Gujaareh, the city of dreams, suffers under the imperial rule of the Kisuati Protectorate. A city where the only law was peace now knows violence and oppression. And nightmares: a mysterious and deadly plague haunts the citizens of Gujaareh, dooming the infected to die screaming in their sleep. Trapped between dark dreams and cruel overlords, the people yearn to rise up but Gujaareh has known peace for too long.
Someone must show them the way.
Hope lies with two outcasts: the first woman ever allowed to join the dream goddess' priesthood and an exiled prince who longs to reclaim his birthright. Together, they must resist the Kisuati occupation and uncover the source of the killing dreams. . . before Gujaareh is lost forever.
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The Shadowed Sun
By Jemisin, N. K.
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Jemisin, N. K.
All right reserved.
The Sharer’s Test
There were two hundred and fifty-six places where a man could hide within his own flesh. The soldier dying beneath Hanani’s hands had fled to someplace deep. She had searched his heart and brain and gut, though the soul visited those organs less often than layfolk thought. She had examined his mouth and eyes, the latter with especial care. At last, behind a lobe of his liver, she found his soul’s trail and followed it into a dream of shadowed ruins.
Piles of rubble loomed out of the twilit mists—crumbling structures so titanic that each single brick would dwarf a man, so foreign in design that she could not fathom their purpose. A palace? A temple? Camouflage, regardless. Beneath her feet the dust gleamed, something more than mica: each step displaced a million stars. She took care to put them all back in her wake.
To find the soldier, Hanani would have to first deal with the setting. It was simple enough to will the ruins into order, which she did by crouching to touch the ground. Threads of dreamichor, yellow-bright and gleaming, laced from her fingertips and etched the ground for a moment before vanishing into it. A breath later, the dust skittered up to seal cracked stone; the harbinger of change. Then the earth split and the ground shook as great bricks righted themselves and flew through the air, clattering together to form columns and walls. All around her, had she chosen to watch, the outlines of a monstrous city took shape against the gradient sky. But when the city was whole, she rose and moved on without looking. There was far more important work to be done.
[“This takes longer than it should.”
“The injury is healing.”
“That does no good if he dies.”
“He won’t. She has him. Watch.”]
After first passing a stone archway, Hanani paused and turned back to examine it. The arch was man-height, the only thing of normal proportions in the dreamscape. Beyond the arch lay the same shadows that shrouded all—no. The shadows were thicker here.
Prowling carefully closer, Hanani attempted to step through the archway.
The shadows pressed back.
She imagined illumination.
The shadows grew thicker.
After a moment’s consideration, she summoned pain and fear and rage instead, and wrapped these around herself. The shadows’ resistance melted; the soldier’s soul recognized kindred. Passing through the arch, Hanani found herself in an atrium garden, the kind that should have helped to cool the heart of any home—but this one was dead. She looked around, ducking splintered palms and wilted moontear vines, frowning at a suppurating mess of a flowerbed. Then she spied something beyond it: there at the garden’s heart, curled in a nest of his own sorrow, lay the soldier.
Pausing here, Hanani shifted a fraction of her attention back to the waking realm.
[“Dayu? I’ll need more dreambile soon.”
“Yes, Hanani—Um, I mean, Sharer-Apprentice.”]
That done, Hanani returned to the dream of the hidden garden. The soldier lay with knees drawn up and arms wrapped about himself as if for comfort. In the curve of his body, a gaping wound spilled his intestines into a hole at the nest’s heart. She could see nothing beyond the hole, only that perverse umbilical connecting him to it.
Death, said the air around him.
“Not here, petitioner,” she replied. “These are the shadowlands. There are better places to die.”
He did not move, hungering again for death. Again she demurred. Memory, she offered, to entice him.
Anguish flared up in cold, purple-white wisps, wreathing the area around the nest as a new form coalesced. Another man: older, bearded in the way of those who bore northern blood, also garbed as a soldier but clearly of some higher rank than Hanani’s soldier. A relative? Mentor? Lover? Beloved, whoever he was.
“Gone,” Hanani’s soldier whispered. “Gone without me.”
“May he dwell in Her peace forever,” she said. Extending her hands to either side, she trailed her fingers through the ring of mist. Where she touched, delicate deep red threads blended and pulsed into the white.
[“She uses more dreamblood? She’ll run out at that rate.”
“Then we’ll give her more. The desert scum have nearly cut him in two, man, what do you expect?”]
Hanani’s soldier moaned and curled into a tighter ball as red threads stretched forth from the walls, soaking into his skin. Abruptly the mists flickered, the bearded soldier’s image growing insubstantial as shadows. New scenes formed instead, appearing and overlapping and fading with each breath. A lonely perch atop a wall. Sword practice. A barracks bed. A river barge.
Hanani coaxed the memories to continue, inserting gentle suggestions to guide them in a new direction. Loved ones. Life. The scenes changed to incorporate the bearded soldier and others—doubtless the petitioner’s comrades or caste-kin. They laughed and talked and worked at daily tasks. As the images flowed, Hanani reached carefully around the man and into the hole that was devouring him. The first contact sent pain slamming up her arm like a blow—but cold, so terribly cold! She gasped and fought the urge to cry out as her fingers stiffened and froze and cracked apart—
No. She formed her soulname’s syllables within her mind and clarity washed through her, a reminder that this was a dream and she was its master. This pain is not my own. When she drew her hand back, it was whole.
But the man was not; the pain was devouring him. She focused on the images again, noting one of a tavern. The petitioner was not there, although his dead beloved and other comrades were, laughing and singing a lusty song. There was danger in this, she realized abruptly. The petitioner had been injured in a raid, his beloved killed. She had no idea whether the rest of his companions had been cut down as well. If so, then what she meant to attempt might only increase his death-hunger.
There was no choice but to try.
[“—As though you want her to fail, Yehamwy.”
“Of course not. The Council simply wants to be certain of her competence.”
“And if the Council knew the first thing about healing, that would be—”
“What is that noise?”
“I’m not certain. It came from the tithing alcoves. Dayu? Everything all right, boy?”]
Distractions could be dangerous, even deadly, in narcomancy. Focusing her mind on the task at hand, Hanani reshaped the tavern scene around her soldier. His comrades stopped singing and turned to him, offering greetings and reminiscences and sloshing cups. The beer shone a warm deep red in the dreamlight. Behind them, Hanani quietly faded the bearded soldier away.
“Look here,” she said to the petitioner. “Your fellows are waiting. Will you not join them?”
The man groaned, uncurling from his nest and straining up toward his comrades. A great wind soughed through the dreamscape, blowing away the city and the shadows. Hanani exerted her will in concert with the man’s and the garden swirled away, its shadows suddenly replaced by bright lanterns and tavern walls. The nest lingered, though, for the man was bound fast to his pain. So instead Hanani touched the edge of the nest and caused it to compress, shrinking rapidly into a tiny dark marble small enough to sit in his palm. He gazed mournfully at Hanani and clutched the marble tightly to his breast, but did not protest when Hanani caused the rope of intestine to fall free, severing his linkage. She pressed the dangling end against his belly and it vanished, as did the wound itself. Lastly she summoned clothing, which blurred for a moment before his mind shaped it into the gray-agate collar and loinskirt of a Gujaareen city guard.
The soldier nodded to her once, then turned to join his companions. They surrounded him, embraced him, and all at once he began to weep. But he was safe from danger now—and she had made him so, made him whole again, body and soul alike. I’m a Sharer now!
But no, that was presumption. Whether she’d passed the trial to become a full member of the Sharer path was a matter for her pathbrothers to decide, and the Council to confirm, no matter how well she’d done. And it was utter folly to let her emotions slip control while she remained in dreaming; she would not ruin herself by making a child’s mistake. So with a deep sigh to focus her thoughts, Hanani released the soldier’s dream and followed the faint red tendril that would lead her soul back to its own housing of flesh—
—But something jolted her awareness.
She paused, frowning. The dreamworld of Ina-Karekh lay behind her, inasmuch as such things had any direction at all. Hona-Karekh, the waking realm, was ahead. She opened the eyes of her dreamform to find that she stood in a gray-shadowed version of the waking realm, where the tension and busy movement that had filled the Hall of Blessings a few moments before were suddenly still. She stood on the dais at the feet of the great, looming nightstone statue of Hananja, but her petitioner was gone. Mni-inh and Teacher Yehamwy, who had come to oversee her trial, were gone. The Hall was silent and empty, but for her.
The realm between waking and dreams. Hanani frowned. She had not intended to stop here. Concentrating, she sought her soul’s umblikeh again to complete the journey back to waking—and then stopped, hearing something. There. Over near the tithing alcoves, where Sharer-Apprentices and acolytes drew dreams from the minds of sleeping faithful. A slow, deep sound, like nothing she’d ever heard before. Grinding stone?
Or the breathing of some huge, heavy beast.
Nothing in the between realm was real. The space between dreams was emptiness, where the soul might drift with nothing to latch onto—no imagery, no sensation, no conceptualization. An easy place in which to go mad. With her soulname and training, Hanani was safer, for she had long ago learned to build a protective construct around herself—the shadow-Hall in this case—whenever she traveled here. Still, she avoided the space between if she could help it, for only Gatherers could navigate it with ease. It was troubling to say the least that she had manifested here unwittingly.
Squinting toward the alcoves, she wondered: had she forgotten some step in healing the soldier, done something wrong in the transit from Ina-Karekh? A man’s life was involved; it was her duty to be thorough.
[“Hanani. The healing is complete. Come forth.”]
Something moved in the stillness near an alcove’s opening. Emerged from it, behind one of the Hall’s flower-draped columns, which occluded a clear view. She perceived intent and power, a slow gathering of malice that first unnerved, then actively frightened her—
The shadow-Hall shivered all over, then turned bright and busy with people and breezes and murmurs. Hanani caught her breath, blinking as her soul settled back into her own flesh. The waking realm. Her mentor stood beside her, a troubled look on his face.
“Mni-inh-brother. There was something…” She shook her head, confused. “I wasn’t done.”
“You’ve done enough, Apprentice,” said a cold voice. Yehamwy, a heavyset, balding Teacher in his early elder years, stood glowering beside the healing area. Before her, on one of the wooden couches set up for Sharer audiences, Hanani’s soldier lay in the deep sleep of the recently healed. Automatically Hanani pushed aside the bandages to check his belly. The flesh was whole and scarless, though still smeared with the blood and gore that had been spilled prior to healing.
“My petitioner is fine,” she said, looking up at Yehamwy in confusion.
“Not him, Hanani.” Mni-inh crouched beside the couch and laid two fingers on the soldier’s eyelids to check Hanani’s work. He closed his eyes for a moment; they flickered rapidly beneath their lids. Then he exhaled and returned. “Fine indeed. I’ll have someone summon his caste-kin to carry him home.”
Less disoriented now, Hanani looked around the Hall of Blessings and frowned. When she’d begun work on the soldier, the Hall had been full, humming with the voices of those come to offer their monthly tithes, or petition for the Hetawa’s aid, or just sit on pallets amid the moontear blossoms and pray. The sun still slanted through the long prism windows, but now the Hall was empty of all save those on the dais with Hanani, and a cluster of Sharers and Sentinels near one of the tithing alcoves.
The same place she’d seen something, in the realm between. That was strange. And it was far too early for the Hall’s public hours to have ended.
“Hanani had nothing to do with this,” Mni-inh said. Hanani looked up in surprise at the sharp tone of her mentor’s voice. He was glaring at Teacher Yehamwy.
“The boy was fetching tithes for her,” Yehamwy said. “Clearly she is involved.”
“How? She was too deep in dreaming even to notice.”
“The boy was only thirteen. She had him ferrying humors like a full apprentice.”
“And? You know as well as I that we allow the acolytes to ferry humors whenever they show an aptitude!”
The councilor shook his head. “And sometimes they aren’t ready. This incident is the direct result of your apprentice’s excessive use of humors—”
Mni-inh stiffened. “I do not recall you passing the Sharer-trial at any point, Yehamwy.”
“And the boy’s desire to please her? One need not be a Sharer to understand that. He followed her about like a tame hound, willing to do anything to serve his infatuation. Willing even to attempt a narcomantic procedure beyond his skill.”
Hanani’s knees had gone stiff during the healing, despite the cushion beneath them. She struggled clumsily to her feet. “Please—” Both men fell silent, looking at her; Mni-inh’s expression was tinged with sudden pity. That frightened her, because there was only one boy they could be talking about. “Please, Mni-inh-brother, tell me what has happened to Dayu.”
Mni-inh sighed and ran a hand over his hair. “There’s been an incident in the tithing alcoves, Hanani. I don’t know—There isn’t—”
With an impatient gesture, Yehamwy cut him off. “She should know the harm she’s caused. If you truly believe she’s worthy of becoming a Sharer, don’t coddle her.” And his expression as he turned to her was both bitter and satisfied. “A tithebearer is dead, Sharer-Apprentice. So is the acolyte Dayuhotem, who assisted you.”
Hanani caught her breath and looked at Mni-inh, who nodded in sober confirmation. “But…” She groped for words. Her ears rang, as if the words had been too loud, though no one would shout in Hananja’s own hall, at the feet of Her statue. Hananja treasured peace. “H-how? It was a simple procedure. Dayu had done it before, many times; he knew what he was doing even if he was just a child…” A Moon-wild, joyful jester of a child, as exasperating as he was charming. She could not imagine him dead. As well imagine the Sun failing to shine.
“We don’t know how it happened,” Mni-inh said. He threw a quelling look at the councilor, who had started to speak. “We don’t. We heard him cry out, and when we went into the alcove we found him and the tithebearer both. Something must have gone wrong during the donation.”
“But Dayu—” Her throat closed after the name. Dead. Her vision blurred; she pressed her hand to her mouth as if that would push the horror from her mind. Dead.
“The bodies will be examined,” Mni-inh said heavily. “There are narcomancies that can be performed even after the umblikeh is severed, which may provide some answers. Until then—”
“Until then,” Yehamwy said, “on my authority as a member of the Council of Paths, Sharer-Apprentice Hanani is prohibited from further practice of any healing art or narcomancy, pending the results of the examination.” He turned to one of the black-clad Sentinels who stood guard at the door leading into the inner Hetawa; the Sentinel turned to regard them. “Please note this for your brethren, Sentinel Mekhi.” The Sentinel, his face duty-blank, nodded once in response.
Dayu was dead. Hanani stared at Yehamwy, unable to think. Dayu was dead, and the world had bent into a new, unrecognizable shape. Hanani should have bowed over her hands to show her humility and acceptance of the Councilor’s decree, and she knew that her failure to do so reflected badly on Mni-inh. But she kept staring at him, frozen, even as his scowl deepened.
“It is the Sharers’ duty to discipline our own,” Mni-inh said. He spoke very softly, but Hanani could hear the suppressed fury in her mentor’s voice.
“Then do your duty,” Yehamwy snapped. Throwing a last cold look at Hanani, he turned and walked away.
Hanani looked up at her mentor, who stood glaring after the councilor as if contemplating something most unpeaceful. Then his anger faded as he looked down at her. She read compassion in his eyes, but resignation as well.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Your work with the petitioner was flawless. I can’t imagine our pathbrothers will discard your trial because of this, but…” His expression grew grim. He knew the Hetawa’s politics better than Hanani.
This was not the future I imagined, some part of her reflected, while the rest of her soul fluttered in circles from grief to disbelief and back again. This is not happening. She forced herself to bow over one hand; the hand shook badly. “Yes, Brother.”
He touched her hand again. “The boy was dear to you. Let me call a Gatherer.”
The promise of a Gatherer’s comfort was tempting, but then bitterness eclipsed that desire. She had lost her dearest friend in the Hetawa, and her hopes for the future seemed likely to follow him. She did not want comfort. I want everything back the way it was.
“No,” she said. “Thank you, Brother, but… I would rather be alone now. M—” She forced out the words. “May I see Dayu?”
Mni-inh hesitated, just for an instant, before responding. That was when Hanani realized: something was wrong with Dayuhotem’s body.
“It’s a shell, Hanani.” He said it gently, using his most persuasive tone. “He’s gone from it. Don’t torment yourself.”
If Mni-inh did not want her to see the body, then Dayu had not died at peace. A soul that died in pain or fear or anger was drawn into the shadowlands, the dark recesses of Ina-Karekh, there to suffer for the rest of its existence amid endless nightmares. It was the fate dreaded by all who honored the Goddess Hananja.
Trembling, Hanani groped her way to a nearby bench and sat down, hard. She needed to curl up in the Water Garden to weep for a day and a night.
Mni-inh read her face. “Hanani,” he began, but then faltered to bleak silence himself. Sharers were trained to offer comfort after a tragedy, but they were not Gatherers; their comfort was only words, ineffective as those were. Hanani had never felt the inadequacy of that training so powerfully as now.
And what if Teacher Yehamwy was right? whispered a little voice in the back of Hanani’s mind. What if Dayu’s death and damnation were somehow Hanani’s fault?
The statue of Hananja, forty feet high and gleaming in white-flecked nightstone, loomed overhead. Would it help to pray? she wondered, distantly. Dayu and the dead tithebearer would need prayers where they had gone. But no words came to her mind, and after a long empty moment she stood up.
“I shall be in my cell,” she said to Mni-inh.
And though she saw Mni-inh raise a hand as she turned away, his mouth opening as if to forestall her, in the end he said nothing. Hanani went away alone.
The Hunter’s Test
Smoke rode far on arid breezes. The faint scent came to Wanahomen through his veil as he gazed across the green valley at a distant city. His city. The smoke-plume rose from within its walls.
“It was Wujjeg,” said Ezack, at his side. He spoke in Chakti, the Banbarra tongue.
“I know,” Wanahomen replied in the same language. Beneath him, his camel shifted restlessly and uttered a grumbling complaint. Wanahomen stroked her neck absently, his eyes never leaving the plume of smoke.
“I don’t think Wujjeg meant to kill, not at first. But when the first Gujaareen went down, the second went mad and came at him wide open.”
“He shouldn’t have gutted the first one.”
“What will you do?”
Wanahomen did not reply, turning his camel about and starting down the trail from the lookout point back to camp, traveling along a ledge path more safely traversed by four feet than two. Most of the horses and camels had been loosed to forage the steep trails below the shelf, though fodder had been piled nearby for the animals to eat as well. The younger men of the encampment had already lit the evening fire. The scent of brewing tea drove the scent of burning city from Wanahomen’s nostrils, though not his mind.
Reaching the shelf, Wanahomen dismounted without removing his beast’s tack or saddle, whistling the note that meant stay. The camel grunted in surly acknowledgement, and Wanahomen strode into the encampment, ignoring the eyes that followed and tried to read him, making no response to the few voices that murmured greetings. His gaze had fixed on a young man who squatted near one of the fires, laughing with a cluster of his companions. Someone nudged the young man—Wujjeg—as Wanahomen approached, and after a moment’s hesitation Wujjeg stood and turned to face him. He had let his veil slip aside. With no women or strangers about, this was not an insult in itself, but all the camp saw the insolent look he gave to Wanahomen.
“I-Dari,” he said, offering the respectful term in a tone that was anything but. “The raid was profitable, at least, you must admit.”
“Indeed,” Wanahomen said. “The tribe must be certain to thank you when praying to its ancestors.” He laid a hand on the ivory hilt of his knife and waited.
Wujjeg’s smile slipped for just a moment, along with some of his swagger. Automatically he put his hand on his own blade-hilt, though he did not draw it. “I-Dari,” he began, but before he could say more Wanahomen’s blade scythed from its sheath and drew a second mouth across Wujjeg’s throat.
There was one gasp, from somewhere among Wujjeg’s friends. No one else spoke or moved. Wujjeg made no sound either, putting his hands to the flood from his throat for a moment before toppling to the ground.
Wanahomen shook off his knife and turned to the youngest member of the troop. “Wrap Wujjeg for travel and stow him with the baggage. We must return him to his clan.”
The youth swallowed hard and bobbed his head in silent acquiescence. Wanahomen sheathed his knife and stepped over the spreading pool of blood to walk to the next campfire. Just beyond the circle of stones he knelt, bowing his head. “Unte, may I enter?”
The man who sat beside the fire inclined his head. An elderly man with the rounded features of a westerner—a slave—hastened to move aside one of the stones, and Wanahomen stepped within the circle.
“Be welcome,” Unte said, then signaled the slave. As the slave fetched a clamp to remove a metal cookbox from the flames, the man gave Wanahomen a long considering look. “I’m trying to decide whether I’ve claimed a fool or a genius as my hunt leader.”
The slave handed Wanahomen a bowl. Roasted cercrus tubers, with flecks of spiced meat that might have been kinpan, a ground bird, or one of a half-dozen species of desert vole. Lifting his veil with one hand, Wanahomen ate quickly and neatly, not looking up at Unte. He said, “You came on this ride to see how I do things.”
“Indeed. And now I see.”
“I’ve done nothing that violates the customs of this tribe.”
“True. You’re always proper and careful, Wana.”
Wanahomen set his plate down and rubbed his eyes. He was too tired for verbal games. “Will you cast me down?”
“I haven’t yet decided.”
No! I’m so close! But instead of voicing this protest, Wanahomen said, “If I may ask one boon, then, while I’m still your hunt leader?”
“Wait? For Wujjeg’s clan to incite their kin in the Dzikeh-Banbarra to feud?”
“Every man in this troop is sworn to obey me, Unte. Wujjeg disobeyed my command. There can be only one punishment for that while we’re on hunt-ride.”
“He killed an enemy.” Unte’s voice was mild, but his eyes were cool and sharp over his veil.
Wanahomen tried not to sigh. “I have explained this to you, and to everyone else in the tribe. Only the Kisuati are our enemies, not all city folk.”
“And I have explained to you that most Banbarra would neither agree with that statement, nor care about the distinction,” Unte replied. The lines about his eyes relaxed in the firelight; he was amused behind his own veil. “Though I grant they may be more inclined to pay attention now.”
Wanahomen relaxed as well, relieved. “So then. Fool or genius?”
“Not a genius, by any stretch.”
“But not a complete fool?”
“Gods help us all, no, not a fool. My life would be easier if you were, because then I could be done with you.”
Wanahomen set down his empty bowl, nodding thanks to the slave out of careless habit, and then rose to grip the older man’s shoulder. “I promised to make you a king among kings, Unte. Is that not worth putting up with me?”
But Unte shook his head and said, “Only if you survive to succeed, Wana. Sleep lightly tonight.”
Thus dismissed, Wanahomen rose and left. He kept his eyes forward as he passed through the encampment again, this time out of weariness rather than anger. Most of the hunt party consisted of his own supporters, few of whom begrudged him Wujjeg’s death. Still, they would want to talk with him, to find out his plans or praise his forthrightness or reassure him of their loyalty. One or two would no doubt invite him to share their pallets for the night, though he usually refused such offerings to avoid accusations of favoritism. He wanted nothing more than his own pallet and the peace of dreams, but first he had to tend his mount; no respectable Banbarra would sleep before doing so. As he was not Banbarra, it was important that he keep within the bounds of respectability.
When he reached the trail below the shelf, however, he found Laye-ka already unsaddled, her cream-colored coat brushed clean. She chewed placidly on some bit of scrub and grunted at him by way of greeting, rattling the necklace of amulets he had woven for her. At her noise, Ezack leaned out from behind her rump and grinned at him. “Knew you’d come back. The lady here didn’t want to wait. Started stomping about and grumbling once you were gone.”
Wanahomen chuckled and went to the camel’s head, reaching up to rub her hard forehead. She pushed against his hand, begging scratches. “Isn’t that just like a woman?” he asked, obliging her.
“True enough! So…” Ezack darted a look around for listeners. “Is the old man angry?”
“No. He understood.”
Ezack sighed in relief, his breath momentarily tenting the cloth of his own veil. “I thought he would, but still.”
“He warned me to be wary. As if I needed that warning.” As Wanahomen scratched Laye-ka’s ears, his eyes drifted back toward the camp. Most of the knots of men had broken up, as if Wujjeg’s death and Unte’s approval had ended all debates. One remaining cluster—those who had been Wujjeg’s friends—sat together whispering around one of the campfires. Wanahomen was not particularly disturbed by this, for Wujjeg had been the smartest and boldest of that bunch; without him they were little threat. Nevertheless, he would obey Unte, and be careful.
“Ha, you greedy thing; get on now.” He slapped Laye-ka’s shoulder, and with a last mournful look she turned and ambled off to join the other horses and camels. “Rest well, Ezack.”
“In peace, Wana.”
Wana paused, glancing back in surprise at the familiar, but quintessentially Gujaareen, parting phrase. Ezack shrugged at his look. “We Banbarra find a use for whatever comes our way. We’ve kept you, haven’t we?”
With this, Ezack began stacking the saddlebags against the shelf wall, politely ignoring Wana when he murmured in Gujaareen, “Thank you.” Too delicate a moment for Banbarra tastes; the sort of thing Wanahomen would never have allowed himself to do with anyone else, lest they think him as soft as most city-dwellers. But Ezack had learned to tolerate his commander’s peculiar behavior years before, for which Wanahomen was grateful. He walked away quickly, before the urge to become sentimental got any worse.
His camp space was ready, the fire burning briskly and his pallet laid out by his own slave. There was no barrier circle here; a good hunt leader did not need to separate himself from his men. As he entered the area of firelight and sat down, shifting to lie on his side, Wanahomen nodded to the slave. “We’ll be heading home tomorrow.”
Charris—once a general of Gujaareh’s army, though those days were long past—returned the nod from where he lay on his own pallet. “You handled things well.” He spoke in Gujaareen, in part because his Chakti was poor, and in part for privacy. Only Unte and Ezack spoke anything of the tongue: Unte with marginal fluency, Ezack far less than that.
Wanahomen’s cheeks warmed with the praise. “Father taught me to deal swiftly with defiance.”
“If it’s any consolation, the Gujaareen who was wounded will probably live. If his comrades kept him warm and took him to the Hetawa right away, the wound could’ve been healed.”
Wanahomen nodded slowly, gazing into the fire. “I had forgotten about that. Healing. Amazing, isn’t it? That I could forget such a thing.” He fell silent as the capital’s walls, golden at sunset, gleamed in his memory. For a moment he could almost smell moontear blossoms on the wind, and then the memory was gone. He mourned its passing; his memories were thin and rare these days. “No true Gujaareen would forget such a thing, Charris. Would they?”
Charris spoke gently. “We’ve been away a long time, my Prince, but we will always be Gujaareen.”
Yes. And Gujaareh would be his again. Wanahomen repeated that thought to himself once, and thrice more under his breath; four repetitions made a prayer. His, by Hananja’s grace.
“The appointment with the shunha,” he said. “Is it set?”
Charris nodded. “Three days from now, at sunset. I told him in the message that it would be me.” He threw an uneasy look at Wanahomen.
“I must see this man for myself, Charris. The shunha might give their first allegiance to Gujaareh, but they’re still too close to their Kisuati roots for my comfort. I need to be sure we can trust this one.” Wanahomen reached under his headcloth to rub the gritty back of his neck, missing with rueful fondness the scented baths of his people. “I’ll be careful, never fear.”
“And my other suggestion?”
Wanahomen scowled. “Never.”
“The Hetawa is as much a power in Gujaareh as the nobility, my Prince. More.”
“And I will never ask their aid for so much as healing a stubbed toe.”
Charris sighed. “In peace, then, my Prince.” He shifted to lie back on his roll.
“In peace, old friend.” Wanahomen shifted to remove his boots, then lay down, securing his face-veil for rest. Watching shadows dance on the shelf’s overhang, he shut his eyes—
—And opened them to a churning, storm-choked sky.
Where the stone of a sheltering ledge should have been, where Dreaming Moon and the million Lesser Suns should have filled the night sky beyond that, thick black clouds boiled and rippled. The lightning that flickered among these clouds was attenuated, thin and sickly, and it lingered, more like the thread of veins through flesh than light and fire. He had never seen such a sky, even in the worst of floodseason.
He sat up. Beneath this sky the world had turned gray and strange: leached of color, the shadows gone sharp and too deep to see into. As Wanahomen’s outer robe fell away, he saw that all his dusty Banbarra clothing was gone—replaced by a loinskirt of fine tailored linen, a feathered waistcloak, and a collar of lapis teardrops. Clothing befitting a prince.
“As it should be,” whispered his father’s voice.
Wanahomen turned. The Banbarra encampment was gone; Charris was gone. Wanahomen’s pallet and fire sat on the filthy bricks of a Gujaareen street, in a high-walled and shadowed alleyway. Near the back of this alley, where the shadows were thickest, a form at once familiar and hideous lurked. Its head listed to one side; he saw the gleam of teeth. And yet—
“Wanahomen,” the specter whispered.
He got to his feet, filled with the certainty of dreaming. “Father.”
“My son, my heir.” The voice was soft, airy, yet Wanahomen would know its timbre anywhere. He bit his lip and took a step closer, wanting to close the distance. Knowing, despite ten years’ absence from Gujaareh, that this desire was foolish. The land of dreams was incomprehensibly vast; it would take aeons for the souls of the dead to fill it. Most of the people seen in dreams were merely reflections of the dreamer’s own thoughts and fears.
“My reborn soul.” The shadow of his father shook its head; dirty, limp braids swung back and forth. “Where is the Aureole, Wanahomen? Where is your kingdom?”
“In enemy hands, Father.” He could hear the hate in his own voice, echoing from the alley’s walls. “They’ve taken everything from me.”
“Not everything. Not hope. Not Her favor.”
Wanahomen shook his head, smiling bleakly. “Does She even know me, Father? I’ve made no offerings and enjoyed no blessings for many years.”
“Blessings will come.” Something in the voice, at once sly and amused, made this less a promise and more a warning. The figure lifted one crooked, palsied finger skyward. “They have come already, see? Such powerful blessings. They will shake all Gujaareh, waking and sleeping, and drown the weak in their own dark dreams. Her suffering knows no limits.”
Wanahomen looked up at the grinding sky and shivered, though there was no wind. “Do you mean the Goddess? I don’t understand, Father—”
“Don’t you?” The shadows shifted as the shape lowered its arm to point at Wanahomen, stepping forward enough that the firelight illuminated its flesh at last. Wanahomen’s gorge rose as he saw purple-black sores mottling skin that had once been the pale gold of desert sand. The rot of death? No. These sores looked more like some sort of sickness.
The thing that had been his father uttered a thick, clotted chuckle. Following its finger, Wanahomen looked down at himself and gasped to see that his own torso bloomed with the same sores. Revolted, he swept his hands down himself to brush them off. But his skin was whole; the sickness was beneath it. Inside him.
“Hurry,” his father whispered. “You see it has already begun.”
Wanahomen opened his eyes again. The cavern and the Banbarra were back. The dream was gone.
No. Unlike most of his countrymen, Wanahomen had never been trained in the techniques of proper dreaming—his father had not permitted it. Yet it seemed some things were innate, training or no training. This much he could feel: some dreams were more than dreams.
He closed his eyes, but did not sleep again that night.
The Maiden’s Test
Tiaanet, daughter of Insurret, maiden of the shunha caste, was legend in Gujaareh. Poets and songstresses had composed hymns in her honor; sculptors and painters used her likeness in their finest work. Those who spoke with her noted that her wit and grace matched her physical beauty, and no one could deny that the household had been run smoothly since her mother apportioned some of the management to her. So too were the family’s investments profitable and well chosen. Some—lovestruck fools, mostly, but a few others besides—whispered that in her perfection, the shunha’s godly ancestors were reborn.
So it was that as the season of third harvest began, in the tenth year of the Kisuati occupation, word spread throughout the higher castes of a momentous happening: Lady Tiaanet at last sought a husband. No one had expected such restraint from her powerful, influential family—for while women of the shunha rarely married as early as lowcastes or country folk, the river had flooded four times since Tiaanet’s majority at age sixteen. Between her natural gifts and future wealth—for like the Kisuati, the shunha passed inheritance through the motherline—it was virtually guaranteed that every man of worth in the two lands would come calling on the next social occasion. This happened to be the funeral of Lord Khanwer, a cousin to Tiaanet’s father.
Per tradition, Khanwer’s funeral rites were held at the house of his nearest living relative, culminating in a Moonrise-to-Moonset celebration. In flagrant disregard for shunha tradition, however, it was not Tiaanet’s mother but Tiaanet herself who served as hostess for the event—a great responsibility for so young a maiden, and a terrible scandal. Shunha did not disregard tradition. The elders of the caste would doubtless send her a letter of censure, and she would doubtless visit them to apologize, before continuing to do exactly as she pleased.
Tiaanet took care to maintain a sedate and graceful pace as she moved among the gathered guests, keeping cups full and conversation flowing. More importantly, she noted the eyes of the male guests, which strayed often to her throughout the evening. On her father’s request she had worn her most alluring gown, linen woven so finely that it was all but sheer, and meticulously pleated so that it conformed to every curve of her body. The men’s lips parted as her unbound breasts swayed beneath the translucent cloth; their gazes lingered on the soft curve of her belly, trying to pick out the dark triangle below. She had seen several of them approach her father throughout the evening, speaking in low, urgent voices and glancing toward her. But her father would only nod politely through these conversations, his smile growing wider with each new proposition as if it were he, and not Tiaanet, to whom they paid court.
“How tedious this must be for you,” said a white-haired man as Tiaanet refilled his cup. She looked up to find him smiling at her, which surprised her—not for his smile, which was kindly, but for the fact that there was no lust in it.
“Not so very, my lord,” she replied. A servant approached, offering her a fresh carafe of wine; she nodded thanks and exchanged it for her nearly empty one. “It pleases me to honor the passing of such an esteemed man.”
“Hmm, yes. The last of the true traditionalists was Khanwer. Gujaareh has lost a champion.” The man sipped the wine and paused to savor its taste for a moment, his eyebrows rising in appreciation. “This is a southern spirit? It’s exquisite.”
Tiaanet inclined her head. “Daropalm wine, made in Sitiswaya. Rare and difficult to procure, but my father has many Kisuati merchant friends.”
“How convenient. So many of the nobility are out of favor with our overlords, these days.” He paused for another sip, closing his eyes in pleasure. “Yet I’m told your father was at odds with Khanwer before his death. Surely he was not out of favor?”
With a sidelong glance, Tiaanet examined the man again, wondering what he was about. Probing for information, certainly, but without knowing his status she could not guess why. Brown as nutwood, neither dark nor pale; he looked like some middling caste rather than nobility, and no lowcaste would have made the guest list. An artist, perhaps. And something about his attire—a plain robe of white hekeh—struck her as out of place amid the finery of all the other guests. Yet he would not have been present if he did not hold some importance in Gujaareen society. Tiaanet knew her father better than that.
She replied carefully, “Khanwer was kin, my lord.”
“But of course. You would not speak ill of him to a stranger. Forgive me for prying.” He paused and gave her another of those peculiar, kindly smiles. “You need not call me lord, by the way.”
Abruptly her mind bridged the gap. “You are of the Hetawa.”
He raised both eyebrows and chuckled. “Oh my, that is humbling! I’ve grown accustomed to being recognized these past few years.”
Not just any templeman, then. Tiaanet bowed low over both flattened hands in apology. “The error is mine. I have often believed that living here in the greenlands, luxurious as our estate is, keeps our family isolated from the important events and personages of the city—”
The Superior of the Hetawa, leader of the Hananjan faith across every kingdom that honored Her, shook his head at once. “You’ve been a gracious hostess in every way, Lady Tiaanet, especially under the circumstances. How is your mother?”
“I’m told she’s been ill for some time.” He glanced about and then leaned close to her with such artlessness that every guest in the vicinity must have noticed. “I don’t suppose your father would be amenable to a visit from a Sharer?” he asked in a low voice. “The chronic ailments are often easy to heal. It can be done discreetly.”
Tiaanet favored him with a cool gaze, warning him off further pursuit of the matter. “We are shunha, Superior.”
He sighed and straightened. “Well, please inform him of the offer, in any case. He wouldn’t be the first shunha to quietly break tradition.”
“I shall convey that.” And her father had begun to watch them from across the room. She inclined her head to the man again and turned to leave. “Enjoy the rest of the evening, Superior—”
“Wait.” He performed another of his too-obvious looks about; this time Tiaanet tensed inwardly, feeling her father’s scrutiny as an almost palpable prickle along her spine. “Tell me, daughter of Insurret. Have you heard anything of how Lord Khanwer died?”
Ah. A Servant of Hananja might have little taste for women, but secrets? Not even dreamblood could erase that.
“He died in his sleep, Superior,” she said. She smiled, which caused him to draw back, an uneasy frown flitting across his face. She did not smile often, for this reason. “As every good and faithful follower of Hananja should wish.”
She walked away then, before he could ask any more awkward questions, and before he could get her into further trouble. Though as she poured wine for the next guest, she caught her father’s cool expression and suspected it was already too late for that.
Some while later, the last colored sliver of the Dreaming Moon slipped below the horizon, leaving only tiny white Waking Moon and the winking Lesser Suns in the sky. With tradition satisfied, the guests one by one took their leave. Tiaanet saw to those who didn’t feel like making the journey back to the city or their own estates, directing them to the house’s guest chambers while her father exchanged farewells with the rest. Thus it was Tiaanet whom one of the servants approached, whispering that her mother required aid.
She glanced toward her father; he was engrossed in conversation with two other shunha lords. Nodding to the servant, she headed for the north chamber.
There were no sounds from within as she stopped at the heavy doorway curtain and nodded to the servants standing watch on either side. “Mother? May I enter?”
There was no answer, though she had expected none. Passing through the curtain, she found the chamber beyond in complete disarray—cushions and clothing strewn all over, a wooden chest overturned and spilled, one rug flung against the far wall. The oxbow seat near the window, where her mother usually sat, lay on its side. Amid the chaos her mother stood rigid, a small wooden statue of Hananja clenched tight in one fist, her eyes fixed on some distant point beyond the window. She did not turn as Tiaanet entered.
Tiaanet bent to pick up a cushion.
“Leave it,” Insurret said. Tiaanet left the cushion where it lay.
Keeping her voice low, Tiaanet asked, “Shall I fetch you anything?”
In profile, her mother’s smile was sharp as a winter-Moon sliver. “Your father, when you’re done with him.”
“He’s with our guests, Mother.”
Insurret glanced at Tiaanet over her shoulder. “And you came to see to my needs? Such a good daughter you are. Perhaps someday you’ll have a daughter as fine.”
Tiaanet said nothing in response to this, waiting. She usually tried not to leave before Insurret dismissed her. A good daughter stayed to do her mother’s bidding.
“Does your father mean to let your sister out for the party?” Insurret’s smile was venomous. “With so much light and noise, there could be no danger.”
“Tantufi is in the field house, Mother.” As Insurret well knew.
“Yes, yes. Another good daughter for me.” Insurret’s eyes abruptly grew vague; her smile faded. “Such good daughters.”
There was no point to such conversations. Tiaanet sighed and turned to leave. “The servants will clean up in the morning, if you allow. Good night, Mother. In peace—”
The statue of Hananja struck the wall just past Tiaanet’s head and broke in two. She stopped.
“Never wish me peace,” Insurret snarled. “Serpent. Fawning whore. Never let the word peace cross your lips in my presence. Do you understand?”
Tiaanet crouched to collect the pieces of the statue; these she set on a nearby shelf, then crossed her forearms and bowed her head in manuflection as an apology to the Goddess. “Yes, Mother. Good night.”
Her mother made no reply as she left.
Outside the room, her father was waiting. She stopped, searching for any signs of anger in his face, but he was watching the curtain of Insurret’s room with a weary expression. “You did well,” he said.
Tiaanet nodded. It was impossible to do well with Insurret, but there were degrees of success. “Have all the guests been settled?”
“Yes.” He nodded to the guard servants and offered her his arm, which of course she did not refuse. He began walking her toward her room. “What did the Superior want?”
“To know how Khanwer died, Father.”
“And what did you tell him?”
“That our noble cousin died in his sleep, Father.”
He laughed, patting her hand. “Good girl. I received many compliments on you this evening.”
Seeing his good mood, she dared a question. “And how many of those compliments came with offers of marriage?”
He grinned at her. “Four this evening alone. Auspicious, hmm? And more to come, once the men go home and tally their wealth to see if they’re worthy of you. I’ll keep a few of them dangling awhile, but never fear.” He patted her hand again. “You won’t be wasted on some paltry official or merchant. I have a finer suitor in mind for you.”
Some Kisuati nobleman? Tiaanet wondered, though she knew better than to ask. That would make her appear interested, eager to leave. Which of course she could not possibly be.
They turned a corner and entered the corridor that led to her bedchamber.
“The Superior also offered to send a Sharer for Mother,” she said. Perhaps it would distract him enough. “I reminded him that was not our way.”
Her father snorted. “The man is a fool. His predecessor, now—that one got things done, which is probably why the Gatherers killed him. Ah, these days the Hetawa is too eager to appear harmless, too conciliatory to the Kisuati and everyone else…” They reached Tiaanet’s door; he turned to her and cupped her cheek. “Enough politics. Are you tired?”
She made herself smile, wishing that her smiles disturbed him as they did so many others. “Very, Father, after so long an evening.”
“I understand.” He smiled, pulling aside the curtain for her to enter. “We’ll be quick—and quiet, too, so that our guests don’t wake. Yes?”
For a fleeting instant, the urge to scream rose in Tiaanet’s mind. The house was full of guests; one cry would alert them all. Had the Superior stayed the night? If she accused her father of corruption in front of him, in front of the guests, the Hetawa would surely investigate. The Gatherers would come. She could show them poor, damaged little Tantufi as proof; perhaps even Insurret would be lucid enough to confirm her accusations. Perhaps the Gatherers would kill the whole family to rid Gujaareh of such a pestilence. Then Tiaanet and Tantufi could at last be free, one way or another.
But that urge, like a thousand others of its kind, faded as quickly as it had risen. She had not felt true hope in years. Most days—good days—she felt nothing at all.
So Tiaanet went into the room and over to the bed, keeping her eyes on the far wall. Behind her, he closed the curtain and came to join her.
“I love you, Tiaanet,” he said. “You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, Father,” she said.
“My good girl,” he replied, and leaned down for a good-night kiss.
Sunandi Jeh Kalawe, Voice of the Kisuati Protectorate and governor of Gujaareh on the Protectors’ behalf, was not a sound sleeper. Any movement woke her during the night. Even a breeze that stirred the bedhangings too often could keep her wide-eyed until dawn. In the years since her marriage she had adapted to this tendency, keeping a pot of watered honey beer on the nightstand, banishing her husband to the sitting room couches whenever he snored, or defecting to those couches herself to avoid disturbing him. She did sleep—just fleetingly, snatching rest in quick, insufficient rations. Sometimes she woke more tired than she had gone to bed.
Invariably there were nights when soothing drinks and counting by fours did no good. At such times she would go to her study to work so that at least the time would not be wasted. Or she went to the balcony of their apartment in Yanya-iyan to gaze up at the Dreaming Moon, drinking in her silvery, multihued light and thinking of nothing.
On this occasion, however, she stopped in shock, finding the balcony already inhabited.
“Don’t scream,” the Gatherer Nijiri said. He sat with one foot on the railing, the other dangling over an eight-story drop, watching her with amused eyes. “Your soldier husband would come charging out here, weapons drawn, and the whole palace’s peace would be disturbed.”
Letting out the breath that she had indeed drawn to scream, Sunandi walked out onto the balcony. “There would be little chance of that if you weren’t perched out here like a skyrer watching for mice.”
“I’m a Gatherer, Jeh Kalawe. Did you think I would come through the front gate with a full escort? Perhaps bringing a chantress to announce me and all my lineage? In any case, you should have been expecting me.”
She rolled her eyes, coming to join him at the railing. “I expected you at dusk. I sent my summons right after the damned Banbarra finished terrorizing the city this morning.” Her annoyance vanished as a more personal anxiety eclipsed it. “Have you been here long?” She had made love with Anzi just before midnight.
He smiled, the Moonlight momentarily making him seem younger—more like the boy she’d first met ten years before. He had grown taller in the years since, and his youthful beauty had refined into something elegant and hard-edged, but he was still quite young even by the standards of Kisua, where people did not live as long. It was his profession that made him seem older than his years.
“If I had come earlier,” he said, “you would have had wistful daydreams of coming to this balcony then.”
It took her a moment to understand his meaning, and when she did she wanted to kill him. “Keb-na! You know I don’t like you tampering with my dreams.”
He said nothing, only watching her, and after a moment she sighed. Of course he would tamper with her dreams as he saw fit. He was a Gatherer.
“You need to know,” she said, changing the subject, “that these Banbarra raids must stop.”
He continued to watch her in silence, possibly because he knew how much his damned Gujaareen calm irritated her, or because he simply had nothing to say in response. “They threaten the peace,” she said, irrationally compelled to fill the silence. “If our control of Gujaareh slips, all manner of chaos could occur. Riots. Sabotage.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“The Hetawa has the people’s ear. Someone somewhere has to have a Banbarra cousin or aunt. You people breed with anything.”
Nijiri only sighed at the slur; he’d heard worse from her. They tolerated from each other what they would not from anyone else. “The Hetawa supports anyone who can give the city lasting peace. For the time being, that’s Kisua. This has cost us greatly, in the people’s trust.”
“A Gujaareen was killed this time! A city guardsman. Another was badly wounded, though I’m told your healers managed to save him. They’ve killed twenty of my husband’s men. Does that sound like peace to you?”
He frowned. “It sounds remarkable. Eight raids, twenty dead Kisuati, and only one Gujaareen death? What have they taken?”
She ticked off on her fingers. “The contents of three storehouses used by our troops, including one supposedly hidden cache of weapons. Horses. Barley sheaves bundled for shipment to Kisua, which I suppose they’ll use as fodder for the horses; Merik knows what else they could do with it in the desert. Moontear wine. Leather and hekeh-cloth. Lapis and sea salt.”
He said nothing for a moment, contemplating this. “Trade-goods,” he said. “Would you say those are goods especially prized in Kisua?”
Sunandi frowned. “Most of it would fetch high prices in any Kisuati market, yes. Such trade makes our conquest of Gujaareh less of a financial loss.” She sighed. “Indeed, losing those goods has already done harm; there’s a faction of merchants in Kisua right now calling for harsher measures in our control of the Gujaareen capital—”
“No people taken? They like slaves, those desert barbarians.”
She ignored the jibe. Kisuati kept slaves too. “None. They’ve no qualms about drawing the blood of those who get in their way, but they take no prisoners. Luck, I suppose.”
“I doubt that.”
She frowned. Something in his manner had changed. She hesitated to call it excitement, for there was something wrong with any Gatherer who felt that. Still, there was no mistaking the new tension in his body. “Explain.”
He nodded slowly as he gazed out at the city, his eyes roving back and forth, back and forth, over the rooftops and streets. Fleetingly, Sunandi wondered how well he slept.
“To the desert tribes,” he said, “we city folk—Gujaareen and Kisuati alike—are soft, decadent, cowardly, and unworthy of the wealth we possess. Even the Shadoun, your own allies, treat with you only because they hate Gujaareh more. So for the Banbarra to take no slaves, and avoid killing Gujaareen while slaying fours of Kisuati…”
Sunandi gripped the balcony railing, groaning softly. How foolish of her not to have seen it. “They’re courting Gujaareh as an ally!”
Nijiri did not reply, but there was no need; Sunandi knew at once that she was right. The tribes of the Empty Thousand had been at feud with one another for as long as anyone could remember. The wars between the Banbarra and the Shadoun—the two strongest tribes—were the stuff of legend, but there had been relative peace in the past few centuries as Gujaareh had grown in power. Neither tribe dared weaken itself fighting old rivals with a new threat lurking so near.
The raids were proof that the long stalemate had broken. The Shadoun were trading partners and sometime allies of Kisua—and now Kisua held Gujaareh. This trapped the Banbarra, whose territory stretched between the southwestern border of Gujaareh and the southern mountain fortresses of the Shadoun, between two allied threats. Small wonder they’d decided to do something about it.
“You believe the Banbarra are targeting trade-goods deliberately,” Sunandi said, frowning as she mulled over Nijiri’s words. “Why? To make our conquest of Gujaareh unprofitable? To trigger some sort of political shift in Kisua?”
“I didn’t say that. But their tactics do show a certain forethought, don’t you think?”
Too much. Sunandi scowled. “Ignorant camel-loving nomads did not think of this.”
A flicker of annoyance crossed his face at last, fleeting and mild. “They aren’t stupid, Jeh Kalawe. It demeans you to say such things.”
“Even your people call them barbarians!”
“But trading with barbarians has made us rich, remember. Unlike Kisua, we have never allowed our prejudices to blind us to the potential or the threat of any barbarian race.”
Sunandi waved off the scold, folding her arms across her breasts and beginning to pace. “The Banbarra were too proud to ask for help in their struggle against the Shadoun before; why seek it now? And from Gujaareh, when it’s only a humbled captive of Kisua? The desert folk respect strength; Gujaareh has none.”
“If you believe that, you’re the stupid one,” he snapped.
She clenched her fists and whirled on him. “The Gujaareen army—”
“Was only part of Gujaareh’s power even before the Kisuati came. Have you forgotten our ties with the northlands and the east? As you say, half the zhinha are blood relatives to some barbarian king or another. And in this land there is the military caste, most of them born warriors, who have sat idle—and angry—since the army was disbanded. It was a mistake for you to do that; you have no idea how hard the Hetawa has worked to keep them quiescent. And the city guard; and the private forces the nobles employ to protect their lands… and the Hetawa itself. Have you any idea what my fellow Servants could do if roused? The Sentinels alone—”
He shook his head, swung both legs to her side of the balcony railing, and leaned forward. Sunandi fought the urge to take a step back from his sudden focus. Gatherers were not supposed to feel strong emotion, but Nijiri had always had a temper. “I know what Kisua thinks of us. You call us sleeping sheep, content to dream away all our troubles. But when Gujaareh’s wrath is awakened it burns as hot as that of any other land—hotter, because we stifle it so often. If it ever bursts free, Kisua will lose control.”
She stared back at him and tried to ignore her unease. “You said the Hetawa supported us.”
“The Hetawa supports you for now. But if a better option comes along, Jeh Kalawe, if the swiftest and surest path to stability comes through slaughtering every Kisuati within our borders, then be assured the Hetawa will see it done.” Then, to Sunandi’s surprise, the anger in his eyes shifted, becoming something more sorrowful. “All these years and still we’re strangers to you.”
“Not strangers,” she said, feeling oddly stung. “I know how important peace is to you.”
“It’s more than important, Jeh Kalawe. It is our god.” He got to his feet and sighed. “This much I can tell you: your guess was correct. We have been approached by a representative of the Banbarra leader.”
Sunandi caught her breath. “I didn’t know they had a leader.”
“The Banbarra are many tribes, true, with many leaders. But in times of war, they become one body with one head. The man we’re dealing with is likely to become that head.”
“When did they approach you?”
“After the first few raids on the city. What you’ve told me only confirms something we’d begun to suspect ourselves. And do not ask me when, or whether, the meeting will take place. Hetawa affairs are none of the Protectors’ business.”
And of course she could not promise to keep it secret, given her role as the Protectors’ Voice, any more than he could promise a lasting cooperation with her. They each had their masters to serve.
So she kept her next question open-ended, to allow him room to maneuver between her loyalties and his own. “Is there anything you can tell me?”
He nodded with the faintest air of approval. “The Banbarra head’s spokesman, when they came to us, was a Gujaareen military-casteman. High-ranking; he claimed to have been a general in the days before the conquest. Zhinha by birth.” He watched her as he said it.
“Goddess protect us,” Sunandi whispered, her skin goosebumping with more than the night air’s chill. Shunha and zhinha, the two noble castes of Gujaareh, did not often join the military, being too proud to take orders from anyone of lesser birth than themselves. They would tolerate serving their peers, just. But there was one lineage that a zhinha-born general would serve gladly, even into exile.
Nijiri said nothing at her blasphemy—perhaps because he sensed, for the moment at least, that she was utterly sincere.
“Make of that what you will,” he said. “Now go back to your husband before he misses you.” He stood to leave, flicking one of his twin nape-braids back over his shoulder as he did so. The gesture, and the hairstyle, were so familiar that a soft pang stirred in Sunandi’s heart.
“How are you, Nijiri?” she asked, placing the lightest of emphases on you.
He paused, but did not turn to face her. “I’m well, Jeh Kalawe.”
“I…” She hesitated, then finally blurted, “I actually miss him. Can you believe that? We weren’t friends. And yet…”
Nijiri took hold of the railing. “We will both meet him again someday. You may even find him before I do; you’re a woman, you have more power than I to find your way within Ina-Karekh. And you can still dream.”
She had forgotten that. He was a true Gatherer now, paying a Gatherer’s price for power.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She could not tell whether the note in his voice was sorrow or simply resignation; either way there was pain underneath it. Hesitantly she reached for his shoulder, for whatever good that would do. Her fingers barely brushed his skin before he turned and took hold of her hand.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. He lifted the back of her hand to his cheek and leaned against it for a moment, closing his eyes and perhaps imagining someone else’s hand in its place. It occurred to her in that moment just how lonely he must be, for no one touched Gatherers, not intentionally. They gave comfort to others, but bore their own pain alone.
But to Sunandi’s surprise, Nijiri opened his eyes and frowned. “You’ll never meet him at this rate. Why didn’t you come to me? You know I would’ve helped you.”
And before she could ask what he was talking about, he reached toward her face. She blinked in instinctive reaction and felt his fingertips brush her eyelids for an instant, and then he let her go. When she opened her eyes, he had vaulted up to crouch on the railing, nimble as a bird.
“Don’t summon me again,” he said over his shoulder. “Things are changing too quickly. I misspoke, Jeh Kalawe, when I said that you didn’t understand us. As much as any foreigner can, and better than any other Kisuati, you do. That’s why I’ll forgive you, no matter what the Protectors make you do.”
While Sunandi stared back at him, trying to puzzle this out, he stood up on the railing, balancing easily, heedless of the height. Taking hold of a ledge above, he levered his body upward in a single smooth motion. Then he was gone.
It was not until Sunandi returned to her bed that she understood what he had done. More precisely, she understood it in the morning, when she woke up wrapped in Anzi’s arms, comfortable and more rested than she’d felt in years. Anzi had pulled her close during the night, surely jostling her in the process. Yet she had not woken up once.
“No,” Mni-inh said.
Hanani kept her head bowed, arms folded before her with hands palm-down. Mni-inh, who sat on a cushioned bench massaging one knee, scowled when it became clear she had no intention of moving.
“I said no, Hanani.” He straightened, flicking his red loindrapes back into place. “The Hetawa has already made its apology to the family of the tithebearer. He’s to receive a full formal burial in the Hetawa’s own crypt, an honor usually given only to Servants of Hananja. Let that suffice.”
“The tithebearer’s death was not the Hetawa’s fault,” Hanani replied, keeping her eyes on his chest. In the low morning light, the ruby collar of his office looked like droplets of blood scattered over his pale skin.
Mni-inh flinched and sat up. But the Sharers’ Hall was mostly empty between dawn and the noon hour, as those who worked the night hours slept and the rest were kept busy with a Sharer’s usual daytime duties in the Hall of Blessings or the herbs-and-simples chamber. Those few who lounged about the hall’s benches and nooks were deep in study or conversation with others. No one looked at Hanani and Mni-inh, though Mni-inh darted his eyes about to make sure, and leaned close before he spoke again. “It isn’t your fault either, little fool! Don’t do Yehamwy’s work for him, Hanani. How can you expect the Council to believe you’re competent if you don’t believe it yourself?”
She lifted her head and watched him draw back in surprise. “I don’t believe I’m incompetent, Mni-inh-brother. How could I, after your training?”
“Then why visit the tithebearer’s family?”
It was a question that Hanani had asked herself all night, during the hours that she’d spent weeping and praying and finally rocking herself to sleep. She had not dreamed; there had been no answer to her prayers for peace or understanding. And so she had awakened that morning with her thoughts full of a single impulse: to find out why Dayu had died.
“Because my heart is empty of peace right now,” she said. Mni-inh drew back at this, frowning. “Doubt has come to fill the void instead. Did I truly press Dayu too far, too fast? Did that tithebearer die because I expected a child to do an adult’s work? You know what doubt can do in narcomancy, Brother. Even if the councilor had not pronounced interdiction on me, I would refuse to perform healings now.”
Mni-inh sighed, a tone of frustration. “That I understand. But how will apologizing to a grieving widow—who may blame you for her husband’s death whether it’s your fault or not—ease your doubts?” He sobered abruptly. “Wait. I know what this is about. This is the first time you’ve dealt with death.”
“That isn’t it,” she said, though she had to look away from the compassion in his eyes. In the early months of her path training, Hanani had actually suspected Mni-inh of harboring a secret sadism in his soul, somehow concealing it from the Gatherers but gleefully inflicting it on his unwilling apprentice under the guise of mentorship. He had been twice as hard on her as the other Sharers with their—male—apprentices, noting when she complained that she would have to be twice as good to overcome petitioners’ fears of her sex. And his hatred for same, she had been certain.
Yet as the months became years, and as Hanani matured, she had understood at last that Mni-inh’s harshness was an act. Underneath it, his true personality was far softer. Too soft, Hanani now believed, sorely lacking the calm and stoicism that the faithful expected of Hananja’s Servants. He took slights to her as a personal insult; he chafed constantly at the Hetawa’s slow pace of change; he forgot tact and said things that damaged his standing among their pathbrothers. It was true that his unorthodoxy had probably made him the best teacher for her, but there were times when Hanani would have found the taskmaster of her youth easier to deal with than the brash and overprotective elder brother he had become since.
“Meeting her will make me feel better,” she said finally, firmly. “And I just need to know more, Mni-inh-brother. I need to know the man who died with Dayu. I need to understand what happened, or at least begin to try. There can be no peace for me without that.”
Mni-inh stared at her. Finally he sighed again, running a hand over his peculiar, wavy, oily-looking hair. “Fine. Go.”
She sprang to her feet and had taken three steps before he spluttered, “You’re going now? Oh, never mind, you probably should or I might change my mind. Just be careful.”
“Thank you, Mni-inh-brother!”
He muttered something under his breath that she suspected was not a prayer.
So Hanani left the Sharer’s Hall, crossing the enormous open courtyard of the inner Hetawa on her way to the Hall of Blessings. A pair of Teacher-Apprentices, their arms weighed down with scrolls, glanced at her as they crossed her path; they fell to whispering almost as soon as she was out of earshot. An elderly Sentinel sitting on a stoop watched her, eyes narrowed, as if taking her measure. She nodded to him; he gave her a nod in return.
It was not hard for Hanani to guess what underlay so many of the looks that had been thrown her way throughout the morning. She had joined a group prayer dance that dawn, and felt many eyes on her back. In the baths, some of the other apprentices had been more pointed than usual in averting their eyes from her nudity. Not all of her fellow Servants thought her responsible for the two deaths, she knew. But it was clear from the looks and whispers that many did.
If she had not already felt so low, the looks would have taken their toll. As it was, nothing could hurt worse than Dayu’s loss.
The Hall of Blessings provided some relief, for the Sharers on duty were too busy to even glance in her direction. The line of petitioners was longer than usual, half again the length of the tithebearers’ line. Nearly everyone in the petitioner line showed some visible injury—a slung arm, a bandaged foot or head. More injuries from the Banbarra raid, she realized, along with the usual accidents of harvest season and daily life in the city. The most injured, like the soldier Hanani had healed the day before, had been treated first. Now there was time and magic enough for the rest.
It would go faster if I were there, she thought as she passed the dais. But there was no peace or point in such thoughts, so she moved on.
The great bronze double doors stood open for public hours, and as she passed from the cool dim Hall to the noise and brilliance of outside, she paused on the steps to let her eyes adjust. The heat was so fierce that her skin tingled with it—pleasantly in this first instant, though soon she would begin to sweat. She put a hand up to shadow her eyes and gazed over the busy, crowded expanse of Hetawa Square. Nearby she saw a handful of devotees sitting on the steps to pray, and beyond them merchants moved about, selling water and cut fruit to passersby. Along the main thoroughfare at the other end of the square, dozens of folk milled and moved on their way to the market or the riverfront or dreams-knew-where else. Too many people, too much chaos, and too many who would stare at her flattened, wrapped breasts, or the red man’s loindrapes strapped around a woman’s broad hips. She had never liked venturing into the city. And yet—
Not one of those busy, brisk-moving people so much as glanced at her, as she gazed down at them from the Hetawa’s steps. Even the ones who would stare, once she joined their bustling flow, wondered only that she was a woman in man’s dress. They did not know what she had done, and moreover they did not care. It was strange, and somehow a relief, to contemplate this.
“You should have an escort, Sharer-Apprentice.”
Hanani glanced up at the small balconies that overlooked the Hetawa steps. The two men who crouched there were each clad in black loindrapes and onyx collars and quiet, deadly stillness. Hanani recognized the one who had spoken to her as Anarim, a senior of the Sentinel path. The other was a Sentinel she did not know; while Anarim focused his attention on her, that one kept his gaze on the steps and streets beyond, alert for any threats to the Goddess’s temple or worshippers.
She bowed to both of them regardless. “I’ve gone into the city to serve petitioners many times, Sentinel. I can find my way.”
“Of that I have no doubt, Apprentice. But that was not why I suggested an escort.” Anarim, like most of his path, was whipcord-lean; it was some effect of the training they did. He had taken this further by being a tall, narrow sort of man, with long fingers and an angular face, and lips as thin as a northerner’s. Those thin lips twitched now in faint disapproval, though he kept his expression blank otherwise. She knew at once the disapproval was not for her. “The Kisuati seem unable to prevent raids and other disruptions within the city’s walls these days. Things aren’t as peaceful as they should be. I, or another of my path, can accompany you.”
Hanani considered, but then shook her head. “I go to humble myself before a stranger, Sentinel Anarim. Bringing a guard might be taken amiss. Besides,” and she gestured at her clothing. “These drapes afford me no small protection. That much hasn’t changed, Kisuati or no.”
“Very well, Apprentice. Go—and return—in Her peace.” Then, to Hanani’s great surprise, Anarim inclined his head to her. She stared, for she was only an apprentice and he was one of the most respected Servants in the Hetawa, a member of the Council of Paths. But when Anarim straightened, he resumed his guardian stance, eyes roving the square for potential threats, and it would have been disrespectful to distract him by speaking of such a small thing.
But the message was clear: he, at least, believed she was not at fault for the deaths. She walked away, unsure of how to feel—but feeling better, nevertheless.
The tithebearer’s name had been Bahenamin, and he had been a wealthy member of the merchant caste. His family lived on the edge of the nobles’ district, near Yafai Garden—the western half of the city, across the river. Although she could have shown a footcarriageman her Hetawa moontear-token and been carried anywhere she wished, she hesitated to do this. The token was meant to be used only on Hetawa business. Did apologizing for a death that she might have caused qualify? She had no idea, but she had no desire to try justifying it to the Council. She walked.
As always, the crowds and traffic were a jarring contrast to the quiet order of the Hetawa complex. Hanani joined the flow on the thoroughfare, which immediately forced her to move at a pace that would have been unacceptable in the Hetawa except in emergencies. As she passed through a market the traffic slowed, thickening into a packed, jostling knot for no reason that she could discern other than the sheer peaceless nature of this human river: rivers inevitably had rapids. Here she was elbowed and pushed, her sandaled feet stepped on, and someone sloshed beer on her arm. When people saw her red drapes they moved aside, but in most cases they simply didn’t see her. Not for the first time did Hanani wish that one of her foremothers had caught the eye of some handsome, tall highcasteman for a night or two.
Traffic thinned near the riverfront, thank the Dreamer, though this was largely because of the smell. The fishmongers were hard at work near the city’s northernmost bridge, selling dried seaweeds and the morning’s catch from their boats. Previous days’ catches were here too, rotting in special sealed urns beneath the bridge. When ripe, the slurry enriched the soil for farms on the outskirts of the Blood river valley, which lay beyond the reach of the floodwaters that annually renewed Gujaareh’s fertility. But though the slurry urns had been sealed with pitch and wax and hekeh-seed paste, enough of the noxious stench escaped that the very air made Hanani’s eyes water. She held her breath and hurried across the bridge, pausing only when a group of stray caracals darted across her path, chasing one of their number who carried a fish head.
At last she reached the Yafai Garden district. Bahenamin’s house was a tall Kisuati-style building with bluewood lintels, on a corner across from the garden itself. His lineage’s pictorals had been carved into a staff set near the house’s entrance. Leopard-spotted butterflies hovered over the bricks of the house’s walkway, dancing on the heat haze; Hanani took care not to step on any of the lovely creatures. But to her surprise, the door opened before she could reach it, and a servant girl stepped out, a drape of deepest indigo—the mourning color—in her hands. The girl wore a short sheath dress of woven blue patterns, rather than going bare-breasted as most servants did on hot days; a family in mourning kept to formal clothes in case of callers.
Hanani waited while the servant finished wrapping the drape around the lineage staff—then she spied Hanani and stopped as well, blinking in surprise. “Greetings, stranger. Have you business here?”
Hanani bowed, turning her hands palm-up in greeting. “I’ve come from the Hetawa. I wish to speak with the family of Merchant Bahenamin.”
“This is his house, may he dwell in Her peace forever.” The servant then stared at Hanani for a breath longer, looking her up and down with a familiar confused expression. “From the Hetawa, you said?”
“Yes,” Hanani replied, waiting. The loindrapes were announcement enough, or they should have been, of her identity. As additional reassurance to those who might doubt, Hanani always took care to also wear the collar of small, polished carnelians that had been given to her upon her joining the Sharer path. Between that and the drapes, and whatever rumors ran in the city, most people knew her on sight: the lone woman permitted to pursue one of the four holy paths of Goddess-service.
It took a moment in the servant’s case, but then Hanani at last saw recognition flow across her face. Only then did she add, “I’m Hanani, an apprentice of the Sharer path.”
The servant finally remembered her manners and bobbed her head. “Please come inside, Sharer-Apprentice.”
The house, when they entered its foyer, was far cooler and more comfortable than the late-afternoon swelter without. The foyer opened directly into the family’s modest atrium, where small shrubs and plants surrounded a handsome, good-sized date palm. The tree’s canopy kept the atrium in striped shade. Beneath this tree, a nest of cushions and blankets had been built. Here reclined a heavyset, graying woman in a deep indigo Kisuati wrap. Her face, Hanani saw when the servant girl went to speak to her, was lined and puffy, the whites of her eyes red from weeping. But they fixed keenly on Hanani while the servant spoke, and after a moment the woman beckoned Hanani over.
Hanani came into the garden and bowed over both hands. “Thank you for the honor of your hospitality.”
The servant girl hastened to set another cushion down. The woman nodded and said, “Please sit, Sharer-Apprentice, and be welcome. My name is Danneh. In waking I was Bahenamin’s firstwife.”
Hanani sat, and the servant girl withdrew on some unseen signal from Danneh.
“I’ve come to offer apology,” Hanani said, once a peaceable amount of silence had passed. Inwardly Hanani held herself rigid, though she had already decided that she would accept whatever words the woman flung at her, endure whatever rage. “I feel I have some responsibility for your husband’s death. It was my assistant who took his donation that day.”
Danneh frowned. “The child who died with him?”
“Yes. He was an acolyte, contemplating the Sharer path. He had been trained, and the procedure was common, but…” She shook her head, groping for some explanation that made sense. Nothing did. “Something went wrong. The fault is mine.”
But Danneh’s frown deepened. “I was told it was an accident.”
“My assistant was only thirteen, too young to bear a task of such importance—”
“No.” Danneh shook her head. “The age of choice is twelve. Thirteen is old enough for a child to take some responsibility for his own deeds. You trusted him to do the task? You had no expectation that he would fail?”
“I…” Of all the reactions Hanani had prepared herself to endure, this was not one. “I trusted him, lady.”
“Was that his first time?”
“No, lady. He’d done it before, many times. All acolytes learn to draw and give forth dream-humors, regardless of the path they ultimately choose.”
Danneh sighed. “Then it was an accident. Or—” She gave Hanani a sudden shrewd look. “Has someone sent you here to make this apology?”
“N-no.” That damnable stammer; it appeared whenever she was nervous. “No one sent me, but…”
“But they blame you. Of course they would.” Danneh shook her head and smiled faintly. “The Hetawa’s only woman. I thought you would be taller.”
Hanani shifted a little on the cushion, unsure of how to respond to that statement. “I had hoped to know more of your husband,” she said.
It was too sharp a verbal turn, a clumsy transition in the conversation. Danneh’s smile faded at once, and Hanani silently berated herself for making such a graceless error. But then Danneh took a deep breath and nodded.
“Know more of him,” she said. “Yes. That would please me. It would—”
To Hanani’s alarm, the woman’s eyes abruptly welled with tears. Danneh looked away and put her hand to her mouth for several breaths, fighting back a sob. Hanani reached out to touch her other hand and was even more unnerved when the woman caught hold and gripped her hand fiercely. But the contact seemed to help Danneh regain control.
“Forgive me,” she said, after a few deep breaths. “I know I should go to the Hetawa, ask for peace. But it feels… better, somehow, to let the grief run unstanched.”
“Yes,” Hanani agreed, thinking of her own long nights since Dayu’s death. Some of that must have made its way into her voice, because Danneh then mustered a watery smile.
“Tell me, then, what do you want to know of my Hena?”
Excerpted from The Shadowed Sun by Jemisin, N. K. Copyright © 2012 by Jemisin, N. K.. Excerpted by permission.
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