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.