Sacred Dance: Chapter 12

The next morning the king called for him again, and this time he was taken by a silent servant to the hall of audience, where the king sat alone on a tall chair amid reeking censers, and wore a crown on his head like the horn of an animal. There were other giants in the hall, men and women wearing colorful tunics and some with golden torcs around their necks. But remembering Balihagu’s words, he kept his eyes on the ground before the king’s chair and waited.

“Welcome, Awab of the land of the gods. Welcome in the name of the Crocodile who encircles Duri. Dance for me again, and for all my guests!”

So Awab danced, and when he had danced until his legs ached, the king finally signaled for him to stop. “Aren’t the gods pleased?” the king asked, looking down the hall at the giants behind Awab.

Awab kept his eyes low, but he heard the cheers and words of assent. Only one voice said, “Perhaps not all the gods.” He cast a glance over his shoulder and saw one of the women stepping away from the wall. She was dark-skinned and her face was covered with scars, and after a moment he recognized her. He had failed to notice her before, his attention on the king, but she was Nasari, the priestess of the Spider. “I wonder if that is the only dance he knows.” Awab glanced back again and saw her stretching out her hands in his direction. “I wonder if he is not holding something back, wrapped up in silk for his own god.”

“Enough, Nasari. I don’t care what your god has to say. He lives only at the Crocodile’s whim, and you only live at mine. I say that my father Qhusir is pleased, and don’t I speak from the Crocodile’s mouth? Well?”

“A dangerous place from which to speak, I would think,” she said in her lilting voice.

“You may go,” the king said to Awab, and Awab saw his fingers tightening on the chair’s arms. Awab bowed out of instinct, momentarily forgetting whatever Balihagu had told him about the appropriate farewell, and backed away down the hall. The servant who had taken him there was gone, but Awab didn’t want to linger. He was walking quickly back to his room when someone clamped hands down on his shoulders, pinning him where he was.

“Dangerous to go walking about in his realm,” and hot moist breath blew against the top of his head. Awab broke away and ran, not looking back until he was sure he was free. To his relief, whoever it was had not followed him, and he shuddered. He wasn’t far from his room now, and once inside he barred the door and went to the window to look out. He knew it was foolish, but instinct told him to keep watch for the danger that had fallen upon him.

When someone knocked on the door, Awab straightened against the wall and moved quickly and silently to wait by the door. There was another knock, and when he heard Balihagu say his name, he raised the bar and let him in. Without waiting for Balihagu to say anything, Awab told him what had just happened.

“The gardens of the king should be safe from such things,” Balihagu said. “Unless it was one of the priests from Hiltar. That sounds like a trick they might play. They would never actually hurt anyone, but they can be irritating for those of us who have sworn ourselves to another god.”

“I don’t understand why anyone would do that, if not to threaten me.”

“Well, they have some odd teachings, and with their endowments from the palace, they have many opportunities for mischief. Maybe I’ll ask around and see if I can find out who it was. But I came here to tell you that the king is pleased with you and your dancing. I will not ask whether or not your dances are the dances we spoke of on the boat. That is for you and your own god.”

Awab bowed. “But what do I do the rest of the day?” he asked.

“Whatever you like. I’m sorry that the gardens weren’t to your liking, but I promise you that I’ll take measures to ensure your safety in the future. The king respects the priests of Hiltar, as we all do, of course, but he wouldn’t be pleased to hear that they’ve been bothering you. I have that threat to hold over their heads.” Balihagu stared out the window into the distance for a moment. “I have an idea you may like. How about the royal fortune-teller?”

The title meant nothing to Awab, and so he asked Balihagu to tell him more.

Balihagu scratched his head. “Well, she’s a woman who can see the future in various omens, ah, things like the way a reed breaks or the movements of birds. There are many such diviners in Duri, but the king keeps her because she is the best of them all. She sees more from less than any of the others, from mountains to ocean. I’m curious what she will see concerning you.”

“So am I,” Awab said.

“Come with me, then,” Balihagu said. He took Awab out to the far side of the palace, where there was a small gold-topped chamber jutting out from the wall and a number of men and women crowded around it. When they saw Awab they stood back and stared at him. A few pointed and said things he didn’t understand. “We are here to see Tapindi,” he said in a loud voice.

A woman with her hair in long curly locks poked her head out from the chamber’s entrance. “Wait for everyone who came before you, Balihagu! Even the gods see your impatience!”

Balihagu nodded to Awab and they took their place near the back of the assembly. Alone or in pairs the giants entered the chamber of the fortune-teller and then emerged after a short while, usually smiling, though some were visibly downcast by whatever they had heard. When Awab’s turn came at last, Balihagu preceded him into the room. Awab had been expecting something like the shrine of Palatu or even one of the divine chambers of Sa Ruh, but the fortune-teller’s room was open to the sun through narrow windows in the room, placed so as to be invisible from outside.

The woman gestured for them to sit down across from her. She was seated on a tall stool and between them was a mat painted with a complex pattern of squares and circles. Incense burned in a bowl at one end of the chamber, giving off a fog-like mist that smelled strange to Awab, like nothing he could name, but as he breathed it in, he felt himself taller, looking at the giants eye-to-eye, and they seemed akin to him. Balihagu was his brother and Tapindi his sister. For a moment he felt at home.

Then he shook his head to clear it. He looked sharply up at Tapindi and said, “Tell me my fortune, then. What is to become of me? Will I ever return to my forest?”

She put her hands on the mat and watched Awab intently, then she reached behind her and picked up a handful of pegs from a basin. “One,” she said, and cast them on the mat. “Two,” and she shook the mat back and forth. “La and Iwa be my eyes.”

Then she studied the pattern the pegs had made when they fell, glancing up at Awab’s face several times.

“I cannot tell you what you want to know,” she said, sounding almost angry. “The gods have you, and I am not great enough to wrest knowledge from them. But I can tell you this. You will stand among those who have raised you up, but you will be no more than a man.”

Awab assumed that he didn’t understand this because of some lack in his knowledge of the Duri language, and he looked to Balihagu, letting his puzzlement show. But Balihagu was scratching his head. “Is that supposed to mean something, Tapindi?”

“Everything means something. I’ve told you your fortune, now go your way!” She shook the mat and cleared the pins off it.

Balihagu motioned for Awab to follow him out of the chamber, and when they were outside again he said, “That was a disappointment. I am sorry.”

Awab shrugged. “It was new to me. Does Tapindi usually give better fortunes than that?”

“Usually better, sometimes worse. Her gift is from the gods, and it is as unpredictable as they are. Have you eaten yet today? I haven’t, and I want to put something in my stomach before it gets too hot.”

He took Awab down into the city and to a place where giants brought them bowls of dried fruit and lentil soup. The giants stared at Awab and whispered among themselves: there seemed to be a quiet argument between them. But Balihagu paid them no mind, and by the time he and Awab were done eating, the sun had risen into the heights of the sky and it was too dark to do anything except sit in the shade and doze.

“Perhaps the king won’t be pleased that I’ve taken you out from the palace grounds,” Balihagu said to him. “But I doubt you’ll be safer anywhere than you are with me. And priests of Hiltar aside, no one would dare touch you. Everyone can see that the gods have you, as Tapindi said.”

“Everyone except me.”

“That’s no surprise. Can you see yourself without a mirror? But I don’t think your heart is in your words. You know that the gods have chosen you, I think.”

Awab had to look away from Balihagu’s sharp gaze. He stared at his feet, which stood out in their blackness against the lighter mud of the ground. “What is a god, anyway?” he said, but without much energy. His head nodded and he fell asleep.

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