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In the Garden
The paths of the Garden were wet with fallen apples and red with their ruptured skin. Rag-clothed winds trailed over grass blanched of green; scarlet swallowed up the thrashing trees until all the many groves stood in long rows like bouquets of bloody flowers with long, black stalks.
It was the girl's favorite time—food was never so easy to find, and the air was filled all through day and night with the flapping and fluttering of wings as crows circled south and geese fled even farther into the warm belly of the world. In the autumn her skirt was always full of pomegranates and grackle-eggs, and though the air was colder, the leaves' color did not lie, and they warmed her like a fire beneath a squat iron pot.
It was from the blazing boughs of a cinnamon tree that she saw through the high windows of the women's quarters in the palace. Her palms were henna-dusted by the perfumed bark, and she sucked the last of the morning's golden yolk from her fingers, now flavored with spice. She kept well behind the skein of leaves as she looked through the arched window, at the woman sitting within, her back straight as an ax-handle, and so still, though hands flashed over her and voices clicked and hushed in her pretty ears. A dozen maids held the woman's long black hair out taut, and slowly, with infinite patience, threaded tiny white pearls onto the inky strands, one by one, as though the woman were a necklace in a jeweler's workshop.
Dinarzad was to be wed.
Surely one or two of the Sultan's daughters were married every year, and the girl paid them much less attention than she did the family of doves that returned to the same birch trees each spring—but she could not help knowing of this one. Gardener and groundskeeper talked of nothing else: Flowers were coaxed and coddled long past their blooming, trees trained to canopies, fruits culled in great piles, like many-colored snowdrifts, and sent wagon by wagon to the kitchens, only to return to the courtyard as pies and pastries and jams and cakes—for Dinarzad wished to be married in the Garden.
It was unseemly, to be married without a roof over one's head, but she had insisted, even wept, and finally it was decided that a roof of trees was not in its nature different from a roof of wood, and the delicate copse of chestnuts before the great courtyard had had their branches lashed and tied and dragged into the shape of a small, narrow chapel. As they climbed their ladders to wheedle and prune the trees into holiness, the gardeners grumbled to the girl that she ought to be especially careful not to be seen, since the Palace was leaking out of its walls for the pleasure of a spoilt amira.
In her deep blue cushions, Dinarzad stared into the mirror as she was strung with pearls for the engagement feast, implacable, canvas-blank—and the girl stared into the princess. Still as an owl, she watched the women whose hands were full of the white jewels, watched the decorated Dinarzad like a tall mirror, until the pearl-keepers led their charge away down the stone stairs, her hair trailing behind her like a shred of sky glittering with stars. The girl touched her own hair without meaning to, hair no less black than the other woman's, but tangled and strung through with hazel-husks.
Below her, the tree shook suddenly, and she was shaken from her contemplation of Dinarzad's unmovable face. She glanced down to the apple-smattered path, and saw the boy staring up at her. He grinned sidelong at her, but his mouth was tired at the edges, like a slice of orange beginning to brown. She scrambled lightly down the trunk and gave him a smile small as a secret. The boy was dressed for the feast and obviously uncomfortable in stiff gold fabric and green silks, uncomfortable, especially, with the thin band of porphyry circling his wrist, which marked him to anyone who cared for such codes as the heir to the Sultanate.
The girl did not care. But she allowed that it was a lovely shade of purple.
"How did you get away?" she asked softly. "Surely everyone will want to squeeze your arms and tell you what a fine man you're growing up to be."
The boy snorted like a half-grown bull. "At a wedding, the girl on the dais is the only thing anyone cares to squeeze. It's the same at every dinner until the wedding."
"Who is marrying her?" She did not want to be interested. She told herself she was not.
"How should I know?" He kicked at a rotted apple near his slippered toe. "Some prince or soldier or prince who was a soldier or soldier who became a prince. I can't even remember their names. They all came with chests of opals and baskets of trained songbirds tied together by ribbons of her favorite color and mechanical golden roosters that crowed when you wound their tails—I rather liked that one—and someone chose, though I'm sure it wasn't her. I do know she's not to be his first wife; he has two already, but no children at all. He must have brought something very nice in his barrels—I don't know; he wasn't the one with the roosters."
The boy frowned into the wind and scratched at his collar. "I have to dress like a doll just to watch her eat," he mumbled. "And this thing has no pockets at all—I couldn't even bring you anything."
"That was never necessary, you know," the girl demurred. "I have enough, I've always had enough, even if my enough and yours are as different as an elephant and a minaret."
Her black-rimmed eyes flickered to the earth and back to the boy, and she took him gently by the hand, away from the open paths and into the interior Gardens, past the marble benches and fountains, past the over-picked orchards and the over-pressed grapevines to a clutch of stones so thick with moss that they seemed to be the bodies of long-dead tigers or leopards, whose fur still grew and grew after they had perished. In their long shadows the children were spared the winds, though the girl breathed into her hands to warm her bloodless fingers and the boy's hems were soaked through with dew and old rain. But he did not seem to notice them—he was plucking at his rich vest and looking curiously at the girl.
"You know," he said shyly, "I think I could bring you a dress."
The girl laughed again.
"I have dozens of sisters with hundreds of dresses—they would never notice one gone missing, I know it. It would be warm, and softer than that old rag."
The girl glanced at the frayed fabric that fashioned her skirt, and shook her head. "What would I do with a dress like theirs? You might as well sew my hair with pearls. No, if I am cold, I have blankets of leaves and my birds. I am not one of them, and it would be silly to dress up a camel in lace and bells and jewels. You would do it only to laugh at the poor beast."
They said nothing for a moment, and the boy was ashamed—but he saw the gooseflesh on her shoulders, and the bruised color of her frozen toes. The sky was deepening toward evening, gray and yellow against the wild colors of the Garden, light slowly wandering away from the clouds—and he knew enough of proud young girls not to argue about the dress.
"Is there . . . is there more?" the boy finally blurted, fidgeting with his bracelet.
"Oh, yes." The girl laughed. "There is always more."
The girl leaned her head against the springy moss and closed her eyes, the stains on them showing full and dark as ever. She began to speak in a half-whisper, like breath leaving a glass flute.
"I will tell you a story from the crease of my right eye.
"Once, there was a long, lonely shore, gray as it is possible for gray to dream of, and the lonely shore ringed a lonely lake, whose water was black as it is possible for white to fear. And in this lake was a dim, wooded island, far off from the shore. There was a ramshackle dock on the shoals, and a ferry, little more than a raft of ash-wood and a long pole, which was dragged back and forth through the silent water by a tall man in a coarse brown cloak—or he might have been tall, if he were not afflicted with a stooping hunch, which the cloak served to hide. To this ferry, and this dock, and this lake, and this island, and this long, lonely shore came a troubled young man who had but one thin and sallow-elbowed arm, and he was the seventh son of a seventh son, so naturally, he was named Seven . . ."
The Tale of the Crossing
THE PEBBLED BEACH WAS WET AND COLD, EACH gray stone slick with rain and lake and mist. Nothing grew save a thin green mold at the water's edge, no sandpipers pecked at the shore for mites or worms, no cattails knocked against the bitter and scentless wind. Two figures were black against the heavy woolen sky, which leaked a slow, sullen light like wrung sweat. The shapes were featureless save for their curved backs—the one hunched and bone-twisted, the other bent under his satchel. Slowly the one approached the other, until from a distance there was but one great black shape where the two men met and spoke.
The younger man looked up at the ferryman, whose face was scored with lines like a constellation chart, though his eyes and hair were as black as if he had been born only a winter past. Even with his warped spine, he was still a massive creature, leaning against his saw-hewn pole and frowning at shadows moving on the brackish water.
"If you want to cross, it'll have to be now, son. The storm comes through three times a day, and the last gale of the evening is due through sooner than you'd like to know."
The young man frowned and reached into his sleeve with his right hand—for the left sleeve was empty. With his good fingers he pulled a patched purse from the sleeve and clumsily extracted a single coin. He held it against the pad of his hand with a bitten thumb, held it as though it weighed heavier than iron: a small, pale coin, yellowed by many handlings, with a seal stamped onto it, something like a seven-pointed star writhing with spiders. He moved his thumb over it, and sniffed the cold mist. He held it out to the ferryman, staring at him flatly, as though daring him to refuse.
The ferryman did not reach for it. His eyes flickered from the boy's face to his empty sleeve to his fare. Finally, he sighed, a light, rasping sound, like a bird's wings rubbing together. "I know what that is, boy."
Seven snorted. "Is it enough, old man?"
"It is worlds more than enough, and nowhere close to it. But I will take it."
Seven slowly relinquished his coin, rubbing it again with his thumb before handing it over, and climbed onto the ferry, balancing himself as the boards adjusted to his weight. As he settled himself down, he glanced at the hulking figure pulling the pole from its anchor. The ferryman's shabby cloak shifted with his motions, and Seven thought he saw—only for a moment, of course—a green-black glint of claw flash in and out beneath the frayed fabric, which barely served to cover the man's chest. Seven shook his head and called himself a fool of the fog, leaning back against the makeshift mast, whose sail was so torn and ruined that the ferryman had seemingly given up on it and lashed it to the shaft, useless as a two-legged horse.
The pole guided them smoothly through the vast lake, though it must have been very deep, and the staff seemed not at all equal to its work. For a time they sat in silence, pilot and passenger. Finally, the ferryman swallowed thickly and spoke:
"Where did you get that coin? It is not a thing you should own, a young thing like you."
The lake slid around the pole like old oil. Seven chuckled, and his chuckle was not unlike his rasping cough. His stare was blank and tired. "I am not so young as all that."
"The lake is wider than you think," the ferryman said. "The water warps the distance like a folded mirror. We have time together, you and I, and I am neither mute nor deaf. I am called Idyll, by those who have gotten into the habit of calling me things—and I would know where a boy no grander or taller than any partridge-farmer got hold of dhheiba." He spat the last word like a lump of tooth from his mouth, and it lay between them, glinting and garish.
"Where does any man find money?" Seven sighed, looking out over the gray water and the tips of bare trees in the distance. "Ask where an Ajan three-piece comes from, the answer is obvious. Ask where Shaduki silver was minted—you have answered your own question in the asking. Ask after my dhheiba—it must be plain what I will answer. I have been to the city of Marrow, and I have come out again . . ."
The Tale of the Twelve Coins
My brothers were all grown, bull-broad and earnest as grass, when I was born. I hardly knew them—but my mother held me to her breast as though she had never had another son, as though six other mouths had not pulled at her, as though twelve other little red hands had not clutched at her hair. My father gave me a number instead of a name and returned to his cups.
Of course, as a boy I understood nothing but that my mother loved me and my father did not—my little heart could not begin to grasp that both her embraces and his wine-sopped silence were rooted in the same day, a day that sunk ahead of them like a pit in soft earth. I could not know that for nine months they had prayed for a girl, eaten mashed snake-innards and washed my mother's belly in hidden springs. But another son came, and my parents were always pilgrim-pious and honest as ants.
Among my people a seventh-seventh son is a mark of grace, and grace must be answered; grace must be paid for. On the boy's seventh birthday, he is laid out on the hillside, lashed to the earth by five white-wood pegs, and left to the favor of the Stars. The seventh son pays for the eighth, and the ninth, and the first grandson, and the fifth granddaughter. A fair trade, don't you think? One child for dozens, dozens, all lined up and waiting to be born while that little boy lies on the mound, shivering in the rain.