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LLESHO watched, taking in every step in the process of electing a new khan. For something so important-the khan would lead the clans, including their army of ten thousand-the method proved disappointingly simple. As the ceremony progressed, however, he found himself drawn into the gravity of even the simplest act.
Bolghai was summoned and came at the call. He wore his hair in a mass of plaits from each of which hung a talisman of metal or bead or bone. His robes, cut to show their many layers, still bore the bloodstains of the sheep he had slaughtered for the khan's pyre, but he had cleaned the pelts of the stoats that hung by their sharp little teeth in a collar around his neck. He did not walk with a stately pace to the dais as a Thebin priest might do, but scampered and pranced like his totem animal, setting the pelts to kicking at his shoulders in a little stoat-dance. His clothing jingled at each step with bells and amulets that swayed on silver chains sewn onto them.
The first time Llesho met him, the shaman had shocked and repelled him. But Bolghai had helped him to find his own totem, the roebuck, and had taught him to control his gift of dreams for his own ends. Sometimes at least. Now, he watched with interest as the shaman hitched and hopped to the dais in the persona of his totem stoat. Bolghai carried a flat skin drum and the thighbone of a roebuck that he used as a stick. He wouldn't be creating totemic magic, so he wouldn't use his fiddle. Rather, he'd need the drum to set the pace of the coming ceremony.
When he had reached the fur-heaped royal dais, the shaman grasped the thighbone in the middle and tapped with first one end, then the other, in a rapid tattoo on his drum.
"When is a prince not a prince?" he demanded, confronting Tayy with more beating of his drum while he waited for the answer to his riddle.
If there was no khan, there could be no prince. Tayyichiut bowed his head, accepting the judgment dictated by custom and the sacred nature of the riddle. Allowing himself to be ritually driven off by the beating drum, he left the dais to sit with Bortu and Mergen of his clan.
"When is a wife not a wife?" the shaman asked next, subtly changing the rhythm of his drumming. It wasn't what she expected. Llesho, watching Tayy carefully, saw the surprise in his eyes as well. Bortu's features, however, relaxed in grim satisfaction. Her son was dead, but she was no fool.
"I am no barren tree, but bear the khan's heir in my belly." she clutched a hand below her unbelted waist and spat at the shaman's feet. So, the riddle had set her aside not as the widow, but as one who had not truly blessed the marriage bed of the khan. Llesho figured that much. Sort of. And she objected. He wondered not for the first time what, if anything, the Lady Chaiujin did carry in her womb.
Bolghai accepted her correction, more or less, with the smallest of stoatlike gestures and adjusted his drumming accordingly. "When is a queen not a queen?" he amended.
A wife remained a wife even at the death of her husband, but with no khan there could be no queen. Lady Chaiujin bowed, as Tayyichiut had done, but with less grace, and let herself be driven from the dais. She took a step toward her husband's clan, but Bortu turned her back, and the Lady Chaiujin hesitated, finally taking up a position alone, though closest to the dais. No one challenged her for the assumption of that right, but no one came to support her either. While few might guess her part in the death of their khan, she had made no friends among them.
Alone on the dais, Bolghai let the thighbone hang by a cord that tied it to the drum. Holding up his open hand, he asked another riddle: "Apart they are weak, together they smite their enemies." As answer, he closed his hand tight and raised it high over his head: the separate fingers were each fragile, but made into a fist, they made a powerful weapon. So, Llesho figured, the clans, joined in the ulus, became strong.
Bolghai's next words confirmed Llesho's guess: "Who here gathered would make a fist?"
A huge roar rose out of the gathered clans, aided by the shaman's drum. When he settled into a slower rhythm, the clans began the process of electing a khan. No one outside of the clans had ever been privileged to see the like before, and Llesho held his breath, his eyes darting everywhere to see everything, as two guardsmen came foward and set a low table down in front of the fur-covered dais. Bortu came forward first and set a bowl on the table while Bolghai drummed and danced so energetically behind it that Llesho wondered how he managed not to kick it over. Bortu's bowl, of simple wood but inset everywhere with precious gems, he recognized for its great age. When she set it down, she raised her chin in challenge at her son's wife, who had no clan to bring to the ulus but must put herself forward as the regent of her husband's unborn child.
Bortu retired to sit again among the leaders of her clan, a signal for Great Mother to follow Great Mother, each rising to place her bowl before the drumming shaman. Every bowl was made of a precious material-worked silver or gold, porcelain, or alabaster, and each was elaborately decorated with some sign or sigil prominently marked to indicate the clan of origin. None showed the age of Bortu's, however. Chimbai's clan was the oldest, then, and Bortu, by chance or destiny, was the oldest of the Great Mothers. When he looked into her eyes, something moved, and for a moment the whites vanished into the hard black light of a bird of prey. Not a snake like her daughter-in-law, but he wondered what magics lay hidden within the old lady.
In a contest, he would have placed his bets on Bortu and he wondered why she had not used her skills to save her son. When he looked again, however, he saw only a sad old woman, grieving for her precious child. He thought of Lluka, his brother who saw all futures falling into chaos, and wondered if the old woman sacrificed her line to some future that none of them could see. He was pretty sure he didn't want to, all in all.
The procession of the Great Mothers had ended with seven bowls placed upright on the table at the shaman's feet, and three placed upside down as some sign to the gathered clans. Master Den leaned over with a brief explanation that confirmed his guess: "`Up' means the chieftain will accept the khanate for his clan if he is chosen. `Down' means the clan has no wish to rise to khan right now. Not wealthy enough, or not united among themselves enough, or perhaps just wise enough to know they presently count no generals among their younger men."
"Or waiting out the killing before stepping in to pick up the pieces, and the wealth of the losers," Kaydu suggested. They'd both seen as much in the far provinces of Shan, where Lord Yueh had hoped to reap the benefit of Pearl Island's fall and had been gobbled up himself by Master Markko. Llesho determined to pay more attention to those who had turned their bowls down. But now the Qubal clans focused on those who would be khan.
"One a hand may brush aside," Bolghai intoned to a slow and steady drumbeat, "Many lift their heads to heaven with a glittering crown about their brow."
Tayyichiut was the first to rise in answer to this riddle. In his hand, Mergen had placed a pebble-easily swept away, but many became a mountain with a crown of glaciers. He went to the table and set the stone inside Bortu's bowl with a bow to the shaman, who had stopped his dancing and shivered in place in a fit of ecstasy, and another bow to the ancient bowl. After him, Yesugei rose and, performing the same bows, set his stone in Bortu's bowl as well.
Master Den let go of a little sigh as their friend sat again among his clan. At Llesho's raised brow of inquiry, he whispered, "Yesugei was the most likely candidate if the clans decided against Chimbai's policies. He has signaled his followers where his own allegiances lie."
Llesho nodded. He thought he understood, but Master Den seemed unsatisfied with his reaction and added, "It could have come to war among the Qubal clans, with enemies on both their borders waiting to fall on them."
Master Markko in the South, and Tinglut, the Lady Chaiujin's father, in the East. He looked at the lady, sitting with venomous poise, her head demurely downcast, but with calculation glinting from under lowered lashes. As soon as they were done here, he'd have to find Shou and warn him. Tinglut would sign his treaty with a pen in one hand and sword held in the other behind his back.
"Would you share the thought that wrinkles your brow like an old man?" Kaydu asked him.
"I just realized that I am starting to think in Bolghai's riddles." She rolled her eyes in sympathy and added, "If you start giving orders in battle that way, I'll thump you."
He was so happy to hear her talk to him as his captain from the old days that he didn't even bother to point out he had never given the orders in battle anyway. That was her job.
The vote came to an end then, or so it seemed. The pebbles all looked alike. It would be harder that way to figure out who voted against the new khan once he took office, Llesho figured. That made retaliation less likely, though he was sure that some had done it in the past. His understanding of politics had grown that subtle at least. They hushed while Bolghai gave the count: three clans had stubbornly cast their votes for themselves, but seven had gone to Chimbai-Khan's line. The clans retrieved their voting bowls and each took a pebble from the little heap at Bolghai's feet.
When the table before the royal dais was once more empty, the shaman declared in riddle form, "Out of many, one. Out of one, four. Out of four, one. Out of one, many." Each part of the riddle was punctuated with a flurry on his drum.
The first part made sense: many clans had voted, one clan won. What the rest meant, Llesho couldn't fathom, until four figures came forward and faced the dais again. Chimbai-Khan's line, but who among the likely candidates would be khan?
If she spoke true that she carried the son of the dead khan, Lady Chaiujin might claim right to the khanate as the regent of the heir. That presupposed the truth of two potential lies: that she carried a child of the khan at all, and that the khan had chosen her unborn babe as heir over his grown son by the wife who had gone on before him. Bold as the serpent she was, the lady pushed her way to the fore all out of order of her precedence and placed an alabaster bowl on the table at Bolghai's feet. "For my son," she said, "in the womb."
Bolghai looked like he would speak some prophecy or judgment, but his trembling overcame him and the Lady Chaiujin made her escape without comment.
Bortu, who should have been first, followed with greater dignity and cold, bright eyes on the back of her rival. In the death of her son, Lady Bortu had a right to seek the khanate in her own person, but she set her bowl upside down on the low table, removing herself from the contest. Lady Chaiujin settled in her place with a little gloating smile at this. Bortu returned her only a slow blink of a predator hypnotizing its prey, before turning away. Llesho had a fleeting vision of a hawk with a snake's neck crushed in its mouth.
When he had cleared his eyes of the image, he found Bortu staring at him with the first emotion he had seen on her face since the death of her son: he had surprised her. Read my mind, old woman, he thought. Know me. I come for vengeance and you are welcome to sit on my shoulder when I ride. But she gave him a small turn of the head, an answer, "No," and a reason-she looked now at her other son.
As chieftain of the clan during his brother's reign, Mergen had a rightful claim to the khanate and he drew near the dais and set his jewel encrusted bowl upright next to the two that had gone before him. Tayyichiut followed, and like his grandmother, repudiated his claim upon the ulus. Instead of putting his cup facedown, however, he lifted Mergen's up and set his own beneath it. When Bortu saw what he had done, she smiled and returned to the dais to do the same. Now the four cups were gathered into two, Bortu and Tayyichiut showing that they stood with Mergen against the outsider with the questionable belly. The Lady Chaiujin raged behind her impassive demeanor, Llesho could see it in her eyes, but the chieftains nodded their heads in approval as the pace of the drumming grew more rapid.
The contestants had no vote, since each had made their choice in the position of his or her bowl upon the table. One by one the chieftains, smiling or grim, followed Yesugei again to the dais and cast their pebbles into Mergen's bowl. When the last vote had been cast, there was no need for the shaman to make his ritual announcement, though he did it anyway:
"When is a chieftain not a chieftain?"
To which the gathered chieftains replied in a rousing chorus, "When he is khan!"
After that came the swearing of loyalties, first, through their captains, the personal guardsmen who tended the khan and protected him. Then the chieftains, one by one, each dropped to one knee, fist clasped over his heart, to promise warriors at need and cooperation in counsel as was the custom of these Harnish clans. Not a king, but something else entirely. Llesho had known that with his head, but understanding shifted in his gut as he heard the chieftains give their conditional allegiance. Finally it came time for the heirs to swear their loyalty.
"I have lost my bravest son in service to the Qubal clans," Bortu mourned, and added, for Mergen, "The underworld will find my smartest son more difficult to bring home."
"I hope so," Mergen answered. By home, of course, she meant death, and Llesho suspected that Mergen would be a great deal more difficult to kill than his brother.
Llesho recognized the worry line that creased Tayy's forehead, but Mergen moved instantly to erase it. Taking his nephew's hands, he announced, "The son of my brother is my son. I beg you call him prince, and treat him as you would my own person."
"My father-" Tayy began, but Mergen-Khan stopped him with a finger touch of warning on the back of his hand. "Leave everything in my hands, Prince Tayyichiut. I am your khan."
To the gathered clans it sounded like a good-hearted reminder to a younger relative that he owed a greater deference to his uncle's new status. Llesho heard Mergen's words for what they were, however-a promise-and saw Tayy's embarrassment likewise as cautious hope and grief all roiled together. He waited to see where the ax would fall. Not on Tayy, for sure.
It came as no surprise that the Lady Chaiujin offered no allegiance but an insult. "Among the eastern clans, a brother would offer the safety of his own hearth as husband to his brother's widow and father to his brother's child. I expect no such comfort from a man who would take his anda for a bride, but beg a small tent and a servant to tend me until my time. When I am delivered of my dead husband's true heir, I would ask only the freedom to choose a husband from among the clans."
Mergen-Khan's face became thunderous. The slight was obvious. A Harnishman, particularly a man of position, made alliances in many degrees, but anda was the closest. Blood brothers for life, sealed by gifts and held in the heart, the anda was a cherished friend. Occasionally more, which caused no trouble in the tents of a man who also kept to his wives and his husbandly duties to his clan. But Mergen had no wife, and his anda, Otchigin, had died fighting the stone giants of Master Markko. The Lady Chaiujin threatened civil war with Chimbai-Khan's unborn son as her instrument, but Llesho didn't think that Mergen had noticed that. She'd called his dead anda a coward and a thief, stealing Mergen's duties from his clan. The khan's eyes went flat. "Better my anda than the serpent who made my brother's sleep so permanent," he said, and raised a hand as if to strike her.
She flinched, but the action didn't save her. By prearranged signal, the guards of his dead brother, newly sworn to their elected khan, came forward. Two who had been Chimbai's oldest and most valued friends seized her between them, and Mergen's own swordmaster stepped up behind her.
"Strangle the murdering witch," Mergen said, and the swordmaster wrapped his hands around her neck and squeezed.
"You'll pay," she choked out. With a twist of her neck, she turned into a jewel-green snake. Her grin exposed bared fangs she sank into the meat of her strangler's hand.
"Ah!" he screamed, and dropped her as his hand throbbed with venom. Her captors struggled to hold on, but her arms had vanished. Slipping easily out of their grasp, the Lady Chaiujin glided quickly into hiding between the layers of rugs on the ger-tent floor.
"Everybody out!" Mergen ordered. And to his guards, "To sword! Find her and put an end to her." He reached out and grabbed a goblet from the chest that sat by the fire and raised it over his head. "This jeweled cup to the man who brings her dead body to me: snake or woman, I don't care which. Just find her!"
--from The Gates of Heaven by Curt Benjamin, copyright © 2003 Curt Benjamin, published by Daw Books, all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Posted December 9, 2008
The kingdom of Thebin was a prosperous place under the rule of a benevolent king until the hordes of Horn invaded. They killed the king and queen and sold the seven princes into slavery. An army of occupation now rules Thebin. <P>Several years later through the help of an earth god, Llesho is freed and determined to find his brothers and liberate his homeland. He discovers two of his brothers almost right away and finds allies to help him throw out the invaders. When he finds his next sibling he is joyous but he realizes the next prince found is mad and not to be counted on to fulfill the quest. By this time, Prince Llesho knows that his goal is bigger than his family regaining their kingdom. Heaven is being besieged by an evil being let loose by Master Marrko, a powerful mage and Llesho¿s sworn enemy. Only when all the princes are united and the kingdom is free will Llesho find the entrance that will take him to Heaven so he can defeat the evil creature. If he fails, all of Earth and Heaven will be destroyed. <P>Prince Llesho is a determined, head strong and vulnerable young man who attracts allies to his quest because they believe in him. The prince learns early on that being favored by the gods is no easy thing because he is at their whims and mercy. What sets out as a boy¿s dream to find his remaining family turns into a man¿s quest to free his homeland and destroy the indestructible if he wants to see this world and heaven safe in a world filled with many kingdoms and empires gods walking alongside man. <P>Harriet Klausner
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Posted August 4, 2006
It became clear to me early on in this book what one of Benjamin's central flaws has been in this series. In a dream sequence, the main character relives a previous discussion. The converation made a lot more sense this time. I reread the previous version and sure enough, the new version added lines of dialouge absent in the first conversation. This tendency to omit relevent details has made Benjamin's character interactions and motivation confused and inscrutable through most of the series. In the third book he improves in this area, making the book slightly better than its predecessors, but still not very good. Benjamin's lack of attention to detail often resulted in inconsistencies in the narrative. The action in this volume also has a more episodic feel. In sequences like the pirate voyage, it seemed as if Benjamin really wanted to include pirates in the novel, and stretched all credulity to make it happen. The ease with which Llesho finds his brothers robs the story of much of its potential drama. Benjamin also makes much of the hardship Llesho goes through in his quest, but somehow mamages to make these hardships seem transient and repetetive at the same time, no mean feat. While the ending wasn't horrible, Benjamin made two pretty substantial blunders. He relied on a deus ex machina to resolve the first part of the conflict, using a device he had been setting up as fraught with peril but which ended up being used in an almost off handed fashion. I almost never appreciate this strategy. The second error was that the 'gotcha' moment of realization in the climax had been pretty much telegraphed by foreshadowing through most of the last book. The only person who could possibly have been suprised was the main character. As the reader I kept wondering how long Llesho's denisty would prevent his realization of this element. All in all, The Gates of Heaven was an improvemnet over the other books in the series, but still fell far short of being something I would recommend. The mere fact that I had a bit of a drought of available reading materials at hand is the main reason I got through this series at all.
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Posted December 26, 2009
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