Read an Excerpt
THE DREAM OF THE GENERAL General Vozmuzhalnoy Vozmozhno awoke from his dream, sweating, moaning. He opened his eyes, reached out with his hand, clutching. A hand caught his own, held it.
A man’s hand. It was General Plodorodnuy. His most trusted lieutenant. His dearest friend. His inmost heart.
“You were dreaming, Moozh.” It was the nickname that only Plod dared to use to his face.
“Yes, I was.” Vozmuzhalnoy—Moozh—shuddered at the memory. “Such a dream.”
“Was it portentous?”
“Tell me. I have a way with dreams.”
“Yes, I know, like you have a way with women. When you’re through with them, they say whatever you want them to say!”
Plod laughed, but then he waited. Moozh did not know why he was reluctant to tell this dream to Plod. He had told him so many others. “All right, then, here is my dream. I saw a man standing in a clearing, and all around him, terrible flying creatures—not birds, they had fur, but much larger than bats—they kept circling, swooping down, touching him. He stood there and did nothing. And when at last they all had touched him, they flew away, except one, who perched on his shoulder.”
“Ah,” said Plod.
“I’m not finished. Immediately there came giant rats, swarming out of burrows in the Earth. At least a meter long—half as tall as the man. And again, they kept coming until all of them had touched him—”
“With what? Their teeth? Their paws?”
“And theirnoses. Touched him, that’s all I knew. Don’t distract me.”
“When they’d all touched him, they went away.”
“Yes. It clung to his leg. You see the pattern.”
“What came next?”
Moozh shuddered. It had been the most terrible thing of all, and yet now as the words came to his lips, he couldn’t understand why. “People.”
“People? Coming to touch him?”
“To…to kiss him. His hands, his feet. To worship him. Thousands of them. Only they didn’t kiss just the man. They kissed the—flying thing, too. And the giant rat clinging to his leg. Kissed them all.”
“Ah,” said Plod. He looked worried.
“So? What is it? What does it portend?”
“Obviously the man you saw is the Imperator.”
Sometimes Plod’s interpretations sounded like truth, but this time Moozh’s heart rebelled at the idea of linking the Imperator with the man in the dream. “Why is that obvious? He looked nothing like the Imperator.”
“Because all of nature and humankind worshipped him, of course.”
Moozh shrugged. This was not one of Plod’s most subtle interpretations. And he had never heard of animals loving the Imperator, who fancied himself a great hunter. Of course, he only hunted in one of his parks, where all the animals had been tamed to lose their fear of men, and all the predators trained to act ferocious but never strike. The Imperator got to act his part in a great show of the contest between man and beast, but he was never in danger as the animal innocently exposed itself to his quick dart, his straight javelin, his merciless blade. If this was worship, if this was nature, then yes, one could say that all of nature and humankind worshipped the Imperator.…
Plod, of course, knew nothing of Moozh’s thoughts in this vein; if one was so unfortunate as to have caustic thoughts about the Imperator, one took care not to burden one’s friends with the knowledge of them.
So Plod continued in his interpretation of Moozh’s dream. “What does it portend, this worship of the Imperator? Nothing in itself. But the fact that it revolted you, the fact that you recoiled in horror—”
“They were kissing a rat, Plod! They were kissing that disgusting flying creature…”
But Plod said nothing as his voice trailed off. Said nothing, and watched him.
“I am not horrified at the thought of people worshipping the Imperator. I have knelt at the Invisible Throne myself, and felt the awe of his presence. It wasn’t horrible, it was…ennobling.”
“So you say,” said Plod. “But dreams don’t lie. Perhaps you need to purge yourself of some evil in your heart.”
“Look, you’re the one who said my dream was about the Imperator. Why couldn’t the man have been-I don’t know—the ruler of Basilica.”
“Because the miserable city of Basilica is ruled by women.”
“Not Basilica, then. Still, I think the dream was about…”
“How should I know? I will purge myself, just in case you’re right. I’m not an interpreter of dreams.” That would mean wasting several hours today at the tent of the intercessor. It was so tedious, but it was also politically necessary to spend a certain amount of time there every month, or reports of one’s impiety soon made their way back to Gollod, where the Imperator decided from time to time who was worthy of command and who was worthy of debasement or death. Moozh was about due for a visit to the intercessor’s tabernacle anyway, but he hated it the way a boy hates a bath. “Leave me alone, Plod. You’ve made me very unhappy.”
Plod knelt before him and held Moozh’s right hand between his own. “Ah, forgive me.”
Moozh forgave him at once, of course, because they were friends. Later that morning he went out and killed the headmen of a dozen Khlami villages. All the villagers immediately swore their eternal love and devotion to the Imperator, and when General Vozmuzhalnoy Vozmozhno went that evening to purge himself in the holy tabernacle, the intercessor forgave him right readily, for he had much increased the honor and majesty of the Imperator that day.
* * *
IN BASILICA, AND NOT IN A DREAM They came to hear Kokor sing, came from all over the city of Basilica, and she loved to see how their faces brightened when—finally—she came out onto the stage and the musicians began gently plucking their strings or letting breath pass through their instruments in the soft undercurrent of sound that was always her accompaniment. Kokor will sing to us at last, their faces said. She liked that expression on their faces better than any other she ever saw, better even than the look of a man being overwhelmed with lust in the last moments before satisfaction. For she well knew that a man cared little who gave him the pleasures of love, while the audience cared very much that it was Kokor who stood before them on the stage and opened her mouth in the high, soaring notes of her unbelievably sweet lyric voice that floated over the music like petals on a stream.
Or at least that was how she wanted it to be. How she imagined it to be, until she actually walked onstage and saw them looking at her. The audience tonight was mostly men. Men with their eyes going up and down her body. I should refuse to sing in the comedies, she told herself again. I should insist on being taken as seriously as they take my beloved sister Sevet with her mannishly low, froggishly mannered voice. Oh, they look at her with faces of aesthetic ecstasy. Audiences of men and women together. They don’t look her body up and down to see how it moves under the fabric. Of course, that could be partly because her body is so over-fleshed that it isn’t really a pleasure to watch, it moves so much like gravel under her costume, poor thing. Of course they close their eyes and listen to her voice—it’s so much better than watching her.
What a lie. What a liar I am, even when I’m talking only to myself!
I mustn’t be so impatient. It’s only a matter of time. Sevet is older-I’m still barely eighteen. She had to do the comedies, too, for a time, till she was known.
Kokar remembered her sister talking in those early days—more than two years ago, when Sevet was almost seventeen—about constantly having to dampen the ardor of her admirers, who had a penchant for entering her dressing room quite primed for immediate love, until she had to hire a bodyguard to discourage the more passionate ones. “It’s all about sex,” said Sevet then. “The songs, the shows, they’re all about sex, and that’s all the audience dreams of. Just be careful you don’t make them dream too well—or too specifically!”
Good advice? Hardly. The more they dream of you, the greater the cash value of your name on the handbills advertising the play. Until finally, if you’re lucky, if you’re good enough, the handbill doesn't have to say the name of a show at all. Only your name, and the place, and the day, and the time … and when you show up they’re all there, hundreds of them, and when the music starts they don’t look at you like the last hope of a starving man, they look at you like the highest dream of an elevated soul.
Kokor strode to her place on the stage—and there was applause when she entered. She turned to the audience and let out a thrilling high note.
“What was that?” demanded Gulya, the actor who played the old lecher. “Are you screaming already? I haven’t even touched you yet.”
The audience laughed—but not enough. This play was in trouble. This play had had its weaknesses from the start, she well knew, but with a mere smattering of laughter like that, it was doomed. So in a few more days she’d have to start rehearsing all over again. Another show. Another set of stupid lyrics and stupid melodies to memorize.
Sevet got to decide her own songs. Songwriters came to her and begged her to sing what they had composed. Sevet didn’t have to misuse her voice just to make people laugh.
“I wasn’t screaming,” Kokor sang.
“You’re screaming now,” sang Gulya as he sidled close and started to fondle her. His gravelly bass was always good for a laugh when he used it like that, and the audience was with him. Maybe they could pull this show out of the mud after all.
“But now you’re touching me!” And her voice rose to its highest pitch and hung there in the air—
Like a bird, like a bird soaring, if only they were listening for beauty.
Gulya made a terrible face and withdrew his hand from her breast. Immediately she dropped her note two octaves. She got the laugh. The best laugh of the scene so far. But she knew that half the audience was laughing because Gulya did such a fine comic turn when he removed his hand from her bosom. He was a master, he really was. Sad that his sort of clowning had fallen a bit out of fashion lately. He was only getting better as he got older, and yet the audience was slipping away. Looking for the more bitter, nasty comedy of the young physical satirists. The brutal, violent comedy that always gave at least the illusion of hurting somebody.
The scene went on. The laughs came. The scene ended. Applause. Kokor scurried off the stage in relief—and disappointment. No one in the audience was chanting her name; no one had even shouted it once like a catcall. How long would she have to wait?
“Too pretty,” said Tumannu, the stagekeeper, her face sour. “That note’s supposed to sound like you’re reaching sexual climax. Not like a bird.”
“Yes yes,” said Kokor, “I’m so sorry.” She always agreed with everybody and then did what she wanted. This comedy wasn’t worth doing if she couldn’t show her voice to best advantage at least now and then. And it got the laugh when she did it her way, didn’t it? So nobody could very well say that her way was wrong. Tumannu just wanted her to be obedient, and Kokor didn’t intend to be obedient. Obedience was for children and husbands and household pets.
“Not like a bird,” said Tumannu again.
“How about like a bird reaching sexual climax?” asked Gulya, who had come offstage right after her.
Kokor giggled, and even Tumannu smiled her tight sour little smile.
“There’s someone waiting for you, Kyoka,” said Tumannu.
It was a man. But not an aficionado of her work, or he’d have been out front, watching her perform. She had seen him before. Ah, yes—he showed up now and then when Mother’s permanent husband, Wetchik, came to visit. He was Wetchik’s chief servant, wasn’t he? Manager of the exotic flower business when Wetchik was away on caravan. What was his name?
“I am Rashgallivak,” he said. He looked very grave.
“Oh?” she said.
“I am deeply sorry to inform you that your father has met with brutal violence.”
What an extraordinary thing to tell her. She could hardly make sense of if for a moment. “Someone has injured him?”
“Oh,”She said. There was meaning to this, and she would find it. “Oh, then that would mean that he’s…dead?”
“Accosted on the street and murdered in cold blood,” said Rashgallivak.
It wasn’t even a surprise, really, when you thought about it. Father had been making such a bully of himself lately, putting all those masked soldiers on the streets. Terrifying everybody. But Father was so strong and intense that it was hard to imagine anything actually thwarting him for long. Certainly not permanently. “There’s no hope of…recovery?”
Gulya had been standing near enough that now he easily inserted himself into the conversation. “It seems to be a normal case of death, madam, which means the prognosis isn’t good.” He giggled.
Rashgallivak gave him quite a vicious shove and sent him staggering. “That wasn’t funny,” he said.
“They’re letting critics backstage now?” said Gulya. “During the performance?”
“Go away, Gulya,” said Kokor. It had been a mistake to sleep with the old man. Ever since then he had thought he had some claim to intimacy with her.
“Naturally it would be best if you came with me,” said Rashgallivak.
“But no,” said Kokor. “No, that wouldn’t be best.” Who was he? He wasn’t any kin to her at all, not that she knew of. She would have to go to Mother. Did Mother know yet? “Does Mother…”
“Naturally I told her first, and she told me where to find you. This is a very dangerous time, and I promised her that I would protect you.”
Kokor knew he was lying, of course. Why should she need this stranger to protect her? From what? Men always got this way, though, insisting that a woman who hadn’t a fear in the world needed watching out for. Ownership, that’s what men always meant when they spoke of protection. If she wanted a man to own her, she had a husband, such as he was. She hardly needed this old pizdook to look out for her.
“She hasn’t been found yet. I must insist that you come with me.”
Now Tumannu had to get into the scene. “She’s going nowhere. She has three more scenes, including the climax.”
Rashgallivak turned on her, and now there was some hint of majesty about him, instead of mere vague befuddlement. “Her father has been killed,” he said. “And you suppose she will stay to finish a play?” Or had the majesty been there all along, and she simply hadn’t noticed it until now?
“Sevet ought to know about Father,” said Kokor.
“She’ll be told as soon as we can find her.”
Who is we? Never mind, thought Kokor. I know where to find her. I know all her rendezvous, where she takes her lovers to avoid giving affront to her poor husband Vas. Sevet and Vas, like Kokor and Obring, had a flexible marriage, but Vas seemed less comfortable with it than Obring was. Some men were so…territorial. Probably it was because Vas was a scientist, not an artist at all. Obring, on the other hand, understood the artistic life. He would never dream of holding Kokor to the letter of their marriage contract. He sometimes joked quite cheerfully about the men she was seeing.
Though, of course, Kokor would never actually insult Obring by mentioning them herself. If he heard a rumor about a lover, that was one thing. When he mentioned it, she would simply toss her head and say, “You silly. You’re the only man I love.”
And in an odd sort of way it was true. Obring was such a dear, even if he had no acting talent at all. He always brought her presents and told her the most wonderful gossip. No wonder she had stayed married to him through two renewals already—people often remarked on how faithful she was, to still be married to her first husband for a third year, when she was young and beautiful and could marry anyone. True, marrying him in the first place was simply to please his mother, old Dhel, who had served as her auntie and who was Mother’s dearest friend. But she had grown to like Obring, genuinely like him. Being married to him was very comfortable and sweet. As long as she could sleep with whomever she liked.
It would be fun to find Sevet and walk in on her and see whom she was sleeping with tonight. Kokor hadn’t pounced on her that way in years. Find her with some naked, sweating man, tell her that Father was dead, and then watch that poor man’s face as he gradually realized that he was all done with love for the night!
“I’ll tell Sevet,” said Kokor.
“You’ll come with me,” insisted Rashgallivak.
“You’ll stay and finish the show,” said Tumannu.
“The show is nothing but a…an otsoss,” said Kokor, using the crudest term she could think of.
Tumannu gasped and Rashgallivak reddened and Gulya chuckled his little low chuckle.“Now that’s an idea,” he said.
Kokor patted Tumannu on the arm. “It’s all right,” she said. “I’m fired.”
“Yes, you are!” cried Tumannu. “And if you leave here tonight your career is finished!”
Rashgallivak sneered at her. “With her share of her father’s inheritance she’ll buy your little stage and your mother, too.”
Tumannu looked defiant. “Oh, really? Who was her father, Gaballufix?”
Rashgallivak looked genuinely surprised. “Didn’t you know?”
Clearly Tumannu had not known. Kokor pondered this for a moment and realized it meant that she must not ever have mentioned it to Tumannu. And that meant that Kokor had not traded on her father’s name and prestige, which meant that she had got this part on her own. How wonderful!
“I knew she was the great Sevet’s sister,” said Tumannu. “Why else do you think I hired her? But I never dreamed they had the same father.”
For a moment Kokor felt a flash of rage, hot as a furnace. But she contained it instantly, controlled it perfectly. It would never do to let such a flame burn freely. No telling what she would do or say if she ever let herself go at such a time as this.
“I must find Sevet,” said Kokor.
“No,” said Rashgallivak. He might have intended to say more, but at that moment he laid a hand on Kokor’s arm to restrain her, and so of course she brought her knee sharply up into his groin, as all the comedy actresses were taught to do when an unwelcome admirer became too importunate. It was a reflex. She really hadn’t even meant to do it. Nor had she meant to do it with such force. He wasn’t a very heavy man, and it rather lifted him off the ground.
“I must find Sevet,” Kokor said, by way of explanation. He probably didn’t hear her. He was groaning too loudly as he lay there on the wooden floor backstage.
“Where’s the understudy?” Tumannu was saying. “Not even three minutes’ warning, the poor little bizdoon.”
“Does it hurt?” Gulya was asking Rashgallivak. “I mean, what is pain, when you really think about it?”
Kokor wandered off into the darkness, heading for Dauberville. Her thigh throbbed, just above the knee, where she had pushed it so forcefully into Rashgallivak’s crotch. She’d probably end up with a bruise there, and then she’d have to use an opaque sheen on her legs. Such a bother.
Father’s dead. I must be the one to tell Sevet. Please don’t let anyone else find her first. And murdered. People will talk about this for years. I will look rather fine in the white of mourning. Poor Sevet—her skin always looks red as a beet when she wears white. But she won’t dare stop wearing mourning until I do. I may mourn for poor Papa for years and years and years.
Kokor laughed and laughed to herself as she walked along.
And then she realized she wasn’t laughing at all, she was crying. Why am I crying? she wondered. Because Father is dead. That must be it, that must be what all this commotion is about. Father, poor Father. I must have loved him, because I’m crying now without having decided to, without anybody even watching. Who ever would have guessed that I loved him?
* * *
“Wake up.” It was an urgent whisper. “Aunt Rasa wants us. “Wake up!”
Luet could not understand why Hushidh was saying this.“I wasn’t even asleep,” she mumbled.
“Oh, you were sleeping, all right,” said her sister Hushidh. “You were snoring.”
Luet sat up. “Honking like a goose, I’m sure.’
“Braying like a donkey,” said Hushidh, “but my love for you turns it into music.”
“That’s why I do it,” said Lucet. “To give you music in the night.” She reached for her housedress, pulled it over her head.
“Aunt Rasa wants us,” Hushidh urged. “Come quickly.” She glided out of the room, moving in a kind of dance, her gown floating behind her. In shoes or sandals Hushidh always clumped along, but barefoot she moved like a woman in a dream, like a bit of cottonwood fluff in a breeze.
Luet followed her sister out into the hall, still buttoning the front of her housedress. What could it be, that Rasa would want to speak to her and Hushidh? With all the troubles that had come lately, Luet feared the worst. Was it possible that Rasa’s son Nafai had not escaped from the city after all? Only yesterday, Luet had led him along forbidden paths, down into the lake that only women could see. For the Oversoul had told her that Nafai must see it, must float on it like a woman, like a waterseer—like Luet herself. So she took him there, and he was not slain for his blasphemy. She led him out the Private Gate then, and through the Trackless Wood. She had thought he was safe. But of course he was not safe. Because Nafai wouldn’t simply have gone back out into the desert, back to his father’s tent—not without the thing that his father had sent him to get.
Aunt Rasa was waiting in her room, but she was not alone. There was a soldier with her. Not one of Gaballufix’s men—his mercenaries, his thugs, pretending to be Palwashantu militia. No, this soldier was one of the city guards, a gatekeeper.
She could hardly notice him, though, beyond recognizing his insignia, because Rasa herself looked so…no, not frightened, really. It was no emotion Luet had ever seen in her before. Her eyes wide and glazed with tears, her face not firmly set, but slack, exhausted, as if things were happening in her heart that her face could not express.
“Gaballufix is dead,” said Rasa.
That explained much. Gaballufix was the enemy in recent months, his paid tolchoks terrorizing people on the streets, and then his soldiers, masked and anonymous, terrifying people even more as they ostensibly made the streets of Basilica “safe” for its citizens. Yet, enemy though he was, Gaballufix had also been Rasa’s husband, the father of her two daughters, Sevet and Kokor. There had been love there once, and the bonds of family are not easily broken, not for a serious woman like Rasa. Luet was no raveler like her sister Hushidh, but she knew that Rasa was still bound to Gaballufix, even though she detested all his recent actions.
“I grieve for his widow,” said Luet, “but I rejoice for the city.”
Hushidh, though, gazed with a calculating eye on the soldier. “This man didn’t bring you that news, I think.”
“No,” said Rasa. “No, I learned of Gaballufix’s death from Rashgallivak. It seems Rashgallivak was appointed…the new Wetchik.”
Luet knew that this was a devastating blow. It meant that Rasa’s husband, Volemar, who had been the Wetchik, now had no property, no rights, no standing in the Palwashantu clan at all. And Rashgallivak, who had been his trusted steward, now stood in his place. Was there no honor in the world? “When did Rashgallivak ascend to this honor?”
“Before Gaballufix died—Gab appointed him, of course, and I’m sure he loved doing it. So there’s a kind of justice in the fact that Rash has now taken leadership of the Palwashantu clan, taking Gab’s place as well. So yes, you’re right, Rash is rising rather quickly in the world. While others fall. Roptat is also dead tonight.”
“No,” whispered Hushidh.
Roptat had been the leader of the pro-Gorayni party, the group trying to keep the city of Basilica out of the coming war between the Gorayni and Potokgavan. with him gone, what chance was there of peace?
“Yes, both dead tonight,” said Rasa. “The leaders of both the parties that have torn our city apart. But here is the worst of it. The rumor is that my son Nafai is the slayer of them both.”
“Not true,” said Luet. “Not possible.”
“So I thought,” said Rasa. “I didn’t wake you for the rumor.”
Now Luet understood fully the turmoil in Aunt Rasa’s face. Nafai was Aunt Rasa’s pride, a brilliant young man. And more—for Luet knew well that Nafai also was close to the Oversoul. What happened to him was not just important to those who loved him, it was also important to the city, perhaps to the world. “This soldier has word of Nafai, then?”
Rasa nodded at the soldier, who had sat in silence until now.
“My name is Smelost,” he said, rising to his feet to speak to them. “I was tending the gate. I saw two men approach. One of them pressed his thumb on the screen and the computer of Basilica knew him to be Zdorab, the treasurer of Gaballufix’s house.”
“And the other?” asked Hushidh.
“Masked, but dressed in Gaballufix’s manner, and Zdorab called him Gaballufix and tried to persuade me not to make him press his thumb on the screen. But I had to make him do it, because Roptat was murdered, and we were trying to prevent the killer from escaping. We’d been told that Lady Rasa’s youngest son, Nafai, was the murderer. It was Gaballufix who had reported this.”
“So did you make Gaballufix put his thumb on the screen?” said Luet.
“He leaned close to me and spoke in my ear, and said, ‘And what if the one who made this false accusation was the murderer himself? Well, that’s what some of us already thought—that Gaballufix was accusing Nafai of killing Roptat to cover up his own guilt. And then this soldier—the one that Zdorab was calling Gaballufix—put his thumb on the screen and the name the computer displayed for me was Nafai.”
“What did you do?” Luet demanded.
“I violated my oath and my orders. I erased his name immediately and let him pass. I believed him…that he was innocent. Of killing Roptat. But his passage from the city was recorded, and the fact that I let him go, knowing who he was. I thought nothing of it—the original complaint came from Gaballufix, and here was Gaballufix’s own treasurer with the boy. I thought Gaballufix couldn’t protest if his man was along. The worst that would happen is that I’d lose my post.”
“You would have let him go anyway,” said Hushidh. “Even if Gaballufix’s man hadn’t been with him.
Smelost looked at her for a moment, then gave a little half-smile. “I was a follower of Roptat. It’s a joke to think Wetchik’s son might have killed him.”
“Nafai’s only fourteen,” said Luet. “It’s a joke to think he’d kill anybody.
“Not so,” said Smelost. “Because word came to us that Gaballufix’s body had been found. Beheaded. And his clothing missing. What should I think, except that Nafai got Gaballufix’s clothing from his corpse? that Nafai and Zdorab almost certainly killed him? Nafai’s big for fourteen, if that’s his age. A man in size. He could have done it. Zdorab—not likely.” Smelost chuckled wryly. “It hardly matters now that I’ll lose my post for this. What I fear is that I’ll be hanged as an accomplice to a murder, for letting him go. So I came here.”
“To the widow of the murdered man?” asked Luet.
“To the mother of the supposed murderer,” said Hushidh, correcting her. “This man loves Basilica.”
“I do,” said the soldier, “and I’m glad that you know it. I didn’t do my duty, but I did what I thought was right.”
“I need advice,” said Rasa, looking from Luet to Hushidh and back again. “This man, Smelost, has come to me for protection, because he saved my son. And in the meantime, my son is named a murderer and I believe now that he might be guilty indeed. I’m no waterseer. I’m no raveler. What is right and just? What does the Oversoul want? You must tell me. You must counsel with me!”
“The Oversoul has told me nothing,” said Luet. “I know only what you told me here, tonight.”
“And as ravelling,” said Hushidh, “I see only that this man loves Basilica, and that you yourself are tangled in a web of love that puts you at cross-purposes with yourself. Your daughters’ father is dead, and you love them—and him, too, you love even him. Yet you believe Nafai killed him, and you love your son even more. You also honor this soldier, and are bound to him by a debt of honor. Most of all you love Basilica. Yet you don’t know what you must do for the good of your city.”
“I Knew my dilemma, Shuya. It was the path out of it that I didn’t know.”
“I must flee the city,” said Smelost. “I thought you might protect me. I knew of you as Nafai’s mother, but I’d forgotten that you were Gaballufix’s widow.”
“Not his widow,” said Rasa. “I let our contract lapse year ago. He has married a dozen times since then, I imagine. My husband now is Wetchik. Or rather the man who used to be Wetchik, and now is a landless fugitive whose son may be a murderer.” She smiled bitterly. “I can do nothing about that, but I can protect you, and so I will.”
“No you can’t,” said Hushidh. “You” are too close to the center of all these mysteries, Aunt Rasa. The council of Basilica will always listen to you, but they won’t protect a soldier who has violated his duty, solely on your word. It will simply make you both look all the guiltier.”
“This is the raveler speaking?” asked Rasa.
“It’s your student speaking,” said Hushidh, “telling you what you would know yourself, if you weren’t so confused.”
A tear spilled out of Rasa’s eye and slipped down her cheek. “What will happen?” said Rasa. “What will happen to my city now?”
Luet had never her so afraid, so uncertain. Rasa was a great teacher, a woman of wisdom and honor; to be one of her nieces, one of the students specially chosen to dwell within her household—it was the proudest thing that could happen to a young woman of Basilica, or so Luet had always believed. Yet here she saw Rasa afraid and uncertain. She had not thought such a thing was possible.
“Wetchik—my Volemak—he said the Oversoul was guiding him,” said Rasa, spitting out the words with bitterness. “What sort of guide is this? Did the Oversoul tell him to send my boys back to the city, where they were almost killed? Did the Oversoul turn my son into a murderer and a fugitive? What is the Oversoul doing? Most likely it isn’t the Oversoul at all. Gaballufix was right—my beloved Volemak has lost his mind, and our sons are being swallowed up his madness.”
Luet had heard enough of this. “Shame on you,” she said.
“Hush, Lutya!” cried Hushidh.
“Shame on you, Aunt Rasa,” Luet insisted. “just because it looks frightening and confusing to you doesn’t mean that the Oversoul doesn’t understand it. I know that the Oversoul is guiding Wetchik , and Nafai too. All this will somehow turn to the good of Basilica.”
“That’s where your’re wrong,” said Rasa. “The Oversoul has no special love for Basilica. She watches over the whole world. What if the whole world will somehow benefit if Basilica is ruined? If my boys are killed? To the Oversoul, little cities and little people are nothing—she weaves a grand design.”
“Then we must bow to her,” said Luet.
“Bow to whomever you want,” said Rasa. “I’m not bowing to the Oversoul if she’s going to turn my boys into killers and my city into dust. If that’s what the Oversoul is planning, then the Oversoul and I are enemies, do you understand me?”
“Lower your voice, Aunt Rasa,” said Hushidh. “You’ll waken the little ones.”
Rasa fell silent for a moment, then muttered: “I’ve said what I have to say.”
“You are not the Oversoul’s enemy,” said Luet.. “Please, wait awhile. Let me try to find the Oversoul’s will in this. That’s what you brought me here to do, isn’t it? To tell you what the Oversoul is planning?”
“Yes,” said Rasa.
“I don’t command the Oversoul,” said Luet. “But I’ll ask her. Wait here, and I’ll—”
“No,” said Rasa. “There’s no time for you to go down to the waters.”
“Not to the waters,” said Luet. “To my room. To sleep. To dream. To listen for the voice, to watch for vision. If it comes.”
“Then hurry,” said Rasa. “We have only an hour or so before I have to do something—more and more people will come here, and I’ll have to act.”
“I don’t command the Oversoul,” Luet said again. “And the Oversoul sets her own schedule. She does not follow yours.”
* * *
Kokor went to Sevet’s favorite hideaway, where she took her lovers to keep them from Vas’s knowledge, and Sevet wasn’t there. “She doesn’t come here anymore,” said Iliva, Sevet’s friend. “Nor any of the other places in Dauberville. Maybe she’s being faithfull!” Then Iliva laughed and bade her good night.
So Kokor wouldn’t be able to pounce after all. It was so disappointing.
Why had Sevet found a new hiding place? Had her husband Vas gone in search of her? He was far too dignified for that! Yet the fact remained that Sevet had abandoned her old places, even though Iliva and Sevet’s other friends would gladly have continued to shelter her.
It could only mean one thing. Sevet had found a new lover, a real liaison, not just a quick encounter, and he was someone so important in the city that they had to find new hiding places for their love, for if it became known the scandal would surely reach Vas’s ears.
How delicious, though Kokor. She tried to imagine who it could be, which of the most famous men of the city might have won Sevet’s heart. Of course it would be a married man; unless he was married to a woman of Basilica, no man had a right to spend even a single night in the city. So when Kokor finally discovered Sevet’s secret, the scandal would be marvelous indeed, for there’d be an injured weeping wife to make Sevet seem all the more sluttish.
And I will tell it, thought Kokor. Because she hid this liaison from me and didn’t tell me, I have no obligation to keep her secret for her. She didn’t trust me, and so why should I be trustworthy?
Kokar wouldn’t tell it herself, of course. But she knew many a satirist in the Open Theatre who would love to know of this, so he could be the first to dart sweet Sevet and her lover in a play. And the price she charged him for the story wouldn’t be high—only the chance to play Sevet when he darted her. That would put a quick end to Tumannu’s threat to blackball her.
I’ll get to imitate Sevet’s voice, thought Kokor, and make fun of her singing as I do. No one can sound as much like her as I can. No one knows all the flaws in her voice as I do. She will regret having hidden her secret from me! And yet I’ll be masked when I dart her, and I’ll deny it all, deny everything, even if Mother herself asks me to swear by the Oversoul, I’ll deny it. Sevet isn’t the only one who knows how to keep a secret.
It was late, only a few hours before dawn, but the last comedies wouldn’t be over for another hour. If she hurried back to the theatre, she could probably even go back onstage and be there for the finale, at least. But she couldn’t brings herself to play the scene she’d have to play with Tumannu—begging forgiveness, vowing never to walk away from a play again, weeping. It would be too demeaning. No daughter of Gaballufix should have to grovel before a mere stage manager!
Only now that he’s dead, what will it matter if I’m his daughter or not? The thought filled her with dismay. She wondered if that man Rash had been right, if Father would leave her enough money to be very rich and buy her own theatre. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? That would solve everything. Of course, Sevet would have just as much money and would probably buy her own theatre, too, just because she would have to overshadow Kokor as usual and steal any chance of glory, but Kokor would simply show herself to be the better promoter and drive Sevet’s miserable imitative theatre into the dust, and, when it failed, all Sevet’s inheritance would be lost, while Kokor would be the leading figure in Basilican theatre, and the day would come when Sevet would come to Kokor and beg her to put her in the starring role in one of her plays, and Kokor would embrace her sister and weep and say, “Oh, my darling sister, I’d love nothing better than to put on your little play, but I have a responsibility to my backers, my sweet, and I can’t very well risk their money on a show starring a singer who is clearly past her prime.”
Oh, it was a delicious dream! Never mind that Sevet was only a single year older—to Kokor that made all the difference. Sevet might be ahead now, but someday soon youth would be more valuable than age to them, and then it would be Kokor who had the advantage. Youth and beauty—Kokor would always have more of both than Sevet. And she was every bit as talented as Sevet, too.
Now she was home, the little place that she and Obring rented in Hill Town. It was modest, but decorated in exquisite taste. That much, at least, she had learned from her Aunt Dhelembuvex—Obring’s mother—that it’s better to have a small setting perfectly finished than a large setting badly done. “A woman must present herself as the blossom of perfection,” Auntie Dhel always said. Kokor herself had written it much better, in an aphorism she had published back when she was only fifteen, before she married Obring and left Mother’s house:
* * *
A perfect bud of subtle color and delicate scent is more welcome than a showy bloom,
which shouts for attention but has nothing to show that can’t be seen in the first glance,
or smelled in the first whiff.
* * *
Kokor had been proudest of the way the lines about the perfect bud were short and simple phrases, while the lines about the showy bloom were long and awkward. But to her disappointment no noted melodist had made an aria of her aphorism, and the young ones who came to her with their tunes were all talentless pretenders who had no idea how to make a song that would suit a voice like Kokor’s. She didn’t even sleep with any of them, except the one whose face was so shy and sweet. Ah, he was a tiger in the darkness, wasn’t he! She had kept him for three days, but he would insist on singing his tunes to her, and so she sent him on his way.
What was his name?
She was on the verge of remembering who he was as she entered the house and heard a strange hooting sound from the back room. Like the baboons who lived across Little Lake, their pant-hoots as they babbled to each other in their nothing language. “Oh. Hoo. Oo-oo. Hoooo.”
Only it wasn’t baboons, was it? And the sound came from the bedroom, up the winding stair, moonlight from the roof window lighting the way as Kokor rushed upward, running the staris on tiptoe, silently, for she knew that she would find her husband Obring with some whore of his in Kokor’s bed, and that was unspeakable, a breach of all decency, hadn’t he any consideration for her at all? She never brought her lovers home, did she? She never let them sweat on his sheets, did she? Fair was fair, and it would be a glorious scene of injured pride when she thrust the little tartlet out of the house without her clothes! so she’d have to go home naked and then Kokor would see how Obring apologized to her and how he’d make it up to her, all his vows and apologies and whimpering but there was no doubt about it now, she would not renew him when their contract came up and then he’d find out what happens to a man who throws his faithlessness in Kokor’s face.
In her moonlit bedroom, Kokor found Obring engaged in exactly the activity she had expected. She couldn’t see his face, or the face of the woman for whom he was providing vigorous companionship, but she didn’t need daylight or a magnifying glass to know what it all meant.
“Disgusting,” she said.
It worked just as she had hoped. They obviously had not heard her coming up the stair, and the sound of her voice froze Obring. For a moment he held his post. Then he turned his head, looking quite foolish as he gazed mournfully over his shoulder at her. “Kyoka,” he said. “You’re home early.”
“I should have known,” said the woman on the bed. Her face was still hidden behind Obring’s naked back, but Kokor knew the voice at once. “Your show is so bad they closed it in mid-performance.”
Kokor hardly noticed the insult, hardly noticed the fact that there wasn’t a trace of embarrassment in Sevet’s tone. All she could think of was, That’s why she had to find a new hiding place, not because her lover was somebody famous, but to keep the truth from me.
“Hundreds of your followers every night would be glad for a yibattsa with you,” Kokor whispered. “But you had to have my husband.”
“Oh, don’t take this personally,” said Sevet, Sitting up on her elbows. Sevet’s breasts sagged off to the sides. Kokor loved seeing that, how her breasts sagged, how at nineteen Sevet was definitely older and thicker than Kokor. Yet Obring had wanted that body, had used that body on the very bed where he had slept beside Kokor’s perfect body so many nights. How could he even be aroused by a body like that, after seeing Kokor after her bath so many mornings.
“You weren’t using him, he’s very sweet,” said Sevet. “If you’d ever bothered to satisfy him he wouldn’t have looked at me.”
“I’m sorry,” Obring murmured. “I didn’t mean to.”
That was so outrageous, like a little child, that Kokor could not contain her rage. And yet she did contain it. She held it in, like a tornado in a bottle. “This was an accident?” whispered Kokor. “You stumbled, you tripped and fell, your clothes tore off and you just happened to bounce on top of my sister?”
“I mean—I kept wanting to break this off, all these months…”
“Months,” whispered Kokor.
“Don’t say any more, puppy,” said Sevet. “You’re just making it worse.”
“You call him ‘puppy’?” asked Kokor. It was the word they had used when they first reached womanhood, to describe the teenage boys who panted after them.
“He was so eager,” said Sevet, sliding out from under Obring. “I couldn’t help calling him that, and he likes the name.”
Obring turned and sat miserably on the bed. He made no attempt to cover himself; it was obvious he had lost all interest in love for the evening.
“Don’t worry about it, Obring,” Sevet said. She stood beside the bed, bending over to pick up her clothing from the floor. “She’ll still renew you. This is one story won’t be eager to have people tell about her, and so she’ll renew you as long as you want, just to keep you from telling.”
Kokor saw how Sevet’s belly pooched out, how her breasts swung when she bent over. And yet she had taken Kokor’s husband. After everything else, she had to have even that. It could not be borne.
“Sing for me,” whispered Kokor.
“What?” asked Sevet, turning to face her, holding her gown in front of her.
“Sing me a song, you davalka, with the pretty voice of yours.”
Sevet stared into Kokor’s eyes and the look of bored amusement left her face. “I’m not going to sing right now, you little fool,” she said.
“Not for me,” said Kokor. “For Father.”
“What about Father?” Sevet’s face twisted into an expression of mock sympathy. “Oh, is little Kyoka going to tell on me?” Then she sneered. “He’ll laugh. Then he’ll take Obring drinking with him!”
“A dirge for Father,” said Kokor.
“A dirge?” Sevet looked confused now. Worried.
“While you were here, boffing your sister’s husband, somebody was busy killing Father. If you were human, you’d care. Even baboons grieve for their dead.”
“I didn’t know,” said Sevet. “How could I know?”
“I looked for you,” said Kokor. “To tell you. But you weren’t in any of the places I knew. I left my play, I lost my job to search for you and tell you, and this is where you were and what you were doing.”
“You’re such a liar,” said Sevet. “Why should I believe this?”
“I never did it with Vas,” said Kokor. “Even when he begged me.”
“He never asked you,” said Sevet. “I don’t believe your lies.”
“He told me that just once he’d like to have a woman who was truly beautiful. A woman whose body was young and lithe and sweet. But I refused, because you were my sister.”
“You’re lying. He never asked.”
“Maybe I’m lying. But he did ask.”
“Not Vas,” said Sevet.
“Vas, with the large mole on the inside of his thigh,” said Kokor. “I refused him because you were my sister.”
“You’re lying about Father, too.”
“Dead in his own blood. Murdered on the street. This is not a good night for our loving family. Father dead. Me betrayed. And you—”
“Stay away from me.”
“Sing for him,” said Kokor.
“At the funeral, if you’re not lying.”
“Sing now,” said Kokor.
“Little hen, little duck, I’ll never sing at your command.”
Accusing her of cackling and quacking instead of singing, that was an old taunt between them, that was nothing. It was the contempt in Sevet’s Voice, the loathing that got inside her. It filled her, it overfilled her, it was more than she could contain. Not for another moment could she hold in the tempest that tore at her.
“That’s right!” cried Kokor. “At my command, you’ll never sing!” And like a cat she lashed out, but it wasn’t a claw, it was a fist. Sevet threw up her hands to protect her face. But Kokor had no desire to mark her sister’s face. It wasn’t her face she hated. No, her fist connected right where she aimed, under Sevet’s chin, on her flesh, where the larynx lay hidden under the ample flesh, where the voice was made.
Sevet didn’t make a sound, even though the force of the blow knocked her backward. She fell, clutching at her throat; she writhed on the floor, gagging, hacking. Obring cried out and leapt to her, knelt over her. “Sevet!” he cried. “Sevet, are you all right?”
But Sevet’s only answer was to gurgle and spit, then to choke and cough. On blood. Her own blood. Kokor could see it on Sevet’s hands, on Obring’s thighs where he cradled her head on his lap as he knelt there. Glimmering black in the moonlight, blood from Sevet’s throat. How does it taste in your mouth, Sevet? How does it feel on your flesh, Obring? Her blood, like the gift of a virgin, my gift to both of you.
Sevet was making an awful strangling sound. “Water,” said Obring. “A glass of water, Kyoka—to wash her mouth out. She’s bleeding, can’t you see that? What have you done to her!”
Kyoka stepped to the sink—her own sink—and took a cup—her own cup—and brought it, filled with water, to Obring, who took it from her hand and tried to pour some of it into Sevet’s mouth. But Sevet choked on it and spat the water out, gasping for breath, strangling on the blood that flowed inside her throat.
“A doctor!” cried Obring. “Cry out for a doctor—Bustiya next door is a doctor, she’ll come.”
“Help,” murmured Kokor. “Come quickly. Help.” She spoke so softly she almost couldn’t hear the sound herself.
Obring rose up from the floor and looked at her in rage. “Don’t touch her,” he said. “I’ll fetch the physician myself.” He strode boldly from the room. Such strength in him now. Naked as a mythic god, as the pictures of the Gorayni Imperator—the image of masculinity—that was Obring as he went forth into the night to find a doctor who might save his lady.
Kokor watched as Sevet’s fingers scratched on the floor, tore at the skin around her neck, as if she wanted to open up a breathing hole there. Sevet’s eyes were bugging out, and blood drooled from her mouth onto the floor.
“You had everything else,” said Kokor. “Everything else. But you couldn’t even leave me him.”
Sevet gurgled. Her eyes stared at Kokor in agony and terror.
“You won’t die,” said Kokor. “I’m not a murderer. I’m not a betrayer.”
But then it occurred to her that Sevet just might die. With so much blood in her throat, she might drown in it. And then Kokor would be held responsible for this. “Nobody can blame me,” said Kokor. “Father died tonight, and I came home and found you with my husbhand, and then you taunted me—no one will blame me. I’m only eighteen, I’m only a girl. And it was an accident anyway. I meant to claw out your eyes but I missed, that’s all.”
Sevet gagged. She vomited on the floor. It smelled awful. This was making such a mess—everything would be stained, and the smell would never, never go. And they would blame Kokor for it, if Sevet died. That would be Sevet’s revenge, that the stain of this would never go away. Sevet’s way of getting even, to die and have Kokor called a murderer forever.
Well, I’ll show you, thought Kokor. I won’t let you die. In fact, I’ll save your life.
So it was that when Obring returned with the doctor they found Kokor kneeling over Sevet, breathing into her mouth. Obring pulled her aside to let the doctor get to Sevet. And as Bustiya pushed the tube down into Sevet’s throat, as Sevet’s face became a silent rictus of agony, Obring smelled the blood and vomit and saw how Kokor’s face and gown were stained with both. He whispered to her as he held her there, “You do love her. You couldn’t let her die.”
She clung to him then, weeping.
* * *
“I can’t sleep,” Luet said miserably. “How can I dream if I can’t sleep?”
“Never mind,” Rasa side. “I know what we have to do. I don’t need ;the Oversoul to tell us. Smelost has to leave Basilica, because Hushidh is right, I can’t protect him now.”
“I won’t leave,” said Smelost. “I’ve decided. This is my city, and I’ll face the consequences of what I’ve done.”
“Do you love Basilica?” said Rasa. “Then don’t give Gaballufix’s people somebody they can pin all the blame on. Don’t give them a chance to put you on trial and use it as an excuse to take command of the guards so that his masked soldiers are the only authority in the city.”
Smelost glared at her a moment, then nodded. “I see,” he said. “For the sake of Basilica, then I’ll go.”
“Where?” asked Hushidh. “Where can you send him?”
“To the Gorayni, of course,” said Rasa. “I’ll give you provisions and money enough to make it north to the Gorayni. And a letter, explaining how you saved the man who—the man who killed Gaballufix. They’ll know what that means—they must have spies who told them that Gab was trying to get Basilica to make an alliance with Potokgavan. Maybe Roptat was in contact with them.”
“Never!” cried Smelost. “Roptat was no traitor!”
“No, of course he wasn’t,” said Rasa soothingly. “The point is that Gab was their enemy, and that makes you their friend. It’s the least they can do, to take you in.”
“How long will I have to stay away?” asked Smelost. “There’s a woman that I love here. I have a son.”
“Not long,” said Rasa. “With Gab gone, the tumult will soon die down. He was the cause of it, and now we’ll have peace again. May the Oversoul forgive me for saying so, but if Nafai killed him then maybe he did a good thing, for Basilica at least.”
There was a loud knocking at the door
“Already!” said Rasa.
“They can’t know I’m here,” said Smelost.
“Shuya, take him to the kitchen and provision him. I’ll stall them at the door as long as I can. Luet, help your sister.”
But it wasn’t Palwashantu soldiers at the door, or city guards, or any kind of authority at all. Instead it was Vas, Sevet’s husband.
“I’m sorry to disturb you at this hour.”
“Me and my whole house,” Said Rasa. “I already know that Sevet’s father is deal, but I know you meant well in coming to—”
“He’s dead?” said Vas. “Gaballufix? Then maybe that explains…No, it explains nothing.” He looked frightened and angry. Rasa had never seen him like this.
“What’s wrong, then?” Rasa asked. “If you didn’t know Gab was dead, why are you here?”
“One of Kokor’s neighbors came to fetch me. It’s Sevet. She’s been struck in the throat—she almost died. A very bad injury. I thought you’d want to come with me.”
“You left her? To come to me”
“I wasn’t with her, ” said Vas. “She’s at Kokor’s house.”
“Why would Sevya be there?” One of the servants was already helping Rasa put on a cloak, so she could go outside. “Kokor had a play tonight, didn’t she? A new play.”
“Sevya was with Obring,” said Vas. He led her out onto the portico; the servant closed the door behind them. “That’s why Kyoka hit her.”
“Kyoka hit her in the—kyoka did it?”
“She found them together. That’s how the neighbor told the story, anyway. Obring went and fetched the doctor stark naked, and Sevya was naked when they got back. Kyoka was breathing into her mouth, to save her. They have a tube in her throat and she’s breathing, she won’t die. That’s all the neighbor knew to tell me.”
“That Sevet is alive,” said Rasa bitterly, “and who was naked.”
“Her throat,” said Vas. “It might have been kinder for Kokor simply to kill her, if this costs Sevet her voice.”
“Poor Sevya,” said Rasa. There were soldiers marching in the streets, but Rasa paid them no attention, and—perhaps because Vas and Rasa seemed so intent and urgent—the soldiers made no effort to stop them. “To lose her father and her voice in the same night.”
“We’ve all lost something tonight, eh?” said Vas bitterly.
“This isn’t about you,” said Rasa. “I think Sevet really loves you, in her way.”
“I know—they hate each other so much they’ll do anything to hurt each other. But I thought it was getting better.”
“Maybe now it will,” said Rasa. “It can’t get worse.”
“Kyoka tried it, too,” said Vas. “I sent her away both times. Why couldn’t Obring have had the brains to say no to Sevet, too?”
“He has the brains,” said Rasa. “He lacks the strength.”
At Kokor’s house, the scene was very touching. Someone had cleaned up: The bed was no longer rumpled with love; now it was smooth except where Sevet lay, demure in one of Kokor’s most modest nightgowns. Obring, too, had managed to become clothed, and now he knelt in the corner, comforting a weeping Kokor. The doctor greeted Rasa at the door of the room.
“I’ve drained the blood out of the lungs,” the physician said. “She’s in no danger of dying, but the breathing tube must remain for now. A throat specialist will be here soon. Perhaps the damage will heal without scarring. Her career may not be over.”
Rasa sat on the bed beside her daughter, and took Sevya’s hand. The smell of vomit still lingered, even though the floor was wet from scrubbing. “Well, Sevya,” whispered Rasa, “did you win or lose this round?”
A tear squeezed out between Sevet’s eyelids.
On the other side of the room, Vas stood over Obring and Kokor. He was flushed with—what, anger? Or was his face merely red from the exertion of their walk?
“Obring,” said Vas, “you miserable little bastard. Only a fool pees in his brother’s soup.”
Obring looked up at him, his face drawn, and then he looked back down at his wife, who wept all the harder. Rasa knew Kokor well enough to know that while her weeping was sincere, it was being played for the most possible sympathy. Rasa had almost none to give her. She was well aware how little her daughters had cared for the exclusivity clause in their marriage contracts, and she had no sympathy for faithless people who felt injured upon discovering that their mates were faithless, too.
It was Sevet who was suffering, not Kokor. Rasa could not be distracted from Sevet’s need, just because Kokor was so noisy and Sevet was silent.
you, my dear daughter,” said Rasa. “It’s not the end of the world. You’re alive, and your husband loves you. Let that be your music for a while.”
Sevet clung to her hand, her breath shallow, panting.
Rasa turned to the doctor. “Has she been told about her father?”
“She knows,” Obring said. “Kyoka told us.”
“Thank the Oversoul we have but one funeral to attend,” said Rasa.
“Kyoka saved her sister’s life,” said Obring. “She gave her breath.”
No, I gave her breath, thought Rasa. Gave her breath, but alas, I could not give her decency, or sense. I couldn’t keep her out of her sister’s sheets, or away from her sister’s husband. But I did give her breath, and perhaps now this pain will teach her something. Compassion, perhaps. Or at least some self-restraint. Something to make good come out of this. Something to make her become my daughter, and not Gaballufix’s, as they both have been till now.
Let this all turn to good, Rasa silently prayed. But then she wondered to whom she was praying. To the Oversoul, whose meddling had started so many other problems? I’ll get no help from her, thought Rasa. I’m on my own now, to try to steer my family and my city through the terrible days to come. I have no power or authority over either of them, except whatever power comes from love and wisdom. I have the love. If only I could be sure I also had the wisdom.
Copyright © 1993 by Orson Scott Card