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.”
“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.