In the dark of dreams, a soul can die. The fears we confront in shadows are as reflections in glass. It is natural to strike a reflection that offends, but then the glass cuts; the soul bleeds. The Gatherer’s task is to save the soul, at any cost. (Wisdom)
In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive.
The Reaper’s task is not to save.
* * *
The barbarians of the north taught their children to fear the Dreaming Moon, claiming that it brought madness. This was a forgivable blasphemy. On some nights, the moon’s strange light bathed all Gujaareh in oily swirls of amethyst and aquamarine. It could make lowcaste hovels seem sturdy and fine; pathways of plain clay brick gleamed as if silvered. Within the moonlight’s strange shadows, a man might crouch on the shadowed ledge of a building and be only a faint etching against the marbled gray.
In this land, such a man would be a priest, intent upon the most sacred of his duties.
More than shadows aided this priest’s stealth. Long training softened his footfalls against the stone; his feet were bare in any case. He wore little altogether, trusting the darkness of his skin for camouflage as he crept along, guided by the sounds of the city. An infant’s cry from a tenement across the street; he took a step. Laughter from several floors below his ledge; he straightened as he reached the window that was his goal. A muffled cry and the sounds of a scuffle from an alley a block away; he paused, listening and frowning. But the disturbance ended as sandals pattered on the cobblestones, fading into the distance, and he relaxed. When the love-cries of the young couple next door floated past on a breeze, he slipped through the curtains into the room beyond.
The bedchamber: a study in worn elegance. The priest’s eyes made out graceful chairs upholstered in fraying fabrics, and wood furnishings gone dull for lack of polish. Reaching the bed, he took care to avoid shadowing the face of the person who slept there—but the old man’s eyes opened anyhow, blinking rheumily in the thin light.
“As I thought,” said the old man, whose name was Yeyezu. His hoarse voice grated against the silence. “Which one are you?”
“Ehiru,” said the priest. His voice was as soft and deep as the bedchamber’s shadows. “Named Nsha, in dreams.”
The old man’s eyes widened in surprise and pleasure. “So that is the rose’s soulname. To whom do I owe this honor?”
Ehiru let out a slow breath. It was always more difficult to bestow peace once a tithebearer had been awakened and frightened; that was why the law commanded Gatherers to enter dwellings in stealth. But Yeyezu was not afraid, Ehiru saw at once, so he chose to answer the old man’s question, though he preferred to do his work without conversation.
“Your eldest son submitted the commission on your behalf,” he said. From the hipstrap of his loinskirt he plucked free the jungissa: a thumb-long polished stone like dark glass, which had been carved into the likeness of a cicada. Yeyezu’s eyes tracked the jungissa as Ehiru raised it. The stones were legend for their rarity as well as their power, and few of Hananja’s faithful ever saw one. “It was considered and accepted by the Council of Paths, then given to me to carry out.”
The old man nodded, lifting a trembling hand toward the jungissa. Ehiru lowered the stone so that Yeyezu could run fingers over its slick, fine-carved wings, though he kept a good grip on its body. Jungissa were too sacred for carelessness. Yeyezu’s wonder made him look much younger; Ehiru could not help smiling at this.
“She has tasted many of your dreams, Yeyezu-Elder,” he said, very gently drawing the jungissa out of the old man’s reach so he would hear Ehiru’s words. Yeyezu sighed, but lowered his hand. “She has drunk deeply of your hopes and fears. Now She bids you join Her in Ina-Karekh. Will you grant Her this final offering?”
“Gladly,” Yeyezu said, and closed his eyes.
So Ehiru bent and kissed the old man’s forehead. Fevered skin, delicate as papyrus, smoothed under his lips. When he pulled away and set the jungissa in place of his kiss, the stone quivered at a flick of his fingernail and then settled into a barely visible vibration. Yeyezu sagged into sleep, and Ehiru laid his fingertips on the old man’s eyelids to begin.
In the relative quiet of the city’s evening, the room sounded only of breath: first Ehiru’s and Yeyezu’s, then Ehiru’s alone. Amid the new silence—for the jungissa had stopped vibrating with the dream’s end—Ehiru stood for a few moments, letting the languor of the newly collected dreamblood spread within him. When he judged the moment right, he drew another ornament from his hip—this one a small hemisphere of obsidian whose flat face had been embossed with an oasis rose, the crevices tamped full of powdered ink. He pressed the carving carefully into the skin of Yeyezu’s bony, still chest, setting his signature upon the artwork of flesh. The smile that lingered on the elder’s cooling lips was even more beautiful.
“Dreams of joy always, my friend,” he whispered, before pulling away the sheet and arranging Yeyezu’s limbs into a peaceful, dignified position. Finally, as quietly as he’d entered, he left.
Now flight: along the rooftops of the city, swift and silent. A few blocks from Yeyezu’s house Ehiru stopped, dropping to the ground in the lee of an old broken wall. There he knelt amid the weeds and trembled. Once, as a younger man, he would have returned to the Hetawa after such a night’s work, overwhelmed with joy at the passing of a rich and full life. Only hours of prayer in the Hetawa’s Hall of Blessings could’ve restored his ability to function. He was no longer a young man. He was stronger now; he had learned discipline. Most nights he could perform a second Gathering, and occasionally a third if circumstances required—though three would leave him giddy and half a?dream, unsure of which realm he walked. Even a single soul’s dreamblood could still muddle his wits, for how could he not exult with Yeyezu’s happiness so palpable within him? Yet for the sake of other suffering citizens of Gujaareh, it was necessary to try. Twice he attempted to count by fours, a concentration exercise, but both times he failed at only four thousand and ninety-six. Pathetic. At last, however, his thoughts settled and the tremors ceased.
With some concern he saw that Dreaming Moon had reached zenith, her bright expanse glaring from the sky’s center like a great striped eye; the night was half over. Faster to cross this part of the city on the ground than by rooftop. After a moment’s pause to turn his loindrapes and don several gold ear-cuffs—for not even the poorest man in Gujaareh’s capital went without some ornamentation—Ehiru left the old wall and walked the streets as a man of no particular caste, nondescript in manner, taking care to slouch in order to lessen his stature. At such a late hour he saw only caravanners, making the final preparations for a journey on the morrow, and a yawning guardsman, doubtless headed for a night shift at one of the city gates. None of them noticed him.
The houses became less dense once he reached the highcaste district. He turned down a side street lit poorly with half-burned-out lanterns, and emerged amid a gaggle of young shunha men who reeked of a timbalin house and a woman’s stale perfume. They were laughing and staggering together, their wits slowed by the drug. He trailed in their wake for a block before they even marked his presence and then slipped aside, down another side street. This one led to the storage barn of the guesthouse he sought. The barn doors stood open, barrels of wine and twine-wrapped parcels in plain view along the walls—unmolested; Gujaareh’s few thieves knew better. Slipping into the shadows here, Ehiru removed his show-jewelry and turned his drapes once more, rolling and tying them so they would not flap. On one side, the drapes bore an unassuming pattern, but on the other—the side he wore now—they were completely black.
The day before, Ehiru had investigated the guesthouse. As shrewd as any merchant-casteman, the house’s proprietor kept his tower open year-round to cater to wealthy foreigners, many of whom disliked relocating during the spring floods. This tithebearer—a northern trader—had a private room in the tower, which was separated from the rest of the building by a flight of steep stairs. Convenient. Hananja made way when She wanted a thing done.
Within the house, the kitchen was dim, as was the serving chamber beyond. Ehiru moved past the table with its low cushions and through the house’s atrium garden, slowing as he turned aside fronds of palms and dangling ferns. Beyond the garden lay the sleeping chambers. Here he crept most stealthily of all, for even at such a late hour there could have been guests awake, but all of the rooms’ lanterns remained shuttered and he heard only slow, steady breathing from each curtained entrance. Good.
As he climbed the tower steps, Ehiru heard the trader’s unpeaceful snores even through the room’s heavy wooden door. Getting the door open without causing its hinges to creak took some doing, but he managed it while privately damning the outland custom of putting doors on inner chambers. Inside the room, the trader’s snores were so loud that the gauze curtains around his bed shivered in vibration. No wonder the proprietor had offered him the tower, and probably discounted the room. Still, Ehiru was cautious; he waited until a particularly harsh snort to part the curtains and gaze down at his next commission.
This close, the scent of the man mingled rancid sweat, stale grease, and other odors into a pungent mix that left Ehiru momentarily queasy. He had forgotten the infrequent bathing habits of people from the north. Though the night was cool and breezy, the northerner—a trader from the Bromarte people, the commission had specified, though in truth Ehiru had never been able to tell one northern tribe from another—sweated profusely, his pale skin flushed and rash-prickled as if he slept in high noon’s swelter. Ehiru studied that face for a moment, wondering what peace might be coaxed from the dreams of such a man.
There would be something, he decided at last, for Hananja would not have chosen him otherwise. The man was lucky. She did not often bestow Her blessings upon foreigners.
The Bromarte’s eyes already flickered beneath their lids; no jungissa was necessary to send him into the proper state of sleep. Laying fingers on the man’s eyelids, Ehiru willed his own soul to part from flesh, leaving its connection—the umblikeh—tethered in place so that he could follow it back when the time came. The bedchamber had become a shadow-place, colorless and insubstantial, when Ehiru opened his soul’s eyes. A reflection of the waking realm, unimportant. Only one thing had meaning in this halfway place between waking and dreaming: the delicate, shimmering red tether that emerged from somewhere near the Bromarte’s collarbones and trailed away into nothingness. This was the path the man’s soul had taken on its journey to Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams. It was a simple matter for Ehiru to follow the same path out and then in again.
When he opened his soul’s eyes this time, color and vast strangeness surrounded him, for he was in Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams. And here the dream of the Bromarte revealed itself. Charleron of Wenkinsclan, came the name to Ehiru’s consciousness, and he absorbed the name’s foreignness and as much as he could of the person who bore it. Not a soulname, but that was to be expected. Bromarte parents named their children for the hopes and needs of the waking world, not protection in sleep. By the reckoning of this Charleron’s people, his was a name of ambition. A name of hunger. And hunger was what filled the Bromarte’s soul: hunger for wealth, for respect, for things he himself could not name. Reflected in the dreamscapes of Ina-Karekh, these hungers had coalesced into a great yawning pit in the earth, its walls lined with countless disembodied, groping hands. Assuming his usual dreamform, Ehiru floated down through the hands and ignored their silent, scrabbling, blind need as he searched.
And there, at the bottom of the well of hands, weeping with fear and helplessness, knelt the manifestation of the unfortunately named Bromarte man. Charleron cringed between sobs, trying and failing to twist away from his own creations as the hands plucked at him again and again. They did him no harm and would have been only moderately frightening to any properly trained dreamer—but this was nevertheless the bile of dreams, Ehiru judged: black and bitter, necessary for health but unpleasant to the senses. He absorbed as much of it as he could for the Sharers, for there was much of use in dreambile even if Charleron might not agree. But he reserved space within himself for the most important humor, which after all was why he had come.
And as they always did, as the Goddess had decreed they must, the bearer of Hananja’s tithe looked up and saw Ehiru in his true, unadulterated shape.
“Who are you?” the Bromarte demanded, distracted momentarily from his terror. A hand grabbed his shoulder and he gasped and flinched away.
“Ehiru,” he said. He considered giving the man his soulname and then decided against it. Soulnames meant nothing to heathens. But to his surprise, the Bromarte’s eyes widened as if in recognition.
“Gualoh,” the Bromarte said, and through the filter of their shared dream, a whiff of meaning came to Ehiru. Some kind of frightening creature from their nightfire tales? He dismissed it: barbarian superstition.
“A servant of the Goddess of Dreams,” Ehiru corrected, crouching before the man. Hands plucked nervously at his skin and loincloth and the twin braids that dangled from his nape, responding to the Bromarte’s fear of him. He paid them no heed. “You have been chosen for Her. Come, and I will shepherd you to a better place than this, where you may live out eternity in peace.” He extended his hand.
The Bromarte leaped at him.
The movement caught Ehiru by such surprise that he almost failed to react in time—but no common man could best a Gatherer in dreaming. With a flick of his will, Ehiru banished the well of hands and replaced it with an innocuous desert of wind-waved dunes. This afforded him plenty of room to sidestep the Bromarte’s headlong rush. The Bromarte ran at him again, roaring obscenities; Ehiru opened and then closed the ground beneath the Bromarte’s feet, dropping him to the waist in sand.
Even thus pinned, the Bromarte cursed and flailed and wept, grabbing handfuls of the sand to fling at him—which Ehiru simply willed away. Then, frowning in puzzlement, he crouched to peer into the Bromarte’s face.
“It’s pointless to fight,” he said, and the Bromarte flinched into stillness at the sound of his voice, though Ehiru had kept his tone gentle. “Relax, and the journey will go soft.” Surely the Bromarte knew this? His people had been trading goods and seed with Gujaareh for centuries. In case that was the source of the Bromarte’s panic, Ehiru added, “There will be no pain.”
“Get away from me, gualoh! I’m not one of you mud-grubbers; I don’t need you feeding on my dreams!”
“It is true that you aren’t Gujaareen,” Ehiru replied. Without taking his attention from the man, he began adjusting the dreamscape to elicit calm. The clouds overhead became wispy and gentle, and he made the sand around the Bromarte’s dreamform finer, pleasant against the skin. “But foreigners have been Gathered before. The warning is given to all who choose to live and do business within our capital’s walls: Hananja’s city obeys Hananja’s Law.”
Something of Ehiru’s words finally seemed to penetrate the Bromarte’s panic. His bottom lip quivered. “I, I don’t want to die.” He was actually weeping, his shoulders heaving, so much that Ehiru could not help pitying him. It was terrible that the northerners had no narcomancy. They were helpless in dreaming, at the mercy of their nightmares, and none of them had any training in the sublimation of fear. How many had been lost to the shadowlands because of it? They had no Gatherers, either, to ease the way.
“Few people desire death,” Ehiru agreed. He reached out to stroke the man’s forehead, brushing thin hair aside, to reassure him. “Even my countrymen, who claim to love Hananja, sometimes fight their fate. But it’s the nature of the world that some must die so that others may live. You will die—early and unpleasantly if the whore’s disease you brought to Gujaareh runs its course. And in that time you might not only suffer, but spread your suffering to others. Why not die in peace and spread life instead?”
“Liar.” Suddenly the Bromarte’s face was piggish, his small eyes glittering with hate. The change came so abruptly that Ehiru faltered to silence, startled. “You call it a blessing of your Goddess, but I know what it really is.” He leaned forward; his breath had gone foul. “It gives you pleasure.”
Ehiru drew back from that breath, and the fouler words. Above their heads, the wispy clouds stopped drifting. “No Gatherer kills for pleasure.”
“ ‘No Gatherer kills for pleasure.’ ” The Bromarte drawled the words, mocking. “And what of those who do, Gatherer?” The Bromarte grinned, his teeth gleaming momentarily sharp. “Are they Gatherers no longer? There’s another name for those, yes? Is that how you tell your lie?”
Coldness passed through Ehiru; close on its heels came angry heat. “This is obscenity,” he snapped, “and I will hear no more of it.”
“Gatherers comfort the dying, yes?”
“Gatherers comfort those who believe in peace, and welcome Hananja’s blessing,” Ehiru snapped. “Gatherers can do little for unbelievers who mock Her comfort.” He got to his feet and scowled to himself in annoyance. The man’s nonsense had distracted him; the sand rippled and bubbled around them, heaving like the breath of a living thing. But before he could resume control of the dream and force the Bromarte’s mind to settle, a hand grasped his ankle. Startled, he looked down.
“They’re using you,” said the Bromarte.
Alarm stilled Ehiru’s mind. “What?”
The Bromarte nodded. His eyes were gentler now, his expression almost kind. As pitying as Ehiru himself had been, a moment before. “You will know. Soon. They’ll use you to nothing, and there will be no one to comfort you in the end, Gatherer.” He laughed and the landscape heaved around them, laughing with him. “Such a shame, Nsha Ehiru. Such a shame!”
Gooseflesh tightened Ehiru’s skin, though the skin was not real. The mind did what was necessary to protect the soul at such times, and Ehiru suddenly felt great need of protection—for the Bromarte knew his soulname, though he had not given it.
He jerked away from the man’s grip and pulled out of his dream in the same reflexive rush. But to Ehiru’s horror, the clumsy exit tore free the tether that bound the Bromarte to his flesh. Too soon! He had not moved the Bromarte to a safer place within the realm of dreams. And now the soul fluttered along in his wake like flotsam, twisting and fragmenting no matter how he tried to push it back toward Ina-Karekh. He collected the spilled dreamblood out of desperation but shuddered as it came into him sluggishly, clotted with fear and malice. In the dark between worlds, the Bromarte’s last laugh faded into silence.
Ehiru returned to himself with a gasp, and looked down. His gorge rose so powerfully that he stumbled away from the bed, leaning against the windowsill and sucking quick shallow breaths to keep from vomiting.
“Holiest mistress of comfort and peace . . .” He whispered the prayer in Sua out of habit, closing his eyes and still seeing the Bromarte’s dead face: eyes wide and bulging, mouth open, teeth bared in a hideous rictus. What had he done? O Hananja, forgive me for profaning Your rite.
He would leave no rose-signature behind this time. The final dream was never supposed to go so wrong—certainly not under the supervision of a Gatherer of his experience. He shuddered as he recalled the reek of the Bromarte’s breath, like that of something already rotted. Yet how much fouler had it been for the Bromarte, who had now been hurled through Ehiru’s carelessness into the nightmare hollows of Ina-Karekhfor all eternity? And that only if enough of his soul had been left intact to return.
Yet even as disgust gave way to grief, and even as Ehiru bowed beneath the weight of both, intuition sounded a faint warning in his mind.
He looked up. Beyond the window rose the rooftops of the city, and beyond those the glowing curve of the Dreamer sank steadily toward the horizon. Waking Moon peeked round its larger curve. The city had grown still in the last moments of Moonlight; even the thieves and lovers slept. All except himself—
—And a silhouette, hunched against the cistern on a nearby rooftop.
Ehiru frowned and pushed himself upright.
The figure straightened as he did, mirroring his movement. Ehiru could make out no details aside from shape: male, naked or nearly so, tall and yet oddly stooped in posture. Indeterminate features and caste, indeterminate intent.
No. That much, at least, was discernible. Ehiru could glean little else from the figure’s stillness, but malevolence whispered clearly in the wind between them.
The tableau lasted only a moment. Then the figure turned, climbed the cistern’s rope to its roof, and leaped onto an adjoining building and out of sight. The night became still once more. But not peaceful.
Gualoh, echoed the Bromarte’s voice in Ehiru’s memory. Not an insult, he realized, staring at where the figure had been. A warning.