Though he did not know it at the time, now was when Awab entered the House of Palatu and the care of the priestess Masci’. The woman gave Awab a black strip of cloth to drape over his shoulders and bowed to kiss his cheek. “Gāla’,” she said. “Gāla’ fī Palātū.” The traders remained in the shadow of the pillars while she led Awab into an open space behind the pillars, where palm trees grew tall along the side of a stream whose banks were made from blocks of stone. Awab wondered at this sudden eruption of nature into these narrow choking streets, and was overcome by the urge to run to these trees and taste their fruit. He hesitated only when the date was in his hand, but saw the woman smiling at him and took a bite. It was sweet, and he laughed for the first time in many months.
“Jal rūdū fī palātū urnū,” the woman said. She pointed to the date and said, “Irīsu’.” Awab repeated the word, then she pointed to herself and said, “Masci’.”
“Awab.” The lessons began in this fashion, Masci’ pointing to things and Awab repeating her words. The language Masci’ taught him was very different from the languages of the giants in the south, deep and heavy like the pillars of Bidinam themselves, its words falling rather than flowing.
That evening Masci’ took him to a dark room in the back where many boy children of the giants lay on reeds, sleeping or talking in hushed voices. They looked up at him as he entered, but it was too dark for him to interpret their faces. “Jal lā āwam,” she said, mispronouncing his name as she did. He had given up trying to correct her. He stood in the doorway, uncertain what he was supposed to do until Masci’ mimed sleeping. The boys stared at him: his adult features and shape must have been clear even in the darkness. He said nothing to them but found an empty place to lie down and sleep.
Before dawn the boys left the room, filing out and joking among themselves. Awab was half-wakened by the noise they made, but fell quickly asleep again and didn’t wake up fully until Masci’ appeared in the doorway. He sat up and inhaled deeply, but the trees and clean water of the temple were not enough to overcome the stench of the rest of the city.
She brought him out into the courtyard, where the man with the sword was standing as still and as patient as a tree. He did look up to greet Awab, and when Awab greeted him back he smiled for an instant. Then he stepped closer to Masci’ and said things that Awab couldn’t hear. She smiled in response and he bowed. “Rahāzip ilpikūdū xjānā līkūnū,” she said. He left without another word.
Awab saw the man occasionally over the next few days, and when he asked Masci’ told him that he was Balihagu, a guard (or perhaps priest; Awab wasn’t sure of the word) in the service of the Temple of Hagu’. “Who is Hagu’?” Awab asked.
Masci’ looked gravely at him and said something about Hagu’ and a priestess of Palatu that Awab couldn’t understand. He knew who Palatu was, though: the goddess of this house, whom Masci’ and the other inhabitants of the house served. He wasn’t sure what the children did, and Masci’’s explanation had been confusing in its words and structure.
He was happy during his time in the temple of Palatu, happier than he had ever been since he was taken from his home. Masci’ was as kind to him as a second mother might be, and he felt himself in no danger of his life. Palatu was not one of the red gods: she was further away and spoke only through her priests. She was a goddess of childbearing and marriage, Awab learned, and one of the more benevolent of the pantheon of Duri.
Duri! What was Duri? It was the people, the river, the land. Masci’ tried to give Awab some idea of how large the realm of the Duri king was, but her explanation meant nothing to him. The temple was the right size for him, and he had no desire to wander further, except for the times he was visited by dreams of home, of the thick forest and the dark faces of his own people. Then he was gripped by loneliness, and sat among the date palms with his eyes shut, imagining himself dancing the sacred dances.
Balihagu came by more frequently now, but didn’t speak to Awab until one day when he sat down next to him among the trees and said, “Do you understand our language better now?”
“Better,” Awab said. “Still not good.”
“You will learn with time. We don’t want you to make mistakes in the presence of the king!”
“I will go to the king?”
“Why do you think we bought you? We serve our king, the son of Qhusir, who will be happy to see a rabīnin such as you.”
Awab studied his hands. He did not look forward to leaving the house of Palatu, once again leaving a place of safety for a strange land where he would be at the mercy of some capricious lord. But he was as trapped as he had ever been, for where was he to go even if he could escape Bidinam? Gorob was so far away now that he doubted he would ever reach it in life or in death. He looked up at Balihagu, who was regarding him calmly. “I will be happy to see a king such as him,” Awab said.
Balihagu’s face tightened. “You should be. The son of Qhusir rules from the holy mountains to Saku’s ocean. He wears the,” and here he went off into a list of epithets that baffled Awab. Finally Awab bowed.
“I understand,” he said.
Balihagu broke off and stood. He stared down at Awab for a moment before he stepped down towards the stream, facing away from him. “You will be a fine gift from Hagu’ to Qhusir. You do something greater than you know.” This Awab did not understand. He simply sat and watched as Balihagu paced back and forth along the stream’s wall, then climbed back up to Awab and said, “I will teach you what you must say when you come before the king.”
“Who is Hagu’?” Awab asked suddenly. Balihagu’s face tightened again.
“Who welcomes us to the world below? Whom do the dead see when their eyes are shut for them? Who bears the pitīrsī taken from Aluggra’s hānā? It is Hagu’.” And here he began another series of incomprehensible epithets that ceased only when Masci’ returned from her task not long after.
“Now, Balihagu!” she exclaimed. “You are a guest in Palatu’s house, and you shouldn’t forget it! Do you want to carry home a curse?”
Balihagu bowed. “Forgive me, Masci’.”
“Besides, you must be boring Awab to tears.”
Abruptly Balihagu stood and bowed to both of them. “It will be many days yet before we go downriver. Learn as much as you can.” He tossed something to Awab, who caught it and turning it over in his hands found it to be a small metal plate with a raised image of a pillar encircled by a crocodile and overshadowed by two falcons. Puzzled, he looked to Masci’.
“It is the royal seal,” said Masci’ over his shoulder.
As Awab looked at the seal, his fingers trembled and it dropped to the ground. In a flash Masci’ picked it back up and brushed the dirt off it. “Is it true? Am I going to the king of Duri?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It is a great honor, you know. For he is the son of Qhusir, and Qhusir is the husband of Palatu. We servants of Palatu must give him special praise.”
After he had learned enough of their language, the boys of the temple began to approach him. One in particular was bolder than the rest, a boy with the first growth of a mustache above his lips who marched up to Awab and said, “I think you must be from the mountains of the gods.”
“Why do you think that?” Awab asked.
“Everyone knows the dwarves live way up in the holy mountains, building their golden tables for the gods. Have you ever seen a god?”
“Were you scared?”
“I was, very much.”
The boy looked satisfied, and leaned closer to speak quietly with Awab. “Nadirzu says there’s no reason to be afraid of the gods, but none of us believe him. We hear the sounds of the demons at night. Sometimes we see Palatu’s fangs, but we’re too brave to scream or run away. Don’t let Nadirzu or Masci’ fool you!”
“I won’t,” said Awab solemnly. “But where do you come from?”
“Oh, most of us have been in Bidinam all our lives. It was Palatu herself who put us in the wombs of our mothers, and so now we’ve been dedicated to her service. Fair’s fair.”
“You’ll be priests some day, then?”
The boy shook his head and said something with words Awab didn’t understand. One of his companions squinted at Awab, then said, “You’re as dark as one of the Siluhs or Huggir, but you don’t look like one of them.”
“I told you, Uda, he’s one of the dwarves of the holy mountains,” the older boy said.
Uda prodded Awab in the stomach with a thin finger. “Are you sure?” he asked.
Awab growled, making Uda jump. Then he laughed. “You can call me a dwarf if you like, but I was born in the forests and didn’t come to the god’s mountain until two years ago.”
“I want to know something,” said a particularly tall boy. “If the gods live here in our temples, how do they live in the holy mountains?”
“Because they’re gods,” said the oldest boy patiently. “They don’t have to live in one place like we do.”
“Maybe the gods I met aren’t the same as the gods of the Duri,” said Awab.
“Maybe,” the oldest boy said, scratching his head. “But our gods are the strongest. I know that.” He looked at Awab, still running his fingers through his short-cut hair. “Do you play the Crocodile’s Game?”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s easy to learn.”
“No it isn’t!” protested Uda.
Awab looked between Uda and the older boy, who crossed his arms and stepped close to Uda. “It’s easy to learn,” he repeated.
Uda crossed his arms back. “Maybe you don’t know how to play right.”
Awab stepped between them before they could quarrel. “Teach me to play, and I’ll be the judge.”
So they sat against one of the nearby walls and the older boy fetched a carved piece of wood that he called the board. He gave Awab a peg that had a head shaped like a jackal and said, “That’s you.”
Awab looked at the peg, puzzled. Both of the boys had their own animal-headed pegs, which they lay on the first square of the board. These squares were separated by grooves painted in red, black, and white colors. Uda produced a knucklebone and rolled it on the ground, then moved his peg to another square. The older boy did the same thing, then they looked to Awab.
He rolled the bone and then looked at the boys, not knowing what to do next. Uda rolled his eyes and pointed to the die. “See, there’s the number two in red. You have to move two spaces through red lines.”
“I thought you were going to teach me how to play,” said Awab mildly. “You’ll have to start from the very beginning, I’m afraid.”
The older boy sighed and picked up the bone. “This is a die. It has six sides, each with a number and a color. Can you read numbers?”
“I can count to fifty.”
“That’s all? But it’s good enough. See how the lines on the board are drawn? When you roll, you move only through the lines of the color you rolled.”
Awab studied the board, paying close attention to the pattern of the lines, and began to see how the red, white, and black paths intertwined. He thought for a moment he saw the shape of a crocodile in those paths, but when he looked again he couldn’t make it out. “Where are we trying to go?”
“Here,” said the older boy, pointing to a white circle at the far end of the board. “Then we go back to the start, and whoever’s first wins.”
“I see,” Awab said. He rolled the die again and this time it was black, with one stroke on the visible face.
“Bad luck,” Uda said. Awab considered his possible moves, then pushed his piece ahead.
He lost, of course, falling well behind the two boys until at last the older boy moved his piece to the starting rectangle and cheered. “You’ll get better,” Uda told Awab.
“Maybe so.” Awab scratched his head. “This isn’t a sacred game, is it?”
“I’ve never heard that it was,” said the older boy. “It’s named after the Crocodile, but it doesn’t belong to him.”
“He is a god, then?”
“The Crocodile is the god of the palace,” he answered solemnly. “He holds the name of the king in his jaws.” Uda nudged the older boy and whispered to him. “Ah! You’re right! We should be at our music lesson now!” He bowed to Awab. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
“And you,” said Awab. The boys ran off with all the speed of children, leaving Awab by himself. They had taken the dice but left him the board, and he amused himself by tracing his finger along the lines for a while. Masci’ found him there and sat down next to him.
“An old game,” she said. “It dates back to the time before the shepherds were kings. It’s good to see you learning more of our ways.”
“You think so? Will you teach me to read your carved words, then?” Awab asked.
“That would take a long time, longer than you have to spend with us.”
Awab nodded and kicked his feet. After a moment he said, “You are closer to your ancestors than we are. All you have to do is step into your library and read their words to you, but we must consult them with rites and offerings, and they do not always answer. I cannot say which way is better. After all, I know the rites of our ancestors, but your writings will always be a mystery to me, I think.”
Masci’ smiled faintly. “We have our own rites and our own ancestral spirits. Many things have changed since the old days, and even the writings can be altered when a new king wears the crown. Perhaps you would like to see, or perhaps not.” She eyed him with a new look on her face, one which Awab was completely unable to interpret. “You should at least ask Palatu for a blessing sometime before you go.”
“If you think it wise, I am willing.”
“Then why not now?”
So she took Awab to a small room to the side of the courtyard where he could bathe and one of the male temple attendants anointed him with oil. Clad in his white robe again, he was taken to the threshold of the inner temple, but he entered alone.
He stepped into the shadowy room, his eyes on the oblong box before him. He kept his head bowed, and in the silence he jumped when a droplet of oil fell from his fingertip to the floor. He stepped up to the box and peered inside to see the goddess. She was covered in gold from head to feet, her face that of an unsmiling Duri matron, though her eyes were concealed by a black cloth. Her body was flat and featureless, so that he wouldn’t have known her sex if he had heard nothing about her before. “Your pardon, Palatu,” he said. “I am a guest in your land. As we are children of Vuvudru, grant me safety when I travel in your land. Keep the evil spirits far from my path.”
He bowed and stepped backwards. As he did, he felt a breeze on his back, but he kept his face turned towards the goddess. Only then did he see the priest, standing in the shadows of a far corner. His eyes were shut, but Awab had the feeling that he was watching him anyway. Awab bowed to the priest, then backed out of the chamber.
Masci’ was waiting for him, and when he emerged she put her hands on his shoulders and stooped to kiss his forehead. “Palatu has blessed you,” she told him.
“I am grateful to her,” he replied. “But who was that priest attending her in there?”
She half-closed her eyes and suddenly resembled nothing less than an image of the goddess, stern and distant. “That was Daqpala. He’s one of the oldest and most respected of our house.”
“He said nothing.”
“He is mute. His voice was taken from him when he was young and blood was still shed on the outskirts of the temple. He remembers those days, even if others have forgotten.”
Awab shook his head. “I don’t understand you.”
“I wasn’t speaking to be understood. Words have power. Maybe I hope that you will hear their call.” Her eyes opened again; she looked worried. “Have I ever told you the story of how Palatu found the name of Qhusir?”
“I’ve never heard it.”
“Well. This was after the great battle between the gods of sky and sea, when the rule of Tiqhasu was established over heaven and the river Duri sprang forth from Ugdar’s mouth. Qhusir had been mortally wounded by a poisoned frog-blade and lay on his deathbed, and Palatu wept over him. But after nine days she rose and disguised herself as a peasant woman and went out among the people. She went to the east, to the place where the sun rises, and asked the morning star if it could help Qhusir, but it refused, and so she threw it into the sky.
“Next she went to the north, to the land where the water of the Duri mingles with the ocean, and there she asked the frogs what they knew of the poison, but they only croaked at her, so she took away their voices and cursed them to croak forever.
“She went to the west, to the desert of fiery serpents to ask them what they knew of the poison, but they would not tell her, so she took away their wings.
“Finally she went to the south, where Tu keeps the names of the gods written in his secret cave. She asked to see the name of Qhusir, but Tu only looked at her and shook his head. Furious, Palatu cursed him to never see the sun again, and so he fled into his cave and called out mockingly from within, ‘I know Qhusir’s name, O daughter of La! If it be not in your mouth, he will certainly die!’ And he shut the door behind him.
“Palatu was not discouraged, but transformed herself into a beetle and crawled through a crack in the rock. She emerged in Tu’s inner chamber, where Tu was dancing before a wall of writing. Flying back and forth, she found that the wall was covered with many names, but she had no way to tell which name belonged to which god.
“Now wise Palatu transformed herself into a vulture, messenger of Hagu’, and called, ‘Take courage, O Tu! The frog-poison has done its work and Qhusir is dead. His soul has left his body and his heart is prey for Aluggra.’
“Tu laughed to hear this and exclaimed, ‘And Palatu’s wearisome quest was for no gain.’ He began to scratch one of the names of the wall, and becoming a beetle again Palatu flew close to read it, then sped home, repeating her husband’s name to herself. When she came to his sickbed she whispered it in his ear. Life returned to him; he rose from his bed, took her in his arms, and begot upon her Am, the god of the sun.
“That is the story we are permitted to tell in the temple. There are other stories.” Awab did not like the halting, yet somehow greedy way Masci’ was talking, as if she wanted something from him, something that he might not be eager to give. He shifted away from her half-consciously, but she only leaned closer to make up the distance. “Do you want to hear them?”
“I don’t think I do.”
“Are you sure?”
Masci’ sat back and smiled brightly. Why was she relieved now? “That’s probably for the best. You are a foreigner, and what’s more, the king has ordered that special care be taken with you. Balihagu has royal guards from Turisu here, you know, all around Palatu’s house to keep you safe.”
“I am a wonder, I suppose,” said Awab. “You’d be a wonder too if you were taken down to the Gorob forests.”
She began to say something but only put her fingers to her lips and eyed him over the curve of her palm. “The chief god of Turisu is Ifi, but maybe you will learn something more of Palatu when you are there. All the gods are brother and sister, after all. But are you hungry?” When Awab nodded, she rose and went to bring him bread and lentils.
Awab dreamed of Palatu that night. He was in the inner temple again, but now when he peered into the shrine itself he saw not the flat golden image, but something like a window through which he saw a woman walking towards him, her face hidden. She wore no covering besides some dark red substance smeared over her body.
“What is my paint? Answer an thou have wit,” she said when she was still some distance from him.
“Blood,” he replied, the knowledge coming to him without thought.
“What is my name? Answer an thou have wit.”
“Thou speakest rightly. Thou art near to the gods, mannikin.” She was chewing something in between her words. Awab saw juice trickling down her chin, but that too was blood.
“I have been in the service of the gods in the south. And this, I think, is only a dream.”
“Only a dream, thou sayest? Am I naught but a dream? Ask the priests of Hiltar when thou goest to them. Mayhap they will tell what the dreams of the Crocodile be worth.”
The air changed before Awab’s eyes, and he began to feel that his dream was moving into a nightmare. He was vividly aware of the blood that coated the woman and of how her smile promised both pain and pleasure beyond compare. He turned away from the window, but then Palatu was in the room with him, her smile growing as tingles ran up and down his spine.
“Give me thy love, mannikin. Love and die in mine arms.” She swayed her hips rhythmically, but rather than stirring desire in Awab, it only reminded him of the dances in the sacred grove, and he put her out of his mind, thinking only of the dance. He began to move his legs and arms in the pattern of the dance, forgetting everything else until Palatu and her shrine were gone and he was lying in his bed in the dark.
Unable to get back to sleep, he rose and walked softly through the night. The stars were bright above him, certainly brighter than he was used to seeing them in the forests of his home. Masci’ had names for many of the stars and their patterns, but Awab’s people had kept their eyes on the trees and the ground, not the stars above. It felt very lonely underneath the open sky. What would keep him from falling up into the endless black?
His aimless steps took him around the back of the shrine, to the row of huts capped with dark stone that he had often seen during the day. There was noise coming from one of the huts, a piping of flutes that drew him nearer to peek inside the open door. No man or woman was inside; there was only a long short altar in front of a painted wall. Where were the flutes, he wondered, and went inside despite his growing feeling that he should be back in the safety of his own bed.
It was too dark for him to tell what shapes were painted on the wall, no matter how much he squinted, and he turned his attention to the altar. He hesitated, then touched its side with one finger, then snatched his hand back and scrubbed it against his leg. He fled from the hut as behind him the pipes began to play again louder than ever, and once back in his bedchamber wrapped himself tight in his blankets, taking comfort in the presence of the Duri boys sleeping all around him.
One of the boys was shaking him awake the next morning, saying, “There is a man at the threshold who wants to see you.” He shuddered as he remembered last night, and hoped that it had all been a dream. But when he looked at his hand he found a mark on his finger as if it had been dipped in red dye, or something worse.
Balihagu was waiting for him between the pillars, sitting with his legs stretched out facing the south. When Awab was near he looked up and said, “The king has called for you, Awab. Time for you to leave Palatu’s arms. Are you ready?”
Awab raised his hands. “No, but does it matter?”
“It doesn’t.” And Balihagu gave him a searching look. “Do you want to go and be blessed by Palatu before you leave?”
“No. No, I think I’ve seen enough of her.”
Balihagu met Awab’s eyes and smiled faintly. “I suspect you have. Very well. We go on now to Turisu and the royal temple.” He raised his head and whistled, then took Awab by the shoulder and guided him out from the temple, where a line of giants was waiting for them, holding spears vertical.
“Wait!” Awab said. “I should say farewell to Masci’ before I go.”
Balihagu only pointed behind him. Awab looked and saw Masci’ walking from the shrine towards him, and when she was close enough she knelt to kiss his cheek. As much as he wanted to ask her about the Black Palatu, he said nothing, wanting this moment to be his memory of their parting. “Palatu and all her children bless you,” she said. “The blood of Palatu bless you.”
“And you,” he replied. She nodded, and raised a hand in parting. Then Awab followed Balihagu and the guards away from the temple, to the great river and the boat that was waiting for them.