Sacred Dance: Chapter 14

When the king summoned him the next morning, it was not to any of his tables, whether in the garden or the palace’s great hall, but to a room that was new to Awab. It was near the hall where the king had held his audience, but it was a smaller room, with a screened window that overlooked the inner garden. The king sat on a stool before a painted image on the wall, a crocodile that curved around to take its own tail in its mouth. A guard stood in the far corner looming over the proceedings, but said nothing.

“There you are, my dwarf,” the king said. “How are you today?”

“I am well,” said Awab, keeping his eyes lowered.

“Come, come, we are not in the royal hall. You can look up. My gaze won’t destroy you.”

Awab met the king’s eyes and was struck by the youthfulness of his face. By now he had learned that the giants were less affected than normal men by the passing years, and knew better than to trust his judgment of their ages, but he doubted the king was any older than himself. For a few heartbeats he kept his eyes on the king, but was unable to hold his gaze longer.

“You are a fine dancer and the gods have blessed you, haven’t they? I’d be happy if I could keep you by my side while I deal with the tiresome business of the palace. I could use the blessings of the gods.”

“Whatever my lord commands.”

“Good. I’ve set up a seat for you,” and he pointed to a cushion underneath the window. “I don’t expect any visitors until the fourth hour, so until then why don’t you tell me your names and what they mean?” The hours of the Duri still meant little to Awab, but the path of the sun and the stars was not what he was used to either. Time itself was different here.

“I only have one name: Awab, and it means Gift. Though the servants of Mar Gjol called me Aci, which is their word for a dwarf.”

“Are we giants to you, then? I suppose we are. Only one name, you say. But you have a true name somewhere, surely. As for me, I am the king with five names. I was born Ninam, which means Light of the Sun. As a child I was called Hugguzi, which means He Laughs. I took the throne under the name Qhamifdir, which means The Lord Stands Guard. At last I chose as my crown name Umirdaq, which means Pearl of the Crocodile.”

“But what is your fifth name? Tell us that, O king. Give all your secrets to this stranger.”

“Hello, Jutundaq,” said the king. Awab looked up at the giant who had just entered. His thick neck was encircled by a gold torc, and he was scowling at Awab. “You know as well as I do that I keep some of my names for myself, and even you can’t make me speak them. As for the stranger, do you doubt the gods who sent him to me?”

“There are gods and gods, and not all are kind to you. Sanith has never been a friend of Duri.”

“Sanith is not your business,” the king snapped. “You came here to ask for more control over the profits of your estates. You ask a great deal more than any of our other servants are permitted. Be content with your privileges!”

“A well-practiced speech, not the sort of thing that flows easily from the mouth. I suppose the old man taught you what to say. Tell him that the Crocodile does not forget either his friends or his enemies.” Jutundaq thrust his bald head forward, and Awab found himself reminded of a maddened elephant.

“I speak for myself!”

“Of course you do. Tell the old man that Hiltar doesn’t forget its friends either.”

When he had gone, the king laughed. He then said something so quickly that Awab couldn’t catch it. “But you won’t tell anyone I said that.”

“I’d heard the priests of Hiltar were pranksters.”

“Most are. But don’t worry about Jutundaq. He snarls but won’t actually bite. I’ve known him since I was a boy. Let’s see who’s next on my list of appointments.”

Awab wondered if anyone could see the king without his name being written on his magical list. But after that he quickly lost interest in the king’s visitors, who talked either about things he didn’t understand or things he didn’t care about. He fell asleep before noon, and some hours later woke up when a servant brought them a dish of cucumbers and thin bread. Once or twice the king had him dance for a visitor, then Awab would return to his cushion to rest.

Finally the queen entered the room, and it was obvious the king had not expected her. His fingers leapt upon the table and he cried, “Hathara, my love! Is it that hour already?”

“It is that hour,” she said. Her painted eyes fell on Awab. “And she is waiting.”

“Very good,” said the king. “You may go back to your room now, Awab. I have business with other gods. Be back here tomorrow at the third hour of the day.”

Awab bowed to both king and queen as quickly as he could, then did as he had been ordered. He fell asleep easily and dreamed of a full-breasted woman, pale like Hathara, holding all Turisu to her stomach. But in his dream he heard Jutundaq’s voice saying “Enough! Enough! Let those jaws shut upon him!” The woman’s eyes flashed open with a rumble of thunder, and a veil of blood fell over the dream.

When Awab woke, he felt as if he had hardly slept at all. But it was morning already, and he was very hungry. He wandered down to the kitchens, and when he’d had his fill of bread and leeks, he went up to the garden and watched the birds flutter among the trees, pecking at their fruit. He decided to practice his numbers by counting the birds, going through the numeral words in their arbitrary and baffling order. It had been the first hour when he had visited the kitchens, so he had plenty of time.

When he dropped his eyes back down, he saw Scaka was standing alongside the nearest tree, his head framed by its branches. “I’m sorry,” Scaka said. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“You didn’t,” Awab said, standing up to bring his face closer to Scaka’s. Balihagu’s warnings about Scaka and the veiled returned to his mind, but his curiosity and sympathy were stronger than fear. “You’ve asked the fortune-teller, Tapindi, about yourself, haven’t you?” he asked after a moment, hoping to say something that would be able to help this sad-faced giant.

“I did,” Scaka said, his eyes brightening though he shook his head. “She told me she has knowledge of the future, not the past. She did say I would cut myself on a rock, which seems like a silly thing to waste a prophecy on.”

“It’s better than what she was able to give me.”

“I come here as often as they allow me. I can tell you the name of every tree and puddle, but I can’t tell you my own. All I know about my past is that I am forbidden to eat eel. The first thing I remember is standing naked under the night sky, with a circle of veiled men around me. They told me I would be called Scaka and live at the court of the greatest king in the world. I asked them why, but they only beat me. I learned not to ask too much after that. But I’ll risk asking you this: did the veiled bring you here?”

“No. I was captured by people of the river and bought by Balihagu as a gift for the king.”

“You’re fortunate, then. You know why you’re in Duri and what you have to do. The veiled are the only ones who know why I’m here.”

“I was told not to speak too much about the veiled,” said Awab, making the sign against their evil.

“You see? What can I do or say?” Scaka’s jaw worked but he was silent after this. He sat down and rested his head against the trunk of the tree. Awab sat next to him and returned to counting the birds until he judged it was time for him to go to the king. Scaka was either asleep or deep in thought, so Awab didn’t say anything to him as he rose and went to the king’s chamber.

Most of Qhamifdir’s visitors didn’t interest Awab, and they talked mainly about affairs of the kingdom. What did it matter to Awab whether trade with the Mimiris was becoming more difficult, or the Huggir were making trouble somewhere in the south? He hadn’t heard of any of these people, and a quarter of the words they used he didn’t understand either. But at last the king said to him, “Here’s some fun for you. I have a fortune-teller in my court, a woman named Tapindi. I’ve called her to tell my fortune here where we can burn some proper incense, not the stuff from the dark rifts. Maybe she’ll have a fortune for you too.”

When Tapindi entered the chamber, her eyes passed over Awab as if she had never seen him before. She bowed low before the king, who acknowledged her with a nod. “I look forward to what you can tell me,” he said. “We’ve received a fresh batch of spice from Ulam Sifla.” He bent to take a pinch of variegated brown-and-white powder from a bowl near his foot. Tapindi accepted it from him and rubbed it between her fingers.

“We’ll see if it is good,” she said.

“Of course. The men of Ulam Sifla don’t lie, but the spices pass through many hands on their way to us.”

Tapindi had brought a censer with her, which she filled with incense from the bowl and then lit. Though smoke filled the room, Awab made sure to stick close to the window and its fresh air. The others didn’t seem to mind the smoke; Tapindi shut her eyes and breathed in deeply. She cast her bones on the ground, then pronounced, “Someday you will see your shadow, and then you will learn your name.”

Qhamifdir’s brow furrowed as he thought this over. “It means nothing to me. Maybe this is dark rift spice after all. What about Awab? Can you read his future?”

“Your dwarf is more free than any of us, and I cannot see his fate no matter how I try. But as for you, my lord, I see a little more. I see that your wife will bow to her goddess; I see that the age of yours is passing.”

“Trivial! Meaningless! But Awab, you didn’t tell me you’d been to see her already. You keep your mouth closed, don’t you? That’s good, that’s very good for one of my courtiers. There are frogs and serpents everywhere. Leave me, Tapindi. I am not pleased with your words. I may have to search Duri for a fortune-teller who can tell me something worthwhile.”

She bowed and left with her censer. Slowly the smoke thinned, and Awab did his part to wave it out the window until he could breathe easier. He heard Qhamifdir muttering to himself and glanced back. Qhamifdir was staring up at the ceiling, his lips moving, but he spoke so quietly that Awab couldn’t make out his words. Then he spoke so loudly that Awab jumped. “Tell me, dwarf, what gods have you served? Or do you walk with the gods hand-in-hand, like brothers, in your home?”

“We worship Vuvudru, the maker of all things. I have also served the lords of Sa Ruh and Mar Gjol,” said Awab, stumbling slightly as he put the foreign words into Duri sentences. “And I am grateful to Palatu for hosting me in her temple.”

“Good, good. The priests of Hiltar say that the Crocodile swims in every river from the sea to the holy mountains, but have you ever met him?” When Awab shook his head silently, Qhamifdir continued. “And Nasari says troubling things too. Troubling for Hiltar, but not for Turisu. Our god is Ifi, the divine craftsman. He is not so proud as the Crocodile: he is lame in one foot and Palatu laughs at him because he doesn’t have a consort. Not yet, anyway.”

This was the kind of talk that Awab understood. Though the Duri gods were strange to him, he knew about the quarrels of gods and spirits. When Qhamifdir dismissed him that evening, he returned to his bed and slept, and dreamed of enormous figures watching over him as he lay.

Balihagu was knocking on his door early the next morning. “Up! Awake! There are deeds to be done!”

“The king has need of me,” Awab said, and curled up tighter under his blanket.

“The king will not need you today. I, on the other hand, have in mind to bring you to Ifi’s temple to put you under a spell of protection. I should have one it earlier, maybe, but today is a day of special importance to Ifi. Malaltiqha can tell you more about the numerology.” He threw the door open and shook Awab with a rough hand. “But if you want to be protected from evils of every kind, come to the temple with me.”

So Awab pulled himself out of his bed and followed Balihagu a short distance from the palace to a long open building of intricate meshes and columns. A priest was walking down its front steps, and with him were several young men, some shaved bald and others who still had their hair. When the older priest saw Balihagu he shouted, “What are you doing here, slave of the dead?”

“Looking for anyone who can tell me who made the clay that Ifi worked. Haven’t you figured that one out yet?”

“Pah! I expected better from you than an impudent child’s taunts. Doesn’t your god teach his servants anything?”

“Hagu’ and Ifi are brothers, Malaltiqha. To insult one is to insult the other. But I’ve brought Awab here to be put under Ifis’s protection, so I’ll guard my tongue.”

Malatiqha looked in Awab in some wonder, then beckoned and led him up to the porch of the temple. Underneath a painting of a god who had a ball of earth atop his head, he sat and addressed Awab. “I don’t know what Balihagu might have told you about Turisu, but he has a dark imagination. It comes from serving the god of death, I suppose. You should fear evil spirits when you’re in the desert on either side of Duri, outside the order that Ifi crafted for us at the beginning of the world.”

“That will be a comforting thought for Awab when he’s been drowned by a jealous relation of the king,” said Balihagu from his place several steps down.

Awab grimaced hearing this, though he was also surprised to know that the king had relatives. He had vaguely imagined him as being created by Ifi or someone from the mud of the earth. Certainly Qhamifdir had yet to mention any family except for his wife.

“Ifis can protect against that too. Wait here a moment.” Malaltiqha went inside the temple, and when he returned he held a gleaming amulet in the shape of a hand. He put this around Awab’s neck, and placing his own hand over both the amulet and Awab’s chest, he said, “Before there was Duri, there was Ifi. Before there was man or woman, there was Ifi. Before there was land, there was Ifi, who stood in the middle of the sea and scooped up the mud of the depths. He watches over us still to protect us from the sea and the storm. Ifi! Put forth your hand over Awab! If you remain silent I will shout your name to the corners of the earth!”

Then all was quiet as Malaltiqha stared into the distance, until at last he smiled. “Ifi has favored you, Awab,” he said. “You are under his protection so long as you wear your amulet. And you, Balihagu, will you finally accept an amulet?”

“I serve Hagu’,” Balihagu replied, and shook his head to stop Malaltiqha from protesting. “I cannot run from death.”

“I don’t think he objects to his brother putting forth his hand. But so it is. Hagu’ devours what Ifi creates. And the Crocodile encircles all.”

“The Crocodile encircles all,” Balihagu repeated.

Malaltiqha invited them to share a meal, so they went to his home and sat outside the door, where a servant or slave brought them bread and soup. Balihagu and Malaltiqha talked about things that meant nothing to Awab, who sat pondering the phrase “the Crocodile encircles all.” It was clear that the Crocodile was the chief of the Duri gods, no matter how much praise the giants gave Ifi or Tiqhasu. Would the little amulet be able to protect him from the Crocodile of Hiltar? “Is the Crocodile greater than the other gods?” he asked at last.

“It isn’t quite like that,” Malaltiqha said. “Every temple has its own story of how the world came to be: the mating of La and Iwa, the triumphs of Qhusir and Palatu, or the patient work of great Ifi. We make the images of our gods to be filled by their spirits, but the gods themselves are invisible.”

“Until we go to Hagu’,” Balihagu said. “Then we will see them.”

“Of course. But there is one god who has taken a form for himself and speaks to his priests without an interpreter. The Crocodile has dwelt in the pool of Hiltar for as long as there has been a king in Turisu. At times there has been no king, but there has always been the Crocodile. He took form in the land of the gods, Awab, but that was at the beginning of time, and no doubt the land has changed since then. But he saw that the people of Duri were alone, sheep without a shepherd, and he came up the river to teach and guide us. If that were the entirety of the tale, it would be simple enough. Another story to be told by the priests of the temple of Hiltar, so they could argue with the priests of Turisu or Bidinam.”

“If there’s more to say, then say it,” Awab said. His head was starting to hurt.

“I will tell you without games. In Hiltar they say that the Crocodile wakes to speak with his servants, but when he sleeps he dreams, and dreams of glorious men and women who rule in the world from their temples. He dreams of Palatu and Qhusir, of Ifis and Tiqhasu. And of Hagu’ too. He is the great one, the dreamer in whose dream we walk. We all honor the Crocodile as a father.”

Then the stars appeared above, and Malaltiqha pointed out the star that was sacred to Palatu. Awab began to nod, and Balihagu lifted him in his arms and carried Awab back to his bed.

“I wanted you to be protected because there may be trouble ahead,” Balihagu said, his voice low. “The gods are uneasy; every priest whispers it to his fellows. There are strange gods on the borders of the land, even on the walls of the palace itself. Avoid Nasari, avoid the veiled, and try not to be too close to the king.”

“The king?” Awab murmured.

“He is favored by Qhusir and Ifi, but it is the Crocodile who holds his name in his mouth. Keep your eyes open. You came to Turisu at an unfortunate time.” Then Balihagu was gone and Awab slept.

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