Masci’ had been right about the royal guards and their concern for Awab’s safety. They were his constant companions, keeping him from drawing too near to the edge of the boat lest he fall and drown, keeping watch over him while he slept, even refusing to let him eat before they had made sure the food was safe (though Awab considered the hard bread only partially edible anyway). Balihagu remained more distant, usually standing near the front of the boat looking out over the river.
few days after they left Bidinam, however, he came to Awab and addressed him in a friendly manner. “Remember,” he told him. “When you enter the divine hall where the king sits, you must not look at anything except for the feet of his throne, until he welcomes you and invokes the Crocodile. Even then you should avoid meeting his eyes. Eat whatever he offers you. When he gives you a command, obey!”
Much of this Awab had already been told by Masci’, but he listened patiently nonetheless. Since Balihagu seemed oddly talkative, Awab took advantage of his mood to ask him about his name. “It means Hagu’ Protects, doesn’t it?”
“It does. I was destined for Hagu’’s service from the womb. My family have long been special acolytes of Hagu’, you see. What does Awam mean?”
“Awab,” he said, emphasizing the B. “It means Watchman.”
“And were you a watchman among your people?”
“No more than anyone else. It is only a name.”
“Only a name?” Balihagu slapped his hands against his legs. “What do you think when you look at me? You think of my name! Names are how the world manifests itself to us! The Crocodile speaks through Ifi the names that are the true names of all things, the names that our spirit knows when our soul does not!”
This made very little sense to Awab, and he said so.
“Well, you’ll have to ask the priests of Hiltar if you want to know more.”
“Hiltar?” The name called to mind Awab’s vision of Palatu and he remembered what she has said.
“Hiltar is the city where the priests of Duri study their mysteries, you see. It may come to pass that the king will let you go there someday to learn from them, or they from you.”
“What could I teach them?”
Balihagu didn’t answer for a while, but stared at Awab in some surprise. “Your dances, of course.”
“It is forbidden,” Awab said, suddenly very aware of how small he was. But he met Balihagu’s stare with his own.
“If it is forbidden, it is forbidden. The king and the priests of Hiltar all know the foolishness of breaking a sacred restriction. If even the king dare not touch the tree of Ifi which was given to his ancestors, how much more will he avoid offending the gods of the far south, where the river is born? Have no fear that you will be forced under torment to teach your dances, Awab.” Balihagu sat back against the wall of the boat’s cabin and sang to himself, a few lines of a song that sounded terribly sad to Awab. Then he looked to Awab again and said, “Of course, I am a servant of Hagu’, who claims us all in the end.”
“Men, maybe, but gods? Do gods die?”
“Didn’t Masci’ tell you the story of Qhusir and his mortal wound? But that was in the days of myth. Will the gods die? I think only the Crocodile knows that, he he hasn’t told me.”
The river took them on into the north for many days, and Awab marveled at the size of the Duri lands, which seemed far larger than the domains of Sa Ruh or Mar Gjol and yet was ruled by a man rather than a god. Perhaps he was a god after all. Perhaps a man could become a god by the span of his power. Awab wondered and stared down into the water.
He spent as much time as he could in the shade of the cabin, out of the harsh dry sun, but every time they passed by a city he asked if this at last was Turisu, but the giants only laughed and told him to be patient, that he would know Turisu when he saw it. There was a great statue of a half-human creature crouched on its haunches that astonished him, and which Balihagu called the Sifgul. “It is older than our oldest histories,” he said.
But then, after they had passed countless fields and towns and ruins, there appeared on the east side of the river a range of hills, and on the other side, nestled in a long valley, was something that took Awab’s breath away. He had gone from the villages of his people to the towns of the Siluhs traders to the great city Bidinam, but this was beyond them all.
A channel was cut in the side of the river, and the pilot turning the boat into this outlet, they progressed towards the valley. And Turisu, for Awab had no doubt now. If Bidinam’s central obelisk had been magnificent, how could he describe the obelisks that stood in the midst of Turisu, and the hill at its center that had clearly been built by men, since its sides were sharp and it was painted bright gold?
At the sides of the canal gates were men carved from stone, giants among giants, their faces’ expressions as hard as their material, so that Awab felt he knew what was on the unseen visages of the rocks themselves. The rowers drew the boat up in the shadow of one of these stone-men and lifted Awab gently up onto the dock. They were surrounded by other boats of all sizes and forms: Awab recognized some as Duri vessels and some as resembling the Siluhs ship that had taken him north from the Mar Gjol battle. He saw Duri men with their pale skin and Siluhs men with their star-speckled faces, and others he didn’t recognize, with rings through their ears or great tufts of brown hair sprouting from their chin. But his wonder at them didn’t match their wonder at him. He was the object of stares from all sides, and Balihagu and the guards quickly took him through the gates.
Within the city it was even more chaotic, but Awab’s guards carried him through the worst of the noise and the crowds to a section of Turisu where things were calmer and women passed through the streets bearing jars at a leisurely pace. Balihagu said to Awab, “This is a priestly part of the city. One of the lesser temples of Tiqhasu is here, and most of these people are servants of Tiqhasu. Masci’ told you about Tiqhasu, I hope.”
“The god of the sky, the giver of laws,” Awab recited.
“Some of them have gold torcs like you. Are they slaves’ fetters?”
“You think I am a slave?” asked Balihagu, smiling down at him.
“You must do what another tells you, or so it seems to me.”
“In Duri, all must do what the king tells them. It is true that I am dedicated to the service of Hagu’, but I am not a slave. I wear this torc as a token of everything that I owe to Hagu’ and of the debt I will discharge when he takes me in the end. Those others do the same for their own gods. The gods will remember our service and show special grace to our souls after our bodies perish. But the only one who wears the torc of Qhusir is the king himself.”
They ascended a set of stairs to a higher level of the city, where Balihagu pointed and said, “There is the palace.” Awab looked to the building he pointed out, set up above most of Turisu and itself larger than all of Palatu’s compound in Bidinam. Up another set of stairs they went, to a doorway set in the rock, and to the guards there Balihagu said, “I have brought the dwarf from the land of the gods, as the king commands. Let us pass in Qhusir’s name!”
“In the name of the god who lives,” said one of the guards, and waved them in.
“You remember what I told you to say and do?” Balihagu asked Awab.
They met a pudgy giant who spoke so quickly that Awab could hardly understand what he said, only that the king was near a lake. He eyed Awab, who began to feel very uncomfortable, and reached out to touch his head before Balihagu slapped his hand away. The pudgy giant held up his hands in apology, and Balihagu said, “What! Do you touch the king’s gift?”
“Forgive me, forgive me. I’ll take you before the king now.”
“We won’t see him in his divine hall?” Balihagu asked.
The pudgy giant said something quickly again, then bowed to Awab and led him and Balihagu alone, apart from the other guards, through the open space between the palace wall and a row of trees, up the slope to a pond set in the midst of an open columned hall. At the far end of the pond was a table bearing food of various kinds, cakes and fruit piled high; giants were seated in chairs or standing nearby waving fans. One of the seated giants wore a ring of gold around his brow, and Balihagu fell to his knees.
This was the king of Duri, then. He was short for a giant, but still loomed over Awab, and laughed in delight when he saw him. “At last! Thank you, Balihagu! Come here, little one!”
Awab approached the king, surprised by his childishness, which wasn’t at all what he had expected. It was obvious, though, that the king was not an actual child: a pointed beard sprouted from his chin and a woman sat by his arm with a hand curved around his neck in an intimate pose. But the king laughed again, a high laugh, and sat for a while admiring Awab.
“Is he not a wonder?” he said to his wife. “As fully formed as a grown man! What is your name?”
“I am Awab, my father.”
“Is everyone as short as you in the land of the gods?”
“My people are not large as yours.”
He nodded and leaned forward, putting his face on a level with Awab’s. “And do you know the sacred dances?”
“I am not sure I understand, father.” Balihagu gave Awab a warning look when he said this, but it was true. And all of the etiquette lessons he had received flew from his mind, for this was not the divine hall and he had little idea of what was proper here.
The king’s brow furrowed, but he said nothing as he continued to stare at Awab. His wife spoke instead: “The Crocodile has told us of your dances that you dance in order that you may know the gods. Surely you are able to dance a little for us.” Awab noticed that both of them had their faces painted, darkening the corners of their eyes.
“Forgive me, my father, my mother, but my god forbids it. The dances are meant for the forest clearings and the eyes of those who see Vuvudru alone.”
“I did not summon you from the other side of the earth to see you stand and talk,” said the king. “Dance!”
Awab dared neither to obey nor disobey. He shut his eyes, then began to dance, but one of the common dances, as he might have done at his wedding, if he had stayed to marry Elyvvu (ah, so long ago! And where was Elyvvu now?). He put out his arms and leaped into the air, the sound of unseen drums in his ears accompanying his dance. He moved awkwardly at first, but soon the proper rhythms returned to him and everything around him, the pond, the giants, the king, faded from his mind. He was in the Gorob forest dancing to celebrate his life.
The king clapped his hands, the sound breaking the air and forcing Awab back to Turisu. “So,” he said, then stroked his beard and glanced at his wife, whose head was tilted to the side, considering Awab. As if he were a beetle, Awab thought uneasily.
“It is not what I thought it was,” she said. “It is not so high as it ought to have been.”
The king nodded slowly. “Maybe so. But I was pleased with him nonetheless. Awab! You’ve pleased me today, and so I’ll give you a gift in return. You will live in my palace; all your needs will be met, but you must dance for me and my court every day.”
“Thank you, father,” said Awab.
“Nafdir! See to my dwarf. And you, Balihagu, thank you for bringing him to me safely. You too shall be rewarded.” He yawned and lay back on his wife’s arm. “Stay here; sit down; tell me how Bidinam is coming along.”
Someone touched Awab’s shoulder and he turned his head to see the giant who had done it. “I am Nafdir,” this man said in a low quiet voice. “I will look after you in the palace.”
“Very well then,” Awab said. “Take me where the king commands.” He added in the Gorob language, “From a god’s service to a king’s. Will I ever be free again?”
Nafdir glanced at him and asked, “What was that, sir?”
“Nothing important.” Awab looked back at Balihagu kneeling before the king and queen.
“You will want a bath, I think,” Nafdir said. “Then perhaps a meal?”
“That sounds good,” said Awab. Weary, he followed Nafdir away from the gardens and towards the palace.