Kuemo of the Masks
This is the story of Akemuz, corn-mother, grave-mother
This is the story of her grief and her fury
Of her wanderings, on the earth and below the earth
The year turns, we wait for the rains
Hear your story, dwell in us
Feed us, sustain us, preserve us
So. You want a story.
Would you like to hear the old legends of the gods told anew, or see fresh tales performed for wondering eyes? That’s my trade, though I’m not the player my mother was.
When my mother sang, it was like a touch that lingered even after the sound was gone. When my mother danced, she turned the plain boards of a players’ cart into the primeval forest, or the palace of a king, or the home of the gods. When my mother put on a mask, she became the role.
I grew up hearing stories of her brilliance and her fire. Every member of my father’s troupe had a particular play they remembered, or a song they could never thereafter hear, no matter who sang it, without a chill running through them.
My own memories of her are few. I only distinctly recall the day she left.
I’d been crying. I remember how hot and puffy my face felt, how cool her fingers against my skin. “It’s the way of things, Garuz, my daughter,” she said. “It’s time.”
She was already carrying her things on her back. Even for a player, she had very little: a change of clothes, a sturdy cloak, a bedroll, a cooking pot and a knife. A string of coral beads my father had given her. Everything else, the masks and the costumes, the carts and tents and furniture, belonged to the troupe. There was one more thing she owned, and she placed it in front of me: a heavy wooden chest with iron fittings.
“Your father will carry this for you until you’re strong enough,” she said, “but I mean it for you. Your legacy.”
I tried to lift the chest. She was right; it was too heavy. I swallowed back my tears and asked, “What’s inside?”
I don’t know what I was hoping for–something that would make what was happening into a mistake, or a joke, or a story. I didn’t understand. What way of things? Why was she leaving? What had I done wrong?
“Masks,” she said, “and a script. They’re very old, very dangerous.”
I waited for her to say that I must never open it, never put on the masks, never read the script. Though I was very young, I’d already seen more plays than I could count, and I knew how they went. But she didn’t say anything else.
Maybe she trusted my good sense, my native caution, my cowardice–whatever you like to call it. The plain fact is as the years passed, I did grow strong enough to carry the chest myself, but I never did open it.
The players of my father’s troupe, when they spoke of her, spoke as if she’d gone away with another troupe or group of wanderers, as anyone might. They certainly never suggested she might be dead, nor do I think that it was only to spare my feelings, or my father’s. But we never saw her again, never got word of her from other travelers or from the people of towns and cities. It was as if when she left us, she left the earth altogether.
I can see that you’re startled that I speak so casually of her leaving, that I say anyone might do it. I’ve heard that in the towns and cities, priests join men and women together with strong and fearsome vows, and which require strong reasons or large bribes to unwind.
Among the players and travelers, however, the leader of each troupe is a priest. They leave honey and cakes at wayside shrines and know the incantations to ward against demons. They are the ones to invite the dead to feast with the living at springtime, to speak the turning of the year in autumn, and to return their people to the earth at last. But they don’t join men and women in marriage–rather, each one loves as almighty Abrekudo inspires them, and comes and goes as they like.
It’s a custom, I admit, that sometimes results in uncared-for children–beaten, starved, sold for evil purposes, abandoned by the wayside or on the doorstep of those same priests of towns and cities. And since that’s what they see of players’ children, it might be no surprise that they think our ways are wicked, and preach the virtues of hearth, home, and fidelity.
But that never happened in my father’s troupe. There were a fair handful of us children, it’s true, and we might have gone undisciplined, unschooled, and even–in lean times, when anyone might–unfed, but we never went unloved.
Foyez: Swear that you won’t beget children.
Ubeyez: Shall I give my oath by the point of the sword, or shall I give my oath by its hilt?
Now, what story shall I tell? I know one about a king so desperate to avoid his prophesied fate that he killed or drove away all his family–no? Not that one?
Another story from my childhood, then? Or from later, after I had grown strong enough to carry the chest, and my mother was little more than a legend to me? I think I know which story you want. It began with a sword.
The sword, when its wielder pulled it out of my father’s chest, made a horrible grating sound. Blood followed. At first it hardly seemed real, it looked just like the bit of staging we did with a pig’s bladder, but there was more of it, and more, so much, the smell of it hanging thick in the air–he staggered backwards. I ran to catch him and was knocked to my knees by the force of his fall. I held him, blood soaking my dress, his back against my chest as I felt his last rattling breaths. His head jerked up, his arms spasmed, and then he fell limp.
For a moment, I met the eyes of his murderer. They were wide and wild, and he looked, I think, surprised by the turn events had taken. Then there was no time to think.
Kounua and Beyix, twins who had grown up alongside me in our troupe, rushed forward, howling, their swords drawn. They were real swords–we didn’t go entirely defenseless against the dangers of the road–but I knew that the closest they’d come to a real fight was the time we’d done a production of The Tyrant of Orodrua. The twins knew how to look frightening, anyway. If we were facing a rowdy, drunken crowd–if first blood hadn’t already been spilled–it might have been enough. Against the robbers who’d surrounded our carts and their comrades pouring out of the forest around, it was hopeless. Beyix hadn’t taken two strides before an arrow skewered him in the thigh, and he fell.
I left my father’s body where it lay and tried to drag Beyix towards the carts. If we managed to break free of the robbers and run, we couldn’t leave him behind. He was heavy, and the ground was rough, and in between wracking sobs, he cursed me at every stone and thistle I dragged him over. In the meantime, the rest of the troupe grabbed whatever weapons came to hand. Daggers, eating knives, the legs of folding camp stools. One or two of the donkeys tried to run, but, finding themselves still encumbered with the carts, dug in their heels, kicked out randomly, and screamed. Amtrez, who was just old enough at the time to remember the lines of the page in a few plays, perched on top of one of the carts, lobbing stones.
It was all over before I succeeded in lifting Beyix into the bed of the cart. Kounua was down, her sword knocked out of reach, snarling defiance at her attackers through a disordered fringe of auburn curls. Iazem, one of our older actors, lay unmoving with a cudgel still clutched in his gnarled hand. Everyone who had taken up arms had either been felled, disarmed, incapacitated, or retreated behind the carts.
“Stand down!” the robber chief–the one who’d stabbed my father–bellowed at his men. Then he addressed us. “Travelers: surrender, hand over your money and your goods, and you may collect your dead and your injured and be on your way. Refuse, and we’ll collect the loot from your corpses.”
In response, Amtrez let fly with another stone, which whistled past the chief’s head and struck one of the men behind him in the shoulder, to little effect. I scrambled to the top of the cart, where the little fool with his milk-white skin was a prime target, and pulled him down; at the same time, the chief knocked aside the bow of an archer who had begun to take aim.
For the space of several long breaths, no one spoke. Our leader was dead, killed in a hasty exchange of tempers with the robber chief, and we’d had no time to choose a new one. At the moment, there was no one who had the authority to answer for all of us. We were all frightened, confused, and angry–but I was the one who found myself at a vantage point where I could speak and be heard, and I knew what our answer must be. I stood up on the roof of the cart and cried, “We surrender!”
Then I climbed back down into the cart, took up the boards where the troupe’s common cash-box was kept, and lifted it out. Beyix was no longer cursing. He lay with his eyes closed, his breath ragged and uneven. My heart clenched to see it, but I was already doing the only thing I could for him. Kounua glared when I came down from the cart and approached the chief; still, she didn’t argue with me, and I didn’t acknowledge her.
“This is the troupe’s money,” I said, holding out the box to the chief. “It isn’t much, and we’ll go hungry until we perform again, but here it is; take it. I’ll go around to the other members of the troupe and collect their personal cash and their jewelry. Only leave us our donkeys and our carts, our costumes and sets and props. They’d be little use to you, but they’re life to us, so don’t compound your blasphemy against Kuemo of the Masks by touching sacred things to which you have no right.”
I didn’t think the warning against blasphemy would count for much with a robber and a murderer, but to my surprise, he drew back, not touching the box I offered him. “You’re players.“
There were mutters of consternation among the other robbers too. Maybe some of them still clung to old superstitions; more likely they were annoyed to discover that we’d hardly been worth the trouble of attacking. I saw, once I was among them, that not all the casualties had been on our side, and several of the robbers were bloodied or mazed as well. One of them said to his fellow in a whisper that belonged on a stage: “I said a merchant caravan would have more guards.”
The chief could read the mood of his band at least as well as I could, so it was his turn to be wrong-footed and have to think quickly. Whatever the man’s faults, hesitation wasn’t one of them, not when he’d stabbed my father and not then. He swept me a bow. “Please forgive the mistake. We only resorted to arms to defend ourselves, but we wouldn’t dare send you out onto the road to starve, or deprive you of the jewels that so well become you.” As I was wearing only a set of hoops in my ears and a few plain bronze bracelets, this was a ridiculous piece of flattery. I wondered where he had learned it. “My men and I live far from civilization, but we haven’t completely forgotten all its proprieties–though it’s been long since any of us has done something so civilized as see a play. You must have pity on us, wasting away in boredom, and accompany us back to our camp and perform for us. You’ll be rewarded, I assure you.” His teeth flashed white in his thick black beard, bandit fierceness and courtly manners combining in one grin. “I insist.”
And I could hardly refuse. “If we do this,” I said, “we are your guests, and you are bound to feed us, shelter us, defend us, and send us safely on our way. We must bury our dead, properly with all the rites, and tend to our injured–if you have anyone among you skilled in healing, send them to us. If you harm us in any way, it’s an affront not just to Kuemo of the Masks but to Foyez Hospitable as well.”
“Agreed!” His grin flashed again, delighted, as if the last few terrifying, deadly minutes had never happened. As if Beyix wasn’t dying in the largest of the carts at my back, as if my dress weren’t soaked in his blood and my father’s. The chief unscrewed an earring from his ear, a golden teardrop with a fulgent red jewel at the end, and dropped it into my hand in token of our agreement. I closed my fist around it, silently vowing to Foyez that if the troupe got out of this alive and whole–as whole as we were–I would dedicate it to him at the next shrine we passed. It wasn’t entirely pious on my part. I wanted to get the damned thing out of my hands as soon as I decently could.
This is the song of the dead
This is the song of love and remembered deeds
Of duty fulfilled, on the earth and below the earth
The year turns, the dead ground brings forth new life
Hear your song, feast with us
Be recalled, be honored, be at peace
We came to the robbers’ camp blindfolded. It was about an hour’s journey–we weren’t force-marched like soldiers, but neither were we allowed to slow or rest, and anyone who couldn’t keep up was loaded into the carts. The old, the children, the injured, the dead. The robber chief tied the thick rag around my eyes himself, talking all the while in that odd, cultivated accent of his: “I apologize for the necessity, but you must understand that we can’t have you leading the king’s men to our camp once you reach the city…”
As if it mattered what I understood and what I didn’t. Or as if I were a maiden of Akemuz, to wash away his sins with my tears. As for the first, they would do what they liked with us, and that was that. As for the second, my throat felt tight and my eyes burned, but they stayed dry. It was the only dignity I had left. I think my silence unnerved him. Kounua cursed the robbers the entire way, their ancestors and their descendants and the constellations that had presided over their births–she knew even more curses than her twin. Amtrez had to be bound hand and foot before they threw him into the bed of a cart, hissing and spitting like a cat.
At length we arrived and the robbers removed our blindfolds. Their camp was a dozen ramshackle buildings nestled at the foot of a rocky hill by the shore of a pond. I could see a place where the hill sloped gently down to a meadow, which would serve us well enough as a theater. “Here,” I said. “We’ll bury our dead here.”
The chief commanded a few of his men to help us build cairns. They fetched rocks from the country around and we piled them on my father’s body and Iazem’s. I remembered enough of the rites to return them to the earth and to Akemuz, and then my tears fell, even with the robbers still looking on–the ones who’d carried the rocks, and a woman with a long face and threads of silver in her hair, who’d dosed the injured with potions and poultices and muttered charms. It didn’t seem to have done any harm, though for Beyix–the only one whose injuries were serious–it hadn’t done any good either. He was wandering in and out of awareness, and only roused himself to speech once, to ask for Kounua, but didn’t know her when she pressed his hand.
After the funeral, the robbers herded us and our carts to the center of their camp. If it hadn’t been for the circumstances, it would have been more comfortable than most of our campsites between cities, the more because none of us had to haul water or cook or dig latrines. It was all done for us, as I’d asked. The robbers spoke to us with a swagger and a threat in their voices, but also with curiosity and excitement. They were looking forward to their play, as it seemed, to a man, though I assured them it couldn’t possibly happen until the next day. The light was already beginning to fade.
We ate and then we took counsel. There were robbers always lurking about, so we tried to speak softly for some pretense at privacy.
“Who chose you for our leader?” Kounua’s voice would normally have been a shout; now it was a ragged whisper. Or maybe it was just that her throat was raw. “Who gave you the authority to speak for us?”
“Nobody,” I said. “But somebody needed to speak, and there was nothing else they could have said.”
“Wasn’t there? Must we dance for your father’s murderers, and my brother’s?”
“Beyix isn’t dead yet,” said Zbardem, who, with his bald forehead and long gray curls behind, played prophets and venerable kings and Foyez himself so often that he really thought all his words were pearls of wisdom. “And–forgive me, Garuz, and may Garnamer’s shade forgive me, but if he hadn’t provoked the robber chief he might still live, and we might have slid on by. We’ve done it in the past. The chief himself said it was a mistake that they attacked us.”
“Who cares what–” Amtrez began at full volume, and his father shushed him.
Amtrez was born to our troupe, but his parents and older brother had joined us from over the mountains; they were all four of them pale as milk, with freckles across their noses and up their arms. Tazanom, the father, was a musician, and Fomauz, the mother, a seamstress who’d turned her hand to sewing costumes and making up sets. Narem, the older brother, had grown into an actor–a middling one as yet, but he could learn his lines and hit his marks, and they’d all been with us long enough to know our ways.
“You may speak in council when your voice has broken, pup,” Tazanom said with a light cuff to the back of Amtrez’s head. “Still, it’s true–they may say that they’re sorry for what they’ve done, but Garnamer and Iazem are still dead, and Beyix is still lying senseless. They may swear that they’ll let us go once we’ve played for them, but who knows if they will?”
“We could–” Oinoyua hooked her long black hair behind her ear, leaned forward, and whispered, “we could try to sneak off in the night. If the robbers are sleeping heavily–”
“Oh?” Narem’s voice had broken the month before, so he could speak in council. And if he wasn’t careful someone would break his nose for him before too long. He’d taken a minor injury in the fight, and he picked at his bandage as he sneered, “Will you poison their wine, then, while you distract the sentry by humping his leg and breathing in his ear? That will give him a surprise, anyway.”
Any actress might have taken offense at such a crass speech. But Oinoyua, as I’m sure you know, since your guards were none too gentle when they arrested us, is chosen of Kuemo. She had been traveling with troupes of players for years before she joined ours, but in her early life she was a butcher’s son in the city of Gero. Life in the cities and towns is seldom kind to Kuemo’s chosen, and life among wanderers, as Narem’s words showed, is sometimes no kinder.
Oinoyua whirled on Narem as if she would do him the honor of breaking his nose. Another night, I would have let her.
“I have an idea,” I said, and Oinoyua turned back to me, and Narem quieted, and even Kounua looked up, sullen but listening. “My mother–”
“Ah, if your mother were with us,” Zbardem sighed, stroking his beard. “We never would have come to this pass.”
“She left me a legacy. Masks and a script, she said, very old and very dangerous. I’ve never opened the chest. But now–I think it may be time to play it.”
Kuemo of the Masks
Of many faces and none
Carved men and women from the stump of a tree
Taught them to speak
And to lie
Though our lodgings were as comfortable as any we ever had on the road, none of us slept well that night. In dreams, my father spoke to me, but instead of words, blood poured from his mouth. My mother rose from the mists of the pond, dancing on its surface. The dead danced with her, slack-limbed and rotting. We fled the robbers’ camp as Oinoyua suggested, and every twisting path of the forest brought us back there, while I held a mask in my hands, its mouth gaping as if it would swallow the world. Beyix screamed–but that wasn’t a dream. I roused myself from visions of blood and earth to find Kounua, who’d slept curled round him as they hadn’t since they were children, trying to soothe him, giving him water and a potion that the robbers’ healer-woman had left. It worked a little. He fell back into a fitful doze, though his skin still burned. An hour or two later, he started screaming again.
The robbers brought us boiled porridge for breakfast with lumps of gamey-tasting fat. I told them they would have their play that afternoon. No one contradicted me. Kounua helped me get the chest down from the cart, silent, her eyes red-rimmed. The troupe gathered around as I lifted the latches. I think that some of them expected a company of avenging spirits to fly out and slaughter the robbers and ourselves together in an instant. But there was nothing in it but what my mother had said. Masks, in a simple archaic style, the wood worn very smooth and the paint faded. I lifted one–Foyez, by the curling beard and the oak-leaf crown, his mouth a simple empty oblong–and found it surprisingly light. Underneath lay rows of tightly-curled parchment. So old a script, it seemed, that it had never been bound into a book.
I unrolled one: the title written across the top of the page was Ubeyez’s Oath-Breaking, and it had an opening soliloquy by Eto Light-Footed. Amtrez, hanging off my arm and reading over my shoulder, exclaimed, “Oh, there’s a part for me!”
Amtrez had done a charming turn as the boy-girl page of the gods in our recent Abrekudo’s Revels–the same production where Oinoyua’s portrayal of Abrekudo had given rise to Narem’s nasty “humping his leg and breathing in his ear” comment. But that part had only had a few lines. This one, on the other hand–
“It’s a long soliloquy, Amtrez,” I said. “And only a morning to learn it. I think Narem had better play Eto.”
“Oh, let him do it,” said Narem, who’d snagged a roll of parchment from the chest and was reading also. Amtrez’s face lit up–he rarely heard words of encouragement from his older brother. “The Eto mask is too small for me, anyway. And I want to play Ubeyez.”
Ah, I thought, so that’s the way of it. Still, he wasn’t wrong on either count–the Eto mask was child-sized, and with Beyix gravely injured and my father killed, we were running short of actors who could play Ubeyez. I scanned the words of the soliloquy again. It was written in a style as archaic as the masks, but still comprehensible. A robber band wasn’t likely to be the most discriminating audience, and they surely wouldn’t be familiar with a play I’d never heard of myself. They wouldn’t notice a few flubbed lines.
“All right,” I said. “Start memorizing, both of you. Oinoyua–” Now here was a problem. If Oinoyua had to play Abrekudo of the Twilight opposite Narem’s Ubeyez of the Dawn, there would be blood on the boards. “Would you play Akemuz?”
Oinoyua narrowed her eyes, and I wondered if I’d offended her by implying that she’d grown too old for Abrekudo and was now only suited to matronly roles. But after a moment she said, “The queen of the gods? That suits me very well.”
I gave a sigh of relief, then looked over at Kounua. It was hard for me to say what was at the tip of my tongue. But I didn’t have to. We could read each other that well. “I’ll play Abrekudo,” she said quietly.
To play Ubeyez’s twin opposite Narem, while her own twin lay dying–I had no words for her. I could only reach over and squeeze her hand.
Zbardem, naturally, was already muttering Foyez’s lines to himself. There was only Kuemo of the Masks left to cast. Except, as I continued to read the script, it seemed she never appeared. In a play called Ubeyez’s Oath-Breaking, when she was the one who had tricked him into breaking his oath. Odd. But it made my job easier. I left the actors learning their lines–Zbardem had called Narem over to read through the scene where Foyez demands that Ubeyez forswear love and children, and Ubeyez gives him one riddling answer after another before he finally agrees–and gathered up Tanazom and Fomauz and everyone else who was sitting around idling, had them help drag carts down to the meadow so we could put the stage together and start making up the sets. I wanted to have at least one read-through done before noon.
But now I can see the puzzled crease between your eyebrows, and questions forming on your lips. What, you are surely wondering, of the dangers of these masks, this script? What of Kounua’s objections to performing for the robbers? Why were we not planning our escape or our revenge? Listening to me, it must sound like we had forgotten everything but the play.
To which I can only answer: we had. And if this surprises you, it’s because you’ve never lived among players.
At any rate, we soon had the stage set up with the fluttering blue canopy to suggest the heavenly council-halls. I set Tanazom to shoo away curious robbers so that the play would stay fresh and unspoiled for them until the afternoon’s performance, and I sent Fomauz to fetch her sons and the other actors so we could start rehearsing. The masks in their chest I kept by me. You may have heard that it’s bad luck for actors to try on their masks until they’re ready to perform before an audience. I admit we weren’t always so scrupulous, but that day, we were.
The rehearsals went well–better than I might have expected for a play we were putting on for the first time. The dance that Amtrez did to accompany his opening soliloquy was made up of steps he’d done before, but this time he was as light-footed as the god-goddess he portrayed. I was afraid that Narem as Ubeyez arguing with his divine father would sound querulous and spoiled–as he often did in real life–but he rose to the occasion and spoke his lines like a true god of mysteries. Zbardem turned in his usual polished performance, and Oinoyua matched him for power and dignity. As for Kounua, I’d never seen her play so well, and I told myself I must cast her as Abrekudo more often. Her gestures weren’t as broad as Oinoyua’s were when she played the role: Kounua’s Abrekudo of the Twilight was passion tightly reined, danger just beneath the surface, magnetic and terrifying at once.
I had to feed them all a line or two from time to time, but that was to be expected. When we broke for lunch, they were still flushed and flying from their performances, quoting lines at each other between bites. Then we read it through a second time, and I sent Fomauz to keep watch over Beyix, and Tanazom to tell the robbers that we were ready and they could come watch their play whenever they liked, and the actors to put on their costumes and masks.
As the actors hurried behind the curtains, jostling, joking, and reciting, I spread my skirts and settled on a grassy knoll near the stage. It didn’t take long before the robbers came striding up from their camp, their chief at their head. He was clearly in control of his people again. He greeted me with a courtly bow and a broad grin, an earring with a fulgent jewel–the twin of the one he’d given me–swinging from one ear, and the other ear bare.
“May I sit here?” he asked, indicating the grass next to me.
“You’re our host,” I answered with ill grace. “You may sit where you like, only please don’t interrupt my work.”
He showed no offence, but only spread his coat across the grass and sat. Then the others of his band did the same, in little groups all around the makeshift amphitheatre. “Won’t you be appearing in the play?” he said.
“I won’t. We’re not all of us performers. Some of us make up the sets and the costumes, and I’ve always found my talents lie more in directing. Though my mother was a famous actor, and so was my father–before you murdered him.”
“Oh!” The look of surprise and dismay on his face was the same as it had been when he’d drawn the sword out of my father’s body. “I didn’t know–he was your father? I–I am sorry.”
If he hadn’t been my father, the robber chief had still murdered a man for no cause. Why should he be sorry just because that man happened to be my father?
So, instead of answering what I had no answer for–and hearing that the chatter of preparation on both sides of the curtain had died down, leaving nothing but an occasional excited whisper from either the actors or the robbers–I stood and gave the signal for the performance to begin.
From somewhere unseen came the haunting notes of Tanazom’s pipes. Onstage, the curtains parted like clouds parting after a storm, and Eto Light-footed leaped and spun across the hall of the gods.
It was only Amtrez in a mask, a short chiton, and bracelets on his skinny wrists and anklets. But goosebumps rose on my skin, a chill ran through me, and I heard all the robbers catch their breath at once. Amtrez’s hands told the story, and his feet shaped the boards of the cart. When he spoke, he became the role.
O mountains and hills!
The sky and the seas!
Pay homage to Foyez Victorious!
Ten foes at a blow
He trampled their bones
Beneath the earth drove their survivors!
Lift your voices and weep
O widows and child-robbed–
Foyez’s children, attend him!
I was so enrapt in Amtrez’s soliloquy that I forgot to look at my script until it was nearly over. Fortunately, I didn’t need to. He delivered it seamlessly. At its close, Zbardem entered, crowned with carved oak leaves, Oinoyua draped in jewels on his arm. The crowd let out hoots and whistles for Kounua, dressed in the concealing/revealing frills of Abrekudo of the Twilight. The day before, on our march, she’d cursed them with every foul oath she knew and they’d shoved her ungently onwards. Now, she let their shouts slide off her with the unconcern of a goddess–or an actor–and they were soon as transfixed by her words as by her cleavage or thighs, as she pleaded with Zbardem to forgive her twin’s absence from the council of the gods.
Then Ubeyez stepped onto the stage. Or I should say Narem, but really, I can’t. I had never seen Narem act like this, never suspected he could. I swear I could taste the change in the air as he confronted Zbardem, like the taste of thunder-pregnant clouds overhead. He’d stumbled a bit over his lines during rehearsal, and I stood ready to prompt him if he hesitated, but he didn’t. He exchanged words with Zbardem with the tempo and the tension of a perfectly-choreographed swordfight. When he finally gave his oath, and Tazanom began piping for the end of the first act, the audience let out a sigh that would have been quiet if it hadn’t issued from dozens of mouths at once.
Now came the curious lacuna of the play: there was no meeting between Ubeyez and Kuemo, no trickery or flirtatious double-speech where she refused to remove her mask or persuaded him to hold her chisel. Instead, the second act opened with the children of the troupe–there were three even younger than Amtrez, and he, barefaced and divested of his jewels, joined them–gamboling across the stage, representing the new-born or new-carved mothers and fathers of all humanity. Oinoyua, as Akemuz, tried to hide them from Foyez. The little imps, delighted by the attention, drew raucous laughter simply by being themselves. I’d seen no children in the robber’s camp, and I wondered if they, like plays, were another of the comforts of civilization that the robbers missed so much.
But, inevitably, Foyez discovered the deception–though the robbers, quite caught up in the story, called out to him to try to distract him, and loudly swore that Akemuz was telling him nothing but the truth–and the skirling notes of Tazanom’s pipe fell like drops of oil on the churning water of Foyez’s rage. And so the second act ended.
The third act, wherein Foyez calls Ubeyez to account, had just gotten underway when I saw Fomauz hurrying towards me, her face even paler than milk–white as whey. My belly went cold; all of a sudden I tumbled from the heights of the gods’ drama to the depths of our own. “Please excuse me,” I said to the robber chief, but, absorbed in the play, I’m not sure he heard. I rushed to Fomauz and asked her, “Is it Beyix? Is he worse?”
She shook her head, her eyes wide and wild. “I swear I only left him for a moment, to refill his waterskin. I don’t know how–”
I never heard what Fomauz didn’t know. A howl split the air, and I turned without willing it back to the stage, where Abrekudo held the fallen Ubeyez cradled in her arms. The features on her wooden mask were painted, unchanging, but the slump of her shoulders, the tightness of her muscles spoke of a grief larger than human. Her shout had stilled everyone and left in its wake a silence no words could fill.
For a moment I marveled at Kounua’s acting. But it wasn’t Narem’s lanky, half-grown body she held. They weren’t his limbs, pale and not yet filled out in proportion to the knees and elbows, that hung empty onto the stage–not in a parody of lifelessness, but truly in death. She knew–had known before I did, and now I knew without a doubt–and still she took his mask in trembling fingers, lifted it as if that could lift the spell.
It wasn’t Narem in Ubeyez’s mask. It was Beyix. And Beyix was dead.
Akemuz searched for her son
Everywhere she sought him
Atop the highest mountain peak
And at the ocean’s bottom
And everywhere the goddess went
Her maidens can be found
Weeping for our lady’s grief
With scarlet garlands crowned
And when she reached Damadez’s gate
She gave herself for ransom
It was a willing sacrifice
For he was very handsome!
We buried Beyix next to my father and Iazem. The robbers who helped carry the stones for the cairn looked at us with less curiosity and more fear, and the work got done that much more quickly. Still, the sun had set by the time I finished speaking the words to return him to the earth, and the pond was stained red with reflected twilight. I turned to the robber chief, hovering at my shoulder, and said, “You’ve had your play. Now let us go in peace, as you promised.”
His eyes went wide; he seemed startled that I should even ask. “How?” he said. “It’s night already, and by the time you’ve finished packing the wagons it will be full dark. I should be breaking my oath to see you safely on your way if I let you leave now. There are terrors other than my band on the forest road at night. Stay, and let my men bring you supper, and sleep, and leave in the morning.”
I looked at the faces of my troupe: Kounua red-eyed and rigid with grief, Narem dazed, all of them tired and frightened. Then I looked at the robbers among us. What had happened that afternoon had unnerved them enough that they’d likely let us go if we insisted, and never mind what orders their chief gave. On the other hand, with men like these, fear if pushed was just as likely to explode into violence. Besides, the robber chief wasn’t wrong: we were in no state to travel, and it was no time to search for a new campsite.
“Very well,” I said. “We leave with first light.”
Amtrez tried to protest–at his age, I believe he would happily have driven all night–but Fomauz hushed him, and the rest of us trudged meekly to our wagons.
When the robbers came to bring us our supper, the healer woman was among them. Kounua turned to her and snarled, “What, witch? Have you come to poison the rest of us as well?”
“Peace, Kounua,” I sighed. “She did what she could. It isn’t her fault; it’s the fault of the man who shot him.” I didn’t add: and the fault of the chief who commands him. Nor: the fault of the play and the masks, and of the one who suggested opening the chest.
“I’m sorry for your grief,” said the healer. “And so is my son, if only you would let him say so. He has a hasty temper, but he truly regrets what happened and means you no more harm.”
“He killed my father,” I said. And then, “The chief is your son?”
“How else do you think a woman like me came to be living in a robbers’ camp?” she said as she uncovered a dish of lentils and wild greens. In the touch of arrogance in her voice, the straight-backed, offended dignity of her posture, I saw indeed the resemblance between her and the chief. She had the same cultivated accent.
“Forgive me,” I murmured. “You must have been a great lady once.”
“Ah, that was long ago,” she said, mollified. “You mustn’t fear that you won’t be allowed to go in the morning. My son is a man of his word. But truly, I think he wasn’t sorry to have an excuse to press you to stay longer. Indeed, you may stay as long as you like. The hospitality isn’t so bad, is it?” She looked at me from the corner of her eye, sidelong and sly. “It’s been some time since I’ve seen him so taken with a woman.”
“He killed my father,” I said.
“You cannot blame me for asking, anyway.” She shook her head. “An old woman wants grandchildren.”
Oinoyua came up and began to help dish out the food. “Oh, what nonsense,” she said to the healer. “You’re not old.”
Narem smirked knowingly at her charm offensive, but I shot Oinoyua a grateful smile and slipped away with a plate of food for myself and another for Kounua. She sat with her arms folded on her knees and her chin resting on her arms, staring at nothing.
“Eat something,” I urged her. “We want to be as far away from here as we can tomorrow, and you’ll need your strength to travel.”
She poked listlessly at the lentils and said, “Ubeyez returns from the underworld.”
“I… what?” I said.
“In the myths. He dies, and Akemuz searches for him, and he returns from the underworld. Why did the play end with Ubeyez’s death? We can’t just leave him here. We have to do something.”
I laid a hand gently on her arm. “Kounua, Beyix is dead.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m raving,” she snarled at me. “Don’t pretend that the gods and their works are distant maybes, as we might have thought yesterday, or that Beyix died of an arrow wound alone. How did he come to be wearing Ubeyez’s mask? How–you didn’t wear one of those masks. I did. I’m not mad.”
“Even so. What more can we do?”
“Open the chest again.”
I shuddered. We’d packed away the masks and the scripts before burying Beyix, and my skin crawled at the thought of opening it again. Though I knew I couldn’t leave it behind with the robbers, I was tempted to–I didn’t know how I would sleep in my wagon with the chest packed in next to me. “To what end?” I asked. “We know what’s in it already, and it’s nothing that might help Beyix.”
“We know what was in it when we last closed it,” Kounua countered. “We don’t know what we’ll find if we open it again.”
I hesitated. But surely my fears were as absurd as Kounua’s hopes. And if opening the chest would dispel them both, why not? “All right. But if nothing out of the ordinary happens, you must agree to leave tomorrow with no more of this talk.”
For a moment it looked as if Kounua would argue, but then she just pressed her lips together and nodded. I ate my lentils and greens slowly. Kounua left hers untouched. At last, when I could put it off no longer, I brought the chest down from my wagon and set it on the ground. It drew a few curious glances. Zbardem frowned and said, “Garuz, what–”
I opened the catches and swung up the lid. Masks, and rolls of script. But the masks–the paint looked fresher, somehow. I took up a script and began to unroll it, tilting it so that it caught the light of our campfire. The title was The Wanderings of Akemuz.
I hadn’t seen the healer woman approach. But she was there, standing by my shoulder. And before I could warn her not to meddle with sacred things, she took a mask out of the chest and fitted it to her face. It was Akemuz.
She was Akemuz. Weeping Akemuz, the great goddess, mother and queen. As she stood among us, I remembered Beyix, how my arms had ached as I dragged him across the rough ground, the pain in his voice as he cursed me. My father: his last rattling breath, his weight against my chest. My mother: walking quietly down the road until she disappeared behind the next hill. Every grief and loss I had ever felt in my life.
Beside me, Kounua struggled to breathe between sobs. Oinoyua let her hair fall forward, hiding her face, and her body shook with tremors. Amtrez wailed like a child half his age, snot running down his face, his parents and brother too stricken by their own grief to offer him any comfort. Everywhere, suppers sat abandoned as people gave themselves over to mourning.
“The Bright One is gone!” Akemuz cried out in the healer’s cultivated accent. The sound of it silenced everyone, though tears continued to flow. The last of the twilight had faded and the moon not yet risen; it seemed indeed as though all light had gone out of the world. I glanced at my script and read the next words as she said them: “My own cherished son, snuffed out by his father’s fierce fury! Now, shall I sit mute on my heavenly throne? Shall I still be helpmate to Foyez?”
Kounua stood, moving like a sleepwalker. I dropped the script I was holding and clung to her arm, trying to hold her back, but she ignored me. Oinoyua and Fomauz also stood out from the watchers and bent to the chest, and from its depths they lifted out each a garland of pheasant’s-eye flowers and settled it in her hair.
It was high summer at the time these events happened; pheasant’s-eye had been gone from the ground for months. And yet the garlands from the chest were as fresh as if young girls had just plucked them from the last patches of snow on the hills and woven them into offerings for Akemuz. The vivid red of the flowers against Kounua’s chestnut curls and Fomauz’s neat plaits and Oinoyua’s waves of midnight black filled me with a dread I couldn’t name. In their hands they held the attributes of Akemuz’s maidens: a comb, a jeweled necklace, a white robe.
“Mistress,” said Oinoyua cajolingly, “cease your loud wails and comb out your hair. Your grief cannot come before duty.”
Fomauz held out the robe as if she would drape it over Akemuz’s shoulders. “Do not cause strife in the heavenly halls, for peace, lately won, is so fragile.”
“Put on a clean robe and your bright precious jewels,” said Kounua. The necklace in her hand caught the firelight, sickeningly red. “Take your seat by the husband who gave them.”
Akemuz took the necklace and threw it to the ground, turning her back on her attendants in the same graceful motion. “I won’t still my voice. Let my cries shake the earth. As for my jewels, I renounce them. I’ll quit the gods’ halls till my son is restored. If you’re faithful, my maidens, you’ll follow.”
She strode off, the goddess descended to earth. The ground trembled as she passed. Her maidens followed her, and so did the rest of us. I held the chest in my arms as we left the firelight behind. Beyond our camp it was dark, dark. I saw the robbers’ fires as smears of ruddy light further down the hill, and I felt bodies crowd close against mine as they joined the procession. We kept walking, downward, blindly, until mud pulled at my feet and water seeped into my shoes. And still we walked, as the pond swirled around my ankles and dragged at the hem of my skirt. My soaked clothing kept me from floating, but every step forward was a struggle. When the water reached my chest, I thought of Amtrez, of the younger children–the water must have been over their heads by then. But I couldn’t call out, could do nothing but keep moving forward until the water closed over my head and my lungs burned for air.
I wondered if this was how my father had felt, run through, dying, unable to get breath.
The darkness was total. I couldn’t hold my thoughts–they darted away from me like fish beneath the water. And I felt, from outside myself, a sudden curiosity. The presence of something ancient, patient, calm. A presence that had always been there, wherever I traveled, close enough to touch, and I had never known.
Something that carefully, patiently, undid the clasps on the chest I still held, swung up the lid, and took out a mask.
I had seen a woman put on a mask and become a goddess. Now I saw a god put on a mask and become–not a man. Something nearly man-sized, man-shaped.
I thought I had known death. I had buried my father and Iazem and Beyix, and spoken the words to return them to the earth. I had seen Weeping Akemuz incarnate. But death wears one aspect to grieving survivors, and an entirely different one to the dying and the dead. And so I saw him: Silent Damadez, guardian of the gates beneath the earth, keeper of the shades.
His limbs were long and well-formed, darker than shadows, and his mask was carved from a single piece of ivory–what beast might have furnished such a piece, I can’t imagine–and as is traditional for masks of Damadez, he had no mouth.
And just as Damadez became man-shaped, the crushing, formless water became broad columns, black marble floors, vaulted ceilings hidden in mist. We stood in his hall, robbers and players alike, dripping from our passage. I no longer felt like I was drowning, although as to whether or not I was breathing–at the time, I gave it no thought, and afterwards, I couldn’t say.
In the galleries beyond I saw drifting, indistinct shades of the dead. I hadn’t yet found any I knew, when Akemuz stood forth and spoke.
“O Mute Damadez,” she said, “my bright son is lost, and nowhere on earth can I find him. Does he dwell, then, in the dark lands beneath? If so, then I charge you: restore him!”
In the script I had seen the direction: With a gesture, DAMADEZ summons the shade of UBEYEZ. He seizes him in an embrace, looking at AKEMUZ as if to say: I have him, and I will not release him. Now, I thought of the several ways such a direction could be played: defiant, gloating, amorous.
Instead of any of these, Damadez improvised. He reached behind Akemuz’s head and undid the fastenings on her mask. The mask fell to the floor, and the healer woman fell to her knees, covered her face, and wept, her sobs entirely human.
Art has two lovers: one is Lies and the other is Truth.
The spell that held us captive to the play was broken for all of us, but it was the robber chief who recovered his wits first. He rushed to his mother and embraced her where she knelt on the floor.
“Don’t fear,” he said. “I’ll get us out of here. Didn’t I get us out of the city when Father declared our lives forfeit?”
I don’t know much of life in cities, but I know there’s only one man in them with the power to decree a citizen worthy of death without first bringing them before the judges. So the robber chief was the exiled son of a king! If he’d told me himself, earlier, I would’ve been sure it was a foolish boast, but now it seemed perfectly natural. It was the twist from the second act of a play, and weren’t we in a play?
“I’m not afraid.” The healer woman’s voice was thick with tears. “It only seemed–I felt it was only yesterday he killed Zlya.”
“Oh,” said the robber chief with a stricken look.
His mother’s hands tightened on his arm. “She never broke her oath. I know she didn’t. It was some villain–some villain of a man, or else some villain of a god–”
Her son looked nervously up at our godly host, perhaps to see if he would take offense, but Damadez simply looked on impassively.
“She’s here,” the healer woman went on. “She must be. Zlya–and the child–”
Now the robber chief grew alarmed and shook his mother gently as if to rouse her from a dream. “Oh, Mother, no. You can’t think of that.”
The healer woman gave no answer, but dried her tears and let her son raise her to her feet. He held her for a moment more, then, bowing low, approached the god.
“Silent Damadez, lord of the dark lands, I thank you, on behalf of my people and our guests, for your hospitality. But as you can see, we are no shades, but living men and women, and we came to your realm by accident.”
I had never seen, in our brief acquaintance, the robber chief exert the full force of his courtesy. It was a powerful thing. Damadez shrugged, as well he might. There are many, after all, who come to his realm by accident.
The robber chief went on, “I am of humble station now, but I am the son of kings, and the blood of gods runs through my veins. And as we are cousins, I would presume to ask you a favor. I offer you–I offer you myself.” There was the barest hesitation before he made the offer. It was one that Akemuz makes, and Damadez accepts, in some versions of the story. It might have worked. “It was my wrongdoing that began the chain of events that led us here. Release my mother and my men, for they are guiltless in this matter, and the players, for they are my guests, and I have pledged myself to their safety.”
I was touched despite myself. It was a noble speech. Damadez extended his finger towards the robber chief, then struck himself in the chest. He swept his arm in a wide arc, finishing with an inquisitive tilt of his head.
The robber chief turned to me in confusion. “What does the god say?”
When players dance, our hands tell the story. It’s a shadow of the subtleties of Damadez’s speech, nor could I understand it all, or describe what I saw to you. But I understood enough.
“The god says, he already has you. What can you offer him that he does not possess, and will not possess in time?” As the robber chief tried to frame an answer, I bowed and addressed Damadez. “O mighty Damadez, who devours all things, no divine blood runs in my veins, but–”
At that, he held up a hand and shook his head.
“Well–regardless,” I went on, wrong-footed. “My people and I have come to your lands empty-handed, as all creatures do. And yet, there is one thing we possess that, they say, never dies: our art. I offer it to you. We will perform for you, and if it pleases you, grant us our freedom.” I glanced back at my troupe–they’d never chosen me to speak for them, but now they hung on my words. And I knew that many of them, not only Kounua, would like to leave the robbers behind in the dark lands. And yet the bandit chief stood beside me, and he’d offered himself up for us, and I could do no less for him. “Grant us all our freedom,” I said.
He beckoned me to come closer. I have said he was roughly the size of a man–even so, his hand engulfed my face as he held me by the chin. He turned my head one way and then the other, examining me. His skin was cool as the water of the pond and dry as dust. His eyes were the empty slits of the mask. Finally he nodded.
My chest sat on the floor of his hall. My troupe gathered around me as I worked the fastenings. I wished for a farce or a light romance–maybe Abrekudo’s Revels: we did that one well, and no one dies in it–though I knew I wouldn’t find one. But when I opened the chest and read the title, it was in fact a romance of sorts: Ubeyez and Kuemo.
“Narem, will you play Ubeyez?” I said.
Just that morning he’d been panting for the role, and played it very well, too, but now he flinched away. “I’m not putting on that mask again.”
It wasn’t the same mask that he’d worn, and that Beyix had been wearing when he’d died. This one was unpainted, the only decoration brought out from the wood grain itself through clever carving. It showed no signs of wear, and smelled of wood chips and resin, as if it had just come from the carver’s workbench.
“We’re already in the underworld,” I said. “What worse thing do you expect to happen?”
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so sharp with him. He was young, and we were all frightened. The fact was, if Narem refused, I didn’t know who would do it.
“Give it to Beyix,” Kounua insisted. “He must be around here somewhere.”
And then he would be counted among those whose freedom I had bargained for. I felt a sudden hope, as mad as Kounua’s own–but Damadez shook his head, refusing to lend any of the shades in his care to our efforts. And maybe it was just as well, for if I’d bypassed Beyix to give the mask to my father, could Kounua ever have forgiven me, or could any of the troupe whose loved ones had gone before them to the dark lands?
“I’ll do it,” said the robber chief.
None of us had noticed him in our midst until he spoke, and now faces turned toward him with surprise, outrage–I held Kounua back from launching herself at him. Zbardem laughed outright.
“Young man,” he said, “you seem to think that all anyone needs to do to be an actor is put on a mask. That isn’t how it works.”
I traced the whorls on the mask with my fingers. “It seems that it is, with these masks. You would give yourself for ransom, for your people and mine?” I met the robber chief’s gaze challengingly and handed him the mask. “Very well. And–” The next mask in the chest was Kuemo’s, of course, and I truly meant to give it to Oinoyua. She was our best actress, and more reliable, at the moment, than Kounua, and perhaps having one of Kuemo’s chosen play the goddess would bring us luck. But when my hands touched the mask, I said, “And I will play Kuemo.”
I am not, as I have said, an actress by talent, although I’ve certainly played a few minor roles in my time. However, no one disputed my right to give myself for ransom, for my people and the robbers.
“Splendid!” said the chief, and he grinned at me, as he was always doing at the most inappropriate times. It was as if he was still a pampered, careless prince, and I was the noble maiden who’d agreed to dance with him. Then he handed me the mask and turned his back shyly, as if I were the prince, and he the dewy maiden. “Can you fasten mine for me? I’ve never done this before.”
He placed the mask on his face and I fastened it in the back, and then he turned around, radiant as the dawn. The shades of the dead drifted closer from the galleries, warming themselves and growing more distinct in his light. He was everything vital, beautiful, inspiring and unobtainable. I’d seen his transformation myself, and still, I didn’t know him.
But when I put on my own mask and the goddess manifested in me, she came not as a stranger, but with the shock of unexpected familiarity. I remembered my last meeting with her, the young woman who now wore my mask–how I had wiped the tears from her heated cheek, and left her my chest of masks and scripts as her legacy. What a worthy daughter she’d grown into, and how boldly and cleverly she defended her people! What a story she’d woven, and what a trick she had played!
I was Kuemo of the Masks, of many faces and none. Demiurge and trickster, lover of Ubeyez of the Dawn and of Garnamer the Player, and mother to his daughter Garuz.
There sat Kuemo
Sat at her workbench
Chisel in hand
In the youth of the world
Up rose Ubeyez
And with him the sunrise
Bright as the dawn
Clear as the morning
Have you ever been a god?
I don’t think you have. It leaves its traces–even now, in the queenly way Oinoyua lifts her hair aside for me to fasten a necklace, in Amtrez’ light-footed trot beside a wagon, I see it in them. I don’t see it in you, though you’re a king and the blood of gods runs in your veins, as your son once claimed in Damadez’ halls. Though you’ve heard the voices of gods whispering in your ear, souring your heart and turning your reason, as the woman who was once yours told me. She told me many things, sometimes thinking I was her mother, or her daughter, or the oracle of Ubeyez. Sometimes recognizing me for who I was, a stranger she’d known for a single day. Even so, she spoke, and I held her hands as she lay dying.
Your daughter, however–she never said anything of you, or of the gods, for good or for ill.
But I must tell my story in order, for you’ve never been a god, nor seen the world as they do, all the ages laid out at once like the dishes at a village feast. And so, as I danced in Damadez’ halls for an audience of players and robbers and the shades of the dead, it was still the youth of the world, and men and women had not yet walked upon it. And when I saw Ubeyez, it was for the first time, and my breath caught at his loveliness. At the same time, a laugh bubbled up in my chest, for I’d heard of the oath he’d sworn to Foyez and considered it very stupid of both of them, and I’d just thought of a trick that would throw all the gods into confusion.
And so, pretending I didn’t see him, I quickly carved a few figures–rough, clumsy work to be sure, but I captured the healer woman’s long aristocratic face, and Zbardem’s bulbous forehead, and Narem’s gangly limbs. I displayed them to the audience, who laughed appreciatively, the robbers and the players together. I spotted my father in the crowd of shades, pointing at the statue of Zbardem, and Beyix with a silent chuckle for how I’d made Narem’s elbows. Another shade, a heavily pregnant young woman I didn’t know, stood out from the crowd as well. She didn’t laugh, but drifted towards the makeshift stage as if compelled.
“Hail, O Carver. What is it you’re making?” said Ubeyez, peering over my shoulder, and I mimed exaggerated surprise at his presence.
“Oh! Nothing that would catch your interest,” I said, shoving the carvings out of the way, which only drew his attention to them. “Are you not a master of every craft? Is there a thing you can’t fashion?”
He picked up a carving and disparaged its quality. I challenged him to make something better. As we spoke, we drew closer, shoulders touching, breath mingling. In the audience, Beyix had settled to sit beside Kounua, seeming as solid as life. She watched the play and not him, and I’m not sure she even knew he was there, but she leaned against him, as they had watched plays together when they were children.
The unknown dead woman stood close enough to me that I could feel the chill rising from her skin. Damadez had forbidden any of his shades from taking part in the play, but he made no move to interfere–perhaps he was as wrapped up in the story as the rest of the audience, none of whom appeared to notice the dead woman. So I did my best to ignore her as well, instead inviting Ubeyez to hold my chisel. Our fingers intertwined on the handle. His were thick and warm; hers were like ice.
That was when he seemed to see her. Behind the mask, his eyes were those of the robber chief once more, and he said, “Zlya–” which wasn’t in the script and jarred against the rhythm of our speech. But he said it so softly, and I raised my voice a little on my line, and I’m not sure anyone else heard.
He carved an infant out of wood, perfect in every detail, and I held it up skeptically and said, “Shining Ubeyez, your skill is unmatched, but I cannot say that it is lifelike.”
Then the god stepped back, and the shade drew forward, and covered the child’s mouth with her own. As the child’s skin flushed, and its limbs stiffened in a stretch, the shade grew more insubstantial, but before she faded away altogether, her eyes met mine and she spoke: “Take the child and go.”
And the child opened its mouth wide, and our last play ended as our first had, with a scream.
Dark are the lands beneath
Cold are the waters
Terrible the passage:
Who would dare it twice?
Damadez seemed to agree with the shade. He opened his hand, and somewhere in the endless twilight of his halls, a light appeared. Robbers and players alike began to shake off their stupor and hurry towards it. I removed my mask and made a brief bow to the god. “Thank you, mighty Damadez,” I said.
The healer woman, however, instead of rushing toward the light, stayed rooted to the spot where the dead woman had disappeared, and her son stood there with her. “Mother, let me sort it out. You have to go,” he said. Then turning to me, “Look after her.”
I might have asked him by what right he gave me orders, but I was distracted by Kounua, dragging on Beyix’s arm–and though he seemed solid, she couldn’t manage to get a grip on it. “Beyix, come with me,” she begged, “we’re going home.” He only shook his head.
“Leave him,” I told her, and she whirled on me with bared teeth.
“He’s dead. We’re alive. Kounua, please, you’re like my sister; I can’t lose you both.”
She wouldn’t listen, and I couldn’t stay to plead or to struggle with her, for the light of the world above was already fading. I hoisted my chest onto my shoulder, and took the healer woman’s unresisting hand, and ran.
We were the last to leave, for Kounua wouldn’t abandon Beyix, and as I ran, I caught a glimpse of the robber chief in Damadez’ arms. I had no time to think what it meant then, but in the time since, I’ve come to believe that he’d struck a separate bargain with Damadez after all. Nor did he seem entirely displeased to pay the price. As for what he gained–well, once you hear the end of it, you can be the judge.
We made our way through columned halls, and then through twisting passages beneath the earth. We soon overtook several of the robber band who’d become distracted by bright veins of gold in the earth, and glimmering jewels, trying vainly to gouge them out with their fingernails. At the bank of a churning river, we caught up with the main body of our party. Narem shrank back from the water, white and shaking.
“I can’t. I can’t,” he repeated as his parents tried to urge him onward. Nor was he the only one whose nerve was failing, though we could see the sky of the world above on the other side. I saw what had happened: Damadez had given us the freedom to leave his realm, if we could. But he would give us no help in doing so, nor would the way stay open for long.
“The light is fading. The gates are closing. Follow me!” I called, and I strode into the water, steeling myself not to flinch at its shocking cold.
“Come,” Oinoyua encouraged Amtrez. “Your parents and brother will be along.”
Or they won’t, I thought with a pain in my breast–but I had neither time nor heart left to argue. I struggled through the water, the healer woman clinging to my hand. The current battered me, and several times the water rose over my head, but I always came up again, gulping air, the spray feeling like needles of ice. Then I’d catch glimpses of others, like the young woman who’d joined us a month before, her child clinging to her back. When I next surfaced, I’d lost sight of them, but saw one of the robbers who’d built my father’s cairn pulling through the water with powerful strokes. Finally, I crawled to the opposite bank, pebbles scraping my palms and my knees. I coughed up water, dragged my sodden hair out of my face and looked around. The healer woman huddled beside me, empty-eyed. Oinoyua and Amtrez clung together and shivered. I looked up and down the bank, but saw no one else.
The stream we’d just emerged from seemed a cheerful hill brook, the opposite side much the same as the one we found ourselves on. The last rays of the sun were just visible above the horizon. Of the entrance to Damadez’ realm, there was no sign. But my mother’s chest had run aground on some rocks in the middle of the brook, and I rushed to retrieve it, because I could hear from beneath its lid a thin wail. I dragged it to shore with protesting muscles, undid the catches and swung up the lid. There were no masks, no scripts, but on the bare wood of the chest, a newborn girl.
And fruits, give forth your sweetness!
Let the heavens pour down blessings
And every living thing rejoice–
Ubeyez has returned!
By the last of the evening light, we found a road, and as the moon rose, we came upon a wayside temple of Foyez with a guesthouse–small, but enough for us. I gave the priestess who tended the shrine the earring that had somehow stayed in the folds of my dress as an offering, and she put us up on pallets of sweet-smelling straw, and brought us dry garments to wrap ourselves in, and bread and water. The healer woman wouldn’t rest, though she had no more strength to walk or stand; she stayed up all that night raving, as I’ve already told you, and I stayed up with her and held her hands. Poor woman, she was dead by morning–she’d had enough strength to fight free of Damadez’ realm, but she’d left too much of her heart there to remain in the world above.
Oinoyua slept curled up with the children–fitfully, for the girl woke hungry every few hours as babies will. The temple kept a sacred goat, and Oinoyua let the child suck its milk off a cloth, though it hardly seemed enough.
In the morning, the priestess came into the guesthouse, her face ashen. She dropped something into my hand–the earring I’d given her the night before. And its mate, which I had last seen in the robber chief’s ear in Damadez’ halls.
“Your offering is not acceptable to the god,” she whispered. She seemed truly terrified–I doubt she’d ever had so clear or ominous a message from her god before. “You cannot stay here.”
“But we have nothing! And–” I glanced at the pallet where the healer woman’s body lay. “And she’s died, and we must–”
“You said she was a stranger, and no kin to you.”
“I will return her to the earth,” said the priestess. “And I won’t send you away empty-handed. But you must go.”
So we went. To the priestess’ credit, I think she must have given us most of her food, and she didn’t have much. Nevertheless, we were very hungry over the next few days, and we feared that the girl might die. But another miracle happened, and by the third day, Oinoyua, who slept with the girl curled against her every night, began to produce milk for her, though her chest was as mannishly flat as ever. And eventually we met up with another troupe of travelers who let us join them. We said the children were ours, and indeed they were, for they had no one else. Nor did anyone ever question it, although one look at Amtrez with his milk-pale, freckled skin was enough to tell anyone that he’d not been born to us. The girl, on the other hand–she had the very nose and chin I’d inherited from my mother, and hair as midnight-black as Oinoyua’s was in her youth. Or as the robber chief’s was, or as the official portraits of you that I’ve seen throughout your city.
Had the rest of our troupe and the robbers been washed away, lost to both the underworld and the world above? I often fear so. But years ago, I caught a rumor of a woman and her young child found on the banks of a river, entirely without memories, and once I heard of an actor named Zbardem who played the most magnificent Foyez the city had ever seen. Whenever I tried to chase down these stories, however, they vanished like smoke.
In the meantime, we’ve traveled sometimes with one troupe and sometimes with another. Oinoyua and Amtrez are exceptional actors, and their skills have always been enough to secure us a place. As for myself, though I’ve taken minor roles from time to time, I feel most comfortable sitting by the side of the stage, a script in my lap. There is one city we’ve always avoided, and left any troupe determined to play here, for they said its king was crafty and mad, and had his own daughter put to death when she broke her priestly vows of chastity, and exiled his woman and their son when they tried to help her. They said, too, that he did all these things because the Oracle of Ubeyez prophesied that his grandchild would one day kill him. But of course the people who said this must have been fools, for who believes in prophecies nowadays?
And, in the way of things, the children grew up, and they took their own paths. I wept when Amtrez left us, and again when our daughter did–and also, I gave her a legacy. Where she is now, I couldn’t say, but she carries my mother’s chest and wears her father’s earrings, and she is coming for you.
Now–will you kill us, O King, me and Oinoyua? Be careful of meddling with sacred things to which you have no right. For I can see your guards now, hesitating with their hands on their weapons. And if you order them to cut us down, you may find that you have nothing in your possession but a handful of costumes and masks.
About the Author
Naomi Libicki writes science fiction and fantasy; she lives in Jerusalem with her husband and kid and makes a mean apple strudel.