The Book of the Night
By Pearl North, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 Pearl North
All rights reserved.
When Po first awoke, he didn't remember where he was. He stared about at the gauzy draperies and ran a hand over the soft, clean bed linens. Then he heard her voice, and he remembered it all. He was in Ilysies. He was the consort of a queen.
Queen Thela sat on a couch nearby, humming to herself as she flipped through the pages of a book. Po closed his eyes nearly all the way and feigned sleep. Through his lashes, he observed her. Her recent deeds did nothing to diminish her beauty. She had the classic tall, lean, Ilysian form. Her hair was long and dark, threaded through with silver, emphasizing her power and maturity and picking up the pale blue of her eyes. Her long, aquiline nose was as graceful as the shallow curve of her lips.
Thela raised one eyebrow and turned another page, absorbed in what she read. Po searched for the pen but could not see it, either near her or on her person. He didn't know if that was good or bad.
Despite his circumstances, a delicious sensation of lassitude filled him. Po stretched out in the silken sheets. Surely it couldn't be wrong to enjoy this feeling, even if it might not really be his feeling, but one designed for him by Thela, using the pen. When he'd dared to defy her, she had used the pen to control him. Following her first, dreadful experiment, she'd adopted a more subtle method of securing obedience. She'd written that he would only do what made her happy. "Your Majesty," he murmured, blinking at her sleepily.
She looked up at him and smiled. "Ah, Po, you're awake. I will summon breakfast for you."
Po lay back in the silken sheets. He felt like he'd been asleep for a long time. What had happened again?
Oh yeah, everything.
It had started when he met Ithalia, though she was really Queen Thela in disguise. She'd made him her consort, and then she set the Libyrinth's crops on fire and framed him for the deed. After that, Haly had no choice but to send him away with the Chorus of the Word. They'd gone to the Corvariate Citadel in search of the pen, and they'd discovered the place ruled by a madman who called himself the Lit King. But once again, it was Thela who'd been running everything. She'd used the Lit King to discredit the Libyrarians. His mob raided the villages of the Plain of Ayor and stole their food, and he hoarded it all in the Temple of Yammon, where Po and the rest of the Chorus of the Word were held prisoner. He'd tortured Siblea and used Po to revive him, and Thela had permitted all of it.
But Ayma, the tavern girl they'd befriended, had led the citizens of the citadel in revolt and released them. Everything had been okay then. They had the pen and they found the food and were returning it to the people. And then, Thela's spy, Mab, snatched the pen from Selene and ran away with it. And Po had chased her.
That's how he'd wound up in a chamber at the top of one of the temple towers with Mab and Queen Thela. He sat up at the memory of rolling on the floor, limbless, mouthless.
Thela watched him, smiling. Loathing seethed inside him, but outwardly, he smiled back, and held his hand out to her in supplication. "Will you bathe me?"
Her expressions could be so warm. Now, her face was bright with pleasure. "Of course."
Po felt like he'd been run over by a herd of cattle. His muscles were so sore he could barely move, and he was so tired. He'd been hit with a mind lancet more than once recently, and it couldn't have been more than a day between his last torture session with the Lit King and Siblea.
Then he'd followed Mab up to Thela's chamber at the top of the tower. And there, desperate to prevent Thela from using the pen to kill his friends and take over the world, he'd used his kinesthetic sense for a purpose he was certain it had never been intended. "How long have I been asleep?"
She escorted him to a bench beside the tub. He sat. She lifted his robe up over his head, and then unbuttoned his undershirt. "First a bath, and then" — she nodded to the low table by the chairs — "something to eat. And then —" she indicated her bower. "I've missed you, Po."
Sweet words. Inside, he was full of burning barley fields and missing limbs, but he leaned against her, and rubbed his head against her neck. He tried to stop. He couldn't. He blushed. He couldn't tell if it was with desire or humiliation. Exhaustion came to his rescue. He swayed. "Your Majesty," he murmured, "forgive me." The room faded and he fell into darkness.
When Po came back to himself he was sitting in the tub, wrapped in Thela's arms. The hot water felt wonderful. Thela washed him. The queen of Ilysies herself bathed him and treated his cuts and scrapes with extract of accar leaves. His opinion of his place in the world was perhaps too low.
He closed his eyes as she ran the cloth up his arm, remembering what had happened when she'd written "Po can do me no harm" with the pen. She'd corrected it, and now, his every outward action was gauged to please her. He reached for her even as he thought of what she had done and how he could keep her from doing worse. But his actions never matched what he was thinking.
Except for when he'd performed kinesiology on her. Nothing had prevented him then from altering her perception of and desire for the pen. He was still so tired from the energy he'd expended doing that, but he needed to treat her again as soon as possible, to make sure the pen remained an object of peril in her eyes.
Breakfast arrived and Thela finished bathing him, then wrapped a towel around him. She guided him back to the bed and dismissed the servant, carrying the tray to him herself. At the smell of fresh bread, flatfish baked in butter, and oranges, Po's hunger awakened. He'd forgotten how much he missed Ilysian food.
When he had devoured every last scrap, Thela took the tray and set it aside. Why was she serving him herself like this? Was it because he'd been hurt? Some women liked to take care of a male who'd been injured, though usually that was after he had fought another male for her attention.
She returned and sat on the bed beside him. "How do you feel now?"
"Much better, Your Majesty. Thank you."
"I'm glad to hear it. I need to talk to you but I know what an ordeal you've been through. I don't want to push you too soon, but this is important."
"Of course, Thela, anything you need." Could he lie, if the truth displeased her? He didn't know. He had to hope she asked him nothing that incriminated him or put the Libyrinth or the Chorus of the Word at jeopardy.
"You were in the tomb of Endymion."
"That's where you found the pen."
"Yes, my queen."
She nodded. "And did you see her?"
"The last Ancient?"
"We did. Ayma and I. We saw her. She was ... Thela, she was still alive!"
Thela's eyes widened. "Still alive? But everyone said she was dead, and even if she wasn't dead when they sealed her in there, how could she still be alive after all this time?"
"She's not like us."
"Of course not; she's an Ancient."
"I know, but that's not what I mean. She's not even human. Maybe that's why she can still be alive. She was never really alive to begin with. And now she's disappeared, but I don't know what that means, exactly."
Thela smiled at him. Po realized how crazy he sounded. "I know it doesn't make sense."
"Why don't you tell me exactly what happened, from the beginning?"
And he did. He told her how he and Ayma had become separated from the rest of the chorus and how they'd found the ladder that led down through the tunnel of books. "It was so hard to pass through that little door on the other side. The feeling of dread was like a physical force, pushing us back."
"But you did enter," she said.
He nodded. "Inside it looked like an old Earth palace. There was a harpsichord. We found Endymion, but we thought she was dead, she wasn't moving. Then she started to talk."
Thela leaned closer. "What did she say?"
Po's heart beat faster, just remembering the last Ancient. "She wanted me to hand her her pen."
Thela smiled and sat back. "The pen."
"Yes. Only, we didn't know that's what it was. We thought ... that is, the chorus ..." He didn't want to bring up the chorus, or things that had happened at the Libyrinth. But he couldn't stop himself. "In the legends of the Ayorites it's known as the Lion's Bloom. The people of the Citadel refer to it as Endymion's Rose. We thought we were looking for a device shaped like a flower."
"But the pen is shaped like a flower, in a way," said Thela. "And when operated, the end opens up like a blossom. Isn't it interesting, how time reshapes things?"
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty, I don't understand."
"Well, I mean, these legends. They preserve an incidental fact about the device — that it resembles a flower — but hide the most essential aspect of its nature. It is a pen for rewriting reality, and yet the stories — I am familiar with the Ayorite version — focus instead on what is most familiar and desired to those who tell and retell the tale. The Ayorites are farmers, so they talk about a plant that can make the plain fertile again. I find that fascinating."
Po said nothing, hoping that her line of questioning was at an end. He was in luck. Thela brushed the hair back from his forehead. "I hope I'm not tiring you. How do you feel?"
"Better, Your Majesty."
She smiled. "How much better?"
He didn't have to pretend to smile back. That was the weirdest thing. He kept expecting to have to put on a show of how enamored he was of her, but he didn't. It felt completely natural to stroke her thigh with the backs of his fingers and say, "Let me show you."
They embraced. Could he perform kinesiology on her while they made love? He was desperate to find out if the work he'd done to prevent her using the pen had held. As she straddled him, he had an idea. "With your permission, I would try something, Your Majesty."
Thela raised an eyebrow.
"I think I can bring you even more pleasure if I am in kinesthetic trance when we make love."
The corners of her mouth curved up. "I have wondered about that myself."
"Shall we try?"
"Are you strong enough? You've been through quite an ordeal."
He didn't mention that she had put him through most of it. He flexed his hips upward. "As you can tell, I am completely recovered."
"You fainted, earlier."
"Yes, but ... I was hungry. Please, Your Majesty. Let me try."
"All right," she allowed magnanimously.
Po never knew exactly how he'd perceptualize a person's energy patterns and bodily functions until he entered trance. Usually he seemed to gravitate toward organic metaphors — usually plants, sometimes animals. But he had never performed kinesiology under such circumstances before.
Meshing with Thela's inner world was the work of an instant. The geography of Ilysies itself was his map to her state of being, with the Ilysi River representing her energy flow, and various regions corresponding to different parts of her body and mind. To his relief he saw the tool that represented the pen still lay within the half-buried temple at the bottom of the chasm in her heart center.
While they moved together in the outer world, Po let his awareness flow with the waterfall, plunging down the cliff face and through the shattered roof of the temple. The place was flooded. The dolphins in the mosaic on the floor seemed to leap as the surface of the water undulated. And there was the tool, submerged amid fragments of the golden roof.
In the center of the room stood a round dais. In the middle of the dais a piece of fabric drifted about in the water's current: a white robe trimmed with gold.
Something about that empty robe drifting in the water made Po want to leave right away and never come back. Instead he picked up the tool and used it to hack at the pillars and walls of the temple. Stopping short of real structural damage, he set the tool atop the cornice of one of the pillars, where the wall nearby and the curve of the ceiling formed a little niche. It was a secure spot, and obscure — out of the way, and hopefully out of Thela's thoughts.
Po redirected his concentration to her navel center, where it was the work of a moment to bring her to satisfaction with a light gust of wind across the flowers growing on the island in the middle of the stream.
Po emerged from trance light-headed. Black spots danced before his eyes. To disguise his disorientation he buried his face in the crook of Thela's neck and kissed her.
"Mmm. That was lovely, Po."
Po was afraid that if he moved, the shaking of his exhausted limbs would betray him. But Thela shifted and he was obliged to move anyway. He was so tired.
Thela propped herself up on one hand and looked at him closely. "Are you all right?"
He nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty. It's just ... the pleasure we share together is so overwhelming."
She raised one eyebrow. "Sweet words, but you look pale. I shouldn't have let you do that. You're still weak from your experiences with the Lit King. I'm going to have Ymin Ykobos examine you, to make sure nothing more serious is amiss."
Po opened his mouth to protest, but he couldn't. "You are most kind, Your Majesty."
Selene refilled her water bucket and set it down on the rim of the well. She wiped her brow and looked out across the settlement surrounding the Libyrinth known as Tent Town. It had been transformed into one gigantic infirmary tent since the Chorus of the Word had returned from the Corvariate Citadel. Now the community members, weakened by starvation, sat in their dwellings or beneath shade awnings.
These awnings had been stretched between the tents and stone huts by the remaining members of the Chorus of the Word and those villagers of the plain who had joined them on the trek back home. For three days Selene and the others passed out cups of thin gruel and water, carefully portioned in order to avoid overfeeding. But a few of the most resilient Libyrarians were beginning to recover, and the frantic pace slackened as they began to take over the care of the others.
Selene was so tired she could barely remain upright, but she forced herself across Tent Town to report to Haly, who sat with Gyneth, both of them with their backs propped up against a large boulder, shielded from the sun by a swath of rough spun cloth stretched between a corner tent pole of the infirmary proper and a cart in which adzes were stored.
They looked like they'd aged several years in the weeks that Selene had been gone. Dark circles shadowed their eyes and their robes hung off their bodies as if there was nothing beneath the fabric but a collection of sticks. They both smiled to see her but their emaciated faces made Selene flush with shame. Was there any end to the ways in which she could fail those who depended on her? The question made her think of Po and the pen.
And of course Clauda, whose hurt face had haunted Selene all the way to the Corvariate Citadel and back. Why in the name of Time and the Seven Tales hadn't Selene stopped Clauda from leaving that morning? She could have explained right then and there, but no, she had let her go. At least now, finally, she could seek her out and tell her the truth. It would be her next order of business, as soon as she gave Haly a full account of the mission.
"Selene," said Gyneth, bringing her back to the present. His voice was strong despite his weakened condition. "Sit down before you fall down. You look worse than I feel."
Selene sat down on the ground at their feet. She wanted to ask them where Clauda was. She hadn't seen her. Instead she said, "How are you doing? Do you need anything? More water?"
"We're fine for now," said Haly. Selene had difficulty looking at her. It hurt to see her cloud of dark hair with no luster and the bones protruding at her wrists and collarbone. Selene focused on her feet, poking up under a blanket of gray sheep's wool.
"Everyone's been so busy taking care of us, we haven't been able to find out how the rest of the mission went," said Haly. "Obviously you were successful in gaining the support of the villages of the plain, but what of the rest? What happened at the citadel? Did you find any sign of the Lion's Bloom?"
"Yes," said Gyneth, "and where are Po and Siblea?"
Selene realized that the frantic pace of the last few days had been a blessing in disguise. There'd been no time to explain much of anything. But now she had to face Haly, once her clerk, now her Redeemer. The words to tell them of Po and the pen were thick in her mouth, like cold, congealed porridge. Selene forced herself to take a deep breath and get her emotions under control.
Haly and Gyneth listened patiently as she told them of all that had transpired on the Chorus of the Word's first mission. Keeping to her most formal tone made it possible for Selene to relate to them how they had found the villagers bitter to them at first, because bands of people dressed like Libyrarians had been raiding and stealing their food. She told them of their arrival at the citadel and how they'd found it a ghost town. "There had been a prison revolt, and all the Singers were killed. A man, a former prisoner who called himself the Lit King, had taken over."
Haly put a hand to her face. "The prison! Seven Tales, of course! How could I have forgotten about the prison? We just left them there!"
Selene shook her head. "You had all you could handle here. You couldn't be expected to —"
"I was in that prison. I never should have forgotten it. We should have gone right away and let those people out. This is my fault —"
"They weren't all imprisoned unjustly, Haly. Some of them were criminals, by anyone's standards. No. What went wrong — when it went wrong — was my fault."
"If I have to sit here all day while you two argue over who's to blame for a bunch of stuff it's too late to do anything about, I'm leaving right now," said Gyneth. "Even if I have to crawl. What happened next, Selene?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Book of the Night by Pearl North, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2012 Pearl North. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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