When General Minkhir returned through the Winged City’s gates, her clay servant Chukash saw the emblem of conquest in her hand. This time it was a bronze crescent, drenched in blood as always. Chukash fell in beside her, holding a basin to catch the blood. The trees to either side of them straightened, the gray-brown limbs flushing to a green-tinged hue, but the street was as dry as it had been before the general’s departure weeks earlier. It was an inauspicious sign when the city’s need for water was still dire.
Chukash kept his head lowered all the way to the temple called the White Bowl. He counted the drops of blood, the red splashes before the basin absorbed all traces of death, or life, or anything human. He liked to think that the blood-beat was his pulse, and that it made him more human.
One time he had stumbled, spilling a drop of blood. It had left a mark on the road like a toeprint. Sometimes the toe on his left foot ached. The general had never reprimanded him for it, but he knew. And the city with its thousand eyes knew.
Of the city’s three-and-three generals, they said that Minkhir had the coldest heart. She did not spare children or the mothers of children. She salted the small springs of the landbound little gods. In the years of his service, Chukash had never seen the general weep.
“Look,” Minkhir said, coming to a halt. Chukash looked up. “It is still not enough.”
Water flowed around the White Bowl. The sacred brook ran around or through each of the city’s temples, fed by the clouds the city swallowed in its orbit.
The brook was rimmed by the brown stubs of flowers. They crunched underfoot as Minkhir crossed the brook to make her offering. From the shaded huts, Chukash could hear the mournful hymns, betraying the priests’ disappointment. They already knew the offering, even of an entire vanquished city, would not suffice to restore water to the city.
Minkhir whispered the names of the Queen of Jewels, the sky goddess, while Chukash tilted the basin over the holy stone. Drink, O Queen, Chukash thought. Nothing happened, no blood or dew or storm from sky above.
For over a century it had been thus, only conquest, cloud-harvest, and pillage compensating for the city’s dwindling stores of water.
Minkhir gazed at the Bowl. Then she bent the bronze crescent and flung it to the ground, where it stopped bleeding. There was an appalled silence.
Shaking, Chukash reached for the crescent. The Queen of Jewels regarded him not, so his touch upon the offering meant for her did not offend her. The general forestalled him. Their hands met momentarily. Hers was warm, sheened with sweat. His was neither.
The priests recovered their song. Had it been within their purview, one of them would have cursed the general for her impudence. The general’s honor guard, standing a respectful distance from the temple, shifted restlessly.
Minkhir turned on her heel and rejoined the guard. She handed the crescent to one, who paled but accepted it. Its edges left white blotches on his skin. The blotches would spread in days to come, as the crescent’s curse consumed him.
Afterwards, the general withdrew to be cleansed by oil and scented water. Chukash stood watch. He was not human, not quite alive; purifying rituals did not need to be performed on him.
Minkhir inspected her hands. Scars blotted out some of the fingerprints, while others exaggerated the whorls. She said, “There is not much time left. Say it, Chukash.”
Steam rose between them. “Water,” he said. “The Winged City thirsts.”
“Oh, yes.” She was looking elsewhere. “We weren’t content with our lands and roads. We had to raise the White Road so we could take to the sky and raid our earthbound neighbors, and feed the road to feed our city.”
He had not realized that the White Road, the sky road, had not always been a part of the city. He knew little of beginnings. It was not fitting for a man of clay to study history. “Which of the Crescent Cities did you conquer this time, General?” he asked.
Minkhir pulled a comb through her hair. It fell to the small of her back, rumpled where it had been braided beneath her helmet. “That is the trouble,” she said. “It was Eguru Ut, the fairest of the Crescent Cities. Do you know the songs?”
Chukash did. The impossible garden arch from which fruit fell into the baskets of widows. The wild horses who came to your hand if you played a certain song upon a flute. The three-tiered market square, the learned men and women, the oracle born underwater.
“No,” said Minkhir, “don’t sing.” Song was holy, and he was not. “It’s gone. Its people have only clay to eat and dust to drink.”
I am clay with dust for blood, thought Chukash. I do not drink.
She saw something in his eyes, although she took no offense from it. “It is simpler for you,” she said. “Stop feeding the White Road, you might say. Return the city to the earth. Do not pour the libations of wine and blood to the three goddesses, do not feed the White Bowl. But our people have become accustomed to exotic comforts. We will get them by traveling the White Road, and we will get them by conquest.” She paused to untangle a lock of hair. “Eguru Ut was fair, yet its people produced nothing we cannot procure from other realms. So it had to perish. Others will follow.”
Minkhir had maps of clay, so detailed that Chukash almost felt he had walked these faraway places. “There are only two of the Crescent Cities left,” he said. Over the years he had watched as Minkhir and her staff prepared the battle plans, and later as they tallied the spoils.
“Yes. I will meet with the rest of the three-and-three tomorrow,” said Minkhir, “and after that, with the little queen. I will march the White Road again to the Crescent to ravage their living cities for our dying one.”
Chukash looked upon her in bewilderment. The three-and-three had many responsibilities, but had Minkhir always regarded hers so bitterly?
He thought suddenly: If she questions her duty, must I question mine?
She looked back. “I tell you this, man who is not human, because you will come with me. Perhaps the gods will listen to you when they have not listened to us. Perhaps they will take pity on someone who has no heart with which to feel greed.”
“It is heresy.” Clay was not flesh, nor would it ever be the equal of flesh. Clay was the food of the dead.
“Maybe heresy will awaken the gods.”
Chukash wished for reassurance, but she had none for him. She turned around and finished combing her hair. Her servants came in to replace Chukash. Damp from the steam, he took his place among the ponderous amphorae and eyeless statuary.
Of all the generals, two were women and four were men. The first of the three-and-three, General Tambere, appeared in luxurious folds of dyed linen and wool. She loved her pleasures. Death was one of them.
Raguor, Ojidan, Akenkeran, and Khetur wore more formal attire, cloaks sewn with bronze scales. Ojidan, the sixth of the three-and-three, had also brought an unhuman, this one shaped like a girl with a bird’s head. Whisperer, he called it. It played the lyre, but did not sing, and it was not sacred the way musicians were.
Chukash stood at General Minkhir’s side and across from Whisperer. If you spoke, he thought, you would have a proper name. Whisperer never spoke. Perhaps it was a proper thing of clay who carried within it all the secret, vulnerable places of the human body without desiring them for itself.
Minkhir spoke first. “The little queen will meet us backed by the priests. This I know.”
Raguor smiled. “Another failure in the Crescent?”
“Hardly that. They are dividing our plunder as we speak.”
“After your soldiers besotted themselves with their portion?”
She made a dismissive sound. “They are soldiers. It is what comforts them. It is better than thinking about our problem.”
“So we say it,” said Tambere. “Water.” She smiled at Chukash. He could smell the oils she had anointed herself with, musk and dark frankincense. “The thing that melts clay.”
“The thing that makes clay fertile,” said Akenkeran, the Quiet One.
Raguor scoffed. “The trees along the promenade are green again, for the moment. But our city’s wings fly too close to the starry palace of the Queen of Jewels, and our fields are parched. Our throats will be next. The first bastard–blessed be his name–should never have raised the city from its foundations.”
The three-and-three, as well as Whisperer and Chukash, made the sign of the circle to ward off the city’s founder’s wrath.
“No water is enough,” said Tambere. “No deaths are enough, and we have brought many. Each time we march through the doors of the sky, we reach lands our cartographers never imagined. Each time the conquest leaves our gods parched. They are thirsty. I am thirsty.” She flung an untasted cup of wine to the floor. The rivulet dampened Chukash’s feet.
Water, he thought. No true water in me.
The city was becoming like him, an unhuman, trickle by trickle.
It was a bad sign when truth became heresy.
“We win all the more,” said Raguor, “and the eaters of bread and drinkers of beer grow fat and content. They don’t care that their city is dying of thirst if it is not dead yet.”
“That was true of their grandmothers and grandfathers,” said Ojidan. “Why should that have changed?” He turned to Minkhir. “The singers at the White Bowl were certain?”
Whisperer’s head swiveled. The alien bird-eyes met Chukash’s. Chukash remembered the buds of weeds at his heels and the sudden absence of living greenery when they entered that holy place. Nothing had withered. Nothing had grown.
Minkhir laid her hand on Chukash’s shoulder. “You mean the absence of signs? Yes. Tell them, Chukash.”
He said, “The general bent the crescent token of Eguru Ut, fairest of the Crescent Cities, and cast it on the ground. The singing sisters faltered, but the goddess heard nothing and did nothing in retribution.”
“Who are you to say what a goddess hears?” Khetur said.
“It is the same with the Gray Mouth,” said Ojidan. “The Queen of Hymns accepts our offerings. We send our dead to walk the Gray Road as everyone does in the end. But nothing changes. For all the blood spilled in her name, she gives us no water.”
“It is the same with the red,” Akenkeran said. The Red Road was the road of the earthbound world, with its small gods. Chukash knew little of its ruling goddess, the Red Woman, save that she wandered the world due to her brother’s death.
“Then we must turn our armies upon the last of the Crescent Cities,” said Tambere.
“We must attack as one,” said Raguor, who laughed even now. “The procession will be a sight to see. When have the three-and-three marched side by side?”
Tambere said, “We must present this to the little queen tomorrow morning, and we must speak as one.”
They fell silent, for the little queen had peculiar whims. If the whim took her, she might order them to less fruitful pursuits.
Ojidan nodded toward Chukash. “Sister, how will you convince the priests to bless your army when you plan to bring a man of clay with you?”
“I will bow myself before them,” said Minkhir. “And I will offer myself as–“
“I forbid it!” General Tambere stood, hand upon the whip at her belt. “You will not set the worth of one of the three-and-three equal to that of a mere man of clay.”
Tambere struck Minkhir across one cheek, then the other. Minkhir blinked but made no other motion. Tambere said, “Sister, let go this madness. If it’s a folly of passion”–beside her, Khetur coughed–“why, I have three-and-three comely servants for your pleasure, and none of them have sown fertile seed in my belly, as the priests promised.” Her tone was sly.
“It is neither passion nor folly,” said Minkhir coolly. “Have we forgotten necessity? When the old bastard gave the city wings, there was no more need of men of clay to guard our walls. So they became a curiosity. We are not small; we are a growing sore. Men of clay do not drink. I say we bleed for the Queen of Hymns and replace our dead with living clay. Chukash will be the first.”
Chukash was aware of their eyes upon him. General, he thought, I will do whatever you ask, but please do not put yourself in danger.
“You are monstrous,” said Raguor.
“It is possible,” said Akenkeran.
Ojidan tapped his fingers against his knee. “The little queen will decide. Is there any question of that?”
There was not. Tambere lingered until Minkhir made ready to leave. Tambere said to Chukash, “We will weep no tears for you when you fall.” Her voice held the bite of malice.
Minkhir said, “He is clay. Your words are nothing to him. He is mine, sister.”
“You were always monstrous,” said Tambere, and let them pass.
The little queen had no name. Her face changed from generation to generation. Her ancestor had raised the city upon its three massive wings. So long as the line survived, the city would remain skyborne.
Chukash had only seen two of the queens. They were alike in visage, unlike in manner. The previous one had attended his birth, for only she could approve the making of men of clay. She had made nervous motions when his senses awakened from the inert dust that wrapped his skin. By then she had been very old, engulfed by the cloth-of-gold and diadem of her rank, and the lines around her mouth were deep but kind.
This queen was no taller. People whispered that the blood was thinning again, that the next queen would have to be drawn from another branch of the tree. No one would have suggested this to the previous queen; even less this one, with her rapacious eyes and honey-poisoned voice. Chukash feared her.
The three-and-three were as dust motes in the little queen’s court. She sat upon a dais carved with birds that Chukash did not recognize. She wore three-and-three bracelets of different metals upon her left arm, and three rings in her left ear, and three rings in the right.
Assembled to either side were the high priests of the white and gray, and a seer of the red. Oracles knelt at the little queen’s feet, their hair shorn and their eyes glazed with drugged wisdom. And more: sacred musicians with feathers in their hair; a man who stood on his hands and capered for the little queen’s pleasure; children sitting with silent women.
The sun was hot after a hard day’s campaigning, but the sun did not have the little queen’s searching eyes. Minkhir turned to Chukash. “Leave,” she said. “Depart this hall of halls. You have seen too much already. I will argue my case as I can.”
“Folly, sister, folly,” said Khetur.
Chukash went. The queen’s guards let him leave without comment. The servants in the halls hardly marked him. Puzzled, Chukash stood beneath a bas-relief of the gods. He had not known there were so many besides the Queen of Jewels, the Queen of Hymns, and the Red Woman. There was also the Half-Faced Archer, who was Night’s consort, and the Bird With No Eyes, who was a messenger when it pleased him and a trickster otherwise. They were at war in the relief. Cities and ordinary people were tiny in comparison, besieged by fire and storm, great swords and fierce-faced charioteers.
For some time he searched the wall for a likeness of the Red Woman’s slain brother, some explanation of why he had died or what had become of him, but found none.
Chukash heard a sound like feathers against cloth. It was Whisperer. It gestured across the strings of its lyre, plucking an octave. Chukash followed it down the hall.
Whisperer made a whistling noise. One of the tapestries puckered slightly. Behind it lay a dark passage. Chukash and Whisperer entered. No one stopped them.
When the dim light from the opening gave out, their footsteps began to make soft sucking sounds. The touch of mud thrilled through Chukash. He stopped. He could see in the darkness, which had never been true before. Whisperer followed him, now.
A voice called through the passageway. Its echoes were three-and-three. “How many do you bring, men of clay?”
Whisperer plucked a single string. Chukash said, “An army.”
“Hush,” said the voice, waking more echoes.
As the echoes died, they heard the tumult of the little queen’s court. Chukash could discern General Minkhir’s voice. Whisperer plucked the string again. Perhaps it heard Ojidan.
“Yes,” said the voice. Its source was moving. “You,” it said, “you are here because your master ordered it.” Whisperer made a low trilling sound. “And you,” it said to Chukash, “you are here because your master did not forbid it.”
The voice came from a face upon the wall–no, a face beyond the wall–no, from some unseen hall.
“Man of clay,” said Chukash. “My master calls me Chukash.” He had to say it; the general would not have him go unclaimed.
“My master calls me many things,” said the voice. “You knew the way here, Whisperer. Chukash. Do you know why?”
Whisperer, who might know, could not tell him. It plucked another octave. Chukash did not know.
A wavering light moved over the wall with its paintings of ancient creatures. Between each was the impression of a face. Chukash felt a clenching sensation, which made him aware of the false heart inside him, the false liver, the unnecessary skeleton: an impression of a human from the inside out.
Whisperer moved its fingers over the lyre’s strings. The bird-eyes held a welling longing.
You cannot fly and you cannot speak, thought Chukash. He said to the voice, “Why?”
One of the faces rippled; a mouth opened. Clay moved, reshaped itself into another face. Chukash felt himself growing inert, one more piece of clay in a place of clay. In that stillness he felt the shape of his maker’s handprint emerging outward from heart to skin. Because this was not pain he bore for the general’s sake, he cried out.
Whisperer bowed before Chukash, graceful in the way of water birds. It set down its lyre, heedless of the mud. With precise hands, it unclasped Chukash’s tunic to reveal the handprint. Whisperer picked up a pinch of clay and smeared it over Chukash’s chest. In a moment the handprint vanished.
“That was not the general’s hand,” said Chukash, shaken. He closed the tunic again. “Nor was it that of the little queen.”
“You are not wrong,” said the voice. “When she was a young woman, Minkhir had a brother. Whatever Minkhir did, he did better, and she loved him for it. Her brother died defending the little queen from an insurrection–“
Chukash knew the story. The traitors had bought with gold and water what they could not with honeyed words. This brother had stood against his own betrothed–
In the memory, Chukash held what no man of clay was permitted: a weapon of metal, a sword with a blade curved back and a hilt serpent-shaped. It left his hands. There was blood–
And he was Chukash, shaped around a dead man’s hand. Chukash heard himself breathing. He said, “I did not want to know this.” What had passed between the little queen and Minkhir, that the former should favor the latter thus? He knew the more important question. “Why,” he asked the wall, “are there never women of clay?”
Whisperer clacked tauntingly. Bird eyes, Chukash reminded himself. Bird beak. Outwardly more unhuman, inwardly the same.
The voice was accompanied by ghost-footsteps, as though something walked back and forth in the distance. “Now you are insolent. Why should clay in a dying city be the image of fertility?” A gash smiled in the wall. In place of teeth, it showed tiny shells and chips of petrified wood. “Listen,” it said.
They heard the little queen’s voice with biting clarity: “Go, then. Bring me the crowns of the crescent. Bring me their songs of terror. Bring me all the gods you find, O three-and-three; bring me the wayside and hearthside and bedside gods, their deaths in tokens of grain or crude clay or carved heartwood. I weary of this. The petty gods of the world will have to suffice or the White Road will devour us.”
Minkhir gave the answer she had to give, although Chukash did not at first recognize her voice. “As you will, O queen.” He shivered at her anger.
The general would expect him. He walked back through the passages, Whisperer at his side. With each step, he thought of faces and birds, footprints and fingerprints and hidden hearts.
Chukash stood at the side of the procession when the three-and-three emerged. Priests preceded them. As Chukash had countless times, he fell into step beside General Minkhir. The absence of crowds unnerved him. He was glad when they passed beyond the ziggurats where the priests performed the monthly rites of smoke and blood.
The general’s stride matched the others’, yet it betrayed greater impatience. Her presence beat against him like thunder, the rain that the priests’ drums evoked–not always with success–or the noise of chariot wheels, the noise of a thousand footsteps moving as one.
Then they were in the streets, peeling away from the priests and everyone but the servants and guards assigned to the three-and-three. “It is madness,” said Tambere, “but if the little queen says it is to be done, it is no more mad than–“
Ojidan hissed her silent. Tambere smiled brightly and said no more.
Raguor said, “Shall we march as six, or as we always have, in our separate ways?”
“If we are bringing a man of clay with us,” said Akenkeran, “why should anything be done as it has been done before?”
The generals parted ways with curt nods. Chukash gazed after Whisperer, wondering how much Ojidan knew. Men of clay should not have to think such things.
Minkhir did not send him back to her house, as he had expected. It was a bad day for expectations. She bade him follow her into an armorer’s shop.
The armorer stood tall in the general’s presence and blinked when she noticed Chukash.
The general said, “I wish him to have a breastplate and a helmet and greaves,” and the armorer said yes to each. The general said, “I wish the patterns upon his armor to be like the patterns upon mine,” and the armorer said yes.
Then the general said, “I wish him to go into battle at my side,” and the armorer paled. Armor to decorate a man of clay–a toy–was one matter. It was another to armor a man of clay as though he would trade blows with a soldier of flesh.
Minkhir said, almost softly, “The little queen has not forbidden it. She knows I am bringing him.”
“As you will,” said the armorer. Her assistants came forward to measure Chukash. Each time one of their hands lay firm upon him, he thought of the handprint he bore within him in place of a heart.
Minkhir watched them with approval. She asked the smith, “Shall I leave you my armor for its patterns?”
The smith stood straighter and said, “I remember them, General. I remember them all.” Why do you test me? her tone suggested, and: I am yours.
I am yours, Chukash thought, holding still over and over again. For all the novelty, he was glad when the general ordered him back to her house.
He joined the statuary and asked each, as the dark-eyed servants went back and forth, “Were you once of clay?” The bronze horses clearly were not, nor the painted pillar broken from its place at some siege. There was a clay urn in the corner, its shape that of countless other urns. It was empty. He had checked many times, while the servants cast him pitying looks.
He had exhausted his questions by the time the general returned. Her hair was tousled, her skin flushed. That was the problem with clay: ask, and ask, and the tongue never wearied. He could not ask the general what lay in her heart, if she had one. Unlike the priests, he had never opened a woman with sword or pick to see the soft parts inside. For all he knew, the three-and-three were constructed differently.
Minkhir’s brother had had an ordinary human heart. Surely Minkhir herself could be no different?
Chukash did not leave the general’s army for the next fortnight. General Minkhir paid no heed to him. Chukash came and went in the streets. Sometimes he gathered up the locusts that blew in upon the wind, sweet to the tongue, ominous portents patterned upon their wings. Children begged him for the locusts, which he gave them.
Chukash was watching a woman guide dogs through the streets when a priest stopped before the general’s house. The priest chanted, “The three-and-three must remain three-and-three or the White Road will swallow them! The three-and-three must head an army of true men or the Gray Road will swallow them! The three-and–“
Minkhir strode up behind the priest. By the flick of his eyes, he was aware of her presence. Minkhir struck him. He staggered. Silence stretched along the street.
“If you write a curse upon my house,” said the general, “you are no true priest of the Winged City.” She raised him up. He held a clay tablet. She shattered it. Her blood stained the shards.
The words upon the tablet whipped through Chukash. They were holy words, words of wrath, and they bore the priest’s fingerprints. At the general’s nod, Chukash gathered the shards. The priest whitened.
“I am a priest of the red,” the priest said. “It is as a priest of the Winged City I oppose you. You will bring our doom upon us.”
“What doom is left?” Minkhir said. “Shall we spend this slow dehydration in prayer? The goddesses have shown no mercy.”
“Mercy,” said the priest, “is a thing of men and women.” He did not look at Chukash. “The gods move as the gods will. We are their clay, as this man is yours.”
Minkhir said, “Chukash, crush the tablet.”
The dust trickled through his hands. Water never felt like this.
The priest went whiter. “It is not my voice you need to fear,” he said. “It is my words. You can shatter clay but you cannot silence a city.”
Minkhir laughed. “Shall I name you cities and the deaths of cities? In their halls, the singing sisters hang the tokens of the Crescent Cities. The plunder of faraway isles bedizen the temple-houses of the gray ones. And the red has accepted its share of offerings, the birds that are extinct because we have brought them all to your feasts. Are you a heretic among your brethren, priest, that you speak to me thus?”
The priest shook his head and made reverence to her, backing away from her at the same time. The mule-drivers and weave-wives in the street made space for him. They dared not show the general or the priest greater courtesy. Therefore they did nothing.
Chukash, too, did nothing. The wind against his face was hot and gritty.
“Never tell anyone the words he wrote,” Minkhir said. Only then did Chukash realize that he could read the words upon the pulverized dust. He had the general’s brother’s handprint inside him. What were a few bitter words, compared to that?
The day before they departed, General Minkhir fasted. She unbound her hair and stripped off her armor. Chukash’s armor rested on a goatskin next to it, similar in all things but the proportions. His eyes were drawn to the motif: two fruiting trees meeting each others’ limbs.
While Minkhir recited passages from the Wall of Laws, Chukash was struck by an image of rippling water. A fish moved uncaught; a dragonfly escaped the fish. A girl sat combing her hair while servants tossed a ball back and forth for her entertainment. The image dissolved, leaving behind the smell of summer.
“It is done,” said Minkhir as Chukash recovered from his reverie. She already wore her armor. The spear was bright and unwavering in her grasp. The servants, more timorous than usual, oiled Chukash’s skin before helping him put his armor on. He did not like the oil: no friend to water.
“Is he fair to look upon?” asked Minkhir.
The servants bent their heads.
Minkhir faced Chukash. “They know their place is silence. Yours is other. You will be at my side. Ojidan has come to my way of thinking and bade Whisperer bear his arrows, to show that men of clay fight as well as men of flesh; Tambere and Akenkeran may ride upon great chariots. I do neither. When I fight, I fight upon the Red Road. My foes will weep to see my face, not the arrow or the wheel.”
“I am not a warrior,” said Chukash.
“You have not wrestled or played at arms,” said Minkhir, “it is true. Yours is the shield, man of clay. Learn from every blow you block. There will not be many, I promise.”
The three-and-three met before the palace, their armies filling the streets. Four men of clay bore the little queen upon a wood-and-gold chair to the gates of the palace. Her hair was braided, her hands poisonously still.
“Approach,” said the little queen. One by one, the three-and-three did. She kissed each general on one cheek, then the other. At no time did she rest her hands upon their crowns. As the three-and-three withdrew, she said, “The gods may bless you from above”–the sky was cloudless–“if they do not flood us from below. I have no scented oil or sacred water for your fortunes.”
Minkhir and her soldiers were the second last to depart. Word had spread of the little queen’s refusal to bless them, and the faces of the people watching them were wary. Minkhir said to her captains, “The little queen has spoken. She does not prevent us from working our will; all is well.”
Her first captain said, “The gods have shown us disfavor before. I doubt this will change. The people of the city are fools.”
The second captain said, “The priests of the small gods gave my soldiers the blessing they wanted.”
The third captain said, “The priests of the small gods will bless anyone who will pay for incense and a few words.”
They drew up before the great gate. Chalky footprints were visible before them, disappearing into a sun-beaten haze. Chukash bore no bowl. Perhaps the general had had a second man of clay made to receive her victory when she returned. He hoped not. The horses drawing the war chariots huffed and stamped.
The people of the walls chanted. Their shouts and drums boomed over the rooftops. The horses, well-trained, did not spook at the noise. White dust enveloped the army as it moved through the gate, and words appeared in rows as though carved in the dust. The chiseled shapes opened until they engulfed the army.
The sudden silence was all that told Chukash that they were upon the White Road. Dust parted before them, then contracted into points. The people of the walls tended the night’s jewels; they knew the constellations by which one might travel to this city or that. Chukash had not realized how brilliantly the stars shone, or how black the world became around them.
The stars became less and less brilliant. The night was interrupted by inscriptions of green, brown, gray. As before, the inscriptions widened. Then Chukash saw that the shapes were those of hill or river or wall, like the general’s clay maps.
“Engaz Ut,” said the general as the army came to a halt upon a hilltop. The flowers they bruised underfoot were intensely yellow. “They call it Engaz Ut of the five walls. You see only two. The historians say it has devoured three smaller cities.”
The armies of the three-and-three waited upon the hills commanded by Engaz Ut. The city’s gates were closed. The scouts went to investigate the walls, on which symbols of protection were painted. One scout, a dark, compact woman, returned with a wax tablet. She gave it to the general, who gave it to Chukash.
“I am sorry,” he said. “The only words I can read are the words our priests would inscribe.” He began to return the wax tablet to the scout. She shook her head.
“General,” the scout said, “the woman who copied these foreign prayers is afflicted with a tremor of her hands and face. If no one can read it, we had better destroy it.”
“You are unaffected,” the general said. To Chukash: “Take the tablet to Akenkeran. Perhaps the Quiet One will glean something from this.”
General Akenkeran held the rear. His servants met Chukash at the perimeter and escorted him to the general’s tent.
Akenkeran waited inside, hands folded before him. Chukash passed the tablet to him and said, “General, our scout said these words were written upon the walls, five times and five again. We cannot read them all.”
The general signaled. A servant brought him a stylus. He scraped clear all the words they did understand from the exacting transcription. Chukash could not read any single symbol, but they formed a crude pattern: the winged circle.
“I shall tell General Minkhir,” Chukash said.
Akenkeran forestalled him. Chukash knelt. At first he did not understand what was happening. The general’s hand was light but not unassertive upon his head. Chukash closed his eyes, accepting the blessing, as he must. The handprint within him made no demand.
The touch withdrew. Chukash stood. The escorts led him back to Minkhir’s tent. He showed her the altered tablet.
“Well,” she said, “Akenkeran would see such a thing. So the wards are not against just any invaders, but against us.”
“Indeed,” said the second of her captains as he entered. “General, the encampment is secure for the night. I have heard no report of enemy allies awaiting us.”
“We have destroyed most of their allies.”
“General.” He bent his head.
Nearby, a horse whickered; a soldier stopped himself mid-whistle, remembering that music before sundown was a soldier’s ill fortune.
“We await dawn,” said Minkhir. “General Tambere has decreed it so.” She withdrew. Chukash, still armored, stood outside her tent through the night.
When dawn came, the armies formed up. The heralds brought out their horns and played a loud note three-and-three times. From the city’s walls returned defiant drumbeats. The horns blared. The answer was the same. On the third time the heralds brought out the other horns, coiled and serpent-scaled. These unfolded in the heralds’ hands to hiss at the city, raising a great wind. Birds startled out of the hills in every direction. One of Ojidan’s archers shot one out of the air: a promising omen.
“They are proud,” said Minkhir. “They will engage us outside the walls. This is their custom, not ours. We will indulge them.”
Chukash, holding the shield in place, asked, “Who will meet them?”
“My army. We have no need of more. Even for the length of this siege, let it not be said in Engaz Ut that we are cowards.”
The gates ground open. A phalanx of the Crescent emerged, each soldier in perfect position. Each had a red crescent painted on his forehead, and a black jewel in the center of his chest.
Chukash, unable to hide his distress, said, “These are men of clay, General.”
“They will die like ordinary men,” she said, “even if black sorcery brings them to life.”
The distance between their army and that of Engaz Ut vanished in what seemed like moments. Spears met flesh; swords met clay-made-flesh. Both bled. Chukash had a man’s strength, as did these foreign soldiers, but his armor felt light, and, as Minkhir had promised, few blows reached him. The general’s armor blazed in the sunlight as her sword met the spears of her foes.
Twice a spear missed her to lodge in Chukash’s shield. On the second time, he took a blow to his side while he was pulling out the spear. It was not until after wheeling to protect Minkhir’s back that Chukash realized that he was bleeding. It did not weaken him.
One of the enemy soldiers shouted at Chukash. Minkhir said, “He asks why you do not join them.”
It needed no response, he told her with a glance. He felt her approval. The soldier shouted another phrase, and this time Chukash understood it: Join the dead, then.
Did the others think of themselves as alive?
At the hour’s end, red spears were raised on both sides, drums answering horns and the other way around. Both sides peeled back from the battlefield. People looked pitiably small when dead in piles. Minkhir and Chukash walked among the corpses. The soldiers gathered their fallen, chanting paeans to the Queen of Hymns.
The fallen men of clay were beginning to crumble. Was that what he would be reduced to when he died, a handful of dust in a handful of moments?
Minkhir met with her captains. Chukash flinched from their uneasy stares. “Bandage him,” Minkhir told the servants who came to clean her sword. They did so, bringing rolled linen.
“It’s heresy,” the second captain said of the enemy, even though Minkhir had committed the same heresy by granting a man of clay the status of a soldier, of one of the living.
The third captain made a moue. “We brought men of clay. Why should they not?”
Minkhir said, “Why, indeed. They must be desperate. How many one-handed criminals walk the streets now, in this city called the Merciful?”
“We did not use our men of clay as weapons,” said the third captain, “until now.”
“He”–the second captain nodded toward Chukash–“is not a weapon. Unless he is made to be.”
A courier from Tambere, wearing her emblem of bee and blossom, approached them. His face was flushed. “General, Captains,” he said, “the city will not surrender.”
“Hardly surprising,” said Minkhir. “Their men of clay did not fare so well, but they have not spent any of their soldiers. Tell me, has anyone found their captain? Or did he escape during their retreat to the city?”
“I don’t know, General,” said the courier. “Also, Engaz Ut has asked for our surrender.”
Minkhir’s head snapped up.
“They have a sorcerer of the black. He will be our defeat, they say.”
She shook her head. “I thought the Crescent had eradicated the carrion-eaters.”
“Their black ore animated the men of clay,” said the courier. “The ore is indeed mined from that underground sun. If the carrion-eaters are not dead, they will be soon without the sun to sustain them.”
“Well,” said the general, “this one is alive. Ask Tambere when she would have us meet in council.”
The courier bent his head and folded out of sight.
The council followed not long afterward. General Tambere’s eyes no longer held their accustomed languor; Khetur spoke crisply, without mockery. Akenkeran remained silent. Ojidan did not bring Whisperer. But Minkhir bade Chukash accompany her.
“I mislike this,” Tambere said. “How many men of clay do they have?”
“One black sorcerer”–Raguor glanced at Akenkeran–“can only fill himself so far with the black sun’s power. This making of men must be new or they would have used it against the Crescent themselves.”
“Five walls,” said Khetur. “They must each be breached in turn, and we are not sure of their nature. Well, sister, it is time for you to show us why you brought Chukash.”
Chukash held himself still.
“The plan should be obvious,” Khetur said. “We have recovered some of those black jewels–“
“We will not use them,” said Ojidan. Whisperer, too, stiffened. “We will not make ourselves an army of the black sun.”
“One man of–“
“One man of clay is an army when he lets an army in.” Ojidan’s hands clenched. “That is the plan you mean to propose, is it not?”
Khetur could not deny it.
“We have no guarantee that they would let in another man of clay, one who did not speak their distorted language,” said Tambere. “Nevertheless, I see no harm in trying it, if you can bear to lose your creature, Minkhir.”
“He will discover the nature of the gates for you,” said Minkhir. “Akenkeran, perhaps you could study that black ore and create a false gem.”
Akenkeran opened his hand. A tiny piece of black ore glistened from his palm. The others flinched back, Whisperer more than the rest. Chukash felt a seductive presence upon his will. If he slept–if he submitted–if he accepted–if he had no name–
Akenkeran crushed the ore between his fingers. There was a flash, and the pressure dissipated.
“I fear you, Quiet One,” Tambere said, “so it is well that you serve the little queen.”
Khetur added, “As much as any of us do.”
Minkhir looked at Chukash. He looked back. The thought of leaving her terrified him, however accustomed he was to her departures.
He bore her brother’s handprint.
He deluded himself that he had a choice.
“If you wish it,” Akenkeran said to Minkhir and the others. They did.
“You are traveling farther than I ever intended,” Minkhir told Chukash. She was sharpening her spear. A drop of red glistened from its point. When she was satisfied, she licked her finger clean.
Chukash had no answer. Blood made him ill for the first time in his existence.
Minkhir did not wait for him to speak. She said, “This night General Akenkeran expects you. Do as he tells you. When you hear the serpents’ hiss, you must strive to open the gates.”
“Yes,” he said.
General Akenkeran’s tent smelled of sweet things. It took a moment for Chukash to identify them as the blossoms they had crushed upon their arrival.
The general held up the false stone. It shone richly. Chukash approached and bared his chest. The jewel fixed itself in his chest, darkening as it did so. A cool sensation spread across his skin.
Akenkeran shifted his attention to the captain who was making hurried notations upon a wax-and-wood tablet.
Chukash left the tent. Soldiers fingered three-winged talismans for luck. Chukash passed the tents holding the wounded, where the surgeons chanted as they stitched wounds shut with the jaws of living ants. Nearby, the soldiers’ prostitutes tended the dead, wrapping them in gray cloth so the Queen of Hymns would know them as her own.
The hills before the city’s great gate had been churned by the feet of grappling soldiers. Chukash paused to turn a piece of earth right-side up so that the roots faced into the ground and the leaves faced him. He made his way from ridge to ridge, tree to tree. What was it like to live surrounded by such greenery?
The prayers upon the wall of Engaz Ut, seen from up close, looked like gashes in flesh. He made himself still again, another part of the wall.
It did not take long before the armies of the Winged City approached the gate once more. The horns demanded entry. The drums refused. General Tambere, who loved danger, was first up against the gates. Her soldiers crouched beneath their shields for protection against the rocks and hot oil dropped from the walls. The battering ram swung ponderously from its frame; its voice against the gate drowned out the drums. The other generals moved their ladders closer while the siege engineers lobbed urns filled with vipers or noxious vapors.
Then the defenders appeared through a gate drawn by curving lines like the whorl of a fingerprint.
Chukash ran to the gate, dodging Tambere’s soldiers and charioteers. As the soldiers and the city’s defenders joined combat, Chukash flung himself through the gate, which was beginning to seal shut. Five lines for the five walls. The first two looked like ordinary walls, but the others were of materials Chukash could describe only as glassy, or gritty, or grown from thorny bushes. The last pricked his arm as he entered the city.
He emerged on an inner wall, lower and thicker than the curtain walls. Sentries stood to either side of him, and drummers. He stood.
A captain approached him. Chukash, face empty, turned to meet her. She glanced at his chest and cocked her head. One of the nearby sentries huffed in disgust. Ignoring him, the captain moved on.
Once Chukash had satisfied himself that no one would interfere with one of the sorcerer’s toys, he made his way down the stairs and up another set to the great gate. He stood and stood until they forgot his presence. He stood some more until night fell and the armies outside withdrew.
The outer gates’ builders had known better than to design it so one man could open it. Chukash pressed his hand against it and learned that someone had beaten the hinges of the great door from blood and bronze. There was no clay here. But a black jewel had replaced each bearing, surely the black sorcerer’s work. Chukash understood then that he must kill the sorcerer.
The false gem, with its affinity to black sorcery, led him through streets where lamps burned in few windows and women’s voices murmured alien endearments. A beggar slept against a wall. The streets had been swept clean.
Chukash stopped before a simple house whose windows did not have curtains. A pale light came from within. The darkness had drained from the false jewel. Not knowing how he should commit murder, Chukash knocked upon the door.
A shuffling answered him. A second later, the door opened. “Come in,” said the man, who sounded like an ordinary man. One of his feet was deformed. Chukash helped the sorcerer back to his mat. They looked at each other in silence.
“So you are my death,” said the sorcerer. He did not have a cruel face, or a cunning one.
Chukash bowed his head.
“We must talk,” said the sorcerer. “It is not an ordinary thing, this opportunity.”
“Everyone dies,” said Chukash.
The sorcerer laughed. He lifted his hand. The false jewel shattered in a haze of springtime splendor. “Tell that to the three-and-three.”
“I do not know your sorcery,” said Chukash. “I can break men the way I would break wood. A sorcerer cannot be so difficult to kill.”
The sorcerer laughed again. “You should kill me now, man of clay, except I promise I will not speak for more than a few moments, and I bear you no ill will. I am the last of my kind. You will find no other chance.”
It was not Minkhir’s curiosity Chukash thought of, but Akenkeran’s. “Speak,” Chukash said, wary of any small movements. He did not fear the large ones.
“Do you know of the gods’ feast?”
Chukash admitted that he knew of no such thing.
“The stories are weak in your city,” said the sorcerer, sounding unsurprised. “You call some of them small gods. We do not know their full number, but after one of their wars, all of them met in a great feast. They ate of–” The sorcerer did not finish that sentence, instead going to the next as though nothing were missing. “One of the gods asked why their children, the people of earth, were not at the banquet.”
“This cannot end well,” said Chukash.
“Indeed,” said the sorcerer. “‘Feed them yourself,’ said the gods, and tore this god apart. All except his sister, who would not eat.”
When it became clear the sorcerer had no more to add, Chukash asked, “Did the people of earth eat of the god?”
“That,” said the sorcerer, “is something you must ask each man or woman.”
“It is not a thing of my people,” said the sorcerer approvingly. “I weary, man of clay. Look. Upon that shelf rests a cup. In the cup is the juice of a flower that blooms every three years, along with the powdered roots of a sapling grown over the black sun. Drink of the cup and you will have the strength required to take my life.”
Chukash did not fear even a sorcerer’s poison. He brought this cup from the shelf. It tasted sweet and salty. He set it down. The sorcerer opened his mouth. Chukash grabbed him and twisted his neck, breaking his spine. Then he laid the man down.
He raised his hand to his face and felt moisture. Surely not, he thought. Of all people, this man–? But tears were tears, and he valued water.
The house began to fill with an intoxicating black gas. Chukash ran–others were already fleeing their houses–toward the gates he knew. A sorcerer’s death took a terrible form. He should have guessed that earlier.
In the distance, the serpent horns hissed their exultation. Chukash saw men of clay, posted as guards throughout the city, slumped at corners, black dust smeared on their mouths and fingers.
The gates had fallen from the hinges inward. Then Chukash understood. The black sorcerer had, by releasing his spells, taken revenge on those who had killed his people. Horns howled. General Tambere’s soldiers laid about them with sword and spear.
Chukash had no desire to interfere. He had to return to General Minkhir. Moving amid the wounded and the scavengers, he searched for the bronze gleam of her armor. It flared before him, throwing off glints of light like stars. The light led him to General Ojidan, not Minkhir.
Whisperer drew him under the cover of its shield while the general drew and released an arrow. At the touch, grief stabbed through Chukash. He knew why Whisperer had the body of a girl but the head of a bird. How Ojidan had sired and lost a courtesan’s daughter, Chukash did not know.
“The little queen,” Chukash said as the screams and cries continued around them. She had given Whisperer a bird’s head so the general must forever remember that his true daughter lay in the earth.
Whisperer bent its head.
“I must find my general,” he said.
Ojidan paid them no attention. Another archer on the city walls fell.
Whisperer pointed toward the ruined stairs up the wall. Soldiers fought to defend the stairs lest the Winged City’s armies breach the walls at another point. Chukash had no spear, but the dead had many. He picked one that was not tipped with a crescent. Minkhir would not like him to appear before her with one of the enemy’s weapons.
As he passed, Chukash did not join the fight. The dying clutched at him, speaking with their eyes. Some he stabbed, some not, as they required. Surely mercy from a man of clay was still mercy.
Those who attacked him he fended off with great blows. Few tried twice. Then came a strike from behind, so sleek it almost felt like a servant’s touch. He stumbled; the blade missed him the second time. With his spear he pierced the swordsman, who wore finer clothes than Tambere. By this and the mournful cry that went up, he realized that he had wounded a champion of the Crescent. He did not pause. Thus he only came to know as he neared the steps that his right arm was missing, and that he had taken up the spear with his left hand.
Chukash felt neither pain nor regret.
The defenders shied from him. He did not strike them. In any case, he had only to go halfway up the stairs to spot Minkhir’s armor, blazing like a pillar of fire. She led her army against those defenders who had sortied from the city in a brave gamble.
The sun passed and passed in the sky. Straight lines became tangled when one crossed a battlefield. When Chukash reached Minkhir, she nodded at him to keep out of the way. She bore her shield herself and scarcely needed it.
Chukash retreated down the hill, finding more of the fallen. This time most of them belonged to the Winged City. He left them for the physicians. A woman in the shadow of a tree attracted his interest. She clutched a lyre. When she looked up at Chukash her eyes held no fear.
“What do you do here, musician?” Chukash asked.
The woman opened her mouth. She had no tongue.
Chukash said, “Tell me how I can show you honor, musician.”
She tilted her head. The tree’s branches moved, and a voice came out of the tree: “How is it that a man of clay does what men of flesh do not?”
He saw that her lyre was broken. “Use my voice, then,” said Chukash, though it made him afraid. But he had given a toe and an arm already. A voice was little more.
He had not even thought about what Minkhir required of him.
He heard himself saying, with foreign inflections, “The siege will soon end. Watch with me.”
The walls of Engaz Ut peeled away one by one. Stone had fallen to catapults. Other layers dissolved in glinting black dust or warped mesh. Engaz Ut’s soldiers laid down their weapons and cried with one voice to their gods.
Black dust swirled in the serpent-horns’ wind. The gods did not answer the people of Engaz Ut, for Engaz Ut had trusted in the arts of a black sorcerer. This was their punishment.
The musician’s fingers moved as though she might pluck a dirge for the fallen city.
“Do you mourn them?” asked Chukash.
His voice said back to him, “Children of earth must mourn each other. The gods are rarely moved to do so.”
Birds converged on the city from every direction. Some of them perched upon the ruined walls. They had pale yellow eyes, like stars, looking into the city. Chukash gazed upon them, awestruck. In the Winged City, great birds drove the wheels that powered the mills. They did not act in unison outside of the city’s dictates.
The musician snapped the lyre cleanly, completing the fissure. The strings sprang out, scoring her arms. For a second, the strings resembled the wings of a falling bird.
Chukash, grieved, cradled the lyre’s broken frame, thinking of Whisperer’s bent hands. The strings became a vapor, faint and sweet, disappearing in wisps like smoke.
“Where is your family?” he asked the woman.
“Where is your family?” she echoed in his voice.
Chukash said, “I–” Whisperer had its own mysteries. His handprint belonged to Minkhir’s brother, but that man was dead; General Minkhir would not permit him to regard her so familiarly.
The musician’s mouth curved downward.
“I did not want to be a weapon,” Chukash told her, as though his wants determined anything.
She held three fingers up in front of his mouth: Be silent.
Chukash was silent.
The birds lifted their heads and sang one song in their many voices. It was the great hymn that echoed sometimes in the gray caverns, which even the priests dared not sing. It took Chukash several minutes to recognize it over the shouts of despair and the crackling of fire. The musician must have known it immediately.
The birds flew away, still singing. No archer dared loose an arrow upon them. Did they go to bear the Queen of Jewels news of the world below? The waiting grew unbearable, yet everyone waited. If a man of clay found the waiting difficult, it must be more difficult for the others. The musician showed no sign of it.
A wind rose, and with it, clouds. A shadow lengthened over the land. One of the clouds was no cloud. Upon three immense wings came the Winged City, churning the sky before it.
The ground darkened splash by splash. Chukash stared at the water caught upon his fingertip.
“It rains,” the musician said for him. “And in the Winged City, the devouring city, it floods.”
Some soldiers drank from their hands in a madness of thirst. Others sheltered beneath their shields as though the rain were hot oil. Chukash sang for the first time in his existence, the bird-song, the rain-song.
The emblems of bee and blossom, of reed and ibis, of fish-tailed lion or slashed sun, all these appeared among the broken army. Chukash was unprepared when an arm dragged him up: Minkhir, hair unbound and dripping, demanding that he face her. She bled from gashes to the arms and legs, and a broken-off haft protruded from her side where the armor had failed her.
“No,” said the general, always aware of his thoughts. “I fought a general of Engaz Ut, whose strike would otherwise have taken me through the heart.”
Chukash waited for the musician to speak to the general. She did not. So he said, “The White Road is broken, the Winged City drowning. What is rain below must be flood above.”
“It is so.”
“They have no more need of the three-and-three.”
“It is so.” Minkhir’s laugh was hard. “The little queen, I imagine, will have been the first to be swept away. I can only pray so.”
Chukash said, “What opened the gods’ eyes? I do not understand it, General.”
Minkhir opened her palms to him. She twisted the water out of her hair, although it continued to rain. She glanced at the musician. “What do you say of the gods?”
“She has no tongue,” Chukash said.
“So the gods speak through the world, and not out of the mouths of men.”
Minkhir’s breathing was labored. Chukash had not noticed this earlier. In all her past campaigns she had come back proud, uninjured; even the haft in her side seemed unreal.
“What is your name, musician?” asked Minkhir, ignoring the world drowning around them.
Chukash said for her, “My name is the name of the world.”
“You are voiceless, but you will be here to laugh while I die,” said Minkhir. “This spear is tipped with black poison. Did I tell you that? My enemy died of it first.” Laboriously, she knelt. “My soldiers are cowards. I cannot blame them. The gods desire cowardice of us when they speak.”
Chukash said, not knowing who spoke, “Do you remember the story, General? Where one god of the many refuses the feast of the gods, insisting that the people of earth be fed, and is fed to them himself?”
Minkhir closed her eyes. “It is so. And his sister spoke against them, but her they tore into three pieces. The first fled to the sky, taking her jewels with her. The second fled to the caverns, with their dismal echoes. And the third–” She smiled brilliantly at the Red Woman. “I am no fool. I make no apologies.”
The Red Woman rose. She was taller than Minkhir. She drew the spear from the general’s side. The general hissed. The Red Woman drew back.
“Well,” said Minkhir. Her mouth was stained red. “White and red, sky and earth, now only the gray remains to me. Goddess, if you will not hasten me there–“
“You have another,” she said through Chukash.
Minkhir did not smile. “Man of clay,” she said, “I gave you what you were due. Give me what comes for me, with the hand of someone I know, for I mistrust the Queen of Hymns.”
Chukash knew his way now. “I will not send you to her,” he said. She drew back from him. “I will send you upon the Red Road.” He laid a hand upon her head, completing the little queen’s poisoned blessing. The handprint inside Chukash unmade itself, leaving him hollow, like a drum.
“I always knew you would be my death,” Minkhir murmured.
He caught her as she fell.
Brother, the Red Woman said to him upon the strings of the wind, have you not fed them enough of yourself? Walk the Red Road, the earth road, with me and not these others.
“I am not your clay,” he said. “The water will not unmake me.”
His voice was his own, as it never had been.
Holding the general in his arms, Chukash sat down to wait for the earth to catch the Winged City.
Copyright 2010 Yoon Ha Lee