Again the next morning the king called for Awab to dance, and Awab danced, then returned quickly to his room. He was relieved not to be attacked in the halls a second time, and was fairly cheerful when Balihagu came to visit him late in the morning.
“I asked among the priests,” Balihagu said, leaning against the doorway, “and I found out who played that trick on you.”
“Just as long as he doesn’t do it again,” said Awab. He was not eager to dwell on the matter.
“He apologized and offered to tell you so with his own mouth. Then he threw a bucket of excrement on me. I don’t think you should take his apology, but you’ll be glad to hear that I found a rod and taught him a lesson of my own. Hiltar will not complain. He who teases the crocodile should not be surprised when it turns and bites him, as they ought to know better than anyone else.” Balihagu was grinning, which Awab found unsettling on his normally somber face.
“I understand hatred,” Awab said, his discomfort driving him to spill words. “I understand jokes: we are great players of jokes in my home. But I don’t understand any of this. Was he a madman? Does your king let madmen wander free through the palace?”
Balihagu didn’t say anything at first, but only looked at Awab and rubbed his brow. “You have seen the fortune-teller. Maybe today I could take you to see the head of the Crocodiles’ order here in Turisu. I do not like him, but he is no vulgar prankster like so many of his subordinates.”
Awab shook his head. “I don’t want anything to do with him or his order.”
“If that’s what you prefer, I think you are wise. Let the Crocodile’s own servants attend to him. We common men must stick to the service of our own gods, I to Hagu’ and you to whoever it is you dance for.”
“Vuvudru,” Awab said. “We dance for Vuvudru, who planted the forest of the world.”
“I wonder if Vuvudru is the same as Ifis, who fashioned the world on his wheel. If so, you would do him no dishonor by dancing his dance here in his sacred city.”
“No. I would know if this place was sacred to Vuvudru.” Awab turned away from Balihagu and went to the window, to look out and see the trees. But there were so few of them, and the red land of the desert was there in the distance, cursed with the blood of the first giant. These past years he had grown accustomed to the company of giants, but now he was pierced with desire to see his own people again, to sit in the shadow of the great trees and speak his own language, to divide the spoils of the hunt among his friends. He wept, and when he turned around again, Balihagu had gone.
The fat giant Nafdir brought him food that afternoon, and as he handed Awab the trencher of bread he said “King Qhamifdir wants you to dance at his table tonight. When you’re finished eating, if you could come with me, please.”
Awab ate quickly, for he was accustomed by now to jump at the whims of his masters. Nafdir led him then to the open courtyard in the center of the palace, where Awab had never been before, and whispered in his ear that he should approach the king in silence. There was a grand table in the courtyard where many giants sat, and at their head was the king, his chin in his hands as he spoke to his wife. A little monkey was springing around a stone sculpture at the table’s center, occasionally hopping down to grab a tidbit to stuff in its mouth.
Awab went up to the king and bowed low to the ground. “Ah, my dwarf!” he said, breaking away in the middle of whatever he had been saying. “Entertain us while we eat, so my guests can see a messenger from the gods!”
Awab bowed again and began to dance as the king dipped his hand into a bowl of what looked like candied dates. The other giants stopped talking to watch him for a while, then one by one they turned back to their food and their conversations. The king tapped his fingers on the table, and when his wife said something to him, he nodded. “Dwarf!” he said. “We have seen this before. Dance a new dance.”
Awab thought for a moment, the sweat running down his chest, and decided to dance as he might have at one of the great elephant feasts, celebrating the triumph over the champion of the forest. As Awab’s gaze passed over the giants, one of them caught his interest: not only was his skin dark like Awab’s or Nasari’s, but he didn’t smile or talk with his neighbors at all. He seemed to be looking at something far away with sorrow in his eyes.
Awab jumped into the air and shouted, making the giants all start, but that was the way of this dance. Many gave him angry looks, but the king at least seemed pleased. As for the sad-eyed giant, he was looking straight at Awab now, at least.
When the dance was over, the king applauded him, clapping his hands together gently, and the other giants followed his lead. “Here you are,” the king said, and tossed him a candied date. Awab caught it and hesitated a moment before putting it in his mouth. It was a blow to his dignity, but what dignity did he have left? Better to keep the king amused and his skin intact.
“What is his name?” the sad-eyed giant asked suddenly.
“Finally you speak!” said the king. “His name is Awab.”
“He knows where he was born?”
“Yes, Scaka, he knows where he was born. Tell Scaka where you were born, dwarf.”
“In the Gorob forests, far to the south in the land of the gods,” Awab said.
“Do, do you know who I am?”
“No. No, I don’t. I’m sorry.”
The giant shut his eyes, hiding their sadness from Awab. “I am sorry too.”
“So,” the king said, “Scaka still doesn’t know where he was born. A pity. Only the veiled know that, and they won’t speak to him. But you know Ifis crafted you and the Crocodile gave you life. Why do you ask for more?” The king glanced over his shoulder, and seeing the approaching procession of young women with clanking ornaments around their wrists and ankles, said to Awab, “You may go, dwarf. Here comes some entertainment that’s lovelier than you.” As the lead girl began to play a melody on a flute, Awab bowed and left.
When he saw Balihagu the next day, he asked him about Scaka (a name that he knew meant Broken). Balihagu made a sign with his fingers. “Don’t talk about him. The veiled brought him to Turisu: he is their business.”
“Don’t mention them either. Don’t talk to Scaka, and if you happen to see one of the veiled, make this sign with your left hand.” And Balihagu demonstrated. Awab didn’t understand, but didn’t dare pry further, and he imitated the sign. “They are,” Balihagu began to say, but trailed off. Instead he changed the subject, asking Awab if he had seen the statues of the kings of old. Awab hadn’t, of course, so Balihagu took him there.
They were impressive, like the statues at the city gates but more numerous. There was writing on the walls around them in the form of those serpents and divine figures who kept their secrets from Awab, no matter how much he stared at them, silently asking them to speak. “It was the god called the Ibis who taught us to write, we are told,” said Balihagu. “He brought the stone tablets to the first king of Duri, but it was many years before the king dared to study them despite all the Ibis’s promises. And he was right to be wary, for when we began to write, a portion of magic left us and went into the stone.” Gazing at the walls, Balihagu read a few sentences for Awab. “Ramalic his crown, son of Qhusir, born Tuqul, incarnate of the Crocodile, ruler of the north and the south, conqueror of the Samara, the Amikni, the Chosol, and the Urven.”
“It sounds impressive,” Awab said.
“He was impressive, Awab. He was one of the greatest of our kings. Ramalic will be remembered as long as the Duri flows.”
A new voice broke in, and Awab recognized it immediately. “Yet the Crocodile still holds his true name in his gullet. Kings are born and die; the gods remain forever.”
“That is so, Nasari. But does that mean the kings are of no importance? We all go to Hagu’, but the gods have commanded us to give heed to our earthly duties.”
Nasari laughed. “I speak of the true gods, not your men in divine clothing. But I know better than to argue with you. It is Awab I want to talk to.”
“The king has entrusted me with his safety.”
“Am I truly so dangerous?” Balihagu didn’t answer, so Nasari stretched out her arms as she had in the royal hall. She didn’t touch Awab, but he felt something like silk drag over his face and chest. “Do you think I have the power to carry him off and fill him with venom? But I’ve had my eyes on this once ever since I knew him in the halls of the gods in the south. Balihagu won’t know who they are, but you and I know. The Spider and the Crocodile know.”
“Go! Leave us, in the name of the king! He is far too patient with you.”
Nasari went, but not without a final word to Awab. “If you really want to know the secrets of the Crocodile, see me by the shrine of Dumusa’. But be wary!”
“That I agree with, at least,” Balihagu said. “Be wary, especially around her. I didn’t know you’d met before.”
“Only briefly. She told me a story about her god. Who is she? What does she know?”
“There are many foreigners in the palace: guests, visitors, and prisoners. Nasari is one of a wandering order of priests who worship a god she calls the Spider. She came to Turisu to honor our king, she says, and she has sweet words for him but bitter for everyone else. I don’t know whether her god gives her any special foresight, and it doesn’t matter to me. But she mocks Hagu’ and that makes her an enemy of the gods, no matter whom she claims to worship. Do not go to her!”
Awab nodded and followed Balihagu quietly away from the statues. Balihagu returned him to his room in the palace, and there Awab paced between the window and the door until he finished his debate with himself. He would go to see Nasari and learn about the Crocodile from her rather than the priests of Hiltar. He trusted neither, but at least Nasari had never menaced him like the priest in the palace hall had.
He left his room, but hadn’t gone very far before Balihagu stepped out from behind a corner and picked him up, lifting him helpless into the air. “Well,” Balihagu said. “I thought you would try this. Didn’t you believe me about her? Will you look for the veiled ones next? Do you even know where the shrine of Dumusa’ is? I’m starting to think I should ask the king to put you in my care to keep you out of trouble.”
“I want to know about the Crocodile.”
Balihagu was holding him up high enough that their eyes were level with one another, which made Awab uncomfortable. But surprise showed on Balihagu’s pale face, and after a moment he said, “Very well then. Tomorrow I will take you to hear about him and his dreams.”
“Not from the priests of Hiltar?”
“No.” He set Awab down. “The priests of Ifis will suffice. But listen carefully, Awab. Do you trust me? You should. Nasari is a liar like her god. Hagu’ alone is certain and true, and I am his servant.”
“I do trust you.”
“Then forget about meeting her! Where the finest foods are laid, there the worm comes quickest, and no feast is finer than the palace of Turisu. Stay away from Nasari and from Scaka.” He shook his head and repeated his last sentence. Then, ruefully, he added, “I would have Malaltiqha teach you about the Crocodile now, but I promised my wife I wouldn’t be gone long.”
Balihagu gave Awab a searching look. “Are you surprised? Did you think I was forbidden to marry? There are some priests who are sworn to celibacy, but I am no priest, merely a servant of the god. Yes, I have a wife, and children too. And they are expecting me at home. For Hagu’’s sake, Awab, don’t go wandering again!”
“I won’t, I promise. I’ll go to the inner gardens and sit there a while. The trees remind of home.”
“Good. Make sure you don’t go out of sight of any of the palace guards.”
So as Balihagu went one way, Awab went the other, to the garden that was contained inside the palace walls. The trees were thicker here than in the garden outside the walls, and he could imagine himself among the trees of Gorob, even if the smell was entirely different, sharper and drier. He sneezed loudly.
“There you are, little judge.”
Awab looked around and saw no one. He had gone too far into the midst of the trees, beyond the sight of guards or gardeners. He breathed in deeply and smelled a familiar rotting smell. “What are you doing here, Nasari?”
She dropped down from a nearby branch to face him. “I haven’t seen you at Dumusa’’s shrine. But when you don’t come to the Spider, the Spider comes to your house. I am here, little judge, to tell you what you need to know about the priests of Hiltar.” She looked him up and down, then added, “The Crocodile is not for you, not yet. You are still very little.”
“I’m old enough that I doubt I’ll ever grow taller.”
“You may yet. The gods are all powerful in their own ways. The Spider is clever, but the Crocodile is sly. The Spider will weave a web to entrap his enemies, but the Crocodile will worm his way into his enemies’ hearts and devour them there. The priests of the Spider are cast all across the earth, but the Crocodile rules in Duri.
“Now Duri has been in the jaws of the Crocodile for a long time, but the priests of Hiltar are young. Even they admit that before Ramalic they were nothing but a band of beggars, less in strength than even my order. Someday they will be buried under the sand, but the Crocodile will remain. They think they see the truth of the world, what is beyond the veil of appearances, and they do everything they can to tear that veil from everyone’s eyes. Vulgar clowns who think themselves mystics!”
Awab shook his head. “I didn’t understand any of that. Why did they seize me in the hall?”
“To startle you into waking up.” She leaned down towards him, her scarred face filling his vision. “I could tell you one of their sacred stories, but as much as I love stories, even I don’t see the appeal in theirs. I wouldn’t be here if the Spider hadn’t sent me here on his business.”
“Oh? What business is that?”
“It certainly isn’t yours, little judge. Not yet, anyway. Let me tell you more about Hiltar. They play the fool because they think the world is a fool’s game They hope that when you look at them and hear their nonsense, you’ll realize that all your reason is foolishness, that your thoughts are dreams, and that your actions are dust. Their god is not mine, so I can only say that they certainly seem to enjoy the power and wealth the king gives them!” She smiled, twisting her scars, and her eyes danced. Awab said nothing, so she asked, “Is there anything else you want to know?”
“I want you to leave me.”
“Do you really?”
“Who are the veiled?” he asked, the question spilling from his mouth before his better judgment could stop it. He did remember to make the sign Balihagu had taught him.
She put her hand over his mouth. “Hush, little one! If I won’t tell you about the Crocodile, what makes you think I’ll reveal the veiled? Better if I leave. But you will see me again. Don’t you know that you’re in the web of the Spider, and will be until you die?” Then she left him, walking briskly away through the trees.
Awab went the opposite way from Nasari, and was relieved when he came across a band of gardeners attending to a row of sweet-smelling herbs along the water. He sat down by the little stream that cut the garden into two halves, and ran his fingers along the smooth stone of its bank. When the sun began to sink under the palace wall, he rose to go to his bed.