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By Jay Lake
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2013 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Copper Downs, Postpartum
I have rarely recalled my dreams, not in those years of which I now tell, nor since. I do not know why this should be. Life has perhaps always been so vivid, so overwhelming, that the far countries of sleep pale by comparison. How can a dream offer more than the simple richness of a mug of kava whipped with cream, cinnamon, and red pepper? How can the illusions of the sleeping mind overwhelm the feel of the wind on one's face as dawn paints the eastern sky in the colors of flame and life, while the first birds of morning leap to the air in their chattering hordes?
Yet during that last month or so of my pregnancy, I had been dreaming as never before. Even now I recall my extraordinarily vivid awareness of life beyond the gates of horn at that time. I awakened time and again in the tent that my old friend and Selistani countryman, the pirate-turned-priest Chowdry, had made my own out of his concern for me. Swollen and awkward from the babies in my belly, I was barely able to waddle in order to break my fast amid the overgrown children who labored to build this new temple to this new god Endurance whom I helped create. Those last weeks of my pregnancy were certainly the dullest of my then-sixteen years of life.
Perhaps it was thus that the dreams came to prominence.
Not for me visions of the face of my long-lost father, ancient wisdoms dripping from his lips, as I have heard others tell. Nor the refighting of old battles. Little enough, judging from the books I've read that speak of such signs to be found in the night mind. Instead, my dreams had been of heaving oceans and sheets of flame leaping to the sky. Ships and burning palaces and always I ran, looking for those whom I have lost. Always I begged and swore and promised I would never again do wrong if only I could set right what had been overturned in my careless haste.
Dreaming, in other words, of what was real. A girl and a young woman lost as hostages borne across the Storm Sea. The girl is Corinthia Anastasia, child of Ilona whom I loved though she did not love me the same in return, stolen away by my enemies as a hostage to my future good behavior. Likewise the Lily Blade Samma, my first paramour from my days in the Temple of the Silver Lily. Those two, each dear to me in different ways, were being held to bind me to the will of Surali, a woman high in the councils of the Bittern Court back in Kalimpura.
In short, I awakened not from prophecy, but from memory.
And now my belly hung empty. Two tiny mouths gnawed at my breasts, which I swore belonged to some stranger. I was never pendulous, nor did my nipples weep before childbearing. There was little about pregnancy consistent with dignity. Motherhood had not begun much better.
If there had been a blessing of late, it was that the gods and monsters who haunted me stayed away from both my dreams and the waking moments between them. Somewhat to my surprise.
My children were my own. None of the prophetic threats made for them had come true.
Not then, in any case.
"Green?" Chowdry lifted the flap of my tent, though he did not peer within. "It is almost time."
"Thank you," I said. "When the children are done suckling."
"I will send Lucia."
Lucia? I thought. My favorite acolyte of late, and sometime bath-and-bed partner. How odd that Ilona did not claim for herself the joyous task of dressing the babies this of all days.
Chowdry withdrew, leaving me alone in my bed with my children. The little iron stove smoked a bit — spring had come to Copper Downs, but here in the chilly northern realms of the Stone Coast, that did not necessarily mean warmth. Bright-dyed hangings decorated the wool-lined canvas walls. Two chests, one lacquered orange in the Selistani fashion, the other a deep, rich mahogany, held my worldly goods along with what was needful for the babies.
Almost I could fit into my leathers again. That thought brought me immense cheer.
Lucia bustled in. She was a beautiful Petraean girl, her skin as pale as mine was dark, though we shared the same golden brown color of our eyes. It was something of a scandal around the Temple of Endurance that she had been an occasional lover of mine, before the last stages of pregnancy had forced me to give such up. I think she would have played nursemaid to my children every day, but Ilona was letting no one else near them for anything she could do first.
Her need for her lost daughter was so profound, and my responsibility in the matter so deep, that I could deny her nothing with respect to my children.
"Will you be ready soon?" Lucia smiled fondly. "Ilona is desperate to be in two places at once right now. Chowdry has convinced her to finish preparations in the wooden temple."
"And so she ceded her care of the babies to you." I found myself amused, though I realized that was unkind of me.
"All of them dressed and ready," Lucia said in a fair imitation of Ilona's voice. "And mind you don't forget the rags!"
I had to laugh at that. My girl shifted from my breast and mewled some small complaint. "Help her spit," I told Lucia. "I'll get the boy to finish."
It is the custom among the Selistani people of my birth not to name children until they reached their first birthday. The world was filled with demons, disease, and ill will that might be called to a weak, new child if their name were spoken aloud. Here in Copper Downs as all along the Stone Coast, I was given to understand that children were generally named at birth.
Having been born a Selistani but raised among the people of the Stone Coast, my compromise was to allow my babies to pass their first week in anonymity, then name them. Regardless of which practice I chose to follow, no child of mine would ever be safe. My list of enemies was longer and more complex than I could keep an accounting of. Some of the most dangerous among them even considered themselves my friends.
Besides, their father, my poor, lost lover Septio of Blackblood's temple, was Petraean. To name the babies was to honor him.
Lucia hummed and bustled with my girl, wrapping the little one in an embroidered silk dress that would serve for the Naming, even if the baby should do any of the things babies so often do to their clothing. I separated my reluctant boy from my aching right nipple and briefly hugged him close to my shoulder.
The love I felt for them was foolishly overwhelming. I knew it was some artifice of nature, or the gods who claimed to have made us in their image, for a mother to adore her child so. Otherwise no one sane would tolerate the squalling, puking, shitting little beasts. But I did love him and his sister with an intensity that surprised me then and continues to do so to this day.
It was akin to the sensation of being touched by a god — an occurrence that I had far more experience with than I'd had with the demands and requirements of motherhood thus far.
I sat up. The boy lay above my breast against my shoulder. My gut continued to feel empty, weak and strange. I would not care to be in a fight for my life right now. Soon enough I would be able to work my body as I was accustomed to doing. I scooped up a rag and gently dried my sore nipples. Lucia leaned to take the baby from me so I could clothe myself.
"Thank you," I told her.
Her eyes lingered on me. I had not dressed at all yet, still naked as birth or bath required. "You are welcome." Her smile was warm, welcome, and just a little bit wicked. "It is nice to see you more yourself again."
I took her meaning exactly and felt warmed for it. Definitely time for me to dress. Though it was very much not the fashion for women of status here in Copper Downs, I was still most comfortable in trousers — my midsection felt a bit better supported, somewhat more firmly held in. The pale blue silk robe would hide the pants well enough. Not that I cared so much what people thought, but that would reduce the potential for argument and satisfy the sense of propriety shared by various of those around me.
Somewhere in the recent months, getting along better with people had started to become important to me. Troubling myself with the opinions of others was still a new experience.
I strapped my long knife to my right thigh beneath the robe. My short knives I secured to my right and left forearms. I truly did not expect any sort of fight at this ceremony, and was not in much shape to join in if one were to take place, but they were part of me. Bare skin would feel less naked to me than going into public without my weapons. I had birthed my children with a knife at my hand, after all.
Lucia had both the babies ready. My girl was in a fall of flame orange and apple red silk that ended in a ruff of yellow lace. The needlework across her bodice was a vibrant, bleached white that stood out like the Morning Star. My boy's dress matched in cut and design, but was sea green and sky blue with a ruff of violet lace, embroidered in a blue so dark, it was very nearly nighttime black.
They were beautiful.
I stared into their strangely pale eyes, those unfocused infant gazes looking back at me. Though Lucia had one of my children balanced in each arm, they knew their mother.
My heart fluttered and my entire body felt warm. My breasts began to swell, which was not what I wanted. Not more milk, not right now.
I shrugged my careworn belled silk over my shoulders, then took my daughter's new silk in my hands to cradle her at my left. Her bells were so few and small that it hardly made any noise at all. Still, this custom was all I had of my grandmother and the family of my birth — the single memory of her funeral, the sound of her bells, and the constancy of my own bells.
Prepared now, I reached for my girl, then for my boy, who would have to find his way in the world without the protection of a cloak of belled silk. The four of us left the tent. As I stepped through the flap, I wondered anew how Chowdry had convinced Ilona to allow Lucia this duty. She had been by my side almost continuously since the birth.
The kidnapping of Ilona's child by my enemies hung over the two of us like a shadow. Or a blade, twisting by a fraying thread but yet to drop. That thought dimmed the glow in my heart a bit.
* * *
Outside was brisk. Spring might have been there, but the sun had not yet found her summer fires. Not in this place. Still, no one had told the trees and flowers. The brisk air was rich with scents of bloom and sap and leafy green.
The Temple of Endurance was blessed with high walls, thanks to an accident of location. This site was an old mine head, long since hidden away from view or casual trespass. Beyond those walls was the relatively clean, quiet wealth of the Velviere District. That meant here inside the compound we were spared the worst of the reeks that emanated from the sewers, slaughterhouses, fish markets, and middens of Copper Downs. In fairness, distant, tropical Kalimpura brought a whole new definition to a city's smells, but even the wrong district here on Stone Coast could put out a standing reek fit to stop a horse. I was glad of the air being washed with spring and nothing more for this Naming.
Beyond the line of tents, a scaffolding rose around the stone temple under construction. I'd helped a little with laying out the foundations before the last months of my pregnancy. Since then, Chowdry and his congregation had made great progress without my aid. Endurance was well on his way to having a permanent fane here in Copper Downs. Pillars rose, and wooden forms were being hammered together to support the laying of a grand vault.
So odd, such a distinctively Selistani god here so far from home. And entirely my doing. Even more odd, this was the first new temple built in over four hundred years, thanks to the late Duke's centuries-long interdiction of such activity. The lifting of his rule was also my doing, in point of fact.
We walked slowly toward a chattering crowd surrounding the wooden temple, the music of my silk ringing out our every step. This was the small, temporary place of worship, in effect a glorified stable built around the ox statue that was Endurance's physical presence here amid his worshippers. Both dear friends and total strangers awaited us. The acolytes and functionaries of Chowdry's growing sect were naturally in attendance. But also a few familiar faces from the Temple Quarter, and the women's lazaret on Bustle Street. Several tall, pale young men who were surely sorcerer-engineers on a rare venture into sunlight. Even some of the clerks from the Textile Bourse, home of one of this city's two competing governments struggling through a slow, apparently endless round of ineffective coup and countercoup.
Most important, Mother Vajpai and Mother Argai awaited me. Senior Blade Mothers from the Temple of the Silver Lily in Kalimpura, and Mother Vajpai one of my two greatest teachers, they had been stranded here by the betrayals of Surali of the Bittern Court when the Selistani embassy had come to Copper Downs the previous autumn. The Prince of the City had ostensibly arrived on these cold northern shores in pursuit of trade agreements, but he had really been brought across the Storm Sea to serve as the Bittern Court woman's puppet in a far more convoluted series of plots. These two lonely Blades so far from home were the closest I had to family anymore. In many ways, these women knew me best.
I smiled at them all, warmed even by the pallid sunshine of this northern place, and walked slowly toward the plain doors of the wooden temple. The crowd parted around me like a pond confronted by a prophet. The babies gurgled, enjoying the outing it seemed, and without fear of the people.
May they live a life free of fear, I prayed to no one in particular. I had too much experience of gifts from the gods to want any of them to hear me just now. Besides, twinned prophecies had hung over my children's birth. Both could go forever unfulfilled for all I cared.
At the door to the wooden temple, I paused and turned to the crowd. Dozens of faces stared back at me. Joyous. Friendly. Loving, even.
It was such a strange feeling, to witness this outpouring.
"My friends," I began. My son shifted in my arms, responding to my voice. He could not know this young that those simple words that were at once so inadequate and yet so true. "We are drawn together this day in celebration." I sounded foolish to my ears. Like a tired priest lecturing an even more weary congregation. I summoned my courage and my sense and continued. "My children are my life. My life is yours. Thank you."
With that, I rushed into the shadows behind me.
* * *
At that time, the temporary wooden temple was still little changed from the first occasion on which I had visited it. The beaded curtain on the doorway stroked me with the caress of a dozen dozen fingers. The walls held their same roughness, though prayers had been hung upon them. Brushwork in dark brown ink on raw linen, written in both Petraean and Seliu, they had the same beauty as those Hanchu poetry scrolls one sometimes sees decorating great houses.
Endurance was present in the form of a life-sized marble sculpture of an ox. His blank-eyed calm was soothing to me. Tiny prayer slips still dangled by red threads from his horns, but the usual array of incense, fruit, and flowers had been cleared away. Instead, I saw a line of offerings fresh from the bakeries and groceries of the city. Food still warm and crisp, the odors from the bread and nuts and, yes, more fruit, joined to form a lovely incense of their own. It was an offering for the eyes and nose and mouth all at once. I hoped Chowdry would allow the array of food to be eaten later.
The reluctant priest waited by the ox with Ilona. They were the only people in the wooden temple when I entered, though others pushed in behind me, led by Lucia carrying my girl. Chowdry wore a green silk salwar kameez that I'd never seen before. Ilona had found an orange silk dress that recalled the cotton dress of hers I'd loved so much back at the little cottage in the High Hills.
The two of them smiled, proud as any grandparents. I was pleased that Ilona did not feel the need to bestow her usual frown on Lucia. Not jealousy, precisely, but the two of them disagreed so much over me.
Holding both my children close, I advanced jingling toward Chowdry and Ilona. The jostling crowd behind me maintained a respectful silence.
"Who comes before Endurance?" Chowdry asked formally.
Resisting the urge to say, Me, you idiot, to this man upon whom I had bestowed both a god and the mantle of priesthood, I answered in kind. "Green, of Copper Downs and Kalimpura, to present my children to the god."
He swept his hands together and beamed as if delighted by some strange and wonderful surprise. "Be welcome, and come before the god."
Chowdry stepped to one side, Ilona to the other. Her face was troubled now. I knew why. My old would-be lover could hardly help thinking of her own daughter stolen away. With the heft of a baby in each of my arms, I was all too aware of how keenly Ilona missed Corinthia Anastasia, mourning her child's absence.
I have not forgotten my promises, I thought fiercely, willing her to hear the silent words from behind my eyes. Then I was before the god I myself had instantiated from a flood of uncontrolled divine energy, naïve hope, and my own earliest memories.
Kneeling, I placed my children against his belly. Had the artist sculpted him standing, I would have laid them between Endurance's feet as I myself had once played and sheltered beneath my father's ox. This was the best I could do.
Then I touched one of the horns. A few of the prayers tied there stirred, so I brushed my fingers across them. Whatever power or influence I had with the divine I put to wishing the prayers might be heard.
"I am here," I told the ox.
Now all the prayers on his horns stirred. The air felt thick, even a bit curdled. Something was present.
"I know you will not answer me. That is not your way." Endurance was a wordless god, given to guidance through inspiration rather than immediate intervention in the lives of his followers. "But when I was a small child, you watched over me. Your body sheltered me. Your lowing voice called me back from danger. You followed where I wandered, and led me home again."
I paused for a shuddering breath, wishing in that moment that my father could have seen this time of my life. He would have been delighted at his grandchildren, I was certain of it. And amazed at what had become of his ox. That, too, was certain.
Excerpted from Kalimpura by Jay Lake. Copyright © 2013 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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