of them were spread out in a broad circle, sifting through the ubiquitous architectural carnage for intact bricks and ferrying them back to the center of the group by whatever means presented itself; Ram saw aprons, hand-carts, and a few beasts of burden. None of them bothered with a veil, or showed any reticence for the undignified manual labor. One or two noticed Ram watching, but paid him no mind.

Once the bricks arrived, they were laid down in untidy stacks at any spot that presented itself, so that the other half of the group could lay them. Their work wasn’t the neatest Ram had seen, by a fair margin, but then he was a mason’s child. He could see several furnaces taking shape, and a number of interior and exterior walls. Several of the younger women sang as they worked, slapping down cement with their trowels.

“A pottery shop?” murmured Piridur’s voice in his ear.

Ram shook his head. “More likely a smithy, judging by the layout. What was that about, asking my opinion? You already knew it.”

“I had a fair guess. But Jennun is more likely to approve of you than of Lord Etana, and I’d rather our Lugal didn’t fill her with complete and overwhelming contempt for our pyre. You needed to speak up.”

“Still trying to manage things, are you? Then what’s your take on all this? I honestly don’t know.”

“I can understand why these women are reacting this way,” Piridur began cautiously.


“But all this is too radical. Other pyres won’t tolerate this kind of provocation; they’ll shut Atellu out of their markets.”

“To keep their handmaidens from getting dangerous ideas?”

“Not at all. The handmaidens are the last group we need to worry about, with the possible exception of the acolytes. Ours aren’t abused, and they take pride in their work for the pyre and their families.”

Pyre or family, which comes first? “So it’s the little people you’d be worried about.”

“Not exactly. It’s more the general insolence of it. This world runs on respect. These women are disrespecting the most powerful men in the Dominion, implying that they’re worthless, unnecessary. Whether it causes some kind of unrest or not, that can’t be tolerated.”

“Maybe, but I think you’ll budge before they do,” Ram said, watching a little girl mix up a tub of cement.

“This still won’t last,” Piridur insisted. “They’ll need a non-indwelt population to draw new women from.”

“Are you trying to convince me, or yourself? That’s a feeble argument, and you know it. Or didn’t you ever hear about the bud-graft, back at Dul Karagi?”

Piridur frowned. “Not by that name.”

“It’s the name I heard. Say a woman from a rich house can’t conceive, or only has boys, or doesn’t want to give up her own child, or just doesn’t feel like going through the trouble of pregnancy. But somebody under her husband or master’s countenance—somebody way down the line, a porter’s wife or something—just had a healthy baby girl.”

“Oh, that,” Piridur interrupted. “Yes, I’ve heard the stories, but I don’t think I believe them. It’s just the kind of ugly gossip the powerful like to spread about their rivals.”

“It’s not just the powerful telling those stories, Piridur. To hear the poor of our pyre tell it, half the women in the Temple don’t know their true parents, who tell the neighbors they died in their crib. Maybe it’s not really half, but why wouldn’t it happen? And why couldn’t something like it happen here?”

“You think these women will coerce the people who depend on them into giving up their daughters en masse.”

“No, I’m saying that they’ll work it out their own way somehow. They’re not stupid, they’ll find a way. You just don’t want to believe this can work.”

Piridur hesitated before replying. “No. I really don’t. I want peace, order, and stability. And time for Dul Karagi to recover its equilibrium undisturbed. But I can accept that the world won’t go back to the way it was before. I’ve told you as much.”

Ram finally turned away from the toiling women to look at Piridur directly. “You can accept it, you say. But what are you going to do about it? What’s your place in all this?”

Piridur shuddered, very slightly, but kept his expression calm. “Yes. That is the real question, isn’t it? I can tell you for certain that I don’t believe in your project. I’m not the kind of man who wants to change the world.”

“That’s not an answer,” Ram reminded him.

“It’s a hard answer to give. I have my own life. My sons aren’t half grown yet, and I’d thought to have more.”

“I’ll never see my own child grow up, so that’s a poor argument to use on me. Whoever I picked as my successor, they would leave something behind, something undone. That’s just part of being human. I’ll give you more time to think if you need it, but the choice won’t get any easier.”

“I see what you’re doing, Ram. It’s a challenge. How far am I willing to go for my principles? Do I take the power you offer me, and use it to fix the harm you’ve done, even if it kills me? Or do I refuse, and risk seeing the pyre ruined in another’s hands? You’re a cruel man, tem-Karagi.”

Ram gave him a big, sunny smile. “No crueler than you. At least I’m not offering you a nice, peaceful, lazy few years before you die.”

Piridur glared back. “No flamekeeper would accept such an offer. And I am a flamekeeper. If I have to die to save the pyre from your recklessness—to preserve it for my sons—I will. That’s a yes, and damn you for asking.”

“That’s all I needed to know. Thank you, Piridur.” But the former Second Sword was already walking away. Ram watched him for a moment, striding off with his shoulders set. It had been Piridur’s pride that answered, not Piridur himself. He might regret it later, but never enough to take it back. Did that make Ram cruel? Perhaps.

It didn’t matter, of course, what Piridur chose to do with his ten blooms in command. Or what he said he would do now, which mattered still less. He would have the power, he would not consent to let it lie unused, and his sons would grow up knowing their father as the man who had accepted the challenge. The next ensi of Dul Karagi would be a hero to all, and that was enough for Ram.

All that was several blooms in the future, anyway. There was an older woman nearby who wasn’t laying her bricks level, and nobody else noticed; Ram would have to see if she was amenable to friendly advice from a man with some experience. He’d need to be delicate. But first, he glanced over his shoulder at Etana, who was now pacing back and forth outside the little pavilion, enumerating his objections on his fingers as he made them. Not shouting—the Lugal wasn’t the sort to shout—only making himself clear in the most acerbic fashion possible.

Ram couldn’t see Jennun, but her haranu was sitting still in the shade, beside Shennai’s and Pimna’s. He could picture her sitting back in her chair, not quite laughing, just raising the edge of her veil every now and then to sip at her drink. Waving her hand in a “go on” gesture, perhaps, and putting in the odd word that wasn’t quite sarcastic enough to count as an insult.

Piridur was walking rather quicker than usual to rejoin them. On second thought, it might be better to give him more time to think his choice over. It wouldn’t hurt to let him reflect; he was a reasonable man at heart. Etana was the real problem here. And the more Ram thought it over—the more he saw him snarling and jabbing an accusing finger at a woman who had lost everything in the past six months, and was now striving to make a new life while he told her it could not be done—the more certain he was that drastic measures were called for.

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Seventeen: A Free Man in the End

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Virtually all of the Dominion subscribes to some variant on the belief that the souls of the dead remain in the approximate place where they died for some time, in a more or less conscious state. Many local variants on this theme exist, and there is considerable diversity even within individual pyres or hearths, with no “official” position. Some, for example, believe their ancestors watch over the community, and therefore regularly offer prayers and sacrifices. Others go farther, and posit that the most illustrious, accomplished, or pious individuals ascend to a kind of minor, local godhood. Still others have modified the belief into a kind of delayed reincarnation, often with complicated and esoteric schemes to explain the details. But the most common assumption may be one of slow annihilation; the soul lingers for a time in a state of lower consciousness, then gradually fades away and disappears.

Darun slumped against the wall, panting. “Wait up, will you? In case you haven’t noticed, honey, I’m basically a two-legged camel with the hump in the wrong place, these days. And it’s hot.”

“It’s the coolest time of the bloom, and you’re not that big yet,” Ram shot back from the top of the stairs, holding the door open for her.

She gave him a dirty look, but complied. His wife had only been in Dul Karagi half a day—she’d landed with Mother, Father, baby Zemni, and Shazru this morning—but that was enough time for Ram to learn not to waste much pity on her. Darun could have kept up with his leisurely stroll, and had his arm to lean on; instead she’d elected to fall behind to look at things she didn’t want or need in shop windows. He assumed there was some complicated mind-game behind it all, one he refused to play.

But that was no reason to be cruel, as such. When she got to the top of the stairs, he kissed her on her sweaty forehead, and put a hand on the small of her back to steady her through the door. It wasn’t all an act; she was breathing hard. Ram was torn between guilt at imposing on her, and pride at standing his ground.

Business at the Red Flute was steady, but not booming; less than half the tables were full, but the blackbands at them had ordered good-sized meals. Most of the elite class they traditionally dealt with had left the pyre, or lost its wealth—there were no more Lashantus looking to do business. Even the flamekeepers were greatly reduced. At the same time, all the unrest and confusion created plenty of opportunities for smuggling, and there was fresh space at the top of the heap for anyone willing to pay to get there.

So Ram got a number of cheery waves as he guided his wife to a vacant seat in the back, far from the cooking fire. Most of them caught the faint swell in Darun’s abdomen, and smirked into their mugs. Darun herself was too focused on navigating between the tables to notice or care. When they arrived, she flopped into a bench, and sighed with relief. “Beer?” she asked hopefully.

“Try the tea,” he offered, smiling ruthlessly. “I didn’t like it at first, but it’s growing on me.”

“I hope fungus grows on you, too,” she answered, and mopped at her face. It was a swollen face, with a few zits, but much more normal-looking than he remembered. He hadn’t really expected her to go without the tinap ointment. The rest of her was covered in in a lovely, impractical blue and gold gown, with a kind of scarf to conceal the lingering burns on her right forearm. No wonder she was hot.

“Look, Darun, I’m not trying to be mean,” he said, leaning over the table so he could speak quietly. “But could you at least pretend to give a damn about the kid? I’m sure you drink whatever you want when I’m not around.”

“Nah, your mom’s even worse than you are. Not to mention Tir. I’m a damned connoisseur of herb tea, these days.” She slapped the table. “C’mon, hubby, one beer isn’t going to hurt. There’s women who down one a day for all nine months, and their kids come out okay. I’m not asking for the good stuff here. Weak will do.”

He relented, and put up two fingers for the server as she approached. “Just one, mind.”

“May the merciful God of the lowly reward you,” she quipped back, hauling on the chain around her neck to reveal the dangling silver idol of Tugul Nar buried in her blouse. It was a replica in miniature of the one in the gien, where they’d burned Ninshuma’s body. She made a vague gesture of benediction before tucking it away again.

Ram blinked. “I’m amazed you brought that with you. Honestly, it was a joke gift. I couldn’t think of anything else to send.”

“A joke? Oh, lover, let me tell you, it was the best thing you could have sent. That little bugger was all that kept me sane, some days.”

“You prayed to it?” This was unexpected.

“A little. I don’t know if there’s anything in it, but it can’t hurt. And Tugul Nar’s better than some gods you could name.” She curled her lip at the old sunburst militia badge Ram wore on his chest, a bit of working-class grandstanding he forgot was there most of the time. “You know where you stand with him, and if you want to cuss him out on a bad day, he won’t take it personal. He’s a god, but he’s also a dwarf, you know? Ugly, too. And nobody ever gives him a damn thing except babies they don’t want. He knows what it’s like.”

Two tankards hit the table in front of them. Ram nodded thanks, then frowned as the server looked at them expectantly. “Honestly, I don’t really care. Bring us whatever’s good today. Thank you.” She nodded, and made herself scarce. “Well, Darun, I guess I can see what you mean.”

“Oh, that wasn’t the only reason I liked having him around, don’t get me wrong.” She slurped gracelessly at her beer. “Ahh, that’s better. The best part of being knocked up is, you don’t have to pretend. Nobody expects you to look pretty, or graceful. You just waddle around, looking gross, feeling gross, being gross, like the bloated heap of guts you are, and if anybody has a—“

“You were talking about Tugul Nar?” he prompted her, before she could get any louder. He hadn’t expected their relationship to be healthier after several months apart, but he hadn’t expected this, either.

“Tugul Nar? Yeah, he was great. He didn’t go with Tir’s décor at all, and she hated his guts—she’s done her share of praying to him, back in the day, and she doesn’t want to remember—but as long as I kept a straight face she couldn’t ask me to get rid of him.”

Ram took a deep drink, then set his mug down. “Can I ask you what it was your sister did to make you hate her so much?”

“Sure, you can ask. I might even answer, after we’ve been married a bloom or so. You haven’t earned it yet.”

“Fine. Then let’s get down to business.” He looked at the oven, behind the counter; whatever they were making for him and Darun, it would take time. “I haven’t asked her yet, but I’d like to involve Mother in our embassy to Dul Pilupura. And for you and our child to visit regularly, to help her get up to speed in the pyre. Eventually, after I’m gone, you’ll be living there full-time. How’s that sound?”

Darun rolled her eyes. “On the surface? Like plain old favor-peddling. Giving your parents and your wife a permanent room at the Garden, and the cushiest job in the whole Dominion? And it’s not like she’d be much good at it. Even I wouldn’t. Hell, Shazru might do better, with his tinap contacts.”

“I know that’s how it looks ‘on the surface.’ And below the surface?”

She scowled. “You’re actually bribing me, to stay close to your mom so she knows I’m bringing up baby right. But you don’t need to bother with all that. We’ve been having lots of mother-daughter talks. We’ve agreed that I’m not going to be this kid’s mom.”

“She is?”

“For sure. Can you imagine me as a parent? Our mom left when I was like five, and Tir was no substitute. Our kid can do better than my half-assed imitation of a loving home I can’t even remember.”

“That’s about what I expected. And you’re probably right. But I didn’t think you’d accept it so easily. Or is it just that you don’t want the responsibility?”

“Of course I don’t want the responsibility! Why would I? I’m a human, Ram, even if I do look more like a pig at the moment. A real live person. I have stuff I’d like to do with my life, stuff I can’t do with a little ankle-biter tagging along. Should I feel guilty that I’m not doing everything strangers expect me to, and mess up both our lives just so I feel like I’m doing the right thing?”

“No. I just wanted to know if you’d thought this through.”

“I’ve had months with nothing to do. Of course I’ve thought this through!”

Ram held up his hands. “And that’s fine. What you haven’t thought through is my proposal. It’s not just about bribing you—even if I would like it if you drop by from time to time.”

“Sure I’ll drop in. I don’t want to be a mom, but I’m fine with being the cool aunt who drops off the expensive gifts.” She leaned back to look up at the ceiling, chewing her lip. “So, you want me to have a little extra reason to visit. But that’s still a bribe. What are you really after?”

Ram glanced at the reflections in his tankard; it didn’t seem like anyone was looking at their table. He lowered his voice anyway. “I don’t want our son, or daughter, growing up in this pyre. That’s what I brought you here to say.”

“And here I thought it was a romantic dinner. What are you afraid of? That they’ll use him as leverage? After the kindling, that won’t even matter.”

“That might have been true if I’d been an ordinary priest. Maybe. Probably not even then, because everyone’s been raised to believe in a priestly line and they want that to continue. A whole lot of horrible things just happened after the priestly line failed, and that means a lot, to a lot of people. They don’t know everything that happened, and they probably never will. So there are going to be a lot of voices calling for our son—if it’s a boy—to be the Ensi after me. And I won’t be around to tell them no.”

“He’s not indwelt yet, right?”

“For all I can tell, you might as well have a pillow stuffed under there. I see nothing. It seems likely that he’ll come out normal.”

“Good. But sure, I see what you mean. I saw the way they looked at you on our way here. The first drought, or sickness, or fire, or whatever, there’s going to be a thousand people blaming it on your child not belonging to Haranduluz. That makes sense. I mean, being afraid of it does. The actual idea’s moronic.” She leaned forward and crossed her arms on the table. “Almost as moronic as this other notion you have, that you can protect the kid just by moving him down the river a bit.”

“Give it a few blooms with both of you out of sight—“

She laughed, loud and strident. Several people from adjoining tables turned to stare. “Bullshit! Do you expect everybody to forget about you the second you’re dead?”

“No. Not at all.”

“Do you even want them to forget about you? Haven’t you been working hard to make sure things don’t go back to the way they were? And whoever’s in charge after you, they’re not going to forget either. They’ll have access to your child as long as he’s linked to this pyre’s government, and they can haul us all back to put on a show for them as soon as it’s convenient.”

“But the same thing’s true if I give custody to another pyre! I definitely don’t want any of you where Zasha can reach, for example.”

“Oh, hell no. Again, you’re right. You can’t keep our kid anywhere any pyre can get to. Not if you want it to live free.” She swept her hand around, indicating the other diners, who abruptly found ways to look disinterested. “The obvious answer is to not keep the kid in a pyre. Or hearth.”

“The life of a hearthless isn’t much safer. Or even a blackband.”

“Wait up, there! I said free. You said safe. Two different things, and you can’t have both. Pilupura comes close, closer than anywhere else in the Dominion, but you pay a price to live there, the same as anywhere else. Important people are safe, but they’re never free. Only scum like me can go where they want and do as they please.”

“And that’s the life you want for our child? To raise it on the road?”

“It’s not like I came up with a complete plan just now, in the past minute. It’s just that I see your mistake: you’re thinking, ‘hey, I saved the Dominion from the biggest bastard on the Teshalun, so they’ll be grateful, and I can plop my family down somewhere pleasant and out of the way and they’ll be left alone.’ Not going to happen, lover. Not a chance. I wouldn’t even ask Mr. Longshot here for that,” she added, shaking the chain that held her idol. “Gratitude is like a hangover. You can’t expect it to last after the next morning.”

“Excuse me. I remember my debts.”

She reached over and took his hand. “Yes, I know you do, because you’re a better person than me, Ram. I can accept that. I know I make fun of you for, you know, the whole thing where you’re afraid to enjoy your own life, but that’s what I needed, these past few months. One of us has to be responsible.” She had half a smile on her face. “It’s just our bad luck that you can’t keep doing it, when you’re the one who knows how. So I’d better learn.”

He squeezed her hand. “Can you? Honestly.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Half the blood that usually goes to my brain is keeping your kid alive, and I can’t think. I’m all emotional and pissy and I say the wrong thing. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore, and I’m starting to wonder if I ever did.”

“You really didn’t. But that’s okay. Neither did I. We lived longer than we should have.”

Her eyes were bright now, bright and wet. “Isn’t that just a bitch? And now … what is this?” She swiped at her face with her arm. “See what I mean? This happens all the time now. It’s got me crying, and praying, and who knows what. It sucks!”

Ram had no idea what to tell her. Fortunately, their food arrived at that exact moment. Roast goat and fresh winter greens. It could have been jerked donkey that died of old age, and Ram would have welcomed it. They had the next several minutes to think in silence.

Darun finished first, and pushed her plate aside. “I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve got a lot to pray for here. You got dealt a lousy hand, don’t get me wrong, but it’s pretty straightforward, because you’ve only got a couple of blooms to plan for. When you’re gone?” She shrugged. “What’s there for the rest of us? Your mom and dad get another couple of kindlings of everybody remembering them for their dead kid. Maybe your dad can work, maybe not, but nobody has any idea what the world will look like when the dust settles. And I’m not counting on anybody to be grateful. Especially not to me. But like you said, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use us.”

“You want to vanish, then.”

“No, we can’t vanish. Ghosts don’t need to eat. But a moving target’s harder to hit, and there’s places where your name doesn’t mean as much. By the kindling, we can be in position in Dul Tarluma, or somewhere else on the Agamenti—that’s the far side of Jatu—“

“I know.”

“Or maybe way down the Teshalun, like where Shazru grew up. Doing what is the question. We’ll have two tiny ones to deal with. I’m sure this little bastard will be a tough one to handle,” she added, patting her stomach, “seeing as he’s our kid. Your mom can sew, and I think I can still sell. I just won’t have looks to go on, so I’ll need to develop new tactics. It could be interesting.”

“Some kind of trading company? Startup money could be the trick there; Dul Karagi’s not as rich as it used to be, and there’s a limit to how much I can or will skim, even for my kid.”

“Morals are such a pain in the ass.”

“Yes, they are. But we can deal with the details later. I still have to talk with Mother. And Father. I have some work to do with him, too, a father-son project.”

“Oh, how sweet.”

“Shut up. It’s important, at least to me. Anyway, what matters for now is that we’re in agreement, and you know what’s going on. The rest will have to wait.”

“Why? You’ve got another loony cripple to snuff?”

“No, but now that there isn’t an obvious crisis anymore, Etana and I can’t keep dodging the question of who’s in charge. I swear to you that I will do everything I can to keep you, and my parents, and the children, safe and free. That’s my promise. Now I need to make sure I’m in a position to keep it.”

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Chapter 16.5

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The long, cold journey through the ruins of Atellu put a swift end to Ram’s good mood. If he were a normal human, he could never have done it; there was no hope of making out any clear landmark through the unnatural mist and rain. Most of the area’s buildings had been wrecked, leaving only short lengths of ruined wall just high enough to impede without being visible from any real distance. Again and again, he stumbled up against a neck-high barrier, and could only follow it in the least inconvenient direction until it ended.

Even the great fire was too dim and diffuse to make a useful point of reference; its light took up a quarter of the sky. Fortunately, he could sense its true location with his eyes shut, just as he could sense the handmaidens continuing to bustle around. He hadn’t the slightest idea what they were running from or towards—it didn’t seem to be Ram—until his feet splashed suddenly into knee-deep water. Then he looked down, and cursed.

The Matriarch could not see the spot where she created her second wellspring, atop the cliff. She had chosen the point essentially at random. Ram had expected as much, and assumed (though even the Matriarch was not certain how it would work out) that the two pseudo-wellsprings, created within hours of each other, would suspend the water in the air between them. And so it had seemed to work, at first. But the newer spell was the stronger of the two, and gravity, perhaps, had a way of tipping the scales. However and whyever it had happened, the long and short of it was, High Atellu had become a lakeside community in the space of half an hour.

He squinted morosely at the water, struggling in vain to discern a far side. It was, at least, far enough from Mannagiri’s temple that he did not think he would have to actually swim to the stairs. But he would have to go around a substantial body of water to get there. He could get a feel for how large by observing how far the handmaidens’ haranuu were shifting themselves—presumably they had just been flooded out of their shelter. He suddenly felt extremely cold, and tired. But there was nothing for it but to keep going. Or around, rather.

Where he could find them, he cut across open spaces, where there had once been parks or gardens. At times he was forced to splash through knee-deep water, or tread softly over makeshift bridges—old doors and broken tables laid down end-to-end over expanses of treacherous, muddy footing that shifted like a restless beast with every step. Somebody had made those bridges before he got there, but he never saw who. Ram, it seemed was the only person mad enough to still be out in this mess. Nobody even tried to attack or hinder him. Mannagiri would not risk his wives to no purpose, would he?

Here and there he passed great piles of refuse, a hodgepodge of rubble, broken household goods, rotting food scraps, human and animal waste, all oozing their filth into the rising waters. Standing walls were scratched with snatches of graffiti, most of it in scripts he didn’t recognize. Special monuments to the beneficence of the new regime. Once he nearly tripped over a man’s body, lying facedown in the ooze of a trampled lawn. A visiting craftsman, he wondered, or a prisoner trying to escape? He might even have been a moonchild, anonymous in the muck of his open grave. Whoever he was, Ram hoped he hadn’t drowned.

The Temple drew near, and a fresh startling shape appeared out of the eternal gloom: the great black shadow of a tower, intact, backlit by the diffused glory of the God’s fire. He was sure there had been nothing so tall standing on his last visit. But his last visit had been right after Mannagiri’s coup; on closer inspection, he saw it was a narrow, octagonal structure, the top uneven, its sides decorated with incomplete mosaics. Work in progress. The style seemed to be aping Naimenka’s Garden, but it put Ram more in mind of a toddler’s stack of blocks. He moved on.

Suddenly heard a distant rumble, like thunder—if it was, it would be the first he’d heard. He only paused a moment before pressing on; lightning was unlikely to choose him for a target over the enormous building he was headed for. He wasn’t even sure lightning could hurt him. The sodden air was delightfully warm here, suffused with holy fire, and it cheered him. The last five hundred yards of his journey was lit up in gorgeous amber hues.

Atellu’s temple was set, like Ram’s own, at the end of a long, narrow street, though any statues of dead ensis had long since been cleared away. At the end, flanking the foot of the stairs, was a fresh pair of monuments Ram had commissioned himself: two square-sided pillars, immensely tall, made from sections of tough old Karagene oaks. Exaggerated scenes of Mannagiri’s life and recent triumph were burned into the grain. It had taken a whole woodshop four tetrads just to make them, at obscene expense, and another fortune spent to get them up the river.

The final effect was somewhat ruined now, because the grand stairway bridge between them had a huge gap in it. Quite recently made, Ram guessed, and not neatly; the lowest of the three supporting archways had collapsed, leaving a jagged hole. Mannagiri’s guardian murrush was stationed on the far side of it, ready to destroy any makeshift attempt to cross, or simply kill Ram in the unlikely event he made it over.

It was an obvious, if desperate, tactic to employ, and it might have spelled the doom of Ram’s entire plan if he hadn’t had a month to anticipate it. More or less counted on it, in fact. Under his helmet, he smiled, and reached out to check—yes. Another of his haranuu was approaching the pyre, right on schedule. He gave the murrush a jaunty wave as he stepped forward, fishing a pair of specially treated strings out of his pocket. Each went into a small and inconspicuous hole at the base of one of the pillars. Ram touched Beshi to their ends in turn, giving them a burst of heat, then stood back as they burned down.

The packed cores of Tegnem’s Earth went off with two roars, scarcely a second apart, and the pillars fell down one after the other. He’d only tested this on models—if very good models—but the real thing worked out well enough. The “decorative” fringe of steel spikes at the top came slamming down at precisely the right place, digging in deep. If they weren’t nearly so secure as the original bridge, they’d still be safer than braving the gap.

Ram jumped on top of the left pillar as soon as it settled, climbing the wet, sloping surface as quickly as he dared. Which was not terribly quick, even with the heavily textured surface and new boots on; he eventually got down on hands and knees for a fast crawl, gripping the edges with both hands.

The murrush simply stood and stared for some time, as if it—or Mannagiri, controlling it—could not comprehend what had just happened. Ram could hardly believe it himself, but he’d hired a very good team of craftsmen and architects and was prepared to take it on faith. He was nearly level with the beast before it stirred itself into action, turning to face Ram’s makeshift bridge. The gap was only five feet or so, just slightly too far to strike effectively with its claws. Would it try to jump? The odds of it actually smashing or dislodging the pillar before slipping and falling to its death were not especially high, but that was little comfort at the moment …

It shook its head, and turned to climb up the stairs as fast as it was able. Ram let out a sigh of relief, and set out after it. The water below him was lit up like a misted sunrise, the depth and distance impossible to gauge beneath luminous clouds—a beautiful promise of a cold, drowning death. He shivered, and set one hand firmly after another, digging his fingers into the wet wood for traction. Up close, the pictures burnt into the decorations seemed crudely and hastily done, a child’s job. Fitting enough for a pack of lies.

He had no time to stop and look; the murrush was pulling ahead. Sluggish though the beast was, it had a broad, prepared staircase to climb, not a beam of waterlogged wood barely three feet across. If it got to the top ahead of Ram, it could tear clean through the other end of his bridge, and send him plummeting to his death. And, by the looks of things, it would.

Best not to try, then. Once the beast had got a full five lengths of its body on him, Ram stood cautiously up on his beam. The murrush kept lumbering on. He looked over at the stairs. Not quite five feet, just as he’d requested. Even a normal human could have done it. Whether he would have dared to was another matter, over such a gap.

Ram dared, because he had to. The murrush couldn’t feel the thump, or hear him land. Totally focused on climbing as quickly as its cumbersome armored body would allow, it didn’t look back to check on Ram. It was nearly to the top when it paused—perhaps because it heard Ram’s footsteps drumming up the stairs behind it. Too late. He leaped into the air before it could even begin to turn around.

He landed on his sword-point, driving it deep into the gatekeeper’s back through the metal plates. Not because he wanted to hurt it—the poor creature was as much under compulsion as any of the women inside—but to give himself a sure grip. Sure enough, his feet slipped under him, but the hot scales were perfectly dry, and Beshi bit deep. The murrush screamed, and reared up; Ram held on as it twisted around on its hind legs, flailing uselessly in a panic to shake him off.

When he was facing the right direction, he kicked hard at the small of its back, and fell onto the landing at the top of the stairs with his sword smoking hot in his hands. The wound sealed in a flash of fire and ichor, and it turned back to murder him just as he bolted through the front door.

Now at last it was dry, and quiet, with just a faint mist creeping in through the front gate. He raced on; he could feel Mannagiri in his throne room, not so far away. But closer still was—

Lightning flashed, and Ram was thrown backwards. He rose to his knees, and a second blast tumbled him back out into the rain and the cold. Then the murrush was on him, slamming one heavy claw down on his chest. It stuck its face right up to Ram’s and roared, rupturing both his eardrums. He blacked out from the pain and the pressure, and came to just in time to see a handmaiden step around him, in the far corner of his helmet’s vision, and throw Beshi over the precipice. He followed the bright speck of its spirit as it went clattering down into the deep.

The woman came back to lean over him, her hands on her hips. “Your hearing should be back by now,” she said after a moment. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t have this animal eat you one bit at a time? If you kept regrowing, and I kept heating you up, the meal could last forever.”

“Hello to you too, Mannagiri.”

“Answer my question,” growled the murrush.

“We don’t have forever, only two and a half blooms. And you’d get bored with it in less than a day anyhow.”

“You want to test that?” The murrush leaned a little harder; Ram’s breastplate groaned, but held.

“No. You’re not even going to try. You’re going to let me go now.”

“No, I won’t!”

Ram sighed. A more sensible, or even remotely curious, man would have asked why. Mannagiri was too stubborn and petulant to even know his damned lines. “Yes, you will,” he gritted back, “because I left a contingency plan. I’m not the kind of idiot who risks everything so he can run in waving a sword. Take a look south; I’ve got help on the way.”

The murrush paused, then scoffed, “One spirit, on the ground?”

“One spirit,” Ram agreed. “His name is Nusun, and he’s a murrush just like this fella here. He’s got three of his friends with him, from my Tegnembassaga. They were under orders to wait for the rain, then come in at full speed. It won’t be pleasant going, but your moonchildren are scattered or dead, your women outside can’t touch them in this, and your only other hope is trapped in here with you, because you’re a dumbass who knocked out his only exit to block a single attacker. There’s nothing out there that can stop them.”

“They can’t get in here either!”

“They don’t have to. The first thing they’re going to do is free your hostages. Then they’ll destroy every skybarque, anything that looks like you could use it to fix your bridge, and my two beams if I don’t let them know I’m still alive in here.”

“You really think I can’t stop them?”

“I know you can’t. I’ve made a deal with the Matriarch, and she’ll keep the rain going as long as it takes. Once the water’s in place here, she can keep it running in circles for days if she has to.”

“You’re lying,” the murrush blurted out.

“The only limit is food. I’ve given them permission to loot your grain, but I don’t expect they’ll find much worth eating. Every granary’s got be a cistern by now. Give it a couple days and it’ll all be inedible rotten mush. My boys will take care of the rest. Meanwhile, you’ll be stuck in here with scores of women and only whatever food you have on hand. We still need to eat.”

The great armored hand lifted slightly, exerting just enough force to hold Ram down. “So you want me to let you go, then you’ll call it all off?”

“Hell no. That’s not the point. We’re not negotiating here. I’m not stupid enough to turn my back on you, and you have nothing to offer. One way or another, you are going to die, and your dreams with you. That much I promise you. But I made another promise before, that Dul Atellu would live, and that matters to me. You can save it. Set me free, and you die fast, and I’ll do what I can to salvage the mess you’ve made of the pyre that depended on you. Your women won’t starve.

“So, are you going to let me up to finish this right? Are you going to face your fate like a man? Or are you going to go out like the miserable, spoiled, broken, cowardly, demented sack of shit you’ve been your whole life?”

The murrush peered down at him, perfectly expressionless. If Mannagiri were pure human, this would never work; Ram was banking on the slim hope that his haranu dominated him thoroughly enough to rationalize self-destruction for the sake of the women he abused. The phrase “like a man” would have to do a lot of the work …

At last the murrush shook its head, then bent down and bit clean through Ram’s wrist. Ram clenched his teeth, so that only the gurgling leftovers of a scream could escape him. He could sense more haranuu tiptoeing closer as the murrush lifted its head to swallow his right hand. Slowly, very slowly, his hand began to grow back, while he panted and gasped under the weight of the beast.

“Do you want me to do that again?” it said. Ram said nothing, and laid still. “I can. Many times. I can even tell the murrush to keep this up while I sleep. I won’t stop until you stop the rain. Then I’ll bite off your head, and finish it.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ram wheezed. “Your food’s already ruined. You’ll never save it. You’ll all starve without help.”

“I’ll risk it,” the murrush said, before turning to Ram’s left arm. It didn’t bite the hand off neatly this time; it worried and gnawed instead, rasping away skin and muscle to grind down the bones between its back teeth. When there was little left to chew, it stopped, and waited for Ram to stop crying before it went on, “If it doesn’t matter, why don’t you stop the rain now?”

Ram shook his head.

“You think you’ll outlast me. But I’ve done this a lot. Nobody’s as strong as they think they are. I’ll still be here in two tetrads, biting off parts of you. In a month, everyone else will be too weak to move, and some of them will be dead already, but we’ll still be here. You think you can handle that?”

Ram honestly didn’t think so, but kept his mouth shut.

The murrush laughed. It sounded unnatural; their kind had very little humor. “Why would we starve, anyway? I can just bite off pieces of you, and pass them around. Free meat for everybody. Funny how that works, isn’t it? Maybe we’ll just eat you for the next—ahhhh!”

Abruptly, the murrush lifted its arm and backed away down the stairs, snorting and shaking its head. Ram lost no time in rolling away out of its reach. He heard shouts and wails from inside as he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. He was unarmed, and his left hand still half-formed, and he had no notion what was going on, but he would never get a better chance.

The corridors were cluttered with frightened with women and girls, wan specters with stained robes and unkempt hair. All of them stepped aside to let Ram pass, and slid by in a blur as he raced for the heart of the Temple, following the screams. A man lunged at him from the shadows as he passed a side passage, swinging a sword, but the blade clanged off his helmet, and Ram didn’t even bother to hit back; he recovered his balance after two steps, and rushed on.

Mannagiri’s throne room was a mess of stinking black smoke and coughing, crying women. Ram tripped over something hot as he ran into the room, then ran into a young girl who was stumbling about with her hands over her face. The air was sooty and foul; he dropped to hands and knees to crawl, eyes clenched shut, to the place where Mannagiri’s spirit lay on the floor, bright as the morning star. He cut his hand on something sharp, paused, patted around blindly until he got something to grip it by. A knife?

Hands reached out to grab him, but they did not have the strength to stop him. He shrugged them off, then drove the knife down at the place where his enemy must be. He might have heard something like a moan through the murk. Again he stabbed, and again, feeling flesh yield to the blade. With his other hand—still regrowing—he felt around, pawing coarsely and wishing he had proper fingers. Cursing and coughing, he left the knife stuck in, he didn’t know in what, and used his right hand to feel over the faintly struggling body. He found a throat, and squeezed. Cartilage and bone cracked under his fingers. He dug in tighter, shook it back and forth to bang the flopping head against the floor.

Slowly, the dazzling light in his spirit’s sense faded. When he was sure it was gone, he let go, and turned around to crawl out the way he came. He was dizzy; even an ensi needed to breathe. The women had left already. He met several of them, gasping and hacking, leaning against the walls in the hall outside. They glanced at him, then looked away. Their robes were all burnt tatters now, leaving them half-naked. But that wasn’t why they were looking away.

A long time later, someone thought to heat the air down the way, starting a draft to clear the foul air. Ram sat at the base of a wall and covered his face while the smoke and soot passed by. While he was waiting, he checked—good. Pimna and Shennai were still alive, down in their little tomb. Still trying to raise hell, perhaps, but he couldn’t even see the fruits of their efforts where he was. Soon he would get them out. But there were things he had to know first.

The room still stank, but now the air was clear enough to show him why: the remains of five people lay on the floor, all badly burnt. He couldn’t tell, but he thought they might have been young men. Mannagiri’s ornate wooden throne was now a burnt and shattered mess as well. The man himself—if you could call him that—lay at its foot, the knife still buried deep in his stomach. It was about the same size as the kitchen tool Shimrun had pocketed for his failed assassination. In fact, it might have been the same knife.

A young woman’s head poked timidly into the room. “His brothers attacked him?” She nodded, not smiling. “And he fought back.” Sloppily, in a hurry, and with no thought for the consequences. Somehow he’d set his own throne on fire in the process. It sounded about right.

Suddenly Ram became aware of a moaning noise in the distance. Was someone actually mourning Mannagiri, or was it simply shock and grief for their situation? He made to go check, and the girl spoke up abruptly: “We told them to.”

He turned back. She was looking at the bodies. “You told them to try and kill him?”

“Ages ago. We gave the smartest one a weapon, and told him to keep it a secret. But they all hated him, just like we did. We were only waiting for a moment. You were a good distraction, but if you hadn’t come along, we’d have found another. We didn’t need you.”

Ram looked at the dead tyrant. “Maybe you didn’t.” Then he left.

Some ways away, a man was lying on the floor and crying. He was quite pale, with messy hair and soiled clothes. Ram could look past that to the light inside him, which was steadily growing brighter. It seemed the man didn’t care for the experience; he was biting savagely at his own forearm, drawing blood with every bite. Ram could barely hear the man’s moans and cries for the blood bubbling out onto his face. He knelt down—kicking away an indwelt sword from the floor next to him—to rescue the arm.

“Don’t bother,” came a voice from behind him. He started, but it was only the girl from the throne room. “He’s always like that. Or almost always, anyway. He can’t even talk, the whole world just overwhelms him, so he hurts himself whenever he gets upset. Sleep drugs don’t work since he indwelt. We used to try and calm him down, but we’ve been too busy lately. The bites heal right up,” she added, as Ram tugged at the arm. “It doesn’t seem to matter if you stop him or not. He’s quieter this way.”

“I don’t care.” He strained every way he could, but he couldn’t budge the arm. The man was closer to his pyre than Ram was to his. Finally he gave up, and got back to his feet. If ordinary living was unbearable, he couldn’t imagine what inheriting from the likes of Mannagiri would do to this poor bastard.

“Hail,” he intoned down at him, his voice soft but bitter. “Hail, heir of Atellu.”

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Chapter 16.4

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In a way, it had been a splendid victory. Dul Karagi alone had fought off a shab host, and taken very few civilian casualties. But Barenmul, as Ram had plainly seen, was finished. Virtually all of its stored food, and ninety percent of its housing, had been destroyed, and much of its cropland ruined. The people who had already left did not come back, and those who remained had no lives to return to; Etana’s great challenge for the next several tetrads was keeping the lot from starvation, and finding places for them to stay.

His difficulties were aggravated by a sudden manpower shortage. Many of his flamekeepers had died in the streets of Barenmul, and only twenty-four of Ram’s new militia reported for payment two days after the battle; it wasn’t clear how many were dead and how many had simply deserted. Either way, it was one man in ten remaining, and Dul Karagi was on edge.

No pyre paid and equipped an army of elite warriors merely to protect its handmaidens for an hourlong battle every twelve months. Flamekeepers were meant to keep the peace, and if Ram had never much cared for them as a class, he had learned enough over the past bloom to worry about what would happen in their absence. Many of the citizenry were angry now, and frightened. If the pyre’s official bullies could not keep order, the countenance system would certainly come to the fore, and the proud patriarchs of the great families at the top would become the generals in a hopeless war of all against all.

Etana’s solution to both his problems was grotesque, but sensible: he drafted every young Barenmula man into military service, with his first orders being to sift through the ruins of his home for usable weaponry. They would all be militia, of course; class prejudice aside, hearthborn men wouldn’t be able to navigate the murkily political world of the Lugal’s retainers. The Barenmula accepted with few complaints—they had nowhere else to go. Everyone unfit for the miltia was left to salvage and repair duty, in the hopes that the hearth might be viable again in a kindling. They trusted to their enlisted kinsmen to earn them their keep.

Ram counted himself lucky that he had his own relatively straightforward problems to deal with instead. He had not forgotten his vision in the rains, only deferred it in the face of the more urgent threat. As the Lugal shifted more and more of his attention to keeping the pyre stable and secured, Ram found himself at perfect liberty—with far more power than he would have expected.

Both of them had failed to save Barenmul, but Ram had played the more active and visible role in salvaging what he could. Many of Etana’s supporters were dead, and the remainder, like his new auxiliaries, had seen the God’s light destroy the invaders. Who was the real war leader now? Ram didn’t know, but Etana seemed indisposed to raise the question, and turned a blind eye as his Ensi increasingly took the kind of independent actions which normally would have required the Lugal’s personal seal and signature to authorize. Ram could commission work from the murrush, commandeer the pyre’s craft for his personal use, draw vast credit from the banks in Dul Karagi’s name, and never hear a word of official displeasure.

He rewarded that compelled and grudging trust by becoming a virtual hermit within the pyre, leaving the Temple or Palace only when absolutely necessary for his plans to liberate Dul Atellu. And he needed every moment; much as he yearned to destroy Mannagiri—little as he liked leaving him enthroned on his heap of extorted wealth with his army of abused women—he would have to succeed on the first try. No amount of flattery or bribery would buy them peace again after a failed attempt on the tyrant’s life.

Somehow, a month and more passed in outward, uneasy peace. Boat after boat went up the Teshalun, bearing gifts, or flew the skies bearing Ram’s messages to other pyres. All the while a different convoy of tinap messengers was passing under the water, keeping up a maddeningly delayed conversation with the increasingly anxious Matriarch of Dul Atellu. The whole plan depended on her support, and required her to do something that had never, to Ram’s knowledge, been done before.

It seemed to Ram as if it ought to be simple enough, but it was as unprecedented, and the political ambiguity made it harder for the old tinap lady to bear. She had helped him before under duress, without a contract; now he was asking her help to kill the highest human authority she had ever dealt with. Even as she saw the necessity of it—Mannagiri had broken too many of his pyre’s agreements to count, which offended her terribly—Ram’s plan was scarcely less offensive to her propriety. He could only take it slow, and patiently cajole her.

It was nearly the nadir of the bloom before Ram boarded a skybarque for Dul Natati, early one morning on the peak of a tetrad. Everything had been arranged in advance, and gone smoothly enough. The name of Rammash tem-Karagi was by now enough to push through any number of irregular if not outright bizarre requests.

Most notably, a hundred of Dul Natati’s handmaidens were, at the time he landed, pouring all the flame they could into the river, creating an enormous plume of steam visible from miles away. They had been doing it in shifts since last evening, at Ram’s request, and the whole area was by now so hot as to force all traffic away from the waterside. He hadn’t even told them why they were doing it.

The main difficulty had been convincing them that he was serious—he couldn’t recall how much money he’d offered, something north of a hundred gold tanbirs. If this worked, they would not care that he didn’t have the money to pay them; if it didn’t, he would likely be dead, and they would have far larger problems. As it cost them nothing but a day of lost revenue—and likely a lot of dead fish—they were content to comply, and see what happened. Curiosity was a powerful incentive. No doubt they noticed that the steam was clearly drifting northward, but Ram didn’t think they would guess the significance. Even if they somehow discovered that he’d made an identical request of Dul Shebnai, Atellu’s neighbor to the north.

Ram landed, and found a local barque waiting for him with its customary crew of three, again as requested. He had not told them their destination in advance, but they did not seem surprised when he told them to head upstream. The only cargo, besides Ram, was a good-sized chest, which he carried aboard himself. Once they were off, he directed the ladies to stay as low to the water as they could, and not to disturb him except for an emergency. Then he retreated to the hold. The timing of the next part would be sensitive.

He found Shennai and Pimna’s haranuu right next to each other in their dismal little room, huddled together for the little comfort and human contact it provided. It was their usual posture, these days; they had been practically entombed alive, and seemed to enjoy to his brief “visits,” when they could get news. He gathered Mannagiri had forgotten he had them, and they sometimes missed meals when everyone else did too.

He fell into Shennai this time—he still couldn’t tell them apart from a distance. He would have preferred to speak to Shennai through Pimna, but this was no time to be picky, and he didn’t like the thought that any part of this should be convenient for him. “This is Ram,” he said. “I’m coming.”

Pimna was staring at the floor, and took a long time to stir. He was just on the verge of repeating himself when she lifted her head and said, “Coming, are you? Good. It’s about time.”

“I know it’s been hard. I’m sorry. And … you know there’s no way to guarantee you’ll come out of this alive, don’t you? In fact, it’s not likely. You deserve better than this, after everything I’ve put you through. If you don’t want to go through with it, I understand.”

All stupor and lethargy vanished from Pimna’s face, and she gave him a look that suggested he had once again disappointed her already drastically-lowered expectations of him. “Obviously I would prefer to see the sun again. But if I don’t, do you have any idea what it means to serve, young man? I’ve dedicated my life to helping my pyre in whatever way I can. We all have. That is how a handmaiden lives. Or did you think courage and resolve were only for men with weapons?”

He switched hosts so he wouldn’t have to answer. “Shennai. What about you?”

The old woman smiled, a very thin smile. “Most of my sisters do not live much past my present age in the first place. I have been given a chance, a precious chance, to make right the kindlings of my life I have misspent. If this is how I must end it all, I can only say that the God has a poetic frame of mind. Let it be the seal of my life, and this most broken of boys my executioner.”

“Shennai, you don’t have to—“

Lord Rammash.” She stood up to face the door. “We have our duties. You have yours. Let us tend to them.”

“Fair enough. Just shut the door for now; I’ve still got a ways to go. Goodbye, Shunnar. Thank you, Pimna.”

The barque flew swiftly on as Ram opened his chest. Inside was a newly-made suit of heavy armor—sleeves and leggings of chain, breastplate, and backplate, with the awkward flaps to cover his thighs. The helmet came last, a heavy lump of metal leaving only a little space around the eyes so he could see. Every bit of it was extravagantly ugly, and uncomfortable to boot, but neither could be helped.

He’d had it made from swords whose masters had died at Barenmul. Tendrils of bronze looped around and over the flattened steel in a manner that aimed for artful but barely managed garish. The murrush of the Tegnembassaga had welcomed the novel challenge of reshaping indwelt metal; the spirits inside were ambivalent at best about having their purpose changed for them. Even so, Ram knew they would protect their Ensi better than anything else he could get.

His appearance did not reassure the women on the top deck, who were already a touch concerned by the dark cloud on the horizon. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any lightning.” Nobody asked him how he could know that. Or even stopped scowling.

They had passed the last of Atellu’s hearths already, were rapidly drawing near to the pyre proper. Game preserves and pleasure gardens rushed away below them, the former resorts of High Atellu’s elite. Now they were haunted by Mannagiri’s tame flocks of carrion-picking Moonchildren, who rode their brutes insolently through arbors, and let them drink at decorative pools. Several looked up, startled, as they passed overhead.

He’d ordered Shennai and Pimna to collapse the hallway leading to their room—a calculated risk. Mannagiri might well suspect now that Ram was attempting something desperate. He wouldn’t know for sure until they started trying to bring down the rest of the Temple as well, firing blind in all directions. They almost certainly couldn’t, but it would make an admirable distraction.

Now it was better for Ram to worry about the danger to himself. With his new suit on, Ram couldn’t possibly be more conspicuous to another ensi’s eyes. Very soon, their delicate little craft would be in striking range; it was time to disarm the pyre.

Fortunately, half a season in power had mellowed Mannagiri somewhat, and given him a taste for a broader variety of extravagance. Great mountains of tribute had been piling up on his docks, and he had elected to put it to use, Ram heard, in a series of outlandish monuments to himself. As he’d already killed or sold much of Atellu’s own artisan class, he’d been compelled to hire foreign labor—and more than a few foreign handmaidens, who had skills his own lacked. The obvious security risks were evidently outweighed by the sordid satisfaction he got from making other priests’ “brides” work to praise him.

So the mad ensi no longer took any notice of unfamiliar haranuu hanging about his fire. He hadn’t even noticed that one in particular had been sitting still in Low Atellu for three days now, in the very shrine he had taken Ram and company to for their tinap medicines. Now Ram directed his attention to that little spark by the riverside—the only spirit he recognized as his own.

It was Erimana. He could have asked any number of other handmaidens to do this, of course, and many would have been better suited to the task. They could speak more clearly, wouldn’t grow bored so easily. There was even a risk—a very small risk—that she would be somehow seen and recognized, though she’d hardly ever set foot outside the shrine. All of these considerations were outweighed by the thought that, when men spoke of this day later, they might remember it was a reshmarked girl who freed the Teshalun.

He found her sitting quietly in the elderly attendant’s bedroom, trying to read one of his devotional texts while he pored over the shrine’s accounts. “It’s time, Harram,” he said, through her lips. “Bring down the rain.” The old man looked up, startled, but hesitated for only a second before hurrying away.

The storm at Dul Karagi had given Ram only a very general idea of what needed to be done. He hadn’t even been sure it was possible until he spoke with the Matriarch, who assured him that the magical aspect of it was simple enough. A simplified version, in fact, of something he had seen at work himself, every time he went to the Goddess’s shrine in Urapu.

A wellspring, as it turned out, did not create water from nothing in the same way a pyre made fire. It could only make existing water feel an attraction for a particular location, and move there in spite of its nature. Underground water would move against gravity, even around impermeable layers, to reach the place a matriarch had blessed. This little miracle could last for almost a century once the quickened egg was offered.

But Ram didn’t need a century, only a day, and nothing so dramatic as flowing uphill through solid earth. Natati and Shebnai had put a great deal of water into the air last night, and the air was a natural enough place for warm water vapor to be. The Matriarch had strained herself only a little, and given up five or six unfertilized eggs, to gather that drifting mist together at a point directly over High Atellu.

Now, at Ram’s command, she worked her magic again, at the top of the cliffs above her. The exact spot didn’t much matter—the enchantment would not be very precise, being a crude and temporary measure. The original spell’s power was already fading. When she issued her new command, it was stronger, and the water obeyed. The rain fell.

Rain, in Ram’s experience, began as a few drops, before progressing to a downpour. What fell on Dul Atellu was not so reticent. In moments, the whole pyre was sheathed in a billowing white fog, an unnatural torrent which hit like a hammer over a mere square mile and left the adjoining area nearly untouched. A damp wind surged out in all directions from the force of the flood, only to be sucked back in with equal violence as the newer spell reclaimed it, generating countless tiny whirlwinds in the process. Grass, trees, and shrubs bent back and forth, a million living pendulums; moonbrutes bellowed in confusion, while their riders struggled to control them. Probably a good number of them would wind up thrown and trampled, and Ram’s conscience would not be greatly troubled.

At the moment, he was more worried for himself. There was no question of getting the barque any closer; the handmaidens screamed and swore as they struggled to pull it out of the howling vortex he’d inadvertently created. “I didn’t expect it to do this!” Ram shouted. They didn’t even look at him. He waited until the barque had been nearly swatted to the earth by a particularly fierce gust before hopping overboard, landing in a tortured sycamore fig that cracked in half to break his fall.

Ram hurried to extract himself from the tangle of branches, and set out at a run as soon as his legs would bear him. He had a mile and more to go, through storm conditions, through a wind that couldn’t make up its mind whether to work with or against him. Branches, leaves, and loose earth danced in the air around him, forcing him to lower his face and trudge for the fire with his eyes half-closed. From time to time a loose rock would ding against his armor, and he would stagger on with a yelp of surprise.

Presently the storm settled into a pattern, sucking in and puffing out at intervals of a second or two. Ram was reduced to crouching and dashing forward in sync, making slow progress. Water gathered on his armor, dribbled off, and ran in rivulets toward the pyre, where he could see the spirits milling around madly, like ants from a kicked nest. With this level of turmoil, Pimna and Shennai would be no more than an afterthought, no matter what they did.

An age of stumbling later, he noticed that the air was warmer than it had been, and risked looking up. He’d come farther than he thought; the buildings of High Atellu were huddled around the knees of their temple, dim shadows in the whitened world. Water ran down the ruins of the outer wall in sheets, feeding brooks that raced impossibly away over level ground to find their appointed place within the pyre. Under his armor the moisture of the overloaded air had settled into a slick film of condensation, rushing endlessly down his body to find the ground. And yet he wasn’t cold.

Suddenly the Temple flashed, and a hot wind surged past him, just forceful enough to sway him back on his feet for a moment. He laughed. Mannagiri was attacking, with the full force he could bring to bear. Likely he’d been hurling down fire for some time already, and Ram hadn’t even noticed. He could vomit out all the heat he pleased, and the space between them would suck up the lot and ask for more, because—as any of his handmaidens could have told him—there was nothing more troublesome to heat up than a great mass of water. Every drop Mannagiri sent steaming up to heaven would be replaced by ten more, and come down seconds later after giving its heat to the winds.

Purely to be annoying, he stood in place for some time looking up at the Temple, letting the rain trickle down his face through the helmet’s slit. The great fire grew brighter and brighter, as Mannagiri sent its power down in a continuous stream. It made no difference; the attack arrived at Ram’s end as a great plume of pleasantly warm mist. He chuckled, and moved on with his hand on his sword’s hilt, wondering if he might hear a scream of impotent rage over the endless drumming of the rain.

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Chapter 16.3

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One resh—if there ever was such a thing as one alone—might be a danger to travelers. Two would be a nuisance, but as likely to fight each other as any human. If there were three, a pair of them would gang up on the third, if food got short. Reshki were stupid, impulsive creatures, driven mad by the agony of their own decay, and in small groups incapable of self-control. It was only large numbers, which they rarely acquired, that gave them the will to focus their terrible speed and ferocity on a long-term goal.

How large a number was needed? Nobody really knew. Fifteen, twenty, thirty? Whatever the number was, it was known as a sul. It had been a small sul of reshki which attacked Urapu. Ram was all but certain that it was a sul he heard outside the walls of Barenmul hearth that evening.

A trumpet sounded in the air over Ram’s head as he ran for the stairs up the hearth’s outer wall, confirming Bal’s alarm for the Lord Etana. His own militia would be with them, and he’d promised to fight beside them. There was no helping that now. He’d be needed more here, if he could do anything at all.

The yellow sun had not set yet, not quite, but it was hidden by the hills behind them; if the night of dark dreams had not technically begun, it was close enough as to make no difference. He couldn’t say whether he saw anything from the wall or not. There might have been a dark cloud in the distance, sparkling with cold blue lights, or there might have been only the ordinary speckling of stars against the deepening blue of dusk. Barenmul’s hills did not end at the hearth, and there were plenty of rolls and folds in the earth thereabouts for foul things to hide in.

As for the reshki, he could not scent them at that moment. It was said—as many things were said—that the bazuu had made the reshki, long ago. It might not have been terribly hard to round some up from the wild, perhaps even a sul’s worth. He’d never heard of reshki being used in the war, but keeping them fed and contained in the deep desert would have been more bother than it was worth. They were no faster than shabti, and far more fragile. Driving them into a hearth, to ravage and disrupt and terrify before the main attack, would be another matter.

He turned his face back to the bondservants, frozen uselessly around their little heaps of bricks, and screamed, “RUN! RUN OR DIE!”

A few bolted. The rest only squealed, or looked at each other. It would make little difference either way; men could not outrun monsters. Ram turned back to the fields. Somehow Beshi was already in his hand; irritably, he sheathed it—we’re not going to hack the whole army to bits alone, ass—and turned his mind to the great light he could feel atop the tower at his back.

He’d never dared to look through a hearth or pyre before. He’d always been afraid of the souls of the men who’d died to make them. Now he found himself simply floating in the air, lonely and austere. The world beneath him was small and indistinct, unworthy of his attention. Except for the area to his immediate east. There, he saw with waxing disgust, was something that should not be. Something unsanitary, perverse. There was no question of what needed to be done, and Ram had barely to suggest it to make it so.

The limits on a hearth’s output were just as unclear as the limits of a sul, and for much the same reason. It could not manifest from a distance, like a handmaiden, but it could throw the flame directly, and its connection to the pyre allowed it to draw on far more power at once. For the sake of Bal and the bonded, Ram restrained it to a relatively narrow stream. It had almost a mile of open space to cross, and by the time it arrived, it would be less a stream than a boiling wave of scalding air several hundred feet across, making a noise like the breath of a hundred murrush.

He had no idea what effect it would have at such a distance, but there was no need to babysit the hearth. He returned to himself, and the transfigured spirit of long-dead Barenmul—if that was what it was—kept up the assault without him. Ram would only need to intervene if the enemy got so close that the spirit risked killing its own community in the process of defending it.

Six skybarques were aloft now, swooping down on the eastern horizon. Every one bore eight or ten handmaidens—not enough to turn a full invasion, but more than sufficient to frustrate and delay. They bobbed and danced on the hot updrafts from the hearth’s fire. From the walltop, their own efforts amounted to nothing more than a series of pretty sparkles, but they made a noise like a thunderstorm. Up close, it would be an inferno.

Still, it wouldn’t stop them all. They might kill a fair number, but even a coordinated barrage, by the handmaidens of four pyres working together, could only blunt a shab charge. The majority of them would make it through this token bombardment intact, and Ram had no way of getting even his handful of militiamen in front of them. Bal—he looked back—was still groaning and crying on the ground, for whatever reason. Which left only Ram, and a ten-foot wall meant for keeping out hearthless and moonchildren.

He had perhaps a minute before contact. Perhaps less. Etana’s strategy was plain enough, and Ram could not deny its cold wisdom: to wear the enemy down, making him offer up a half-ton of his dead black flesh for every foot he traveled forward, so that little would survive to meet the core of Karagi’s forces by the water.

Ram’s own path was less clear. This wall would be no protection. He might hide, but the reshki could sniff him out, and if they did not the shabti would probably crush whatever building he hid in. It would be easy enough, he supposed, to order one of the barques to turn and pick him up, and bear him back to join the Lugal’s forces and his own men.

Unprompted, the spirit within presented him with a vision: hundreds of bondsmen cowering in the shadow of the wall behind him, looking up to see a skybarque gliding down to their wall. It would descend, a glorious vision of silk sails and shining glass such as they had never seen so near, and bear their priest away to safety alone, and they would have a few precious moments to ponder the vision they had been vouchsafed before the reshki came scampering over the wall, or the shabti smashed through it, and destroyed them. And then, whether standing in the streets with their heaps of bricks, or cowering in the corners of their pitiful huts, they would all die alike.

And the spirit said, very firmly and clearly: no.

What do you want me to—

It had already given way on the cowardly surrender to the Atellui. It would not allow Ram to abandon his duty to his inheritance. It was a priest’s duty to die; did it make a difference how?

Ram tried to turn away from the battle, and found he couldn’t. His foot wouldn’t lift from the battlements. He tried to call one of the barques, and again was stymied. This is insane! What good does it do for me to die with them?

A priest did not make his people suffer in his place. That was the greatest perversity of all.

The shabti were closer now, and the fires with them. Closer still, the tender new crop of winter barley was shaking; Ram thought he could descry little black spots scattered throughout the shoots. Certainly the stink of kurtushi was clear enough now. Yet Ram did not feel fear, precisely. Irritation, frustration, and rage, but not fear. Another gift of the spirit’s.

Soon the fire was so near he could see the women atop the skybarques, leaning over the railings and shouting—there would be no songs for this battle—as they cast down gobbets of flame. Below, the shabti convulsed, sent up clouds of their atomized shells to mingle with the smoke of the green plants, but kept coming obstinately on, rolling, crawling, and bounding through the onslaught in a hundred different shapes.

The reshki were only a short distance ahead of them, dozens of simian grey and black shapes moving slower than Ram would have expected. Here and there they halted entirely, rocking back on their haunches to stare at the hearth, or to shriek at the sky. A few shook their heads irritably, or swatted the air about them, as if trying to drive off a passing fly.

It was not the kind of behavior Ram would have expected from a sul at war; were they suspicious at the lack of defenders? He had never heard of reshki showing caution, but then no sul lasted for long enough to properly study. Typically their numbers would surge for just long enough to get nine of every ten killed in a frontal assault, along with any number of innocent humans.

There was so much going on that Ram nearly missed it when it happened: a shab, fleeing the holocaust behind it, ran headlong into one of the halted reshki, knocking it flying. The beast landed on all fours some distance away, facing the shab; with a snarl, it bounded back towards it, landing atop the bright-blue locus, which was still struggling to rebuild a protective armor carapace after passing through the flames. Ram wasn’t close enough to see what had happened—a bite? A swipe of the claws?—but it ended with the shab exploding into black dust, and the resh leaping off to attack the shab behind it.

It might as well have been a prearranged signal. All at once, inexplicably, reshki all up and down the long, long line halted their already diffident advance to turn on their masters. If they were not quite so fast or durable, they made up a good deal of the difference with sheer agility; a resh in the prime of its life was far better at dodging than a man with a crowhammer. Everywhere Ram looked, the little vermin were dancing lightly over or under attacks, then pouncing to tear at a locus.

He might have had no idea, strictly speaking, what the hell was going on, but that was no reason not to make the most of it. Even as the enemy drew closer, the hearth had kept its fire concentrated on the same spot, some distance out; however much it hated bazu craft, actual tactical thinking was too much to expect of a bodyless spirit. After some tinkering, Ram got it sweeping rapidly back and forth with a tight beam like a scythe, a hundred feet beyond the resh line.

Then there was nothing to do but stand on the wall and watch with some chagrin as a relative handful of monsters formed a better defensive line than Ram could have put up with ten times as many veteran militia. They coordinated perfectly, no two picking the same target, never getting in each other’s way, and after every kill they moved instantly and fearlessly to the next attacker stumbling its way through the fires. Could a true sul read each other’s minds?

Ram turned—it seemed he was allowed to move again—at the sound of dragging footsteps. Bal was making his unsteady way up the stairs behind him, with one hand on the wall and the other held out in front, as if to catch himself if he tripped and fell on his face. When he got to the top, he slumped against the battlement, and bestowed a somewhat woozy smile on the carnage unfolding before him.

Tentatively, Ram reached out to touch his shoulder. “Bal? You better now?” Without taking his eyes off the battle, Bal slapped the hand away, then pointed at the slaughter and made a gargling noise in his throat that sounded something like resh-talk.

Whatever was going on, the bazuu commanding the shab force were not as stupid as Barenmul’s fire, to keep up an attack that wasn’t working. Out in the distance, far beyond the burn zone, Ram could see the shadows spreading out along the ground, forming two broad wings to encircle the hearth and move in from the sides, where there were no treacherous reshki to thwart them.

There was a spot, some distance back, where the haranuu were clustered tightly together; Ram picked one at random, and found himself in one of several hundred handmaidens standing on the roof of the common hall. He looked around for Etana, and found him at the very center of the building, peering up at the sky with a hand over his eyes. Probably waiting for a barque to land and report. Ram was faster. “Etana!” he shouted from where the handmaiden stood. “They’re splitting into two groups now! Flanking! Watch your north and south!”

For a long moment, the Lugal only gave him a hard stare. Then he nodded, and Ram released the woman, feeling the same queasy sensation he’d felt for the past few days, that he was doing something utterly necessary yet deeply wrong. He hoped he never lost that feeling. It was his best defense against becoming another Mannagiri, however many lives he was saving with this casual borrowing of human flesh.

Meanwhile, the six barques on skirmish duty had peeled away, three each to harry the north and south wings. Four more were rising from the hills to join the hunt—Ram was fairly sure that was all the reserve Etana had to commit, unless he threw in the two he was keeping aloft as his eyes in the sky. Four or six, it still wouldn’t be enough to stop them, and there was nothing else for Ram to do where he was. The sul had what remained of the frontal offensive well in hand, with Bal and Barenmul’s assistance; Ram had a promise to keep. Quelling yet another twinge of conscience, he summoned one of the Lugal’s two “eye” barques.

A thought came to him as the gorgeous craft descended: was it not fortunate that Ram had not fled, the way he wanted to? The God would not abandon a faithful priest.

He’s abandoned plenty of us before, and I never heard that he could control reshki. Anyway, you didn’t know that would happen any more than I did, so shut up.

From two hundred feet, the situation was not promising. The shab host looked to be every bit as vast as the one he had fought last bloom, with sparkling black clouds stretching back to the horizon, only spreading out when they drew nearer the hearth. At least Natati and Shasipir would have a whole bloom untroubled by war—assuming the bazuu didn’t decide to press whatever advantage they won here, and wage war bloom-round. If it was only a matter of acquiring enough shabti, they would likely win plenty of human captives here.

Etana’s defensive arrangements appeared straightforward: every handmaiden who was not aloft huddled on the roof of the common hall, which Ram assumed was packed with every remaining free Barenmula. He could see an anxious crowd in the courtyard. Master Nusun stood in the hearth’s main street at the hall’s corner, guarding the approach from the east. Ram didn’t know if the other murrush, who worked the Tegnembassaga, had been unwilling to come, or if Etana had been unwilling to risk them for the marginal gain of having them as roadblocks.

Every other approach to the hall was blocked off by a little clump of his new militia. The houses and shops behind them were packed with flamekeepers, ready to either leap out and ambush any shabti who got past the crowhammers or to cower in shelter while the enemy passed them by en route to the common hall. Certainly they would show no such reticence if they spotted a common soldier running for it. It was only a modified version of the standard battle formation, and the same rules would apply.

It was no better than Ram had expected, but he motioned for the barque to bring him down over the largest gathering, a pack of thirty-odd nervous men packed in front of a little square with a fountain in it. He’d have shouted something encouraging down to them, if he could only think what. He settled for something simple and true: “This is Rammash! The shabti are sweeping around to enter the hearth from the north and the south. Brace yourselves!”

Not that they could do much else. Still, he sent the barque on the rounds, spreading the warning, while the shabti all too quickly battered their way through the outer walls and funneled in through the hills, ineffectually harassed by airborne handmaidens. Ideally they would take this opportunity to bull-rush the common hall through the streets until they hit the militia blockades, at which point their dead would pile up enough to obstruct them as usual and the handmaidens could rain hell on them until they fled or were annihilated.

Again, however, the bazuu in command were not fools. Once they had massed around the hearth’s flanks, the hills and outlying buildings gave the shabti a measure of shelter, and made it impossible for five barques to keep them all busy. The flying batteries could only flit about aimlessly, striking where they saw an opportunity, letting two of the enemy past for every one they killed. The sun had set, and it was hard to see a night-black enemy in the twilit streets.

From the lee of the acolytes’ hill a gigantic shape came rolling forward, a ball fifteen or twenty feet across. A barque flitted in to intercept, too slow; the blasts knocked off a barely visible plume of dust from the thick rind before it struck home. It could have flattened the nearest group of militia, of course, but after gathering momentum through the streets it was nearly as quick and far more comfortable to veer away from the mass of trembling spikes and slam into the little house beside them instead. Its north face caved in on impact, and the enormous sphere was deflected, flying into the air. The women on the rooftop lit it up as soon as they saw it, but it looked to Ram as though some portion survived to crash down on the other side.

All around the hearth, other shabti replicated the feat, even as their comrades came pouring in behind them. Flamekeepers came scampering out of their holes, racing the terrified militia to the hall. Above, the barques had lost all semblance of organization, firing wildly at the enemy streaming past them. So much for defensible perimeters. Enough of them were still rushing the east end that he didn’t dare pull the hearth’s attention away.

The hall was ringed with light now, as every handmaiden on the roof concentrated on pouring out as much destruction as she could on whatever patch of street was nearest. Ram doubted if any of the normal humans on the scene could even bear to look at it directly. Nusun had abandoned his post—too hot even for him—to meet the enemy, vomiting heat wherever he went. One of the spheres made to roll over him, only to disintegrate fifty feet out and have its loci battered apart by his claws. He, at least, would be going home alive.

The militia and flamekeepers were caught in the streets together, with no safe place to run. At the odd corner, seeing no other option, they made a stand together, with no regard for rank or station. If they held their ground, the shabti might decide it was more convenient to slightly alter their course—or else go out of their way to crush the knot of defiance. The bazuu would prefer to kill indwelt humans, Ram was sure, but anyone else they captured could be turned into the next crop of warriors.

And still the enemy boiled in through the gaps in the hills. How could an ensi keep his promise, in the face of such a disaster? Anything, surely, would be better than floating above to watch as his men were slaughtered. He turned to his handmaidens—this craft, on its mission of reconnaissance, had only the minimum of three. They’d likely spent most of their lives in workshops or kitchens, and every one of them had been taught, from girlhood, to respect authority and wait for commands. Their spirits would reinforce the lesson every day: they were servants, not leaders.

“The common hall is as secure as anyone can make it,” he told them. “The rest of the hearth is lost. From now on, we rescue the men. All of them. Understood?” He heard no argument, and passed on the word to the other ships.

Any barque he landed would be mobbed before it could take off again, so he set them all hunting across the battlefield, seeking out survivors to shepherd them together into larger groups, where they could be more easily defended from above. It was like trying to swim through a river in flood to pick up the survivors of a wreck, if the river were alive and actively trying to kill everyone in it.

It wasn’t quite hopeless—they only lost about as many as they saved. Eventually, he had a crowd of a few score gathered together in the lee of the forested hill, half of them unarmed, defended by an orbiting screen of four barques. It was the best he could do.

With a long, rumbling roar, a broad stretch of the besieged hall’s south wall fell in. Ram got a half-second’s glimpse of black shabti erupting out of the gap before it was drowned in fire. He looked to his crew, who gave him only grimaces in return. Tunneling. The bastards were tunneling, now. That group had been wiped out, but so what? These creatures didn’t care for their lives. With their numbers, they could do it as many times as they liked, until the whole building collapsed and everyone in or on it was dead. Already many of the citizens would be suffering heatstroke inside.

Nothing else for it, then; if all those handmaidens died, they would lose more than just Barenmul. He tried not to think of the bonded as he gave the hearth’s fire a new command, and it turned its attention to the west. Abandoning the scything blade for focused pulses of power, it shattered half a block with every blow, kicking up man-sized chunks of debris like so much dust, one or two blasts every second. Just the flying shrapnel was enough to tear a shab in half; his little company of survivors scrambled farther up their hill to hide in the trees. The handmaidens ducked down on the rooftop, hoping for some shelter from the body of the building. Even Master Nusun, still brawling away near the breach at the common hall, took cover inside.

Ram didn’t need to order his barques to clear the area. That was a simple matter of self-preservation, now. Some headed north or south, to try and stem the influx, while others made for the east. Only his own craft stayed behind, circling more than two hundred feet up to get out of the hearth’s line of fire. He and his three handmaidens had the only clear view of the battle’s end, as sheer overwhelming firepower ground the shabti down like the poor scuttling black beetles they were.

It might have been one minute, or two, or perhaps three, before the fire halted for lack of targets. Somewhere in the devastation—Ram had not seen it—the bazuu had given up hope of taking the common hall, and called a retreat. They were still scarcely an hour into the night of dark dreams, and the surviving shabti could sweep back to the rookery to guard it until it retreated to Kur in the morning, satisfied with a very successful campaign.

And it was successful. Barenmul was lost, a second Urapu. Most of the populace survived—he hoped—but the center of the hearth was an overgrazed pasture, bare trampled earth. The cropland would be little better, torn up where it wasn’t kurtushi. Only one part of Barenmul remained intact, and Ram directed his women to take him there now.

He suspected the bonded had had the right idea all along. If their piles of bricks lay untouched, so did the people themselves, crouched inside their hovels while they waited for the end of the world. The fields outside were littered with the corpses of reshki, but there was no sign of damage to the walls, and the dead shabti had already evaporated. The streets were silent.

Just one lone man stood, perfectly still, on the walltops. Ram jumped down some distance along the wall, and approached the sentinel with care as his women rushed back to their sisters on the roof. But he needn’t have bothered; Bal didn’t even turn to look as he approached. The Jackal’s eyes were fixed on a bare patch of dirt at the base of the wall.

“Gone again, are you?” No reply. Not even a twitch. “Maybe I should have expected that. You haven’t killed anything, but …” Ram waved at the remains of the sul. “Something happened here. I just wish I knew what.” If Bal in fact had a resh’s soul inside him, it was awake again—or else his human part was fast asleep. Had he known this would happen, that he would die another of his little deaths? Or had he consciously decided to do anything at all? It might have been pure instinct that drove him; possibly he could no more choose not to drive back a sul than Ram could choose not to burn at the kindling. From what little he had seen of Bal-the-man, however, he seemed to be decent enough. He might have taken this path anyway, given the choice.

“Who is he?” said a voice from the foot of the wall. Ram looked down and saw a barefaced young woman, about twenty, in a drab smock. She was a skinny, sickly little thing, with an underdeveloped jaw and dull eyes. “That’n, he just stood there, yellin’ something awful, the whole time. Didn’t hardly never move, never said nothing at all. Is he funny in the head? Sir,” she belatedly added.

“That’s a good question, miss,” he said. “I don’t really know what to tell you; I barely know him myself. His name is Balnibduka, and you might say he’s a kind of priest.”

“A priest?” She squinted. “What god?”

“I don’t know that, either, and he can’t tell me. But we can spot our own. You have to give something up, to serve a god. And he gave up himself.”

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Chapter 16.2

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The first load of tribute went up the Teshalun in the tetrad after Ram’s rooftop conference. It was timber, naturally—a fine load of mature hardwoods that had been piling up by the riverside for want of a market. Atellu and the three pyres to its north were cut off to trade, along with the ordinary routes to Jatu, and nobody had much of a taste for luxury goods. Ram couldn’t imagine what Mannagiri would do with all those logs when he got them, but it was pleasant to imagine him struggling to get the wretched things up the cliff without all the help he’d scared away.

It bought them peace—of a sort. Mannagiri sent no more handmaidens to Dul Karagi. The very next white day, however, a swarm of shabti overran Dumenshina Beacon, staging area for every campaign; a barque flew in that afternoon with a report of the fields themselves uprooted by crawling black shadows, fertile earth scattered to the winds.

Per Imbri, this might mean that the bazuu had abruptly cut off negotiations with Mannagiri, that he was covertly breaking his new treaty, or that the bazuu had simply gotten irritated with the delay in their perennial ritual and decided to poke the humans to remind them of their line. It was hard to say which explanation was most likely.

“It’s not like the war really matters to them,” she explained to Ram over a game of tsympir that evening. He was learning the rules—or, at least, she was trying to teach him. Given the circumstances, he wasn’t enthusiastic about playing, but Imbri was often frustrated by inaction and games seemed to help her focus. “It’s more like, oh, I don’t know. Isn’t there a custom here where the less important sort of rich man makes a public donation to something everybody approves of, just so people will take him seriously?”

“I don’t know if I’d call it a custom,” Ram said, half-listening. He couldn’t quite remember the legal moves for the piece she’d just threatened, but he was damned if he was going to admit it.

“But it happens, right? The war’s like that, for the bazuu. They’re here to punish the Dominion, officially, and it’s really important to them, officially, but after hundreds of kindlings you’re still around and they’ve lost the taste for it. The wars used to be ferocious enough that many actual bazuu got hurt in them, and they can’t stand that. So they scaled back, and so did the Dominion. They don’t feel comfortable just giving it up, but it gets foisted off on the lower-ranking abizuu who have something to prove.”

“Not very flattering, from our perspective,” he said, and moved the piece at random. With luck, she’d be too distracted to notice. Bal, sitting across the room, raised an eyebrow before going back to his whittling project. His humanity seemed to be slowly emerging once again.

Etana and Piridur were far less sanguine; they had only three days until the shabti were likely to strike again, and Dul Atellu had been one of their three allies in the wars. Worse yet, they had no militia. For a quarter of an hour the next morning, Ram stood by the door of their council chamber listening to Etana’s lieutenants propose scheme after addle-brained scheme for making battle work without crowhammers. It seemed the flamekeepers were reluctant to do the job themselves.

By and by, he strolled out into the plaza and called for volunteers for a new militia, pledging something equivalent to two months of his old pay per battle. He had no idea how much money Etana had to spare, but that wasn’t Ram’s problem, and he wasn’t about to let civilians or handmaidens get slaughtered just because the Lugal was feeling cheap.

He made his offer, repeatedly and at great volume, in the style of an auctioneer, hoping for just such a young man as he had been himself, after that fatal white day in Urapu hearth. Who, who was ready to stand by their pyre in its hour of desperate need? When all the men who gathered to listen still seemed hesitant, he offered to lead them in battle in person, and hinted that he might use his power to help. That tipped the balance.

A few of the volunteers seemed familiar to Ram, but he did not trouble to take a second look, and declined to take notice if any of them winked. If anyone asked later, he could truthfully say that the men he remembered from his militia days had looked different (in that they had been much better fed and dressed). He certainly didn’t ask names himself, instead assigning registration of the new recruits to the first acolyte he saw—a junior clerk fresh out of school, who was carrying a message towards the Temple in a dilatory way. Ram ripped the seal off, verified that it was nothing critical, and told the boy to write down as many names as he could fit on the back.

It was remarkable how much you could accomplish with freshly laundered priestly robes and an air of total confidence. Within ten minutes he had impressed four more passing acolytes, started his troops jogging around the plaza, sent Bal with his lockpicks to open up the old militia barracks, and commandeered a laundry-woman’s cart to fetch as many of the pyre’s crowhammers as it could bear out of storage. By the time Etana finally poked his nose out his front door, Ram had thirty men lined up in rows, swinging, thrusting, turning and bracing for impact while bystanders clapped and cheered.

Ram motioned for his men to continue the current maneuvers—which they were executing remarkably well, for men who had never held the weapons before—while he sauntered over to confer with his chief flamekeeper. “Lord Piridur said I should have more freedom to act in the event of emergencies,” he began, before the Lugal cut him off.

“Do you seriously think you can reconstitute, equip, and train the entire militia in the space of three days?” he demanded.

“The entire militia? No. They’re going to have some trust issues.” Ram glanced toward the Temple, and added, “I think we can make up the difference, though.”

Etana shook his head, and shut the door without further comment. One of the recruits, seeing his retreat, struck up the ballad of Ektush im-Garza, but was quickly silenced with a hand over his mouth.

As predicted, they didn’t get the entire militia. The final tally, at the close of peak day, amounted to somewhere just over two hundred men, who essentially served on their word; if any of them decided they would rather take their single silver tanbir up front and vanish before battle, nobody had any means of stopping them. Ram was counting on a combination of greed, bravado, and sheer curiosity to keep up their morale.

Those were the men for the battle. The battleground was another question. With Dumenshina destroyed, the ritual dance of countless centuries was halted; there would be no assault on the rookery this bloom, and the bazuu, it was presumed, would ravage wherever they pleased in a broad arc up and down the Teshalun. Every skybarque available from Karagi, Natati or Shasipir was kept in the air, sweeping back and forth across the desert.

When waning day arrived, Ram retreated to his bedroom in the Palace, shifting his perspective relentlessly between two dozen flying craft. It was tedious work, but it was all he could do, and around noon his patience was rewarded with a smudge of black against the eastern horizon a short distance up the river. After a hasty consult with his map and the crew of the barque, he ran to find Etana and alert him that Barenmul Hearth was the most likely target.

“That’s surprisingly close,” Etana said. “Are you sure?”

“It’s one of the largest,” Ram said. “I assume they wanted a major target, and the big ones are closer to the pyre.” He didn’t believe it was a coincidence that it was one of his hearths, either, when Natati and Shasipir were options. Or was that just his spirit’s vanity and paranoia talking?

“Even so, it’s damned short notice. I don’t know how many men we can move by nightfall.”

“I’ll call back most of the barques,” Ram offered. “They can help with transport.”

“No. Leave them in place. There’s nothing to prevent the bazuu from striking multiple targets.”

“And if they do?”

Etana bit his lip. “Fine. But they could still change targets to surprise us. Leave five up on an expanded course, plus a designated spotter near Barenmul. The rest can be diverted to troop transport.”

Ram saluted, then went back to work. It was nearly twenty minutes before he was finished with all of it, by which point Etana had once again submerged in his council chamber, discussing the logistics. Ram waited for some time outside the door, but when he was not called in to consult he wandered off to find Imbri instead. She was on her bed, twirling one of her bazu devices listlessly between her fingers.

He peered at it closely. “Are you doing something magic with that?”

She stopped twirling. “No. Just bored. Please don’t ask me anything about the shabti. I’ve been answering the same daft questions for two days, every time somebody got the brilliant idea to ask me. Somehow, none of them think to tell the others what they learned.”

“What kind of questions?”

“I told you: the daft kind.” She set down the trinket so she could tick them off on her fingers: “No, I can’t hijack the shabti. They’re controlled directly by their masters. No, I can’t track them. They’re a totally different kind of thing from the gates and rookeries my inductors aim for. No, I don’t know any way to communicate with them, or disable them, or anything else actually useful.”

“I think I get the picture. Nothing I personally need to know about them?”

“There’s not much to know. A shab’s locus is effectively a bazu soul with a loosely associated mass of subservient human spirits it can use as a shield against pyrelight. The locus can force the bonded matter to reconfigure as it pleases, and because it isn’t strictly assigned to any one of them they can redistribute it between them as needed. The human portion degrades rapidly in the absence of a locus.”

“That … actually sounds pretty complicated.”

“Eh. It’s nothing you can use to hurt them, I don’t think. Smash the locus or burn it, same as ever.”

Outside, the first ship was landing back on the roof of the acolytes’ school. Ram could trace a swarm of haranuu hustling across the plaza to board it. “I know you have no military experience, but based on what you know of bazuu, would you expect them to attack one target, or spread them out?”

She sighed. “It’s not a military question for them. If you had a bunch of buildings that kept getting infested with rats, would you split up your dogs to hit them all at once?”

Many of Ram’s new militia were already stationed at or en route to the larger hearths, to provide a thin illusion of security (and make it harder for his volunteers to desert or make trouble). For them, it was a simple matter to redirect the sunbarques. Where the flamekeepers and handmaidens were concerned, it was a mad rush to get as many to the hearth as could be managed before dark. Ram left in the late afternoon, aboard a barque stuffed with frightened women. Balnibduka hopped aboard at the last minute before takeoff, seemingly on a whim; Imbri refused to come at all.

Barenmul was Dul Karagi’s second hearth to the north, on the eastern bank of the river. Population at last census, at the turn of the kindling, had been a bit short of three thousand. From the air, it looked distinctly cluttered compared to stamp-cut hearths like Urapu or Rumshiza, its buildings stuffed between, around, and atop five hills of varying sizes.

An unusually tall and ornate tower rose from the highest hill, farthest back from the Teshalun, so that most of the hearth would have a line of sight to its fire. The other hilltops were given over to other prestigious facilities: a dormitory to sleep its twenty handmaidens, a school staffed by seven acolytes, and the local shrine to Tegnem, casting a benevolent eye over the little crafthalls huddled around the flanks of its hillock. The smallest hill, off to one side, was crowned by a modest grove of Karagi’s famous trees—too modest to exploit sustainably. Ram assumed they were there for show.

Everything else found space in the lowlands, primarily the smallish pocket between the hills and the water. The center of the hearth boasted a common hall two stories high, with a narrow courtyard down the middle, which looked like ready to seat a thousand or more at a time. It dominated one side of the hearth’s main street, the other being dedicated to various shops with brightly colored signs. They’d had no signs at Urapu; everyone had known where all the craftsmen lived.

Their barque landed atop the roof of a short, broad tower attached to the common hall, where the hearth council met. The handmaidens were promptly hustled away by flamekeepers who’d just arrived themselves; presumably Etana had a headquarters of some sort, and was trying to put his best face on fighting off an entire shab army with less than a quarter of the usual forces, with civilians at his back. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry to welcome Ram or Bal—but then, he’d only been here one time before, with Shimrun, and all they’d done was give a speech and loot their offering jar. And nobody ever welcomed Bal.

The riverside was alive with traffic, sunbarques and galleys disgorging Ram’s new militia, then taking on as many of Barenmul’s citizens as they could accommodate without sinking before they turned about for the pyre, three hours’ hard rowing away with the current to help. Those who left now would arrive after dark, and it was doubtful whether any craft that took them would be brave enough to turn back for another load. Even with opportunistic tinap transports on hand, and the hearth’s own craft, there was no hope of moving the great and frightened flock on the shore.

Ram made for those docks, to welcome his militiamen before they could change their minds and force their way back onto the boats. He found them already hard at work alongside what remained of the hearth’s watch, struggling with the increasingly frantic crowd. He could only hope that they never had to actually use their crowhammers to keep order. A score of flamekeepers had been delegated as well, but they were content to stand back so long as no actual brawls broke out.

Of course, there was little else to do there; none of them had any right to say which of these strangers should be prioritized. Women and children ought to go first, Ram supposed, and if they’d had more time they might have arranged things better, but all this had happened on a few hours’ notice. As it was, the entire free population of the hearth looked to be jammed together on the waterfront, and there was no hope of sorting out women or anyone else. The first on hand when a boat pulled up would be taken, and the rest would take their chances. Ram wasn’t even sure what would happen to the refugees at the other end.

He was just turning back to begin his halfhearted search for Etana when he abruptly realized Bal hadn’t followed him to the docks. He was so used to the big mute stalking behind him like a second shadow that it hadn’t occurred to him to check. Ram briefly considered leaving the matter alone; Bal hadn’t attacked anyone since Dul Misishi that he knew of, and was acting more or less human these days. But Ram couldn’t be sure, and while he didn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to pick a fight, Barenmul was on edge, and Bal was his companion.

It was a hell of a place to lose a man in; everything in the hearth, aside from major facilities, seemed to be stuffed in wherever it could be made to fit. Streets zigged and zagged around the hills in a bewildering way, in several places dead-ending at the remains of the hearth’s old outer wall, which was slowly being cannibalized for new projects. The current barrier was some ways outside the hills, built with room to spare for further growth. There were a number of lovely houses out there, with carefully tended gardens. Home, no doubt, to men like Mother’s father.

Ram got to see the lot, as he spent two increasingly frustrated hours in an involuntary tour of Barenmul, jogging back and forth through the largely empty streets of a substantial hearth in search of a single (admittedly conspicuous) man. At last there was only one place to look: the miserable assembly of shacks behind the tower hill where the hearth kept its bonded.

There, at last, he found properly busy streets. Waning day was fading fast, and there was a small crowd of women around the local well, waiting to haul up pails of water so they wouldn’t have to leave the house during white day. All of them were quietly singing, the same plaintive hymns he had heard in the plaza a few days back. A hundred feet away at the crossroads, another, much larger crowd had gathered, mostly men, though children of both sexes dashed in and out unnoticed. The adults were hard at work on something, and did not sing. Ram drew closer to see what they were doing, and his heart died inside him.

Bricks. A little pile of bricks, many of them cracked, sat in a bare dirt patch in the road. Many of the smaller children, he now saw, were bent over, using their fingers to pry more bricks loose from the walkway, but they were making poor progress. The men had more luck, tearing at the walls of the nearest house with hammers, chisels, or whatever durable tool they could find. One whole wall had been dismembered already; to judge by what remained, they’d picked the house in poorest repair.

As Ram watched, and tried to understand, a scruffy girl of twelve or so scurried past him to load up the lap of her tunic with bricks from the pile. She paid just enough attention to Ram to not bump into him, since he was a stranger with a sword. Ram watched her waddle awkwardly over to a spot some distance away and dump her load in another pile. They had several such piles in place, evenly spaced along the path.

Of course, it would make sense to them. There would be no space on any boat for these people, and the new wall, fine as it was, had only a couple of unarmed men atop it to watch. There was a skybarque circling overhead as well, ready to give warning to inner Barenmul, where flamekeepers and handmaidens were gathered together in a sensible, defensible perimeter.

The bonded of Barenmul had no faith in defensible perimeters. They didn’t believe anyone would fight to protect them, or that it would matter if they did. And nobody had seen fit to tell them otherwise. Whether this was callousness or honest oversight hardly mattered at this point. When the shabti came (a thing none of them had ever seen, or even heard clear report of), they would throw their bricks, and perhaps make an annoying clattering noise against the smooth black armor before they, and their homes, were ground into a grisly pulp of blood and dust. Then the fire would fall, as the handmaidens took advantage of the lull in the charge, and it would be some days before anyone could be bothered to order more workers for the fields.

Ram could call his new militia—but they wouldn’t come, and they wouldn’t come close to tipping the balance. If the enemy held off till morning, he might pester Etana to … split his forces to guard some hovels? No, that wouldn’t do either. The bonded would have to retreat, and rebuild their homes. Assuming he could convince them.

Who, if anyone, was in charge here? Ram looked around, but saw nobody giving orders. That might make it easier, if he could simply pose as a flamekeeper and command them to leave. But what was that one man doing, over in the alley? He was kneeling, and bowed over, like he was about to vomit. Only he hadn’t moved from that spot in some time. Ram trudged over to investigate, and belatedly saw the blades at his hips.

“Bal? What the hell are you doing here? I’ve been looking for you for ages, man.” Bal didn’t look up, or even react. He was frozen in place, digging his fingers deep into the dirt of the alley. No, not frozen: his shoulders were shaking slightly. “Bal?” Ram put a hand on one quivering shoulder, only to have its arm shoot up and shove him into the wall of the nearest house. “Ow! What’s your problem?”

Bal only bent a little lower, making a noise between a grunt and a whine. Great. “We don’t have time for this, Bal. The sun’s almost set. Move your ass.”

The giant pushed himself back up slightly, so he could give Ram a contemptuous look, and wave one hand at the scurrying bondservants, then at the useless wall. “Yeah, I know. Trouble’s coming. You going to fight shabti with knives? The sooner you move, the sooner we can convince the rest of this gang to get back somewhere safe.”

Bal shook his head, and bowed back down into the dirt. Were his cheeks wet? To hell with it. Ram marched back to the well, clearing his throat as he went. “Ladies! Gentlemen!” That at least got everyone’s attention; nobody had ever called them such things before. Who was he talking to? “We don’t have much time, but if we hurry, we can get all of you to relative safety. There will be space in the inner hearth for tonight. Don’t take anything with—“

Back in the alley, Bal rose to his knees and roared, a long, agonized bellow like a wounded beast caught out on a cold desert night. Then he stood, drawing his two longest swords. Before Ram could think what to do in response—whether to chide him, wrestle him down, or simply try to talk around his freakish behavior—there was an answering shout from outside the wall, distant but clear, the sound of many voices, none human.

It was a sound he’d heard once before, though not by so many. With it came an odor, whether faintly smelt or urgently remembered Ram could not say. A stink like filth, and disease, and death.

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Sixteen: A Champion in Battle

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While the Dominion exists in a constant state of war with the bazuu, and any number of other threats come from the desert, the common man of Ki spends very little time concerned with actual warfare. The annual campaign is typically limited to a single battle, fought by a minuscule fraction of the populace, Even the flamekeepers are styled as a military elite for propaganda purposes; their resplendent bronze armor is designed to imitate the scales of the murrush. Far more protective gear could easily be devised with existing metallurgic knowledge, but there is no need. A flamekeeper’s worst fear is an assassin, a class of foe he is more likely to meet out of his armor than in it.

The gien of Dul Karagi stood outside its eastern wall, exactly equidistant from the north and south gates. It would be hard to find a more lonesome and secluded location without trudging out into the fields; it wasn’t on the way to or from anywhere anyone would want to go. This, of course, was deliberate. Only disinterested bondservants would be around to watch the women en route to the little shrine, and those women would have the maximum possible time to think twice about what they were doing. Even so, few would turn back.

Its walls were thick, to muffle the sound of crying. Within, it was almost completely bare, only a round stone floor thirty paces across, guarded by the grotesque image of the dwarf god Tugul Nar on a plinth in the center. Once per tetrad, a handmaiden would come by and burn the bodies with full rites. She would ignore any infants still living.

A fire could only illumine so many acres, which could produce only so much food, which could feed only so many people. When the acolytes added it all up, and divided as they saw fit, there was always a remainder, a portion which could not quite sustain a family. The recipients of that portion made their way here, bearing their newborn children. This was the chosen sanctum of the desperate, the miserable, and the broken-hearted, of every hurt and haunted soul who had no better place to go, and the rightful resting place of reshmarked children like Mana. Though his table was meager, the stunted god would never refuse his hospitality to anyone. Not even a spy, murderess, and saboteur.

“All right, set her down there,” Ram directed, and Bal obediently deposited the white-shrouded bundle he bore at the foot of the idol. There were other, smaller parcels lying about; mercifully, they were still and silent, and Ram did not look more closely.

He didn’t remember the words to the rite, but Mana did, having attended so many that she could sing even the words she did not understand without stumbling. If her enunciation was less than perfect, Ram couldn’t help that. Imbri and Bal had no cause to care, and there was nobody else to hear. When she was done, she sent out her fire, and they all stepped back, turning their faces from the ghastly smell. As always, Mana’s fire was strong, and soon enough there was nothing left of Ninshuma of Dul Atellu but a small pile of ash, to be swept up and cast onto the fields by and by.

But Ram did not leave, and the others were content to stand with him. He turned to look out at the fields, visible through the door. There were no great forests on the eastern flank, away from the river; it was mostly wheat, barley, and beans. Miles and miles of it, all worked by bondsmen whose dinner bowls, Ram didn’t doubt, would be light for the next several months, to compensate for what Ninshuma had just burnt. And those bowls were none too heavy already. A few more dead, here and there, from injury or illness, who might have recovered. And a lot more children here, in this gien, paying Tugul Nar’s share.

Mana crept up to his side and put an arm around his waist; absently he put his around her shoulder, wondering vainly if he might sneak away and live in a hearth for the next two blooms. At length he sighed, and said, “Well, we’d better get moving, then. Thank you all for coming with me.”

They were halfway back to the gate when they heard singing. Mana was the first to pick out the tune: the Threshers’ Dirge, an old field-hand’s lament for times of famine, calling on the God to make good what he had taken. Ram wasn’t surprised to hear it now, though he’d heard it only a few times before in his life, and never at Dul Karagi. What surprised him was the sheer volume—it sounded like a substantial crowd. Mana took up the song as they walked; when it was done, after a brief pause, another started up. Another sad one. Ram didn’t know it, but Mana did.

The vagabond-salesmen of the South Gate had already been driven out for the day. Nearly everyone else, it seemed, was winding down for the night of dark dreams. After the morning’s events, nobody would feel much like carrying on with ordinary business, so Ram’s group had a clear route through the streets until they got close to the plaza—at which point they found their way completely blocked by the mass of humanity spilling out of it, every face turned to the Temple fire and lifted up so every voice could sing and be heard.

The plaza saw plenty of religious gatherings. There was a brief convocation a little after dawn each day, and another at dusk. Special occasions would see processions between the Temple and the Palace, perhaps ending with a special offering of food or other gifts to Haranduluz. In between the space was free for all comers, including preachers of any minor deity or spiritual movement who cared to set up shop; all would be tolerated so long as they made no trouble and paid the odd honorarium.

The current throng was something entirely different. From what little Ram could see, there was no order to it at all; servants from the factories rubbed elbows with their masters, who stood next to acolytes, who stood behind a pair of donkey-drivers and didn’t even ask them to move their beasts. A passing porter set down his water-jar to join in, and a handmaiden made space for him without looking to see who he was. All singing to honor the God together.

There were worse ways to occupy one’s time and, at the moment, probably few better. When they left the pyre, Etana had been busy brainstorming ways to stem a mass panic. Perhaps he was behind this, but Ram suspected not. Either way, unless he had suddenly gone stupid he would be standing conspicuously on the roof of his Palace, flanked by as many flamekeepers as he could rustle up on short notice, all singing along.

And Etana, as it happened, was just the man he needed to see, with little hope of parting the crowd. Ram led them around to the south entrance, at the end of the deserted street which had once housed his militia-mates. The door was locked, but Bal made short work of it with a set of picks. Ram wondered in passing if it was the same door he’d hacked down a month ago.

By the time they emerged onto the roof, the current song had ended, and the line of flamekeepers along the roof’s edge, where Ram had stood for his indwelling, were making known their vote for the next song with rhythmic stamping. He paused to scan the line as they started up: O you demons of corruption, why do you struggle in vain? The golden sun shall rise again regardless …

Etana had a sizable honor guard around him at the center, as expected; Ram considered hanging back and waiting, then thought better of it. He was still wearing his gaudy robes, and it wouldn’t hurt for him to be seen standing side-by-side with his lugal, united in prayer. He pushed his way through, and found another surprise: Piridur had been given pride of place, at Etana’s right. The plaza beneath them, as expected, was packed, while all the residents of the Temple stood along the opposite rooftops as they had for the bloom.

Ram joined in as best he could—it was a flamekeepers’ song, and he’d never learned it. Mana sang every refrain, short and simple, with her sisters: Now let the golden sun arise! When they were finished, Piridur took Ram aside by the arm.

“Thanks for the assist today,” Ram told him, as soon as they were far enough back to hear each other.

“We’d had the spikes ready since yesterday’s incident,” Piridur said. “It was the only sensible thing to do.”

“I could have stopped her earlier, you know. I’m not saying it to be obnoxious, but I could have. I thought about it for a moment, early this morning. I could have sent a handmaiden in with Beshi and ended it right there, before all this happened.”

“But you didn’t,” Piridur finished for him, “because it would have brought the whole pyre down on your head for usurping the Lugal’s authority. I understand, and if you’re saying that we need to adjust our respective spheres of authority for the current conflict, I agree. More importantly, so does Lord Etana. You’ll have more freedom of action in the event of future attacks.”

“Freedom to do what, though?” Ram asked. “I don’t like how we’re stuck reacting to all this.”

“I don’t either. The more so given the pattern of escalation we’ve already seen. First the ‘Council,’ the covert support of assassins. Only a bit more vicious than the usual inter-pyre friction. Yesterday was more serious; I assume he was waiting for you to arrive before engaging in earnest. And today left yesterday far behind. What comes next? How much farther can he take this?”

“Pretty far; I’m sure he’s enjoying this. Tomorrow is white day, at least. Even a handmaiden would be sickly this far from Atellu. Not harmless, but easier to counter. And there aren’t any foreign haranuu running loose—I just checked.”

“What if he doesn’t use a handmaiden?” Imbri asked.

“Who else would he use?” said Piridur. “Moonchildren are just as weak to the white sun as we are, unless I’m very mistaken.”

“No, we can’t take it either. But you haven’t been able to destroy the local rookery this bloom, have you? There was no campaign. Mannagiri has humans and money to spare, and plenty of my people to carry messages for him. Is there any reason he can’t offload some of his surplus on the bazuu in exchange for flooding this pyre with shabti tomorrow?”

Neither of them had any answer; Piridur didn’t look capable of speech at all. Imbri took advantage of the silence to add, “Or maybe not. He seems to enjoy toying with you, ramping things up for effect, so he might start by unleashing them on the hearths, and only attack the pyre itself after it’s packed with refugees and everyone’s in a panic. Either way, the bazuu wouldn’t need much encouragement.”

With visible effort, Piridur found his voice. “Well. That certainly is … disturbingly plausible. Would you be willing to act as our emissary to the bazuu?”

“Before tomorrow? I suppose you could fly me out, but I wouldn’t bet on my odds.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Piridur said. “All this is speculative. Which is not to say that we can assume you’re wrong, Miss Imbri. I think it would be reasonable to finance an embassy, to encourage them to remain neutral. However, there’s another, more direct solution.

“Up to this point, we’ve been treating Mannagiri as a noxious element who could be contained until we were free to eliminate him. After today, and in light of what you’ve just suggested, that’s no longer the case. He can’t be contained, we can’t sustain the kind of losses he’s willing to inflict, and we’re no closer to eliminating him than ever. The war is effectively lost. It’s time we talked peace, on whatever terms we can get.”

“Peace?” Ram laughed. “Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with? He loves nothing better than hurting and humiliating people. You couldn’t trust him to keep any terms you made.”

“So you say. I’m less certain. Dul Shebnai has already swallowed its pride and offered him tribute for safe passage down the river. He appears to be honoring his end of the deal.”

“Because that’s humiliating for Shebnai! It makes him feel like a big man to have lugals bow and scrape. There’s no way he’ll be happy to sit there and take payment like a landlord for two and a half blooms. He’ll get bored, and look for another way to hurt you instead.”

“I’m not concerned about two and a half blooms, Rammash. I’m concerned about the next tetrad. Listen to that,” he said, waving a hand at the crowd in the plaza. “It’s totally improvised, starting with a handful of people gathering around the pool an hour ago. Now we estimate that there are at least three thousand people down there, getting together to sing whatever hymns come to mind, purely because they were frightened and had no other way to control their fear. They aren’t singing an established, recognized service of supplication because it doesn’t exist! There’s no precedent for this situation.”

“He’s not invincible,” Ram insisted. “He’s been showing us, this whole time, how you can use a little ingenuity to do things that look impossible. First the stuff he packed the building with yesterday, and today—the way he stole a sword to suck the heat out, then using the heat from that to blow a granary, and then —“

“I’m aware of what he did, thank you. I heard your report, it was very informative. Do you have any concrete idea how to dispose of him, preferably in the next few hours? Because if not, I’m going to recommend to the Lugal that we start negotiations for our surrender.”

“Surrender. I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”

“It’s a word. I don’t like the sound of it either, believe me, but it’s our duty to protect this pyre, and I see no better way. Whatever tribute he expects in return, it can’t be more costly than the damage he’s doing directly. If we can restore trade on the river, it might even work out to a net benefit.” He glanced down at Ram’s left hip. “Also, I’d appreciate it if you put that away.”

Ram followed his gaze, saw that he’d pulled Beshi half a foot out of his sheath without realizing. He stepped back, pulled the blade the rest of the way out and chucked it into a decorative planter. “Sorry.” Deep breaths. “This is a mistake. It’s going to end with him as … tyrant of the Teshalun.”

“If at any point you come up with a better plan, we’ll be glad to hear it, and give you our full support. This is only a truce to buy us time.”

“That’s what you tell yourself now. And all because she spun you this story about a shab invasion? Imbri! Tell him about the men, what he’s got planned with the men! We can’t let that happen!”

“I told him last night,” Imbri said. “The short version, that is. It took some work to convince him—but that was at least as speculative as this. I think you need to consider why it is you feel so strongly about this, Ram. What you want and what it wants are two different things. Are you sure you’re the one in charge here?”

He counted to ten before answering; that was an old trick of Mother’s. “No. I’m not sure. You’re right. The haranu is angry, very angry, and that is … affecting me, yes. But I don’t think it’s all wrong. This sounds too easy. I know, because I have the same thing inside me that he does, what it’s doing to him. He’s giving it exactly what it wants, only twisted and distorted by his own diseased mind. Domination and control. It won’t settle. It won’t ever be content.

“But you will, once you’ve had a chance to get used to it. People, plain old mortal people, can get used to a lot of things, can’t they? You can screw up little boys’ heads and take pride in a job well done, cut a baby’s nuts off to help his career, sell half a hearth’s worth of people to the rich guy down the street so he can torture them in his basement for a hobby. And then there’s the gien I just left.

“I’m not saying I’m any better. I’m not. You can’t last in the militia without learning to overlook some things. A lot of things, really. I was in it for my family, and the rest of the world could go to Kur for all I cared. Not because I was really bad, just because when the world is a nonstop torrent of liquid shit you don’t even recognize the smell anymore, and you don’t know where to even begin to fix it. So you don’t try.

“I’m worried that’s what’s going to happen here. You’re going to have peace, for a little while, and you’ll be happy, and he’ll be happy, while you send barges full of your best stuff up the Teshalun to show him how well he’s screwed you over. After a while, he’ll get bored, and he’ll ask for something else, then something else after that, and every time you’ll give in, because you’ll remember the alternative.

“Eventually, maybe, I might find a way to break him, and I’ll tell you, and you won’t want to hear it anymore, because you’ll have made yourself comfortable, and it’ll be risky. You’re not going to want to throw away what you’ve got for something that might not work. So you’ll keep going, taking the easy way, until he’s finished with you, and the whole Dominion is torn to bits.”

He was breathing heavily by the time he was finished. Piridur had taken a few steps back. But he answered quickly enough: “That was quite a speech, Ram. I only wish it had included a workable alternative proposal. At this rate, Dul Karagi will be a wasteland within a month, without borrowing worries from a hypothetical future.”

Ram could only throw up his hands and walk away, before he succumbed to the urge to pick Beshi back up, or else take Piridur down barehanded. That would end with Bal knocking him out anyway, because Imbri wasn’t really on his side here, was she? She just did whatever she could to get along, the way they all did, and if it was stupid and people had to die for it, oh well, that was just the price of life in the real world, wasn’t it?

Is this what you want, Yellow God? Are you even there to want it? Mannagiri triumphant, burning it all down. Our punishment for dishonoring the covenant, feeding you our trash and lying about it to the whole world. I can see it. But will anybody even remember the lesson you’re trying to teach us?

There was a lull in the singing, and he heard a familiar tapping noise. He didn’t turn around, and let Imbri speak first. “Ram. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but whatever we say to Mannagiri, we’re going to need you to say it, through Pimna or Shennai. You know that, don’t you?”

He grunted, a sound she could take for assent if she liked.

“For what it’s worth, I think Piridur has a point. I’ve never met this Mannagiri, but I can tell your judgment is at least a little compromised. I’d suggest you take a little walk, or a ride, way out into the fields. Maybe ten miles from the Temple fire. That might clear your head, and give you a new perspective.”

“So you think—“

“I’m your advisor, Ram. That’s why you brought me along. My area of expertise is magic and spirits, and it’s my professional opinion that you’re not in full control of yourself, and it’s keeping you from doing what needs to be done. That’s my advice. You can take it, or not.”

And he did. Not because he thought the advice good, not really, but because he suddenly couldn’t stand to be there any longer, listening to the people bleat in the plaza to a god who seemed determined to destroy them. He only stopped long enough to retrieve his sword.

The sun was inching toward the horizon now, and the breeze of the evening picking up. He elected to use the north gate for a change; it was longer, but he had a ways to walk anyway, and he didn’t particularly want to get to the nowhere he was going. The road took him right past the ruins of the north end, still in the process of being cleared. Some of the gardens were still being tended; he caught the bushes rustling as he passed by. It might have been the wind, but he liked to think it was some of the poorer citizens filching fruit, now that the walls and gates had come crashing down.

The men on duty at the gate didn’t question Ram, or even address him, only stood back and watched him pass. At least the damned robes were good for that much. He was halfway through the forest before he stopped. Something about the wind … yes. There were grey clouds overhead. They were due for a rare spell of rain, it seemed. It figured.

He kept going anyway, still angry. The rain fell, and it fell hard. In another few steps he was wet enough to consider intruding on the nearest dormitory, so he could grace his poorest subjects with his presence till the weather passed. But he couldn’t possibly get cold, no matter how it stormed, and he didn’t feel like talking to anyone. So he kept going, until it was pouring so hard he could scarcely see ten feet in front of him.

Then he stopped, and looked back at the pyre. He hadn’t come very far at all. After months spent soaring through the air, riding on beasts, or floating easily down the river, he’d lost all sense of how large the world was for a single man on foot. It didn’t seem worth it to keep trudging out in the mud. He hadn’t stopped being angry, but he was tired, and the mortal part of him still set a limit on how stupid he could allow himself to be.

A cloud of hot mist billowed up around his fire where the raindrops struck, scattering its light into a shapeless haze. For a moment he simply stood there, watching. Not praying, not thinking, not even feeling angry. Only observing, caught in a moment that wouldn’t come again. At last he saw what the world was trying to show him, and he threw back his head, and laughed his thanks to the God. When he was done, he turned his face to the north, ignoring the wind and the rain. He was ready to make peace now. For the moment.

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