“’Ware!” called the girl at the top of the mast in a pure, high voice but stillness fell upon the child and Elkannar’s Laddy before she could raise her mallet to strike the alarum bell. If she had not been securely tethered she would have fallen to the deck and perished. In the vessel’s engine well the four laboring trotrots froze but their revolving wheels did not, all at once. Three of the oversized rodents were thrown free while the fourth’s left hindpaw lodged between treads, trapping the insensible creature. Its wheel made one final full revolution, then merely rocked for some minutes, slowing, slowing. The boy who watched the trotrots, tended them, fed them, whipped them when necessary, stilled and crumpled as well in the instant of stroking the ear of his favorite beast, penned on her rest cycle. Below the waterline the four great screws that drove Elkannar’s Laddy faltered to a halt as sympathetic impulses from the trotrots’ wheels failed. The ship slowed. Throughout the merchant vessel all the living went to a standstill, from the pesty bugs that made their kingdoms in the trotrots’ fur to the Holiest, archpresbyter of the Unnamed God, who had requisitioned the captain-navigator’s stateroom for the passage.
Atsarem and her son were taking breakfast on the foredeck when the warning came and the stillness fell. It was a fine morning, cool red sun guttering dully low above the horizon, stars pinking indigo sky overhead and to the west, and Atsarem was in a fine mood. For too long business had discouraged her from travel. Landlocked, she had forgotten how much she enjoyed the sea. Journeying overland from Chandias to Eshek-Hayin and south across the Gulf of Fetour to Errò spared her a month and half a month of her daughters’ quarrels. Her son—lifting her eyes, she glanced across the table. Vyl-atsarem wore black, as was seemly for a youth affianced. The cowl of his robe shadowed downcast features she imagined stoic if not petulant: she knew he was not as resigned to the match as she, although she trusted his obedience. Admiring the delicate tracery of ferns, flowers, vines bleached into the skin of his hands, she recalled with nearly a pang the handsome young fellow who lent the Holiest an arm for his afternoon stroll about the middeck—the handsome young fellow whose languorous glances inspired Vyl-atsarem to sigh and bite his lips.
Atsarem sighed herself when the gilded nails of her son’s restless fingers scored a bloodfruit’s warty rind and she smelled its sharp, sour fragrance. “She will treat you kindly,” she said, “and her consort as well,” but before her son could reply, if he chose to reply, the girl on the mast cried out and darkness filled their eyes.
All its crew and passengers struck down, Elkannar’s Laddy wallowed in low swell on the horizonless gulf. Some moments passed before the threat the watchgirl had spied descended from cool, cloudless sky. From great distance one might take it for a lone, inexplicable black thunderhead flashing with red lightnings—nearer, for a vast roiling murmuration of the tiny scavenger birds called bonepickers that flocked in strange clouds over the Okav Plains at the center of the continent.
Had any person aboard remained conscious to witness, she would have seen how nearly the creatures falling upon Elkannar’s Laddy’s spars and rails and decks resembled bonepickers indeed, in body and glossy green-black plumage pied with crimson on the wings. But their heads were not the heads of birds. Each animal bore the miniature face of a human baby, wide eyes and plump cheeks, nubbin nose, pursed lips that uttered a ceaseless babble of cheeps, whimpers, whistles. The merchant vessel wallowed deeper under their weight as they settled.
Like winged ants they hopped and scuttled all throughout the ship, into every hold, cabin, and cranny. At length, as explorers returned from belowdecks with their feathers fluffed out against the horror of enclosed spaces, a crowd of some hundreds took flight again, whirling together into the apparition of a man tall as the mast, sturdy and muscular, with long hair that whipped about his shoulders as if he rode a gale. Bending, he indicated with his left forefinger the black-clad youth slumped across the foredeck table from his slumbering mother. “That one,” the figure muttered with a multitude of tiny voices. “A worthy scion. We will take him.”
The man-shaped flock blew apart briefly, congealed once more in the form of an iridescent black gondola the length and width and depth of a slender corpse’s coffin, bobbing a tall man’s height above the foredeck. The high sternpost terminated in the form of a strangely twisted tree, the prow in the same uncanny man’s head. He looked backward over what would have been a shoulder had he possessed such, cooing encouragement as many hundreds of unaffiliated baby-faced birds swarmed insensible Vyl-atsarem, gripping their tiny claws into his clothing and hair.
They raised him ungently from his chair and laid him supine in the belly of the gondola, folding his decorated hands on his breast. Lifting away, they shaped themselves into a pair of vast wings at either flank of the gondola. The living figurehead turned forward again, nodded once, spoke a single word: “Away.”
The winged gondola rose in a spiral about Elkannar’s Laddy’s mast. High above the decks it seemed to pause a moment to orient itself, then angled its sail-like wings and flew off above the naked sea on a heading several degrees south of east.
The dying sun climbed past its zenith and descended two thirds toward setting before the first person woke aboard becalmed Elkannar’s Laddy. This was the Holiest ensconced in the captain-navigator’s cabin and bed, an ancient man whose body had grown proof against all spells of rejuvenation half a century before. He turned his fragile skull on the leviathan-ivory pillow, wiped a strand of drool from his chin with the back of a boney hand, and requested water in a reedy whisper.
None of the acolytes responded. Impatient, the old man levered himself up on uncertain elbows and opened his eyes. All about the stateroom his youthful acolytes lay in indecorous attitudes, unconscious. One young woman sweetly snored. Armed against assassins or pirates, the handsome fellow who was the Holiest’s favorite sprawled across the sill of a door swinging wide to the wallow of the waves. Falling, his barbed javelin had ripped down the white silk curtain meant to hide a bas relief carved into the bulkhead: sordid scenes from the earthly life of the demon Elkannar, unholy to the eyes of the Unnamed God’s devotees.
Confused before he became annoyed, the Holiest blinked away from the wretched images. “Arise, rascals, to the command of your lord,” he piped but they did not, not one of the seven.
Alarmed now, the Holiest sat up from the pillow and gingerly pulled his feet from under the coverlet, set them on the floor. “Awake, my darlings,” he bade. Still they did not stir. He attempted to swallow but his throat was dry. He groped along the side of the captain-navigator’s bunk for his hook-headed staff and brought himself nearly upright. Leaning on the crozier, steadier than his legs, he crossed the cabin to a brass pitcher suspended on gimbals above a brass basin. There was better water elsewhere, water meant for drinking in stoneware bottles, but he did not know quite where nor whether his hands had sufficient strength for the stoppers.
Though flat and warm, washing water tipped into the basin and scooped up in trembling hands soothed his throat. Turning from the bulkhead, he prodded the snoring girl with the staff’s foot. She belched and rolled half away but did not wake. The Holiest had been incapable of bellowing for many years—intemperate curses upon unfaithful followers and their immemorial ancestors emerged as quavery whispers. He stumped across the floor to the door, took no care not to kick aside his favorite’s fallen weapons nor to tread upon the darling boy himself, and stepped out onto the middeck.
He saw sailors asleep at their posts wherever he looked. “Fell magics,” he muttered and took another step. He could barely make out a chair toppled away from its table on the elevated foredeck, across which a person lay slumped, elaborate hairstyle spoiled by collision with a dish of jam. “The wool merchant of Chandias,” the Holiest muttered. He had long since lost the habit of not voicing his thoughts. “A heathen but steady. Her son?” He saw no son, only the fallen chair. “Captain-navigator?” the Holiest called—not a thought voiced but intentional command, too thin and weak to be heard at any distance.
Slowly turning, he regarded with disfavor and distrust the twin companionways rising to the sterncastle on either side of the door. Grumbling further curses, he tottered to the stair at his left, his holy hand, grasped the rail, commenced the arduous climb.
On the aftdeck he found the captain-navigator upright solely by virtue of arms caught by the great wheel’s spokes when she subsided into unconsciousness, swaying side to side as Elkannar’s Laddy answered to the limp swell of the gulf. Approaching sidelong, he said, “Ho there, madam,” with some force and prodded her shoulder with staff’s crook.
The captain-navigator collapsed away from the wheel, striking her head against the deck with a sharp noise.
“All the incarnate demons!” she yelled, waking, and sat up, raising her hands to nurse the bump on the back of her head.
“Your vessel, madam, is caught in some sorcery,” the Holiest informed her.
Blinking, shaking her head, the captain-navigator looked up. Recognizing the archpresbyter, she scrambled to her feet and attempted a bow that made her feel ill as the least seaworthy new sailor.
“Divine,” she said, “pardon my oaths. What did you say?”
“All your crew and all your passengers, as best I know, were struck down by occult slumber some while ago, I do not know how long. You and I alone have wakened.”
Closing her teeth against another imprecation sure to offend the Unnamed God’s vicegerent, the captain-navigator raised her eyes to the sky. The last she remembered the sun had risen but a few spans above the eastern horizon—now it faltered the same few spans above the western. “Hours,” she grunted, “most of the day,” and clenched her eyelids tight. A moment later she said in a low voice, “Sheztannit’s toll. May cacodemons gnaw on his stones.” She shook her head and staggered, dizzy. “Divine, forgive me,” she asked, “are all your acolytes yet aboard? I recall three very lovely young men.”
“There are seven,” the Holiest replied, disapproving. “Four men, three women, each equally precious in the Unnamed God’s eyes. All asleep in my cabin. You will explain—this Sheztannit and his toll?”
She ground her teeth again before blurting, “Forgive, forgive, I must rouse my crew, we are much delayed.” Lurching toward the companionways, she gestured at the divan under the taffrail. “Good wine and better water there, if you please, Divine. I shall return shortly once we’re underway again.” The captain-navigator clattered down to the middeck before the Holiest could protest.
She found her first mate asprawl at the top of the ladder to the engine well and slapped him smartly awake. “Sheztannit took his toll,” she told him. His scarred cheeks blenched when he understood—as a youth the man had been handsome until, on the advice of older sailors, he took a hot knife to his own flesh. “Go, go, take the wheel while I rouse the rest. The holy old man is there—he woke first, it seems. If he pesters you, you may tell him the facts.”
“Who?” the mate asked. He’d had his own eye on one of the new youths, a boy from the upcountry too pretty to be scarred before proving himself a sailor.
“None of the divine’s dainty slave-catamites, more’s the pity. I don’t know yet. Go.”
He scurried aft. The captain-navigator went about smacking her crew awake—all but the watchgirl in the crow’s-nest: she sent the mate’s spry favorite up the rigging on that errand. She was half-displeased to discover none of her sailors missing. Every passage she attempted to have aboard a blameless, blemishless innocent or two against the unpredictable toll. A difficult endeavor, as the hazard was well known in every port on the Fetour and most young men with an eye to the sea—few as handsome as they believed themselves—had the sense to follow the same advice as the first mate, if they didn’t travel overland to different ports, different waters. But there was nearly always a naïve son fled from the family farm in the inland valleys, a fresh-faced herdboy come down the mountain in search of nautical adventure, who had never heard the tale and did not take it in when captain-navigator or her agents slurred through that clause of a contract few could read.
She cursed again when she came upon the last, the noisome trotrot boy slobbering asleep across his charge’s shoulder, mouth full of its noisome fur. The Errò bank that insured Elkannar’s Laddy was invariably far unhappier negotiating claims for paying passengers than those presented by sailors’ families or slaves’ owners. Rousing the boy with a well placed kick, she curtly ordered him to get his beasts back in order and their wheels turning, then climbed the ladder again. She had no choice now but to go about waking the passengers, discovering which Sheztannit had appropriated.
“Toll?” the merchant of Chandias said. “My son? I do not understand what you are saying, madam.” The Holiest admired the steadiness of her tone, the stern calm of her expression, hardly betrayed by a tremor in the hand on the table. A distinguished woman, he thought, despite jam in her hair and bruise purpling her cheekbone. “Where is my son?”
The captain-navigator swallowed her throat clear. “The risk is clearly set out in the contract-of-passage you signed, Madam Merchant.”
“Are your underwriters aware you depend on a contract unlikely to be read to inform your passengers of this risk? Where is my son?”
“They are well aware, for a fact,” said the captain-navigator with a certain fragile dignity. “When I have suggested telling prospective passengers outright, they threaten to raise my premiums a ruinous amount. They have no clients among the landward caravans, you see.”
The merchant slapped the table hard. “Ruinous? I am ruined. I shall see you ruined, madam, and your underwriters ruined as well. My son is affianced to Errò’s despot.”
The office of despot of Errò loomed large in the annals of the Unnamed God’s followers. Despite himself the Holiest took in a hard breath, but the captain-navigator, her features twisted, said quite savagely, “Unless you have newer notice than I, Madam Merchant, I believe her excellence the despot’s consort yet lives and has given her healthy heirs. I do not doubt she will be distressed by the loss before enjoying him of a pretty concubine for whom she surely paid dear, but she knows well of Sheztannit’s toll. I expect if she believed the odds unacceptable she would have requested you escort your son to Errò by land.”
Half alarmed, half amused, the Holiest watched the merchant’s mouth drop open in outrage, her cheeks redden. Before she could utter her expostulation, he said gently, “Your indulgence, Captain-navigator. The lady and I—we are strangers in these lands, these seas. I fear we were not aware of this toll. Certainly we ought to have read our contracts-of-passage more carefully but, please, will you set the matter out for us? With your permission, Madam Merchant.”
She closed her mouth to a thin line, nodded, and reached for her wine.
Ungraceful, the captain-navigator rose and paced to the rail. For a moment she contemplated the western night sea’s choppy surface, fitfully illuminated by tumbling fragments of the moon adrift below distant stars.
“A league outside the mouth of the gulf,” she said at length, still regarding the waters, “lies the island called Neitv, alone in the open sea. It is the demesne of an ancient sorcerer of blackest power: Sheztannit. This is not his true name, of course. It means Lord of the Gulf in some long-dead language, I understand. He claims passage-right on all shipping within the Fetour. The benefice, he has said, dates to the shattering of the moon and shall stand until the sun goes cold. And so he exacts a toll. Not money or goods, which he claims to have no use for, nor of every vessel that braves these waters. No, he selects ships at whim, at intervals no bookmaker cares to predict, and the toll is a single living young man, handsome or lovely or however you wish to say it. Nobody knows what use he has for them. For him, Madam Merchant, your son, the despot of Errò’s fiancé.”
Without turning, the captain-navigator made a noise in her throat. “You will ask why…? and I tell you, it has been attempted over and again: ships on which young men of any beauty are secreted away in disguised, locked compartments—ships crewed solely by women carrying no male passengers—ships bearing no man under forty years or no man not visibly imperfect. You have seen the first mate’s scars. If Sheztannit selects one of those vessels, discovers the ploy, he destroys it and makes certain identifiable wreckage washes up at Errò or Eshek-Hayin so no mariner doubts his displeasure.”
She turned. “And so, madam and Divine, every captain sailing these waters does her damnedest to ensure she has aboard a pretty lad such as might tempt the sorcerer, or two or three, paid sailor or slave. If Sheztannit chooses to take a handsome young passenger instead—well, all we can do is carry a crippling load of insurance against claims like the one you will make, Madam Merchant. Although, I am grieved to tell you, the contract you signed expressly limits the claim you may make and it is a contract the despot of Errò her excellent self would not care to contest.”
The merchant of Chandias’s face had gone bloodless with fury or, the Holiest supposed, additional strong emotions: grief, anxiety. When she became certain the captain-navigator had ceased her say, she pushed back her chair and rose to her feet, glaring stony eyed. “My son,” the merchant said steadily, “has not yet earned his name.” She gave her glass a glance: a bubble of amethyst crystal still half full of syrupy fortified wine. Without another word she cast the glass onto the deck at the captain-navigator’s feet, a musical shattering and a splash of liquid the darkness of blood across scrubbed planks, then strode away toward the cabin she had shared with her son.
“Earned his name?” the captain-navigator inquired mildly.
“Peculiar custom of the gentry in Chandias and thereabouts,” said the Holiest. “Daughters, well, they receive proper names at birth as in any country but sons are designated by number until such time as they perform some notable action and choose a name of their own. She called him Vyl-atsarem, I believe I heard: Madam Atsarem’s second. No doubt joining the household of the despot of Errò would earn the boy a name.”
“Elkannar’s stones. Madam Atsarem may well ruin me on the boy’s account,” said the captain-navigator with bitter resignation, “but the bank that insures me she will scarcely trouble.”
A day late, Elkannar’s Laddy came to dock at the busy port around the harbor from the city proper of Errò and the citadel of its despot. Once the delay was explained, port functionaries regarded the merchant of Chandias with appalled pity. Accompanied by his acolytes standing in a clump on the middeck, the Holiest observed her tight-lipped outrage at that pity and wondered whether the officials knew of her lost son’s quondam relation to the despot. Out of pity, they cleared her to debark first although a hierophant of any faith, any nation, took precedence over any merchant.
Her feet on the cyclopean solid stone of the quay at last, Atsarem arranged for the warehousing of her cargo and hired baggage-wallahs to deliver her own and her son’s equipage to the hostelry in the garden outskirts of the town. For herself she hired a palanquin and bade its bearers carry her to the nearest reputable baths. She had not been able to clean herself properly shipboard. Pale, gentle-handed girls with cropped rusty hair bathed her, soaped and rinsed out the jam in her hair and combed it out neatly to dry while a soothing poultice was held to her bruised cheek. She spent some time floating at the edge of the warm pool under the low brick vault while all about Errovine matrons gamboled in the shallows and gossiped. She did not give ear to their gossip. At length she beckoned an attendant to fetch her a cup of cool water and lead her to her massage.
The milky-skinned slave masseur was bulky, long armed, his palms and fingers unconscionably strong and skilled. Prostrate under the eunuch’s thorough ministrations, Atsarem reviewed her situation. She was angry with herself for, having belatedly read through the contract-of-passage, she had no choice but to acknowledge its terms: acknowledge she had (unknowingly, stupidly) gambled against her son’s life and lost. The sum Elkannar’s Laddy’s underwriters would be obliged to pay out was substantial—sufficient and more to cover all costs of her journey and Vyl-atsarem’s trousseau—but the blow to her business and prestige could not be calculated. Unless out of guilt or sympathy, the despot was unlikely to confirm the trade treaty between Atsarem’s house and Errò. If the despot were meanly unreasonable she might demand return of the groom price. There was no totting up the costs of rearing and educating the boy.
Atsarem began to compose in her head a letter to her daughters, who were fond of their young brother. The eldest, indeed, had raised stiff protest against her mother’s intention of exiling Vyl-atsarem such a distance. Abruptly Atsarem recalled she too was fond of her second son. Quite without volition she began to weep.
“Has this unworthy person hurt you, madam?” the masseur inquired, alarmed, lifting knowing hands from her buttocks.
“My son,” Atsarem sobbed. “My son!”
“The toll of Sheztannit! I never knew!”
The masseur knew better than to offer a slave’s comfort to a wealthy freewoman. For a moment he regarded the telling contrast between his pallid fingers and the richer color of the woman’s skin before continuing to knead her flesh and muscle. As a youth he had crossed the Fetour himself. He had never been at hazard of being taken by the sorcerer: already cut, his unlovely complexion and shock of copper hair marking him as born of savages. But his special friend, the lad who comforted him after his unmanning, was the son of debt-slaves and possessed a rare, delicate beauty that would recommend him to any cultured household. Nor had he been emasculated. Halfway to Errò all the living aboard were struck down by enchantment. When the eunuch boy woke he discovered the padded shackles chained to his own empty, discarded on the slavehold’s filthy floor. Although he understood the unlikeliness of their joining the same household after being auctioned at the slave market in Errò, he found scant comfort in imagining the dread sorcerer might treat his friend gentlier than whichever Errovine termagant or tyrant would have purchased him.
Massage completed, Atsarem paid the baths’ fees and ordered the palanquin bearers carry her through the teeming heart of Errò and past the ruins of its antique walls to the hostelry. She called for paper and ink. Sitting in a window that overlooked a charming cloister, rigidly calm, she composed her claim against Elkannar’s Laddy’s underwriting bank and had the thing dispatched. She ought, she knew, send compliments and condolences to the despot’s citadel but could not bring herself to do it. Acknowledgment of her own grief was too new. She considered having a meal brought up to her rooms—rejected the notion as weakness and went down to the hostelry’s dining hall.
Knowing the establishment occupied what had been a convent of the Unnamed God until an iconoclastic despot had had it closed half a millennium ago, the Holiest had installed himself at the same hostelry. “Had it closed,” he mused: “a tidy euphemism.”
Accustomed to his master’s penchant for thinking aloud, the favored acolyte across the table merely dredged a triangle of cold toast through the pâté of bonepicker hearts and tongues preserved in fat, imported a vast distance at vast expense. He offered the precious morsel to the Holiest, who leaned forward with his mouth agape like a baby bird’s until it plopped on his tongue.
In fact, fragmentary annals reported, that long-ago despot had slaughtered nearly all the convent’s nuns, expropriated its treasure, and sold the buildings to one of her magnates. Chewing, the Holiest scuffed his sandals against the floor, reflecting the tiles must have been replaced multiple times since. The current flooring would not be grouted with the blood of martyred nuns. Nevertheless, worship of the Unnamed God was not quite fashionable in Errò, ancient heart of His dominions on earth—hence the Holiest’s missionary embassy.
Tilting his head to be fed another morsel, the Holiest lifted his eyes to the hall’s vaulted ceiling. At first he believed it simply dirty, smeared with greasy soot from centuries of pitch-headed torches and tallow candles—and no wonder, for cleaning it would require erecting scaffolds and putting the place out of commission for a goodly time. But then he began to make out within the stains and mottles forms not entirely obscured, and realized the vault displayed a polychrome map of the Gulf of Fetour: he traced the three-quarter crescent of its shore—Errò on its south point, Eshek-Hayin on the north. West and north of Eshek-Hayin, he worked out the position of Ba, present seat of the Unnamed God’s archpresbytery whence the Holiest had journeyed, though the town appeared not to be marked. Farther north, on the verge of the Great Downs, a smudged and unfamiliar ideograph might indicate the wool town of Chandias. Returning to the pale, greyed, dirty blues of the gulf, he found the archipelago of volcanic islands near its center and then, easterly, in open sea beyond the twin horns, representation of a small island outlined in gold still gleaming through its coating of greasy dust.
He savored and swallowed the mélange of toast crumbs and pâté on his tongue. “I begin to recollect,” he said, “something of the Isle of Neitv.” Lowering his gaze to the stature of ordinary women and men dining and conversing at the many tables, the Holiest saw with a sense of serene inevitability the merchant of Chandias being ushered into the hall.
“Darling boy.” The Holiest’s voice was no stronger than when he mused aloud but the acolyte became alert, a questioning smile on his lips. “You will run an errand for me. First, please, the merchant of Chandias who shared our voyage from Eshek-Hayin, Madam Atsarem—she has just come in.” The acolyte was too well trained to look. “You will invite her to join me for supper. Second….” The Holiest spoke a phrase of a language known only from ancient manuscripts in the pontifical library at Ba. Conditioned since childhood to the peculiar syllables, the acolyte became solemn, his will and memory no longer his own. “You will seek out a person who keeps shop in the street of the incense sellers.” The Holiest closed his eyes, dredging from the sediment of his mind signs by which shop and person would be known and the words to oblige that person to attend him instanter. “That is all,” the Holiest concluded. “Go.”
Without a word and oblivious of the charge never to leave his master unaccompanied, the acolyte rose to his feet and turned away.
“What will you do?”
The Holiest was such a master of sympathy, condolence, gentle conversation that Atsarem scarcely recalled their meal or anything said over it. Now they had retired to a quiet courtyard with cups of bitter tea and small sapphire-crystal glasses of a rare cordial that breathed mingled fragrances of northern heaths, southern blossoms, and incenses that might be favored by any god. Large moths with glowing eyes fluttered around the lamps and among night-blooming flowers on wings that appeared powdered with dusts of carnelian, lapis lazuli, precious metals. Above the surrounding rooftops danced glinting shards of the moon, and beyond them, incalculably deeper in the night sky, burned uncountable stars.
“Do? I have a cargo of raw and scoured fleeces, dyed and undyed yarns, fabrics of varying weaves and weights to dispose of. The despot must be informed of my son’s fate, the contracts between us renegotiated. I expect I shall be quarrelling a good while with the captain-navigator’s bank.” Atsarem lifted her tea with a sigh but did not drink. “I do not know what I shall do, Divine.”
“Would you…retrieve your son? Rescue him?”
“Divine?” Atsarem leaned forward. No ground fertile enough to nourish hope persisted in her. “I cannot know whether Vyl-atsarem is not happier in the household of this Sheztannit than he might be in the zenana of Errò’s despot—he was not best pleased by the prospect. Perhaps I ought finally acknowledge his wishes over my own schemes.” Grimacing, she looked away. “In any case, how shall an ageing wool merchant and sad mother from so prosaic a town as Chandias challenge a sorcerer? I should be helpless against the least ept hedgewitch.”
Lamplight made the Holiest’s smile frightening, thin lipped, yellow toothed, crinkling his face into colliding nets of wrinkles deep and shallow. “I will speak, Madam Atsarem, of matters so distant from Chandias and your son and this present day of ours you will believe me wandering in mind like any old codger. Indulge me, if you please. I have a purpose.”
He paused, smiled again, lifted his cordial with knotted fingers to inhale the vapors. “I serve the Unnamed God, as you know, in His bastion at Ba. We are a small church, if not so small as generally understood, and an exiled church. Dear Ba on its high scarp with the fertile bottomlands all about is not our home. Once, long ago, we were established here: Errò was our seat and her despots our servants. She was not a great town at first, still less hegemon of a great territory. Indeed, she was not yet a seaport. I speak of an age when the sun burned hotter, before the moon broke into fragments. As legend tells, a shard of the moon fell to earth in that celestial cataclysm, wreaking a terrestrial cataclysm of its own. Our scriptures claim the god cast His own cloak over Errò in the moment of impact, preserving His town and its denizens when the Gulf of Fetour was carved out of solid earth and stone. That is metaphor, doubtless. Scripture also claims the god’s anguish at not saving the millions outside Errò who died led Him to repudiate His own Name.
“Whatever the case, in following centuries Errò prospered. From her new harbor on the new gulf her trade fleets set out to discover goods and peoples heretofore unknown. Her armadas need only appear in the ken of a port’s watch for that port to acknowledge Errò’s suzerainty. On land her legions were never defeated. In all her deeds she celebrated the glory and merciful lovingkindness of the Unnamed God. His worship became widespread throughout the southlands and His church became ever more powerful and wealthy.”
The Holiest paused again and Atsarem, feeling stuporous, looked up from the translucent porcelain shell stained purple by her tea. A young man had appeared while her attention wandered—she recognized him as the person who had extended the invitation to join the Holiest for supper, but not his companion.
“Darling boy,” murmured the Holiest. The youth’s wide eyes and vacant expression did not change until the Divine spoke a further word in an unfamiliar tongue, whereupon he shuddered, blinked, and his lips formed a tranquil smile, and Atsarem abruptly knew him for the handsome youth her own son’s eyes had followed about the deck of Elkannar’s Laddy. Dizziness overwhelmed her for an instant. In her hand the cup trembled and ripples moved through the richly colored tea. The Holiest’s acolyte was, it seemed to her, far more lovely in face and form than her son. Little wonder Vyl-atsarem had been enthralled.
When she raised her eyes again the Holiest had turned to the youth’s companion. “I see you know me. Do you acknowledge me?”
“I do, Holiest, vicegerent on earth of the God Who Has Abjured His Name.” The tall man of middle years and crabbed aspect inclined his head. His garb was the drab fustian of a small tradesperson, stained and singed about the cuffs of the sleeves, but his hauteur that of a dispossessed noble.
“Excellent.” With a languid gesture of his left hand the Holiest invited youth and man to sit. “I have been speaking to Madam Atsarem of the era of the Unnamed God’s benison in Errò, when the town was mightier even than now and her despots bowed before His majesty. I know these histories are among your studies, sir. A thought has come to me. Can it be the island Neitv of which I have recently learned is the place named in chronicles preserved at Ba as Niyatef?”
“I am nearly certain of it, Holiest,” the stranger agreed.
“Just so.” The Holiest’s smile became grave, chill. “Madam, there came a terrible time when a certain despot of Errò renounced the grace of the Unnamed God, proscribed His worship, persecuted His priesthood and followers. The chronicles at Ba are fragmented, confused, but we know, for example, that this gracious hostelry housed then an order of contemplative nuns, no threat to any temporal power, whom that despot butchered without mercy. The place called Niyatef is often mentioned, and the master of the place named a counsellor of the bloody despot. I have formed a suspicion. Sir?”
The stranger spread his open hands wide above the table. “I share your suspicion, Holiest, but my researches cannot confirm it. The island is opaque to me. I believe its substance is unearthly—that is, a fragment of the fragment of the moon which excavated the Fetour. It is certain a person residing at Neitv—or Niyatef, if you will—has imposed the toll we know on ship traffic in the gulf nearly since its formation. It is equally certain Errò’s despots have never in a millennium moved against the island or its master. Other polities as well have been content not to challenge him. When the Unnamed God’s representatives were still established here, they likewise never acted.” He glanced aside, tightened his lips before continuing. “Whether it has been the same Sheztannit all along I cannot say. A lifetime of such protracted duration is not unprecedented for a great sorcerer or—” The man bit off whatever he had nearly said. “A thing you may not know, Holiest?”
The archpresbyter graciously inclined his head.
“Since all your knowledge of Errò comes from books,” the stranger said smugly. “Persistent local legend insists an ancient despot lost a beloved youth to Sheztannit’s Toll—whether consort, concubine, or son varies with the teller—and yet somehow redeemed him. Again, the price she paid depends on the teller, each as unlikely as the last, and there is no determining which historical despot it was. Still, the tale is…suggestive.”
The words concubine and son following Sheztannit’s Toll had stirred Atsarem from her daze of incomprehension. “Who are you?” she demanded. “What are you?”
Turning haughty, half-lidded eyes on her, the man said, “My trade is the formulation and sale of incense. The gods honored in Errò are said to be passing fond of incense. The families of sailors lost at sea are wont to burn it in their memory.”
“He is a faithful son of the church,” murmured the Holiest, “a dogged scholar, and, you might say, my agent in the Unnamed God’s bygone capital.”
Atsarem clapped her hands smartly together. “But what are you saying to me, Divine and…incense trader? This talk of history and legend and cataclysm and dispossessed gods. I am a commonplace merchant in wool who will never see Errò again once I depart. What does any of this mean to me?”
“You are a bereaved mother,” said the Holiest gently. “I head a bereaved church. It seems to me our wants may be harnessed together.”
“I see. The doddering old codger who walks with a stick will adventure with me to the dread island to challenge a thousand-year-old sorcerer. Perhaps the incense-maker will lend us aid.”
“Just so,” the Holiest agreed, delighted.
“Shall we, as well as rescuing my recalcitrant son and refounding your church, also reform the shattered moon and rejuvenate the sun?” Rising to her feet, the merchant of Chandias brushed away a venturesome moth. “I bid you goodnight, sirs. I have a great many tasks to initiate come morning.” As she took a step back from the table, her eyes fixed for a moment on the Holiest’s smiling acolyte. Despair, bitterness, and recollection of Vyl-atsarem’s yearning eyes fixed on the handsome youth spoke in her mind: The sorcerer might have taken that one instead of my son. But perhaps, she reflected sourly as she left the courtyard, he was simple. She had not heard him speak and his expression was perpetually placid.
The wool merchant of Chandias woke gasping to fluttering lamplight and a firm hand pressed over her mouth. “Peace and calm and quiet, madam,” advised a voice that was strong, deep, young, but which convinced her in the instant it was the Holiest’s. The lamp in another hand moved, illuminating a face above her in all its physical features the beautiful acolyte’s, but animated by a different intelligence, a wiser and more stubborn spirit.
“I will speak a word in your ear,” said a different voice from her other side, the incense seller’s voice. The whispered syllables were not to be comprehended. They followed one after the next without cease. Reverberations echoed endlessly in the boney structure of her skull and sighing echoes breathed from her sinuses down her throat, into her lungs and heart and digestive organs, filtering out into her blood, suffusing her entire substance with a weight and mass that could not be borne. She grew heavier than the world, than the sun. She burned hotter than the sun in its most distant youth. She became something other than Atsarem, wool merchant of Chandias, twice widowed, mother of five stubborn daughters and two sons—one dead, one stolen. She became purpose. She became intention and will. She became dread and awe and all.
She did not precisely come to herself, Atsarem, for it seemed there persisted next to no space for self within the tolling membrane of her skin. The sun stood high, stars pinked the dusky circle of the horizons. All around shivered a waste of waters. “Madam,” said the red-faced acolyte and rested his oars. Although she knew his features, their beauty transfigured but not lessened by exertion, she knew as surely the mind regarding her through languishing dark eyes was not the young acolyte’s.
Divine, she would have said but could not distinguish that small word within the ringing syllables of the great word.
His smile complacent, the semblance of the acolyte brushed sweat from his brow and eyes. He lifted a dampened finger to the air, sighed. “We had a wind the first several hours, else we would still glimpse Errò behind us.” He glanced down with admiration at his own strong arms and uncovered torso. “But my lovesome boy possesses reserves of endurance he scarcely suspects, and we do not wish to come within sight of Sheztannit’s isle before nightfall. As you intimated, a doddering old codger who walks with a stick could not but prove a grave liability on this adventure. Do you hunger, madam? Thirst?”
Plucking a stoneware bottle from a rank of them propped between two ribs of the small boat’s hull, he twisted out its stopper and smiled again, and frowned. “It’s an intriguing novelty, this flesh,” he said, “but I feel I will not regret surrendering it again to a spirit better accustomed to its vigor and drive and appetite.” Kneeling forward, he held the bottle to her lips. “Drink, madam.”
When he was satisfied she had taken all she would, he swigged off the bottle’s remaining contents in two swallows, glanced over his shoulder, and took up the oars again. A rhythm was quickly established. Between strokes he continued speaking, as if he liked the sound of the acolyte’s voice as much as he had the old man’s.
“We neglected to inform you, I fear, that our friend the incense seller, in addition to being a very great scholar, is also a supremely able sorcerer. Trading one mind for the other was child’s play to him. He feels insufficiently able, however, to challenge the one who calls himself Sheztannit—though I feel that is simple human cowardice. Still, he would not be persuaded or cowed.”
He rowed and rowed, and talked and talked, and rested his oars at intervals, and once he said, “It would be vilest blasphemy, you understand, for the archpresbyter of the Unnamed God to contain the Name his God renounced. I have been fearful of it since I was informed of our friend’s discovery.”
And so Atsarem learned what it was possessed her as the Holiest possessed the body of his acolyte, and wondered if the least thinking fragment of its owner persisted in the laboring sinew and muscle before her, or the gaze not now languishing, as she did within the vast roaring and chiming of that Name.
The westering sun blazed into her eyes. She closed them. She dozed and drifted, rolling on the endless swells of the unceasing Name. If the Holiest spoke further she did not comprehend it.
Then it was night. Overhead the moon’s fragments hurtled slowly through the blackness between sea and stars, each continent-sized boulder glimmering within a pallid aura. Somewhere ahead a similar nimbus seemed to breach the surface of the waters.
Perhaps the Holiest recognized the inquiry in her gaze past the laboring acolyte’s sturdy shoulders. He rested the oars and twisted toward the prow. After a long moment he said, the acolyte’s voice thin after exertion, “Yes. I believe the incense seller’s supposition as to Niyatef’s origin must be correct. And yes, we have nearly arrived.”
The gleam persisted, expanded, without growing brighter. After a time unmeasured by the clopping of the oars, Atsarem began to distinguish the lineaments of the isle. It was not large, not high—it appeared all to be a single building of many wings and pavilions, a radiant pleasure palace afloat on trackless sea. Sinuous colonnades lined its shores above shallow stairs lapped by the ocean’s waves.
The boat’s prow came jarring to a stop against a step barely washed. Relishing the ache in unaccustomed shoulders and arms, the cramps in his fingers, the Holiest shipped the oars. He found no post or bollard to tie the boat up. Resigned, he heaved the anchor over the side, although doubting any irregularity below for its tines to catch. In any case, for all his bravado the Holiest felt little confidence the pair of adventurers would return to the mainland in the same manner they arrived.
He extended his left hand to the woman propped against the mast. As if she had somewhat mastered the Name that filled her—or as if the Name Itself possessed volition—she rose without assistance, clumsy but sure. Hitching up her skirts, she stepped over the side. Her slippers made little splashes in shallow water on the step. Having gathered up and girded on his acolyte’s weapons, the Holiest joined her on the lunar island’s shore. The lapping water was strangely chill.
Side by side they climbed the stairs and passed between two colossal columns. The stone of the columns, of the paving under their feet and the coffered vault above emitted a cool radiance sufficient to see their way but disorienting. Fifteen paces of his unfamiliar long, capable legs—more for the silent woman—took them across the width of the colonnade. They stood a moment between the opposing pair of columns, above another broad, shallow stair.
The Holiest inhaled a fragrance like costly incenses extinguished in freshly spilled blood. Below them lay a broad, dark expanse of gardens and cultivated parkland they must cross to reach the serried ranks of gleaming walls that made up the sorcerer’s palace. The Holiest saw meandering paths of dimly radiant paving, dark groves and copses and single trees, beds of shrubs and lower plants. “Within, I imagine,” he muttered, “some flamboyant audience chamber or magical laboratory, is where we’ll find him.” And yet he did not move, could not bring himself to move. The acolyte’s blood had grown sluggish in his limbs, the body apprehending fears the interloping mind wished to disregard.
Silent, grave, the woman descended the steps. The Holiest watched until she stepped from luminous stone to black turf, then followed in a rush. She walked forward, he a pace or two behind although he was armed and fully conscious, she not. The grass seemed unpleasantly springy underfoot.
With no breeze stirring, the black velvet leaves of a hedge of low bushes rustled at their approach. Obeying reflexes not his own, the Holiest quickened his pace to walk before her. His fingers strayed to the comforting hilts of twin daggers sheathed at either hip as he glanced about the confusing shadows, but the sudden irruption was not a thing to be battled with blades. All the foliage of twigs and branches rose in a mass like so many thousand humming insects. They feinted toward the woman but recoiled from her gravity and swarmed instead about the Holiest. The daggers had come up and out without conscious bidding and he slashed once, tearing a momentary rent in the roiling black cloud, but then one of the hexes impressed on him by the incense maker burst unbidden from his lips.
Black leaves fell as in an autumn windstorm. The Name-filled woman regarded the Holiest tranquilly. He returned the daggers to their sheaths and glared suspiciously at the denuded, twiggy hedge, slid his foot through what was no more than a drift of dead leaves.
Walking on, they approached a single tree alone on a stretch of black lawn. It appeared tall until they were nearly upon it, when it became clear the strangely pollarded trunk rose little higher than the acolyte’s head. Two stout branches reached upward as if from twisted shoulders and a myriad whippy, leafless shoots sprouted from what might be upraised fists. “I do not like this tree,” the Holiest said. “Its form is strangely…suggestive.”
Suggestion became statement when they came upon a stand of five similar trees. The resemblance of sinuous boles to the agonized bodies of human men could not be natural. The Holiest knew too little of horticulture to understand whether trees could be trained into these shapes. He glanced to the woman. Her expression remained calm but he felt he discerned anguish in the depths of her eyes. “I do not know, madam,” he said. “My knowledge of sorcery is as slight as my acquaintance with horticulture. Perhaps they are a strange form of the gardener’s art practiced over centuries on living trees….”
She strode past him. It seemed they walked for hours through the sorcerer’s parklands, from copse to grove to woods. All the trees resembled men, transfixed in a moment of anguish or passion yet still living. The Holiest kept his hands on the daggers, kept aware of the reassuring weight and rattle of barbed javelins in their quiver across his back. Uneasy, he realized he could not recall how many hexes the incense maker had equipped him with, tapping them into the base of the acolyte’s skull on the points of tiny vermeil tacks. He endeavored not to permit the woman to stray too far, although she did not answer to him so it was a matter of keeping himself close to her. He could not predict which tortured, manlike tree would attract her wordless sympathy so she stopped to caress its bark with her fingertips, press her cheek to the pollarded knot that might once have been a head.
At last their devious route brought them to the palace itself and an arch of luminous stone sufficiently wide a phalanx of infantry might march through without disturbance to the formation. The woman went ahead, climbing broad, shallow stairs, but at the portal she looked back. As if, the Holiest thought, she wished to descend again and visit every tree on the island until she discovered the one that had been her son. “Madam,” he said as he ascended to her side, “he must be within, Sheztannit, the sorcerer who took your son,” and she turned her eyes sidelong at him before walking under the arch.
The hall was little wider than the arch but very high. It curved gradually so an end could not be seen. No doors were apparent in the glowing stone walls. Black-iron staples supported vines with dagger-shaped leaves mottled crimson and a faded, unhealthy green. Blossoms like roses nestled among the leaves, petals the color of newly butchered meat, but instead of the pale generative structures of flowers at their centers were eyes, vivid topaz with wide pupils. As one such swiveled toward the interlopers at the portal, the Holiest uttered a hex. Every rose-eye dulled, petals blackened, and a stench nearly visible of rotted meat billowed forth.
The Holiest coughed. He had felt the tack bearing the hex go dull and fall tinkling down his neck, followed by a slow trickle of blood. “Another used up,” he muttered, then saw the woman had gone ahead, heedless. Before he caught up to her he had pronounced a third hex, felt another pang at the base of his skull, and watched the flowers of a new species of vine wither, blossoms like brazen trumpets that emitted breathy groans as their throats closed.
They continued walking, he a pace behind her. No further unnatural vines cumbered the hall’s gleaming walls. Its deceptive curve deepened, hiding whatever lay ahead and, by now, what lay behind. After some while the Holiest began to feel the walls were diverging, the curve of the wall to his left imperceptibly tightening while that on his right loosened, but the change was too gradual to be fixed. A hex pricked at his nape but did not erupt from his mouth and the pricking either subsided or went on for so many steps he forgot it. The woman’s pace never faltered.
For all the vaunted endurance of the acolyte’s youthful muscles, the Holiest was nearly weary when the tacks piercing his skull commenced humming, unuttered hexes burbled in his chest, and the long spiral reached its terminus. He touched the woman’s shoulder, halting her. Eyes wide and sorrowful, she glanced back but did not protest. “Allow me to precede you, madam,” he said, forcing intelligible words past the magical uproar troubling his throat.
Beneath their feet the paving remained lunar stone, white and gleaming, wide slabs carefully laid, but the floor before them was different: a mosaic of myriads of silvered glass shards, thumbnail size, which appeared sharp enough to shred the soles of the stoutest boots. They glittered like the sunstruck surface of the sea, dazzling the eye against full comprehension of the space encircled by walls of glowing stone. Stepping around the woman, the Holiest swallowed against nausea, headache, dread, the rumbling unease of hexes uncertain of their targets.
He swallowed again, took two steps away from secure footing. The rope soles of the acolyte’s sandals were not torn. He reached back for the woman’s hand and they proceeded, slowly becoming accustomed to the dazzle. Seeming too large to be contained by the spiral hall, the space began to take shape, and the woman made a small sound.
Before them at the center of the vast glassy circle seemed to stand a slight figure. Atsarem blinked, blinked again, wiped burning salt from her eyes. Within her flesh, within her mind, the all-encompassing Name seemed to draw in upon itself like a sea creature retreating within the impregnable fastness of its coiled shell and she began to become herself. “My son?” she murmured, and wondered distantly if they were the first words she had spoken since the incense seller whispered in her ear. She tugged against the Holiest’s cautious grip on her hand. Dazzling light baffled her eyes, the figure faced away from her, since his infancy she had seldom seen Vyl-atsarem unclothed: doubt strove to stifle certainty.
The figure seemed to stand at a little height above the flashing floor as if upon a pedestal. His legs and spine were buckled into sinuous curves reminiscent of a wind-trained tree that appeared unnatural to the strictures of human bones. The left arm formed a yearning arc above a head thrown back, wavy locks of black and rust tumbled between straining shoulders, and the right must be warped around his chest. Atsarem pulled more urgently against the Holiest’s restraint.
It was not a pedestal nor did the youth stand upon it: rather a kind of tub or basin forged of corroded metals. The rolled rim hid his feet below slender ankles. Atsarem’s vision had come clearer: she saw now the slender woven osiers and coils of heavy, dully gleaming copper wire that enforced the captive’s aberrant posture. “My son?” she asked again, slipping free of the Holiest’s hand.
She no longer doubted but nevertheless felt anguish shudder through her to recognize the nuptial designs on the back of the hand splayed over her son’s heart. Wrist and forearm were wired in place but when she whispered, “Vyl-atsarem,” the youth’s fingers trembled and she believed she saw a tremor of breath disturb his chest. Leafy sprigs had been grafted between the fingers, echoing the foliar patterns bleached into his skin. Looking up past the coiled wire forcing his chin into the air, she saw the downcast crescents of his eyes regarding her, saw the tears forming at their corners and trickling down his cheeks. He could not speak for his mouth was stuffed with vivid green foliage. Abashed and ashamed, she turned her own eyes downward.
In the basin, her son’s feet were planted in loamy soil. She saw numerous long incisions in his lower legs, A series of rooted, leafless shoots surrounded him, pallid with mottles of green and pink. The tip of each shoot was inserted precisely into its corresponding blood-crusted incision.
Even as Atsarem felt the Name flex its might within her as if reacting to her horror, the Holiest in his acolyte’s body went to his knees by the basin, hissing with revulsion, keen-edged dagger ready in his right hand. “Abomination,” she thought to hear him say. Neatly, he carved through one shoot, then with his holy left hand tugged its tip free of Vyl-atsarem’s flesh, dragging finger-long, thread-thin bloody rootlets with it. Vyl-atsarem’s body shuddered violently. The Holiest attacked another.
Abruptly Atsarem found herself tearing leafy sprouts from her son’s mouth. Perhaps they had been transplanted only recently for they were barely rooted in his tongue and there was little blood. When she pulled out the last sprig, Vyl-atsarem moaned, coughed out a thin drool of soil and blood, murmured, “Mother?” and coughed again. The knot of cartilage in his throat scraped against the heavy wire that held his head high. Reaching overhead again, Atsarem laid both palms against his cool cheeks. “My poor son,” she replied. A tremor shuddered through him as the Holiest withdrew a root from his leg, then severed yet another and began delicately to tug it out. It seemed the scaffolding of osiers and copper wire alone held the youth upright.
Strangely grieving and hopeful at once, Atsarem pressed her cheek to her son’s chest. Wired into place, his forearm dug into her neck. She listened for his heartbeat over the rumbling of the Name within her, and heard it, ragged but not weak. But as well she heard another noise which was not confined within her flesh or her son’s, like an echo of distant thunder, a cheeping murmur as of ten thousand baby birds. It grew louder by the moment.
Frightened, she stepped back from Vyl-atsarem and looked up. The space was not roofed: above she saw black night sky strewn with stars and three of the moon’s tumbling fragments. Turning about, she scanned all the sky she could see above the nimbus of glassy floor and radiant walls. A billowing dark cloud began to eclipse the stars at one quadrant.
All his remaining hexes pricking at once alerted the Holiest to nearing threat. He sliced through the last six shoots without pausing to draw the grafted remnants from the youth’s flesh. Climbing to his feet, he returned the dagger to its sheath and used his acolyte’s brute strength to uproot the boy from the basin of soil. The merchant’s son uttered a thin whine and a wretched spasm wracked his body as the feet came free and the Holiest saw the multitude of hair-thin rootlets sprouting from his soles.
Wincing himself, the Holiest understood the boy would not be capable of standing upright despite the lashed osiers and coiled wire trussing him rigid. As gently as he might, he laid the youth supine on the glassy floor, and then at last looked up. Unthinking, he reached over his shoulder for a pair of javelins, held one ready in each hand.
The Holiest had not visited Okav, several difficult months’ distance from Ba, but he had heard travelers’ tales. He had heard about the vast noisy clouds of bonepickers that swarmed the skies there, watching out for a fallen mammont or megatherion which they would strip to bones in moments, and knew the scavenger birds had been endemic to the eastern littoral as well before the moon broke up and the Gulf of Fetour was born in cataclysm. They were known to be not invariably discriminating in the matter of whether their fodder was already deceased.
He positioned himself above the recumbent youth, a foot either side of his trunk, and called to the woman. Gazing awed at the massive, writhing finger made up of a multitude of tiny birds plunging toward them, she did not respond or stir. Before the Holiest could call again a barrage of brutal hexes detonated from his lips. Pang after agonizing pang as tacks broke free of his skull blinded him for a instant.
The first several hundred baby-headed bonepickers that plunged upon the Holiest and the youth he meant to protect speared themselves upon the thorns of a cage of sorcerous bone-white vines or were consumed by its flaming blossoms. Tremors wracked the Holiest’s alien flesh with each minuscule death.
The cannonade of living missiles ceased but the creatures did not entirely withdraw. Swarming, they formed a great dome of cheeping, feathered flesh around and above the persons of the three interlopers. The Holiest saw without comprehending how they recoiled from the youth’s isolated mother: she did not require the protection of his hexes.
From a multitude of tiny mouths a single tremendous voice spoke, shivering the Holiest’s bones. “I know you, Archpresbyter, in your purloined flesh. Do you not know me?”
“I am not dishonored by acquaintance with the lord of the gulf.”
“No?” came the resounding reply. “Brave words, Archpresbyter. Brave lies.”
The dome exploded into uncountable trilling splinters, tossed about in a grand whirlwind before coagulating into a single figure: a mammoth person taller than ten men standing on each other’s shoulders, perfectly proportioned, achingly beautiful. Monstrous fingers of the left hand formed a sign the Holiest might not deny. The cage of vines and thorns and burning blossoms collapsed into eddies of chalky dust stirred by divine breath. “Do you know me, Archpresbyter?” the god asked.
Bowing his head in the face of the Unnamed God’s majesty, the Holiest murmured, “At last I do.” He fixed his eyes on the slender legs below him, trussed with osiers and copper wire, marred above the ankles by cuts weeping blood and sap—on the six severed grafts yet anchored in flesh and the rootlets withering from the boy’s feet.
“Do you acknowledge me?”
The Holiest inhaled until his chest ached, then lifted his eyes before resolve could flee—not to the dread face of his god. To the woman the god could not admit he said plainly, “I feel you must speak now, madam.”
Her eyes widened, brimming with more sorrow than the Holiest’s heart. Resigned, he nodded. “It would seem the incense seller failed to reveal all he knew or to explain his entire purpose.”
“Do you acknowledge me?” thundered the god.
Defiant, grieving, the Holiest gazed into the awful eyes. “Better,” he said, “to ask my companion.”
Atsarem parted her lips to the raging Name. With the first tender syllable she felt tiny blood vessels begin to burst all throughout her. It would be better, she almost thought as syllable after unspeakable syllable resounded, to speak my precious son’s name before I die, but I do not know it. She watched the Holiest die in redemptive agony behind his acolyte’s eyes, saw the youthful acolyte return to himself with a start and at once throw himself headlong over her trussed son as if his mortal flesh could protect the boy from a god. Tremendous weariness, unutterable sadness burgeoned within her to fill the volumes vacated by the Name—she knew she was dying instant by instant, killing herself—knew she possessed sufficient vigor to pronounce the entire Name but no more.
The young acolyte—his uncles had named him Joäth, although he had nearly forgotten during his service to the Unnamed God’s archpresbytery—had spent the greater part of his sojourn in the Holiest’s weary flesh asleep, rousing now and then, uncomprehending, to the incense seller’s murmured heresies and apostasies. Yet in his slumbers he had dreamed: dreamed of the uses and actions the Holiest put his, Joäth’s, body to.
Returned to himself, he was nearly felled at once by intense pain at the base of his skull where the points of unused hexes scraped bone. Ample recollection of the situation left behind by the archpresbyter caused him to pivot with unconscious grace and drop to elbows and knees over the trussed youth. Vyl-atsarem, he was thinking, he’s called, but that is not his name. He is more nameless than the god now. He gazed upon the lovely face below him of Madame Atsarem’s second son—into terrified, bewildered eyes as deep as starless sky, polished like precious gems. “A moment,” he breathed, “and a moment, and perhaps another.” Reflected in the lad’s eyes, his own face mouthed the words, startling him for when last he’d glimpsed a mirror he wore the Holiest’s weathered features. “A moment,” he said again, astonished by his own appearance, reclaimed, as much as by the youth’s.
The Nearly Named God had already blown apart, he had seen before he dropped. Bereft of any capacity to recognize one another, to adhere to a single will or desire or image, thousands of baby-faced birds whirled about in incoherent swarms and eddies. The shrill racket they made could not drown out the ever continuing reverberation of their Name but that Name was too large for Joäth to comprehend, or he, fortunate, was too small.
Stretched out atop the other youth, careful not to crush him, Joäth began to feel powdery impacts against his entire length, less substantial than snow, warm. He glanced his eyes to one side. Flakes of green-black ash, now and then crimson, were falling. They were shaped like perfect tiny feathers but broke up into dust when they hit the ground. Already greasy drifts were forming across glassy mosaic and undifferentiated noise resolving into individual panicked chirps and twitters.
The last cheep was stifled. For an endless moment the final syllable of the extinguished god’s name tolled, rolled, before its vessel too was extinguished. Joäth raised himself to his knees athwart the merchant’s son’s hips. An insubstantial avalanche of ash tumbled down his back. “A moment,” he murmured, “as I said.”
Unbidden, a hex forced its path along his tongue and through his lips. Fascinated even as he steeled himself against the continuing pain of those that remained, Joäth watched copper wire corrode in an instant to verdigris. Released from bondage, the merchant’s son’s chin jerked forward and his hands moved as one to prove the other young man: gripping his thighs, passing over his hips, caressing his belly, rising to his chest.
Brushing them off—although he did not wish to—Joäth dismounted and set to unwinding the web of osiers still trussing the lad. As he worked, he said, “Your mother is dead.”
The orphan nodded: he had already understood.
“As is my master, back in Errò, and, I believe, his bitter god.” Tossing aside the last whippy binding, he brushed ash from the youth’s limbs and bent to yank out the final six grafts. The merchant’s son yelped, but it was a cry of relief as much as pain.
“Tell me,” Joäth said, returning to the precious, grubby face, “what shall we call you?”
Copyright 2016 Alex Jeffers