The Shades of Time and Memory
The Second Book of the Wraeththu Histories
By Storm Constantine
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2004 Storm Constantine
All rights reserved.
In the early mornings, just after dawn, when the sky was salmon pink and mists curled across the water, and birds flew like the last of dark dreams escaping the shattered towers of the old human city, Moon Jaguar would walk to the edge of the world and stare out to the place where the phantoms lived.
The creatures that lived within the Sea of Ghosts would often come to land and wrap themselves around the broken towers on the shore. The mist beings could make parts of the world disappear and reappear, and they moved quickly. It was best to pay them respect.
Seven Wraeththu clans lived in the ruins of the city, and at one time they had been Uigenna, though prudence had forced them to change their name and their customs, following the Gelaming invasion of Megalithica. Now, they had no tribal name, and in time, no doubt, the clans themselves would become separate tribes, but for now they existed in tenuous alliance.
Moon's father, Snake Jaguar, had come from a land far to the south, but he would never speak of it, no matter how much Moon begged or pleaded for old stories that all harlings loved. Snake was the shaman of the Jaguar clan and held in great esteem by their ruler, Great Jaguar Paw. Moon lived with his father, and his father's protector. Raven Jaguar, in the House of Relics, situated very close to the shore of the Sea of Ghosts. Humans had filled the Reliquary with artifacts that recorded moments of their history, but most of the artifacts had been destroyed during the conflict that had brought the city to her knees some thirty or so years before.
Moon liked the Reliquary: its cavernous dark rooms, its shattered display cases, the bones spilling amid the glass shards. His own room, high in the building, had probably once been an office, although over time he had adorned it with various items he'd filched from the lower galleries. His father lived in the far side of the building, and Raven lived in a storeroom nearby, his senses forever on high alert in case Snake should need him. Moon presumed Raven had gotten to know Snake long before the fragmented Uigenna tribe had had to flee to the north, pursued by Gelaming patrols that were intent on rehabilitating any hara whose beliefs did not emulate their own. Raven lived in ascetic simplicity, in what was hardly more than a broom closet. It was obvious something very bad had happened to him in the past and that it had affected his mind. Now, Raven's dedication to Snake was his entire reason for being. They were not chesna, nor did they ever take aruna together, which in Wraeththu terms was most unusual, if not freakish. They shared secrets and pain, and this, more than physical or emotional expressions of affection, bound them close. Snake too was damaged. Even though Moon lived far from his father, sometimes at night he could hear him limping around his room, never weeping, never sighing — just pacing slowly.
Moon was seven years old, nearly adult, and by then he had realized that other harlings of the clan avoided him, because his father was strange. Even Great Jaguar Paw feared Snake, because his temperament was inclined to prophesy doom rather than joy. The privacy-loving Jaguar clan skulked around the shore of the Sea of Ghosts and interacted with other clans only for trade. Snake, so the other clans said, made sure the rest of the Jaguars were as grim as he was.
A week or so after his seventh birthday, which he'd celebrated alone, Moon went as usual to the shore. Looking back at the Reliquary, Moon realized for the first time that his father, Raven, and himself, although occupying in some regard the same space, lived in isolation from each other. There were not even ghosts for company. Since Snake's chesnari had died, not long after Moon's birth, the idea of family had shattered in the same way the relics had. Moon did not feel lonely — he never did — but today he felt different: an echo of some early childhood warning traveled across the great sea.
The dawn was pink and gray, stealing through brooding cloud and there was a metallic taint to the air. A ship sailed through the mist toward the docks, some distance to the east. Somehar in the rigging blew a mournful salute upon a windhorn. Birds looped drunkenly around the black mast. Moon squatted on the cracked concrete walkway above the water and stared at the ship with his hands funneled around his eyes. He thought about strolling over to the docks to see who or what might have arrived, but then the vague aches that had plagued his belly for some weeks intensified into a cramping pain and he had to lean forward to vomit into the water.
Moon, like all hara, was rarely ill, so this particular seizure, which could not be ignored, filled him with panic. In some places the land was poisoned, and those poisons were strong enough even to kill a har. Moon rarely left his immediate environment, so he couldn't imagine how he could have come into contact with such danger, but now, when he stared out over the water, his whole vision was tinged with red and he had a pain in the back of his neck. He was afraid that if he moved too quickly, some part of himself might fall out of his body. He was poisoned and he was too far away from the Reliquary to call for help.
Moon curled up into a ball on the ground and lay that way for a long time. By the time the sun had hauled itself out of the mist, he realized he had slept and now felt better. But when he got to his feet, he had to hold his stomach with both hands, because it felt loose and unsafe. His skin was crawling as if ants were marching all over it. Slowly, and with great care, he made his way to his father's domain, because despite the fact they rarely spent time together, Snake was the one har Moon trusted in the world.
Raven had already been to Snake's room to deliver breakfast, which the shaman was now eating in a slow and dignified manner. Snake Jaguar's name derived mainly from the appearance of his eyes. One was very dark. Almost black, while the other, on his damaged side, was bright gold. This was his snake eye, his seeing eye, and with it he could see into anyhar's soul, so he was required to keep it covered, out of politeness, for most of the time. His face was very beautiful, unmarked, and so was the right side of his body, but the left side was maimed. A chemical fire, so strong that not even a harish frame could recover from its cruel breath, had ruined him, created his golden eye, and had consumed entirely the har named Silken whom Snake had loved and who had been Moon's hostling. It had been an accident: no rogue hara or humans had done it. Evil had come out of the ground, evil that had waited so long for release, it had become impatient with anticipating human or harish detonation. It had erupted from the ground on its own, to burn out in a moment of glory, which had unfortunately incinerated seven hara of the clans and injured a further three. Two of those had later died, but Snake had survived. To a normal har, to be less than perfect was anathema. Snake, however, appeared barely to care about such things. He lived, for the most part, inside his own head.
Now, Moon went to his father and knelt before him. He said, "Tiahaar, am I to die?"
Snake raised his head. Ropes of black hair hung over his face, down to the floor, and from between these ophidian coils the golden eye glowed, while the black eye contemplated the darkest reaches of the universe. "What is this?" Snake asked.
Moon explained, as best he could.
Snake continued to eat his breakfast, listening intently. Then, when his son finished speaking, he said, "Moon, you are becoming adult, that is all. Go to Raven. He will instruct you in these matters." His expression was distant. He did not look Moon in the eye.
Moon had expected something more dramatic than this. "A ship came," he said. "A black ship."
"Unneah from the south," Snake said. "They bring little of value, but later you might go over to the docks and barter for tobacco for me."
"How far south?"
"Not far enough," Snake said. He reached for his staff and began to struggle to his feet. Moon jumped up to help him.
"Will we ever go home?" he asked.
"I doubt it." Snake said, for a moment allowing himself to lean upon the shoulder of his son. "Why do you ask now?"
"I don't know. I wonder what it was like."
"Go to Raven now," Snake said, pulling away. "Tell him that I have sent you."
Moon rarely communicated with Raven, even though Raven was supposed to have raised him after his hostling's death. Raven was always so taciturn and preoccupied with his dedication to guarding Snake that Moon had raised himself without realizing he had done so. Why Snake should send him to Raven now, Moon was unsure. He doubted that Raven could teach him anything, because he was as wrapped up in his private world as Snake was.
Raven's eyes were discomfortingly entirely black, so you could never be sure what he was thinking, if indeed he thought at all. His skin was very dark, like that of a panther and his face looked like the sculpture of a mythical king. He, more than any other har of the clan, was most like the big cat from which they'd taken their name. He could sit motionless for hours, staring at a single thing. Then he could strike, and take a bird from the air so quickly, nohar could really see it. Moon didn't like him very much, although he wasn't consciously aware of that. He interacted with too few hara to understand the concepts of like and dislike.
Moon found Raven on the Reliquary grounds, tending their vegetable patch. He moved with precise gracefulness, in what to Moon that day seemed an annoying manner. His thick black braids, which hung to his thighs, were bound at his neck by a single braid, to keep them from dangling over his work.
"Snake says you are to instruct me," Moon said.
Raven fixed his attention upon Moon and said, "In what regard?"
"He says I am becoming adult and that I should come to you. He said to tell you he'd sent me."
Raven stared at him in his usual impenetrable manner for some seconds, then snapped, "He said this?"
"Yes. What must I learn?"
Raven turned away. He seemed troubled. "I am not a good teacher," he said. "There is too much I have forgotten."
"Perhaps we should go to the docks instead. A ship has come. Snake wants tobacco."
Raven said nothing. He stood with his back to Moon for what seemed like an hour, but was probably less than a minute. Then he began carefully to put away his tools and tidy up his work area. Moon waited impatiently. He was thinking of the docks and the aroma of cooking sugar-dough from the food stalls that lined its perimeter. He had not yet eaten.
Raven had finished his work. "Come," he said, and beckoned for Moon to follow him.
"I'm hungry," Moon said, trailing behind.
They went into the small orchard, near to the run where the hens scampered about. When they saw Raven approaching, they all rushed to the netting, squawking and flattening their wings against the ground in devotion.
"I felt ill," Moon said. "This morning I was sick." They were in a circle of trees and the air felt very different there, still and close.
"It is feybraiha that you are going through," Raven said.
"The advent of sexual maturity. You will be able to create harlings of your own now."
"Why would I want to do that?" Years ago, when Snake had been some-what more communicative, he had taught his son about his own kind. He had told him about aruna and how it could be used for spiritual growth, for creating harlings, or simply for pleasure. Moon hadn't thought about it much since, mainly because it was not something that figured in their routine domestic life. Snake and Raven were not like normal hara in that respect. Now, feeling as if iced water was filling up his veins, Moon began to remember what he'd been told, that one day his body would be ready for aruna and when that time came he must see to its desires. He faced this har he did not even particularly like and asked, "What must I do?"
"Nothing," said Raven. "You must be aware of what this will do to you. It will wake you up. You will never be able to sleep again."
"I don't believe you," Moon said.
Raven almost smiled. "I'm trying to tell you about a new responsibility you will have. Your body will wake up, and you must look after its needs."
"What about your body?"
Raven didn't answer. He simply began to take off his clothes, so that Moon could see the pale scars against his dark brown skin, scores of them, down his back and along his right flank. It looked like he'd been whipped or attacked by a savage beast, but other than that he was perfect. The scars, in some ways, only emphasized this perfection. "You are like one of the statues," Moon said, "the ones in the Reliquary."
"Get undressed," Raven said.
Moon had no preconceptions whatsoever, and did not feel shy about what must happen. He was nervous, because it might hurt, but other than that was quite content to do as he was asked. He lay down on the damp grass, which was still cold because the sun had not touched it. Overhead, the tree branches swayed and rustled and birds hopped from limb to limb. Moon could see clouds racing across the sky.
Raven lay down beside him and the warmth of skin against skin was pleasant. Raven stroked his back in a way Moon thought somehar had done to him before, presumably his hostling, many years ago. Sometimes, Raven's breath drifted across Moon's face and when it did so, he received impressions of vague fleeting pictures, as if they'd been painted in faint watercolors. Moon had a strong impulse to put his mouth against Raven's own and really taste those images, but Raven carefully avoided such contact. Moon guessed he didn't want to share what was inside him. The stroking and tantalizing breath kindled desire in Moon's body. He had never felt such a thing before and was startled by its power and the control it had over him. What was the purpose of it? Raven's caresses became more invasive and Moon saw a picture in his mind of a great door. He knew that behind it was some kind of treasury and that the treasure would not be what he expected. He gasped and arched his body a little and Raven slid on top of him. He put one hand on Moon's face and murmured, "Relax."
"I can't." Moon kept his legs clamped close together, knowing he shouldn't, but feeling that once he allowed Raven to do what had to be done, it would change everything forever. He wasn't ready for that change. He hadn't thought about it. This was all too quick. He couldn't stop the tears. Should it be like this?
Raven put his mouth against Moon's lips and gently exhaled. He gave to Moon images of Silken, images of Moon himself as a harling, laughing and playing in sunlight: the two of them together. He gave to Moon images that must have come from Snake, long ago, of dusty red lands and soaring mountains. Moon saw his father as he'd once been: whole and vigorous. These images were not painful, nor did they make Moon sad. He felt a wistful longing for things he'd never had, but it was a sweet longing. He understood, for a brief moment, what living truly was, and how magical it was that hara could come together this way, mingling their beings, sharing all that is deep and passionate. He was sinking into an ocean of soft feathers, the most comfortable place in the world, where pain and sorrow could not exist. This was like entering the otherworld, walking the spirit paths in a place far better than cold reality. He curled his legs around Raven's lean back and Raven pushed inside him.
"This is so strange," Moon said.
"But it is. It's so weird that a piece of you is inside me. It's such a strange thing to do. Whoever thought of it?"
"Stop thinking," Raven said.
But Moon couldn't stop. His body responded fully to physical sensation, but the more it did so, the more his mind raced. He was chattering to himself like a maniac, full of questions. What had made Snake cut himself off from other hara? What had happened to Raven to make him so dour? Where had they come from? Where was the red dusty land? Who had they left behind? He saw a shining web stretching across infinity, and it was studded with points of light. He knew that each of these points represented others who were connected to him and surely now, at this moment, they must be aware of him too. Who were these hara? Where were they? (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Shades of Time and Memory by Storm Constantine. Copyright © 2004 Storm Constantine. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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