The city burned beneath the Dreaming Moon.
In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe . . . and kill those judged corrupt.
But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh's great temple, Ehiru the most famous of the city's Gatherers must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering dreamers in the goddess' name, stalking its prey both in Gujaareh's alleys and the realm of dreams. Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.
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The Killing Moon
By Jemisin, N. K.
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Jemisin, N. K.
All right reserved.
In the dark of dreams, a soul can die. The fears we confront in shadows are as reflections in glass. It is natural to strike a reflection that offends, but then the glass cuts; the soul bleeds. The Gatherer’s task is to save the soul, at any cost.
In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive.
The Reaper’s task is not to save.
The barbarians of the north taught their children to fear the Dreaming Moon, claiming that it brought madness. This was a forgivable blasphemy. On some nights, the moon’s strange light bathed all Gujaareh in oily swirls of amethyst and aquamarine. It could make lowcaste hovels seem sturdy and fine; pathways of plain clay brick gleamed as if silvered. Within the moonlight’s strange shadows, a man might crouch on the shadowed ledge of a building and be only a faint etching against the marbled gray.
In this land, such a man would be a priest, intent upon the most sacred of his duties.
More than shadows aided this priest’s stealth. Long training softened his footfalls against the stone; his feet were bare in any case. He wore little altogether, trusting the darkness of his skin for camouflage as he crept along, guided by the sounds of the city. An infant’s cry from a tenement across the street; he took a step. Laughter from several floors below his ledge; he straightened as he reached the window that was his goal. A muffled cry and the sounds of a scuffle from an alley a block away; he paused, listening and frowning. But the disturbance ended as sandals pattered on the cobblestones, fading into the distance, and he relaxed. When the love-cries of the young couple next door floated past on a breeze, he slipped through the curtains into the room beyond.
The bedchamber: a study in worn elegance. The priest’s eyes made out graceful chairs upholstered in fraying fabrics, and wood furnishings gone dull for lack of polish. Reaching the bed, he took care to avoid shadowing the face of the person who slept there—but the old man’s eyes opened anyhow, blinking rheumily in the thin light.
“As I thought,” said the old man, whose name was Yeyezu. His hoarse voice grated against the silence. “Which one are you?”
“Ehiru,” said the priest. His voice was as soft and deep as the bedchamber’s shadows. “Named Nsha, in dreams.”
The old man’s eyes widened in surprise and pleasure. “So that is the rose’s soulname. To whom do I owe this honor?”
Ehiru let out a slow breath. It was always more difficult to bestow peace once a tithebearer had been awakened and frightened; that was why the law commanded Gatherers to enter dwellings in stealth. But Yeyezu was not afraid, Ehiru saw at once, so he chose to answer the old man’s question, though he preferred to do his work without conversation.
“Your eldest son submitted the commission on your behalf,” he said. From the hipstrap of his loinskirt he plucked free the jungissa: a thumb-long polished stone like dark glass, which had been carved into the likeness of a cicada. Yeyezu’s eyes tracked the jungissa as Ehiru raised it. The stones were legend for their rarity as well as their power, and few of Hananja’s faithful ever saw one. “It was considered and accepted by the Council of Paths, then given to me to carry out.”
The old man nodded, lifting a trembling hand toward the jungissa. Ehiru lowered the stone so that Yeyezu could run fingers over its slick, fine-carved wings, though he kept a good grip on its body. Jungissa were too sacred for carelessness. Yeyezu’s wonder made him look much younger; Ehiru could not help smiling at this.
“She has tasted many of your dreams, Yeyezu-Elder,” he said, very gently drawing the jungissa out of the old man’s reach so he would hear Ehiru’s words. Yeyezu sighed, but lowered his hand. “She has drunk deeply of your hopes and fears. Now She bids you join Her in Ina-Karekh. Will you grant Her this final offering?”
“Gladly,” Yeyezu said, and closed his eyes.
So Ehiru bent and kissed the old man’s forehead. Fevered skin, delicate as papyrus, smoothed under his lips. When he pulled away and set the jungissa in place of his kiss, the stone quivered at a flick of his fingernail and then settled into a barely-visible vibration. Yeyezu sagged into sleep, and Ehiru laid his fingertips on the old man’s eyelids to begin.
In the relative quiet of the city’s evening, the room sounded only of breath: first Ehiru’s and Yeyezu’s, then Ehiru’s alone. Amid the new silence—for the jungissa had stopped vibrating with the dream’s end—Ehiru stood for a few moments, letting the languor of the newly collected dreamblood spread within him. When he judged the moment right, he drew another ornament from his hip—this one a small hemisphere of obsidian whose flat face had been embossed with an oasis rose, the crevices tamped full of powdered ink. He pressed the carving carefully into the skin of Yeyezu’s bony, still chest, setting his signature upon the artwork of flesh. The smile that lingered on the elder’s cooling lips was even more beautiful.
“Dreams of joy always, my friend,” he whispered, before pulling away the sheet and arranging Yeyezu’s limbs into a peaceful, dignified position. Finally, as quietly as he’d entered, he left.
Now flight: along the rooftops of the city, swift and silent. A few blocks from Yeyezu’s house Ehiru stopped, dropping to the ground in the lee of an old broken wall. There he knelt amid the weeds and trembled. Once, as a younger man, he would have returned to the Hetawa after such a night’s work, overwhelmed with joy at the passing of a rich and full life. Only hours of prayer in the Hetawa’s Hall of Blessings could’ve restored his ability to function. He was no longer a young man. He was stronger now; he had learned discipline. Most nights he could perform a second Gathering, and occasionally a third if circumstances required—though three would leave him giddy and half a-dream, unsure of which realm he walked. Even a single soul’s dreamblood could still muddle his wits, for how could he not exult with Yeyezu’s happiness so palpable within him? Yet for the sake of other suffering citizens of Gujaareh, it was necessary to try. Twice he attempted to count by fours, a concentration exercise, but both times he failed at only four thousand and ninety-six. Pathetic. At last, however, his thoughts settled and the tremors ceased.
With some concern he saw that Dreaming Moon had reached zenith, her bright expanse glaring from the sky’s center like a great striped eye; the night was half over. Faster to cross this part of the city on the ground than by rooftop. After a moment’s pause to turn his loindrapes and don several gold ear-cuffs—for not even the poorest man in Gujaareh’s capital went without some ornamentation—Ehiru left the old wall and walked the streets as a man of no particular caste, nondescript in manner, taking care to slouch in order to lessen his stature. At such a late hour he saw only caravanners, making the final preparations for a journey on the morrow, and a yawning guardsman, doubtless headed for a night shift at one of the city gates. None of them noticed him.
The houses became less dense once he reached the highcaste district. He turned down a side street lit poorly with half-burned-out lanterns, and emerged amid a gaggle of young shunha men who reeked of a timbalin house and a woman’s stale perfume. They were laughing and staggering together, their wits slowed by the drug. He trailed in their wake for a block before they even marked his presence and then slipped aside, down another side street. This one led to the storage barn of the guesthouse he sought. The barn doors stood open, barrels of wine and twine-wrapped parcels in plain view along the walls—unmolested; Gujaareh’s few thieves knew better. Slipping into the shadows here, Ehiru removed his show-jewelry and turned his drapes once more, rolling and tying them so they would not flap. On one side, the drapes bore an unassuming pattern, but on the other—the side he wore now—they were completely black.
The day before, Ehiru had investigated the guesthouse. As shrewd as any merchant-casteman, the house’s proprietor kept his tower open year-round to cater to wealthy foreigners, many of whom disliked relocating during the spring floods. This tithebearer—a northern trader—had a private room in the tower, which was separated from the rest of the building by a flight of steep stairs. Convenient. Hananja made way when She wanted a thing done.
Within the house, the kitchen was dim, as was the serving chamber beyond. Ehiru moved past the table with its low cushions and through the house’s atrium garden, slowing as he turned aside fronds of palms and dangling ferns. Beyond the garden lay the sleeping chambers. Here he crept most stealthily of all, for even at such a late hour there could have been guests awake, but all of the rooms’ lanterns remained shuttered and he heard only slow, steady breathing from each curtained entrance. Good.
As he climbed the tower steps, Ehiru heard the trader’s unpeaceful snores even through the room’s heavy wooden door. Getting the door open without causing its hinges to creak took some doing, but he managed it while privately damning the outland custom of putting doors on inner chambers. Inside the room, the trader’s snores were so loud that the gauze curtains around his bed shivered in vibration. No wonder the proprietor had offered him the tower, and probably discounted the room. Still, Ehiru was cautious; he waited until a particularly harsh snort to part the curtains and gaze down at his next commission.
This close, the scent of the man mingled rancid sweat, stale grease, and other odors into a pungent mix that left Ehiru momentarily queasy. He had forgotten the infrequent bathing habits of people from the north. Though the night was cool and breezy, the northerner—a trader from the Bromarte people, the commission had specified, though in truth Ehiru had never been able to tell one northern tribe from another—sweated profusely, his pale skin flushed and rash-prickled as if he slept in high noon’s swelter. Ehiru studied that face for a moment, wondering what peace might be coaxed from the dreams of such a man.
There would be something, he decided at last, for Hananja would not have chosen him otherwise. The man was lucky. She did not often bestow Her blessings upon foreigners.
The Bromarte’s eyes already flickered beneath their lids; no jungissa was necessary to send him into the proper state of sleep. Laying fingers on the man’s eyelids, Ehiru willed his own soul to part from flesh, leaving its connection—the umblikeh—tethered in place so that he could follow it back when the time came. The bedchamber had become a shadow-place, colorless and insubstantial, when Ehiru opened his soul’s eyes. A reflection of the waking realm, unimportant. Only one thing had meaning in this halfway place between waking and dreaming: the delicate, shimmering red tether that emerged from somewhere near the Bromarte’s collarbones and trailed away into nothingness. This was the path the man’s soul had taken on its journey to Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams. It was a simple matter for Ehiru to follow the same path out and then in again.
When he opened his soul’s eyes this time, color and vast strangeness surrounded him, for he was in Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams. And here the dream of the Bromarte revealed itself. Charleron of Wenkinsclan, came the name to Ehiru’s consciousness, and he absorbed the name’s foreignness and as much as he could of the person who bore it. Not a soulname, but that was to be expected. Bromarte parents named their children for the hopes and needs of the waking world, not protection in sleep. By the reckoning of this Charleron’s people, his was a name of ambition. A name of hunger. And hunger was what filled the Bromarte’s soul: hunger for wealth, for respect, for things he himself could not name. Reflected in the dreamscapes of Ina-Karekh, these hungers had coalesced into a great yawning pit in the earth, its walls lined with countless disembodied, groping hands. Assuming his usual dreamform, Ehiru floated down through the hands and ignored their silent, scrabbling, blind need as he searched.
And there, at the bottom of the well of hands, weeping with fear and helplessness, knelt the manifestation of the unfortunately named Bromarte man. Charleron cringed between sobs, trying and failing to twist away from his own creations as the hands plucked at him again and again. They did him no harm and would have been only moderately frightening to any properly trained dreamer—but this was nevertheless the bile of dreams, Ehiru judged: black and bitter, necessary for health but unpleasant to the senses. He absorbed as much of it as he could for the Sharers, for there was much of use in dreambile even if Charleron might not agree. But he reserved space within himself for the most important humor, which after all was why he had come.
And as they always did, as the Goddess had decreed they must, the bearer of Hananja’s tithe looked up and saw Ehiru in his true, unadulterated shape.
“Who are you?” the Bromarte demanded, distracted momentarily from his terror. A hand grabbed his shoulder and he gasped and flinched away.
“Ehiru,” he said. He considered giving the man his soulname and then decided against it. Soulnames meant nothing to heathens. But to his surprise, the Bromarte’s eyes widened as if in recognition.
“Gualoh,” the Bromarte said, and through the filter of their shared dream, a whiff of meaning came to Ehiru. Some kind of frightening creature from their nightfire tales? He dismissed it: barbarian superstition.
“A servant of the Goddess of Dreams,” Ehiru corrected, crouching before the man. Hands plucked nervously at his skin and loincloth and the twin braids that dangled from his nape, responding to the Bromarte’s fear of him. He paid them no heed. “You have been chosen for Her. Come, and I will shepherd you to a better place than this, where you may live out eternity in peace.” He extended his hand.
The Bromarte leaped at him.
The movement caught Ehiru by such surprise that he almost failed to react in time—but no common man could best a Gatherer in dreaming. With a flick of his will, Ehiru banished the well of hands and replaced it with an innocuous desert of wind-waved dunes. This afforded him plenty of room to sidestep the Bromarte’s headlong rush. The Bromarte ran at him again, roaring obscenities; Ehiru opened and then closed the ground beneath the Bromarte’s feet, dropping him to the waist in sand.
Even thus pinned, the Bromarte cursed and flailed and wept, grabbing handfuls of the sand to fling at him—which Ehiru simply willed away. Then, frowning in puzzlement, he crouched to peer into the Bromarte’s face.
“It’s pointless to fight,” he said, and the Bromarte flinched into stillness at the sound of his voice, though Ehiru had kept his tone gentle. “Relax, and the journey will go soft.” Surely the Bromarte knew this? His people had been trading goods and seed with Gujaareh for centuries. In case that was the source of the Bromarte’s panic, Ehiru added, “There will be no pain.”
“Get away from me, gualoh! I’m not one of you mud-grubbers; I don’t need you feeding on my dreams!”
“It is true that you aren’t Gujaareen,” Ehiru replied. Without taking his attention from the man, he began adjusting the dreamscape to elicit calm. The clouds overhead became wispy and gentle, and he made the sand around the Bromarte’s dreamform finer, pleasant against the skin. “But foreigners have been Gathered before. The warning is given to all who choose to live and do business within our capital’s walls: Hananja’s city obeys Hananja’s Law.”
Something of Ehiru’s words finally seemed to penetrate the Bromarte’s panic. His bottom lip quivered. “I, I don’t want to die.” He was actually weeping, his shoulders heaving, so much that Ehiru could not help pitying him. It was terrible that the northerners had no narcomancy. They were helpless in dreaming, at the mercy of their nightmares, and none of them had any training in the sublimation of fear. How many had been lost to the shadowlands because of it? They had no Gatherers, either, to ease the way.
“Few people desire death,” Ehiru agreed. He reached out to stroke the man’s forehead, brushing thin hair aside, to reassure him. “Even my countrymen, who claim to love Hananja, sometimes fight their fate. But it’s the nature of the world that some must die so that others may live. You will die—early and unpleasantly if the whore’s disease you brought to Gujaareh runs its course. And in that time you might not only suffer, but spread your suffering to others. Why not die in peace and spread life instead?”
“Liar.” Suddenly the Bromarte’s face was piggish, his small eyes glittering with hate. The change came so abruptly that Ehiru faltered to silence, startled. “You call it a blessing of your Goddess, but I know what it really is.” He leaned forward; his breath had gone foul. “It gives you pleasure.”
Ehiru drew back from that breath, and the fouler words. Above their heads, the wispy clouds stopped drifting. “No Gatherer kills for pleasure.”
“ ‘No Gatherer kills for pleasure.’ ” The Bromarte drawled the words, mocking. “And what of those who do, Gatherer?” The Bromarte grinned, his teeth gleaming momentarily sharp. “Are they Gatherers no longer? There’s another name for those, yes? Is that how you tell your lie?”
Coldness passed through Ehiru; close on its heels came angry heat. “This is obscenity,” he snapped, “and I will hear no more of it.”
“Gatherers comfort the dying, yes?”
“Gatherers comfort those who believe in peace, and welcome Hananja’s blessing,” Ehiru snapped. “Gatherers can do little for unbelievers who mock Her comfort.” He got to his feet and scowled to himself in annoyance. The man’s nonsense had distracted him; the sand rippled and bubbled around them, heaving like the breath of a living thing. But before he could resume control of the dream and force the Bromarte’s mind to settle, a hand grasped his ankle. Startled, he looked down.
“They’re using you,” said the Bromarte.
Alarm stilled Ehiru’s mind. “What?”
The Bromarte nodded. His eyes were gentler now, his expression almost kind. As pitying as Ehiru himself had been, a moment before. “You will know. Soon. They’ll use you to nothing, and there will be no one to comfort you in the end, Gatherer.” He laughed and the landscape heaved around them, laughing with him. “Such a shame, Nsha Ehiru. Such a shame!”
Gooseflesh tightened Ehiru’s skin, though the skin was not real. The mind did what was necessary to protect the soul at such times, and Ehiru suddenly felt great need of protection—for the Bromarte knew his soulname, though he had not given it.
He jerked away from the man’s grip and pulled out of his dream in the same reflexive rush. But to Ehiru’s horror, the clumsy exit tore free the tether that bound the Bromarte to his flesh. Too soon! He had not moved the Bromarte to a safer place within the realm of dreams. And now the soul fluttered along in his wake like flotsam, twisting and fragmenting no matter how he tried to push it back toward Ina-Karekh. He collected the spilled dreamblood out of desperation but shuddered as it came into him sluggishly, clotted with fear and malice. In the dark between worlds, the Bromarte’s last laugh faded into silence.
Ehiru returned to himself with a gasp, and looked down. His gorge rose so powerfully that he stumbled away from the bed, leaning against the windowsill and sucking quick shallow breaths to keep from vomiting.
“Holiest mistress of comfort and peace…” He whispered the prayer in Sua out of habit, closing his eyes and still seeing the Bromarte’s dead face: eyes wide and bulging, mouth open, teeth bared in a hideous rictus. What had he done? O Hananja, forgive me for profaning Your rite.
He would leave no rose-signature behind this time. The final dream was never supposed to go so wrong—certainly not under the supervision of a Gatherer of his experience. He shuddered as he recalled the reek of the Bromarte’s breath, like that of something already rotted. Yet how much fouler had it been for the Bromarte, who had now been hurled through Ehiru’s carelessness into the nightmare hollows of Ina-Karekh for all eternity? And that only if enough of his soul had been left intact to return.
Yet even as disgust gave way to grief, and even as Ehiru bowed beneath the weight of both, intuition sounded a faint warning in his mind.
He looked up. Beyond the window rose the rooftops of the city, and beyond those the glowing curve of the Dreamer sank steadily toward the horizon. Waking Moon peeked round its larger curve. The city had grown still in the last moments of Moonlight; even the thieves and lovers slept. All except himself—
—And a silhouette, hunched against the cistern on a nearby rooftop.
Ehiru frowned and pushed himself upright.
The figure straightened as he did, mirroring his movement. Ehiru could make out no details aside from shape: male, naked or nearly so, tall and yet oddly stooped in posture. Indeterminate features and caste, indeterminate intent.
No. That much, at least, was discernible. Ehiru could glean little else from the figure’s stillness, but malevolence whispered clearly in the wind between them.
The tableau lasted only a moment. Then the figure turned, climbed the cistern’s rope to its roof, and leaped onto an adjoining building and out of sight. The night became still once more. But not peaceful.
Gualoh, echoed the Bromarte’s voice in Ehiru’s memory. Not an insult, he realized, staring at where the figure had been. A warning.
Did you know that writing stories down kills them?
Of course it does. Words aren’t meant to be stiff, unchanging things. My family were talekeepers once, though now they make funerary urns and jars. Many, many generations ago, before pictorals and numeratics and hieratics, words were kept where they belong, in mouths. The people who made sure those words passed on were my ancestors. Written words did not kill my lineage’s purpose, though gone are the crowds—and the riches—we once commanded. We retell the stories regardless, because we know: stone is not eternal. Words can be.
So. At the beginning of time—
Yes, yes, I must begin with that greater story. I tell this in the Sua way, first the greater stories, then the lesser, because that is how it must be done. That was our bargain, yes? I will speak, and pass my tales on to you since I have no sons or daughters to keep them for me. When I finish speaking, you may summon my brethren, and I will go gladly to Hananja. So.
At the beginning of time the Sun was a swaggering oaf. He strutted about the heavens proclaiming his greatness day and night, heedless of the hardships he caused to the world below: rivers dying, deserts born, mountaintops burned ugly and bare. He shone himself brightly so that the two Moon Sisters would admire him and grant him their favor.
Waking Moon was a small and homely thing who rarely strayed far from her sister’s shadow, fearful of being alone. She permitted the Sun her pleasures and he continued swaggering about, more certain than ever of his greatness.
But Dreaming Moon was full and beautiful. She loved the dark places and the cool nights, and sometimes she would gaze down into the ocean to paint her face with four bands of color: red for blood, white for seed, yellow for ichor, and black for bile. She felt no pressing need for a lover, and she found Sun’s behavior offensive, so she scorned his attempts to court her.
Sun grew mad with longing for her, and even Waking Moon could not distract him from his lust. He sought solace in smaller, younger Stars, who would sometimes bend themselves to him, but at last his desire became too great even for that. He fell to the earth and masturbated, and when his climax came the earth tore and the heavens split and a great white spear of his seed flew forth and struck Dreaming Moon. Where the earth opened, plants and beasts emerged and began to spread across the land. Where the Dreamer was struck, gods came forth and began to spread across the heavens.
In a fury at this great insult, Dreaming Moon declared that if Sun could not control himself, she would control him. So she demanded that he bring her gifts to make amends and food to feed the children he had so carelessly spawned. She confined him to the day, where he could swagger as much as he wished and no longer annoy her with his foolishness. She forbade him ever to lie upon the earth again, lest his lustful inclinations lead to more chaos. Meekly he submitted to these restrictions, for she was powerful with magic and he desired her still, and if this was the only way she would have him, then so it must be.
Now they live apart as husband and wife, she in the night and he in the day. Always he longs for her, and the days shorten and lengthen as he strains to rise earlier, set later, all for a chance to glimpse her. With time she has grown fond of him, for he has been humble and well-behaved since their marriage. Every so often, she rises early so he can gaze upon her. Once in a great while she lets him catch up to her, and he darkens his face to please her, and they join in careful lovemaking. And sometimes in the night when he cannot see her, she misses his foolish antics and pines for him, and darkens her own face. She is always bright again when he returns.
Give Hananja peace and She shall dream peace and so return peace upon the dreamer. Give Her fear or suffering and She shall dream these, and return the same. Thus is peace made law. That which threatens peace is corruption. War is the greatest of evils.
There was magic in Gujaareh.
So the Protectors had warned all Kisua. Yet Sunandi’s master Kinja Seh Kalabsha had required her to study Gujaareen magic as part of her apprenticeship, though it made the elders shake their heads and the sonha nobles sigh. Kinja had been adamant, however. Magic was mother’s milk to the people of Gujaareh. They were steeped in its necessity, proud of its benefits, dismissive of its consequences. It was impossible to understand Gujaareh without understanding the source of its power.
And so Sunandi had learned. Gujaareen magic centered around the powers of healing, which the Hetawa—the governing temple of the Hananjan faith—controlled. But though the Hananjan priests served as gatekeepers for the magic, they were not its source. The people of Gujaareh made the magic, in the wild bursts of imagination and emotion called dreams; the Hananjans simply harvested that wildness and refined it into a purer, usable form. And so Gujaareen citizens brought their nightmares and nonsense dreams to the temples, where the priests called Sharers used them to shrink tumors or speed the healing of wounds. Sometimes a different kind of healing was needed, perhaps to regrow a severed limb or end a disease passed down through the lineage. Then Hananja’s whores would go forth—no, Sunandi chided herself. Dangerous even to think with the usual Kisuati scorn while within Gujaareh’s borders. Hananja’s Sisters, they were called, though a handful were males in female garb; more Gujaareen strangeness. In solemn rites the Sisters would coax forth the most carnal dreams from Her supplicants, and those too would be given to the Sharers for the good of all.
And for those citizens of Gujaareh who were too old, or too sick, or too selfish to bring their offerings to the Hetawa… there were the priests called Gatherers.
Oh yes, there was magic in Gujaareh. Great, reeking heaps of it.
“You’re afraid,” observed the Prince.
Sunandi blinked out of her reverie to find him smiling at her, unapologetic. It was the Gujaareen way to speak of such things—desires that should remain private, concealed anxieties. He knew it was not the Kisuati way.
“You hide it well,” he continued, “but it shows. Mostly in your silence. You’ve been so forceful up until now that the change is striking. Or is it that you find me a poor conversationalist?”
If only Kinja had not died, Sunandi thought behind the mask of her answering smile. He had understood the peculiarities and contradictions of Gujaareh better than anyone else in Kisua. In this land flowers bloomed at night and the river created lush farmlands in the heart of a desert. Here politics was half religion and half riddle, for under Hananja’s Law even a hint of corruption was punishable by death. And here Sunandi had discovered that even Kinja could make mistakes, for though he had taught her the language and the magic and the customs, he had not been a woman. He had never been forced to contend with the most elegant, most dangerous charms of Gujaareh’s Sunset Prince.
“I’m forceful when force is needed,” Sunandi replied. She waved a hand: a touch of unconcern, a hint of coquetry. “Trade discussions with the zhinha most definitely require it. I was under the impression, however, that this meeting between us was…” She pretended to grope for the word in Gujaareen although she suspected that he, unlike most of his countrymen, would not be so easily lulled by her accent and feigned ignorance. “How do you say it? Less official. More… intimate.”
“Oh, it is.” His gaze followed her every movement; the smile had not left his face.
She inclined her head. “Then here I may be more myself. If you read fear in my silence, I assure you that it has nothing to do with you.” She smiled to soften the snub. His eyes flared with a mingling of amusement and interest, as they always seemed to do when she parried his verbal feints. Small wonder he found her so alluring; to Sunandi’s mind, Gujaareen women were painfully demure.
The Prince abruptly rose from his couch and sauntered over to the terrace railing. For a moment Sunandi set aside subtlety to drink her fill of the sight unobserved—though there was hardly any need to conceal her interest. The Prince’s movements were studied, the epitome of grace; he knew full well she was watching. The black ropes of his hair had been threaded with cylinders of gold and strings of minute pearls, and this mane surrounded a face that was fine-planed and flawless, apart from the misfortune of his coloring. Ageless, like his lean warrior’s body. Here in his private quarters he’d shunned the more elaborate collars and adornments of his office for a simple loinskirt and feathered waistcloak. The plumes of the cloak whispered as they swept the floor’s tiles behind him.
He stopped beside a raised plinth bearing a platter, gazed at it for a moment as if to assure himself of the suitability of its contents, then brought the platter over to her. He knelt with careless ease before the bench she’d chosen and offered the platter to her with his head bowed, humble as any lowcaste servant.
On the platter lay a profusion of delicacies for the taking: crisp vegetables flecked with hekeh-seed and sea salt, balls of grain held together with honey and aromatic oil, medallions of fresh fish tied into bundles around wine-soaked raisins. And more, each arranged in neat rows of four—forty in all. An auspicious number by Gujaareen reckoning.
Sunandi smiled at that implicit hopeful message. After a moment’s consideration she selected a wafer of sugar-stalk around which some sort of river crustacean had been baked. He waited while she took her time chewing, savoring the salt-sweet flavor; that was the proper way to show appreciation in both Gujaareen and Kisuati custom. Then she inclined her head in acceptance of the offering. He set the platter on his knee and began feeding her more with his fingers, showing no sign of eagerness or haste.
“Kisuati speak often of Gujaareen courting-customs,” Sunandi said while he selected another morsel. “My people find it amusing that men here use food to lure women into pleasure. In our land it is the opposite.”
“The food is only a symbol,” the Prince replied. His voice was low and smooth, and he spoke softly as if to soothe a wild animal. “It is the act of offering that—hopefully—tempts a woman. Some offer jewels; the shunha and zhinha favor such things as a mark of status. Lowcastes offer poetry or song.” He shrugged. “I feared that jewels, given our relative positions, might be misconstrued as a bribe. And poetry is such a subjective thing. Offerings can offend, after all.” He gave her something redolent of nutmeg, and wonderful. “Delicacies, however, tempt the appetites.”
She licked her lips, amused. “Whose appetites, I wonder?”
“The woman’s, of course. Men need little incentive to take pleasure.” He smiled self-deprecatingly. Sunandi resisted the urge to roll her eyes at his foolishness. “And we Gujaareen revere our women.”
“As much as you revere your goddess?” The statement edged along their notion of blasphemy, but the Prince only laughed.
“Women are goddesses,” he replied. She opened her mouth and he placed the next item on her tongue, where it melted in an exquisite mix of flavors. She closed her eyes and caught her breath, inadvertently overwhelmed, and saw when she opened them again that his grin had widened. “They birth and shape the dreamers of the world. What better courtship can a man offer than worship?”
“Until you’ve had your pleasure. Then your goddesses return to making babies and keeping house.”
“Just so. Honorable men continue to make offerings to them, though the offerings are nightly pleasure and helpful tools rather than frivolities.” His eyes snapped with humor as if he sensed how much his words irritated her. “So you must forgive my courtiers and counselors if they are uneasy at having to deal with you as Kisua’s Voice. In their eyes you should be secure in some man’s kitchen, receiving the adulation that is your just due.”
She laughed, not as gently as he. “Would they be displeased to find me here with you now?”
“Doubtful. A man and a woman associating for pleasure makes far more sense to them than a man and a woman associating for business.”
When Sunandi politely turned away the next morsel, he set aside the platter and took her hands, pulling her to stand. She rose with him, curious to see how far he meant to go. “In fact,” said the Prince, “they will actually be pleased that I have seduced the Voice of Kisua. No doubt they’ll expect you to become more acquiescent after a day and a night spent offering dreams of ecstasy to Hananja.” He shrugged one shoulder. “They do not understand outland women.”
A day and a night. Mnedza’s Hands, he had a high opinion of himself.
“I see,” she said, keeping her face serene. The Prince made no move to pull her against him, did nothing more than hold her hands and gaze into her eyes. She met his eyes without wavering, wondering what a Gujaareen woman would do in such a situation. He had strange eyes: a clear, pale brown, like polished amber from the tall forests across the sea. His skin was of a nearly matching shade—not unattractive, but certainly improper for a nobleman. Amazing that these Gujaareen had allowed even their royal lineage to be diluted by northerners.
She decided to banter. “And you understand outland women?”
“I have two hundred and fifty-six wives,” he replied, his voice rippling with amusement. “I can understand any woman.”
She laughed again, and after a moment’s further consideration stepped closer. His hands tightened immediately, pulling her nearer still until her breasts brushed against his chest through the folds of her gown. He leaned close, putting his face beside hers, cheek against cheek. He smelled of sandalwood and moontear blossoms.
“You find me amusing, Sunandi Jeh Kalawe?” His voice held only the barest hint of roughness; the lust was in him, but firmly controlled.
“I am a woman, my lord,” she replied, in the same tone he’d used a moment before. “I find any man amusing.”
He chuckled, breath warm against her ear, and began pulling her toward the couch, his grip coaxing her to stay close. “You’ll find I’m unlike any man you know, Sunandi.”
“Because of your great experience?” She posed the question carefully, knowing he would sense her true meaning but leaving him a safe outlet. He had two hundred and fifty-six wives, and was duty-bound to please them all. He was also far older than he looked. No one knew his age for certain, but he had ruled Gujaareh for more than thirty floods, and he didn’t look a day over that much. His lineage was famous for its longevity, said to be the gift of the Sun’s scions.
But the Prince only sat down as they reached the couch, pulling her to sit beside him. Not until she was seated did he release her hands, shifting his grip to her hips instead.
“Because I am the Avatar of Hananja,” he said, his golden eyes hungry as a lion’s, “and I will give you beautiful dreams.”
Once their business was concluded and the Prince slept, Sunandi rose from the couch to attend herself in the wash-chamber. She took care to confine her exploration of the Prince’s apartments only to what was in sight, for there was no telling when he might wake and come looking for her, and he would already be suspicious of her motives. Though she had expected to find nothing of note, her attention was caught in his study, where an iron case bristling with four elaborate eastern locks sat bolted to the desk.
There, she realized with a chill. The secret she had come to Gujaareh to find: it was there.
But she did not approach the case, not yet. Most likely it held dangerous traps; Gujaareen were fond of those. Instead she returned to the terrace, where with some unease she found the Prince awake, as alert as if he had never slept, and waiting for her.
“Find anything interesting?” His smile was a sphinx’s.
She returned it. “Only you,” she said, and lay down beside him again.
She returned to her suite late that night, just as the Dreamer passed zenith. The Prince had not made good on his boast of a full day and night of pleasure, but he’d given a respectable accounting of himself nevertheless. The pleasurable aches she felt in the aftermath told her that it was probably just as well. She’d gotten out of practice; by morning she would doubtless be sore.
More important matters claimed her attention as soon as she crossed the threshold of her suite, however, where Lin waited for her.
Few of the Gujaareen had paid any heed to the skinny, wheat-haired child among the other pages in Sunandi’s entourage. Northblooded youngsters were common in Gujaareh, and in any case it was the fashion for nobles of both lands to keep a few curiosities on hand as entertainers. It pleased her to let them think this was her only purpose.
“A long appointment, mistress,” the girl said, speaking in Sua since they were alone. She lounged across a chair in the corner, her impish face not quite daring a smile.
“The Prince was kind enough to teach me a few Gujaareen customs that Master Kinja neglected.”
“Ah, a valuable lesson, then. Did you learn much?”
Sunandi sighed, flopping onto a suede-covered bench that reminded her obliquely of the Prince’s couch. Not as comfortable, sadly; her aches twinged. “Not as much as I’d hoped. Still, further tutorings might prove useful.”
“That knowledgeable, is he? A hint, mistress: question him before the lesson begins.”
She leveled a look at Lin. “Disrespectful infant. You must have found something if you’re so insufferably smug.”
In answer, Lin held up a hand. In it lay a tiny scroll barely as long as her forefinger. When Sunandi sat up in interest, she crossed the room to offer it to Sunandi—keeping to the shadows, Sunandi noted, and away from the open window. She filed this oddity away to ponder another time, however, snatching the scroll from Lin’s hand. “You found it!”
“Yes, ’Nandi. It’s in Master Kinja’s hand, I’d swear, and…” She hesitated, glancing toward the window again. “It speaks of things no Gujaareen would commit to print.”
Sunandi threw her a sharp glance. Her expression was unusually grim.
“If it’s that serious, I’ll send the scroll back to Kisua. But I’m not yet certain how far some of Kinja’s old contacts can be trusted… especially the Gujaareen ones.” She sighed in annoyance. “You might have to go, Lin.”
Lin shrugged. “I was getting tired of this place anyway. It’s too dry here, and the sun makes me red; I itch constantly.”
“You complain like a highcaste matron,” Sunandi replied. She opened the scroll and scanned the first scrawled numeratics, translating the code in her mind. “Next I’ll find you demanding servants to oil your spoiled backside—groveling Sun!”
Lin jumped. “Keep your voice down! Have you forgotten there are no doors?”
“Where did you find this?”
“General Niyes’s office, here in the palace.—Yes, I know. But I think it’s all right. The general claimed some of Master Kinja’s things because they’d been friends. One of the decorative masks. I don’t think Niyes noticed the false backing.”
Sunandi’s hands shook as she read further. The scroll was not long; Kinja had been spare but eloquent in the limited space. When she reached the end she sat back against the wall, her mind churning and her heart tightening with belated grief.
Kinja had been murdered. She had suspected, but the confirmation was a bitter tea. The Gujaareen had called it a heart-seizure, something too swift and severe for even their magic to cure. But Sunandi knew there were also poisons that could trigger heart-seizures, and other techniques to make death look natural. Here in Gujaareh, where only custom and curtains kept a bedroom secure, it would have been easy. And why not, given what Kinja had discovered? Monsters in the shadows. Magic so foul that even their murderous priests would cry abomination—if they ever learned of it. Clearly, someone meant to make certain they did not.
But now Sunandi knew those secrets. Not all of them by far, but enough to put her in danger of Kinja’s fate.
Lin edged close, concern plain on her face. Sunandi smiled sadly at her, reaching up to smooth a hand over her thin, flat hair. Her sister of the heart, if not the lineage. Kinja had not adopted Lin outright as he had Sunandi—foreigners had no legal standing in Kisua—but Lin had proven her worth time and again over the years. Now it seemed Sunandi would have to force her to prove it once more. She was barely thirteen…
And she was the only one out of their whole delegation who could escape the palace and city without alerting the Gujaareen. It was why Sunandi had brought the girl, knowing they would never expect a Kisuati to entrust vital secrets to a northerner. And Lin was no untried innocent; she had survived alone on the streets of Kisua’s capital for years. With aid from their contacts, she could handle the journey.
Unless Sunandi’s enemies knew she had been sent to look for this. Unless the scroll had been left in place as a trap. Unless they knew of Kinja’s penchant for finding and training talented youngsters.
Unless they sent their Reaper.
She shivered. Lin read her face and nodded to herself. She took the scroll from Sunandi’s limp fingers, rerolled it, and tucked it out of sight in her linen skirt.
“Shall I go tonight, or wait until after the Hamyan celebration?” she asked. “It means two days’ delay, but it should be easier to slip out of the city then.”
Sunandi could have wept. Instead she pulled Lin close and held her tightly, and shaped her thoughts into a fervent prayer that she hoped the mad bitch Hananja could not hear.
A child of a woman may have a four of siblings, or an eight. A child of the Hetawa has a thousand.
There were many things that one could feel when surrounded by a four of the Hetawa’s finest guardians, Nijiri considered. Fear, first and foremost—and oh, he felt that in plenty, souring his mouth and slicking his palms. But along with the fear, and dread for the beating these men would almost certainly administer to him before they were done, he felt something new, and surprising: anticipation.
Lack of emotion is not the ideal. Nijiri licked his lips, practically hearing Gatherer Ehiru’s night-soft voice in his mind. Ehiru always knew just the right thing to say when Nijiri came to him with a boy’s frets. Control of emotion is. Even we Gatherers feel—and we savor those feelings, when they come, as the rare blessings they are.
Could the urge to grind his opponents’ faces into the sand truly be a blessing? Nijiri grinned. He would meditate upon it later.
Sentinel Mekhi glanced at Sentinel Andat, his kohled eyes narrowing in amusement. “I think perhaps Acolyte Nijiri wants peace, pathbrother.”
“Hmm,” said Andat. He was grinning as well, turning his fighting stick in the fingers of one hand with careless expertise. “I think perhaps Acolyte Nijiri wants pain. I suppose there’s a kind of peace in that.”
“Share it with me, Brothers,” Nijiri breathed, crouching low and ready. With that, they came at him.
He did not wait for their sticks. No one could deflect, or endure, blows from four armed Sentinels. Instead he dropped low, presenting a smaller target and slipping beneath the zone of their fastest response. They were fast enough with their feet, though, and he only just dodged Sentinel Harakha’s sweeping kick by rolling over it. This, thankfully, put him outside the Sentinels’ circle and forced them to turn. That gave him a precious half-breath in which to formulate a strategy.
Harakha. As the youngest of the four, he had yet to develop a Sentinel’s proper serenity. He was dangerous; any Sentinel who survived his apprenticeship was dangerous. But Nijiri had observed Harakha in sparring matches several times, and noted that whenever his blows were deflected, he tended to flail for an instant before recovering, as if shocked by his failure.
So Nijiri swept at Harakha’s ankles with first one leg and then the other, rolling on his forearms to execute the sweeps again and again, forcing Harakha to dance back. The other Sentinels quickly altered their formation to avoid Nijiri’s whirling legs and to keep from tripping over each other—just as Nijiri had hoped. Then, when Harakha grew justifiably annoyed and angled a stabbing strike at Nijiri’s head, Nijiri closed his legs and rolled—toward Harakha. This brought him under Harakha’s stick; the tip struck the ground beyond Nijiri and lodged, just for an instant, in the sand. At this Nijiri kicked up, aiming for Harakha’s hand. He did not score, for Harakha realized what he was doing at the last instant and jerked back, retaliating with a furious kick that Nijiri bore with a grunt as he rolled away. A small pain-price to pay, for he had achieved his goal: Harakha stumbled back a step more, overcompensating in typical fashion for the fact that he’d almost lost his weapon. This forced the other three Sentinels to move more, gracelessly, to avoid their clumsy younger brother.
Distraction was a Gatherer’s beloved friend. Rolling to his hands and toes, Nijiri darted forward and slapped his hand against Mekhi’s calf. It was hard to find the soul from a limb, and harder for Nijiri to cool his thoughts enough for narcomancy, but perhaps—
Mekhi stumbled and fell to the ground, groaning. He was only groggy, but from an awake, aware man whose blood was fired for battle, Nijiri could expect nothing better. When Mekhi went down, however, Harakha hissed and nearly tripped over Mekhi’s stick. Nijiri rose behind him like a shadow, and too late Harakha realized the danger. By that point Nijiri had touched two fingers to the nape of his neck, sending dreambile coursing along his spine like cold water to numb everything it touched. Harakha was unconscious even as his body whipped around. He kept spinning until he hit the ground, hard enough that he would no doubt curse Nijiri for his bruises when he woke.
Delighted, Nijiri rounded on Mekhi, who was trying to stumble away until his sleep-mazed mind could clear. Forking his fingers and humming the song of his jungissa, Nijiri lunged after him—
—Only to halt, statue-still, as the tip of a stick came to hover before his face. Another stick, light as the touch of a lover, came to rest on the small of his back.
It was only a sparring match, he reminded himself in an effort to summon calm. (It did not come.) Only a test… but he had seen Sentinels impale men using sheer strength and angles to make their blunt sticks sharp as glass-tipped spears. And Andat liked to leave flesh wounds whenever he felt Nijiri had not fought to his fullest effort, as an encouragement to greater diligence.
“Good,” said Andat, who held the stick to his face. That meant the one behind him was Sentinel Inefer. He had bested two, but been caught by the two most experienced. Had that been enough to pass the test? I should have left Mekhi; he was no threat. Should have gotten one of the others first, should have—
“Very good,” Andat amended, and with relief Nijiri realized the man was truly pleased. “Two of us, with you unarmed and all of us ready? I would have been satisfied if you’d gotten one.”
“It would’ve been Harakha, regardless,” said Inefer behind Nijiri, sounding disgusted. “Blundering, peaceless fool.”
“We’ll drill him until he learns better,” Andat said easily, and in spite of himself Nijiri grimaced in sympathy.
Nijiri felt Inefer’s stick leave his back. “Other matters take precedence for now,” Andat said, looking up at the balcony that overhung the sparring circle. Nijiri followed Andat’s gaze and tensed in fresh dread, for there, gazing down at them with a wry expression, stood the Superior of the Hetawa. Beside the Superior stood two men in sleeveless, hooded robes of loose off-white linen. He could see nothing of their faces, and the angle was wrong to glimpse their shoulder tattoos, but he knew their builds well enough to guess which was which—and which, since a third man should have been among them, was missing.
Suppressing a frown, Nijiri got to his feet so that he could raise his hands in proper salute toward his brethren.
“That should do, I think,” said the Superior. “Sentinel Andat, are you satisfied?”
“I am,” said Andat, “and I speak for my pathbrethren in this. Anyone who can beat two Sentinels out of four has more than sufficient skill to carry out the Goddess’s will beyond the Hetawa’s walls.” He glanced at Nijiri and smiled. “Even if he chooses to follow the wrong path in the process. Alas.”
“I see. Thank you, Andat.” The Superior’s dark eyes settled on Nijiri then, and privately Nijiri fought the urge to cover himself or apologize for his unpeaceful appearance. He was still out of breath, drenched in sweat and dressed only in a loincloth, and it felt as though his heart had made a dancing-drum of his sternum. But he had done well; he had no reason for shame.
“Come then, Acolyte Nijiri,” the Superior said—and paused, amusement narrowing his dark eyes. “Acolyte for now, at least.”
Nijiri tried not to grin, and failed utterly.
“Go and wash,” the Superior continued, emphasizing the latter word enough that some of Nijiri’s joy turned to embarrassment. “At the sunset hour, come to the Hall of Blessings.” To take your Gatherers’ Oath, he did not say, but Nijiri heard it anyhow, and rejoiced anew. Then the Superior turned away, heading through the balcony hanging into his offices. Silently, the two hooded men flanking him followed.
“That was quick,” muttered Mekhi, who grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck as he joined them. He still moved stiffly, shaking his free arm as if the hand had gone to sleep. Nijiri lifted his hand, flat with palm down, and bowed over it in contrition; Mekhi waved this off.
“A love match on both sides, I think,” said Andat, though he also made an apologetic gesture when his brothers looked at him, so no one would think him resentful. “Go on, then, boy. Congratulations.”
The word made it real. With a delighted grin, Nijiri bobbed a barely courteous nod to all three men, then turned and walked—with a speed just shy of running—into the Hetawa’s dim silence.
The bath restored his spirits, and the cool water was a balm after the sparring match in sweltering afternoon heat. No one else was in the bathing chamber when Nijiri used it, though once he returned to the small cell that he shared with three other acolytes he found that word had somehow spread: a four of pathing gifts had been left on his pallet. The first was a small, prettily enameled mirror, which had probably come from his roommates—yes, that was Talipa’s work on the flowers, he would recognize it anywhere. Talipa had been claimed from a potter family. The second gift was a small set of finger-cuffs, engraved with formal prayer pictorals. Beautiful work, and probably that of Moramal, the acolyte-master. Nijiri set this aside. As a Gatherer he would need some jewelry, for a Gatherer went disguised among the faithful—but it was still not a gift that would see much use. Alas.
The third was a small jar of scented oil, which he sniffed and nearly dropped in amazement. Myrrh; could it be? But there was no mistaking the fragrance. Such an expensive gift could only have come from his soon-to-be pathbrothers. And that, no doubt, had been how the other acolytes guessed the news; one of them would’ve been dispatched to bring the gift to Nijiri’s cell, and that one had apparently gossiped the whole way. Nijiri grinned to himself.
The fourth gift was a tiny statue of the Sun in his human form, carved in darkwood and polished to a fine gloss, right down to the prominent erect penis that any Sun statue bore. A popular gift between lovers.
Furious, Nijiri threw the thing across the room so hard that it broke in four pieces.
All his pleasure at passing the final test had soured, thanks to one tasteless, ill-considered gift. What did the other acolytes think of that? he wondered bitterly. But with the sunset hour coming, it was either go now or be late to his own oathtaking. So, fury banked if not fully extinguished, Nijiri hastily dressed in a plain loinskirt and sandals, though he also took the time to dab himself with the myrrh-oil and apply a bit of kohl to his eyes. It would not do to look ungroomed, or ungrateful for his new brothers’ gift.
The Hall of Blessings—the massive, graceful pylon of sandstone and silver-veined granite that served as the entry to the Hetawa’s complex of buildings—normally stood open to the public. As the main temple of Hananja in Gujaareh, and the only one within the walls of the capital city, the Hetawa was unique in housing only priests, acolytes, and those children who had been dedicated to the Goddess’s care. Layfolk in Hananja’s service were permitted to visit, but did not dwell within its walls. The lesser business of the Hetawa was conducted elsewhere in the city: schools for teaching children dreaming, law and wisdom, writing, and figuring; storehouses where tithes of money or goods were tallied; more. So during an allotted period by day, and again in the small hours of the morning for those who worked at night, the Hall was busy as the faithful came to do Hananja’s greater work. They offered their prayers and dreams to Hananja, submitted commissions for healing or the Gathering of relatives, or obtained healing themselves for illnesses or physical complaints. Thus did all Gujaareh find peace. But at sunset, the Hall closed for all public purposes save dire need, so that each path of Hananja’s servants could take its own communion with the Goddess of Dreams.
As Nijiri arrived, he found the Superior waiting on the tiered dais at the Hall’s heart. Flanking him were the same two Gatherers—and behind them, above them, loomed the great nightstone statue of Hananja Herself. Nijiri fixed his gaze on the statue as he approached, trying to fill his heart with the sight: Her outstretched hands, Her white-flecked blackness, Her eyes perpetually shut as She dreamed the endless realm that was Ina-Karekh.
His realm, soon.
Such thoughts settled Nijiri’s spirit at last, and by the time he reached the dais and bowed over his downturned palms, he felt sure of himself again, and calm.
(But where, he wondered again, was Gatherer Ehiru? Away on Hetawa business, perhaps. He fought disappointment.)
Silence fell, measured and still. When a proper span of time had passed, the Superior finally spoke. “Raise your head, Acolyte. We have something to discuss.”
Surprised, Nijiri did so. Was this part of the oathtaking? As he looked up, the two men beside the Superior lifted their heads as well, each pulling back his hood.
“Your relationship with Teacher Omin,” said the taller man. Sonta-i, he of the dead eyes and ashen-dark skin, eldest of the Gatherer path. “Explain it.”
Everything in Nijiri went still. He stared at Sonta-i, too stunned even for alarm.
“Explain it please,” said the other man, smiling as if that would soften the blow. He was stockier and younger and redder than Sonta-i. Curling copper ringlets trailed from his topknot, his eyes were a shade of brown that glinted red in the evening light, and even the tattoo on his upper arm—a four-lobed poppy—was the color of blood, where Sonta-i’s nightshade had been done in deep indigo. Gatherer Rabbaneh, whom Nijiri had always considered kinder than Sonta-i. Until now.
Omin, you useless, greedy fool. Nijiri closed his eyes, thinking most unpeaceful thoughts. Anger had always been his weakness, the thing he strove most to control in himself. But now he could not help it, for if Omin’s folly cost him the goal he had spent ten years striving toward…
“There is no relationship,” he snapped, looking each man in the eye. Sonta-i’s face remained impassive; Rabbaneh raised his eyebrows at Nijiri’s tone. The Superior looked sorrowful—and by that, Nijiri guessed that he thought Nijiri was lying. This made Nijiri angrier still. “Though not for lack of trying on the Teacher’s part.”
“Oh?” asked the Superior, very quietly.
Nijiri made himself shrug, though he did not feel nonchalant at all. “The Teacher offered me favors in return for favors. I refused.”
The Superior said, “Explain in fullness, Acolyte. When did this begin? What favors were offered, and what did he expect in return?”
“After I chose to leave the House of Children. The day I reported to him as an acolyte; he was to test me in numeratics. He found my knowledge acceptable, but he commented much on my face, my eyes, my walk. He said I was very pretty despite looking so lowcaste.” He fought the urge to curl his lip, remembering that day and the way it had made him feel: low and weak and sick and afraid. The fear had changed, though, the longer Omin pressed him. He had grown angry, and that had always made him strong. So he took a deep breath. “Superior, now I must speak of that we do not discuss.”
The Superior flinched. Rabbaneh’s smile did not falter, but it grew harder, sharp-edged. Sonta-i did not react, but there was a palpable additional coldness in his voice as he spoke. “You imply that Omin made promises with respect to the pranje ceremony.”
“I imply nothing, Gatherer.” He watched that news settle in among them, and saw Omin’s death harden on brows and tightened lips. At that, Nijiri did feel a moment’s guilt. But Omin had brought this on himself—and Nijiri had his own future to consider.
“Continue,” Sonta-i said.
“The Teacher offered me safety, Gatherer, from the annual selection of pranje attendants. In exchange, he made clear his desire that I attend him, in the small hours of the morning, at some location in a disused corridor of the Teachers’ Hall. I do not know the place, since I refused him, but he said that he had used it with other acolytes, and there we would have privacy.”
The Superior muttered something to himself in Sua; Nijiri, whose Sua was only passable, did not catch it. Rabbaneh let out a long sigh. For him, that was tantamount to a desert skyrer’s shriek of fury. “And why did you not accept this offer?”
“I don’t fear the pr—that we do not discuss.” Silently Nijiri cursed the lapse. He had hoped to seem cool and controlled like a Servant of Hananja, and not a nervous child. “Why would I need protection from something I don’t fear?”
The Gatherers looked at each other. There were no words exchanged between them—not that Nijiri could tell in any case. Rumor had it Gatherers could speak through waking dreams in some manner. But by that unvoiced agreement, Sonta-i abruptly moved away from his pathbrother and the Superior, coming down off the dais. Moving, his pace slow and steady and full of warning, to encircle Nijiri.
Now it took everything Nijiri had to stay angry, and not show his unease.
“You aren’t afraid?” Sonta-i asked.
I wasn’t before now. “No, Gatherer.”
“An acolyte died last year. He served a Gatherer in the pranje and died. Did you know this?” Sonta-i did not look at Nijiri as he spoke; that was the worst of it. His eyes glanced over the moontear-vined pillars, the rugs, Hananja’s starry knees. Nijiri did not rate even that much attention.
Nijiri did not turn to follow Sonta-i’s movement, though the hairs on the back of his neck prickled whenever the Gatherer passed out of his sight. “I heard the rumors. I don’t claim to be fearless, Gatherer; I fear many things. But death is not one of those things.”
“Injury. Violation. Damnation. Despair. All these things can result when an acolyte attends a Gatherer sitting pranje.” Abruptly Sonta-i paused, leaning in to examine a moontear flower with great intensity. Nijiri could not see what had so attracted the Gatherer’s interest. Perhaps it was nothing at all.
“I am aware, Gatherer. I did sit pranje twice—” But those had been nothing, hours of boredom, while he sat with Sharers who’d been nearly as bored as he. Sharers faced the pranje’s test only once every four of floodseasons, as a precaution, and no one could remember the last time a Sharer had failed. He had not trained to serve Sharers.
All at once Nijiri froze, as Sonta-i swung about and peered at him with the same taut scrutiny he’d given the flower. “You did not refuse the Teacher out of propriety. You refused him out of pride.”
It was not a question, but Nijiri felt no need to deny it. They knew he had never been humble. “Yes. I wished to be a Gatherer.”
“Acolyte,” the Superior said, somewhere beyond Sonta-i. He sounded weary; Nijiri did not dare look away from Sonta-i’s gray eyes to check. He didn’t fear death, but somehow Sonta-i seemed worse than death in that moment. “You just said propriety was not your concern.”
“Just so, Superior.” He licked his lips—only so that he could speak clearly, of course, nothing more. “I felt that an acolyte who wished to become a Gatherer should do better, as illicit lovers go, than some greedy, undisciplined Teacher.”
He was deeply relieved to hear a startled laugh from Rabbaneh, and the Superior’s groan. Sonta-i, however, leaned closer to him, until Nijiri was breathing the man’s exhalations. The tiny fibers of Sonta-i’s iris, like spokes of a chariot wheel, contracted slowly as Sonta-i searched his face.
“You’re hiding something,” he said.
“Nothing I’m ashamed of, Gatherer.”
It was a mistake; he knew it the instant he spoke. A lie. Sonta-i’s eyes narrowed sharply. He knew.
“Your overly high estimation of yourself aside, Acolyte,” drawled Rabbaneh, again somewhere behind Sonta-i, “why did you not report the Teacher to us? A man who would abuse his power over others should at the least be assessed for corruption. A Gatherer,” and he said this with gentle emphasis, his voice growing serious, “would think this way.”
Sonta-i was going to kill him. Nijiri knew that now. There was a stillness in the Gatherer that he had never seen before, though he found it somehow entirely unsurprising. Sonta-i was peculiar even by Gatherer standards—distracted by odd things, uninterested in emotional matters. Yet he was a Gatherer, and that honed all his peculiarity to an arrow-focus when he chose to do the Goddess’s business.
So Nijiri spoke to Sonta-i. Not to excuse himself, because there was no excuse that any Gatherer would accept if he had already made his judgment. He spoke only to assuage his own pride. If he was to die, he would die like a Servant of Hananja.
“Because Omin did no harm,” Nijiri said. “Not after that. He tried to harm me, but failed. And in his failure, he was tamed—for, after I informed him that I had only to speak a word to the Gatherers, he made no attempt to coerce other acolytes.” Since then, in fact, Omin had been a model Teacher, save for his constant gifts and longing looks whenever Nijiri turned his back. And save for losing Nijiri his chance at the future he’d worked so hard to achieve.
Sonta-i shook his head slightly. By this, Nijiri knew his explanation had been insufficient to alter the Gatherer’s assessment of him. Aloud, Sonta-i said, “And now that you’re no longer an acolyte, this corrupt Teacher is free to press his attentions on other boys.”
“I’ve dedicated myself to the Hetawa, Gatherer. I have friends among the acolytes, who would tell me—” But here he faltered for an instant, seized by sudden doubt. What would happen to him if the Gatherers did not accept him, and if Sonta-i did not kill him? He could go to the Sentinels, if they would still allow it, but he did not want to be a Sentinel, or a Teacher, or a layman, or anything but what he’d always, since the day he’d met Ehiru, always yearned to be—
“You’ve seen sixteen floods this year,” said the Superior. “A man by law, and soon by duty as well. You cannot protect your fellows if you no longer dwell among them, never see their daily struggles. And you can’t expect boys to bring their fears to you, either, for they’ll have no cause to trust one grown man if another has abused them.” He sighed; from the corner of his eye, Nijiri saw him shake his head. “Still too much the servant-caste.”
At this, Nijiri flinched, stung enough at last to look away from Sonta-i. “I am a child of the Hetawa, Superior!”
But it was Rabbaneh who nodded, to Nijiri’s consternation. “None of us are born to the Goddess’s path, Acolyte. We come from somewhere, and the past leaves its mark. Consider yours.”
“I…” Nijiri frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“A good servant never complains, they say. A child of the servant caste expects to be in others’ power, and expects that some of his masters will be corrupt. He seeks only to mitigate the worst effects of that corruption so that he can survive. But a Gatherer destroys corruption—and the power that allows it, if he must. If that way lies peace. That is what I mean, Acolyte Nijiri. You accommodated, where you should have rebelled.”
And belatedly, guiltily, Nijiri realized Rabbaneh and the Superior were right. A Gatherer does not seek help, he had told himself at the time—and so he had not, thinking himself stronger for handling the matter on his own. Thinking of himself, when he should have held his fellow acolytes’ peace foremost in his mind. Of course Omin would do evil again; Omin was corrupt. There was no taming something like that.
Better to have brought the matter to the Superior and Gatherers, and damn his pride. Better even to kill Omin, with his hands if not narcomancy, and then submit himself for the Gatherers’ judgment. Any action was better than complacency while corruption festered and grew.
He knelt then, putting his hands and forehead on the floor to show the depth of his contrition. “Your pardon, Gatherer,” he murmured against the stone, glad now that Ehiru was not present. Sonta-i still loomed over him, but that was right. How had he ever imagined himself ready to be a Gatherer? “I was wrong. I should never have… I should’ve done more. May Her peace ease my soul—I should have thought.”
A moment of appropriate silence passed.
“Well,” said Rabbaneh, with a sigh. “I suppose that will do. Sonta-i?”
Sonta-i took hold of Nijiri’s arm, pulling him back to his feet. As Nijiri blinked in surprise, Sonta-i narrowed his eyes again. “He’s still hiding something.”
“Boys his age will have their secrets, pathbrother. Even we are permitted a few of those.”
With a soft sigh that was not—quite, Nijiri thought—disappointed, Sonta-i released him. “Very well; I agree.”
“And we know Ehiru’s feeling on the matter.” Rabbaneh clasped his hands behind his back and glanced at the Superior with a questioning lift of his eyebrows.
“He meant well, I suppose,” the Superior said, nodding, though Nijiri heard a hint of reluctance in his voice. “And peace was achieved among the acolytes, if by unorthodox means, and if only temporarily.”
“He’s still young.” Rabbaneh shrugged, his smile returning at last. “If we had nothing to teach him, what need would he have of us?”
“What, Gatherer?” Nijiri had begun to feel very stupid.
At this, even the Superior looked amused. “A necessary final test, Nijiri. There is peace in submission, but sometimes greater peace—lasting peace—in resistance. We needed to know that you understood this.” He shrugged. “There are many paths to peace.”
“We shall simply have to teach you to think farther ahead on that path, Apprentice,” Rabbaneh added, smiling again.
Apprentice. Apprentice. Nijiri stood there, trembling; he barely noticed when Sonta-i shrugged as if losing interest and stalked away, returning to the Superior’s side. Apprentice!
He wanted, very much, to leap into the air and shout, which would have been not only a mistake, but an offense to Hananja, here in Her hall. So instead he stammered, trembling for a moment with the effort to control his joy, “You honor me, Gatherers, to bring—to consider—” He couldn’t think enough to form words.
“Yes, yes.” The Superior glanced at the Hall’s narrow, prism-glass windows, beyond which the sun’s light still marked the western sky. The Dreamer had not yet risen. When it did, the Hall would fill with its silvered light, refracted further still by the windows into shifting, layered colors. That would help the moontear vines, which would not otherwise bloom indoors. “Please rise; we still have your oathtaking ceremony to complete, and then the Gatherers’ dedication. And there’s an additional matter we need to discuss.”
Nijiri swallowed and nodded, feeling quite as though he could deal with anything now. He struggled not to grin like a fool. “Y-yes. What matter, Superior?”
“Ehiru,” said the Superior. “You may have noticed his absence.”
The Superior’s grim air—and its sudden, sober echo on Rabbaneh’s face—abruptly made Nijiri realize that Ehiru was not just away on Gatherer business.
“He is indisposed,” Sonta-i said, “because two nights previous to this, he mishandled a Gathering. The umblikeh was severed before the tithebearer could be pulled from the shadowlands; the soul was lost in the realms between waking and dreaming. What dreamblood could be Gathered was too tainted with fear and pain to be given to the Sharers for distribution.”
Nijiri inhaled, stricken. No Gatherer had mishandled a soul in his lifetime. It happened, and everyone knew it; Gatherers were fallible mortal men, not gods. But for Ehiru, who had never failed to carry a soul to peace, to falter now—Nijiri licked his lips. “And the Gatherer?” He cannot have chosen to end his service, not yet. The whole city would be in mourning if he had. They would not be talking to me of him if he had.
Sonta-i shook his head, and Nijiri’s belly tightened. But then he added, “Ehiru has chosen to seclude himself so that he may pray and seek peace. We believe he will choose to remain among us, for now, but…” He sighed, looking abruptly weary. “Well. What are your thoughts on the matter?”
Nijiri started. “My thoughts?”
“He was to have been your mentor,” said Rabbaneh. “He is, after all, the most experienced of us now that Una-une has gone into dreaming. An apprentice should learn from the best. But given Ehiru’s lapse…” He grimaced delicately, as if to apologize for his indelicate words. “So. Who is your choice, to replace him? Sonta-i, or me?”
Relief spread through Nijiri—and with it came a curious sort of eagerness, not dissimilar from what he had felt in the sparring circle, facing four Sentinels. Of this, if nothing else, he was certain. “If I was to be Ehiru’s, Gatherer, then I will stay Ehiru’s.”
Rabbaneh raised his eyebrows. “A Gatherer can take months, or years, to recover from such a lapse, Apprentice. If he recovers. For Ehiru in particular this incident has been a blow. He’s convinced that he is no longer worthy to be a Gatherer.” Rabbaneh sighed faintly. “We’re all prone to pride. But perhaps you should reconsider.”
Excerpted from The Killing Moon by Jemisin, N. K. Copyright © 2012 by Jemisin, N. K.. Excerpted by permission.
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