The Meorn Wilderness
Without rules, madness. Without discipline, death. —NANSUR MILITARY MAXIM
Spring, 20 New Imperial Year (4132 Year-of-the-Tusk), the ‘Long Side’
Even when the Skin Eaters walked ways sheeted in sunlight, some shadow of Cil-Aujas lingered in their eyes. The reflection of friends lost. The glint of things not quite survived.
Not two days had passed since they had escaped the derelict underworld mansion. There was madness in the deep, and the scalpers wore it more as fact than trophy. Decimated by Sranc. Pursued through serpentine deeps to the very brink of Hell. They had been transformed, these men who had survived seasons of hunting and harvesting inhuman scalps in pursuit of the Holy Bounty. Their hearts, which had been heaped with scars, now stood cracked open. They walked raw, whether trekking across mountain ridges or filing through forest tunnels. And for all their regret they were thankful. Gentle breezes carried the kiss of blessings. Shadows. Rain. Any sign of an open sky, no matter how indirect, occasioned some small rejoice.
They walked with the wonder of those who could not fathom their breath, their heartbeat. Who could not believe they still lived.
Too few of them remained for the old scalper discipline to hold – or so it seemed to the old Wizard. If any Rules of the Slog remained, they would have to be discovered on the way.
The Captain still commanded them. If anything he seemed more archaic, more inscrutable and cruel. His Ainoni garb, which was tattered before, had been reduced to black-stained rags. His shield, which he wore slung over his back, sported innumerable dents and clefts. But his authority, like everything else, had been transformed by their passage – not so much eroded as superimposed over other possibilities. Events had sorted them.
Sarl was the primary example. Once the mouthpiece of the Captain, he now skulked in the rear of their ragged line, his eyes fixed on his drunken steps, his fingers picking at the scabbed remnant of the wound on his cheek. Periodically he would cackle, a sharp, glutinous sound that jarred the others from their marching reveries. He spoke to no one, content to endlessly mutter to himself – nonsense about seeing Hell mostly. Once or twice a day he would begin barking about the Coffers. ‘The Slog of Slogs! Yes! Yes!’ The few glances he spared his Captain were filled with wounded terror.
If the decimated company yet possessed a second it was Galian. The Nansur had emerged almost unscathed from Cil-Aujas – a tribute to his luck and a boost to his prestige. Aside from soldiers, no one understood the importance of luck quite so profoundly as scalpers. Galian, along with Pokwas and Xonghis, had become a nucleus of sorts, a kind of conspiracy of the sane within the greater company. Strangely enough, they found their power in keeping their counsel. When the Captain described this or that course of action, the Skin Eaters’ eyes inevitably turned to the Nansur Columnary. Almost without exception Galian would pause for the sake of words unspoken, then nod his head aye: he was never so foolish as to contradict the Captain.
And the Captain was never so foolish as to provoke his contradiction.
As always, Xonghis ranged ahead, continually trotting where everyone save Cleric trudged. Were it not for his hunting skills, the expedition would have almost certainly perished. Pokwas, his scalp gruesome with clotted blood, rarely ventured from Galian’s side. Every dusk the three would find a place apart from the others, gnaw sorcery-cooked meat, and trade murmurs. Xonghis was always glancing about, fingers combing his slight Jekki beard, his almond eyes sorting his surroundings even as he spoke or listened to his comrades. He rarely laughed. Pokwas invariably ministered to his great tulwar, sometimes praying as he did so. Something in his voice continually seemed to swing about the possibility of outrage, like a drunk nursing grudges. His laughter typically boomed. Galian always seemed to be sitting between them, even though their little triangle possessed no centre. The former Columnary was forever scraping the stubble from his chin. He seemed to watch his scalper brothers to the exclusion of the world, his eyes as keen as an alarmed father’s. His laughter was always silent.
For whatever reason, Soma and Sutadra found themselves on the outside of this impromptu cabal. The gaunt Kianene, Sutadra, remained silent and watchful the same as before, though an intensity had crept into his eyes that was almost audible. He looked like a man hanging on the words of his wife’s murderer, waiting for a confession. Soma was perhaps the least changed, the one most inclined to speak and act in the old ways. And true to form, the Nilnameshi caste-noble seemed utterly oblivious to the distrust that this incited in his comrades.
Nothing should be the same after Cil-Aujas.
The surviving Galeoth formed another small faction, one that was at once more mutinous and more complacent. If they were more liable to bellyache or, worse yet, openly question the expedition, then they were also more inclined to shrink from the scalding chill of the Captain’s gaze. For whatever reason, the underworld trial had exacted the heaviest toll from them. Wonard’s injuries, which he took to hiding like a wounded dog, had become septic. He marched with the flat-eyed look of someone who simply carried himself from place to place without wit or comprehension. Hameron continually cried out in his sleep, and seemed to sob as much as breathe over the course of the day. Only Conger seemed to improve as the days wore on. Despite the endless trudging, his limp had all but vanished.
But no one had been more transformed in the collective eye than Cleric. Where before they had walked with an enigma, one rounded warm and smooth by long acquaintance, now they walked with a Nonman Ishroi . . . a Quya Mage.
Even for men so bitten, it was no small thing to walk with a legend. And for a Wizard steeped in the ancient ways, it was cause for more than a few sleepless watches . . .
With the Osthwai Mountains to the southwest, night fell with the finality of a hammer. Since this was skinny country, they marched ‘on the dark,’ as Sarl had put it, without fires or illumination of any sort. They became a company of shadows, skulkers between the trees, loathe to speak. The fact of their losses always loomed the largest, it seemed, when they made camp. A kind of desolation haunted them. They would eat with the vacant look of those thrown from the grooves of a kinder life.
Each night, Cleric wandered among them, wordlessly dispensing miniscule smudges of Qirri. He seemed taller without his cloak. Cracked blood still clotted the nimil links of his hauberk. The Nail of Heaven threw lines of blue and white across the polish of his scalp and skin. His eyes, when they blinked, seemed more animal than otherwise.
Afterward he would sit, head bowed, next to the Captain, who either sat like a stone or leaned forward to lecture the Nonman in a continuous, growling whisper. No one could fathom what was said.
The Qirri would soak into their veins, a touch of bitter on the tongue that became a slow-spreading warmth, stretching revival. And their thoughts, relieved of bodily deprivations, would climb into remembered moulds.
The shadows would begin to mutter, like children testing the absence of a violent father.
The Nonman’s voice would rise from the hushed chorus, Sheyic spoken with foreign accents and deep, alien intonations. A different kind of silence would fall across them, the Skin Eaters as well as the Wizard and the girl. A silence, not of expectation, but of men who awaited tidings of themselves. Places faraway.
And the sermon would begin, every bit as disordered and beautiful as the speaker.
‘You have wandered out of light and life,’ he began one night. They still picked their way through the foothills, following ridges flanged by innumerable ravines, so they had camped high. Cleric sat upon a bare stone shelf, his face toward the blackening bulk of Aenaratiol, the Ziggurat. By some fluke of happenstance, Achamian and Mimara found themselves sitting a stage higher, so they could see the mountain shadows encompass the forested tracts over his shoulders. It almost seemed they had found him thus, sitting cross-legged before the wilderness they would dare cross, a sentinel waiting to judge their folly.
‘You have seen what so few of your kind have seen. Now, no matter where you walk, you will be able to look about and see the piling of powers. Empires of the sky. Empires of the deep . . .’
His great head leaned forward, white and waxen as a candle against the dark.
‘Ever are Men stranded on the surface of things. And ever do they confuse what they see with the sum of what matters. Ever do they forget the rank insignificance of the visible. And when they do honour the beyond – the beneath – they render it according to what is familiar . . . They disfigure it for comfort’s sake.’
The old Wizard sat rigid.
‘But you . . . you know . . . You know that what lies beyond resembles us no more than the potter resembles the urn . . .’
A sudden mountain gust swept the high ridges, whisked through the gnarled jack pine that crooked the stone about them. Mimara raised a hand to brush the hair from her face.
‘You who have glimpsed Hell.’
‘The Slog!’ Sarl exclaimed in hoary tones. ‘The Slog of Slogs – just as I told you!’ His laugh was half gurgle and half rasp.
But the company had ceased to hear these intrusions, let alone glance at their former Sergeant.
‘All things have a place,’ Cleric said. ‘Death has its place. You have plumbed the depths, passed beyond the gates of life, and you have been where only the dead have been, seen what only the dead have seen . . .’
The Wizard found himself flinching from the Nonman’s black-glittering gaze.
‘May it greet you as an old friend when you return.’
A moment of pondering silence.
‘The Coffers!’ Sarl croaked, his face raisin-wrinkled with hilarity. ‘The Coffers, lads!’
Darkness claimed the wild horizon.
Kiampas dead. Oxwora dead. Sarl deranged. And dozens of other Skin Eaters the Wizard had never known outside the continuity of their presence . . . Dead.
The toll Achamian had feared had become real. Blood had been let, lives had been lost in the deep tumble, all in the name of his convictions . . . and the lie he had told in their dread service.
Distance and abstraction are ever the twin lures of disaster. When he paused to recollect it, that first step from his tower seemed absurd with ease. What was one step? Two? And all the walking that followed, across the wild, into the Obsidian Gate, step after step . . . Down into mountainous nethers.
All for the sake of finding Ishuäl . . . The name spoken by a mad barbarian so many years ago. The cradle of Anasûrimbor Kellhus. The hidden refuge of the Dûnyain.
Now, wrecked and heartbroken, they continued the long march to Sauglish, the ruined City of Robes, in the hope of plundering the Coffers, the famed sorcerous vault beneath the Library of Sauglish. Achamian had promised them riches, baubles that would make them princes. He had told them nothing of the map he hoped to find there, nor of the capricious Dreams that guided him.
He had glimpsed the Whore’s shadow from the very beginning – from the moment he had set eyes on Mimara, it seemed. All along he had known the toll of his mad mission. And yet, he had let his lies and transgressions accumulate, taking heart in flabby rationalization.
The truth, he had told himself. The truth demanded sacrifice, from him and from others.
Could a man be called murderer when he killed in the name of truth?
Come nightfall, Achamian often peered at them through the gloom, these men who had risked all in the name of his lies. Scalpers hugging themselves against the chill. Foul. Ragged. Eyes pricked with madness. Not so much broken as disfigured – crippled strong. Only yesterday, it seemed, he had watched them strut and caper, trade jokes and boasts in the manner of men in the shadow of imminent battle. They were going to follow their Captain across the ends of the earth to loot a treasury out of legend. They were going to return princes. Now, scarcely anything remained of that bombast – save Soma, whose peculiar idiocy had rendered changeless, and Sarl, who had gone insane. The old Wizard watched them and he mourned what he had done almost as much as he feared what he was about to do.
One night he caught Mimara watching his watching. She was one of those women with a canny gift for seeing into masculine faces. She was forever guessing his chaotic humours.
‘You feel remorse,’ she said in reply to his quizzical look.
‘Cil-Aujas has made you right,’ he replied under his breath. She had called him a murderer on the far side of the mountains, had threatened to reveal his lies to the others if he turned her away.
‘It has wronged me more,’ she replied.
In the absence of consequences, lies were as easy as breathing, as simple as song. During his days as a Mandate Schoolman, Achamian had told innumerable falsehoods to innumerable people, and a fair number of fatal truths as well. He had destroyed reputations, even lives, in the pursuit of an abstraction, the Consult. He had even killed one of his beloved pupils, Inrau, in the name of what could not be touched or seen. He found himself wondering what it must be like for his former brothers now that the Consult had been revealed. What would it be like to belong to an Imperial School, to have princes and kings stammer in your presence? According to Mimara, they even carried Shrial Warrants, holy writs that exempted them from the laws of the lands that hosted them.
Mandate Schoolmen with Shrial Warrants! What would that be like?
He would never know. On the day the Consult had ceased being mere abstraction, the day Anasûrimbor Kellhus had been declared Aspect-Emperor, he had decided to hunt another obscurity: the origins of the man who had revealed them – and in his Dreams, no less. Maybe that was his doom. Maybe that would be the tragic irony that defined the lay of his life. Hunting smoke. Throwing the number-sticks of damnation. Sacrificing the actual for the possible.
The eternal outcast. Doubter and Believer.
With more men to kill.
Dreams are only possessed upon waking, which is why men are so keen to heap words upon them after the fact. They engulf your horizons, pin your very frame to turbulent unreality. They are the hand that reaches behind the mountains, beyond the sky, beneath the deepest sockets of the earth. They are the ignorance that tyrannizes our every choice. Dreams are the darkness that only slumber can illuminate.
The old Wizard walked slots beneath mighty foundations. The stones, he knew, were among the oldest in the complex, part of the original structure raised by Carû-Ongonean, the third and perhaps the greatest of the Umeri God-Kings. Here . . . This was the place where the Nonmen of the famed Tutelage, the Siqû, had come to live among the Kûniüri. This was the place where the first Quyan texts had been translated and stored, and where the first sorcerous School, the Sohonc, had been born.
Here . . . The famed Library of Sauglish.
Temple. Fortress. Granary of many things, wisdom and power foremost among them.
The walls seemed to close about him, so narrow was the way. Candles squatted in sconces along the walls. Whenever he neared one, it sparked to white life, while the one previous vanished into strings of smoke. Over and over, until it seemed there was but one flame leaping from wick to wick.
But the illumination was never quite enough. For every ten steps, five took him through absolute shadow, allowing him to see the layering of ancient Wards without the confusion of worldly sight. Ugly, the way all sorcery is ugly, and yet beautiful all the same, like the rigging of great ships, only ethereal – and as deadly as gallows. In the millennium since its construction, the Library – and the Sohonc – had never been conquered. The Cond Yoke. The Skettic invasions. No matter what the conquering nation, civilized or barbaric, they all sheathed their swords and came to terms. Whether perfumed and erudite like Osseoratha or unwashed and illiterate like Aulyanau the Conqueror, they all came to Sauglish bearing gifts instead of threats . . . They all knew.
This was the Library.
The corridor ended in blind walls. Holding tight the ornate map-case Celmomas had given him, the Grandmaster spoke the sorcerous words. Meaning flashed through his eyes and mouth, and he trod through monolithic stone. The Cant of Sideways Stepping.
Blinking, he found himself in the Upper Pausal, a narrow rostrum overlooking the Pausal proper, a dark antechamber long and deep enough to hold a war galley. Batteries of candles set below sparked to spontaneous life. Seswatha descended the right stair, map-case firmly in hand. Of all the innumerable rooms of the Library, only the Pausal could boast Nonmen artisanship because only it had been hewn out of living rock. Twining figures adorned the walls, frieze stacked upon frieze, representations of the Tutelage and the first great peace between the High Norsirai and the False Men – as the Tusk called the Cûnuroi. But like so many who entered this room, Seswatha scarcely noticed them. And how could he when the stigmatic blemish of sorcery so assaulted his gaze?
It was always the same whenever one of the Few, those who could see the mark that the sorcerous cut into the natural, walked the Pausal. One thing and one thing only commanded their gaze . . . the Great Gate of Wheels. The portal that was a lock, and the lock that was a portal.
The entrance to the Coffers.
To mundane eyes it was a wonder of scale and machination. To arcane eyes it was nothing less than a miracle of interlocking deformities: enormous incantation wheels carved from milk-white marble, turning through a frame of bronze set with constellations of faces carved of black diorite, instilled animata – or proxies, as they called them – enslaved souls, whose only purpose was to complete the circuit between watcher and watched that was the foundation of all reality, sorcerous or not. So hideous was the Mark of the thing, so metaphysically disfigured, that bile bubbled to the back of his throat whenever he found himself before it.
Quya magic. Deeper than deep.
Seswatha paused on the stair, warred with his stomach. He looked down and for some reason felt no surprise, no alarm, to see that the golden map-case had become an infant’s inert form. Blue and grey. Mottled with black bruising, as if it had perished while lying on its face. Slicked with the sweat of the dead.
Such is the madness of dreams that we can assume the continuity of even the most jarring things. An infant corpse, it seemed, had always been what he carried. Achamian followed the grooves of the Dream thoughtful only of what had been thought, oblivious to the discrepancies. Only when he came to a halt beneath the arcane machinery of the Gate, only when he commanded the proxies to roll back the Gate, did he find himself skidding across unlived life . . .
Squirming. The dead baby was twisting and straining against his hands.
The Great Gate of Wheels rumbled to cracking life. At last the Archmage gazed down in horror.
Black eyes shining up with newborn bleariness. Fat-webbed arms reaching out, tiny fingers clutching.
Revulsion. Flailing panic. He cast the thing the way a boy might throw off a spider or a snake, but it simply hung in the air before him, made a cradle of empty space. Behind it, the wheels of the Gate continued their groaning tumble.
‘This,’ Seswatha gasped, ‘is not what hap—!’
The last of the great bronze cogs had ceased their clacking. The Gate of Wheels was drawing open . . .
The infant had dropped from the air. A golden tube clattered where it had fallen. Beyond it, the ponderous bronze machinery of the Gate folded into blackness. A gust swept out across the antechamber.
Achamian stood immobile.
Wind roiled and twisted. His gown tugged at his limbs. A rumble shivered through the walls and lintels, deep, as if a tempest lashed some world inside the world. The Gate, which stood within the Library’s deepest heart, now opened onto the sky – not the Coffers, the sky! And he could see the Library, as though the Pausal hung from a great height above it. Bastions collapsing. Walls flying outward in strings of sand. And he could see it . . . the horror of horrors within billowing skirts of dust and debris, a mountain of black-spinning wind that linked wrecked earth to flickering clouds. Existence itself howled.
TELL ME . . . the Whirlwind said.
WHAT DO YOU SEE?
WHAT AM I?
The Mandate libraries in Atyersus possessed many maps, some old, others new. On all save the most ancient, the land the Skin Eaters dared cross was called the Meorn Wilderness, a name that carried many implications for the learned squints that regarded it.
The scalpers, however, simply called it the Long Side. They had heard the stories, of course. They knew the vast forests they plumbed had once been cultivated horizons. Even more, they had seen the ruins: the stone-stumped grottos that were the lost city of Teleol, and the fortress of Maimor – or Fatwall, as they called it. They knew of the Meori Empire. They knew that once, so very long ago, the wilderness and savagery had lain to the south of the Osthwai Mountains. And the thoughtful among them would wonder at the way the slow leakage of years could bring about such grand and dramatic reversals.
When the first companies of Scalpoi had crossed into the Wilderness some ten years previous, they had been overwhelmed by the numbers and the ferocity of the Sranc clans they had found. The ‘Stick Days,’ the old veterans called them, because every slog seemed a throw of the number-sticks. But the game was plentiful. And the foothills offered endless possibilities for ambush – the key to nearly every Captain’s success. Within a matter of five years, the Scalpoi had driven the Sranc into the lowland forests, the Great Mop, taking so many scalps that the Holy Bounty had to be halved, lest the New Empire go bankrupt.
The reconquest of the Great Meori Empire had begun, albeit by Men who resembled the Sranc more than otherwise. When Fatwall, or Maimor, was discovered, the Holy Aspect-Emperor even sent a Judge and a company of Ministrate Pikemen to occupy the abandoned fortress over the summer months. Many among the Imperial Apparati spoke of reclaiming all the ancient Meori provinces – from the Osthwai Mountains to the Sea of Cerish – within ten scant years. Some even argued the Holy Bounty should take precedence over the Great Ordeal. Why wage war against one, they dared ask, when with mere gold you could battle against all?
But the forests, vast and deep and dark, made a mockery of these hopes. No matter how many companies filed into them, no matter how many bales of scalps they carried out, the frontier ceased its creeping retreat and remained fixed, year after year. For the first time since the calling of the Holy Bounty the Sranc did not dwindle and withdraw. One Imperial Mathematician, the notorious Mepmerat of Shigek, claimed that the Scalpoi had at last encountered a population of Sranc that could reproduce as fast as they could slaughter – that the Bounty had become futile, in effect. He would be imprisoned for his impious accuracy.
For their part, the Scalpoi cared nothing for squint-eyed calculations or petty political aspirations. One need only probe the verges of the Great Mop to understand why the skinnies had stopped running. The Mop was like no forest known to Men of the Three Seas. Trees so vast and hoary they had raised berms about their bases, creating troughs like the swells of a stormy sea. The thatching of the canopy so dense that little more than grey-green light attenuated the filtered gloom. The ground devoid of undergrowth, broken only by the colossal bones of trees long dead. For Sranc, the Mop was a kind of paradise: perpetually dark with easy earth rich in grubs. It provided for all but their most dread appetites.
That is, until the coming of Men.
Xonghis had led them down from the mountains into the foothills at a northwest tangent, so nearly a week passed before the expedition entered the Mop. The plan was to skirt the forest’s edges and march to Fatwall, ancient Maimor, with the hope of resupplying. Mimara fairly clung to the Wizard during this time, sometimes actually leaned against him, even though she possessed no real wounds of consequence. Her mother had done the same, years before in the First Holy War, and the memories would have struck Achamian deep – pain deep – had not the pandemonium of the previous days been so complete. He could scarce blink without glimpsing some shredded glimpse of their ordeal.
When he asked her what happened at the bottom of the Great Medial Screw, she never answered, at least not satisfactorily. According to her, the Wight-in-the-Mountain had been driven away by her Chorae and that was that. When he reminded her that the Captain also carried a Chorae, one that apparently made no difference, she would simply shrug as if to say, ‘Well, I’m not the Captain, am I?’ Time and again, Achamian found himself circling back to the issue. He could not do otherwise. Even when he ignored her, he could sense her Chorae against her breast, like a whiff of oblivion, or the scratch of some otherworldly burr.
The School of Mandate had long eschewed the Daimotic Arts: Seswatha had believed Ciphrang too capricious to be yoked to human intent. Still, Achamian had some understanding of the metaphysics involved. He knew that some agencies could be summoned shorn of the Outside, plucked whole as it were, while others bore their realities with them, swamping the World with porous madness. The shade of Gin’yursis, Achamian knew, had been one of the latter.
Chorae only negated violations of the Real; they returned the world to its fundamental frame. But Gin’yursis had come as figure and frame – a symbol wedded to the very Hell that gave it meaning . . .
Mimara’s Chorae should have been useless.
‘Please, girl. Indulge an old man’s confusion.’
It involved the Judging Eye . . . somehow. He knew it in his bones.
‘Enough. It was madness, I told you. I don’t know what happened!’
‘More. There has to be something more!’
She fixed him with her damning glare. ‘What an old hypocrite you are . . .’
She was right, of course. As hard as he pressed her about what had happened, she pressed him harder for details of the Judging Eye – and he was even more evasive. A part of him suspected that she refused to answer out of some peevish desire for retribution.
What does one say to the doomed? What could knowing provide other than the air of an executioner’s vigil? To know one’s doom was to know futility, to walk with a darkened, deadened heart.
To forget hope.
The old Wizard knew this as much from his Dreams as from his life. Of all the lessons he had learned at life’s uncaring knee, perhaps this was the most hard won. So when she pestered him with questions – gazing at him with Esmenet’s eyes and airs – he would bristle. ‘The Judging Eye is the stuff of witches lore and old wives’ tales! I have no knowledge to share, only rumours and misapprehensions!’
‘Then tell me those!’
‘Bah! Leave me in peace!’
He was sparing her, he told himself. Of course his refusal to answer simply stoked her fears, but fearing and knowing were two different things. There is mercy in ignorance; Men are born appreciating this. Scarce a day passes when we do not save others from things – small and great – they would be worse for knowing.
The old Wizard wasn’t the only one to suffer Mimara’s rancour. Somandutta drew abreast of them one morning, his manner at once pensive and breezy with false good humour. He began by asking her questions, then plied her with various inane observations when she refused to reply. He was trying, the old Wizard knew, to rekindle something of their old banter, perhaps hoping to find unspoken forgiveness in the resumption of old ways and manners. His approach was at once cowardly and eminently male: he was literally asking her to pretend that he had not abandoned her in Cil-Aujas. And she was having none of it.
‘Mimara . . . please,’ he finally hazarded. ‘I know . . . I know I wronged you . . . down . . . down there. But everything happened so . . . so quickly.’
‘But that’s the way it is with fools, isn’t it?’ she said, her tone so light it could only be scathing. ‘The world is quick and they are slow.’
Perhaps she had happened upon an old and profound fear of his. Perhaps she had simply shocked him with the summary ease of her condemnation. Either way, the young Nilnameshi caste-noble came to an abrupt stop, stood dumbfounded as the others trudged past. He ducked away from Galian and his teasing attempt to pinch his cheek.
Afterward Achamian joined him on the trail, moved more by the memory of Esmenet and the similarities of her pique than by real pity. ‘Give her time,’ he said. ‘She’s fierce in her feelings, but her heart is forgiving . . .’ He trailed, realizing this wasn’t quite true. ‘She’s too quick not to appreciate the . . . difficulties,’ he added.
Achamian frowned at the petulance of the young man’s tone. The fact was he agreed with Mimara: He did think Soma was a fool – but a well-meaning one. ‘Have you ever heard the saying, “Courage for men is fodder for dragons?”’
‘No,’ the fulsome lips admitted. ‘What does it mean?’
‘That courage is more complicated than simple souls credit . . . Mimara may be many things, Soma, but simple isn’t one of them. We all need time to build fences about what . . . what happened.’
The wide brown eyes studied him for a moment. Even after everything they had endured, the same affable light illuminated his gaze. ‘Give her time . . .’ Soma repeated in the tone of a young man taking heart.
‘Time,’ the old Wizard said, resuming his march.
Afterward he found himself hoping the daft fool didn’t confuse his advice for paternal permission. The thought of the man wooing Mimara made him bristle as if he really were her father. The question of why he felt this way plagued him for a good portion of the afternoon. For all her capricious strength, something about Anasûrimbor Mimara demanded protection, a frailty so at odds with the tenor of her declarations that it could only seem tragic . . . beautiful. The air of things too extraordinary to long survive the world’s rigour.
This realization, if anything, made her company more irritating.
‘The woman saved your life,’ Pokwas told him one evening, when the to-and-fro of men milling found them side by side. ‘That means deep things in my country.’
‘She saved all our lives,’ Achamian said.
‘I know,’ the towering Sword-dancer replied with a solemn nod.
‘But yours in particular, Wizard. Several times.’ A look of wonder crept into his face.
What?’ Achamian could feel the old scowl building, the one that had aged into his expression.
‘You’re so old,’ Pokwas said with a shrug. ‘Who risks everything to pluck an empty wineskin from a raging river? Who?’
Achamian snorted in laughter, wondered how long it had been since he had laughed. ‘An empty wineskin’s daughter,’ he replied. And even as a part of him flinched from the lie – for it seemed sacrilegious to deceive men with whom he had shared utter and abject hardship – another part of him slumped backward in a kind of marvelling anxiousness.
Maybe this lie had also come true.
She watches the Wizard by moonlight, reviews his features the way a mother reviews her children: the counting of things beloved. The eyebrows like moustaches, the white hermit beard, the hand that clutches his breast. Night after night she watches.
Before, Drusas Achamian had been a riddle, a maddening puzzle. She could scarce look at him without railing in anger. So stingy! So miserly! There he sat, warm and fat with knowledge, while she haunted his stoop, begging, starving . . . Starving! Of all the sins between people, few are so unforgivable as being needed.
He looks every bit as wild as before, hung in wolf-pelts, stooped with years. Despite bathing in the chill blast of mountain streams (an episode that would have occasioned hilarity had the expedition not been so battered), he still carries the stain of Sranc blood across his knuckles and his cheek. They all do.
And still he denies her. Still he complains, upbraids, and rebukes.
The only difference is that she loves him.
She remembers her mother’s first descriptions of him, back when the Andiamine Heights had been her home, when gold and incense had been her constant companions. ‘Have I ever told you about Akka?’ the Empress asked, surprising her daughter in the Sacral Enclosure. There was always this twitch, a body-wide plucking of tendons, whenever her mother caught her unawares. Her jaw would tighten, and she would turn to see herself – as she knew she would be in twenty years’ time. Mother, draped in white and turquoise silks, a gown reminiscent of those worn by Shrial Nuns.
‘Is he my father?’ she had replied.
Her mother shrank from the question, recoiled even. Asking about her father was Mimara’s weapon of choice. Questions of paternity were at once accusations of whorishness. Woe to the woman who did not know. But this time the question seemed to strike her mother particularly hard, to the point where she paused to blink away tears.
‘Your f-father,’ she stammered. ‘Yes.’
Stunned silence. Mimara had not expected this. She knows now that her mother lied, that Esmenet said this simply to rob her daughter of the hateful question. Well . . . perhaps not simply. Mimara has learned enough about Achamian to understand her mother’s passion, to understand how she might name him her daughter’s father . . . in her soul’s heart, at least. Everyone tells lies to dull the world’s sharper, more complicated edges – some more pretty than others.
‘What was he like?’ she asked.
Her mother never looked so beautiful as when she smiled. Beautiful and hateful both. ‘Foolish, like all men. Wise. Petty. Gentle.’
‘Why did you leave him?’
Another question meant to injure. Only this time, Mimara found herself flinching instead of celebrating. Hurting her mother where she herself was concerned was one thing: victims have rights over criminals – do they not? Hurting her for things entirely her own, however, said more about Mimara than Mimara cared to hear.
Few passions require quite so much certainty as spite.
‘Kellhus,’ Esmenet replied, her voice dim and damaged. You win, her eyes conceded as she turned to leave. ‘I chose Kellhus.’
Now, watching the Wizard by moonlight, Mimara cannot stop thinking about her mother. She imagines the wrack that had to have been her soul, coming to her daughter again and again, each time with new hope, only to be punished and rebuked. Guilt and remorse crash through her, for a time. Then she thinks of the little girl who had shrieked in the arms of slavers, the child sobbing, ‘Mumma!’ into the creaking dark. She remembers the stink and the pillows, the child who wept within her still, even though her face had become as flat and chill as new fallen snow.
‘Why did she leave you?’ she asks the old Wizard the following afternoon on the trail. ‘Mother, I mean.’
‘Because I died,’ the old Wizard says, his brown eyes lost in the fog of distant seeing. He refuses to say anything more specific. ‘The world is too cruel to wait for the dead.’
‘And the living?’
He stops and fixes her with that curious stare of his, the one that makes her think of artisans reviewing the work of more gifted rivals.
‘You already know the answer to that one,’ he says.
He seems to catch his smile, condense it into pursed lips. Galian and Sutadra file between them, the former frowning, the latter intent and oblivious. There are times when they all become strangers to one another, and now is one of them – though it seems that Sutadra has been a stranger all along. Bald stone ridges flange the distances beyond the Wizard, promising toil and arms bundled against high wind.
‘Why . . .’ the Wizard begins, then trails. ‘Why didn’t you leave me back in the pit?’
Because I lov—
‘Because I need you,’ she says without breath. ‘I need your knowledge.’
He stares at her, his beard and hair trembling in the breeze. ‘So the old wineskin has a few swallows left,’ he says inexplicably.
He ignores her glare, turns to follow the others. More riddles! She fumes in silence for the remainder of the afternoon, refuses to even look at the old fool. He laughs at her, she decides – and after acknowledging that she had saved him! Bent-back ingrate.
Some starve. Some eat. Disparity is simply the order of things. It’s only when fat men make sauce out of other’s starvation that it becomes a sin.
The others have shown this to her in ways numerous and infinitesimal. The pitch of their talk does not change when she enters their midst. They tease her with brotherly skepticism instead of masculine daring. Their eyes are less inclined to linger on her limbs and more inclined to remain fixed on her gaze.
The Skin Eaters are less and they are more. Less because of what Cil-Aujas has taken, more because she has become one of them. Even the Captain seems to have accepted her. He now looks through her the way he looks through all his men.
They make camp on a ridge that falls in a series of gravel sheaves into the Mop. She stares at the forests for a time, at the play of sunlight across the humped canopy. Birds like floating dots. She thinks of how the expedition will crawl across the landscape, like lice picking their way through the World’s own pelt. She has heard the others mutter about the Mop, about the dangers, but after Cil-Aujas, nothing seems particularly dangerous, nothing that touches sky.
They dine on what remains of Xonghis’s previous kill, but she finds herself more eager for the smudge of Qirri that Cleric dispenses. Afterward, she keeps to herself, makes a point of avoiding Achamian’s many looks, some questioning, others . . . searching. He does not understand the nature of his crime – like all men.
Somandutta once again tries to engage her, but she simply glares at the young caste-noble until he slouches away. He had saved her in Cil-Aujas, actually carried her for a mad term, only to abandon her when her need was greatest – and this she cannot forgive.
To think she had thought the fool charming.
She watches Sarl instead: he alone has not bathed since climbing out of the Ziggurat’s bowel, so he sometimes seems more shade than man. Sranc blood has soaked into the very texture of his skin. His hauberk is intact, but his tunic is as foul as rags worn by a latrine beggar. He huddles against a rust-stained boulder the size of a cart, huddles in a way that suggests hiding one moment, conspiring the next. The boulder is his friend, she realizes. Sarl now sits with everything as if it were his closest friend.
‘Ah, yes . . .’ he murmurs in the gurgle that is his voice. His small black eyes glitter. ‘Ah . . . yesss . . .’ The dusk carves his wrinkles so deep that his face looks woven of bundled string.
‘The fucking Mop . . . The Mop. Eh, lads? Eh?’
Viscous laughter, followed by a snapping cough. The back of his thought is broken, she realizes. He can only kick and claw where he has fallen.
‘More darkness, yes. Tree darkness . . .’
She does not remember what happened at the bottom of the Great Medial Screw, and yet she knows nonetheless, knows with the knowledge that moves limbs and drums hearts.
Something was open that should not have been open. She closed it . . .
Achamian, during one of his many attempts to sound her out on the matter, mentions the line between the World and the Outside, of souls returning as demons. ‘How, Mimara?’ he asks with no small wonder. ‘What you accomplished . . . It should not have been possible. Was it the Chorae?’
No, she wants to say, it was the Tear of God . . . But she nods and shrugs instead, in the bored manner of those who pretend to have moved on to more decisive things.
She has been given something. What she has always considered a blight, a deformity of the soul, has become fraught with enigma and power. The Judging Eye opened. At the moment of absolute crisis, it opened and saw what needed to be seen . . .
A tear of the God, blazing in her palm. The God of Gods!
She has been a victim her whole life. So her instinct is the immediate one, to raise a concealing hand, to turn a shoulder in warding. Only a fool fails to hide what is precious.
Precious – and of course utterly incompatible with the one thing she desperately wants. Chorae and witches, as the Ainoni would say, rarely prosper beneath the same roof.
She finds a sour comfort in this – even a kind of warrant. Had it been pure and simple she would have shunned it out of jaded, melancholy reflex. But now it is something that demands to be understood – on her terms . . .
So of course the old Wizard refuses to tell her anything.
More comfort. Frustration and torment is the very shape of her life. The one thing she trusts.
That night she awakens to the sound of Sarl crooning in a low, lilting voice. A song like smoke, quickly drawn into soundlessness by the ridge’s height. She listens, watching the Nail of Heaven as it peeks through the tattered garments of a cloud. The words to the song, if there are any, are incomprehensible.
After a time, the song trails into rasping murmur, then a moan.
Sarl is old, she realizes. He left more than his wits in the bowel of the mountain.
Sarl is dying.
A pang of terror bolts through her. She turns to look for the Wizard among the rocks, only to find him immediately behind her, bestial with hair. He had crept to her side after she had fallen asleep, she realizes.
She stares into the shadow of his rutted face and smiles, thinking,
At least he does not sing. She crinkles her nose at his smell. She drifts back asleep to the fluttering image of him.
I understand, Mother . . . I finally see . . . I really do.
She dreams of her stepfather, wakes with the frowning confusion that always accompanies dreams too sticky with significance. With every blink she sees him: the Aspect-Emperor, not as he is but as he would be were he the shade that haunted the accursed deeps of Cil-Aujas . . .
Not a man but an emblem. A living Seal, rising on tides of hellish unreality.
‘You are the eye that offends, Mimara . . .’
She wants to ask Achamian about the dream but finds the memory of their feud too sharp to speak around. She knows what everybody knows about dreams, that they are as likely to deceive as to illuminate. On the Andiamine Heights, the caste-noble wives would consult augurs, pay outrageous sums. The caste-menials and the slaves would pray, usually to Yatwer. The girls in the brothel used to drip wax on pillow-beetles to determine the truth of their dreams. If the wax trapped the insect, the dream was true. She has heard of dozens of other folk divinations besides. But she no longer knows what to believe . . .
It’s the Wizard, she realizes. The damned fool is rubbing off on her.
‘The eye that must be plucked.’
They breakfast on the last of a juvenile buck. The sky is cloudless, and the morning sun is chill and sharp. An air of renewal surrounds the scalpers; they talk and prepare the way they used to, the animation of men reacquainting themselves with old and arduous tasks.
The Captain sits on a boulder overlooking the forested vista below, sharpening his blade. Cleric stands below him, shirtless beneath his nimil hauberk. He nods as though in prayer, listening as always to the grinding mutter of the Captain. Galian huddles in close conference with Pokwas and Xonghis, while Soma hovers over them. Sutadra has withdrawn up the trail to pray: he is always praying of late. Conger speaks to his countrymen in avid tones, and though Gallish defeats her, she knows that he attempts to rally them. Sarl mutters and cackles to himself as he shaves tiny slices no bigger than a fingernail from his breakfast cut, which he then chews and savours with absurd relish, as if dining on snails or some other delicacy.
Even Achamian seems to sense the difference, though he says nothing. The Skin Eaters have returned. Somehow, they have recovered their old ways and roles. Only the worried glances exchanged between jokes and declarations betray their fright.
The Mop, she realizes, the famed primeval forests of the Long Side. They fear it – apparently enough to forget Cil-Aujas for a time.
‘Skinnies,’ Sarl cackles, his face flushed red. ‘Chop and bale them, boys . . . We have skin to eat!’
The cheer raised is so winded, so half-hearted, that the shadow of Lost Mansion seems to leap across them anew . . . There are so few left.
And Sarl is not one of them.
A tin clank alerts the company, tells them that their Captain has slung his battered shield over his back – what has become the signal for them to resume their march. The slopes are treacherous, and twice she infuriates the old Wizard by offering him a steadying hand. They wend their way down, descending lower and lower, picking and barging their way through massed ranks of scrub. It seems she can feel the mountains climbing into sky-high absurdity behind her.
The Mop grows beneath and before them, becoming larger and larger, until she can make out the vying of individual limbs across the tossed canopy. Despite the descriptions she has heard, she finds herself gawking in wonder. The trees are nothing short of monumental, such is their size. Through screens of leaves she glimpses soaring trunks and spanning limbs and the dark that is the world beneath the canopy.
The air fairly shivers with the sound of birds singing, screeching, hooting, creating a vast and shrill chorus that reaches, she knows, across the horizon to the shores of the Cerish Sea. They find themselves following a shelf that runs parallel to the forest edge about a length or so taller than the canopy. Her glimpses take her deeper now, though still far from the gloom-shrouded floor. She sees limbs reach like sinuous stone, bearing barn-sized shags of greenery and sheets of moss hanging like a mendicant’s rags. She sees the piling on of shadows that makes blackness out of the forest depths.
It will swallow us, she thinks, feeling the old panic buzzing through her bones. She has had her fill of lightless bellies. Small wonder the scalpers were anxious.
Tree darkness, Sarl had said.
For the first time, it seems, she understands the sheer enormity of the task the Wizard has set for them. For the first time she understands that Cil-Aujas was but the beginning of their trial – the first in a parade of unguessed horrors.
The shallow cliff dips and collapses into a rugged slope, spilling gigantic stones into the forest verge. The expedition picks its way down and files into the Great Mop . . .
Into the green darkness.