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7 Teala 941
86th day from Etherhorde
(Treaty Day—six hours earlier)
“Eyes open, Neda.”
The Father had come to her alone. He held his own cup and candle, and he smiled at the girl asleep on the granite slab under the woolen shift, who obeyed him and smiled in kind and yet did not wake or stir. Her eyes when they winked open were blue; he had seen nothing like them in any other living face. A strand of weed in her hair. Dry streaks of salt water on her neck and forehead. Like his other children she had spent the night in the sea.
She was twenty-two, the man six times her age, unbent, unwearied, his years betrayed only in the whiteness of his beard and in the voice deep and traveled and kindly and mad. The girl knew that he was mad, and knew also that the day she revealed such knowledge by glance or sigh or question would be the day she died.
She knew many secret things. Until the Father woke her she would sleep like the other aspirants, but there was a disobedient flame in her that gleamed on, thought on, insensible to his orders. She wished it out. She tried to snuff it with meditation, inner exorcisms, prayers: it danced on, full of heresies and mirth. And because the Father could peer into her mind as through a frosted window it was but a matter of time before he saw it. Perhaps he saw it now, this very minute. Perhaps he was considering her fate.
She loved him. She had never loved another thus. It was not an earthly or a simple love but he could read its contours in her sleeper’s smile as he had on his children’s faces for a century.
“You dream, do you not?”
“I do,” she replied.
“And yet the dream is unsteady. You are nearer to waking than I’ve asked you to be.”
It was not a question. The girl lay watching him, asleep and not asleep. The Old Faith she had taken for her own states that life is not a struggle against death, but rather toward that authentic death inscribed at the instant of one’s birth. If he had come to kill her it meant fulfillment, the end of her work.
“You must not wake, best beloved. Turn your face to the dream. And when it surrounds you again, describe it.”
The girl’s eyes rolled, the lids half lowered, and watching her the Father trembled as he always did at the immensity of creation. She would see nothing more of the shrine about her—not the dawn light on the huddled sleepers nor the west arch open to the sea nor the quartz knife on his belt nor the pure white milk in his cup—but what endured were the territories within. Outside, fishermen were picking a trail through the sawgrass down to the shore, greeting one another in the happy lilt of Simja, this island unclaimed by any empire. Under the sheer wool the girl’s limbs began to twitch. She was not quiet in the place of the dream.
“I am in the hills,” she said.
“Your hills. Your Chereste Highlands.”
“Yes, Father. I am very near my house—my old house, before I became your daughter and was yet simple Neda of Ormael. My city is burning. It is on fire and the smoke trails out to sea.”
“Are you alone?”
“Not yet. In a moment Suthinia my birth-mother will kiss me and run. Then the gate will shatter and the men will arrive.”
“Men of Arqual.”
“Yes, Father. Soldiers of the Cannibal-King. They are outside the gate at the end of the houserow. My mother is weeping. My mother is running away.”
“Did she speak no last word to you?”
The sleeping girl tensed visibly. One hand curled into a fist. “Survive, she said. Not how. Not for whom.”
“Neda, Phoenix-Flame, you are there at the rape of Ormael, but also here, safe beside me, among your brothers and sisters in our holy place. Breathe, that’s right. Now tell me what happens next.”
“The gate is torn from its hinges. The men with spears and axes are surrounding my house. They’re in the garden, stealing fruit from my orange tree. But the oranges are not orange, they’re green, green still. They’re not ripe enough to eat!”
“The men are angry. They’re breaking the lower limbs.”
“Why don’t they see you?”
“I’m underground. There is a trapdoor hidden in the grass, overlooking the house.”
“A trapdoor? Leading where?”
“Into a tunnel. My birth-father dug it with his smuggler friends. I don’t know where it leads. Under the orchards, maybe, back into the hills. I thought he might be here, my birth-father, after leaving us long ago. But no one’s here. I’m in the tunnel alone.”
“And the men are looting your house.”
“All the houses, Father. But ours they chose first—Aya!”
The girl’s cry was little more than a whimper, but her face creased in misery.
“Tell me, Neda.”
“My brother is there in the street. He’s so young. He is staring at the men in the garden.”
“Why do you not call to him?”
“I do. I call Pazel, Pazel—but he can’t hear, and if I raise my voice they’ll turn and see him. And now he’s running to the garden wall.”
The Father let her continue, sipping thoughtfully at his milk. Neda told how her brother pulled himself up by the thrushberry vine, crept in at his bedroom window, emerged moments later with a skipper’s knife and a whale statuette. How he fled into the plum orchards. How a mob of soldiers drew near her hiding place and spoke of her mother and the girl herself in terms that made the Father put the cup down, shaking with rage. As if they were cannibals in truth. As if souls were nothing and bodies mere cuts of meat. These men who would civilize the world.
The dawn light grew. He pinched his candle out and beckoned the vestment-boy near to keep her face in shadow, and the lad quaked when her blue eyes fixed on him. But Neda was gone—gone to Ormael, possessed by the dream she was speaking. The soldiers’ roar at the discovery of the liquor cabinet. Her girlish clothes tossed with laughter from a window, socks in the orange tree, blouses held up to armored chests. Bottles shattered, windows smashed; a ruined bleat from the neighbor’s concertina. Sunset, and endless dark hours in the cave, and frost on the trapdoor at morning.
Then she cried much louder than before and he could not comfort her, for she was watching the soldiers drag her brother down the hillside, hurl him flat and beat him with their fists and a branch of her tree.
“They hate him. They want to kill him. Father. Father. They are screaming in his face.”
“The same words over and over. I did not speak their language, then. Pazel did but he was silent.”
“And you recall those words, don’t you?”
She was shaking all over. She spoke in a voice not quite her own. “ ‘Madhu ideji? Madhu ideji?’ ”
The Father closed his eyes, not trusting himself to speak. Even his own slight Arquali was enough. He could hear it, in all its snarled violence, bellowed at a child in pain: Where are the women? And the boy had held his tongue.
When he opened his eyes she was gazing right at him. He tried to be stern. “Tears, Neda? You know that is not our way. And no fury or grief or shame can best a child of the Old Faith. And no Arquali is your equal. Stop crying. You are sfvantskor, best beloved.”
“I wasn’t then,” she said.
True enough. No sfvantskor or anything like. A girl of seventeen at the time. Captured that very night, when thieves skulking deeper inside the tunnel chased her out at knife-point, into the hands of the Arqualis. Unable to speak to them, to plead. Brutalized, as he would not ask her to recall, before the strange Dr. Chadfallow intervened, freeing her in a shouting match with a general that came almost to blows.
The doctor was a favorite of the Arquali Emperor, who had named him Special Envoy to the city before the invasion. A friend to Neda and her family too, it seemed, for he took the girl bleeding as she was to his Mzithrini counterpart, who was to be expelled with his household that same afternoon.
“Save her, Acheleg,” he pleaded. “Take her with you as a daughter, open your heart.”
But this Acheleg was a beast. He had failed to predict the invasion, and so was returning to the Mzithrin in some disgrace. He saw no reason to help his rival. Both he and Chadfallow had wished to marry Suthinia, Neda’s mother, and although she had refused both and vanished none knew where Acheleg still fancied himself particularly spurned. Now fate had given him Suthinia’s child. Not the great beauty her mother was, and left unclean by the enemy, but still a prize for a slouching ex-diplomat whose future conquests would be scarce. He took her to Babqri—but as a concubine, not a daughter. And only because the man was fool enough to bring her to court, when he came beetling through with his lies and flattery for the king, had the Father spotted her.
Blue eyes. He had heard of such things in the East. And when the girl saw him watching and raised those eyes the Father knew she would be sfvantskor. A foreign sfvantskor! It was a sign of catastrophe, of the old world’s end. But in a hundred years of choosing he had never needed more than a glance.
Such an odd fate, Neda’s. Saved from an Arquali by an Arquali, and from one Mzithrini by another. Twice taken as plunder, the third time as a warrior for the gods.
But still not a sfvantskor, in point of fact. None of his children (he moved among them, speaking the dawn prayer, breaking their sleep- trance with his fingertips) could claim the title until he gave them up. It had always been so, and always would be: only when they knelt before one of the Five Kings and swore fealty were they sfvantskors, warrior-priests of the Mzithrin. Until that day they were his aspirants, his children. Afterward he would not even speak their names.
Not a sfvantskor, thought the girl, her dream dissolving and the tears quite gone. Not even a normal aspirant, for she was foreign- born. It made a difference. Even the Father could not pretend otherwise, although he forbade the others to mention it. For two thousand years the elders had molded youth into
sfvantskors to serve the Mzithrin Kings, to lead their armies and terrify their foes. Power dwelt in them, power from the Forts of Forever, from the shards of the Black Casket and the vault of the wind. It was more than an honor: it was a life’s destiny and a sacred trust. And only native-born Mzithrini youths were called. That was the order of things, until the Father brought Neda to his Citadel.
Neda Pathkendle. A row of old Masters spoke her name in the Greeting Hall that first day, as if the very syllables displeased them.
Neda Ygraël, said the Father. I have renamed her. Watch her; you will understand in time.
Ygraël, Phoenix-Flame. The grandness of his gesture did not help. The other six aspirants (four boys, two perfect girls) were scandalized. A hazel-skinned refugee from Ormael, one of the vassal-states of the enemy? Had they been singled out for shame? Were they such poor candidates that the timeless customs need not apply?
One did not question the Father—he who had sucked a black demon from a wound in King Ahbsan’s neck and spat the thing into a coal stove, where it howled and clattered for a month—but his choice tested faith. There was open hissing at the feast of Winterbane, when the new aspirants marched through Babqri City. There was the dove’s carcass, burned black and left on her pillow, with the words never to rise in ash upon the floor. There was the day she learned about Belligerent Expulsion: an ancient rule by which the other aspirants, if they declared unanimously that one of their brethren had “sought to make enemies of them all,” could cast that member out.
Neda had done no such thing; she had been obedient to their whims, tolerant of their spite; and yet five of the six had voted for her removal. When the effort failed, Neda had gone quietly to the one who sided with her, a tall proud girl named Suridín. Neda knelt before her and whispered her thanks, but the girl kicked her over with a bitter laugh.
“It wasn’t for you,” she said. “I want to serve in the navy, like my birth-father, and they bring witches who can smell a lie to the swearing-in. What am I going to say when they ask if I’ve ever given false testimony?”
Suridín’s birth-father was an admiral in the White Fleet. “I understand, sister,” said Neda.
“You don’t understand a thing. I wish you would start a fight with one of us. You don’t belong here, and I’d vote against you in a heartbeat if I could.”
All this was horrid and prolonged. But five years later it was over, and it had ended just as the Father said it would: with Neda trained and deadly and strong in the Faith, and her six brethren embracing her (some loving, others merely obedient), and the Mzithrini common folk no longer quite sure why they had objected.
Neda, however, suffered no such confusion. They were right, her enemies. They saw what the Father did not: that she would fail, disgracing her title, if it were ever bestowed. She had fired an arrow over the River Bhosfal and struck a moving target. She had walked a rope stretched over the Devil’s Gorge, and carried her own weight in water up the three hundred steps of the Citadel. But the way of the sfvantskor was perfection, and in one matter she was gravely imperfect. She could not forget.
For an aspirant nothing could be worse. Besides martial and religious training, a great part of the making of a warrior-priest occurred in trance. Only with those in trance could the Father share the holy mysteries; only those souls could he cleanse of fear. Neda drifted easily into the first layers of trance—sleeping and waking at his command, obeying without question, focusing her mind on whatever thought he named. But never only on what he named. The deepest and most sacred mode of trance was achieved when all other distractions melted away: in other words, when one forgot. Remove the dust of Now and Before, went the proverb, and things eternal are yours.