Calcam and Majelis had very soon been surrounded by the inhabitants of the city, who peered at them curiously and jabbered in some barbarous tongue. Majelis supposed they would, after all, look strange to this pale people.
“Can you talk to them?” Calcam asked, looking especially unhappy. Someone reached out to touch his tightly curled hair and he jerked away, his hand flying to his sword hilt.
“Let me try Malhun,” said Majelis. “Excuse me, could any of you direct me to the oracle?”
One man in the crowd pushed his way through. “Ah, we share a language. Tell me, where are you from?”
“From the south. I am from a city called Tsebiss and my companion is from an island offshore. We are looking for the oracle.”
“See the tall building in the center?” the man said, pointing. “If you want to ask a question, just pay one of the priests in attendance. The equivalent of nine disks or so should suffice. Do not worry about the matter of language – the oracle understands the speech of all tribes. She is animated by the Flame, after all, and the Flame burns in all countries.”
“Thank you,” said Majelis, and he and Calcam pushed their way forward with some difficulty, but came at last to the white stairs and ascended these. There was a man standing next to the dimly lit entrance of the tower, wearing a gold ring around his brow.
“Ephelersmi top teolphniont pil?” he asked.
“We are here to see the oracle,” Majelis said, and held out a handful of coins. The man peered at them and then took the majority of what had been offered. He gestured for them to follow and led them inside, into a narrow hall with a number of side doors leading off. One of these he opened to reveal a broad descending stairway. Choosing a torch from a rack on the wall, he snapped his fingers over the top and it burst into flame. Then he guided them down to the bottom, a room with a tall three-legged chair at one end in front of a lit fireplace. In the chair sat a young woman with a white cloth wrapped around her eyes. The man crossed his arms and stepped back.
Majelis and Calcam exchanged glances. “I suppose we ask our questions now?” wondered Calcam. “You can go first.”
Majelis took a step forward, towards the woman. The question was one he had pondered many times since Kasus had given it to him, and he was not sure if it was a good one or not. Perhaps for Kasus, who was always striving for power and luxury, it would be a fine thing to live forever, but Majelis was not even sure he wanted to live for another decade. He shook his head firmly. Now was not the time for such thoughts. Looking straight at the oracle, he asked, “How can I achieve eternal life?”
The woman pressed her hands to her eyes. She spoke in a pure and clear voice, using the words that were common in Malhun. “You must die.”
“What? I don’t understand. What do you mean, I must die?” The woman said nothing further, and a baffled Majelis waved Calcam forward.
“Juteng ti unca kaljumen pwi pulcecicet alakujukipet?”
The reply of the oracle was in the Malhun tongue again. “Seek the destroyer of cities who stands at the side of the great king of the west.”
Almost immediately after she had finished the attendant stepped around between them and pointed to the steps. Taking the hint, Majelis climbed up with Calcam after him. Once they were out in the open air again he released his breath. “That was very unhelpful, for me at least. Your answer sounded more specific. What did you ask her?”
Calcam didn’t answer, asking instead, “Who is the great king of the west?”
“I am from Sretskalawa, Calcam. I do not know.”
“Your land is much too large. In it a man can hide from justice forever.”
“Sometimes I agree with that. Well, I will be staying here until Kasus comes,” said Majelis. “What plans do you have?”
Calcam grinned at him. “I’ll stay with you, here among the hairy giants, until I decide where I should go.”
On their fourth day in Teolphar, Majelis was using hand gestures to bargain for a couple of apricots when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Looking behind him he saw a bulky woman with a hood trailing red tassels over her face. “Pardon me,” she said in a heavily accented form of the Malhun language. “Kk’utarsu directed me to you and suggested you might need help, as you do not know our language.”
“Oh?” said Majelis, exchanging a few coins for the apricots. “Well, if you are willing to teach me, that would be a great help.”
“My name is Miophareol. You are?”
“If then, Majelis Asra, you want to learn our language, my husband and I can teach you. Are you able to clean a dwelling, and to prepare food?”
Majelis laughed, remembering when he had been a king. “I am able, yes.”
“Good. I find such things tiring and servants are expensive. This way, if you will.”
“I have a companion with me,” said Majelis and stood on his toes to look for Calcam in the crowd, a futile task given Calcam’s diminutive height. “You will recognize him if you see him: he resembles a child, with skin as dark as mine.”
“I don’t see anyone like that,” said Miophareol.
Then Calcam emerged from among the people in the market, weaving between them as if they were trees and he was in the jungle rather than this city. He looked at Miophareol with suspicious, wary eyes. “Who’s she?” he asked.
“Miophareol,” she said. “I’m offering your friend a chance to work for me. You too, if you want. I see you have a sword, but can you use it?”
Calcam glowered. “I can show you, if you want.”
“No, Calcam, that would just cause trouble. I can assure you, Miophareol, that Calcam is an excellent swordsman.”
“My husband is a priest,” Miophareol said, “and there may be a place for you in the tower guard. You will both have a warm place to sleep and as much food as you want.”
“Then I accept,” said Calcam, but the suspicion didn’t leave his face.
“If he is a priest, I would like to learn about your worship from him,” said Majelis.
“You are a religious man?” asked Miophareol.
“I spent a little while as an ascetic hermit in the southern hills.”
“Then I’m positive he’ll be delighted to teach you.”
She brought them to a house in a block near the center of Teolphar, inside of which a bearded man was stirring a bowl of yogurt. He looked up at the strangers and with some puzzlement asked, “Miophareol, merten harsenkhee?”
“Orokonkhoo. Pelemmethrekt pelentesammi ophonlopo: sakiereke olunasmu olunokorumo e harsenreke maranioasammio phemelespherimt.”
“Riphaerim, asint! Lusorsu…riphaerim!”
“This is my husband, Elsasel,” she said to Majelis and Calcam. “He is a priest of the oracle, and he is happy to have you with us. The Flame illumines those who are hospitable to strangers.” Elsasel’s furious puffing belied his wife’s words, but he made no articulate protest. Miophareol continued. “Now let me show you what your duties will be, and then we can get started with your lessons.”
Despite his obvious irritation, Elsasel bowed to his wife’s promptings and found for Calcam a post among the tower guard. Somewhere within the tower: they had tried putting him with the others at the main gate, where he had stood out with comical effect. Calcam himself had been the first to break out laughing. As for Majelis, he found himself running various errands in the city, an occupation which made him rapidly familiar with the language of Teolphar. Direct grammatical instruction came from Elsasel himself, and Majelis soon suspected that he was being taught a fairly high register of the language, mixed as it was with religious instruction. At any rate, when he spoke, he tended to receive rather impressed looks. Calcam, on the other hand, grew frustrated with the lessons and soon abandoned them.
Frequently Elsasel would be engaged in discussions with his fellow priests, discussions which Majelis was forbidden to hear. One day, however, he asked Majelis if the phrase “the ruby in the bosom of leviathan” meant anything to him. After the words had been explained to him, Majelis answered. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anything of that kind before. Why? What does it mean?”
“Oh, I’m just trying to interpret an answer from the oracle. You know about the oracle and her answers?”
“I have an answer of my own that I am trying to unravel,” said Majelis.
“Then you are a true citizen of Teolphar!” said Elsasel with a bitter laugh.
In Teolphar they measured out the year by the feasts of various sacred heroes called Golden Men, and it was nine days after the feast of Golden Zodu that the high priest of the city died after a brief but severe illness. Elsasel’s meetings with fellow priests grew more frequent, and Majelis was even approached by a strange woman who asked him in so many words if he would spy on Elsasel for an unnamed party, an offer which he refused.
Soon afterwards Elsasel sent him to the temple of the oracle with a sealed letter and instructions on where he should deliver it. So he climbed the steps to the tower’s base, told the priest standing in the entrance that he was carrying out a task for Elsasel, and was allowed inside. He ascended a level to a small room where a man was standing on a balcony, looking out over the city. “I have brought it,” he said, as Elsasel had told him to.
The man turned and accepted the letter from him. “Thank you. Wait a moment. You are from the far south, yes?”
“Yes. I was born in a city named Tsebiss.”
“A strange name, though the name of Teolphar sounds strange to you, no doubt. Is Tsebiss near the sea?”
“Yes, yes it is.”
“I thought it might be.” He opened the letter and scanned it quickly, his eyebrows rising as he did. “What sort of religion do you have down there? What do you worship?”
“We have very many gods. I can list the major ones, if you like.”
“No….what do you know about the Flame that we worship here?”
“It is the light that illuminates the world and the fire that heats it. It is holy beyond mortal understanding. In the sweetness of the Flame we are consumed.”
“Well said. Where did you learn that?”
“I have studied with Elsasel and Miophareol. The Flame is very beautiful. It is not one of the ever-quarreling ever-promiscuous gods I had known before. Srulusu, our god of fire, has had seven children with different mortal women, some of whom he took against their will.”
“You love the Flame and that is good. But what do you know of the Beast?”
“I know nothing of it.”
“Every fire casts a shadow, and the more complex the intervening figure the more complex the form of the shadow. But the shadow is never solid. Come with me.” The priest led Majelis up a level and through an arched doorway to a spiral staircase that wound its way up into a dark room. A flickering red flame danced in a bowl mounted upon the wall opposite. “This is the sacred flame,” the priest said, and knelt. Majelis knelt beside him. “Now turn your head to see what is behind you.”
Carved out of the stone, and only partially visible in the shadows, was a monstrous thing of folds and teeth and claws. “What is that?” Majelis asked, his voice hushed.
“It is the Beast that lurks in the dark, kept at bay only by the Flame. It is the enemy of mankind and of all the created world, always hungry and never satisfied. It is unspeakable, and we priests of Teolphar stand with the Flame between it and the greater world.”
Majelis stared up at the statue for a moment, then looked back to the fire. “But the Flame is greater than the Beast, yes?”
“Yes indeed, far more important. You grasp the basics well for a foreigner. This is the chamber of the high priest, where he meditates on the Flame. The recent death of Lurtonol has left it vacant, a vacancy that must be filled. In the next few weeks, the cardinals will decide who will be the next high priest. Their choice must be a man who is wise and pious, authoritative and learned, humble and holy.”
“A difficult set of requirements to fulfill.”
“Yes, which is why our high priests tend to fall somewhat short of the mark. Such is the way of our mortal flesh.” He was silent for a moment, then turned and descended the stairs. Majelis followed, and when they passed out from under the arch, the priest said, “You may go now. Tell Elsasel that many a jewel is found in the bosom.”
Bowing, Majelis made his way out of the temple and returned to the house of Elsasel, who was waiting impatiently by the door. “Did you deliver it? You took long enough.”
“And was there a reply?”
“‘Many a jewel is found in the bosom,’ he said.”
Elsasel appeared puzzled for just a moment, then pursed his lips. “I see. Turning to other matters, you have come along very well in learning our language, and I suspect our paths will part soon. What will you be doing when you leave?”
“I await the arrival of a friend, so I will be staying longer in Teolphar,” said Majelis, wondering as he so often did about where Kasus was and what he was doing, and if he had found the secret of eternal life in the west.
“Good! It is a beautiful city, yes?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I believe you have mentioned that you were a king in your homeland?”
“Indeed I was, though that was far away and many years ago.”
“But you would perform sacrifices, lead armies, carry out justice in your city?”
“I would, together with my brother. My abilities were never anything special – it was through the blood in my veins that I ruled. We were overthrown in the end and banished.”
“It must have rankled to be a servant for so long.”
“I have been a galley slave. Little rankles me anymore.”
“But you must miss the luxuries of being a king. Gold and precious stones beyond count, a different beautiful woman every night, musicians singing your praises?”
Majelis looked down. “I enjoyed those things at the time, when I was a very young man, but time has passed since then, and I find myself longing for something else. I do not know what it is…the Flame perhaps comes close…but it is beyond this world of pleasures and pain.”
“Yes. I know what you mean. Go do what you will. I have many things to consider.”
The next day Majelis went to meet Calcam at the time they had agreed on. It had been some weeks since their last opportunity to talk together about what they had seen in Teolphar in the language of Malhun, which although it was native to neither of them, was somehow comforting nevertheless. As he approached the great tower, an elderly man in the horned hat of a cardinal rushed down the steps to stand in his way. “You are the stranger from Malhun?” the cardinal asked.
“I hail from Sretskalawa formerly,” said Majelis, struggling to recall if he had at any point learned how to act in the presence of a cardinal. He settled on a polite but not obsequious bow.
“Yes, you don’t look much like a man of Malhun. Tell me, if you don’t greatly mind, how it is that you have come to the city of the Flame?”
“To seek after the oracle, your grace,” said Majelis. That was the right word, he thought.
“Ah. Why else? I am Risliel, cardinal of the Flame. Do you know much about what the priests of the Flame do, Majelis?”
“Elsasel has taught me some, your grace.”
“I suppose you have priests in your homeland?”
“Yes, your grace, priests of many of our gods. We knew nothing of the Flame.”
“But you have learned something of it now, eh?”
“I should like to learn more, your grace. I think I have been looking for it all my life unknowingly.”
“Do you know why we drink ashes in water on the Feast of Golden Saula?” asked Risliel. He had seated himself on the lowest step, looking up at Majelis placidly.
“To symbolize the destruction of our sins in the Flame’s heat and to join ourselves with Saula in her martyrdom, your grace. It is one of the principal feasts, and I was pleased to be able to participate in it for the first time a couple months ago.”
“You weren’t a priest in your homeland, were you?”
“No, your grace. I was a prince.”
“Until I was exiled and sold into slavery, which may perhaps show that I was not the wisest or best of princes. A humble life suits me better, mayhap, especially here in a city dedicated to religion.”
“At times I think that a humble life would suit all of us better,” said Risliel.
Majelis smiled and lifted his hands. “Your grace, when there are as many people as live in Teolphar, some must be elevated to keep order. And as much as I wish it were otherwise, it is so with the religion of the Flame.”
“Well, Majelis, it was good to have an opportunity to speak with you,” said Risliel, standing. “I hope that we will meet again when you are higher up, eh?”
“If the Flame lights our path to it, your grace,” said Majelis, and bowed again. When Risliel had gone on his way, Majelis continued into the tower and found Calcam at his post outside the high priest’s chamber. “You are still guarding him even after his passing?” he asked.
Calcam put a finger to his lips and opened the door slightly so Majelis could see inside. An embalmed body lay stretched out in the middle of the floor, wrapped in golden lineaments and laid on a pure white rug. “Yes,” said Calcam. “The dead don’t leave, you know. They stay here, blessing or haunting us. I stand with him so he will bless and not curse us.”
Majelis rubbed his chin. “I’m not sure that’s quite theologically correct.”
“Theologically? I don’t know what that word means.”
“I’m not sure anyone does. But I’m confident that the high priest was too holy of a man to haunt us after his passing.”
Calcam laughed. “This man? Holy? Lurtonol liked to eat and he liked to sleep, and he did what his friends told him. Yet everyone here calls him holy. That’s another word that maybe no one knows what it means.”
“Maybe,” said Majelis. He was not surprised but disappointed to learn Calcam’s opinion of Lurtonol. Hopefully the next high priest would be more pious.
He and Calcam talked for a while longer, about what they had seen and done in Teolphar since their last meeting. Majelis suspected that Calcam didn’t think Kasus would ever come for them, and if he was honest, Majelis wasn’t sure he wanted him to. He loved his brother and owed him immensely, but he was happier here than he had been in many years.
A few days later Elsasel and Miophareol summoned him to the hearth, Elsasel looking somber and Miophareol somehow both worried and exasperated. “Majelis,” said Elsasel. “You have served us well this past year, but soon you may have to leave our service.”
Majelis bowed his head. “May I inquire as to the reason?”
“We have consulted with the oracle, and the answers we have received lead us to believe that this is our best course of action. Majelis of Sretskalawa, on behalf of the priesthood of Teolphar, I would like to ask you to submit yourself as a candidate to become the next high priest.”
Majelis closed his eyes and lowered his head. After a few seconds he spoke. “No.”
“Why not?” asked Elsasel patiently.
“Because he is not crazy, unlike some others here,” said Miophareol.
“Hush, hush, hush! Let Majelis explain himself.”
“I do not understand the offer,” Majelis said, smiling. “I was but a servant – why would you want me to be high priest unless you wanted the high priest to be your servant?”
“A fair point,” Miophareol said, and Elsasel gave her a sour look.
“In the beginning the priesthood of Teolphar was pure and holy, devoted to the Flame above all else. With the passage of time it became concerned with worldly affairs, with money and power. But you are not corrupted! You have all the purity of far off lands yet to be enlightened. The oracle itself spoke to us and said that we should seek a ruby in the bosom of leviathan: that is, a royal jewel from the lands near the sea.”
“I do not know the intricacies of your doctrine.”
“You greatly underestimate your knowledge, but it hardly matters. The high priest does not teach or instruct, he stands guard and performs ceremonies. You will learn what little more you need to know as time passes.”
“You seem to have mistaken me for a holy man.”
“If I were, it would surely not be wise to tell me. But in my past there are sins, grave festering sins, that should strike me from consideration. I do not wish to speak of them, but I will if it is required of me.”
“Majelis, you do not need to be a holy man. You only need to be willing to serve the Flame with your body, with your soul, with your life. I know you are willing to do that.”
“Of course I am. And if…if your cardinals decide that an idol-worshipping foreigner who hasn’t even mastered your language yet is who they want to be their high priest, then so be it. I will bow to the will of the Flame, if that is what it truly is.”
“Well. There have been many debates about the councils’ relationship to the will of the Flame, but that doesn’t matter right now. I will take your answer to the cardinals, and then we will wait to see what decision they reach.” Elsasel stood, nodded, and walked out.
Miophareol turned her eyes to Majelis. “Be very careful. My husband enjoys his political games, but there are more fires besides the Flame that one may fall into while navigating the priesthood. I do not want to regret teaching you the Teolphar language.”
“I am not an amateur when it comes to politics, I promise you,” Majelis said, getting to his feet. “Where is Lemephakhe? I promised I would play a game of rolukolumoluta with her.”
“You are far too generous to that child. She’s been spoiled rotten by you. You can probably find her down by the aqueduct somewhere, looking after her brother.”
As the debate of the cardinals went on, and the lesser priests waited in trepidation for them to announce their decision. Majelis spent his time playing with Elsasel and Miophareol’s children or meditating on a candle’s flicker. He gave little thought to the cardinals’ meeting, regarding the prospect of his election an absurd, distant, and unlikely one, and he was eating a small lunch when there was a knock on the door of the room Elsasel had given him. He stood from his cross-legged position and opened the door. It was Kisathel, whom he vaguely remembered as a friend of Elsasel.
“Have you heard yet? No, you must still not know.”
“Heard what? Know what?”
“They made you the high priest!”
“This is not a joke? A problem with my understanding of the language, perhaps?”
“No! You, Majelis, are the high priest of the Flame!”
“I see. The Flame honors me beyond what I deserve.”
“Nonsense. Come with me, I will show you what to do.”
Majelis followed Kisathel to the central temple, where ten or so priests waited on the steps. As Majelis stepped forward they moved to close in around him and escort him to the temple entrance. The cardinals, six men distinguished by headwear that rose into twin points were waiting there, each holding a lit lamp. Majelis dimly remembered that their number was that of the six realms of the old empire of Khiar from which the cardinals had once been chosen, but put the triviality out of his mind.
“Juleka lasca no. Put forth your hand,” one of these men said, and Majelis did so. The man who had spoken thrust his lamp forward to singe Majelis’s palm, yet despite the pain Majelis kept his arm still. In the sweetness of the Flame we are consumed. In the sweetness of the Flame we are consumed. The lamp was withdrawn, but his relief lasted for only a moment, as a second man replaced it with his own lamp, and the burning heat resumed.
“Juleke-na e buzutaela vozza ha,” this second man said. “May your hands and deeds be purified.”
“Du-nu-na e alhamaela vozza ha,” the third said. “May your eyes and thoughts be purified.”
“Vasufu-na e xasiaela vozza ha. May your feet and choices be purified.”
“Jusa-na e azistua vozza ha. May your heart and passions be purified.”
“Zahi hizosti xada Azago zu milhto naevazan a-na. Zahi eza tokan estazae e isa voznokae. Zahi eza Logu xozo aeve-na ti e lapahan Hazmnosce ki ja. Bo hizosti xada suza no!” The pain was excruciating. Majelis was not sure if he could keep his composure any longer. “You are the High Priest of the Flame that burns atop the tower. You are he who sees the farthest and loves with the most purity. You are he who obscures the Beast with your presence and stands in the place of Hazmno. Hail the new High Priest!”
And the burning fire was gone, and cheers went up from all around. Majelis did not dare to look at his hand, but felt something cool and wet being wrapped around it. He was ushered inside, up two levels, and through the arched passage. At the base of the stairs that led up to the room with the flame and the carved statues, one of the priests said, “You will meditate above for three days without food, and when that time has passed, you will be the high priest in truth.”
Without saying anything further all the priests filed out, leaving Majelis alone. He ascended into the dim room above, and there he sat, crossing his legs, in the meditative position that was used in Sretskalawa. He did not know if that was considered improper for the Flame, but if they wanted a man of Tsebiss for their high priest, this was what they would get. He did not close his eyes, though, but focused on the lamp before him. Slowly he fell into a trance, the flame dancing in his vision, all things falling into its light.
Majelis stretched and yawned. He was not sure if it was morning, but this was the third time he had awoken from slumber during this period of meditation. His body felt weak and tired, but his spirit seemed to hover just outside of his skin, lifting him up. Hearing footsteps on the stairs below, he moved over to the hole in the floor and peered down.
A young woman with long yellow hair was ascending with a bowl of some sort of dark liquid – soup, Majelis presumed. She set this on the floor. “Your fast is at an end, Majelis. I am Selinel, the great vestal of Teolphar.”
“Hello, Selinel. You know, I presume, that I am not from Teolphar or the surrounding regions?”
“You are from the far south. There has been much discussion of it since your election.”
“Yes. For that reason I am not completely familiar with the words…‘great vestal.’”
“Well, we vestals are the women who serve the Flame in the temple. For the period of our service we renounce marriage and motherhood, so that we may worship in all purity, just like the exalted priests.”
“I see. Would I count as an…exalted priest?”
“Of course. You are the most exalted of all.”
Majelis smiled inwardly. There was a time, in Sretskalawa, when he would have been appalled by the thought of giving up such fleshly pleasures, but many years had passed since then and he had lived with self-denial for long enough that he was comfortable with celibacy. Which wasn’t to say that he didn’t find the sight of Selinel quite pleasant.
The priests of his youth would have chastised him and urged him to pass on his divine blood to future generations, but he was a priest of a new order now. It was only through the Flame that he could make his spirit immortal. Elsasel had spoken of it often, how at the end of time the Flame would consume and take up what was good, while the Beast would devour what was evil, devouring even itself at the last.
“And…oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t notice you were meditating,” Selinel said.
“No, I was just abstracted. What were you saying?”
“As the great vestal, I tend to the various fires kept throughout the temple, except for this chief one of course, which is your responsibility now. I can demonstrate how to tend the flame, if you would like.”
“Yes, yes, that would be a great help. Thank you.”
“You know,” Selinel said as she stepped forward towards the fire, “you are very different from Lurtonol. He would hardly talk at all to me. Said something about me being young, and too great of a temptation. A silly man, Lurtonol.”
Majelis smiled ruefully, suppressing what he had just been thinking. “Silly indeed.”
Calcam alone did not seem surprised by Majelis’s election. To him, perhaps, this was but one more strange thing in a land of strange things. He did, however, seem impressed by Majelis’s devotion to his rituals. “I don’t think that you will haunt anyone after you have gone away,” he told Majelis.
“I certainly hope that I won’t,” Majelis said.
Over the next several months, Majelis learned the routines and patterns of his new life. He learned the prayers he was supposed to lead, the few public ceremonies he had to perform, and began studying the language of the Amber Books that were the sacred scriptures of Teolphar. He found in the middle of all this that he was actually quite happy, happier than he had ever been. For once he had been given a position in life which suited him perfectly. He did not have to pretend to be what he was not, such as a courtier or a general or a judge. He had been good at it, he had thought, but now he could simply be himself: a devoted follower of something far greater and better than himself.
Selinel was a great help in all of this, and to his pleased surprise he discovered that he was attracted to her as a brother to a sister, not as a man to a lover. He was beginning to understand what the oracle had meant by saying that he would have to die to live forever. “In the sweetness of the flame we are consumed,” he would frequently murmur to himself. Through the defeat and conquest of his azistu, his passions, he would become closer to the Flame.
The woman who had asked him to spy on Elsasel tried several times to speak with him again, but Calcam and the other guards kept her from bothering him after the first occasion. Under the pretense of seeking advice she had introduced herself as Tirakhe Halarenkhe, and it being obvious that the name meant nothing to him, told him sternly that the Halarenkhe family were the rulers of Teolphar and that if he wanted to keep his position he had better listen to her. He had her removed and a few days later received a letter from the prince of the Halarenkhe apologizing for Tirakhe’s behavior. Nonetheless, the letter had gone on to say, it would be wise of him, as a foreigner, to let the Halarenkhe family give him some advice, which from the sample in the letter seemed to involve making statements in support of the Halarenkhe.
Another time it came to his attention that there had been a tradition the past few decades in which the high priest would accept a significant sum of money on behalf of the temple, in exchange for which he would not give as discerning an eye as he normally might to the candidates for various servitor positions. After prolonged thought and meditation, he decided that he could not do this and keep a pure conscience, and although the servitors complained vociferously most others seemed to approve.
Elsasel came to him to join in one of his prayers, after which he asked Majelis if the Halarenkhe had reached out to him yet. “They have,” said Majelis simply, and Elsasel chuckled.
“And I suppose they wanted you to do what they say, with a ‘yes, your honor’ and an ‘of course, your honor?’ Some of us live in perpetual worry that the cardinals will pick one of that brood to be high priest. No, they look after the city and we look after the tower. But now to serious matters. As high priest of Teolphar, you will be expected to serve as the highest embodiment of all we who serve the Flame, and from what I have heard you are doing an excellent job of that. But these are dangerous times. There are rumors of war and of new blasphemous gods. Some among the priesthood believe that the high priest should cast out the Halarenkhe and rule the city himself, so that the Flame will more greatly bless us and protect us from the storms that approach.”
Majelis sighed. “And what do you think?”
“Your grace, I would have you make more use of the powers you already have.”
“What would these powers be?”
“In principle it is you who determines who speaks to the oracle, though in past years the doors have been thrown open to anyone, even those who could use the oracle’s words against the Flame itself. It is you who chooses whom to bless with the first portion at the Feast of Golden Iska. It is you who has the power to determine appointments to the neighboring cities. You have a great deal of influence over what is taught and who is honored. If you are wise, you will use it!”
“To what end?” Majelis asked.
Elsasel stepped closer to him. “To make sure that when the storm breaks upon us, we are ready. To make sure that none of us will betray you or fail you. The High Priest of the Flame must stand between us and the Beast, or we all perish.”
“And you chose me to stand in that precarious place.”
“The oracle chose you and the cardinals found you worthy, your grace. I promise that you have my complete support, and that of those who agree with me.”
Majelis thanked Elsasel and spoke a little longer with him, but when he was gone, Majelis lit a candle and stared into its flame, trying to calm his suddenly unsettled thoughts. So he had not escaped from politics, not at all, and now he didn’t even have Kasus to guide him. He had been thrown to the sharks, sharks that at the moment he feared more than the Beast itself. It was only through long prayer and meditation that he found some measure of peace again.
Things were going on this way, and he was even beginning to forget how he had come to Teolphar, when Selinel climbed up into his chamber and told him that the woman who was the mouthpiece of the oracle had asked to see him. Majelis was used to such requests for spiritual guidance, and he quickly rose and followed Selinel down to the deep room where the oracle gave its messages.
Oddly, the mouthpiece was still wearing the blindfold across her eyes to hide her from the physical world and allow the oracle to take control. As Majelis entered she looked straight at him and spoke in the language of Tsebiss, and he knew then that he had not come to guide but to be guided.
“He comes, and for once you must live rather than die. He brings shadows in his wake.”
Who? Majelis thought, but did not say, of course. He had learned by now that the oracle did not respond to further questioning. Instead he said, “Thank you,” and bowed his head, then went out.
“What did those words mean? Do you know?” Selinel asked.
“I don’t have the slightest idea. But I think I will go outside and see if there are any strangers who have arrived recently.” He stepped out into the open air and took a deep breath, pulling his hood over his head. The year had turned and the harsh cold winter of Teolphar would soon give way to spring. He went across to the steps and sat down on them, looking out over the milling crowd of people. His eyes wandered lazily over the unfamiliar faces…and one familiar face, heading in his direction.
“May the Flame burn within you,” he said to the familiar man.
“And you. Could you direct me to the oracle?”
“This is the oracle, and I am its high priest.”
“Ah! I don’t suppose you know anything about a man – he would be as dark as I – named Majelis or something like that?”
“I do, as it happens,” said Majelis as he raised his head. “Welcome to Teolphar, brother.”
“Ma…Majelis?” Kasus looked flustered, a rare sight and one that, since childhood, Majelis had always enjoyed. “Is that really…you are the high priest. You?”
“Yes, I have been chosen to fill this role.”
“Majelis, what have you gotten yourself into?” Majelis didn’t reply to this, and Kasus gave a frustrated sigh. “I assume you got your answer out of the oracle, at least? Where is Calcam?”
“Calcam left a while ago. And yes, the oracle answered your question, though I do not know if you will like the answer. Even I do not fully understand what it means.”
“What did it say?”
“I made sure to note down the exact words,” Majelis said. “You know how oracles are. I will be back in just a few seconds.” He went back into the temple and up to the room where he kept his very few possessions. Folded into his spare robe was a tiny piece of cloth with writing scribbled on it. He took this down to Kasus and handed it to him.
“‘How can I achieve eternal life? You must die,’” Kasus read, and frowned. “Is that all?”
“That is all.”
“Meaningless!” He crumpled it in his fist. “I half-expected this, Majelis. I have been chasing an absurd dream these past few years, and I am sorry I wasted your time with it.”
“So what are you doing now?”
“Ah! I have returned to what we were born to do. I am a king once more, my brother, and I lead armies sweeping across the land, bringing cities under my rule. That is why I have come to the north, to make alliances.”
“I wish you the best of health,” Majelis said.
“You can come with me. It will be good to travel together again, brother. I plan to go to Khiar, the hidden kingdom in the mountains.”
“I have duties here, Kasus. I cannot simply abandon them.”
Kasus chuckled and shook his head. “You had duties aboard the Kaghatil too.”
“This is different.”
“If you want, I will make you the high priest of the Flame for my army. Wait, do not say anything yet. I will give you a few days to consider your decision. I am here with a number of companions, including soldiers. Do you know of a place where we can find lodging?”
“There are inns, at a price of course, but as a king you will have no difficulty paying. Excuse me a moment.” Majelis turned to a boy who had been shifting from foot to foot at his side, waiting for him to finish. “Yes, my child?”
“My mother sent me – she’s a seamstress down in the east quarter – she wants a vestal to come bless her new loom.”
“Of course. Come with me,” Majelis said. He waved a hand in farewell to Kasus and started towards the temple with the boy trailing behind. He heard Kasus laugh once before the tower swallowed them up.
Alzurid was standing in a windswept pass, his ankles buried in snow, looking down upon a cluster of houses with curious conical roofs. He took a few steps forward, gliding eerily smoothly across the ground, then paused and glanced around. His recent memory was fogged and he found himself struggling to remember what he had been doing even an hour earlier.
He realized suddenly that he was not as cold as he should be, given his environment. Perhaps this was a dream, formed from fragments of past memories. Soon he would be awake…
His eyes opened, and he stretched his arms, sitting up from his bed, looking around the tiny crowded room he and a few of the Sughin soldiers had been given. It was just before dawn, and the others were beginning to stir and awaken. Alzurid tugged his coat out from under his blanket and wrapped it around himself, then stepped out into the chill of the early morning. He took a large piece of tack from his pocket and began to eat.
“You like that stuff?” Semsa asked, emerging from the adjacent door.
“I grew used to it when I spent some time on a Duri vessel on the great western sea,” Alzurid said. “It keeps well, anyway, and it’s good for travel.”
She hummed. “I plan on enjoying the food here in Teolphar as much as possible. We are nearer to the fabled land of spices, after all.”
“Did Kasus say anything to you about whether he found his brother or not? He has told us nothing.”
“No, he is no more open-mouthed around me than around you,” said Semsa.
“Wise of him, I suppose, to keep his thoughts and plans to himself. He will not make many friends that way, but a reigning king needs few friends.”
“He only needs props to demonstrate that his rule stretches from Duri to Alka’al, which it certainly does not.”
“Well, as long as I am able to travel through distant lands, I am content.”
“Something you want to avoid back home?” she asked teasingly. In reply Alzurid chuckled and shook his head. “Have you seen the great temple yet?” Semsa continued.
“No, I haven’t.”
“It’s that tower in the middle of the city. It’s quite impressive from close up, and if we’re lucky we might get to see inside.”
“Shall we go see?”
“All right,” said Semsa, and stepped into place besides Alzurid. He glanced over at her occasionally as they walked, but she was focused on the way ahead, occasionally pointing when the spire of the temple became visible.
Once they reached the circular platform that was the tower’s base, Alzurid paused. “Those men and women with the red shoulder-pieces, are they the priests, I wonder?”
Many people were sitting on the steps around the temple conversing, including families with children, and Alzurid sat near the top, letting his legs stretch out over the two levels of steps below. Semsa rested next to him with her knees drawn up. “This is nice,” she said after a moment. “I had a terrible dream, a nightmare about that dragon we saw. It knew my name and called to me… They didn’t talk, right? They were just animals?”
“From my studies I believe that they were just like giant birds. They said nothing and did not understand human speech,” Alzurid said. “Excepting of course the same legends that feature talking horses and such marvels.”
“Good,” Semsa said firmly, and smiled at Alzurid. “I have been having bad dreams recently, and they are affecting me rather more than they should, I think. But I will try to put them out of my mind and enjoy myself while I can.”
Alzurid could not help but smile back. “Good advice. Dreams are nothing more than fragments of shattered memory, like piecing together a vase broken when shoved carelessly into the back of the mind.”
“Is that really true? That dreams have no connection to what is outside our minds?”
“I would hesitate to say that, but there are times when I wish very much that it is true. The alternative would be terrifying.”
Kasus was as happy in the real world as he had ever been, but his memories were becoming more and more foreign to him. He would try to recollect the past but every time he did the hunter was behind him, drawing ever closer with its nimbus of dread. So he relied ever more on writing things down, preferring that to the nightmarish scenes that insinuated themselves into his psyche whenever he thought back.
When he awoke in the morning he immediately turned to the parchment on which he had recorded the important events of the past week and skimmed it. “Majelis,” he murmured. “I promised I would return to talk to you today. I hope you have changed your mind about coming with me, or I may have to take harsher measures, and neither of us would enjoy that.”
He shook his head when the female innkeeper offered him breakfast, then remembered that was a positive response here in Teolphar and put up his hands palms outward. True to his word, Majelis was waiting for him outside the temple.
“Well! Have you come to a decision?”
“I came to my decision when you first arrived. I have been appointed to this place by the Flame, and I cannot abandon such a task. It is a holy calling.”
Kasus laughed. “A holy calling? You naive fool, I am quite confident that nothing brought you here but the ambition of other men, or maybe women for all I know. You were chosen because you were useful to someone, and that someone is not the Flame.”
“Why can’t it be both? Why couldn’t I have been chosen by both priests and the Flame, for different reasons?”
“That is the answer of one determined to abandon reason and common sense to hide in some mysticism that is comforting but comes to nothing in the end. You are emitting empty words, Majelis, to justify yourself being used by those more ambitious than you. If you must attach yourself to some such greater individual, why not make it your brother, your companion since childhood?”
“Since when have you cared, truly cared, about the Flame?”
“A successful king and general must take care to propitiate each of his followers’ gods.”
“That is not good enough,” said Majelis.
“What good has your Flame ever done me, then? I ask it a simple question and it replies with nonsense.”
“It is not nonsense.”
“Oh? I must die to live forever? It contradicts itself!”
“You cannot carry on as you are into eternity. A part of you must die that the rest can be taken up into the Flame. It is simple reason.”
“I like myself as I am.”
“Then you cannot live forever.”
“Five hundred years from now I will be remembered in song and legend, and remembered as I am, not as some pure-hearted saint. That is all I ask for. I admire your piety and your philosophy, in all honesty I do. But such philosophy is not for everyone. I know that I am not the kind of man who can live in such a way.”
“You have never tried,” Majelis said.
“Who by Aratus are you to judge my soul? You have not worshipped the Flame for even two years and yet because this undeserved gift has fallen into your lap, you consider yourself worthy to stand over me?”
Majelis winced and looked down. “Forgive me. It has been said that the greatest temptation to impurity is pride, and the greatest of all pride is spiritual pride. I am beginning to learn that myself.”
“I am not terribly interested in your taxonomy of sins, Majelis. I just want to know, once and for all, if you will help me.”
“I must serve the Flame above all else.”
“Very well, then,” said Kasus sadly. “You will not come of your own unconstrained choice, but you cannot turn aside from your familial responsibilities forever. I will see that you do not.”
“Are you threatening me, brother?”
“Was your political education so neglected that you cannot tell the difference between a threat and friendly conversation?” Kasus smiled as broadly as he was able. “I will see you again, soon I hope. For now we will be going on to Khiar. I don’t suppose you will be able to provide us with information about that fabled kingdom?”
“I will tell you what little we know. I should be able to gather together some stories and accounts by tomorrow morning, third bell, if you will meet me then.”
“Good. Thank you, brother.”
“It is no trouble. None at all.”
Majelis duly emerged from the tower the next day with a stack of folded parchment in his hands. Kasus was waiting for him, sitting outside, and stood to take the papers. A bemused smile crossed his face as he flipped through them. “Did you go through all the trouble of translating into our tongue and script?”
“I summarized,” said Majelis.
“And here I was going to be worried about you. Remember our old tutor, and the way he had ruined his brains through endless dry studies. Well, I hope you enjoy your priestly occupations for however long you can. You fulfill old traditions while I do my best to destroy them, for the sake of my memory.”
“You cannot triumph over the Flame.”
“I don’t need to. I only need to triumph over flesh and blood. One last thing. Do you know of anyone who would be able to serve as a translator between us and the Khiar?”
“The Khiar speak a language not dissimilar from the common speech of Teolphar. It shouldn’t be difficult for you to find someone here who you can speak with. When I first came to Teolphar I came across several people who knew the Malhun language.”
“Thank you. Goodbye, Majelis, for now.”
Majelis watched as Kasus turned away and started down the steps to the common streets. He bowed his head and said a quick prayer under his breath, then returned to the temple and up to the chamber of his devotion, where the gargoyle faced the fire.
“I strive above all else to serve thee,” he whispered in the phrase from the Amber Books. “Grant me thy eternal strength like a full-grown bull, and shield me like a mother ptarmigan from the cold.” Switching back into his native tongue, he added “I am weak. By myself I am powerless against the ambitions of the mighty, and I need the brightness of the flame to protect me.” Perhaps fasting for a couple days would help, although it was not time for one of his regular fasts. He would have to inform the cooks. Bowing once more to the Flame, he started down the steps.
Alzurid was sitting in the middle of the floor, staring into a crackling fire. The setting of the fireplace was carved in a style that was completely unfamiliar to him, using not abstract patterns or animals but domestic scenes of children and matronly women. This didn’t seem like it could be a dream. He lifted himself to his feet and looked around the elegantly furnished room. Where was he?
On the other side of the room a handle turned and a door opened. A man stepped inside, holding a tall black hat in his hand. He set this on the back of a chair and seated himself. Two more men and a woman followed. None of them seemed to pay any attention to Alzurid.
“Eth lepenhensmi Kelerensalieps hotompharrokk, karulkono?” asked the first man.
“Lepenami…” the woman began to say, before Alzurid’s vision blurred and he was suddenly sitting upright beside a dying fire. He put his hand before his eyes, then looked around him at the wide open plain in which they were camped. He remembered now: they had left Teolphar two days ago, continuing on their journey to Khiar.
He lay back down and thought about the days ahead. He was not satisfied with the little he knew about these lands, as he was more used to being well acquainted with the languages and customs of the lands he traveled through. He had brought this on himself, of course, by traveling so far into the east, but he was eager to spend an extended time in Khiar learning the ways of the kingdom.
According to Kasus and the several unreadable parchments he had bound together and used as a guide, Khiar was bounded by mountains on the north and west, and by the river Phesalikhe on the south and east. Unfortunately, the last bridges had been broken long ago and Kasus judged therefore that it would be easier to make use of one of the passes through the western mountain range rather than risk a crossing. Alzurid was not looking forward to the trek through the frozen heights, especially considering that most of the party had been born and raised in hot flat regions of the earth. The most comfortable with this climate was the translator Kasus had hired in Teolphar, a wandering trader named Anuntokho who could talk with no one but Kasus himself. In Kimu the Duri tongue had been spoken everywhere throughout the land but here things were different, and from place to place there was no guarantee of a common tongue, that Sa would be read as Sa and Ka as Ka. He would have to warn Tailei to beware of the letters Ta and Ka, because they were green…and it was on these rather confused thoughts that Alzurid drifted back to sleep. This time he had none of his visions, or at least, none that he could remember when he woke up at dawn.
Four more of the Sughin turned back over the next week, even though Alzurid could see the signs of the coming spring. The mountains ahead of them drew nearer as they pressed on, and soon they were ascending into the heights. As they ascended the majority of the group found themselves growing tired, more tired than they should have been, and the Sughin especially were gripped by upset stomachs and even vomiting, but as the days drew on they began to acclimate to the heights.
Alzurid was still visited by his dreams, highly realistic visions of landscapes or the interiors of buildings, and as they continued he came to realize that all these dreams were of the same area. When the travelers came at last to stand in the middle of what Kasus called the Lion’s Pass, Alzurid looked down at the barely visible buildings below and recognized them.
He fell back to walk beside Semsa, and said quietly to her, “I have visited this place in my dreams.”
“Truly? Do you think you could be a seer or prophet of some kind?” she asked, her face wan and framed by layers of thick furs. “Do you know what lies ahead?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Only that the people there wear strange clothing and speak what sounds to me like gibberish.”
“What about your nightmares? Have you still been having those?”
“Not since we left Teolphar. They were just nightmares, nothing more. Why are you so curious about them?”
“I have begun to wonder if our encounter with the…ghost, let us say…with the ghost in Nusgwedn cursed us in some way. I wish I could remember it more clearly, but it has become fogged in my memory. Do you recall it, Semsa?”
She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “Not very well, and what I do remember frightens me.” Alzurid put his own coat over her and she gave him a grateful look but returned the coat. “I do not like the idea of something messing with my mind like that. Maybe it is just the shock of what happened, but…I am very glad that Ghilik is far away from us now.”
“Yes. It is a tenet of our philosophy in Lazu that all events have a deeper significance. It is becoming very clear to me that the recent history of these eastern lands carries some such meaning, and I think it is past time we started trying to figure it out.”
“I don’t understand. Do you mean that there is a moral to our story?”
“I mean that…well, I am not certain, but I have the feeling that something is guiding our paths, and not out of any kindness towards us. Do you remember what Ghilik said about the basilisks?”
“I have tried not to think about it since,” Semsa said. “We Sughin do not trouble ourselves with the spirits of the world.”
“Neither did we in Lazu, but if such beings are taking an interest in our affairs, it is only fair play if we take an interest in theirs. Keep your senses alert for anything particularly unusual, and may the Good and the True protect us.”
Seeing the buildings ahead, Kasus caught up with Taghgos, who was tramping forward in grim silence. “Tell our men to be wary, but not aggressive,” he said. “We do not want to make a bad impression on the Khiar.”
Taghgos grunted. “Remarkably subtle instructions. I hope you aren’t relying too much on the tact of my followers for your diplomatic success.”
“Just keep them under control. I’ve heard enough stories about situations like this going wrong.” He fell back to walk beside Anuntokho. “Khiar is where the empire of the north was centered, yes?”
“That’s right,” Anuntokho said. “There may even be an emperor still reigning here.”
“Good. Make sure when you talk to them that you refer to me as the emperor of the south.”
“I see. And shall I call myself the great prophet Zodu?”
“Believe I am insane if you will, but as far as your speech to the Khiar is concerned, I am the emperor who sits in Apalakki, and I rule lands all along the coast of the great ocean.”
“You pay me well enough. So be it, Emperor Kasus.”
“Emperor Kasus Asra. The longer the name the better,” Kasus said.
“It’s – well, well, I think we’ve been seen.”
They were passing between two towering pillars surmounted by stone lions. Kasus had taken them to be only signposts of the Khiar territory, but now he saw the steps leading up behind them, and the men armed with pikes who were descending to block the travelers’ way.
“Ahelistismisera!” one of the men demanded.
Kasus looked expectantly at Anuntokho, who blinked and then started. “Oh, yes, right, of course.” He cleared his throat. “Merten?”
Anuntokho furrowed his brow. “A! Katimeth…o… Epheltesammi Teolpharleop thonnunt. O…epheltesammi top ramphulrokt oponsa.”
It was now the turn of the guards to furrow their brows. “Teolpharleop? Ramphulkho? Etinrimm otonrok asast!”
“This is somewhat trickier than I had anticipated,” Anuntokho said to Kasus. “I would ask you to remember that our peoples have been separated for a long time, that words have changed and new patterns of speech have replaced old. Perhaps if you had found a translator from the Kirmnakhe whose lands we just passed through, he would have been better able to understand them. Oh, I see that they are surrounding us. Is that bad?”
“Not necessarily,” Kasus said. “Just come along, and do the best you can to figure out what they’re saying.”
“And if they try to kill us?”
Kasus smiled. “Then we try to kill them back.”
They walked down the slope, led by the Khiar guards along its winding path. Before nightfall they were passing among the houses with the conical roofs that Alzurid remembered so clearly. The guards halted at an especially large such house, and opening the door gestured for them to enter. “Arossmi.”
Once they were all inside, the door slammed shut and there was the sound of a bar falling into place, leaving them in darkness. “And now they burn us alive,” said Anuntokho.
“Enough of that,” Kasus said. “This is nothing more than a way-station for us to spend the night. If you were better at translating, no doubt we would be less perplexed, but we must make do with what we have. I hope you rest well.” He raised his voice. “Everything is going as I have planned. We will sleep here and continue on our way to the Khiar city in the morning. I thank you all for your service to me and assure you that you and your families will be greatly rewarded.” This having been said, he sat down against the rude stone wall and closed his eyes.
The next day the doors were opened and the travelers from the south were ushered out to go onwards once more through the Khiar realm. As they walked they passed barren snow-covered fields and villages surrounded by short walls, and Kasus noticed everywhere a shield-shaped banner divided into halves, with a tongue of flame emblazoned on the left and a falcon on the right. After seven days’ travel, they came within sight of a city, and gesturing to it one of the Khiar said, “Khitharenes.”
It rose in levels and levels up the side of a grand hill, a fortress that Kasus’s practiced eye saw to be an immensely strong one. He recalled from the history of Khiar that the city Khitharenes had been built over centuries and had survived countless barbarian onslaughts, and he was glad to see that it still stood, if this was indeed it.
After a brief conversation between their guides and the guards standing on either side of the city gate, they passed inside. The first level was the widest, but houses filled it to such an extent that Kasus and the others with him were forced to wind their way through a maze of narrow streets. He noted this approvingly. Stage by stage they climbed upwards, coming eventually to a tall archway on the third level. They went through this into an open courtyard where a group of men and women sat at a round table, playing some sort of game with painted stone tokens.
One of their guides went forward to this seated group and after a couple minutes one of the men stood and approached the travelers. “Phalep. Kaniokheo Ralemperathikhe lunonkho paramphullopp Meseisalkineps.”
Anuntokho swallowed. “He says that he is a…a servant, I think, of the emperor. His name might be Ralemperathikhe.”
“Tell him that the emperor of the south has come to treat with the emperor of the north, as it was in days of old,” Kasus said.
“I suppose if I use archaic phrasing there might be a better chance of getting the message across. Ramphulkhot plorunnunt tipeltesahi top ramphulrokt sarennint oponsamul.”
“Paramphulkho loronunn? Paruro asinese nok, paramphulkho loronnunn? Apestinrekk roloptasi?” said Ralemperathikhe in a clearly questioning tone.
“Um. I think he wants some kind of indication that we were sent by the emperor of the south. He seems dubious.”
“Tell him that I am the emperor,” Kasus said, “and that if he will not believe me then there is no token that will persuade him otherwise.”
“The chances of him understanding all that seem rather low.”
“I don’t care. Translate.”
Anuntokho took a deep breath. “Right.” He pointed to Kasus. “Harsenkhet ramphulkhot, e yl hyseonsyakh lam sakh kaphukhot…kaphukhot senthekkelkhet.”
Ralemperathikhe looked puzzled. He gestured the guide over to him and they engaged in a whispered conversation. Kasus took the opportunity to look back at his companions. The Sughin soldiers were standing in rigid formation, staring around warily. Alzurid was sitting on the ground with outstretched legs, talking with Semsa and Tailei, and Kasus wondered again what Ghilik had been thinking when he had asked Kasus to bring them. All they were good for that Kasus could see was to tell stories, a good thing but not quite worth the emphasis Ghilik had placed on them.
Ralemperathikhe turned back to Kasus and Anuntokho and spoke. “Otonrokk thiornasammio. Paramphulrokk arenasami, it aemlitakelrimm hol kaparesthinn aparessmi.”
“Paresthinn…paresthinn…a! Paresmethnint!” Anuntokho said in a low voice, then nodded to Kasus. “We are to stay here until the emperor does something or other.”
“All right,” said Kasus. “But, Anuntokho, I think we should take pains in the next months to acquaint ourselves with the language used here in Khiar, yes?”
Anuntokho grimaced and nodded. “Yes.”
It was no more than a couple days after this first meeting with Ralemperathikhe that Anuntokho came into the room Kasus had been given and told him that a reply had come from the emperor. “We are to be taken before him.”
“Exactly as I had hoped,” Kasus replied. “Do you know when?”
“I got the impression that it was very soon.”
Kasus stood up and rubbed the back of his neck. “Tell the others to prepare themselves. No more than a couple of the soldiers should come – we are a delegation of ambassadors, not a military force.”
Before midday a group of Khiar men arrived to bring the travelers to the emperor. The fur of the tall hats that these men wore was pure white rather than brown or black, and they carried spears of a more primitive design, almost resembling stone points bound to unpolished shafts of wood. Without a word they gestured with the spears for Kasus and his companions to fall into line between them.
They marched out of Ralemperathikhe’s compound and resumed their ascent through the city. Almost before Kasus was aware of it, they had come to a vast and dark entryway carved into the side of the hill and bordered by immense pillars. They proceeded into the shadows and then into a sudden light emanating from hundreds of lamps all along the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Kasus understood the effect of this very well: he had done similar things, on a lesser scale, to impress others with his divine descent.
The great open hall into which they had entered was decorated in three levels. Closest to the floor the walls were lined with elaborate patterns of color, but ten feet up were life-size murals of men and women occupied in positions of dancing. Above the murals windows alternated with alcoves in which were set tall statues, too high up for Kasus to see clearly what they were.
They continued forward, past the couches from which men and women in bright pastel costumes watched them, past the tiled floor where two lines of soldiers stood absolutely still and silent, to a dais and the throne atop it. Behind the dais, in row upon row rising up the wall, were spaces in which rested seemingly human figures wrapped tightly in linen.
The legs of the throne were carved in the forms of standing lions with serpents winding about them. It was much wider than its occupant, an aged woman who seemed frail and tiny beneath her tiara. But as they approached the dais her eyes opened, and her expression was like iron.
A trumpet blast resounded through the hall, and a herald cried out, “Meseisalkines paramphulkho aretkhe it haotokho, opolokho harenrelep it nunlokho mepharlepp tharenepps!”
Anuntokho paled, and Kasus sighed when he saw this reaction. Fortunately, the herald was obviously just giving the empress’s list of titles. Now the empress herself leaned forward and spoke. “Eok hilenreke ophonrumm aenhensi, pherulkonn?”
“She…she…” Anuntokho stumbled over his words, then straightened suddenly. “She wants to know what brought us here.”
“So you have been paying attention. Tell her that I would like to renew the old bonds between our empires so that we may stand together against the enemies that surround us. We ask for her hospitality while we acquire a better knowledge of the tongue of her people.”
Anuntokho swallowed, his throat bobbing. “Ramphulkhot ploronnunt harenrekt parolomt pheokyrnyneo toluk eseklerasi top phothorosroko san haroph. Tasekhintellept pilammi phoarunrakolnuno melespherekt takyrleopt.”
The empress conferred for a minute with some of her nearby ministers, then they stepped away and she answered. “Alaluspoassmu it aotolkoassmu paphemlakelrekk hoholakoloss nok.”
“She told us to return when we can something speak…know how to speak, that is it, when we know how to speak.”
“Very good,” said Kasus. “Thank her, and…or maybe not.” He added these last words as their guards closed in between them and the empress and began to herd them back through the great hall. Anuntokho cast several glances back as they went, but Kasus kept his gaze ahead, thinking on his plans for the future.
Alzurid adjusted the angle of the scissors and clipped the scraggly edges of his beard, examining his face in the bowl of water as he did. And as he looked, he was reminded of a time long ago, very far from these mountains, when he had stared into a pool in the middle of a garden and seen the moon glistening argent above.
Motion in the water’s reflection drew his eye. “You look a lot better,” Semsa said from behind him.
“Better than what?”
“Than you did when we were walking on and on through the frozen plain.”
Alzurid laughed. “I have been told that travel adds to my rugged charms.”
“Did the person who told you that happen to be blind?” she asked with a smile.
“Well, whatever the case may be, I am ready for civilized life again.” He put down the scissors and turned to face her. “Have you had any more dreams?”
“No. Have you?”
“Sometimes,” Alzurid said. “In my sleep I saw the hall of the empress days before we set foot inside it. I walked all around that throne and listened to the conversation that surrounded me.”
“But it is a good thing, surely, to be able to travel the land in your dreams.”
“It may be. I imagine you’ve never heard the story of Leal and the sailor’s gift?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Come, let us see if there is any breakfast left. I will tell you on the way. Leal was a boy who lived with his father, his sister, and his beautiful but wicked stepmother, in a house near the place where the Berisyl river meets the sea. They were not wealthy, but for a time made a sufficient living from fishing and gathering oysters. Yet a day came when they found their supply of food dwindling and dwindling.
“The stepmother said to the father, ‘Why are these children eating at our table, filling their mouths and driving us to starvation? Send them away to make their own living!’
“So with a sad countenance the father bade Leal and his sister goodbye. The two of them went north along the coast, hand in hand. After an hour or so had passed, they stopped to rest and eat the little food that they had brought with them. And Leal looked out at the ocean, and he saw a strange ship approaching, a ship that seemed to be made from human bones.
“The man piloting the ship was a curious man who wore his shoes on his head and his hat on his feet. He dropped anchor and began rowing a boat to shore, waving to the children as he did. Leal’s sister was frightened, but Leal himself stepped boldly forward. ‘Who are you?’ he asked.
“‘I am the Night Watcher,’ the curious man said. ‘I wonder if you could help me carry some of my things to my house? It is not far from here, and I can reward you with a meal of the finest delicacies from distant lands.’
“Now Leal and his sister were very hungry, so they agreed, and here is our breakfast. Eggs and bread, I see.”
Semsa gave him a look. “And then what happened to Leal?”
“I am eating right now. You should eat too, unless you plan on becoming an ascetic holy woman.”
“What does this story have to do with your dreams, anyway?”
“Well, what I am trying to say is that I do not expect only good things to come of them. Given all else that is going on, I rather suspect that there will be a price to pay. I wonder, for example, if there is anyone else walking in their sleep.”
“Where is Tailei?” Semsa said, glancing around at the others in the dining room. Most were Sughin, although the interpreter from Teolphar was there too, staring down at a piece of bread in his hands.
“I am not sure. Did you see her at all this morning?”
“She was gone when I woke up. I hope nothing has happened to her. This is a strange country.”
Alzurid shrugged. “I do not know. It reminds me in certain ways of my home, and Tailei’s people, the Zconr, are distant kin to my own. She may feel the same way I do. Say, this yellow sauce is very good.”
A cool wind from the northeast swept down and caught Tailei’s hair, tossing it about. She had spent so much time in the arid heat of the south that she had become quite used to it, but the climate of Khiar now invigorated her again, filling her with the energy to do…well, she did not know what. As she stood at the city wall she looked out over the lower levels of the city and the plains of the realm stretching out beyond, and the nightmares of Wyscdu’s death and Ghilik’s necromancy seemed long gone. She took a deep breath, pulling the wind into her lungs and invoking its spirit.
“It is amazing, isn’t it?” asked Malg’us, stepping forward to stand beside her. “The prophet Maghd’u taught that the desert is a gift to us, but I often think these days that the children of Sughin were cheated out of the better half of their inheritance.”
“How could the desert be a gift?”
“We were kept humble by the desert, or so our elders taught, and we dwelt in tents rather than building edifices as monuments to our pride. But Hekkzaghin was sent by the Fates to teach us that we had been appointed to take those edifices for our own use.”
“You believe that the Fates made Hekkzaghin your leader?”
“Who else, if not the Fates? All things are subject to them, in life and death. But I know you don’t like to discuss the conquest. What do you think about these Khiar?” Malg’us asked.
“It is hard to say, as I know almost nothing about them yet. They are certainly more hospitable than the tribe in Jibun that tried to kill my companions and me.”
“Their food is bland, but they enjoy large breakfasts, that much I know. Is it the custom of your people to eat upon awakening?”
“Whenever the people around me eat, I eat also. Traveling with Alzurid has eroded any fixed schedule I might have had.”
“He must be a remarkable man for you to leave your home to travel with him.”
“Oh, it is not Alzurid but the travel itself that enticed me to leave. I was not happy with the life that was ahead of me, so I left to see what adventures awaited me elsewhere. There were quite a few, as it turned out.”
“So you are not Alzurid’s woman?”
“Of course not!” Tailei laughed. “I thought once that he did not care for women at all, but I have seen him and Semsa together and I do not believe that is true.”
“Would you like to share a meal?”
“Shouldn’t you be performing exercises under Taghgos’s eye, or standing guard over Kasus, or something like that?” she asked playfully. “What are you doing here bothering me?”
“I was actually wondering if you were lost.”
“As if you know the city any better than me.”
“Taghgos does have us marching back and forth in it enough. I tell him that if the Khiar decide to betray us, there will be nothing we can do to save ourselves, but he just tugs on his mustache and tells me to get back in line.”
She laughed again. “I am sure you will die nobly should it come to that.”
“I hope we will not be here for very long,” Malg’us said as they started away from the wall. “You may enjoy this sort of air, but I would give anything to return home.”
“So why didn’t you go back when you had the chance?”
“Well, I would give up almost anything.” He glanced sideways at her and half-smiled.
Pirlisu with the raven’s eye,
Pirlisu called to sea and sky.
He asked them who his father was,
And swore to them that else he’d die.
The serpents whispered, hissing cold,
The birds they sang in voice of gold,
“The son of Malhun Antark thou,
“The king of gods, and now be bold.”
-Epic of Pirlisu