Chapter 15.2

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The aftermath was a story Ram already knew by heart. After Urapu and Rumshiza—after the violence at Dul Shimrun, in the mines at Misishi, and above all at Atellu—there was nothing new for Ram to see in the wake of tragedy. He heard the cries of shock and groans of pain, smelt dust and blood, and wondered wearily how many more times he would go through it. He had the memories of many more lifetimes within him, just waiting to furnish further examples. It took the sting of guilt away, to realize that all this death and misery was just the backup drone to the song of history.

A few of the building’s residents had escaped: the ones living on the bottom floor near the exit, or who’d had the presence of mind to jump out the window. Several were injured. The rest would be buried within a mountain of cracked concrete. Ram set to work without a thought, hauling up sections of brick wall the size of his torso and throwing them aside like so many pebbles. It took a moment before he realized that he was attracting attention. He didn’t feel like stopping to explain it. The odds were low enough that anyone left alive in there would still be around tomorrow, and Ram felt he owed it to them to let them see the sun again before they bled out inside.

Piridur worked beside him without speaking; soon enough Zizri the flamekeeper joined them, mumbling something about sending his comrade for help. Ram didn’t stop to acknowledge the words; the remains of a pomegranate tree were tangled up in the wreckage, and commanded his full attention. He cast it aside, brushed the splinters out of his hands, and saw an exposed arm, thin enough to be a woman’s or a child’s. No pulse. He kept digging.

Time passed, and there were more men, with shovels and bandages, and a few handmaidens. He looked up to see a sizable crowd in the street behind them, hundreds strong at least, and flamekeepers trying to shift them so carts could get through to haul away the debris. Two men hauled a man on a litter through the door of a house repurposed for a hospital.

Etana stood off to one side between a pair of bodyguards, in conversation (of a sort) with two civilians. The younger—Ram took him for the landlord—insisted that he had always maintained all his holdings in excellent shape, while the elder stood by with folded arms, nodding with a truculent expression. The Lugal didn’t appear to be contesting anything, but the man kept shouting.

Ram assessed the ruins again. He’d dug out a fair bit, but there wasn’t much hope, and he had no clue what he was doing. For all he knew, he was destabilizing the heap further. So he cast down the last bit he was holding, and went to join Etana, Piridur trailing after. The two quarrelsome men abruptly departed when they saw him coming.

Etana greeted them with a finger to his lips, and gestured to the door of the building behind him—a modest inn with a tavern on its bottom floor for the locals to spend their latest commission fees on. The Lugal led them directly up the stairs, into one of the rooms, and shut the door behind them, leaving his two guards outside. It was small and sparsely furnished, not so pitiful as some Ram had seen but plainly intended for travelers of scant means.

“What happened?” Etana demanded as the latch clicked shut, breaking his silence at last. “I gather the Atellui was involved.”

“Yes,” said Piridur. “I was careless. I assumed he would be more debilitated—mentally, emotionally—than he actually was. But he was prepared.” He looked sidelong at Ram as he said the last part.

And you assumed I knew what I was doing, because I’m the Ensi here. Damn it. “I still don’t know how she did that.” His voice sounded more defensive than he’d meant it to. “We’re hundreds of miles from her fire.”

“There are substances which ignite violently at the slightest spark,” said Piridur. “Little used and little known, but easy enough to make if you know how.” He looked out the window at the carnage below. “Some blackband groups specialize in their use. Generally they can’t be triggered so precisely; the blackbands use something like candle wicks.”

Etana too surveyed the disaster as Piridur spoke, and for some time after. Finally he said, “We can recover from this. But it will take careful handling.”

“The handmaiden who did this got away,” Ram said. “Isn’t she more of a priority?”

“I strongly suggest you not try to chase her down again,” said Piridur. “At least, not yet.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” Ram retorted, annoyed. His spirit was demanding—roaring, really—that he hunt her down, but he had enough experience to instinctively distrust anything it told him. Besides, he didn’t care to be made a fool of twice in one day. “What do you think would happen if I did?”

“This was a prepared snare,” Piridur said, “aimed at you, and Mannagiri obviously has blackband assistance. She was able to target the powder with her fire, blind, from another room, on short notice, which suggests they practiced and thought ahead. If he set up one site he likely set up two, and he might have multiple women about the pyre. You’d only be led into another trap.”

“Tegnem’s earth isn’t that dear,” Etana remarked. “I’d pack a second building full of it, take hostages, and start killing them off dramatically, one by one. You could either leave them to die or charge in and have it come down on your head again. Either way, you’d discredit yourself.”

Ram stared. “That’s what you’d do, is it?”

Etana shrugged. “If I were a mad ensi out to cause misery? Yes.”

“So, obviously I can’t just dash after her. What do we do instead?”

“That’s an interesting choice of words,” said Etana. “’We.’ Why should you be involved? You may be the ensi, but I am lugal. Security is a flamekeeper’s business, and I have been doing if for longer than you have been alive.” He sat down on the bed, a thin mattress on a metal frame. “Though I will consult with you. We don’t usually deal with handmaidens, and we’ve just seen how they open up new tactical options.”

“What are you going to do, then?” He struggled to keep his tone courteous.

“Come up with a good explanation for the public, first. The girl will keep. I’d like the two of you to sit down with a portraitist and get a good sketch; we can have a hundred reasonable pictures of her up around the pyre by white day. That will give them something to do, hunting for her.”

“But what if somebody tries to catch her? She could kill them!”

Etana gave Ram a long, incredulous look before turning his gaze to Piridur, a silent plea. Piridur obliged with a sigh. “Ram, please try to understand that this is our job. You may not like us, but we take pride in keeping our home safe. The entire point is that the girl will be forced into hiding. Unless she’s far stupider than she acted just now, she’ll be wearing a veil, laying low, and jumping at shadows. I assume you can easily locate her again?”

“I don’t know about easily, but now that I know she’s there, I could do it from a longer distance, yeah.”

“She knows that. Mannagiri knows that. And however exquisitely they have planned on trapping you, all those traps depend on your cooperation. Murder is conspicuous, the pyre will be on high alert, and she’s mortal, if somewhat more durable than most women.”

“What’s more, she, and her master, will be depending on blackbands, because they have nobody else,” Etana added. “They don’t work as bodyguards. Point me in her general direction, and we can hire cutthroats of our own. She will have to sleep sometime, and when she does a woman dressed as a maid will drive a knife into her brain. Simple.”

Ram thought it over. He still felt bad for Ninshuma, and couldn’t blame her for hating him. He wanted to find some way to save her from the brutal life he’d forced on her, however unwittingly. But if she was killing his people … “What if she has backup plans?”

“What, to draw you out? She probably does, but I doubt she’ll execute them at once. I intend to have the whole pyre hounding her by nightfall. A few people might stumble across her and suffer the penalty—we can’t help that—but she will die in the end.”

“That all sounds very neat and tidy. A little too much so. But let’s just say you know what you’re talking about. What are you going to tell people about her?”

Etana’s smile was thin. “Now, that is a more difficult question, isn’t it?”

“I’m not going to lie to them any more. They’ve heard nothing but lies, about me and Shimrun and everything else. Even if they would believe it—and I don’t think they would—they deserve better.”

“I doubt whether they would believe the truth, either,” Piridur cautioned. “The parts that don’t sound blasphemous are complicated and confusing.”

“I know we can’t tell them everything. They won’t hear the whole story.” Nobody but he and Imbri knew that, technically. “Just … not more lies. Please. That’s not how I want to rule.”

“It isn’t clear to me,” Etana said, “that there is any ruling for you to do. You’ve already shown that you don’t know how to do our kind of work—the business of securing a pyre against internal and external threats. The wealth of the pyre is managed by the acolytes, who know their work and have done it well enough without your help for centuries. What do you think you are needed for?”

Ram took a moment to consider before answering. The simplest and most compelling response, he thought, was that obviously the lugals had not made their pyre very secure at all. But that didn’t seem helpful. Instead he answered with a question: “Do you believe in Haranduluz?”

Etana shrugged. “That never seemed relevant or interesting to me. Gods are your concern, Ensi. Let the God be real or not, my duty is the same.”

“And my duty would be, I guess, to stay out of the way until it’s time to die.”

“You could have some public ceremonial duties, if you cared to take them on. I wouldn’t object. Anyway, why should you complain if we don’t need your help? It makes both our lives easier. I won’t begrudge you a comfortable life in the meantime.”

“I made Ram a similar offer before, when we first met,” Piridur broke in. “He wasn’t satisfied with it then, and I don’t think he’s changed his mind.”

“No, I haven’t. I’m not useless, Etana. I’m the most powerful person in this pyre. I can do things nobody else can.”

“Yet you still haven’t told me what you want to do. Do you know the truth of it yourself?”

Again, the true answer was obvious and unhelpful. He could hardly expect these two to submit to the destruction of the system that kept men like them on top, even if Ram could trust himself, indwelt as he was, to bring real justice to the pyre.

Before he could come up with a more suitable reply, Piridur spoke up: “It might be best if he started with the ceremonial duties you agreed on, Lord Etana. If nothing else, an ensi is a powerful symbol. Speaking of which …“

Etana nodded. “Yes. It was delivered this morning; they finished the last piece overnight. I asked Tappeki to fetch it—would you kindly see if he’s back yet?”

Piridur gave a full salute, a deep bow with both palms to his chest, and left. “Do I get to know what this is about?” Ram asked.

“I prepared a welcoming gift for you. Nothing extravagant, only a useful little tool for performing your duties. The first of which will soon be on us, I think.” He waved a hand at the window. “I think it would be better if you spoke with them first.”

“I think you’re right.” Maybe Etana meant it, or maybe he was setting Ram up to fall, but either way it had to be done. All those people out there would be forming their own theories about what had just happened, stitching together a chimerical truth from rumors, speculation, and the odd scrap of evidence. If they were allowed to disperse on their own, they’d tack it all on to whatever the hell they believed already, and it would be that much harder to get things straight. “But first we have to decide what to say, don’t we?”

Etana smiled. “Gods, but you’re persistent. Do you really want my advice?”

“Maybe. It won’t work if we contradict each other, that’s for sure.”

The Lugal had a few requests, none of them very objectionable. They had the rough outlines of a speech ready by the time Piridur returned with the ‘gift.’ Ram laughed when he saw it. “You don’t call that extravagant?”

“A man has to look his part, and you barely have the ghost of a beard yet. It’s a reasonable expense.”

Ten minutes later, Ram stepped out onto the roof of the building, feeling ridiculous. A handmaiden wore a pure-white robe with a gold mantle, while an acolyte’s coat was red. Etana’s gift followed the same general theme, but in place of a simple mantle Ram had a full-length coat of vivid scarlet and crimson, accented with a thick gold fringe, while the white undercoat was embroidered with sparkling suns as well. A brilliant vermilion jacket went over the robe, short in front and long in back, then a golden sash in the longer diagonal style, and finally a tall gold crown shaped like a slightly tapered cylinder, studded with garnets. It was a perfect replica of the outfit worn by the Ensi statue in the Plaza, only in eye-popping color, and it fit him beautifully. Best not to ask how Etana had his measurements.

There was still enough activity around the wreckage that Ram felt somewhat bad about distracting the crowd. It probably didn’t matter—anyone still trapped inside would be dead or doomed by now, barring divine intervention. Still he hesitated to step to the edge of the roof, and tried not to wince as head after head turned away from the rescue operation to stare at his gaudy apparition. By ones and twos, then threes and fours and great crowds, they left off what they were doing.

Ram raised his hand, and from the peak of the Temple ten blocks away a little wisp of fire broke away, twisting in the air like a streamer in a turbulent wind, and danced through the sky towards him, until it was whirling in a perfect circle fifty feet over his head to form a ring of pure shining light. He expected screams, heard only breathless silence. At last he let the flame go with a final resplendent flash, and spoke, as loud as he could:

“My name is Rammash. I know you have heard it before. Some of you might have known me once, and many of you will have seen me on the streets before. You may have heard that I was born in Urapu hearth—that is true. Or that I was responsible for the burning of the north end—I’m sorry to say that’s true as well. I served in this pyre’s militia during the last campaign. I was a candidate for the flamekeepers. I killed the flamekeeper Kamenrag, and his companions, when they came to kill me.

“All of that is true. Almost everything else you might have heard about me is false. I was not made by the bazuu, and I do not work for them. I know no special magic, and I have no wish to harm this pyre. I am not a warlock. I am your ensi, and after two more blooms I will burn to save you.”

How was he doing? Hard to say. He couldn’t see individual faces clearly from his current height. “I was not born into Karagi’s lineage. That line has died out. For many blooms now, a secret faction of evil-minded men has been holding Karagi’s lineage captive inside the Temple. The last native ensi of this pyre—his name was Shimrun—foresaw disaster, and selected me to restore the priesthood. He had to act quickly and secretly, because he knew his captors could murder him.”

It was a very fine line he walked; if he couldn’t be totally honest, he at least wanted to avoid outright lies. “The Ensi adopted me into the sacred lineage at the last bloom, but he was caught. I had to flee the pyre to save my own life. I hadn’t come into my full power yet, and couldn’t defend myself. Meanwhile, Lord Shimrun’s captors spread the lies you have heard, accusing me of his murder and many other things, and I was hunted like an animal.

“It was only recently that I received my full powers. Because I did not understand the situation, I waged war against my own pyre. I regret that now. But I have made peace with my servants. The men who hunted me no longer have power here. I won’t say what’s happened to them; I don’t even want to speak their names. It’s enough that they cannot threaten me any more. The full story isn’t fit to tell, but I am the master of Dul Karagi now, and Lugal Etana has my confidence.”

There were large holes in this story. Ram hurried on before any of his audience could think too long about them. “I’m sure this is all very shocking to you. But I am only a priest, not a god. I make mistakes. I fail. I can’t help that. And this, this was one of them.” He pointed to the ruin. “There are evil men like Lord Shimrun’s jailers in other pyres as well. They drove the master of Dul Atellu mad. I went to him, and helped to free him from his oppressors, thinking he would help me. Instead he has destroyed his own pyre, and is now working hard to destroy others.”

That was at least as much lies as truth, and still too outrageous; the crowd shifted uneasily. “We are at war now. There’s no other way to say it. The Ensi of Dul Atellu has declared war on us, and on the whole Dominion. This was his first open attack; I arrived too late to prevent it. There were secret attacks before this, and there will be open and secret attacks after. I need all of you to stay vigilant. If you hear men speak against me, or the Lugal, you should know that you are hearing the words of someone bought and paid for by a vicious lunatic. The situation will get worse before it gets better.”

That was most of what he’d worked out with Etana. But he wasn’t content to play Etana’s mouthpiece. “I hear that the militia has been disbanded in my absence. Many of them have chosen, or been forced, to do desperate things. I’m telling you now that, if you were one of my comrades in arms, and you come to me willingly, I will grant you my pardon, and place you under my own countenance. There may still a penance to be paid—depending what you have done—and I will make you work for your second chance, but it will be work that needs doing.

“I’m still only a man, and a young man. I don’t know exactly where this is headed. Dul Karagi will not be the same as it was before; it can’t be. I can promise you that I will work to make it better, and that this is not the last time you will see me. I’m going back to my Temple now, to confer with Haranduluz. But you will see me come out of there again. You will see me walk the streets. If you have a problem, I will be here to listen, and I will take you seriously!

“I do not care if you serve this pyre—if you serve me—as a bondsman or a flamekeeper, a handmaiden or a prostitute. If you are part of this pyre, and you support it, you are my friend, and I am yours. We are surrounded by enemies. Now more than ever before. We don’t need to make enemies of each other.” He looked down. They were as silent as ever—but they were still there, still listening. It was something. “I’m going now. But you will see me again.”

He was most of the way to the ladder before the crowd started speaking again. No cheers, no applause. Mostly subdued muttering. “That wasn’t the most inspiring oration I’ve ever heard,” Etana told him at the ladder’s foot.

“I didn’t expect it to be,” Ram answered. “It’s fine. They won’t even remember the exact words.”

“Of course they will. Between them all, they’ll remember every word you said and some you didn’t. They’ll be discussing it through the next tetrad. They’ll dissect every single sentence.”

“Well, if they’re going to tear it apart, it doesn’t really matter if it looked good in one piece. I’m off to the Temple. Let me know when you’ve found an artist, will you?”

“Oh, I’ll be coming with you, at least part of the way,” Etana said, falling into step beside him. “If you could arrange to pass close—but not too close—to wherever it is your lady friend is skulking, and give a discreet nod in her direction, we can get started on surveillance measures.”

Ram only hesitated a half-second. “Sure, we can do that.” Goodbye, Ninshuma. I’m sorry it had to be this way.

“What do you have planned for your militia friends?” asked Piridur, trailing behind them on the stairs. “Assuming you can lure them away from the Council.”

“When I figure that out, I’ll let you know. I’ve only got the vaguest beginnings of an idea right now. But I’m not going to turn them into my personal army, if that’s what you’re afraid of.” Ensis had no shortage of muscle. It was information he was short on.

Ram opened the door onto the street, and everyone in sight, of every age, rank, and condition, immediately took a knee. The day was getting on toward evening, and the crowd had only gotten bigger. There had to be at least a thousand people packed into the streets around him, all kneeling together.

Ram’s first impulse was to tell them to stop their damned posing and get back to work on the wreckage. His second, third, and fourth impulses weren’t much kinder. But he stilled them all in succession, because he was reasonably certain none of these people had been working before anyway. Instead he turned to Etana.

He could see in the Lugal’s eyes a smirking reassurance that what he was thinking was correct: these people were groveling because they had seen him control the fire, and nothing more. He gave them a story that would work well enough to explain things, at a time when they were frightened and confused. They would believe it, in an uncommitted way, as they believed in stories of foreign lands they’d never seen, for just as long as it suited them and they heard nothing that would please them better. This was all an illusion.

But not a complete illusion, just yet. Without taking his eyes of Etana, Ram jerked his head pointedly at the street. The Lugal might have shrugged, very faintly, and his smile might have become a touch more knowing as he obligingly sank to his knees. Piridur followed his example on Ram’s other side, and Rammash tem-Karagi, who knew it meant very little and earned him nothing, reached out with both his hands and placed them atop their bowed and submissive heads.

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Fifteen: A Prophet in Power

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All free men and women in a pyre are tied to its countenance network, a social hierarchy which evolved to manage the peace in a very large population without firm rule of law. A relatively small group of powerful families have de facto control of the government, and “countenance” a larger body of important officials, promising them protection and patronage in exchange for loyalty and service. These officials will in turn countenance a still larger group of ordinary citizens, and so on until the entire free citizenry is subsumed. Any citizen may trust any other, even a stranger, because both will have superiors protecting them and keeping them in line. When a dispute arises, a man may appeal to his social superiors for justice—but his opponent will certainly do likewise.

Ram had always hated the peak day market, back in his militia days. Dul Karagi was, like most pyres, largely self-sufficient; it grew its own food and other necessities. Bulk commodities it could not make for itself, like ore, were purchased by the administration directly, unloaded to dockside warehouses, and sold or distributed from there. The plaza market was for luxury imports, all the little knickknacks and prizes that private trade companies could haul down the river. If a wealthy man thought the world of Misishin wine, Shebnaya decorated tableware, or Natatian silks, this was the place to get it.

All of which was to say, for one day in four, the plaza was cluttered with high-value merchandise and people with disposable income, most of them distracted. Whenever Ram’s market patrol rotation rolled around, he had spent eight hours shuffling around a hot, crowded square, surrounded by things he could not afford, struggling not to offend anyone important by bumping into them. There would be flamekeepers on hand as well, but they were only there to scare off assassins; petty thieves and pickpockets were the militia’s problem.

Now he was back, and except for the absent militia the peak day market was the same as ever. Men in immaculate silk coats flirted with women wearing three pounds of jewelry apiece, while the menials holding their respective umbrellas gossiped or made eyes of their own. A gaggle of acolytes circumnavigated the square in a clump, stopping at every table to discuss what was for sale and which of their group might need it. Ram wasn’t sure if they looked less serene than they used to, or if he was just imagining it because of what he’d heard from Piridur.

Flamekeepers paced about looking sullen; Ram guessed that any thief they caught would lose a hand at minimum. Citizens of more modest means moved briskly in and out, snapping up a few things here and there for gifts or special occasions. The men running the tables were obsequious to all but the musicians and other street performers, who kept themselves to the edge of the square.

“I’d say they’re doing good business,” Ram said to Piridur. They both had their swords at their waists, and Ram had stopped to change into clothes more appropriate to an off-duty flamekeeper.

“The appearance of prosperity is essential to a man of means. Emotionally, socially, and economically. I don’t know if you can appreciate this, but the appearance of fear or weakness would invite disrespect.”

“Sounds like an exhausting way to live.” One of the soldiers on duty glared at Ram, his hand on his hilt; he decided to look away, and refrain from scorching the man’s palm. “Does everybody know I’m here now?”

“Everyone at the Palace and Temple, at least. Word will have trickled down from there.”

“The flamekeepers look a little more lively than they used to.” No blackband had ever been stupid enough to go for a target at the market; would the ‘Council’ be so cautious?

“They’ll be happier once you’re gone. Remember your intended role in all this.”

To attract all the trouble to himself. “Right. Come on, then.” They didn’t have any particular destination in mind; the point of this jaunt was for Ram to reacclimate himself to the pyre, and get a better feel for Piridur. He’d been surprised, but pleased, when the man had agreed to come along. On a whim, he took them east, toward the common hall. “You said there were other problems here, besides whatever the Council is. What do you think is the most pressing?”

“A difficult question,” Piridur replied. The great boulevard was still beautiful, lined with fine old oaks and busy shops. Ram almost wondered if Piridur were making all his troubles up. “We have any number of situations that could become critical in the next few tetrads. Shasipir and Natati both hold this pyre to blame for the Atellu situation, and demand compensation. The shipping companies are angry, and most of the tinapi with them. The metal shortage is forcing us to recycle rusted scrap, though that’s only humiliating so far. We still haven’t started the annual bazuu campaign. There are rumors of sul cults starting up again.”

“Pfft. When are there not rumors of sul cults?”

“We have something of a legitimacy crisis, Ram—or would you prefer to be addressed as Ensi?” Ram shook his head. “There is a shortage of certainty. The man on the street doesn’t know who to trust. I won’t make the mistake of dismissing any rumors out of hand.”

“Including man-eating resh-worshippers?” He’d set a leisurely pace for them, and they were still only halfway to the common hall. It was, now that he thought of it, not a bad choice of destinations. Most of the old militia had roots near the hall, where they and their families ate. The east end was full of little shops and other small businesses, haunts of the lower citizenry, for just that reason.

“I’ve seen a number of disturbing things in my service to this pyre. That would not be the worst, if it were true.”

“What would be?”

“What I see in the near future. The undermining of our whole way of life. That one murderer who said he was ‘countenanced by the council’—have you ever heard of such a thing? A small band of self-appointed hoodlums trying to dictate the lives of almost a hundred thousand?”

Ram wasn’t sure how to answer. Truthfully, that was very nearly the system the pyre had at present, though it was debatable if the great families counted as ‘hoodlums.’ But he could also see how having this sorted out by force would be worse.

“Countenance by the council,” Piridur repeated. “That’s what frightens me. Like the first threads picked out of a blanket—the hardest part is starting the hole. We’ll have to patch it quick, or the whole thing will fall apart.”

Ram nodded, barely listening. The common hall loomed at the end of the boulevard, five stories tall with a domed roof of glass and bronze. It was hard not to compare it to Naimenka’s Garden, given its shape, and that was a contest the building couldn’t hope to win. It was an ugly, functional thing, meant to pack people in and stuff them with food as efficiently as possible, serving thousands at every meal. Just now it would be preparing for dinner.

The heat of the day was passing, and the street grew busier in response, as citizens set out on the errands they’d postponed. There was a thin but steady stream of men and donkeys sweating their way east with Ram and Piridur, taking cargo from the docks or market to their masters’ houses. Bondservants congregated by fives and sixes, taking a moment to exchange news before carrying on with what they were supposed to be doing. Boys and girls rushed up and down, either running errands or playing or a little of both.

Ram’s other sense revealed less activity. This neighborhood was a desert for haranuu; most of the handmaidens were at work elsewhere, running smithies or kilns all day, and nobody around here had the funds for a dulsphere. Flamekeepers were rare, and clumped together, like as not for their own protection. A pair of them stood guard at one of the busier intersections, nodding cautiously at them as they passed. Only one spirit in the area was moving around much.

“Piridur? Are there any visitors from another pyre here at the moment? Specifically, in this area?”

“Hmm?” His audible fuming had faded into a fretful silence as they walked. “No, not that I know of. There’s an embassy from Shasipir, but they have a suite in the Palace, and don’t leave without an escort. Why do you ask?”

“Because there’s a haranu about, oh, four or five few blocks north, up ahead. It’s not one of ours, but it’s moving around.”

“The Shasipiri didn’t bring any flamekeepers along,” Piridur said. “Can you tell what pyre it’s from?”

“The power’s not that specific, I’m afraid.” But it was a moving haranu. A dulsphere would be needless at this time of day, and fairly pathetic at this distance from its mother pyre. Another pyre’s flamekeeper would have no business carrying his sword around the east end of Dul Karagi. Which left one possibility, one he’d have thought still more ridiculous before the bloom. “We might want backup for this; do you have the authority to command those two flamekeepers back there?”

“Not anymore. But you might.”

Neither soldier was pleased to meet Ram, and initially they were reluctant to listen even to Piridur. But after hearing what Ram had to say—and confirming, via incredulous looks at Piridur, that it was not all a mad joke—they agreed to come along. The possible danger didn’t frighten them; given events of the past couple of tetrads, they hadn’t been all that safe where they were.

“You know anything about this area?” he asked them, as he led them toward the spirit. He wasn’t worried about losing it, but if it bolted he’d lose a lot of important clues.

“Not really,” one answered. “It’s a shithole.”

“Right.” If Ram recalled correctly, this part of the northeast was a genteel-poor neighborhood, popular among small-time artists and craftsmen. It was far enough from the river that rents were cheap, but close enough to the north end to be readily accessible for any well-off household to send messengers asking for a commission. He’d had little enough cause to go here in his militia days—nobody robbed portraitists, and they didn’t tend to make trouble.

The real warrens of crime and disorder were along the southwestern waterfront, near the south gate, or around the pyre’s great factory districts, where more than a thousand people might live and work together. It was easy enough for a thief to get lost in those crowds, for fights to start among them, or for a troublemaker to rile them up. But the closest such clump was Anshuligi’s glassworks, a ways off to the northeast at the pyre’s edge. This was nowhere. Which, Ram guessed, made it a wonderful place to hide.

“All right, this is the place.” He pointed to a five-story building, slightly shabby, with a few pomegranate trees swaying on the rooftop. Most of the buildings around here had them, or some other useful plant; they made the roof cool and pleasant, and were a more reliable source of income than the tenants. The strange haranu had stopped moving, somewhere on the third floor.

“You—what was your name? Zizri? Can you stay here for me? If somebody comes running out in a hurry, detain him. Or her. If—yeah.” Better not to say ‘if you dare.’ The flamekeeper seemed to guess what he’d been about to say, but only nodded with a sour look on his face. “Your friend, can he go around the far side? There should be two exits.” This reminded him too much of his evening at Lashantu’s. “Piridur, come with me, please. I don’t know how many people are up there.”

The front door opened on a stingy little lobby, with a few metal chairs around a chipped glass-top table, all in different styles and covered in dust. A door on the far side of the room led to a long, dim hallway and a staircase. From somewhere in the building came a familiar tap-tap-tap. It was a friendly sound; a sculptor worked here. “Ram, how hostile is your acquaintance? The other ensi?”

“I don’t know how he’ll act. I’m fine if you let me take the lead; he can’t hurt me. I won’t think less of you. You’re here to grab the stragglers, or cut them down if there’s a real crowd. The quicker and quieter we go, the—“

“I know, Ensi. You do remember how we met, don’t you? Lead on.”

It was somewhat embarrassing to realize that Piridur was considerably more composed than Ram. Mortal man though he was, he’d gone to war multiple times, and probably seen plenty of danger in other contexts as well. He was only letting Ram lead to humor him, or to let him run the risks. He tried not to resent that as he led the way, soft-footed, up the stairs. At least they were brick; metal steps would have advertised their arrival to the whole damn building.

The third-floor landing was lit only by a window, sending warm amber light from the Temple all the way down the hall to their right. Its floors were covered in an abstract patterned mosaic that had seen better days—perhaps one of the residents had done it, ages ago. A number of colored tiles were missing now. Every door was marked by a little iron plate on the frame, advertising the resident’s name and craft; these were combination homes and studios. But there was little sound besides low conversation and their own feet clacking against the floor. The haranu was halfway down the hall on the left-hand side; “Jeznensapa, Melodist” was the listed owner.

“Ready?” he mouthed to Piridur, one hand on the curtain. Piridur waved his hand in a go-on motion. Ram took a couple of calming breaths, then threw the curtain aside, drawing Beshi with his other hand.

It was a long, narrow room, with a small and mostly empty bookshelf on one wall next to a cheap metal desk and chair. There was only one occupant, a young woman lying on the bed under the window. She lifted her head and stared as Ram entered, but looked more annoyed than afraid. She was young, about twenty-five, and distinctly homely, with a big nose and a bad complexion. Her clothes were plain, cheap hemp, a drudge’s rags, but Ram could almost see the alien haranu burning in her heart.

“Oh,” she said in a flat, dull voice, “it’s you.” She dropped her head back down onto the pillow and said, “You just missed him.”

“Just missed who?”

“Mannagiri,” she said into her pillow. “And three exploitable idiots from your pyre. Having a meeting. But they’re all gone now.”

“What were they talking about?”

“Nothing for you to hear.” She rolled over to face the window.

Ram sheathed Beshi. “Look, I know you don’t have any reason to like me. I know it’s partly my fault that all this happened. If you—“

“He left a message for you,” she cut in, in the same dead voice, “for when you showed up. Do you want to hear it, or not?”

“… sure.”

“He says that, if you kill me, he’ll send three handmaidens to replace me. And that he has plenty of women like me to spare on that. If you try to hold me captive, he’ll kill me, and send five more. If you make him very angry, he’ll kill one of the handmaidens you left behind in our pyre. If you want to talk with him, or pass on a message from one of the other pyres, you can use those same women. But he wants to be left alone.”

“Will he let traffic pass on the river again, or let the caravans pass on to Jatu?”

“I don’t know. I’ve given you the whole message. Ask him.”

“What does he want, though? What’s he after?”

“I don’t know that either. I won’t tell you anything he didn’t tell me to tell you. He’ll hurt my sisters if I do.”

“He doesn’t have to know—“

“I’m not taking the chance.”

Piridur stepped forward. “Miss, you don’t know me, but if you cooperate, Dul Karagi still has significant resources we could use to help you and your sisters.”

“Mannagiri has more,” the girl replied. “He’s sold off all of High Atellu by now, and turned it into gold. Even our mothers and sisters are sold off, the men held for ransom.  He’s not stupid. Evil, mostly crazy, but not stupid.”

“And you’re helping him,” Ram said.

“I don’t care what happens,” she replied. “I don’t even know anything to tell you. Why would he tell me? I don’t matter.”

“But … do you want him to win?”

“I want him to die. And he will, in a couple of blooms. The more we cooperate, the more of my sisters will survive, and the less he’ll hurt us in the meantime. You can’t help us, so save your breath. The door is behind you.”

Piridur put a hand on Ram’s shoulder. “Miss—could you tell me your name?”

“Ninshuma.” The same girl Mannagiri had sent to speak with them when they arrived in Atellu. Was she unusually trustworthy?

“Miss Ninshuma, I’m sorry to hear about your difficulties. But it has to be obvious that we can’t give you free rein to subvert our authority in this pyre. The Ensi found you easily enough, just now; he can find you just as easily again.”

Ninshuma sat up in bed. “And? Are you going to kill me, Rammash?”

“If I have to. My friend is right. You can’t hide from me in this pyre.”

She smirked. “I don’t have to hide … Ensi.” Her eyes flicked up at a spot somewhere above and behind Ram’s head. “I only have to keep you busy.”

The building shook and roared like a rousing lion, knocking Ram and Piridur to the floor. Ram looked back up just in time to see a girl’s leg disappear out the window. He ran after her—clumsily, barely noticing that the floor still shook beneath him—and saw a rope lying across the sill. It jerked and bobbed to and fro—

“Ram!” He looked back; Piridur was upset about something, but he couldn’t hear the rest of it for the groaning and rattling all around them. He might have heard a scream in the distance, but he wasn’t sure. Piridur ran into him, shoving him towards the window. He was shouting too, but nothing was audible. The noise was like a thousand drummers. Ram didn’t understand, but both of the souls inside him insisted on leaving at once. There was only one exit in sight.

He threw Piridur over his shoulder with one arm, and leapt out the window without a thought. They fell three stories, and landed on Ram’s stiff legs, shattering bones all the way up to his hips. He couldn’t hear his own shrieking over the bellow of the building coming down behind them. The shock knocked him flat on his stomach, and sent Piridur rolling across the pavement. A cloud of dust flew over their heads, whistling like a hawk above the desert. When it cleared, he lifted his head from the pavement, and saw a young woman sprinting away down the street unhindered.

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Chapter 14.5

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Eight days later, Ram was headed back, flying to Dul Karagi for the third time in his life.

On his first trip, more than a month ago now, he’d just learned he was en, was coming back from Pilupura in Piridur’s custody, and was little better than terrified, however much he tried to pretend. He’d hidden it behind a pitiful veneer of brash belligerence, and done a poor job of convincing even himself. Too much had changed, too quickly, and he’d barely understood what he was.

The second trip, a bare three tetrads later, he’d just survived the treacherous attack on “Dul Shimrun,” and anger had overwhelmed sense and even fear. Again, he’d tried to hide behind pretense, that it was only good strategy to burn out his enemies like he’d always wanted to. And his spirit had assured him that all was right as he blasted down houses that had stood for a hundred blooms, and sent women and children screaming for the riverbank in the dead of night.

Now he was headed back once again. He didn’t want to live behind facades anymore, but it was a tough habit to break. And he honestly didn’t know how to feel.

He took the vellum out of his pocket yet again, carefully unfolding it to spare the increasingly strained creases. It was the same fine stuff used for every official communication from the Lugal, written in the same lovely fluid script. But the message was very simple: “Rammash. Please return to Dul Karagi as soon as possible. We will have a barque waiting for you at Jazaral, all has been arranged. Lord Etana will make any remotely reasonable assurances you need for your safety and that of your entourage. I am willing to discuss your other conditions. Piridur.”

Now Ram was on that barque. The three handmaidens who’d flown it up to Jazaral were sitting in the back, looking askance at Mana and Rinti as they sent the very valuable craft careening over the desert sands. Both of them were in explosively high spirits, overjoyed to return to the pyre. Ram knew how they felt; his own haranu was purring, deep inside his chest, to be back in its proper place. He, however, did not have the privilege of being an underage girl, who had nothing worse to look forward to than the supervision of a few disagreeable older handmaidens.

Imbri and Bal sat in the lee of the prow railing, both looking content. Imbri’s official capacity, if she had one, was as Ram’s advisor. He had promised to pay her out of Karagi’s funds, which was about as much as she ever asked from anyone. Bal, beside her, was her bodyguard, and to some extent Ram’s when Imbri and Rinti weren’t available. It wasn’t clear to Ram that Bal even cared about money; he seemed to go along with the people he knew best, and take it on faith that the means of sustenance would provide themselves. Probably he didn’t even put that much articulate thought into it. Life went on, flowing past and around him like water around an island in the Teshalun, leaving his awareness untouched.

He decided to join them. “Hey. Do you really think we can trust Etana? Or Piridur?” he asked Imbri, as soon as he was far enough forward that he didn’t think the three strange handmaidens could hear him over the wind.

“For practical purposes, it doesn’t matter,” Imbri said. “I don’t really trust you, if it comes to that. But there’s nothing you could do to make me believe in you any more than I do now. All I can do is go with you and be ready for disaster. The same situation you’re in where the Karagenes are concerned.” She smiled. “Which helps me trust you a little more.”

He sat down next to her. “I can accept that. But don’t you think they changed their minds too quickly? I wasn’t expecting them to give in after only a couple of tetrads.”

“How long were you expecting?”

“I don’t know. Longer.”

“Are you sure it’s that you were expecting it to be longer? It’s not just that you wanted it to be longer?”

“Say what? Why would I want it to take longer? I want my life back.”

“It seemed to me like you were getting pretty comfortable where you were. You had your wife and your family there, and no responsibilities. There’s nothing waiting for you at the pyre but work and danger. Why would you look forward to that kind of mess?”

“Yeah, but … “


The wind flung his hair into his eyes; irritably, he shoved it back. “Hell. Okay, point.”

“I don’t suppose I can blame you. It has been a pretty crazy couple of months.”

“I have a hard time believing it’s only been that long.” But it had; the whole mess had started out at the bloom, the longest day of summer, and they weren’t halfway through autumn yet. They’d have long since finished up the main harvest by now—“Oh. Damn.”

“’Oh, damn’ what?”

“I think I know why they’re calling me back now. It’s about time for the campaign again, isn’t it? And they can’t risk it without me on their side.”

Imbri considered it. “Maybe. Is that so bad?”

“It is if they have no reason to keep me around once the battles are over.”

“You’re not going to be that easy to get rid of, and you know it,” she chided. “You’re just nervous. We’ve planned for this.”

“Yeah.” He stood up to look over the prow; the towering fire of Dul Karagi was a little twinkle on the horizon now, but shining brighter every second. Thousands of spirits swirled around it, bees around a hive, humming with life. He couldn’t even see the separate haranuu clearly, from this distance. Now the fire was a spike of light on the horizon, just above a patch of green. The green patch grew, and the spike rose higher, and the outer pastures rushed beneath them. This trip, at least, he was not flying in by the dead of night; he would reclaim his own at high noon, under the God’s own shining eyes. That seemed a good omen.

Fields, gardens, orchards, hundreds of acres of cultivated land, all skittered past in an instant. Then the barque rose, very slightly, to clear the great trees, and the pyre itself was spread out before them: mansions, apartments, tenements, houses and slums all together, factories and smithies, shops, shrines, inns and theaters, everything needed for uncountable thousands of men and women to live and work together, all crammed into a few square miles. He was home.

No. Not yet. Home was the Temple, but Mana put the barque into a gentle glide as they passed the forest, and they dipped down to land on the roof of the Lugal’s palace. Etana’s palace, now. There was a man waiting at the edge of the roof by the time they finally settled in for a landing—it wasn’t Etana. No matter. Ram leaped down from the deck to the roof before the craft even touched down.

By chance or design, that lone man was standing very close to the spot where Ram had knelt at the bloom. Probably chance, Ram decided. If it was a message, it was awfully subtle for the occasion. “Good to see you again, Piridur,” Ram said, and almost meant it.

Piridur nodded, his hands clasped together behind his back. He had his indwelt sword back at his hip, but was dressed down in a thigh-length red tunic, like a common rank-and-file flamekeeper. Which might well be all he was now. “Rammash. I’m glad you came.” He didn’t sound like he meant it either. “Are you still resolved not to return without a pledged successor from this pyre?”

Well, that’s abrupt. Ram had honestly forgotten he’d made that demand. “Are you offering?” he asked, to avoid answering.

“I am open to the possibility,” Piridur answered, glancing over Ram’s shoulder as the rest of the passengers disembarked. “But I can’t make any promises yet. Who all came? I need to speak with you in confidence.”

“My sister, her friend, Imbri, and Bal. That’s it. Hold on.” He turned around and held up a hand to ward them away; Bal nodded, and led Imbri towards the stairs. Mana and Rinti were already headed that way—they hadn’t seen their friends for months. “Done. So, you can’t promise yet. What are you waiting for?”

“Another chance. A fresh start.” His eyes flicked over the roof, making sure nobody was close, before he said, “We should set this straight, before discussing anything else: you have a volunteer already. He wanted to meet you here in my place, and offer himself as en as soon as you landed. I only barely found out in time to prevent him.”

“Anybody I know?”

Piridur’s jaw clenched, and he seemed to have some trouble getting out the words: “My father.”

“Jushur? I wouldn’t have accepted him anyway.”

Piridur only relaxed slightly. “That’s not what you said at Jazaral.”

“That was just … sarcasm. I guess. I’m sure you love him, but I don’t plan to give your father even more power than he had before.”

“I can understand that.” He didn’t smile, but his jaw unclenched just a little more. “Including the sarcasm. We’ve had plenty of sarcasm. I hope we can change that, if we’re going to work together again.”

“As en and ensi?”

“In any capacity. Obviously, things have not gone in the way I hoped when I first met you at Pilupura, or even when we last stood on this roof. I can see where and why they went wrong—do we need to speak about that?”

“No. We don’t.” He would die in a few blooms. An apology would only take up that many more seconds of his remaining life.

“Very well. Then you see the difficulty. I’m not used to working with my enemies, Rammash. How can we trust each other again?”

“It doesn’t seem to me like we ever trusted each other at all. Just speaking for myself, I was always out to screw you over, and assumed you meant the same to me. The idea was to get my knife in first, then get away with whatever I could grab.”

“So you say. And yet you would invest me with your pyre, with all the power you now possess, with all your memories. With power over your family’s lives, even. Your sister’s, at a minimum. Why is that?”

“Somebody has to do it, and I’m short on candidates. Your father couldn’t do it. I’m sure he’d die for you, the same as mine would die for me. But you’re only one man. That’s not enough. I need someone who’s ready to look out for … “ Lost for a figure, he swept his arm all around, taking in the whole pyre. “How many people?”

“About ninety-seven thousand at the last census, if I recall correctly. Counting only permanent residents of Dul Karagi proper.”

“Imagine that.” He took a moment to look out at it, really look. The lugal statue in the plaza had been replaced, and all the debris swept away. It was peak day, so the market was in full swing, with dozens of tables set up all to sell the latest and freshest goods off the docks. From above, Ram could scarcely see the bricks of the plaza for all the awnings—striped, spotted, swirled, checked, crosshatched—but judging by the crowds between them it was about as lively as ever. “You don’t seem to be doing too badly, considering.”

“It looks that way,” Piridur agreed. “Were you planning to walk the streets of your pyre right away?”

“I didn’t have any firm plans, honestly. I didn’t know what to expect. Is there a reason I shouldn’t take a look around?”

Piridur looked once more around the rooftop; it was empty, and the barque was lifting off again. “If we were not alone, I would have told you no, go ahead. As it is, I’d suggest you stay put.”

“Oh? Who’s planning to kill me now?”

“Nobody. At least, nobody connected to Etana’s government. We all know better than to try.”

“Blackbands, then? Has Mannagiri been hiring assassins?” The haranu was hanging about in more or less the right spot for it. A lot of trash washed up at the docks.

“He might have a hand in this, for all we know, but I don’t think they’re blackbands. We’ve hired more than a few of our own, to gather intelligence. Unless they’re all lying to us—which is very possible—none of the established groups are involved.”

“Involved in what?”

He shook his head. “I wish I knew to tell you. But the simplest and least inaccurate answer I can give you is that we seem to have a common enemy. Or will, very soon. The ground is still shifting under our feet here. It’s only been a month since you destroyed the north end.”

“I assumed you would blame me for that. Ram the bazu sorcerer.”

“We did. We had very little choice, after all. And for the first few tetrads, it appeared to work. The survivors found temporary homes with their extended families around the pyre, and set to work hiring labor to clear and begin rebuilding as soon as possible. A few had to take out loans, and there was some concern about the balance at the banks, but it was settled within a few days.” He scowled at the decorative trim of the terrace. “Father was deposed within a tetrad, for letting you leave the pyre alive. It was all he could do to talk his way out of bondage, or execution.”

“I wasn’t—“ Piridur gave him a cold look, and raised one eyebrow. “Okay, I was trying for something like that, but not in so many words. Honestly, I’d just come close to being killed. I was too angry to think it over.”

“Yes, I gathered. Just so you know, I tried to get the Jatui to send a smaller body to negotiate—and to do so politely. I had a better feel for who they were dealing with than they did.”

Which is why you brought bullspikes? “It’s too late to worry about all that now. You were saying?”

“You know what happened next. Word arrived that you were agitating in the hearths. Nobody was inclined to deal leniently with you, but the assassination attempt failed, and half of Rumshiza was leveled. And that, I think, was the final blow.”

“The final blow to what?”

“Urapu was your own hearth; it fit into the story we’d been telling easily enough. The north end was frightening, but once the shock of it was over, I imagine it made things easier. Seeing us brought low only made us more human. It’s easier to be merciful to your enemy once he’s humiliated. Isn’t it, Ensi?”

“It sure doesn’t hurt. But what was so bad about Rumshiza? It wasn’t any more important than Urapu, to these people.”

“It didn’t fit the story. It came out of nowhere. It was the third disaster of the summer. And, it seems, we couldn’t hide our part in it. Too many Rumshizans survived to tell all about the men we sent to destroy you. You didn’t look so much like the aggressor. Shimrun was still more difficult to explain.”

“Piridur, what happened?”

“It started the tetrad after Rumshiza. Three flamekeepers assigned to the common hall at dinner disappeared overnight. Their naked bodies were left in the plaza—right next to the pool, there—the next morning. A pair of acolytes got stabbed in a crowd the next day. We’ve had a couple of fires, a few poisonings, and one madman who broke into an acolytes’ school with a sword. Two dead, eight injured, mostly children, in that one incident alone.”

“But you’re still holding market days.”

“This pyre needs money, Ram. We’ve got a lot of rebuilding to do here, two of our hearths have been destroyed, and since Atellu shut down the river trade isn’t what it used to be. We have no choice but to cultivate the appearance of normalcy. Make no mistake: everyone down there will be feeling anxious. They can see the clouds gather, even if they don’t know what the storm will look like.”

Ram scanned the crowd. None of them were looking his direction; it was like any other market gathering, from this height. “Why were flamekeepers assigned to the common hall dinner, anyway? That’s militia work.”

“It used to be, when we had a militia. It’s been disbanded. They were openly seditious.”

“And you only disbanded them? That’s lenient.”

“I was simplifying for brevity. Really it was more of a mass desertion, after the first couple of arrests. We don’t have the manpower to account for the deserters. We assume they’re still at large in the pyre, and responsible for the bulk of the attacks.”

There’d been something like a thousand militiamen. It would only take a tiny percentage to cause an immense amount of trouble. “It doesn’t sound to me like we have a common enemy, Piridur. It sounds to me like you do. The militia loved me.”

“They used to. Possibly not since you destroyed two hearths. Supposedly destroyed,” he amended, when Ram opened his mouth. “Anyway, the Lugal thinks not, and I believe he’s correct. We have very little evidence for what kind of organization is behind this, or even if it is just one organization, but we have letters, and propaganda.”

Ram took the slip of paper Piridur offered him. The paper was cheap, but the writing was in a good hand. He was still out of practice, and read with effort: “’The time of usurpation is over. This is the … era of the chosen people of Haranduluz. We will have no more false priests, no rule by half-men and … wizards and women and their idiot tools. We proclaim the Dominion of the Council.’ What council? Is that like a hearth council?”

“That’s as good a guess as any. We’ve only had a chance to interrogate one assassin, and him briefly, before he died of his injuries. He claimed to be under the countenance of ‘the Council’ as well, and said much the same kind of thing as that paper. Or so I hear. I wasn’t present for the interrogation.”

Ram looked back at the paper. “They think they can make a pyre work without ensis or handmaidens?”

“So it would seem. We’ve intercepted, or been given, any number of messages like that one, some of them quite long. Starting on the last waning. Whoever these people are, they have a lot of people and things they disapprove of, and are willing to use violence to get rid of them. If they have any clear idea what to replace us with, they haven’t shared it yet.”

The paper had nothing more to tell him, but he couldn’t look away. “So, this is why you called me back?”

“Why you were called back, yes. It was hoped that your appearance would improve the situation.”

“What, by me getting killed? Would that let off some stress, or distract them?”

“More the latter. And they aren’t expecting your actual death. I think the general idea is that you’d be too much for them to handle.”

“Buying your group time.” Piridur nodded. “So why are you telling me this? You don’t agree?”

“It doesn’t much matter whether I do or not; you will have to deal with the situation either way. But I do think we’ll see better results if you’re warned in advance.”

“Because you want trust?”

“Among other reasons. Don’t misunderstand me, Rammash; I am not betraying my own. But I think I know you better than any of the others do, and I see our interests differently. The others are frightened and confused, and thinking too much of the immediate term, of enduring the current crisis so we can go back to normal.”

Ram rolled his eyes.

“Yes. I’ve seen enough of the wider world that I don’t believe going back is possible. Which leaves forward. To where? I don’t know. But it’ll be easier to get there with you beside us rather than standing in the way.”

“I’ll try not to disappoint you, then.” He crumpled up the slip of paper and shoved it in his pocket. “Thank you. Is there anything else I need to know about my pyre? Anything else going wrong?”

“A great deal. Troubles are like rats: get two together and you’ll soon have hundreds.”

“Then I guess we’d better get started.”

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Chapter 14.4

Previous  Next

It was just after sunset when they got back to Dul Misishi. Zasha remained at the prow of the barque, conspiring with his cousin and the acolyte—Dezri and Nishal had elected to return to their own pyre—while Ram and Mana hung back at the stern. Zasha only spoke to Ram to warn him, as they disembarked, to be on the lookout for blackbands for the next few days.

He got back to the house to find Darun waiting up for him in the sitting room, holding a sleeping Zemni in her lap. “I figured I should get some practice in,” she said, when he raised an eyebrow. “Give your mom a break, maybe encourage her to hate me just a little less. How’d it go?”

“About like we expected.” There was, as usual, food left on the table, another of Jezrimin’s endless series of snack trays. This one had bread, dates, and goat-cheese. Ram hadn’t eaten in some time, and sat down next to his wife to help himself, sparing a second to kiss her on the cheek. “I gave them the speech, they gave me the evil eye for the whole thing, but at least they listened. So maybe even a little better than expected, I guess.”

“And after? How’d they react?”

There was wine on the table, too; he still didn’t much like it, but took a swig anyway. At this distance from Dul Karagi, it almost did something for him. “Etana—he was there—said I was being ‘needlessly belligerent,’ and ‘constituted an unacceptable security risk.’ Motion to eject me from the council, motion carried, and Mana and I spent hours hanging out by the barque while the grownups talked.”

“Give them a couple of days to get used to it.”

“Yeah.” That, too, was how they’d planned it. If the Karagenes really did have no choice but to accept Ram as Ensi—and he was pretty sure of that—he could afford a few tetrads for them to cool down and accept the inevitable. He looked down at Zemni, sleeping peacefully. “Speaking of getting used to things …?”

“Eh. I kind of see the appeal, but I kind of don’t? Sure, it’s relaxing, but they don’t do a whole lot. He’s a yelly, smelly little paperweight. If we just got a cat, it wouldn’t take half a kindling to learn to piss in the box.” Tirnun had recently acquired a kitten, after constant and shameless pressure from her five-bloom-old. Jezrimin wound up doing most of the cleanup.

“But you still want to be a mom?”

Darun shrugged. “It’s not like anybody else is ever going to think I’m beautiful again. Kids don’t know better. That’s a point for them.”

“Please don’t talk like that. Seriously, why do you want to be a mother now? You used to hate the idea.”

“I still don’t know if I want it, hubby, but there’s a lot I don’t want about this situation. I don’t want to hang out with your mom and the heifer for … how long do you think it will take?”

“Until it’s safe for you to join me at the pyre? Hard to say. Probably months. I don’t know when I’ll be able to be certain that they won’t try to use you as leverage.”

“See? That sucks, but I can handle it.”

“Of course. But you do know that being a mother isn’t something you can just ‘handle’ that way, don’t you?”

She shot him a sour look. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m a selfish bitch. And you’re right. I always have been, and I probably always will be. And now I’m an ugly selfish bitch. Fine. I’m still going to need something going on in my life when you’re gone.”

“Darun, that’s—“

“What am I going to do, go out partying? Nobody’s going to want me. I can’t sell shit with this face. I don’t want to be a handmaiden—it’s bad enough that Piridur’s going to have memories of you screwing me—it’s all gone. All gone. This is the only life I can have now. I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re not. You’re my wife, and I love you.”

“Love? Please, Ram. I’m the girl you lied about fucking so you’d look good. You’ve known me for less than six months. Now I’m useless—“

“You’re not useless! You just helped me—“

“But you were dumb enough to tie yourself to the sinking boat, so I said sure. And now you’re trying to make the most of it, because you’re dumb that way—“

“Because it’s my child—“

“And yet you won’t stop whining at me for doing the exact thing you want me to do, which makes no damn sense at all—“

“What do you want from me?”

“What I want from you, Rammash, is to lower your voice,” said Mother from behind him. “You will wake the baby, if not the rest of the house.”

Ram swallowed his temper, and twisted around on the couch; he hadn’t heard her coming down the hall. Mother was dressed in a green shift with a black mantle, and looking quite tired. “Darun, I will take the child, if you would like some time to yourself. Thank you for your help.”

“You’re welcome, Mother,” she said, offloading Zemni in a hurry. “See you later, Ram.” She didn’t look back at him before hustling off to bed.

Mother promptly took the seat she’d left. “She’s calling you ‘Mother’ now?” Darun had always pointedly addressed his mother by her name before, when she spoke to her at all.

“I do not mind. She cannot remember having a mother, and I have never properly had a daughter. It has been a learning experience for both of us.” She gave Ram a significant look. “We all have much to learn, and little time to learn it.”

“Right.” He’d forgotten about the food; now he spread more cheese on the bread. He was still hungry, and Mother was talking to him again, even if he didn’t care for the subject.

There were still several cups on the table; Mother poured herself a small glass of the wine. “I realize I have not done very well myself. I am sorry, Rammash. To be mother to a handmaiden is difficult enough. I have had no notion how to mother an ensi.”

“You’ve done fine.”

“Son of mine, have I ever before shown a fondness for patronizing? I have done poorly, and we both know it. And you have been a poor husband, because you hurried into it. But I have no fair standing for criticism on that score.” Ram had a mouth full of cheese, and could only look at her curiously. “You were born six and a half months after our marriage,” she said with a wistful smile. “As only your father and I troubled to celebrate our anniversary, it seemed judicious to move it.”


“That was not such a profound sentiment that you couldn’t have waited to swallow your food before uttering it.” She sighed. “You have behaved stupidly, my son. Very, very stupidly. This is normal. You are sixteen. If you acted wisely, I would worry.”

“… thank you?”

Mother rolled her eyes. “It’s only fair to tell you that I would be less frustrated with your choice of brides if I hadn’t made a similarly rash choice. It can be difficult, to see your children replicating your mistakes.”

“Mistakes?” Ram said indignantly.

She laughed. “You are right. Indiscretions, I should say. Your father is an indiscreet man, and he taught me indiscretions, and I was very happy, then and now. We have paid the full and painful price for it, and I would pay it all again. Very likely you would say the same for your wife, if not at this exact moment.”

“Even now,” he said, though he was fairly sure he was lying.

Mother set her cup down, still half-full. “But if we are speaking of your marriage … I know I have told you before why it is that our species gives men a monopoly on the practice of politics.”

“Women are better at it, but men can’t stand to be beaten all the time,” Ram recited. “Otherwise we’d leave it to you. I know. So, what?  Are you saying you’ll take care of it when my wife starts calling herself trash?”

“Your mistake is in thinking that it must be ‘taken care of’ at all—a typical male error. A woman’s thoughts are her own, and she will change them at her leisure, not your convenience. Certainly she would not ask for your help, of all people.”

“Why not? I’m closer to her than anybody else here, and she knows I’m on her side.”

“You are also her husband, and she is young, at the age when a girl longs to be perfect and desirable—something Darun can never have again. She must feel the loss more sharply for falling from such a great height, and she has only newly won you with a beauty she lost. Now you are among the most powerful men in the world. How can she hope to hold you?” She glanced down at the baby, still sleeping in her lap.

Ram steadfastly ignored the hint. “I’m not going to leave her, she knows that!”

“Does she? In one sense, possibly. There are different kinds of knowing, Rammash, and she has not known you long. She does not want or need for you to know her fear, her weakness, now. That would only complete her humiliation. I would advise you to help her when she asks and as you can, and otherwise mind your business.”

Ram held up his hands. “Okay. Okay. I think I can understand that. I’ll probably be leaving soon anyhow, and leaving her behind. I don’t know how we’ll deal with that.”

“I would suggest you contrive to come back, from time to time. Or at least send regular letters. Gifts would not hurt either, if you could arrange to afford them.”

“Yeah.” This conversation called for another glass, he thought. “You will look out for her, while I’m away, won’t you? I know she’s not your favorite person.”

“She could be the worst woman in the world—which she is not—and I would still have a compelling interest in the well-being of the woman who will bear my grandchild.”

“Thank you.”

“The more so because I suspect I will be doing much of the work of raising that grandchild.”

“If Auntie Tir doesn’t beat you to it. But Darun might surprise you.” He’d have argued more forcefully, for loyalty’s sake, if he’d thought he’d have a prayer of winning the argument.

“We will hope.” She popped a date in her mouth, and took her time eating it. Mother had always been very fond of dates. “Now, as for my present work: I am still mother to an ensi. Are you prepared?”

“As prepared as I can be, Mother. I don’t know what Dul Karagi is like these days, but I’ll have Imbri along for advice, and Bal and the girls watching my back.”

“Imbri seems a reasonable young woman,” she said with a nod, “and your sister will not betray you. But you have left out the most important person. Where do you stand with the God?”

“Oh. I … I really don’t know.”

“I think you would do well to find out. Quickly. You are preparing to do his service, after all.” Her frown deepened. “I hope you at least don’t share your father’s opinions.”

“I used to,” he admitted, as he drained his cup. “I was pretty mad for a while there. But I’m over that.” Since Imbri took me out to the rookery. Not much point blaming Haranduluz, if we did all this to ourselves.

“Then are you prepared to do the God’s will?”

“That depends what he wants, Mother. I’ve never been able to find out, have you?”

“I am not in a position to ask. You are.”

Was he? Probably not. He didn’t have any clear memory of previous priests speaking with Haranduluz—but it suddenly came to him that he hadn’t really been physically close to the pyre since Shimrun died. And Shimrun had said, in their first silent talk in the dark, that he had an easier time trusting the God than most people. There might be more to learn.

“I’m not. But I might be, when I get back home. I’ve asked Haranduluz for help before, and it seemed to work. But I don’t know. I just don’t. I can say I’m willing to listen.”

“Hmm.” She looked over her son’s face—skeptically, he thought—but said nothing more.

“Are you going to be able to manage things here? I know my wife is hard to deal with. Even for me, sometimes.”

Especially for you. She likes to keep you off-balance; it would never do for you to take her for granted. But we will do quite well. I think I will resume the veil tomorrow. There is no more need for the fiction of bond-service, is there?”

Ram smiled, and gave his mother a hug. “I don’t think so. As long as you stay safe.”

“Worry for my sanity, not my health, if you worry for me at all. You are facing greater obstacles than I.”

“Don’t I know it.” He gave her a hug, and got up. “Thank you, Mother. I think I’ll go see my wife now.”

“An excellent idea,” she said, choosing another date. She paused, and frowned up at him; he had paused at the back of the couch. “Yes?”

“Are you happy to have your first grandchild on the way, Mother?”

She pursed her lips. “That is a difficult question to answer.”

“It was for me, too. But I’ve decided I am. I’m happy. I don’t know how this kid is going to turn out, with an indwelt dad. I’m not going to be around to see him grow up.” Mother looked away. “He’s going to have a difficult life, with no father. It’ll be hard for all of you. I don’t even know what kind of world this child will grow up in. But I’m glad that something of me is going to be left behind when I’m gone.

“Do you think that’s selfish, Mother?”

She took a long time to answer, and still didn’t look at him. “I think it is human, Rammash. It is very human. You are expected to be a priest, not a god.”

“Well, that’s something. Good night.” He leaned down to kiss the top of her head, squeezed her shoulder, and headed down the hall to his room.

Darun was still awake, curled up in their bed and staring at the wall, her eyes reflecting the last light off the temple. She didn’t look up as he came in. First things first: “Hey.” He put a hand on her hip. “I’m sorry. That got out of hand.”


“I’m glad you’re going to have my child, I really am. I’ll try to be a good father.”

“For two blooms.”

“For two blooms,” he agreed, and kicked off his shoes. “Let’s take what we can get, right?”


He lay down, taking care not to touch her. Mother was right: he had no idea how to talk to his wife right now. “Is there anything I can do for you?” Darun didn’t answer. After giving it some thought, Ram put his hand gently back down on her hip. She didn’t move it, didn’t even acknowledge it was there, but Ram didn’t take it away. So they just lay there together, still and silent.

At some point—he might have fallen asleep, but he wasn’t sure—he realized it was totally dark, and she’d slipped out from under his hand, and was nestled in his arms with her head on his chest. She was trembling softly, and he started to ask if there was something wrong. Then he thought better of it, and moved his hand up to run his fingers through her hair. When the trembling had stopped, he reached out, found her hand, and started kissing the fingers—the fingers of her burnt hand—one by one. She pulled the hand away quickly, and laid it on his chest, not quite pushing him away. He took the hint, and drew her closer to hold her until they both fell asleep.

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Chapter 14.3

Previous  Next

“Three blooms? I doubt the little punk will last one,” said Ninbi, at their left. “One man can’t run a pyre by himself, and I don’t expect any of us will be selling him food.”

“He doesn’t have a whole pyre to feed, though,” Ram said. “He’s sold off or killed most of High Atellu at this point, and he’s not bothering with the lower island or anything else. And this happened right after harvest. How long can full granaries feed a twentieth of a pyre?”

“That would be an excellent and useful observation if we had any reason to trust you,” Etana rejoined.

“I’m the only living man outside Atellu who’s met this guy in person, and two of my handmaidens are still held in his temple, talking to his women. If you’re not willing to at least listen to me, whatever happens is on you.”

“Or so you claim.“

“He might be lying,” said the Shebnaya leader, “but I don’t see what he’d stand to gain, and it’s more information than we’ve got from anyone else. So tell us a tale, son. The worst we can do is not believe you. What’s this bull up to?”

“Right now, not a lot. When we first met him, he talked about changing the Dominion, but my women say he’s idle for the moment. I think he might just want to spend the next three blooms being horrible to his handmaidens and the surviving Atellui. He’s more than a little crazy.”

“Most of them are. What else?”

“He can’t move his own body, or even talk. He’s totally crippled, and controls his handmaidens to do everything. He was born healthy, but got weaker as he grew up, until he could barely even lift his head. His parents gave him to the temple to save his life—he got indwelt early, when he was about twelve. He isn’t interested in anything outside his temple, unless he can use it to hurt or humiliate somebody.” All gleaned from whispered conversations between Pimna, Shennai, and whoever was bringing them their food on any given day.

“Anything we can use?” the Shebanaya said, turning to the acolyte beside him.

Ram could see the indignation on the acolyte’s face from the far side of the pool. “They should never have indwelt that child, if he wasn’t raised in their temple. The formative years are essential for acclimation and compliance. He’d have had a totally unsuitable mindset even if he weren’t immobile. But reduced physical capacity is always dangerous if it can’t be largely cured by indwelling. At best the en is morbidly introspective; at worst he channels his frustration and impotence outwards. Mutes are the worst of all.”

“I’ve already told you he’s crazy,” Ram said. It was hard not to bristle at the eunuch’s bloodless consideration for the correct way to ruin a boy’s life. Especially given how poorly that kind of wisdom had worked out with Shimrun.

“’Crazy’ is too broad a term,” the acolyte reproved him. “We cannot win an assault on an entrenched renegade. Isolation is impractical when he straddles a major trade junction and is, as you say, adequately supplied for the remainder of his kindling. That leaves diplomacy. And effective diplomacy requires a clear and precise understanding of who this man is and how he thinks.”

“Diplomacy?” the Natatian master barked. “You don’t negotiate with a resh.”

“Reshki are easily killed,” said the acolyte. “How do you propose to overcome an ensi?”

Nobody had a ready answer for that. There wasn’t any; Atellu’s temple fire would vaporize any attack force in moments, which was likely why pyres never warred amongst themselves directly. They used subtler weapons against each other, like—

“Blackbands?” someone suggested.

“Assassination’s no good,” Ram said. “He spends most of the day in one or two places, either enthroned or in bed, and he’s always got handmaidens with him to take care of him. If he wants to look at something far away, he sends one of the girls. You couldn’t even get past the murrush.”

“Blackbands aren’t limited to assassination,” Etana said. “Suppose we burned down his granaries, for example?”

Ram laughed. “Hell, you could get his girls to do that. They all hate him. Just give me the word and I’ll ask.”

“Unless you’re his spy,” Etana said, “and reporting everything we say through your master.”

“Seriously? If that was my game, why would I even admit to knowing him?”

Now Piridur spoke up again. “Excuse me. I’ve spent some time with Ram, and while he can be temperamental, I don’t believe he would willingly side with a man who had purely selfish and destructive goals.”

“If you recall, we have reason to doubt your judgment where Ram is concerned,” Etana snapped, and Piridur bowed his head.

“Piridur’s caught me twice, which is more than anybody else could manage.”

“If we could please return to the rogue bull?” said a man at the Shasipiri table, to their immediate right. “And let Karagi solve its problems on its own time?”

“It looks like it’s all one big ball of problems to me,” said Ninbi, who was slouched in his chair looking unconcerned. His Dul Tendum, from what Ram gathered, was relatively self-sufficient. “It’s no good fixing one pyre if another goes the same way a few miles down the river. Can’t untangle one bit of the ball from another.”

“Then let me untangle my bit first,” Ram said. He’d been waiting for his moment, and this seemed as good a time as he was likely to get. “I’ll come back to Dul Karagi, if you’re willing. I won’t cause any problems before my time’s up, as long as you leave me and my family alone.”

“I don’t think so,” Etana said.

“Why? I’m not Shimrun. I’m not crippled by doubt and fear. If I want to hurt you, I don’t have to be physically at the pyre to do it. If you’ll forgive my saying so, Lugal, I could burn the whole pyre down from here. In fact, it’d be easier to not come back; if I’m at the pyre, you’ll be on hand with spikes.”

“And you’ll refrain from any more political agitation?”

“Depends what you mean by that. I’m not going to stay penned up in the temple. I’ll walk around the pyre as I like, and live a nice normal life.”

“Spreading dissent and propaganda, I’m sure.”

The stubborn idiocy of it all suddenly made Ram feel tired. “Etana—Lugal—it has to be obvious that you can’t just put things back the way they were, after this. It’s just not happening. But I’m also not going to snap my fingers and make the whole Dominion run the way I want it to. Even if I could, that would just set the stage for things to go wrong a different way as soon as I was gone. So I suggest a compromise.”

Etana folded his arms. “Go on.”

“I’ll make you a guarantee that I won’t overthrow everything you’ve built up—the lugals will stay—but it’ll come with a condition. At the next bloom, I’ll indwell one of your flamekeepers. For the next ten blooms after I’m gone, one of yours will have the priesthood, and the power. And I have one particular flamekeeper in mind.” He stood up again, and looked at Piridur. “I’ve asked you once before, Piridur, but now I’m asking for real: are you ready to die for Dul Karagi?”

Piridur startled, then froze, but only for a moment. “Ram. I hoped you’d be taking this situation more seriously. This isn’t about your need for revenge.”

“It’s not. You’re the best man for the job. You want Dul Karagi to be prosperous and strong, and I’ve never seen you take advantage of your privileges for your own benefit. You know everybody in charge already. If anyone can get things back to normal after all this, it’s you.” And you probably wouldn’t mind getting the disgrace of it off your family’s name, either.

Piridur sat rooted to his chair, moving his mouth but making no noise. Etana spoke up for him: “What you are proposing seems very far from ‘normal’. I take it you’d like to set a precedent with this? With each successive ensi coming from the Palace?”

“That wouldn’t be bad. But I have no way of forcing it. When I’m gone, I’m gone, and you’ll have nothing left of me but memories. Really, it’s more of a good example for other pyres. Because I think my way will work better.”

“Flamekeepers aren’t bulls,” the Natatian master said sharply.

“Those boys aren’t bulls either,” Ram shot back. “They’re sick, weak, or stupid little kids. Two legs, no horns. Hasn’t it occurred to you that this whole mess happened for a reason?”

“Has it ever occurred to you that every pyre works this way for reason?” the Shebnaya echoed. “This system has kept us prosperous and strong for kindlings past count.”

“They’re only ‘past count’ because shit like this keeps happening! Records get lost when buildings explode! Or when you destroy the records yourselves! Sooner or later, you lose control—just like this—and somebody breaks loose and burns it all down. Eventually that falls apart, and your side gets the power again, and you decide to repress the ens extra-hard. But you don’t remember more than a couple of generations, and the system only works if you keep the kids shut up out of sight, so only a few people are watching. So somebody gets sloppy and the whole cycle starts over. It’s moronic.”

He looked around the pool, and saw that every single face had an identically mulish expression. It didn’t matter if his idea was good. They would no sooner accept it than Mother would have agreed to strip-dance for money after Father lost his arm. Men of their class didn’t do such things, and that was the final argument.

“That’s all in the future, anyway,” he went on. “I’m betting my way will win out.” For some places, for some time. Shimrun had spoken the truth; the old way would win back sooner or later, because it would always be easier to enjoy a meal somebody else paid for. “Whether it does or not, I’m with you against Mannagiri.”

“This is ridiculous,” Piridur said, finding his voice. “You can’t expect us to change our whole way of living to suit your wishes.” Heads nodded agreement all around the pool.

“Somebody has to die, Piridur. I won’t indwell you without your consent, but I’m not coming back to that pyre until somebody agrees—willingly, without compulsion—to take the penalty. Who else would you pick? I can’t die twice. All the kids you were counting on using are dead already.“

“Pick an old man, close to death already.”

“Your father Jushur is getting old. Would you rather I chose him? Or does it have to be an unimportant old man?”

“You can be as snide as you like, but my father still does critical work for the pyre. It doesn’t make sense to sacrifice him.”

“You want to take someone with no experience with power, and give him the ability to command the temple fire and all the handmaidens? You might as well take your chances with whoever the pyre picks on its own.”

“If it’s a choice between that or submitting to your blackmail, we might,” said Etana.

“You don’t need to submit to anything at all, Lugal. I am the rightful master of the Dul Karagi, and you can’t fight me. I don’t care if you want to save your pride; I can play along. You can have all the pretty swords the murrush can make for you, and wear fancy clothes. You can rebuild the houses I wrecked. I’m willing to be flexible on a lot of things.

“But, with apologies for being blunt, you can’t keep your positions against my will. I didn’t grow up in the Painted Room. I have my pride, too, and I’m past the point where you can threaten my life. If I choose to, I can reach out from here, and have a handmaiden announce my plan at the common hall during lunch. I can tell the story any time I want, as many times as I want, to whoever I want.”


“I’m not done, Lugal! I might be a hearthless mason’s son, but I am still your ensi and you will respect that. I can make your indwelt daughters and sisters kill you. I can ground your skybarques, keep you from sailing the river, stop the dropmills, freeze the kilns. I can make the bloom fail, if I need to. I don’t want to, but I will do what it takes to leave the Painted Room empty. And your swords won’t save you if the little people rise up against you. Not with me on their side.”

“And what’s to keep you from making more demands?”

“Nothing at all. But when you get back home, you will find I haven’t done any of these things I’ve said. That should be worth something. Oh, I can see you all trying to kill me with your eyes. Before you think of doing something stupid, you might ask your acolytes what will happen if one of you kills me now. Ask him, I’m sure he knows.” And he pointed to the Shebnaya who’d spoken earlier.

“That is well known. You’ve alluded to it yourself. The pyre will select another candidate on its own at the next bloom.”

“And what’s the first thing that will happen to that man when he’s indwelt?” The acolyte didn’t answer. “C’mon, we’re waiting. What’s the very first thing that happens when someone inherits the full priesthood?”

“The new ensi acquires the memories of his predecessors.”

“Which means the next ensi of Dul Karagi will know exactly, in vivid detail, what I did and why I did it. He’ll know how you dealt with me. And he’ll certainly remember me standing here today, making you a reasonable offer. One way or another, the way of the Painted Room is finished at Dul Karagi. It’ll take you generations of gradual pressure to force the ens back into the dark. Our memory is longer than yours.

“You’ll manage it eventually, I’m sure. The Dominion has been around for a long, long time, and as our friend from Shebnai tells us, every pyre works this way for a reason. I can’t help that. But please understand me when I tell you that this is not a threat. I’m only telling you how it’s going to be. So we might as well move on to the problem at hand.”

And he sat back down.

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Chapter 14.2

Previous  Next

Over the next tetrad, Ram gained a new appreciation for the unpleasantness of Zasha’s job. Not that he spoke with Zasha much—the man was seldom ever home, and when he did he made it very clear that he had no wish to talk to Ram, Darun, or anyone else but Jezrimin and his family. His interactions with Ram mainly took the form of dour glances. Which was only fair; he really was the source of Zasha’s worst problems. It seemed silly to protest that you didn’t mean to overthrow someone’s government.

So Ram left his host alone, and focused on his own worries instead. He had clear memories of ten lifetimes, and hazy glimpses into twenty or thirty more, and not one of them could tell him what happened when an indwelt man sired a child on a normal human woman. At least five handmaidens had become pregnant, and in two cases had their sons strangled on delivery. Two others had birthed daughters, who were discreetly raised as handmaidens with false parentage. The fifth was hidden with a convoluted scheme that fell apart when he was five, but that was at least a century back and Ram’s inner chronicle was vague on the details.

None of it was any help; ensis seldom dallied with ordinary women, and it was anyone’s guess whether Darun’s child would come out indwelt, or even healthy. Neither Imbri nor Shazru could do more than speculate. Mother and Tirnun took turns fretting and hovering over Darun when they got tired of fretting over their other problems; Mother was a little less hostile to Darun once the nausea started. Darun, on the other hand, was considerably more hostile, especially after Shazru told her that tinap brews were not necessarily safe for pregnant women.

The one thing Ram could do for his child, at the moment, was wed its mother, which he did on the next peak day. Darun’s last objections to being “tied down” vanished when the period of obligation shrank to less than three blooms. There was no ceremony, and only Tir and Father on hand to witness when Ram took his wife’s hand at Misishi’s little shrine to Kuara. Mother’s disapproval of bastardy was not quite strong enough to override her disapproval of Darun. Not that she cared to spend time in Ram’s company at all, since she learned about his inheritance. Some things were too painful for even Mother to bear.

When the revolving drama of life in the house got to be too much, Ram retreated to Father’s new workshop outside the Tegnembassaga, helping him just like he was fourteen again. He knew he was clumsy for lack of practice, and more nuisance than help, but that hardly mattered. Stone was cheap here, if you weren’t picky about quality, and the market was dead now anyway. They spent hours together in near-perfect silence, putting the last touches on delicate statuettes that nobody would buy. At times Bal would join them, knapping edges on their remainders to busy his hands.

Meanwhile, the world kept moving without them. Though Zasha kept silent, it was obvious enough that big changes were coming to the Dominion. They weren’t terribly surprised when, on the fifth day after Ram’s return from the rookery, Zasha announced over dinner that there would be a council at Dul Jazaral on the peak of the tetrad, with representatives from seven pyres. Ram took it as a matter of course that he would be coming. Zasha thought otherwise.

“This is a delicate situation, and you’ve done enough damage already,” he said. “Let the diplomatic professionals handle this one.” By which he meant himself. But the very next day he received word of special requests from three other pyres for the rogue En and Ensi of Dul Karagi to attend and speak in their own defense. They had no choice but to allow Ram along, under strict instructions to speak only when asked a direct question, and answer “with careful deliberation.”

“You really think I’d answer any other way, under the circumstances?” he asked, and got a sardonic look in reply.

Dul Jazaral had been chosen as an accessible middle point between attendees; the fact that it was accustomed to hospitality on short notice was only a bonus. A skybarque from Misishi could just barely reach the pyre itself without wobbling in a demeaning way as it came in for a landing. They were the last to arrive, dropping down their barque next to five others on the designated field. This was by design. Zasha didn’t care to give anyone time to chatter with Ram before the meeting started.

There were seven in their delegation. Zasha, as his lugal’s cousin, was their leader, with his other cousin Nerimmi and an acolyte scribe on hand to assist. Dezri and Nishal fell in beside Ram as he debarked, each with a pair of bullspikes dangling in a long pouch at his belt. Which was remarkably tacky, Ram thought, but he wouldn’t chafe at it.

Erimana came out last, looking glum and exhausted. It wasn’t easy being the only person on Ki who really mourned for Shimrun. Ram had made some clumsy efforts to comfort her, but he still didn’t know his sister very well, and he had his own problems to focus on. Rinti would have been better, if only they’d dared to bring two handmaidens along. He reached back and took his little sister’s hand. She didn’t refuse it, but still lagged behind him, like an ox led by a rope. This wouldn’t be pleasant for her—but there would be a better life ahead, and soon, if Ram succeeded.

Dul Jazaral was far larger than the hearth Ram had visited before, far smaller than Dul Karagi. The temple at the top of the hill was much the same in size and shape, though without a murrush to guard it; they would have a hard time finding a replacement for Mankalussu. Ram couldn’t identify any of the other buildings as their lugal’s palace. Around twenty fine houses ringed the slopes, with a lot of ancillary facilities—stables, bondsmen’s quarters, storehouses—at the bottom.

These in turn were surrounded by a ring-shaped lake. Just outside that moat the farms began; there would be a few acres of beans and garden plants, but most of the good arable land was given over to grain, and most of that would feed beasts, not men. Few people lived at this pyre, and there was no point in growing enough for trade. Nobody came wandering over the desert to buy produce. And outside the farms were pastures, endless pastures full of horses, cattle and sheep, watched over by thousands of shining glass spires.

What had the Damadzus told him about this place? It was a waypoint, cut off from the rest of the Dominion by miles of dry sand, and different in every way from the average, ordinary river pyre. Each hearth was little more than the household of its master, who was only one favored member of a vast ruling family. Here there were flamekeepers, handmaidens, and bondservants, with almost nobody in between. No artisans to make and sell goods—they bought and sold what they needed from the caravans. No militia—they hired moonchildren instead. A Jatui of standing rode about the countryside each day making sure his herds and flocks (and they were very much his) were being properly cared for. There was little else to do out here.

The Jatui would be only the strangest of six groups of worried and angry men they would have to deal with today. Ram knew Dul Karagi well enough, but not the delegates their new lugal would send to bargain for him. Of the others—Natati, Shebnai, Shasipir, and Tendum—Ram knew very little. He’d never even been to Tendum, the last outpost at the headwaters of the Teshalun north of Misishi.

On the other hand, Ram now had centuries of life experiences to call on. He could recall, broadly, seven attempts to overthrow the lugals. They’d all failed sooner or later, obviously, but Ram had a good idea of when, why, and how they’d gone wrong. He knew the big picture, could take a longer view than almost any other man alive. Certainly longer than any of the other delegates. They would be lost and frightened, children of a divorced household who had seen the foundation of their world fall apart, could tell why it had happened, but couldn’t accept or process it on an emotional level.

Which meant this called for a certain amount of tact and delicacy, neither of which Ram had ever found much of a knack for. Haranduluz? I’m not too proud to ask.

It was a long Jatui tradition to hold all important discussions under the open sky; closed rooms were too secretive for men used to riding the plains. A half-dozen flamekeepers rode out to meet them, dyed horsetails streaming from the tips of their indwelt lances, and escorted them across a broad bridge to a little plaza at the base of the hill, where thirty or forty men were gathered around the periphery of a broad decorative pool.

This was the first real extravagance Ram had seen at Jatu; it must have been staggeringly expensive to import all the marble that lined it with only pack-beasts crossing the desert, not to mention the inlaid gold tracework. Deep, colorfully striped awnings were set up in a ring around the pool, with tables and chairs beneath for the comfort and convenience of the delegates. The dazzle of the pyre’s light on the pool could not have been comfortable or convenient, for men who weren’t indwelt, but Ram supposed it would let them keep meeting at night.

Right now, the God’s light showed a long row of weary, angry faces looking in their direction, most with dark rings around their eyes. There was only one free table remaining—the one right in front of them as they approached the pool.

On the opposite side a man in a long red coat stood up from his table. “Late you come but welcome still,” he said loudly. “And you come here peace intending, take a cup and quaff your fill.”

Zasha duly took a glass cup from off the lone table, dipped it into the pool, and drank the cup down in one draw. His cousin and the acolyte followed suit, then Dezri and Nishal. Ram and Mana shouldn’t have gone last—Ram outranked the lot, and Mana was at least ahead of ordinary flamekeepers—but there was nothing to be gained by demanding purely symbolic honors at this point. If it came to that, he wasn’t sure Zasha had any formal rank at all.

When all seven of them had taken a drink and a seat, the man at the far side spoke again: “I be Nershimi zen-Teplu ni-Jazaral, and these be mine.” He gestured to the two men on either side of him, plus a pair of acolytes as scribes. “I take you for Misishins, I hope in sooth?”

“I am Zasha zen-Tirnun ni-Misishi.”

“And the boy?” said a man off to their right, craning his neck. “Is that supposed to be him there?”

“That is Rammash im-Belemel,” another voice confirmed from the table to the host’s right. “I am certain of it.” Ram looked, and saw it was Piridur, but he was seated at the end of his table, not the center. He imagined Piridur was only here at all to confirm Ram’s identity. As the son of a disgraced Lugal, he might not even be Second Sword anymore.

“The reins be mine, masters,” Nershimi huffed. “I pray you be not unruly. Speak you on my sufferance, and not before. As for the matter, self-warrant will do for present. Be you Rammash im-Belemel ta-Urapu ni-Karagi, young sir?”

“No,” Ram said. Zasha startled, and shot him an evil look. Mutters rose all around the pool. Ram gave them a few seconds before elaborating, “I am Rammash zen-Darun tem-Karagi.”

The muttering stopped abruptly. Tem-Karagi? “All right, Zasha,” said a man at the table to their left, “where’d you hide the other one? Playing it safe?” Nershimi was too shocked to scold him for speaking out of turn.

Zasha pursed his lips. “Shimrun im-Sutiri was left behind at Dul Atellu when the boy escaped, and we cannot extract him. We cannot speak with certainty as to his survival.”

Kurtushi,” the other man spat. “You know more than that. You’ve been playing one hell of a game here, Zasha, and if you won’t level with us now we can remind you what the stakes are.”

“There be no call for such talk!” Nershimi cried. “Peace we spoke and peace we drank and peace we will have by the pool.”

“By the pool, yes,” the other man retorted. “I don’t mean to start a brawl. But I thought we were here to talk business. Zasha’s been aiding the little bastard for months, from what I hear. Most if not all of this mess is Misishi’s fault. There are penalties for this kind of behavior.”

“Rammash is my brother-in-law, Ninbi,” Zasha replied smoothly. “My limited assistance to him and his family falls well within the bounds of kinship duty.” At least one person laughed in disbelief; Zasha didn’t react. “I could hardly help that he was put to flight in the first place by his own pyre’s internal affairs.”

“A rogue bull is no man’s kin,” came a voice from the table to their right.

“And kinship duty hardly squares with the pay he made to your account,” added the man sitting next to Piridur. “We brought the contract, Zasha. Why did he want us to pay you?”

“I wasn’t aware it was Rammash doing the payment,” Zasha said. “Do recall that all those deposits were to be made anonymously. I only learned about it a few days ago; he was covering for a bit of embezzlement by one of his blackband friends. Awkward, but no concern of yours. I am prepared to make good on Karagi’s losses.”

“You can’t even begin to fathom Karagi’s losses!” the man snarled back.

“Or Natati’s,” chimed in a voice on the far side of the host’s table. The host himself had his face in his hands, apparently giving up on civility.

“Or Shebnai’s,” added the man in the next table over. “How many kindlings are you prepared to put that hole of yours in hock, Zasha, to pay all this back? You’ll be dead before the debt’s paid.”

“I personally will reimburse Dul Karagi for the sum they were obliged to pay to my account,” Zasha clarified. “Misishi itself is blameless and accepts no liability for the present situation, which originated in the political difficulties of a distant pyre. I took on a kinship duty, and discharged that duty. None of which is any of your business. You will find the true source of your troubles lies several hundred miles down the Teshalun.”

It was a wonderfully insolent display, and while Ram didn’t know the details of law or custom where ‘rogue bulls’ were concerned, he was pretty sure none of the men around that pool could actually catch him in a lie. Nershimi had to pull a hunting horn out from under his table to cut through the perfect storm of oaths, curses, protests, objections, and general abuse that flew at Zasha the moment he finished speaking.

“I like this not,” the host said, when they’d all shut up. “We come in peace and good order, and both we shall have. Mark well, we have all a stake in play here, every man of us, else we’d be elsewhere. Yes, Etana?”

The man at the center of Karagi’s table had held up a hand. He looked about fifty, with a heavy beard and a fringe of hair falling low over his forehead. If Ram recalled correctly, Etana was the name of their new lugal. He’d come in person? “I think we can agree that we didn’t come all the way here to speak with Zasha zen-Tirnun, whatever he has to say. If Rammash ‘tem-Karagi’ is right there, he’s sixteen, and I for one would like to hear him speak for himself. Beginning with the ‘tem-Karagi.’ You lost the damn ensi, and we’re only hearing about it now? How exactly did that happen?”

“Seconded,” said several voices from the other side of the pool at once.

“Fair enough,” Zasha said. “Rammash?”

They’d expected this. But that didn’t make it any less intimidating to stand up in front of that crowd. “Shimrun’s only been dead for a couple of tetrads now,” he said. “Zasha thought it was better to tell you in person. Mannagiri—the ensi of Dul Atellu—killed him.”

“It might be better if you started at the beginning,” someone piped up, “for those of us who have no idea what is going on. Which is most of us. I’ve heard a lot of garbled rumors.”

“No!” Etana insisted, thumping a hand on his table. “This boy has a long history of deception and subterfuge. Before we hear anything he has to say, I’d like to see him furnish proof that he is in fact the ensi. I don’t need my time wasted with yet another ruse.”

Ram shut his eyes, and Mana stood up next to him. “It’s not just your time, Lugal,” she told him in her thick voice. “But you can ask me any question you want about Urapu hearth. This handmaiden hasn’t been there since she was an infant, and Shimrun only saw it through the hearth-fire. He doesn’t know who all lived there.”

“That wouldn’t be too hard to fake,” Etana argued. “You briefed the other bull ahead of time, in detail, and he’s controlling both of you in turn from wherever you’ve hidden him. Anyway, I don’t know a thing about the wretched hearth, and couldn’t catch you.”

“About the pyre, then,” he had Mana say. “or Pilupura. Anything I would know that Shimrun and Mana wouldn’t.”

Piridur put a hand on his lugal’s shoulder. “Excuse me, sir. Ram, where did we first meet in Pilupura, and where did we go immediately after?”

“In the shrine of Nythrys on the God’s Creche,” Mana said at once, “a round black building with moon designs in the windows. There was a low table in the middle with glass offerings on it. Imbri was there too. You took us to Naimenka’s Garden after. The window had a picture of Haranduluz and Kuara together, and they had some metal contraption in place of a chamber-pot. We had dinner there, and you talked about the galley regatta. There was bread with all kinds of dip for breakfast, and I told you Shimrun was loose so you had Darun come back early from shopping for clothes.”

Piridur shook his head. “If that’s Shimrun talking,” he said, “Ram coached him beautifully.”

An acolyte spoke up from the next table. “Unless the en is relaying it to Shimrun in the first place.”

Mana sat down, and Ram opened his eyes again. He’d made his point. “It would be one hell of a trick to say all that back perfectly as I was telling it to him. But suppose he did. How else do you want me to prove I’m ensi? Anything I do, you’ll say Shimrun’s doing it for me.” Mana whimpered, and he put a gentle hand on her back. It would have been hard enough for grown woman.

“The boy’s got you there,” said Ninbi with a laugh. “If that bull’s still alive, he’s in Atellu. Good luck getting him out.”

“It’s not quite so funny to those of us who have actually suffered through this,” said the leader at Shebnai’s table. “We’ve had six hundred dead to burn so far, likely a thousand before we’re through. Fifty good men of ours killed, five girls spiked in public. It’s been a nightmare.”

“We’ve only lost a few score,” Natati’s leader added, “but the financial damage is considerable. Ours sent the murrush on a spree while the Atellui bitches covered him. By the time we took them all down it had wiped out twenty blocks.” He turned on Ram. “And how were you mixed up in all this?”

“Mannagiri is no friend of mine. He took a kindling off my life. He approached us on his own, when we were passing through Atellu. We didn’t ask him to do any of this crazy shit.”

“Ah.” The man’s lip curled. “So you are not at fault either. Like your kinsman there, you are deeply involved and totally blameless. Is that the shape of it? Tell me, are any of you familiar with the concept of accountability?”

Ram met his glower with a placid face, and held it until the Natatian looked away. “I think there’s a lot of blame to go around here.” He could have said more—a lot more, and it would have been immensely satisfying to say it. But it also wouldn’t have moved the conversation where he needed it to go. “Obviously, if I knew what I know now six months ago, I’d have made some different choices. I didn’t, so I didn’t.”

“Is that all?” said the man from Shebnai.

“No. I shouldn’t have burned north Karagi, either. I was angry, and I did something stupid and cruel. I’d apologize for it, if I thought it would mean anything.”

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Etana said.

“Then I apologize. I was wrong, and I’d like to do what I can to make it right.”

Etana’s frown might have softened, very slightly. Or Ram might have imagined it. “What can you do, then?”

“In truth, that be the question for us all,” Nershimi broke in. “It matters little what this man has done, or what good he purpose now. And Atellu be held by rogues, we do but chase calves while the herd strays. The bull of Atellu has worked a mighty mischief, and works more still, and I warrant yet shall work the worst of all. We cannot countenance three blooms with the Teshalun cut in half—but how think you we shall root him out?

“That, sirs, be the question.”

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Fourteen: A Bondsman of Fate

Previous  Next

The philosophy of ethics and justice takes a streamlined form in the Dominion. With so many evils so near at hand, the question of the highest good appears simple and obvious. Political science is likewise straightforward; most pyres are effectively dictatorships elected and supported by a hereditary aristocracy. That this aristocracy expresses itself in multiple ways—the flamekeeper military elite, the acolytes of the civil service, and the handmaidens, as well as the primarily economic power of the great families themselves—does not make it any less a closed group. Good government is said to focus on balancing the competing claims of these varied power blocs to avoid conflict, and conceive of no greater good beyond the maintenance of order.

The mountaintop was as dry and desolate as before, a desert of bare rock and catsmoss waiting for a rain that would never come from a roiling black cloud that would never go away. Ram stood blinking in the evening light, looking at the fire of Dul Misishi and wondering what it felt like to burn. All his memories, all the lives he carried inside him, ceased at that last tantalizing, terrifying moment. At least, the lucky ones did. Many of them died much sooner.

Was three blooms such a very short time? Or would it be better to get it over with? “Imbri. Do you think the bazuu will win, in the end?”

“They haven’t won yet, and it’s been too many kindlings to count. I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you.”

“Then what should I worry about? Help me out here. See me through these next few blooms, and I’ll do what I can to get you a way to live. Your help is worth a house with an herb garden to me.”

“Hah! Listen to you promise what you haven’t got. What about Darun? What are you going to bribe her with? She’s not staying in my house, I can tell you that.”

“You leave Darun to me. And I’ll keep my promise, if you still want it.” Dul Karagi was calling him. It was long past time that he went home.

“I don’t know that I do, anymore. But I can stick around a bit longer. This trip was interesting.”

“Interesting? Maybe.” He looked up; a swollen drop of black shab-matter was slowly descending from the cloud. “This isn’t going to be a very smooth ride, is it?”

“We’ll survive.”

The drop fell, rolling over and engulfing them. Between one eyeblink and the next they were both wrapped in a hundred arms of dark dust and liquid muscle, and then they were thrown forward, bouncing and rolling inside a half-made sphere with a gleaming blue eye at its center. The world spun around them in streaks of brown and grey and blue, but only for an instant. Then the last traces of dust caught up and patched the outer shell, blocking out every trace of natural light.

It was perhaps for the best that Ram couldn’t see where they were going; he and Imbri were suspended inside a twilight mass like the yolk in an egg, but he could tell they were moving faster than anything on the ground had a right to go. Nearly as fast as a skybarque, the liquid stuff of the shab’s core dulling the bumps and jostles to a uniform rattle that Ram could feel in his bones. Now they were rolling downhill, picking up speed. Ram had only the feeling of their acceleration to guide him; they were turning far too quickly to track their path against the spirits.

With a sudden bump they lifted into the air, and the shab disintegrated around them. Absurdly, Ram screamed—what was he afraid of? Death?—but the shriek was only half-out before the shab reformed, snapping out nightmare wings to catch their fall in a glide. He caught a confused glimpse of the dreary brown world before it dissolved again, and they plunged to the ground in a black fog.

The sphere reformed around them, and he was as blind as Imbri again. He heard, as if from a distance, a splash of water, then an abrupt lurch as they began rising into the air again. But not for long. With another crash they landed once more, spinning sideways in an interminable cartwheel down the long slope of the mountain.

He couldn’t find his bearings long enough to think or fear, until it slowed, and relaxed, and with a final twitch disgorged both of them onto the level ground outside the cave entrance. Ram felt a powerful urge to take Beshi and slice the damned thing right through the locus—but by the time he had got his breath and his balance back, it was halfway up the slope again, its lone blue eye laughing in retreat. He was forced to content himself with a potent stream of curses. Beside him, Imbri rose to hands and knees so she could vomit into the dust.

Reppi’s haranu was still some distance up the rocky slope they’d just descended in less than five minutes. Presumably the flamekeepers were with her. Ram didn’t care to wait for them. They’d make it back on their own, and he didn’t need their help. “Imbri, are you all right?”

“Hell, no.” She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and pulled her hood back down over her face. “But I’ll live. It’s only the second time I’ve done that.”

And you volunteered to do it again? But he didn’t say it, only leaned down to help her to her feet. They had a long trek ahead yet, up through the dark tunnels. At least Ram’s dulsphere hadn’t smashed when the shab dropped them.

Without Reppi’s help, Ram had to hack through each of the three grates with Beshi. He was most of the way through the second when Imbri said, “What are we going to tell them, when we get back?”

“The truth. Shimrun is dead, and I’m Ensi.” He said it more sharply than he meant to; he was tempted to reach ahead and break the news via Mana or Rinti, so he wouldn’t have to hang around watching how everybody took it. But he had no right to play puppeteer just to indulge his own cowardice. There was no telling what kind of monster he’d wind up as if he started doing things like that.

“No, not about Shimrun. We came this way to get answers from the bazuu. What do we say the bazuu told us?”

“Oh. That.” He thought a moment. “They don’t need to know we learned anything at all. It won’t help them, and they won’t thank us. Assuming they believe it at all.”

“I would at least tell someone. Even if we can’t use it now, it’s not the kind of thing we should risk being forgotten.”

“Not much chance of that. As soon as I die, the next Ensi will get that dumped on him with the rest of the mess. I’ll tell him ahead of time, if I can, so it’s not such a shock. But the only way this won’t get remembered is if Dul Karagi doesn’t kindle at all. And if that happens—“

“Okay, I see what you mean. I still want to tell someone.”

“Go ahead, if you want. I won’t stop you. I’m going to worry about the problems I had already; I’ll have a hard enough time fixing those.” He wanted to leave a less humiliating memory behind for whoever came next. That part of him would keep living long after he, and everyone who knew him, was dead.

Their reappearance at Zasha’s house caused some stir—they hadn’t expected him back until the following evening, if they’d expected him back at all. Ram accepted a series of enthusiastic embraces from Darun, Mother, Father, and Mana, but refused to discuss the trip with any of them.

“Where’s your husband at?” he asked Tirnun. “Something important has happened, and he needs to know as soon as possible.”

“Has it?” She looked him in the eye, pursing her lips. “He won’t like being interrupted.”

“He’ll forgive you for this. Trust me.”

Tir shook her head, but said, “Jezrimin? Could you escort Rammash back to Zasha’s office, please?”

As predicted, Zasha was not happy to hear a knock at his office door. When Ram came in, his patron sat at a desk buried in heaps of papers, looking torn as to which he should scowl at first. “What are you after now?” he snapped, without looking up. “I thought I’d be rid of you a bit longer than this. Don’t tell me something else has gone wrong?”

“Depends how you look at it. Shimrun is dead. I’m Ensi now.”

Zasha froze midway through crumpling up a sheet of official-looking vellum. “Really. How?”

“Mannagiri killed him around noon today.”

Zasha set the vellum down, smoothing it out again. “Killed him with cause?”

“Self-defense. Shimrun tried to assassinate him.”

“Idiot. Well. I wish I could say this changes things.”

“It does! Just fly me closer to Karagi and I can send them a message with a handmaiden. They don’t have anyone else indwelt, so it’s either accept me or take their chances with whoever the pyre picks at the—what? Why are you looking at me like that?”

Zasha leaned back in his chair. “You will have a hard time persuading anyone to fly you anywhere at the moment. Dul Shebnai, just down the river, blasted the last skybarque we sent them out of the sky.”

“They’ve revolted too? I heard they had riots, but—“

“Oh, I doubt they revolted. Suppose the Shebnaya had their own Mannagiri now. Why would he be afraid of skybarques?”

“Maybe he’s not afraid. Maybe he’s just a hateful bastard who likes killing people. I don’t know anything about who they keep in their temple.”

“Possible. The more likely explanation is that they have repulsed, at great cost, one attempt to overthrow their government, and are now desperate to avoid another disaster. They won’t likely have any good idea where the last barque came from, so they play safe by raking the sky.”

“So land a second barque way up the river, out of reach, and send a delegation to talk with them on foot.”

“Which is exactly what we are doing, not being complete idiots, thank you. But it will take time to allay their fears and come up with a plan of action to deal with the situation.”

“The situation being … what? I’ve been out of touch.”

“The situation, as far as anyone can tell by interrogating a handful of terrified boatmen, is that most of the Teshalun is in a panic, preparing for insurrection or bazu subversion or any number of unspecified and unimagined dangers. Your erstwhile ally is encouraging the chaos by playing river-pirate—thank you so much for giving him that idea—while several bands of moonchildren have come up with various innovative and obnoxious ways to profit from the general disorder. And there has never been a better time to be a blackband.”

Ram decided not to point out that he’d been asking for just this sort of upheaval. “Mannagiri might be in charge of those moonchildren now. I’m pretty sure Shennai and Pimna are still alive, so if you give me a little time I might be able to check what’s going on there.”

“Oh, take all the time you like. I am, as you see, not short of things to do.” He waved a hand at the mass of papers. “It is rather difficult to keep everyone in this pyre paid and fed when you can’t sell anything to anyone. In a few tetrads, matters might settle down to the point where anyone cares about something as trivial as the mastery of the fifth pyre down the Teshalun. In the meantime, I’d prefer that you stay out of the way, and avoid making any more problems for me.”

Taking the very obvious hint, Ram retreated to his room—carefully and gutlessly avoiding Mother’s eye in the sitting-room—and sat down on the bed. Sooner or later, he’d have to face up to it all. He had the fears of scores of imminent deaths bottled up inside him, ready to offer sympathy the moment he let down his guard.Ram saw no reason to rush into it.

He shut his eyes, and peered out at the vast constellation of spirits around the Dominion. He could tell he’d never stretch his consciousness as far as Dul Karagi itself. No matter how he strained, the warm, familiar cluster of lights refused to come into focus.

There were five Karagene haranuu remaining at Dul Atellu. He could tell them apart easily enough, even if they were a bit vague with distance. Three were dulspheres, looted from the pyre or its hearths; they would be useless, stuffed away in a bag somewhere. The other two were also close together, and not moving much. He leaned in, focusing on one until it grew in his awareness, leaning closer, closer, closer …

Something in him tipped over, and he was Pimna. Not entirely; he was too far from her to sense everything clearly. But he now sat on the floor of a dismal chamber, lit by a spark of light of his own making, while the body of Rammash im-Belemel was a faraway distraction at the edge of the world. It would only take the slightest effort to fly back to that room, and he wanted to. The room was dim and drab, its colors muted, like it was submerged in muddy water. He couldn’t even tell where the door was. Only Shennai, sitting in silence against the far wall, came through clearly, lit by the fire inside her.

Shennai, it’s Ram, he thought. But Pimna said nothing. “Shennai, it’s Ram.” No good. Say ‘Shennai, it’s Ram.’

“Shennai, it’s Ram,” Pimna parroted.

Shennai lifted her head. “Hello, Ram. I was wondering when you would make an appearance.”

“I’m sorry to use Pimna like this.”

“It isn’t as if you have any other option, so spare yourself the effort of apologies. We have endured, and seen, much worse.”

“Right. You already knew Shimrun was dead, then?”

“Mannagiri sent one of his girls to tell us some hours ago, then hauled us down here.”

“You’re in his temple?” Shennai nodded. “As prisoners?”

“I believe so. We effectively were already; we have only been downgraded to less comfortable housing. The lock on the door is only a seal against tampering, so to speak. We could burn through it in minutes. But it is not as if we could go anywhere.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to get you out any time soon. In fact, we might need your help; nobody else knows anything about what’s going on in that pyre.”

“We know very little, you realize. Very likely you have seen more, through your inheritance, than we have.”

“Yeah, all filtered through what Shimrun noticed. What’s your take?”

Shennai shrugged. “We are the captives of a selfish and demented boy who wishes to spend the last blooms of his life devouring the pyre that raised him. At the rate he is going, it simply won’t last that long. Eventually, Dul Atellu will be a desert, and everyone here will die.”

“Then what does he want you for?”

“Hostages, perhaps? Or a means of communicating without trouble. It may be that he has not thought the matter through that far. His spirit will discourage him, as long as it can, from harming indwelt women. He has food to spare, for a time. Now, what do you need us to do for you, Ensi?”

“What can you do? You can’t escape, but can you talk with the women who feed you? Gather information that way?”

“We can try. I don’t think he controls them directly for such mundane tasks. Is there anything specific you would like to learn?”

“I don’t even know what to ask, I’m so ignorant. Start with what he did to the other two pyres, Natati and Shebnai. That’ll be the most immediately useful. We’re trying to re-establish contact.”

“Very well. If you don’t mind my saying so, it wouldn’t be helpful for Mannagiri to come by and overhear us, so if there isn’t anything else, I suggest we part for the moment.”

It made sense. He let go, and found himself back in the familiar world of full light and color, with the Misishi firelight shining in through the window at the head of his bed. The transition was jarring, so much so that he took a moment to realize Darun was leaning against the wall in the corner.

“You all right, lover? You’ve been sitting there mumbling under your breath for the last five minutes. I hope you’re not cracking up.”

“I’m fine,” he said, rubbing at his neck. He’d been sitting unnaturally stiffly.

“You’re really not,” she reproved, coming forward into the light. Her burns were much better now, but he doubted she’d ever be really pretty again. Only an ordinary kind of ugly. He’d take it. “Sorry, I’ve been kind of a lousy mistress, haven’t I? My man’s falling apart, and I’m not doing a thing about it. Shame on me.”

“Aren’t you tired of that joke yet, Darun? If you’re not my wife yet, you might as well be.”

“That’s awful presumptuous of you,” she said, and sat down next to him. “But you’re probably right. What the hell. I’m not going to get a better offer in the next kindling or so.”

It was the ideal moment for telling her. He opened his mouth, then shut it. Darun didn’t seem to notice.

She sighed, and leaned against him. She was trembling, ever so faintly. “We’ve … got a little situation here, Ram.”

“Yeah, I noticed.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. Hell. I’m getting this all cocked up, aren’t I? It’s, uh, it’s happened before, don’t get me wrong. And we always dealt with it, and it was fine. And, and I know what I said, but I don’t think I want to handle it the same way, and you know, it’s a totally different situation this time. You weren’t around before. And yeah, it’s a really, really shitty time for this, and to tell you, but it’s really not going to get any better if I wait … “

“Darun, what are you on about?”

“I figured you need to know first, right? It’s only fair. But Tir is so damn nosy, and you know, it’s her dream come true. She’s probably suspicious already. So, you know, I’m sorry to put this on you. But I’ve got to. Okay?”

“What have you done now, Darun? The sooner I know, the sooner we can fix it, so spit it out.”

She gave a nervous laugh. “Uh, that’s the thing. You can’t really fix this one. And I don’t know if it was all my fault exactly—for once—so let’s be fair—”


“Right. Babbling.” She sighed again. “Here’s the thing, lover: it’s a shitty time, like I said, and I feel like a total bitch just dumping it on you like this, but I’ve been counting and figuring it backwards and forwards, over and over, and I’m pretty sure I’m … pregnant.” She mumbled the last word.

Ram froze in place, waiting for the words to make sense. When they finally hit, it was too much. The full weight of his dead hopes fell on him all at once, and he burst into tears like a child.

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Chapter 13.5

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It began with the sun.

In a long-ago time, long past memory, when the world was green and new and strong, men looked up at the sun, and saw that it was the source of all their life and power. And because there were many men in those days, too many to count, and many of them very clever, they wanted more, and found a way to take it. And that was the beginning.

The white sun rose, and billions died, men and tinapi, beasts and plants. The survivors huddled by the fireside for comfort, watching their world die around them. There was no going back, and they did not try. The horizons of the living world drew close, boundaries hardened, memory faded, and the survivors settled into a cold and brutal mode of life. One pyre became two, which became four, which became the Dominion, waxing and waning but never claiming more than the smallest sliver of the earth.

The past lived on in the minds of priests, ten brief years at a time, making copies of copies of copies of attenuated experience. Under the weight of ages whole lifetimes compressed to the length of a day in their recollection, a single monotonous narrative of death and regret, growing ever longer but never different. Some priests were masters, some slaves, some magnificent and some vile, but none were very happy, and the histories of their lives did not edify their heirs.

The priesthood passed to Shimrun im-Sutiri, and that was another beginning. His parents were prominent in the pyre. His mother had been kind enough, he thought, but he barely remembered. Later he would come to wonder, and then to doubt, because it did not seem possible that he had ever been really happy.

He could more clearly recall long days of misery in his earliest childhood, sobbing for his mother on a cot in a dark room with ugly paintings on the walls. The acolytes were patient, in their own way, but made it clear that he would have to stop crying eventually, and it would go better for him when he did. Really, did he have a right to cry? He was only one boy, and a pathetic one at that. Crying made him cough more, and the medicine was expensive. How much money did he expect Dul Karagi to spend on him? They could not keep paying forever. He did not like to think what would happen if the medicine ran out. So he learned his lesson, and stopped.

Time passed, and Shimrun grew, as well as he could, afraid of the shadows, and the light, and often of himself. He passed every challenge by being silent, small, and inoffensive, crying as often as he dared but not enough to frighten anyone. He was known as a harmless sort of monster, and rewarded with relative freedom. When other boys left the room, unannounced and unmourned, he reflected on their errors, and made sure not to copy them.

When the time came, he was let out of the Painted Room—in the proper way—and allowed to walk the uppermost two tiers of the Temple, so that he could see everything he was to die for. He knew the exact number of steps it took to walk the perimeter of each tier. If anyone ever saw him on these walks, they did not greet him, nor he them. He didn’t want to be a bother.

When despair took him at last, it very nearly killed him—until he found love on the other side. Love gave him pride, pride gave him anger, anger gave him courage, courage gave him hope. And so, with only a little help, he found the strength to continue, but only a little. The doubt and the fear were never far away.

He did what he could, but it never went right. His brothers died, one after another, in the space of three months. He was cast out of his own pyre, condemned to loneliness in the wild, held in contempt by all his remaining friends, and every effort to fix it only made matters worse. He did not remember so well, now, what hope felt like. But he kept going, because he still remembered the lessons of the Painted Room.

When at last he found a new brother, hope returned. It was wrong, because hope was always wrong, and he was condemned to die in any case. But there was another man, even weaker than himself, who called him ‘brother’ and succeeded where he had failed. If this man did not act as Shimrun would have—if his new brother made him frightened, or sad—Shimrun kept quiet, because he had no other friends left. Erimana and Rinti were gone, Gelibara dead, and Pimna did not love him anymore. As for Shunnar, or Rammash, he did not know if he liked them or not, nor they him.

Now Shimrun slept in a new temple, far from home, but he felt himself a proper master at last. He was not contained or constrained. He could walk the streets of High Atellu, escorted by his new brother in the form of a beautiful girl, who listened to all his stories as they went through the parks and gardens, and put her hand in his as they went to the new markets outside the walls, where the moonchildren came up to buy the noble women, with their female domestics and all the wealth of their houses that his new brother had no need for.

When night came, his brother’s handmaiden would take him to bed, and Shimrun got something he had wanted for a long time, but never dared to ask for. He was frightened and ashamed, but he did not want to refuse, and he was happier for it until his brother slept and the girl sobbed in her pillow. He did not know what to tell her, and he left the room to sleep somewhere else. When his brother woke up and came looking for him, Shimrun did not know what to say to him either. In the end, the truth came out, and the handmaiden was punished. From then on, Shimrun stayed in the bed he was given, and the next handmaiden did not cry. As much. He did as little as he could without making his brother upset with him, and still felt bad.

Rammash and Erimana were both far away now. Shimrun felt he ought to be doing something, but he did not know what. He spoke with them daily—and with the man Zasha, whom he did not know—through Mana or Rinti. Zasha, especially, asked many questions, and Shimrun did not know the answers, or want to admit he did not know. He felt sure they were disappointed with him, and not sure that his brother would want him telling them all he knew, but never happy with the thought of saying no. Who else did he have to talk to?

His brother was not very interested in telling him things; he had his own business, which he kept to himself, and got impatient when Shimrun asked questions that did not concern him. So Shimrun watched, and did what he could to make his brother happy, because that was how he was used to living. His brother grew busier and busier, and Shimrun grew still lonelier, more eager for the times when they could be together and he could see his brother smiling in a pretty girl’s eyes.

When his brother was not around, Shimrun talked to the handmaidens. Shunnar and Pimna had long since stopped being friends, and helped him only when he asked directly, which he usually didn’t. They kept each other company. The handmaidens didn’t want to talk to him either, at first, but he was good at not being threatening, and when he asked them about his new brother, they could not restrain themselves. They told him many things, more than he wanted to hear, going back blooms and blooms. He listened, because it was hard to get them to talk about anything else.

They told him what his brother would do to them, in the old days before he shrugged off his minders, and what he would say and do to them to keep them quiet. They told him what he had done to the remaining acolytes, once they were no longer an immediate threat, and how he had killed half the flamekeepers, and rounded up the survivors, with their sons, in the ruins of the palace. They told him how he had dealt with his own mother and father, on the night he reclaimed his power—and that was the worst story of all.

Shimrun listened to all of it, and made no excuses, but offered no help. They saw he could not help him, but they told him anyway, because he was the only person they knew who did not know already. The younger ones, especially, were eager. He encouraged them, because it made them happier with him, until one day his brother came back and caught one of them complaining in mid-sentence. Then they both went up to the throne room, and Shimrun watched how his brother made her reconcile with her husband.

Then Shimrun knew, from the smile on Mannagiri’s drooping face, that he was only the little brother, and not so very loved. And he was not happy. He should have been angry for other reasons—for the handmaidens, or the acolytes, or the women outside the wall—but really, it was the look on that face that bothered him. The look that told him he was not respected, and the answering voice inside that asked him what he had done to deserve respect in the first place.

Dul Karagi seemed farther away now than ever before, and he did not see that he was doing anything to make anyone else’s life better. He could hear the wailing of the women at the market every day as the moonchildren led them away—but there were not many women left to sell now, and the moonchildren did not offer so much. The fire still shone from the temple, but Dul Atellu was no longer a living pyre.

Now Shimrun saw he had failed again, worse than ever before. The problem was not in the world, or not only in the world, but in himself. He could not, would never have the strength to do what had to be done. But if he was part of the problem, that was another matter. He could remove himself, and maybe do some good in the process.

The houses of High Atellu were not completely gutted yet. Shimrun walked the streets alone now, going house to house and meeting nobody. There were kitchens in some of them, and nobody had bothered to take the sort of knives that were used for cutting vegetables. Shimrun took a whole day picking out the largest and sharpest, and trying his best to make it sharper. He didn’t have much experience at sharpening, and neither had any of his predecessors who were still fresh enough to recall. Shimrun did his best, and hoped Haranduluz would accept it.

Then he went to see his brother in person, with the knife tucked inside the nice new clothes his brother had given him. He didn’t have a very good reason for getting physically close, but Mannagiri was distracted, and saw him as no threat—until his shaking hand tried to draw the knife, snagged it on his belt, and dropped it clattering to the floor.

Pathetic, to the very end.

It was not the ending Shimrun had hoped for, but it would do. He hadn’t really expected to succeed anyway. And he did not doubt, as the handmaidens carried him away between them, what the outcome would be. He was only disappointed that his brother did not seem very angry. It would make the end quicker—but he had hoped to finish his life as something more than a nuisance. Yet even that sadness was muted. Shimrun was used to disappointing himself.

“I’m sorry, Rammash,” he wheezed aloud as they hauled him out onto the temple’s terrace. “The rest is yours.”

He could have said more, but he didn’t have time. It was only a forty-foot drop to the next tier down, just enough to be sure to break him. And when he was broken the story was finished, and the whole volume of his life and the lives before him was recapitulated, life by life, one after another, each chapter more sharp and clear than the last, until the last crack of the last bone in the body of Shimrun im-Sutiri had finished echoing in the flesh and mind of Rammash im-Belemel at the edge of the Dominion more than a hundred miles away.

For some time he lay flat on his back with his eyes shut, sorting out the tangle of lives long since ended, all reverberating in his head. He’d thought he was Rammash, but he could recall, with only slightly less clarity, being Shimrun, Mendurnengi, Telpish, and Partul. Past that, it was less clear, but it was far from easy or comfortable to sort out which of the dozens of lifetimes he recalled was really himself. His haranu didn’t care to distinguish between them, but stitched their times together in a chain, one long life of the-Ensi-of-Dul-Karagi.

Ram disagreed, very firmly, and when he had got it to stick, or thought he had, he sat up and opened his eyes. He was still in the middle of the rookery, with an abizu and four bazuu floating overhead. Externally, there was no indication that anything had changed. And yet the world was different. The spirits were brighter, sharper, clearer to his mind; he had only to look at one, and it grew in his awareness. He leaned in, saw the spark that was Mana rush closer—

“Ram? Are you back now?”

A girl in a baggy hooded coat was sitting on the floor a few paces away. He put a hand to his head. “Yes. I think.”

“You think?”

“No. I know. Yes.” What was her name? “Yes, Imbri. How long was—how long has it been?”

“A good chunk of the day. I’ve no way of telling you any clearer than that. You mind telling me what all that was about? I could tell you were still alive, but I couldn’t wake you up. The abizu didn’t get it either, but ordered me to explain if it turned out to be something interesting.”

“Right. Well … Shimrun’s … dead.”

“Which would make you—“

“Yes. Yes, it would.” He didn’t want to think about it.

“That certainly counts as ‘interesting’ by our standards. I’ll take my chances.” And she shrieked up at the abizu, who shrieked back.

“I’m going to die,” Ram said to the floor, too quietly for her to hear. Three blooms. Less than three blooms now, closer to two and a half. Thirteen blooms had been an eternity—almost as long as he’d lived already. The ever-present threat of straight murder was only ever a possibility. This was certain, and soon.

And then? “Imbri. When we get sent to Kur, what happens to us? What does this abizu say happens to the ensis?”

“It says you don’t stay for good, but it doesn’t really know where you go. After a while you fade out. If I had to guess, I’d say you stay there for about ten blooms, and that’s why we need periodic kindlings. But that’s just a guess. Where you go from there, I don’t know, but it’s not Kur, and it doesn’t seem like Ki, either.”

“Right.” He picked at a loose seam on his shoe, and scowled. So much for that.

“It also says that we came from Nidriz in the first place, like everything else.”


“Yes. They think everything does. I’ve told you that Nidriz—Kur—isn’t the kind of place you can just walk into, right? It’s more of a potential. Unfinished things. Ideas. Possibilities.”

“Which is where the magic part comes from?” He had little hope that this was leading to any kind of consolation, but it was at least a distraction for the moment.

“Yes. I’ve been talking it over with the abizu while you were out, and here’s what I’m thinking: if Kur is potential, and Ki is actual, then the kindling would be going against the flow, right? Sending something back. Which forces a kind of balancing of the equation. We push our world in theirs, and they return the favor.

“The bazuu? They want Kur, they want Nidriz. They don’t like actuality, they want their world of ideas—which isn’t really any world at all. Potential’s only infinite until you try to do something with it, and that makes it nothing at all. So the white sun degrades. Opposition to complexity. Knock down the tower, turn it into bricks.”

“… sorry, you’ve lost me.”

“That’s fine. I’m only thinking out loud anyway.”

Ram felt a sudden impatience with this wretched hole. He’d come here for answers, and got them too, and now he was more lost and miserable than ever. “Let’s just get out of here. I want to see the sun again.”

“Sure. Mind if I ask them for a lift down the mountain? It’s got to be late on peak day by now, and I’m sure the others have bailed. A shab could get us back to the Misishi gate in less than an hour.”

He stood up. “If you like. It probably won’t matter anyway.”

Imbri cocked her head. “You all right, Ram?”

“I just lost most of my remaining time. I’ve got three blooms left. Would you be all right?”

“If I had three blooms left to live? I think I’d try to make them count.”

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Chapter 13.4

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They woke early, feeling stiff, sore, and cold. The path to the mountaintop looked every bit as long and forbidding as it had last night; the mass of shabti was, if anything, bigger. Ram was inclined to hurry everyone back on their way before they could become more demoralized, but Dezri and Nishal only gave him black looks from their bedrolls, no matter how he cajoled. Reppi finally got them up by reheating several mutton-pies from her bag; she even managed to get the crusts crispy again. There were definite advantages to traveling with a handmaiden.

Actually getting them up the mountain was a still greater challenge, though it was the peak of the tetrad and the yellow sun was shining down bright and clear. The light only made the cloud over the crest clench threateningly together, promising a rain of terrors at the slightest provocation. When, after five minutes’ argument, Dezri and Nishal still dug in their heels, Ram, Imbri and Reppi simply set off without them. Their loyalty to Piridur, or their fear of being left behind, prevailed, and Ram heard the clatter of loose stone from below as the two hurried to catch up.

He didn’t look back; the slope was difficult enough without distractions. There was no guessing how many kindlings had passed since human feet had trod on this ground, and the accumulated debris made it like trying to climb a river of broken stones, or a sand dune with grains the size of his fist. There were no plants here to bind the earth with their roots, no life to build up soil, only dust and grit that blew up in great clouds with every disturbance. The ground shifted underfoot, and more than once he came down face-first. The little drainage groove was little better, and wound back and forth in a maddening way.

It was difficult to tell if they were making any progress at all, and Ram’s only consolation was that he, personally, only felt better the hotter it got. Reppi was likewise fine, and he didn’t care about Dezri or Nishal, but Imbri was obviously struggling in her full coat, and after an hour of slogging they had to stop for a rest. “Any ideas?” he said to the two women in a low voice. Dezri and Nishal were taking their time to catch up.

“I could glaze a firm path to the peak, if you gave me a tetrad and five of my sisters,” Reppi said. Being indwelt didn’t make it more pleasant to aspirate dust, and she hadn’t volunteered for this trip to begin with.

“I’ll keep it in mind. Imbri?”

“A moment, please,” she panted, and downed a jug of water at one long draw. “Better. Okay. I could probably speed things up a bit, but there are risks. Do you mind if I ask the rookery for a hand up?”

“I guess not. But what are the risks?”

“They might despise us a bit more than they already do. I don’t know how that will affect our position without knowing the abizu at the other end.”

“Will we look less pathetic if we spend the whole day fumbling up this hill?”

“Good point. All right, I’ll try it. Just let me rest, and think of how I’m going to phrase this.”

“Phrase it to who?” He’d been assuming the rookery was at the top of the mountain. Imbri shushed him with a wave of her hand. Dezri and Nishal finally caught up with them just as Imbri rose to her feet. She got out her inductor, pointed herself at the rookery, and—

All four of them fell down, clutching their ears, as Imbri let out a long, rolling, warbling, gurgling, inhuman screech that echoed off the stones until Ram marveled that the scree of the slope did not give way beneath them. She hadn’t been boasting; as far as he could tell, she was making exactly the same kinds of sound he’d heard a full bloom ago, at the last rookery he’d visited. Hearing them come out of a human throat was more disturbing than the sight of the countless shabti floating overhead.

She went on for a long time, shrieking high and groaning low in a way that might have been bazu speech, or perhaps just a chicken being gutted alive. The shab-cloud rolled in fresh torments as she spoke. Long before she finished, it had thrust out a shadowy arm down the mountain towards them.

“Fucking bazu witch,” growled Nishal, when she was done. He didn’t say it loud enough to be clearly addressing her—but he made no effort to be quiet, either.

Imbri likewise gave no sign that she’d heard him. “Any luck, Ram?”

“I’d say they heard you,” Ram told her, as the long cloud drifted their way. “What did you tell them?”

“Basically, ‘an important human wants to talk to you, but he needs help getting there.’ I had to bury it under several layers of self-effacing bullshit, but that’s normal for bazuu. They wouldn’t deign to listen to a human who refused to grovel. In fact, they’d probably attack.”

“Uh-huh.” The shabti were almost directly overhead now, and condensing as they fell, partially obscuring the wan blue lights of their loci. It was like a whole night sky reaching down to smother them, and every star a little white sun. “Are you sure they aren’t attacking now?”

“Yes. They’d have wiped us all out by now, easily, if I’d offended them.”

“That isn’t reassuring.”

“You’re in the wrong place for reassurance. What are they doing, exactly?”

“Good question.” Slowly the dark mass drifted down, thickening more and more. It was difficult not to flinch or run. “It almost looks like they’re making a kind of ribbon or chain together. You didn’t ask for that?”

“I asked for nothing in particular, beyond an invitation.”

The strand of shabti abruptly fell the rest of the way, its far end landing a bare ten feet in front of them. The impact threw up a great cloud of dust; by the time they were all finished coughing and could see, there was a perfectly smooth, night-black surface leading in a straight line up the mountain, with just a hint of blue shining through every so often. “Looks like we’re invited. They made us a road.”

“Excellent. Lead me there, please.”

The flamekeepers loudly refused to set foot on the road. Even Reppi hung back. But none of them were necessary, and they’d lost enough time. Ram helped Imbri up, and they set off without bothering to answer the complaints—which got louder, but no nearer, as they went on, scaling the mountain more easily than the stairs of a temple. Walking on the backs of tortured, captive human beings, if the stories were true. Where did the bazuu here get them all, and how long had they been trapped like this?

Ram couldn’t do anything to help them now.

Imbri had her inductor out the whole time, pointing them dead ahead. “Just a reminder, Ram, before we get there: the bazuu are not human. They don’t live like us, they don’t think like us, they don’t want what we want. I’ll be speaking for you, and I can censor anything you get really wrong, but don’t waste your time appealing to any kind of moral sentiment, even a messed-up one. They haven’t got any of those. Bazuu believe in authority and power, and they can feel … aesthetically repulsed by things that aren’t the way they like. But that’s it.”

“What do they want, then? What should I appeal to?”

“I lived with them for blooms, and I still don’t know what motivates the bazuu in this world. In fact, I’m not even sure they’re people, in the same way we are. You know they aren’t properly alive, right? Only spirits pretending. And sometimes it’s not a very convincing pretense.”

“So it’s like arguing with Beshi.”

“Maybe a little bit. They do have thinking brains of their own. And I wouldn’t argue.” They were near the summit now; Ram looked back and saw the road behind them had already started to dissolve and lift back up into the sky, shab by shab. Reppi and the boys had no hope of catching up, and didn’t look to be trying. The mountaintop had nothing of note on it save a thin fringe of green catsmoss where the light of the pyre peered over the far peak to nourish it.

Their road ended abruptly as soon as the slope started to level off, and retreated up into the sky the moment they left it. Imbri’s inductor pointed them towards a completely unremarkable rock. Beyond it the mountain dipped down again into another, still deader valley, and another beyond, and so on to the end of the world.

He tried to focus on the much less frightening rock. “Will I even be able to go inside the rookery, though? Or will it be like the gate?”

“It should be okay. The rookery is a … hypothetical space, but it’s not deliberately unmoored from Ki in the way gatespace is. It’s basically in this world. Your spirit won’t like it, but I don’t think it will be provoked to wreck it. We’ve taken dulspheres into rookeries before without incident.”

“You don’t sound very sure.”

“I’m not, but we’ve come this far. We’re probably close enough to enter now.”

Ram shut his eyes. “Don’t keep them waiting, then. Knock on the door.”

There was a familiar, unpleasant disorienting sensation. When he opened his eyes again, they stood in a featureless black space, identical to the one he had visited with Ushna and Bal. Hovering above them were four pallid bazuu, with a resplendent abizu, a terrible vision of rainbow plumes, highest of all, staring down severely on its visitors. It gave a gurgling croon of—welcome? Ram hoped so.

Imbri replied at length, while Ram stood uncomfortably beside her, remembering his last encounter with bazuu. Even if he was now immune to their possession-tricks, his haranu was upset with everything it saw or heard, and its indignation waxed steadily hotter as the conversation went on. But he could, at least, feel other haranuu in the distance.

“All right,” Imbri said. “I’ve introduced myself—it’s heard of me—and you, as an indwelt male human. It’s appalled, but intrigued, and says it hasn’t had such a visitor in … a couple of hundred kindlings, I think.”

“You think?”

“Bazu conceptions of time are as weird as bazu conceptions of everything else. Anyway, we’re here. I got you an interview. What do you want to ask first?”

“Is there a way to change the way the pyres work? Any way at all? Or is the system locked into place?”

Imbri translated—it took a much longer time than Ram expected. But the reply was quite short. “It says there might be, but it has no cause to know, because it’s not human. And … it says receiving humans is offensive.”

“Is it asking us to leave already?”

“I don’t think that’s what it means. Hold on.” She screeched and growled some more, and got another curt reply. After a bit of back-and-forth, Imbri elaborated, “It says it isn’t talking about your being here now. It says you’ll come back later.”

“What? Tell it I don’t plan to. This is our only visit.”

“I already did. It said I was wrong—you will come back. That humans always do. We always … invade where we aren’t wanted, where we don’t belong.”

“Well, we won’t be ‘invading’ here. Give it my word. Tell it I’m from a fire far away, and I won’t wage war against this rookery. I have enough problems without all that. Of course, I can’t promise for anybody else.”

“Right,” she said, sounding unconvinced, and carried on. The abizu turned its gaze on Ram as it replied. “As I expected, it thinks we’re stupid now. It wasn’t talking about you attacking it here. It’s not even talking about invading in a military sense. More … sneaking in and stealing. It’s using some weird constructions I’ve never heard before, a kind of modified subjunctive—“

A modified what? “Forget that for now. Where is it accusing me of planning to steal from? It can’t be talking about that raid I did with Ushna, can it?” This conversation was getting wildly off-track, and he couldn’t tell why, nor think of a way to get it back where he wanted. The abizu and its attendants stared down, cold and impassive, as they spoke.

“No. Not the raid. Not anywhere on this world.” She hesitated. “This is going to sound really crazy, but … I think it’s talking about Kur. It says you—the Dominion—steal from Kur.”

“But you said—“

“I know! It’s ridiculous. Human beings can’t live on Kur. But this abizu is convinced we do. At least, the Dominion does. It says we’re always taking what isn’t ours. Stealing from Kur. I’m going to see if I can get a better explanation.” She snarled a question at it, and it responded with a barrage in kind, lasting a full five minutes.

“So, what’s the deal?” Ram asked when it finished. “Has somebody been doing something else horrible that the rest of us don’t get to know about?” It wouldn’t much surprise him, at this point, if the lugals were doing some kind of magical looting. What was one more layer of deceit and misbehavior?

“A lot of that was just the abizu calling the human race incompetent. Not going to bother with that. But, the rest of it? If I understand it right, it’s telling me that the human race has been repeatedly invading Kur for a long, long time. There’s a familiar pattern, it says: a little group of humans comes in at once, and … forces the wealth out of Kur. Actually, what he said was Nidriz. They don’t use our word Kur.”

“I thought Nidriz was their god. Like the moonchildren’s Nythrys. Wouldn’t Nidriz live in Kur?”

“No, Nidriz isn’t a god. More of a placeholder, a symbol of authority. Bazuu are really big on hierarchy, and Nidriz is the top of the heap, the central point, the origin, the place where they all come from. Except it’s not a place, it’s more of a concept. If you ask a bazu where it comes from, it will tell you Nidriz.”

“Okay. So we go and steal from Nidriz, or Kur, and they’re the same thing.”

“That’s just it. It was careful with its phrasing. It didn’t say ‘steal,’ it said ‘force out.’ Like the entrance of humans into Kur, or Nidriz, forced them to give up their wealth … except, now that I think of it, wealth isn’t physical stuff to them anyway. The physical world is an afterthought to them; objects exist to do magic, if they exist for a reason at all, and they make and unmake them as needed. So you could say … oh. Oh!” She put a hand to her forehead. “Oh, shit.”

“Oh? Oh, what?”

“That’s it. That’s, that’s the whole thing. It’s bizarre, it’s incredible, but it would explain all this better than anything else I can think of.”

“And it is?”

“The abizu told me that the theft, the invasion—that’s the reason the bazuu are here in the first place. That they came to this world to stop us invading and taking, even though they hate Ki, and they’ll go back as soon as it’s stopped.”

“All right. So?”

“The bazuu are spirits, before anything else. They spend most of their time disembodied, and only take shape because they can’t think and act effectively as ghosts. They say they came from Nidriz, and want to go back, but can’t, because they have to punish us first. That bit’s not news to me, they told me all the time when I was growing up. And I always ignored it, because they’re arrogant hateful assholes who think everything is about them. I’ve never heard a kind word from a bazu in my life.”

“Get to the point. I still don’t know what you’re getting at here.”

“You don’t? But it’s obvious. Humans don’t go to Kur in their bodies. But they could still go in spirit, couldn’t they? With magic.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing happening.”

“Yes, you have. You just didn’t recognize it for what it was. And the abizu’s right—you’re going to have to make the trip yourself. In a little less than thirteen blooms.”

“The kindling? That’s human magic, not bazu. How could it be sending human souls to Kur? They’re exact opposites!”

“Exact opposites. Yes. They work against each other perfectly—like the yellow and white suns. But neither of us knows much about how this magic business really works, do we? And neither does anyone else alive, that I know of. The moonchildren know how to use bazu artifacts. They have a vague, queasy feeling that it’s messed up and wrong, but it’s all buried under heaps of religious rituals and snobbery. They never practice magic directly for themselves, and they don’t trust it. Why would they ask questions like this?”

“Imbri, this is gibberish. I’m going to die, not invade Kur, and I won’t be bringing anything back. I’ll burn, and I’ll re-light the fire. That’s it.”

“That’s what it seems like from your perspective. But you don’t understand it—“

“Neither do you—“

“So you miss what makes it all work. Which, the abizu says, is effectively theft from Kur, or Nidriz. The death of a human being acts as a kind of, I don’t know, unbalancing factor. It forces power out of Kur and into Ki. Which disturbs the bazuu, so they come to try and balance it again. Except … hold on.” She spoke with the abizu again, a lengthy exchange of questions and answers by the sound of it.

“Yes. The white sun. That’s it. Ram, did you ever wonder how people managed to get the temples up and in place to protect them, when they first faced the white sun?”

“Not really.” It was a good question, now that she mentioned it, but he’d always had more practical concerns. “Whoever set all this up obviously knew way more than we do about magic.”

“Magic or not, if they didn’t have a temple already up, they’d be too crippled to do anything but lie there and die when the white sun came up. The simplest explanation is that the temples came up first.”

“Why would they need them, if the white sun wasn’t a problem yet? Do you mean they saw the white sun coming, and planned ahead?”

“Probably not. More likely they only wanted a cheap and basically infinite source of fire-power. Then the white sun appeared, and they realized it wasn’t so cheap after all. But by then it was too late. They were locked in.”

“You’re serious.”

“Yes. It would all fit together. That’s what this talk of stealing and invading means. The magic of the pyres protects against Kur effects because those effects are just the … hangover. The penalty. Whatever.”

“You’re building all this on your interpretation of some stuff one bazu says. What if the abizu’s lying?”

“It doesn’t have much reason to lie. It doesn’t know us, or care what we think. And I don’t think it understands human minds well enough to lie to us effectively.”

“Well, we’re screwed. It sounds like death is the key to making this all work, and it has to keep going. If it stops, the white sun kills us—we knew that already. But it’s also making the white sun appear in the first place! We can’t go one way, we can’t go another, and we can’t stop the cycle. We’re screwed.”

“Pretty much.”

The abizu and its minions still stared down at them, callous and indifferent to the passage of time. Ram supposed that came of being immortal. Or maybe Imbri was right, and the things weren’t really all there. Ram, on the other hand, was fully alive, and had a finite number blooms to work with. “Imbri, please tell it thanks, assuming these things can understand thanks. But it sounds like we’re—“

Between the space of one blink and the next, a bright golden light filled his vision, blotting out the dismal grounds of the rookery. Then came pain, terrible pain, as if every bone in his body had shattered at once. But before he could scream it was gone, and his wits with it, and oblivion took him then and there, as he fell to the floor in a heap.

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Chapter 13.3

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Dul Misishi had three exits. The most commonly used was the water-gate, passing out of the harbor and down the Puruar. The common land entrance on the cliffs above was largely irrelevant, a concession to the rare traveler who could neither fly nor bear to ride the river. The third way had not been used in kindlings; it was an underground passage leading from the northeastern fringe of the pyre, through a tangled mess of tunnels whose ore had long run out, and out into the wild mountains beyond the Dominion.

This half-forgotten crack in the earth was guarded by not one but three grated gateways, passing through increasingly long-deserted sections of the pyre. None past the first had been opened for many blooms. The diggings beyond were the remains of an ill-fated attempt to expand the mines—or possibly the original site of Dul Misishi. Nobody remembered which. Either way, they had long since retrenched, and kept the gates locked to give the enemies of mankind the greatest possible encumbrance.

The first grating opened with a little rough persuasion from Dezri and Nishal. The second required a more vigorous effort, plus a generous slather of oil. The third turned out to be made of iron, not bronze, and so corroded and jammed as to be essentially embedded in the surrounding rock.

“You really cocked this one up, you know that?” Imbri told him, as their escort handmaiden set to work burning the recalcitrant doorway loose. “Even by your standards, this is an impressive set of disasters.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ram told her. “So why are you coming?”

“This is something I can help with. I’d rather do something than sit around feeling helpless. Wouldn’t you?” The rusted gate groaned and squealed as the white-hot fire burned through its joints, one by one. The smell was appalling. “Besides, I wanted to get out of here before the situation got any worse. I’ve had enough bad news for now.”

“That you have.” It had taken a full tetrad to escape the pyre, not the mere day he’d anticipated. Zasha wasn’t interested in bargaining with yet another friend of Ram’s, and Piridur had no official powers as a delegate. The result had been a miserable stalemate, as Piridur and his companions hung around the man’s door day in and day out—the Second Sword of Dul Karagi was too distinguished to simply eject without cause, but not so important as to compel real deference. And Ram needed help from Imbri, who refused to assist unless and until they all reached detente.

All the while, fresh and terrible stories kept coming in, by air and water and other, stranger sources. Right after white day, the first alarmed reports confirmed Ram’s story about Dul Atellu, and added a number of colorful details, some of which he knew to be false. By noon on peak day, they heard still wilder tales about Dul Natati, south of Atellu, and Dul Shebnai to its north. That evening, they’d arranged to speak with Shimrun, using Rinti as a mouthpiece, but he could tell them only that Mannagiri had sent off a pair of skybarques on white day, and was selling off the women of High Atellu to moonchildren.

The next day, the waning point of the tetrad, brought reports of riots in Shebnai, an uncontrolled fire in Natati … and, as an afterthought, the little-regarded news that Dul Karagi, far to the south, had deposed its disgraced lugal. At that Piridur had lost all hope for his increasingly pathetic mission, and begged only to be granted passage downriver without delay. This Zasha had willingly granted.

Ram’s situation was much simplified by the flamekeeper’s absence. He had left his two companions behind with strict orders to cleave to Ram and look out for Karagi’s interests, but they had no authority and did not trouble to pretend that they understood the situation. A little coaxing had gotten Zasha to agree to the “loan” of a local handmaiden in exchange for guarantees from the Karagene treasury. Which were worthless, of course; he just wanted to be rid of Ram.

Only those three set out with him and Imbri for their grand bazu embassy. Imbri had judged it inadvisable to take Bal through possible resh territory, and totally refused to even consider bringing Darun. Shazru declined to come, and Ram agreed; there was still plenty of ointment, and Tirnun would buy more if they ran out. The old doctor was doing more good where he was.

The last joint of the ancient grid gave way, and the grate crashed to the tunnel floor. “After you, sir,” said the handmaiden. “The edges will be hot.”

“Thank you, Reppi.” He wasn’t sure that was her name, but she didn’t correct him.

“And you’re sure the nut won’t wonder where you’re off to for all this time?” Imbri asked.

“Shimrun will tell him it’s protracted negotiations or some such. Even if Mannagiri thinks I just ran away, he won’t care.” Once they had all passed through, Ram and Dezri hoisted the grill back up, and Reppi fused it back in place at four points. Just enough to discourage the odd nosy resh from getting closer to the pyre. When it was done, they set out down the tunnel again. It curved downwards, then away to the right. Ram took a Misishin dulsphere—also borrowed—out of his bag, and slung it around his neck. He didn’t know Reppi well enough to feel comfortable trusting her as his sole light source.

“It smells like resh down here,” Dezri said. At least, Ram thought it was Dezri.

“Not strongly,” Imbri said. “One or two might have come snooping tetrads back, found nothing, and left. They won’t stay anywhere without food.”

They moved on in silence. There was no map of these tunnels, but it was generally thought that their exit was lower down. Once they left it, it would presumably be a short trek to the nearest rookery, but once again, nobody knew for sure. Ram led the way, with Imbri’s hand on his shoulder and Beshi drawn in his hand; Busu’s sword was back at the pyre. He’d offered to lend it to one of the flamekeepers, but they kept their cheap iron blades, and kept them drawn.

After forty-five minutes, three dead-ends, and more than a few stumbles and wrong turns, Ram gave up trying to keep a mental map of the convoluted tunnels. Imbri advised following his nose instead, on the grounds that resh-stink would be stronger outside. It paid off; soon enough they caught the pale glimmer of daylight at the bottom of a steep and scree-strewn shaft.

They emerged, blinking, onto a shelf of rock just above a bare streambed. All the world about them was dull and dry, if far from sterile; the far bank of the long-dead stream was covered in catsmoss, much of it black and kurtushi. There was no other life, no sound or movement, not even wind. Grey cliff faces penned in either side of the stream, too steep to climb. Their only choice was to go upstream or down. Ram chose up, to their left.

They marched on in sullen silence, skirting the patches of rotten moss when they could, purging what they couldn’t avoid with short bursts of Reppi’s flames. None of them cared to draw attention to themselves here. By and by the channel grew steeper, punctuated by little shelves that might have once been pretty cataracts, and their pace slowed. When the sun was directly overhead, Ram called a halt to eat, and to consult with Imbri.

She’d brought a trinket very similar to the inductor she’d used to find gates. There was no need to put it in water this time; she only drew it out of her sleeve and hissed at it in Moonchild, and it jerked away up and to their right, to the top of the cliff. For the fiftieth time, Ram tilted back his head, but it was little use—there was nothing to see but sheer rock. He couldn’t tell how far they had to go, the day was wearing on, and he could feel Dezri and Nishal’s eyes on his back.

They’d have three days to get to a rookery and back; even allowing that the return trip downhill would be quicker, he didn’t like to dally. Still the stream ran up, and up, twisting here and there but curving more often than not to the right, wrapping around the side of the mountain. There were no gaps in the cliff, and no path suitable for climbing. Bazuu needed no paths, and reshki did not make them. Not that they saw any reshki—this place was too close to the pyre’s light for them to stay long. All was bare, deserted, and dead.

It was late afternoon when it finally leveled off, and they found themselves on a kind of plateau, a saddle of land between the mountains where the long-dead stream had once had their source in a pond. There was still some fetid water in a little depression at the center, with clumps of weeds around it; all the rest was dust. But Ram didn’t care about the scenery—to the right he finally saw a break in the cliffs, where the mountain’s flanks settled into a steep but broad slope cluttered with rock debris.

And when he craned his neck to look up at the top of that slope, he saw an enormous black cloud hovering over the mountaintop. The sun hadn’t set yet, but Ram could see the twinkle of blue-white lights peeking through it like stars. Nishal and Dezri followed his gaze, and swore in perfect unison.

“We have a handmaiden,” Ram tried, feebly. The flamekeepers—and Reppi—replied with a contemptuous look.

“What is it?” Imbri said.

“Shabti, it looks like. Too many to count, up in the air above the mountain’s peak.”

“What did you expect?” Imbri said. “We’re in bazu country.” She got out her inductor, and it yanked her arm straight up the slope. “It’s there, right? They were bound to keep protection on hand.”

“Protection!” They hadn’t come all that far from Misishi yet; they could still see the pillar of golden fire over the top of the far peak. It was still too far to be any assurance against the darkness.

“It’s a war zone,” she said. “Is there a way up, or do we need to keep going?”

Ram eyed the slope; there was a little meandering channel cut into it, cut by the rains coming down to replenish the foul waters of the pond. “There’s a way, but it’ll be rough.”

“Not a fucking chance,” growled Nishal. “I’m not running up against a fucking army of shabti with just one handmaiden and a moonchild witch. They’ll shred us.” Dezri nodded emphatically.

“Well, I’m going,” Ram said. “I don’t care if you stay here.”

“I don’t think they’ll attack,” said Imbri. “Not in a wave, anyway. We don’t seem like much of a threat, do we?”

“You can’t even see where the damn things are,” Dezri said. “What do you know?”

“More than you do,” Imbri said coolly. “Ready when you are, Ram. I don’t imagine you care to climb up there when night falls. It’s all the same to me, of course.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Ram considered; they might have another hour of daylight, or two if they were lucky. There’d be nowhere to camp on that slope. “I think we’d better rest here for the evening.”

“There’s no clean water,” Dezri said.

“I doubt you’ll find any, wherever we camp.” Unless they found actual running water, which didn’t seem likely. “You’re welcome to my share from the stores. That sludge won’t hurt me, or Reppi.” Reppi shot him a dubious look, and pointedly swigged from her own bottle. It was all one to her if all these outsiders dried up and died.

In the end, the grumbling flamekeepers got out their bedrolls. Ram put his next to Imbri’s, so they could talk. “How’d you and the Damadzus get around places like this?” was the first thing he said, when he was sure the others couldn’t hear.

“Our rookeries expected us, or moonchildren, and kept the way clear. This is hostile territory, they won’t bother with all that.”

“Right.” He paused, wondering if he dared, then decided he did: “Did you grow up in one of those? The friendly rookeries?” He’d contained his curiosity five whole days, after all.

Imbri sighed. “I have no idea, Ram. I got booted out when I was seven or eight.”

“Why’d they—“

“There was a coup. The abizu who made me got displaced, and the new master liquidated all its old projects. Mom and I got foisted off on another rookery, then sold. I don’t remember a lot of the details.”

Made you? You’re not human?”

“Of course I’m human, asshole. I just said I had a mother. They didn’t do anything to change that. They only worked on my eyes, ears, and throat.”

“Oh.” He knew he shouldn’t ask, but … “Why?”

Imbri growled, deep in her throat. “For lots of reasons. Want to hear a few? Because ordinary humans, even moonchildren, can’t speak bazu right, and my abizu felt like changing that. Because my ears would work better without eyesight to distract me. Because it had killed plenty of adults trying, and now it had a pregnant woman to start from scratch with.”

“Okay, I get the—“

“Because Mom was young and stupid, and got left behind when a raid went bad. Because a captured moonchild woman’s only good for one thing around a hearth. Because moonchildren don’t like their women bearing the Dominion’s bastards, willingly or not. Because—”

“All right! All right. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

“Yes, and I didn’t tell you. Which should have been your clue that I didn’t want to tell you. But you asked, and here we are.”

“But … why are we here? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have you along. There’s no way I could get this done alone, and I know it. Thank you. But what are you hoping to get out of it?”

“Besides money?”

“Besides that.”

“I need something to do, Ram. And there’s only one thing I’m good at.”

“I see.”

“Yes. You see. And that’s what makes all the difference. You can do a lot of things, even though you’re just some shit-kicker hearth kid nobody wants around. I have a job I’ve been doing for five blooms, and I do it well, and I’m smarter than just about anyone else who does it, but I’m useless at everything else. I’m baggage. And I don’t like being baggage. Baggage has a way of getting thrown away, whether it’s humans or bazuu who do the throwing.

“I can’t afford to fight for desperate causes, when I can barely cross the street without help. You’ve screwed my life up, and you’ve screwed up everything else, but I can’t afford to be insulted, either. I have to take the offers as they come, without the luxury of pride. I’m lucky; hearth-kids like me wind up in the gien.”

“What for, though? Didn’t you have some kind of long-term goal you were working towards, all that time you were raking in money?” She struck him as far too sensible to be running about aimlessly like Darun.

“Not since I was fifteen. A little after Dad bought me, I had this great idea where I could save up money and buy a house somewhere, so I could be a well-to-do lady with an herb garden and lots of servants to do all the things she couldn’t. Then I realized no pyre in the Dominion would accept me. I had other plans, and they all died too. So I stopped planning.”

“Then, you expected to keep running around making deals to … keep running around making deals? Until you were an old lady and couldn’t even do that?”

“Shazru did the same thing. The alternative was suicide, which sounded awfully painful. And, believe it or not, a blind girl’s life is worth living.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t.” Imbri looked doubtful, but didn’t answer. It struck him, as he looked at that face, that she wasn’t really ugly—only weird-looking. She was probably smarter than he was. And if she wasn’t exactly kind, she was at least more honest than most anyone else he’d met since he left home. Ram felt a sudden, desperate, guilty, ridiculous yearning for a totally different world, where he could have made her happy. “Do you want your eyes back? I know it sounds silly, but we could make it happen.”

“Don’t think I haven’t thought of it, Ram. But no, thank you. I don’t want to be indwelt.”

“Why not? I know there are drawbacks, but it would give you all the security you want, and people would respect you. Think it over.”

“Oh, I have. I have. I’m not too vain to switch being dependent one way for being dependent another way, or to pretend that it wouldn’t be an improvement. But in the end … no. I couldn’t.”

“Why. Not?”

“Can you understand that I’m a moonchild? I’m a bastard, and they threw me out twice, but I’m still a moonchild if I’m anyone at all. I know blackbands aren’t supposed to have a conscience, and I know I said I couldn’t afford pride. But I do try to have principles. And one of mine is that I don’t live in the firelight. No pyre would have me, and I wouldn’t have them either. Not at the price of living their way.”

Now Ram felt more annoyed than anything else. “Principles, huh? When you were trading with the Damadzus, did you know what Lashantu was doing with all the stuff he bought from you?”

“Yes, I did. It made me glad I wasn’t hearthless. You should be glad too. Every day, hundreds or thousands of people die worse deaths than you will, with worse lives beforehand, and without nearly as many people caring. I can’t save them all, and I won’t lose sleep trying. I can only live my own life, my own way.” She yawned. “Speaking of sleep! I’m done for the day, Ram. That was one hell of a walk we took today, and I’m out of shape. Good night.”

She was sleeping peacefully a moment later, butRam sat up in bed for a long time, keeping watchfor monsters by the dim light of his dulsphere. The black cloud of shabti still sparkled with malicious blue light at the crest of the mountain. He should have expected to see it here; he’d been warned.

When war came to Misishi, just such a black cloud would roll over the mountains, raining down shapeless shadows at the edge of the pyrelight. Then the forces of Kur would storm the tunnels, to cause as much damage as they could before murrush, fire and sword could destroy them. There were no campaigns across this border, no fixed seasons for bloodshed, only a constant vigil for the telltale murk on the horizon. Assaults were rare but brutal, and came in no consistent pattern. It was the price humanity had to pay for iron.

Everybody did what they had to.

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