Did you know that writing stories down kills them?
Of course it does. Words aren’t meant to be stiff, unchanging things. My family were talekeepers once, though now they make funerary urns and jars. Many, many generations ago, before pictorals and numeratics and hieratics, words were kept where they belong, in mouths. The people who made sure those words passed on were my ancestors. Written words did not kill my lineage’s purpose, though gone are the crowds — and the riches — we once commanded. We retell the stories regardless, because we know: stone is not eternal. Words can be.
So. At the beginning of time —
Yes, yes, I must begin with that greater story. I tell this in the Sua way, first the greater stories, then the lesser, because that is how it must be done. That was our bargain, yes? I will speak, and pass my tales on to you since I have no sons or daughters to keep them for me. When I finish speaking, you may summon my brethren, and I will go gladly to Hananja. So.
At the beginning of time the Sun was a swaggering oaf. He strutted about the heavens proclaiming his greatness day and night, heedless of the hardships he caused to the world below: rivers dying, deserts born, mountaintops burned ugly and bare. He shone himself brightly so that the two Moon Sisters would admire him and grant him their favor.
Waking Moon was a small and homely thing who rarely strayed far from her sister’s shadow, fearful of being alone. She permitted the Sun her pleasures and he continued swaggering about, more certain than ever of his greatness.
But Dreaming Moon was full and beautiful. She loved the dark places and the cool nights, and sometimes she would gaze down into the ocean to paint her face with four bands of color: red for blood, white for seed, yellow for ichor, and black for bile. She felt no pressing need for a lover, and she found Sun’s behavior offensive, so she scorned his attempts to court her.
Sun grew mad with longing for her, and even Waking Moon could not distract him from his lust. He sought solace in smaller, younger Stars, who would sometimes bend themselves to him, but at last his desire became too great even for that. He fell to the earth and masturbated, and when his climax came the earth tore and the heavens split and a great white spear of his seed flew forth and struck Dreaming Moon. Where the earth opened, plants and beasts emerged and began to spread across the land. Where the Dreamer was struck, gods came forth and began to spread across the heavens.
In a fury at this great insult, Dreaming Moon declared that if Sun could not control himself, she would control him. So she demanded that he bring her gifts to make amends and food to feed the children he had so carelessly spawned. She confined him to the day, where he could swagger as much as he wished and no longer annoy her with his foolishness. She forbade him ever to lie upon the earth again, lest his lustful inclinations lead to more chaos. Meekly he submitted to these restrictions, for she was powerful with magic and he desired her still, and if this was the only way she would have him, then so it must be.
Now they live apart as husband and wife, she in the night and he in the day. Always he longs for her, and the days shorten and lengthen as he strains to rise earlier, set later, all for a chance to glimpse her. With time she has grown fond of him, for he has been humble and well-behaved since their marriage. Every so often, she rises early so he can gaze upon her. Once in a great while she lets him catch up to her, and he darkens his face to please her, and they join in careful lovemaking. And sometimes in the night when he cannot see her, she misses his foolish antics and pines for him, and darkens her own face. She is always bright again when he returns.
Give Hananja peace and She shall dream peace and so return peace upon the dreamer. Give Her fear or suffering and She shall dream these, and return the same. Thus is peace made law. That which threatens peace is corruption. War is the greatest of evils. (Law)
There was magic in Gujaareh.
So the Protectors had warned all Kisua. Yet Sunandi’s master Kinja Seh Kalabsha had required her to study Gujaareen magic as part of her apprenticeship, though it made the elders shake their heads and the sonha nobles sigh. Kinja had been adamant, however. Magic was mother’s milk to the people of Gujaareh. They were steeped in its necessity, proud of its benefits, dismissive of its consequences. It was impossible to understand Gujaareh without understanding the source of its power.
And so Sunandi had learned. Gujaareen magic centered around the powers of healing, which the Hetawa — the governing temple of the Hananjan faith — controlled. But though the Hananjan priests served as gatekeepers for the magic, they were not its source. The people of Gujaareh made the magic, in the wild bursts of imagination and emotion called dreams; the Hananjans simply harvested that wildness and refined it into a purer, usable form. And so Gujaareen citizens brought their nightmares and nonsense dreams to the temples, where the priests called Sharers used them to shrink tumors or speed the healing of wounds. Sometimes a different kind of healing was needed, perhaps to regrow a severed limb or end a disease passed down through the lineage. Then Hananja’s whores would go forth — no, Sunandi chided herself. Dangerous even to think with the usual Kisuati scorn while within Gujaareh’s borders. Hananja’s Sisters, they were called, though a handful were males in female garb; more Gujaareen strangeness. In solemn rites the Sisters would coax forth the most carnal dreams from Her supplicants, and those too would be given to the Sharers for the good of all.
And for those citizens of Gujaareh who were too old, or too sick, or too selfish to bring their offerings to the Hetawa… there were the priests called Gatherers.
Oh yes, there was magic in Gujaareh. Great, reeking heaps of it.
“You’re afraid,” observed the Prince.
Sunandi blinked out of her reverie to find him smiling at her, unapologetic. It was the Gujaareen way to speak of such things — desires that should remain private, concealed anxieties. He knew it was not the Kisuati way.
“You hide it well,” he continued, “but it shows. Mostly in your silence. You’ve been so forceful up until now that the change is striking. Or is it that you find me a poor conversationalist?”
If only Kinja had not died, Sunandi thought behind the mask of her answering smile. He had understood the peculiarities and contradictions of Gujaareh better than anyone else in Kisua. In this land flowers bloomed at night and the river created lush farmlands in the heart of a desert. Here politics was half religion and half riddle, for under Hananja’s Law even a hint of corruption was punishable by death. And here Sunandi had discovered that even Kinja could make mistakes, for though he had taught her the language and the magic and the customs, he had not been a woman. He had never been forced to contend with the most elegant, most dangerous charms of Gujaareh’s Sunset Prince.
“I’m forceful when force is needed,” Sunandi replied. She waved a hand: a touch of unconcern, a hint of coquetry. “Trade discussions with the zhinha most definitely require it. I was under the impression, however, that this meeting between us was…” She pretended to grope for the word in Gujaareen although she suspected that he, unlike most of his countrymen, would not be so easily lulled by her accent and feigned ignorance. “How do you say it? Less official. More… intimate.”
“Oh, it is.” His gaze followed her every movement; the smile had not left his face.
She inclined her head. “Then here I may be more myself. If you read fear in my silence, I assure you that it has nothing to do with you.” She smiled to soften the snub. His eyes flared with a mingling of amusement and interest, as they always seemed to do when she parried his verbal feints. Small wonder he found her so alluring; to Sunandi’s mind, Gujaareen women were painfully demure.
The Prince abruptly rose from his couch and sauntered over to the terrace railing. For a moment Sunandi set aside subtlety to drink her fill of the sight unobserved — though there was hardly any need to conceal her interest. The Prince’s movements were studied, the epitome of grace; he knew full well she was watching. The black ropes of his hair had been threaded with cylinders of gold and strings of minute pearls, and this mane surrounded a face that was fine-planed and flawless, apart from the misfortune of his coloring. Ageless, like his lean warrior’s body. Here in his private quarters he’d shunned the more elaborate collars and adornments of his office for a simple loinskirt and feathered waistcloak. The plumes of the cloak whispered as they swept the floor’s tiles behind him.
He stopped beside a raised plinth bearing a platter, gazed at it for a moment as if to assure himself of the suitability of its contents, then brought the platter over to her. He knelt with studied grace before the bench she’d chosen and offered the platter to her with his head bowed, humble as any lowcaste servant.
On the platter lay a profusion of delicacies for the taking: crisp vegetables flecked with hekeh-seed and sea salt, balls of grain held together with honey and aromatic oil, medallions of fresh fish tied into bundles around wine-soaked raisins. And more, each arranged in neat rows of four — forty in all. An auspicious number by Gujaareen reckoning.
Sunandi smiled at that implicit hopeful message. After a moment’s consideration she selected a wafer of sugar-stalk around which some sort of river crustacean had been baked. He waited while she took her time chewing, savoring the salt-sweet flavor; that was the proper way to show appreciation in both Gujaareen and Kisuati custom. Then she inclined her head in acceptance of the offering. He set the platter on his knee and began feeding her more with his fingers, showing no sign of eagerness or haste.
“Kisuati speak often of Gujaareen courting-customs,” Sunandi said while he selected another morsel. “My people find it amusing that men here use food to lure women into pleasure. In our land it is the opposite.”
“The food is only a symbol,” the Prince replied. His voice was low and smooth, and he spoke softly as if to soothe a wild animal. “It is the act of offering that — hopefully — tempts a woman. Some offer jewels; the shunha and zhinha favor such things as a mark of status. Lowcastes offer poetry or song.” He shrugged. “I feared that jewels, given our relative positions, might be misconstrued as a bribe. And poetry is such a subjective thing. Offerings can offend, after all.” He gave her something redolent of nutmeg, and wonderful. “Delicacies, however, tempt the appetites.”
She licked her lips, amused. “Whose appetites, I wonder?”
“The woman’s, of course. Men need little incentive to take pleasure.” He smiled self-deprecatingly. Sunandi resisted the urge to roll her eyes at his foolishness. “And we Gujaareen revere our women.”
“As much as you revere your goddess?” The statement edged along their notion of blasphemy, but the Prince only laughed.
“Women are goddesses,” he replied. She opened her mouth and he placed the next item on her tongue, where it melted in an exquisite mix of flavors. She closed her eyes and caught her breath, inadvertently overwhelmed, and saw when she opened them again that his grin had widened. “They birth and shape the dreamers of the world. What better courtship can a man offer than worship?”
“Until you’ve had your pleasure. Then your goddesses return to making babies and keeping house.”
“Just so. Honorable men continue to make offerings to them, though the offerings are nightly pleasure and helpful tools rather than frivolities.” His eyes snapped with humor as if he sensed how much his words irritated her. “So you must forgive my courtiers and counselors if they are uneasy at having to deal with you as Kisua’s Voice. In their eyes you should be secure in some man’s kitchen, receiving the adulation that is your just due.”
She laughed, not as gently as he. “Would they be displeased to find me here with you now?”
“Doubtful. A man and a woman associating for pleasure makes far more sense to them than a man and a woman associating for business.”
When Sunandi politely turned away the next morsel, he set aside the platter and took her hands, pulling her to stand. She rose with him, curious to see how far he meant to go. “In fact,” said the Prince, “they will actually be pleased that I have seduced the Voice of Kisua. No doubt they’ll expect you to become more acquiescent after a day and a night spent offering dreams of ecstasy to Hananja.” He shrugged one shoulder. “They do not understand outland women.”
A day and a night. Mnedza’s Hands, he had a high opinion of himself.
“I see,” she said, keeping her face serene. The Prince made no move to pull her against him, did nothing more than hold her hands and gaze into her eyes. She met his eyes without wavering, wondering what a Gujaareen woman would do in such a situation. He had strange eyes: a clear, pale brown, like polished amber from the tall forests across the sea. His skin was of a nearly matching shade — not unattractive, but certainly improper for a nobleman. Amazing that these Gujaareen had allowed even their royal lineage to be diluted by northerners.
She decided to banter. “And you understand outland women?”
“I have two hundred and fifty-six wives,” he replied, his voice rippling with amusement. “I can understand any woman.”
She laughed again, and after a moment’s further consideration stepped closer. His hands tightened immediately, pulling her nearer still until her breasts brushed against his chest through the folds of her gown. He leaned close, putting his face beside hers, cheek against cheek. He smelled of sandalwood and moontear blossoms.
“You find me amusing, Sunandi Jeh Kalawe?” His voice held only the barest hint of roughness; the lust was in him, but firmly controlled.
“I am a woman, my lord,” she replied, in the same tone he’d used a moment before. “I find any man amusing.”
He chuckled, breath warm against her ear, and began pulling her toward the couch, his grip coaxing her to stay close. “You’ll find I’m unlike any man you know, Sunandi.”
“Because of your great experience?” She posed the question carefully, knowing he would sense her true meaning but leaving him an safe outlet. He had two hundred and fifty-six wives, and was duty-bound to please them all. He was also far older than he looked. No one knew his age for certain, but he had ruled Gujaareh for more than thirty floods, and he didn’t look a day over that much. His lineage was famous for its longevity, said to be the gift of the Sun’s scions.
But the Prince only sat down as they reached the couch, pulling her to sit beside him. Not until she was seated did he release her hands, shifting his grip to her hips instead.
“Because I am the Avatar of Hananja,” he said, his golden eyes hungry as a lion’s, “and I will give you beautiful dreams.”
* * *
Once their business was concluded and the Prince slept, Sunandi rose from the couch to attend herself in the wash-chamber. She took care to confine her exploration of the Prince’s apartments only to what was in sight, for there was no telling when he might wake and come looking for her. Though she had expected to find nothing of note, her attention was caught in his study, where an iron case bristling with four elaborate eastern locks sat bolted to the desk.
There, she realized with a chill. The secret she had come to Gujaareh to find: it was there.
But she did not approach the case, not yet. Most likely it held dangerous traps; Gujaareen were fond of those. Instead she returned to the terrace, where with some unease she found the Prince awake, as alert as if he had never slept, and waiting for her.
“Find anything interesting?” His smile was a sphinx’s.
She returned it. “Only you,” she said, and lay down beside him again.
* * *
She returned to her suite late that night, just as the Dreamer passed zenith. The Prince had not made good on his boast of a full day and night of pleasure, but he’d given a respectable accounting of himself nevertheless. The pleasurable aches she felt in the aftermath told her that it was probably just as well. She’d gotten out of practice; by morning she would doubtless be sore.
More important matters claimed her attention as soon as she crossed the threshold of her suite, however, where Lin waited for her.
Few of the Gujaareen had paid any heed to the skinny, wheat-haired child among the other pages in Sunandi’s entourage. Northblooded youngsters were common in Gujaareh, and in any case it was the fashion for nobles of both lands to keep a few curiosities on hand as entertainers. It pleased her to let them think this was her only purpose.
“A long appointment, mistress,” the girl said, speaking in Sua since they were alone. She lounged across a chair in the corner, her impish face not quite daring a smile.
“The Prince was kind enough to teach me a few Gujaareen customs that Master Kinja neglected.”
“Ah, a valuable lesson, then. Did you learn much?”
Sunandi sighed, flopping onto a suede-covered bench that reminded her obliquely of the Prince’s couch. Not as comfortable, sadly; her aches twinged. “Not as much as I’d hoped. Still, further tutorings might prove useful.”
“That knowledgeable, is he? A hint, mistress: question him before the lesson begins.”
She leveled a look at Lin. “Disrespectful infant. You must have found something if you’re so insufferably smug.”
In answer, Lin held up a hand. In it lay a tiny scroll barely as long as her forefinger. When Sunandi sat up in interest, she crossed the room to offer it to Sunandi — keeping to the shadows, Sunandi noted, and away from the open window. She filed this oddity away to ponder another time, however, snatching the scroll from Lin’s hand. “You found it!”
“Yes, ‘Nandi. It’s in Master Kinja’s hand, I’d swear, and…” She hesitated, glancing toward the window again. “It speaks of things no Gujaareen would commit to print.”
Sunandi threw her a sharp glance. Her expression was unusually grim.
“If it’s that serious, I’ll send the scroll back to Kisua. But I’m not yet certain how far some of Kinja’s old contacts can be trusted… especially the Gujaareen ones.” She sighed in annoyance. “You might have to go, Lin.”
Lin shrugged. “I was getting tired of this place anyway. It’s too dry here, and the sun makes me red; I itch constantly.”
“You complain like a highcaste matron,” Sunandi replied. She opened the scroll and scanned the first scrawled numeratics, translating the code in her mind. “Next I’ll find you demanding servants to oil your spoiled backside — groveling Sun!”
Lin jumped. “Keep your voice down! Have you forgotten there are no doors?”
“Where did you find this?”
“General Niyes’s office, here in the palace. — Yes, I know. But I think it’s all right. The general claimed some of Master Kinja’s things because they’d been friends. One of the decorative masks. I don’t think Niyes noticed the false backing.”
Sunandi’s hands shook as she read further. The scroll was not long; Kinja had been spare but eloquent in the limited space. When she reached the end she sat back against the wall, her mind churning and her heart tightening with belated grief.
Kinja had been murdered. She had suspected, but the confirmation was a bitter tea. The Gujaareen had called it a heart-seizure, something too swift and severe for even their magic to cure. But Sunandi knew there were also poisons that could trigger heart-seizures, and other techniques to make death look natural. Here in Gujaareh, where only custom and curtains kept a bedroom secure, it would have been easy. And why not, given what Kinja had discovered? Monsters in the shadows. Magic so foul that even their murderous priests would cry abomination — if they ever learned of it. Clearly, someone meant to make certain they did not.
But now Sunandi knew those secrets. Not all of them by far, but enough to put her in danger of Kinja’s fate.
Lin edged close, concern plain on her face. Sunandi smiled sadly at her, reaching up to smooth a hand over her thin, flat hair. Her sister of the heart, if not the lineage. Kinja had not adopted Lin outright as he had Sunandi — foreigners had no legal standing in Kisua — but Lin had proven her worth time and again over the years. Now it seemed Sunandi would have to force her to prove it once more. She was barely thirteen…
And she was the only one out of their whole delegation who could escape the palace and city without alerting the Gujaareen. It was why Sunandi had brought the girl, knowing they would never expect a Kisuati to entrust vital secrets to a northerner. And Lin was no untried innocent; she had survived alone on the streets of Kisua’s capital for years. With aid from their contacts, she could handle the journey.
Unless Sunandi’s enemies knew she had been sent to look for this. Unless the scroll had been left in place as a trap. Unless they knew of Kinja’s penchant for finding and training talented youngsters.
Unless they sent their Reaper.
She shivered. Lin read her face and nodded to herself. She took the scroll from Sunandi’s limp fingers, rerolled it, and tucked it out of sight in her linen skirt.
“Shall I go tonight, or wait until after the Hamyan celebration?” she asked. “It means two days’ delay, but it should be easier to slip out of the city then.”
Sunandi could have wept. Instead she pulled Lin close and held her tightly, and shaped her thoughts into a fervent prayer that she hoped the mad bitch Hananja could not hear.