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The Rats and the Ruling sea.
by Robert V S Red.i.c.k.
Prologue: Treaty Day
A cup of milk tainted with blood. Pazel looked down into the steaming chalice and felt trapped, an actor in a part he never wanted, in a play full of violence and rage. They were waiting for him to drink: the priests, the princes, the three hundred guests in the candlelit shrine. His best friends were waiting, and a few men who wished him dead, and one man who wanted everyone dead and just might get his wish. The guests were staring. A red-robed priest gestured firmly: Drink Drink. Thasha herself glanced back from where she knelt on the dais, beside the man who thought he would be married in a moment's time.
Thasha was radiant. Sixteen, golden hair bound up impossibly with orchids and lace, grey gown sheer and liquid as mercury, silver necklace dangling innocent at her throat. The lips he had kissed the night before were painted a dark cherry-red. Powder hid the welts on her neck.
He could still stop this. He could break the chalice on the floor. He knew the words for Lies! Lies! and and Treason! Treason! in twenty languages; he could tell them all how they'd been tricked. But he could not just wish the necklace away. Thasha was still looking over her shoulder, and even though half the blood in the milk was hers, Pazel knew what she was telling him. in twenty languages; he could tell them all how they'd been tricked. But he could not just wish the necklace away. Thasha was still looking over her shoulder, and even though half the blood in the milk was hers, Pazel knew what she was telling him. It has to happen, you know it does. Every other door is locked. It has to happen, you know it does. Every other door is locked.
He raised the chalice. The hot milk burned his tongue. He clenched his jaw and swallowed and pa.s.sed the cup on.
The priests resumed chanting: 'We drink to the Great Peace. We drink and become one family. We drink and our fates are mingled, never more to be unbound . . .'
Pazel slipped a hand into his pocket. A ribbon lay coiled there, blue silk, with words embroidered in a fine gold thread: YE DEPART FOR A WORLD UNKNOWN, AND LOVE ALONE SHALL KEEP THEE. It was the Blessing-Band, a gift from the crones who ran Thasha's old school back in Etherhorde. He was supposed to tie it to her wrist.
Pazel imagined an old woman - bent, wrinkled, nearly blind - sewing those ornate letters by lamplight. One of thousands who had worked for this day, Treaty Day, the day four centuries of war would end. Outside the shrine, a mult.i.tude; beyond the mult.i.tude, an island; beyond the island, a world waiting, holding its breath. He looked at the faces around him: great lords and ladies of Alifros, rulers of lands, cities, kingdoms, waifs by candlelight. How had Hercol put it? Possessed by a dream Possessed by a dream. The dream of peace, of a world that could stop shedding its own blood. It was a good dream, but it would kill them. They were chasing it like sleepwalkers towards a cliff.
There was a man at the back of the shrine who was making it all happen. A well-fed merchant with a soft, boyish face. An innocent face, almost amusing. Until he looked at you with a certain intent, and showed you the sorcerer inside: ancient, malicious, mad.
His name was Arunis. Pazel could feel him watching, even now. But when he raised his eyes he found himself looking instead at Thasha's father. The admiral sat stiff and grim, an old soldier who knew what duty meant, but the eyes that swept Pazel were beseeching. I have trusted you this far. How will you save my child ? I have trusted you this far. How will you save my child ?
Pazel could not meet his gaze. You'd never understand, Admiral. And if you did, you'd try to stop us, and no one would be saved You'd never understand, Admiral. And if you did, you'd try to stop us, and no one would be saved. Kings, peasants, enemies, friends: Arunis was marching them all towards that cliff. And over they'd go, with their dreams and their children, their smiles and songs and memories, their histories, their G.o.ds. In short order, a year or two at the most, unless he let Thasha die.
So Pazel stood, motionless, silently screaming, and the cup went from hand to hand. At last it returned to the red-robed priest, standing before Thasha and her groom. The priest cleared his throat and smiled.
'Now, beloved Prince,' he said, 'what would you avow?'
The prince was gentle as he took Thasha's hand. But before he could speak she pulled it roughly away. There were gasps. The prince looked up in shock.
'Your Highness, forgive me,' she stammered. 'I cannot wed you. This marriage is a tr--' tr--'
The last word had no chance. Under her gown, the silver necklace moved like a snake, and Thasha rose with a little twist of breath, clawing at it, unable even to scream. Her eyes wild, her face the colour of a bruise. Pazel howled her name and leaped to catch her as she fell. Voices exploded around him, her father's and the priests' and three hundred more. Sorcery get it off her cut it off the girl 's going to die Sorcery get it off her cut it off the girl 's going to die. Hercol was beside him, Arunis was battling forwards; the elder priest was waving a knife and shouting Betrayed, betrayed, if she dies the peace dies with her. Betrayed, betrayed, if she dies the peace dies with her.
Thasha kicked and flailed and arched her back in agony. But death was the answer, Pazel knew; death was the one door left unlocked, and so he held her, in the tightest grip of his life, as the thousands ma.s.sed outside the shrine caught the rumour and sent a wail up to heaven, held her and absorbed her blows, and told her several things he'd never dared to, and waited for her struggles to cease.
7 Teala 941 86th day from Etherhorde (Treaty Day - six hours earlier)
'Eyes open, Neda.'
The Father had come to her alone. He held his own cup and candle, and he smiled at the girl asleep on the granite slab under the woollen s.h.i.+ft, who obeyed him and smiled in kind and yet did not wake or stir. Her eyes when they winked open were blue; he had seen nothing like them in any other living face. A strand of weed in her hair. Dry streaks of salt.w.a.ter on her neck and forehead. Like his other children she had spent the night in the sea.
She was twenty-two, the man six times her age, unbent, unwearied, his years betrayed only in the whiteness of his beard and in the voice deep and travelled and kindly and mad. The girl knew that he was mad, and knew also that the day she revealed such knowledge by glance or sigh or question would be the day she died.
She knew many secret things. Until the Father woke her she would sleep like the other aspirants, but there was a disobedient flame in her that gleamed on, thought on, insensible to his orders. She wished it out. She tried to snuff it with meditation, inner exorcisms, prayers: it danced on, full of heresies and mirth. And because the Father could peer into her mind as through a frosted window it was but a matter of time before he saw it. Perhaps he saw it now, this very minute. Perhaps he was considering her fate.
She loved him. She had never loved another thus. It was not an earthly or a simple love but he could read its contours in her sleeper's smile as he had on his children's faces for a century.
'You dream, do you not?'
'I do,' she replied.
'And yet the dream is unsteady. You are nearer to waking than I've asked you to be.'
It was not a question. The girl lay watching him, asleep and not asleep. The Old Faith she had taken for her own states that life is not a struggle against death, but rather towards that authentic death inscribed at the instant of one's birth. If he had come to kill her it meant fulfilment, the end of her work.
'You must not wake, best beloved. Turn your face to the dream. And when it surrounds you again, describe it.'
The girl's eyes rolled, the lids half-lowered, and watching her the Father trembled as he always did at the immensity of creation. She would see nothing more of the shrine about her - not the dawn light on the huddled sleepers nor the west arch open to the sea nor the quartz knife on his belt nor the pure white milk in his cup - but what endured were the territories within. Outside, fishermen were picking a trail through the sawgra.s.s down to the sh.o.r.e, greeting one another in the happy lilt of Simja, this island unclaimed by any empire. Under the sheer wool the girl's limbs began to twitch. She was not quiet in the place of the dream.
'I am in the hills,' she said.
'Your hills. Your Chereste Highlands.'
'Yes, Father. I am very near my house - my old house, before I became your daughter and was yet simple Neda of Ormael. My city is burning. It is on fire and the smoke trails out to sea.'
'Are you alone?'
'Not yet. In a moment Suthinia my birth-mother will kiss me and run. Then the gate will shatter and the men will arrive.'
'Men of Arqual.'
'Yes, Father. Soldiers of the Cannibal-King. They are outside the gate at the end of the houserow. My mother is weeping. My mother is running away.'
'Did she speak no last word to you?'
The sleeping girl tensed visibly. One hand curled into a fist. 'Survive, she said. Not how. Not for whom.'
'Neda, Phoenix-Flame, you are there at the rape of Ormael, but also here, safe beside me, among your brothers and sisters in our holy place. Breathe, that's right. Now tell me what happens next.'
'The gate is torn from its hinges. The men with spears and axes are surrounding my house. They're in the garden, stealing fruit from my orange tree. But the oranges are not orange, they're green, green still. They're not ripe enough to eat!'
'The men are angry. They're breaking the lower limbs.'
'Why don't they see you?'
'I'm underground. There is a trapdoor hidden in the gra.s.s, overlooking the house.'
'A trapdoor? Leading where?'
'Into a tunnel. My birth-father dug it with his smuggler friends. I don't know where it leads. Under the orchards, maybe, back into the hills. I thought he might be here, my birth-father, after leaving us long ago. But no one's here. I'm in the tunnel alone.'
'And the men are looting your house.'
'All the houses, Father. But ours they chose first--Aya !' !'
The girl's cry was little more than a whimper, but her face creased in misery.
'Tell me, Neda.'
'My brother is there in the street. He's so young. He is staring at the men in the garden.'
'Why do you not call to him?'
'I do. I call Pazel, Pazel - but he can't hear, and if I raise my voice they'll turn and see him. And now he's running to the garden wall.'
The Father let her continue, sipping thoughtfully at his milk. Neda told how her brother pulled himself up by the thrushberry vine, crept in at his bedroom window, emerged moments later with a skipper's knife and a whale statuette. How he fled into the plum orchards. How a mob of soldiers drew near her hiding place and spoke of her mother and the girl herself in terms that made the Father put the cup down, shaking with rage. As if they were cannibals in truth. As if souls were nothing and bodies mere cuts of meat. These men who would civilise the world. As if they were cannibals in truth. As if souls were nothing and bodies mere cuts of meat. These men who would civilise the world.
The dawn light grew. He pinched his candle out and beckoned the vestment-boy near to keep her face in shadow, and the lad quaked when her blue eyes fixed on him. But Neda was gone - gone to Ormael, possessed by the dream she was speaking. The soldiers' roar at the discovery of the liquor cabinet. Her girlish clothes tossed with laughter from a window, socks in the orange tree, blouses held up to armoured chests. Bottles shattered, windows smashed; a ruined bleat from the neighbour's concertina. Sunset, and endless dark hours in the cave, and frost on the trapdoor at morning.
Then she cried much louder than before and he could not comfort her, for she was watching the soldiers drag her brother down the hillside, hurl him flat and beat him with their fists and a branch of her tree.
'They hate him. They want to kill him. Father. Father. They are screaming in his face.'
'The same words over and over. I did not speak their language, then. Pazel did but he was silent.'
'And you recall those words, don't you?'
She was shaking all over. She spoke in a voice not quite her own. '"Madhu ideji? Madhu ideji?" '
The Father closed his eyes, not trusting himself to speak. Even his own slight Arquali was enough. He could hear it, in all its snarled violence, bellowed at a child in pain: Where are the women? Where are the women? And the boy had held his tongue. And the boy had held his tongue.
When he opened his eyes she was gazing right at him. He tried to be stern. 'Tears, Neda? You know that is not our way. And no fury or grief or shame can best a child of the Old Faith. And no Arquali is your equal. Stop crying. You are sfvantskor sfvantskor, best beloved.'
'I wasn't then,' she said.
True enough. No sfvantskor sfvantskor or anything like. A girl of seventeen at the time. Captured that very night, when thieves skulking deeper inside the tunnel chased her out at knife-point, into the hands of the Arqualis. Unable to speak to them, to plead. Brutalised, as he would not ask her to recall, before the strange Doctor Chadfallow intervened, freeing her in a shouting match with a general that came almost to blows. or anything like. A girl of seventeen at the time. Captured that very night, when thieves skulking deeper inside the tunnel chased her out at knife-point, into the hands of the Arqualis. Unable to speak to them, to plead. Brutalised, as he would not ask her to recall, before the strange Doctor Chadfallow intervened, freeing her in a shouting match with a general that came almost to blows.
The doctor was a favourite of the Arquali Emperor, who had named him Special Envoy to the city before the invasion. A friend to Neda and her family too, it seemed, for he took the girl bleeding as she was to his Mzithrini counterpart, who was to be expelled with his household that same afternoon.
'Save her, Acheleg,' he pleaded. 'Take her with you as a daughter, open your heart.'
But this Acheleg was a beast. He had failed to predict the invasion, and so was returning to the Mzithrin in some disgrace. He saw no reason to help his rival. Both he and Chadfallow had wished to marry Suthinia, Neda's mother, and although she had refused both and vanished none knew where, Acheleg still fancied himself particularly spurned. Now fate had given him Suthinia's child. Not the great beauty her mother was, and left unclean by the enemy, but still a prize for a slouching ex-diplomat whose future conquests would be scarce. He took her to Babqri - but as a concubine, not a daughter. And only because the man was fool enough to bring her to court, when he came beetling through with his lies and flattery for the king, had the Father spotted her.
Blue eyes. He had heard of such things in the East. And when the girl saw him watching and raised those eyes, the Father knew she would be sfvantskor sfvantskor. A foreign sfvantskor sfvantskor! It was a sign of catastrophe, of the old world's end. But in a hundred years of choosing he had never needed more than a glance.
Such an odd fate, Neda's. Saved from an Arquali by an Arquali, and from one Mzithrini by another. Twice taken as plunder, the third time as a warrior for the G.o.ds.
But still not a sfvantskor sfvantskor, in point of fact. None of his children (he moved among them, speaking the dawn prayer, breaking their sleep-trance with his fingertips) could claim the t.i.tle until he gave them up. It had always been so, and always would be: only when they knelt before one of the Five Kings and swore fealty were they sfvantskor sfvantskors, warrior-priests of the Mzithrin. Until that day they were his aspirants, his children. Afterwards he would not even speak their names.
Not a sfvantskor sfvantskor, thought the girl, her dream dissolving and the tears quite gone. Not even a normal aspirant, for she was foreign-born. It made a difference. Even the Father could not pretend otherwise, although he forbid the others to mention it. For two thousand years the elders had moulded youth into sfvantskor sfvantskors to serve the Mzithrin Kings, to lead their armies and terrify their foes. Power dwelt in them, power from the Forts of Forever, from the shards of the Black Casket and the vault of the wind. It was more than an honour: it was a life's destiny and a sacred trust. And only native-born Mzithrini youths were called. That was the order of things, until the Father brought Neda to his Citadel.
Neda Pathkendle. A row of old Masters spoke her name in the Greeting Hall that first day, as if the very syllables displeased them.
Neda Ygrael, said the Father. I have renamed her. Watch her; you will understand in time.
Ygrael, Phoenix-Flame. The grandness of his gesture did not help. The other six aspirants (four boys, two perfect girls) were scandalised. A hazel-skinned refugee from Ormael, one of the va.s.sal-states of the enemy? Had they been singled out for shame? Were they such poor candidates that the timeless customs need not apply?
One did not question the Father - he who had sucked a black demon from a wound in King Ahbsan's neck, and spat the thing into a coal stove, where it howled and clattered for a month - but his choice tested faith. There was open hissing at the feast of Winterbane, when the new aspirants marched through Babqri City. There was the dove's carca.s.s, burned black and left on her pillow, with the words Never to Rise Never to Rise in ash upon the floor. There was the day she learned about Belligerent Expulsion: an ancient rule by which the other aspirants, if they declared unanimously that one of their brethren had 'sought to make enemies of them all,' could cast that member out. in ash upon the floor. There was the day she learned about Belligerent Expulsion: an ancient rule by which the other aspirants, if they declared unanimously that one of their brethren had 'sought to make enemies of them all,' could cast that member out.
Neda had done no such thing; she had been obedient to their whims, tolerant of their spite; and yet five of the six had voted for her removal. When the effort failed, Neda had gone quietly to the one who sided with her, a tall proud girl named Suridin. Neda knelt before her and whispered her thanks, but the girl kicked her over with a bitter laugh.
'It wasn't for you you,' she said. 'I want to serve the navy, like my birth-father, and they bring witches who can smell a lie to the swearing-in. What am I going to say when they ask if I've ever given false testimony?'
Suridin's birth-father was an admiral in the White Fleet. 'I understand, sister,' said Neda.
'You don't understand a thing. I wish you would would start a fight with one of us. You don't belong here, and I'd vote against you in a heartbeat if I could.' start a fight with one of us. You don't belong here, and I'd vote against you in a heartbeat if I could.'
All this was horrid and prolonged. But five years later it was over, and it had ended just as the Father said it would: with Neda trained and deadly and strong in the Faith, and her six brethren embracing her (some loving, others merely obedient), and the Mzithrini common folk no longer quite sure why they had objected.
Neda, however, suffered no such confusion. They were right, her enemies. They saw what the Father did not: that she would fail, disgracing her t.i.tle, if it were ever bestowed. She had fired an arrow over the River Bhosfal and struck a moving target. She had walked a rope stretched over the Devil's Gorge, and carried her own weight in water up the three hundred steps of the Citadel. But the way of the sfvantskor sfvantskor was perfection, and in one matter she was gravely imperfect. She could not forget. was perfection, and in one matter she was gravely imperfect. She could not forget.