A Tale of Woe

Issue #253

Rana sat on the cracked granite steps of the prayer pools at the outskirts of the city of Aruth, listening as the old fisherman poured out his sorrow. It flowed from him like a breached dam, flooding the space between them with memories and regrets. She looked past his words, past the lines of grief etched on his worn face, and eyed the woe that clung to him—enough to fill scrolls that amounted to a lifetime. One, larger than the rest, told of a son: a young man with a boy’s face sent off to war, never to return. It wound thick tendrils about the fisherman’s neck, choking away his life.

His woe reminded Rana of the soft-bodied sea creatures she’d seen for sale at market, whose stinging tentacles were a delicacy here in Aruth. Perhaps it was because the fisherman’s life dealt with the sea; or perhaps knowing his work, she simply imagined it so. Woe was different for each person, after all. And whether it took its shape from the harvester or the harvested was still a matter of debate among the Order of Soothers, who kept a list of its many observed forms. Whatever the case, this one would kill if it remained—as deadly as any cancer.

She conjured up her shearing scissor, a thing of ethereal blades rather than metal. Soothers were taught to visualize their tools. And her father, a seamster by trade, had left an indelible impression. In Jiba, had she been born a boy, she might have taken up such men’s work. As it was, her talents took her on another path. Placing the scissors’ sharp edge to a pale gray tendril, she began her meticulous work.

None who strolled the early morning were aware of anything amiss. Not the passing Bo holy women with food offerings piled atop their braided hair. Nor the Janeesh eunuchs that followed, swathed from the waist in cerise gauze that did little to conceal their shorn manhood. The Goddess of Sorrows had not blessed them with the gift of sight. All their eyes glimpsed was a young woman in a pleated sun gold dress with the long black limbs of Jiba—whose face lay hidden in the cowls of a blood-red caffa as she sat listening to an old man babble away his misery. Two more pilgrims in the holy city for Jubilee, come to the prayer pools seeking hope, truth, or absolution.

Rana, Rana, seamster’s daugh-ter.

Watch her cut and watch her snip

The Goddess’s own little dress-maker.

Rana fumbled at the singsong verse flittering across her thoughts. Lika’s diddy, more endearment than taunt—a child’s tentative offerings of friendship. It sent her stomach into knots. She hurriedly buried the recollection away, cutting the last of the woe’s appendages and then reaching out. Or rather she imagined doing so, extending a set of ghostly fingers to pry the fleshy mass from its moorings. The fisherman’s words cut off as his woe came free, and his leathery face fixed with wonder. She slipped the harvested woe into her satchel. Not a real satchel. But like her scissor, just the place she imagined such things should go. The man would forever carry the loss of his son. But at least now, the wound could heal.

Before he could recover, Rana reached into his waist purse and drew out a fistful of silver ibis-marked coins. The Order forbade stealing, but the Goddess of Sorrows was owed her proper due. She counted out a fair amount, returned the rest, then leaned forward to anoint the man with the blessings of Soothing—two fingers to forehead, lips, and heart. Finishing, she tucked her coiled hair into the hooded caffa and rose up from the steps of the prayer pool, leaving the fisherman where he sat in stupor and making her way into the bustling humanity of Aruth.

The holy city was one of the twelve wonders of the Southern continent, second only perhaps to the Floating Terrace Gardens of Ilm or the Great Orrey in the mechanical city of Kons. Built in a set of concentric circles, its great walls of stone were designed to mathematical precision. Not a flow of water or draft of air traveled its passageways by chance, guided instead by the will of divine architecture.

Rana walked one of those passages now: a set of winding stairs that led to a square with a row of buildings sitting almost lopsided one upon the other—apothecary shops, by their look, giving off the pungent scent of herbs and powders. The quiet of the morning was broken by a coffle of chained men marched past under guard: conscripts who had tried to elude Aruth’s mandatory draft, now vital for a city constantly at war. Their bleak faces were as palpable as the woe that shrouded them, and she wondered to what new conflict they would be sent. It was too much to bear all at once. Pulling her eyes away, she scrambled atop a statue and perched onto its front, ignoring the glowering disapproval of shopkeepers. Sitting back, she closed her eyes and began the breathing rituals taught by the Order.

“You’ll anger the healers, sitting up there like that.”

Rana looked down at the wiry man who’d appeared at the base of the statue. He averted his eyes before her gaze could touch him.

“I only mean, lady, that this is a herald who delivers prayers to the Ten Lords of Medicines. Some might take offense.”

She took in the statue for the first time, with its broad wings and the scrolls that sat between a pair of lion-headed jaws. A Herald of the Ten Lords, was it? Well, that would explain the shopkeepers’ severe looks. Gathering the ends of her skirts beneath her, she climbed down and landed on her feet.

“Eldra,” she greeted. “I wasn’t expecting you so early.” In truth, she had half-hoped he would not come. Eldra was a citizen of Aruth, a former granary clerk who had fallen on hard times and taken to squandering away what little he had on yellow poppy. She’d found him in an alley, with woe like pale worms burrowing into his flesh. He grew it back as quick as she could harvest it, unable to break the poppy’s siren call. His legs wobbled even now, like a newborn sea calf whose long-fins hadn’t yet adjusted to land.

“I’ve found what you requested, lady,” he trilled, running fingers through thinning flaxen hair. Rana twitched involuntarily at the honorific. She’d repeatedly told the man she wasn’t nobility. But he insisted on giving her a title—a very Aruth quality. He bent in close to whisper, “Passage to the Inner Rings and the Tower itself!”

She suppressed an inhale of breath, and the viper that had grown up in the pit of her stomach these past few days sank its fangs deep. There it was, then. The path she had so long dreaded, now laid out before her. “I’m pleased, Eldra,” she replied, keeping her voice even. “Do you wish your soothing now?”

Eldra’s eyes quivered. “Please lady.” His whisper was almost a whine.

He flinched at her touch but allowed her to tilt his chin to meet her eyes. His face went slack in her gaze, and his tongue was soon babbling out his miseries. Quick snips of her scissors removed the worst of his woe. Slipping it into her satchel, she anointed him with the Blessings of Soothing and waited as he emerged from the stupor.

A sense of relief and clarity filled his face: the peace allowed between imbibings of the yellow poppy that slowly consumed him. The Goddess’s due was usually taken in coins, but Eldra had other uses. When he regained himself she asked: “You say you’ve found passage for me to the Inner Rings and to the Tower? When can we leave?”

“Now lady! I can have you there by midday!”

Rana nodded, shifting the unseen weight that lay heavy on her shoulders, and signaled for him to lead. He took her along one of the city’s winding pathways. There, beggars and the infirmed called out for alms, prayer, or the dignity of recognition. Vestals of Grace moved about them in stout gray woolens, their faces veiled in ash. The sistren handed out small rounds of fried bread and strips of salted fish to the impoverished, whose numbers seemed to grow by the day. Children counted for more than a few and were treated to a thimble’s worth of sweet milk that they hugged like treasure. In Aruth, place and hierarchy were as precise as its building. The Outer Rings served as slums, packed with the hungry, the desperate, and the swelling ranks of the city’s unfortunate.

Rana spared them as much of a glance as she could while hurrying past, the woe that marked each coming to her unbidden. The gaunt man swarmed by albino eels was being devoured by his memories of war. Another adorned in spinning gold coins had lost his riches. The girl who wore armor fashioned from swirling daggers had been hurt terribly—and wouldn’t allow it to happen again.

Rana released a weary breath. The gift of the Goddess of Sorrows could be burdensome. And this was more woe than even a Soother of her talents could harvest.

You weren’t sent here for charity, little dressmaker, Lika whispered.

At a rise, she stopped to look out at Aruth’s center, towards which wealth and power flowed. Past golden domes and colonnaded temples, a black needle of stone extended from earth to heaven—the Tower of Exultation, where sat the Grand Benevolence, divine sovereign of Aruth. Her true destination.

A trouble does not vanish because it is not faced, Lika mocked in recitation.

Rana peeled her eyes away and resumed following her guide. Eldra took them into a busy market, where hawkers and buyers dickered over goods. The scents of cooking wafted in the morning air, and small flightless stepper birds ran two and fro in their path: yellow blurs that pecked up what morsels they could. Convincing herself it was hunger rather than further avoidance, Rana insisted they stop to buy a meat pie from one of the market’s stalls. She needed to clear her head of doubt, and filling her rumbling belly might do the trick. The pie wasn’t as spicy as what she was used to in Jiba but at least not bland. She chewed it contently and tried to center her thoughts.

“Come lady,” Eldra called, anxious. “We can’t dawdle.”

Rana wanted to glare at him. But he was right. Time enough had been wasted. Downing the last of the pie in quick bites, she made again to follow him—only to find their path blocked. A cluster of Ooshi monks in pristine white robes moved through the market, surrounded by burly men with staves and cudgels. Aruth’s temples were in continuous competition, each jostling for place in the established hierarchies. But that had always been a matter of stealing away adherents, securing patrons, and crafty maneuvering. Now there was open feuding, leaving acolytes dead in the streets with knives between their ribs. It was as if the very fabric of the city was coming apart.

She and Eldra stepped to the side to avoid to avoid the monks. As the procession passed, her gaze again went to the distance. The Tower of Exultation cut a sharp line into the morning sky, breaking the rays of blood-orange sunlight about it. The imposing stone needle seemed to beckon, or perhaps, Rana thought, the Goddess pressed her forward. Turning over her hand, she traced a finger along the marking inked onto her wrist—a small black moon swallowed in a circle. The weight of it pulled at her.

“It feels heavier somehow,” Lika whispered.

Rana looked down to the marking on her wrist.

“The Goddess has given you her greatest blessing and responsibility,” leathery Elder Awan intoned. “Remember always you are but a servant and the Goddess will guide.”

They recited the mantra three times as was ritual.

“Why would the Goddess gift this power and keep us servants?” Lika asked.

A few gasps went up from the gathered Soothers.

“Soothers serve the world child,” Elder Awan replied sharply.

“We change the world,” Lika countered.

“Only as the Goddess commands,” Elder Awan corrected. “Only to keep balance. We place our trust in the path She provides.”

“A goddess who feeds on sorrow?” Lika quipped. “Maybe the world would be better in our hands than hers.”

There were fresh gasps. A young Intermediate raised a whip-rod to lash, but Elder Awan stayed it. This time her voice was soft.

“You could not have saved them, child.”

Beside her, Rana felt Lika’s body stiffen like a cord gone taught. She said no more, her gaze stoic even in the face of her tears. Rana slipped small fingers into her friend’s hand and felt her grip tighten in turn. She did not let go.

“Lady?” Eldra questioned. “You are ready?”

Rana broke from her memories. With a nod, she signaled for Eldra to once more lead. He took her deeper into the Outermost Ring, down dark alleys and side streets. Here the destitute scratched out what life they could—women washing the faces of their babes in squalid water; young men peeking hungrily from beneath wrapped faces like jackals; the old laying in squalid shanties that looked ready to topple at the slightest provocation.

Rana watched in dismay and growing disgust. She had been sent to Aruth by the Order of Soothers, tasked with bringing the blessings of Soothing to the Grand Benevolence. Instead, she had avoided that responsibility now for days, dallying among the destitute, convincing herself that she was doing the Goddess’s work. Yet the more woe she harvested, the more she came to see that the root of the city’s decay lay in its heart. All her attempts at delay only served to illuminate that truth. The enormity of it threatened to overwhelm her, and she forced her steps faster.

Her guide never spoke, his wobbling pace quickening to match her speed. They did not stop until reaching an alley. It was surrounded on either side by high stone walls, over which people had thrown their refuse. The waste littered the cobblestones, sending up a sour stench in the morning heat.

“Here we wait,” Eldra announced, squatting feet away from a dog’s bloated corpse.

“How long?” Rana asked, her irritation growing.

“Not long, lady,” Eldra assured. “The ones I booked passage with should arrive in short time. I promise.”

She sighed, pulling the caffa firm about her face to ward off the offensive odors. If the man had no complaint of his environs, neither would she—though she would have preferred the rats not get so close.

“Are there many like you in Jiba, lady?” Eldra ventured.

Rana looked up at him in surprise. He never spoke, not without prodding. He cast his eyes down hurriedly. “I only mean... I can’t explain what you do, but I have heard things—about Jiba women.”

Rana weighed her reply. The Order kept its existence a secret to those beyond Jiba. Rumors of mystics and fortunetellers were all outsiders knew. “No,” she answered finally. “It is rare. But every girl is tested for the gift.”

“Girls? This is a thing which mothers teach their daughters?”

Rana gave a slight smile in spite of her mood. In Jiba, fathers cared for and taught children. Mothers could hardly be bothered. “We leave our homes to learn among others with our gift.”

“And your family, you don’t see them again?”

Rana’s mouth tightened at the question. It was to a family’s honor if their daughter was chosen to serve the Goddess of Sorrows. So she had been taught. Then why was it that all she could remember of the morning she had been taken from her father’s arms were his tears? “No,” she answered, aware of the hardness in her voice. Eldra must have sensed it as well, for he risked a peek at her—as if he could see the woe she carried.

“With what you can do lady, why do you even need my help? Why you could walk past every sentry from here to the Inner Rings, march right up to the Tower even!”

If only it were so easy, Rana thought. “The one I serve takes what I give in offering. But I am mindful not to ply her with too much.”

“Serve? A Goddess then. Aye, we know well of them in Aruth, lady. Give them too much of what they crave, and they’ll be greedy for it—like it was yellow poppy.”

An apt comparison, Rana admitted. “There is a saying in Jiba about the one I serve. The Goddess, she devours, if you allow her.”

Eldra contemplated that for a moment. “You could do so much with your gift. But you come here. You help the likes of me. Beg pardon for my asking lady, but why?”

Why indeed, Rana pondered. Because she’d sought to put off a duty she feared to face? One handed down by a council of old women in a faraway Order? All to satiate the hunger of a Goddess who craved the troubles of mortals? “I go where I’m needed,” she told him instead. “At the time, your need seemed greatest.”

Eldra winced, and his ever-present woe grew larger. Rana read it in an instant. Was that guilt? He looked to be on the verge of saying something when his eyes angled behind her.

The blow to the back of Rana’s head was still a surprise.

Falling dizzily to hands and knees she tried to rise, but someone was already hoisting her up. She caught a glimpse of Eldra who remained where he squatted, his eyes squeezed shut. Now she could easily see the fresh woe that sprouted from him. Not just guilt but betrayal. How had she missed it? How had she been so careless? She tried to speak, but her tongue felt thick and heavy. Then something black enveloped her head, removing sight before she was lifted and carried. Between the pain of her swimming head she could only think with embarrassment on the ease of her capture. And then blackness claimed her.

“Enough, Lika!”

Rana cringed at the Bagri clan leader’s horror-stricken visage, as woe after woe struck him in succession. Lika’s face was unbending stone as she wielded judgment.

Rana grabbed her arm, and Lika whirled on her then, eyes ablaze. Her friend held an anger tight within. She usually kept it under control. But not today.

This was their first test as full sisters. They had been sent to seek a Bagri chieftain among the Sand Wave Riders of Errith, who stirred troubles among the other clans. They were charged to find what drove his recklessness, and to bring him the blessings of Soothing to retrain his fiery spirit. That was not what happened.

“You have no right, Lika!” Rana insisted. She looked down to the Bagri, an elder man with bronze skin covered in scars of rank and wrapped in indigo robes. His eyelids fluttered as his body convulsed, trying to hold more grief and woe than any soul could. Carefully she began to cut some of it away, hoping to ease his pain.

“No right?” Lika hissed. “He has murdered! He has slaughtered children!”

“Not by his hands,” Rana countered.

“By his orders, then. His hands still hold blood!”

Rana could not argue that. And did not need to. “Whatever his actions, he was spared the ultimate blessing of Soothing. What you’ve done is ignored the judgment of the Goddess, and passed your own.”

“We know what he’s done. He will do it again! Why does he get to live while others do not?”

Rana had no explanation. For all her power she was mortal, and did not understand the ways of gods. But she did have an answer. “Because the Goddess wills it.”

Rana’s eyes flew open. She swept away the past like dust gathered at her door. Pushing past the pain that rang in her head, she gauged her surroundings. She lay on her side, gagged and with hands bound—trussed up like a grouse for dinner. A cloth covered her head, robbing her of sight. But she could still feel. The surface beneath her was soft. Cushions. And there was the sensation of moving; a carriage then, though the sound of machinery was hard to identify.

She cursed behind her gag. She should have been able to read Eldra’s coming betrayal. But she had been distracted: by this city drowning in its misery, the doubts curled about the pit of her stomach, the memories that haunted her waking dreams. She needed to find focus, in her faith, in her purpose. She was no first-year initiate but a full sister and Soother of Jiba. It was far time she began behaving as one. Performing a breathing exercise to sharpen her thoughts, she willed herself calm and sought the Goddess’s clarity.

If she was in a carriage, it was likely being driven by her kidnappers. She needed to get their attention. Stretching her legs, she began to kick furiously at the carriage’s interior.

“Quiet down, you!” someone called from outside.

She gave a muffled cry in answer and another set of kicks.

“No need for all that, lass,” the voice squawked like a crow. “You wanted to get into the Inner Rings. Turns out, the High Lady Suwe wants to see you as well. That poppy piper sold you to us for a few coppers, and we’ll hand you over to her, see? Be eating a midday meal in no time. Just settle down, and don’t give any trouble.”

Rana stifled away her anger at Eldra and collected these precious bits of insight. The High Lady Suwe. So, a noblewoman was responsible for her capture. Interesting. Still, she didn’t like the idea of being kidnapped—or sold for so cheap. She started up the kicking again.

“Thought you said you hit her good?” another voice growled. This one like a bear.

“I did!” Crow insisted.

“Well she’s kicking now. And making a damn set of noise.”

“Quit your bother. No one’s going to stop a carriage owned by the High Lady.”

Bear grunted. “Maybe. But the High Lady don’t like it for people to think she’s the sort into snatching. Get back there and thump her proper to get her quiet.”

“Fine then!” Crow snapped. “Pull over down one of these backstreets.”

The carriage did turn then and came to a stop. Rana listened as booted footsteps made their way closer. A door creaked open and someone hopped inside. “Told you to quiet down,” Crow hissed. He came closer, enough for her to smell the sweet tabac smoke on his clothes. “Now I’ll have to—”

Rana didn’t wait for him to finish, using the sound to gauge where he was and delivering several swift kicks. She’d always been good at kicking. The man groaned. He grabbed her, turning her roughly onto her back and ripping the cloth sack away.

Crow was sturdier than she expected, and his jowls trembled with rage. “Jiba bitch!” he growled, lifting a truncheon of knotted leather. But he had made a grave mistake in revealing her face. When their eyes met, his body went slack and he collapsed into sobs. “My father never...”

Rana paid no attention to the rest, reading the woe that wrapped him—a swarm of blood scorpions that writhed beneath his flesh. Woe was a reciprocal thing. The more you inflicted upon others, the more you gathered. The Goddess’s judgment was quick. This time she imagined not a scissor but a sewing-needle half long as her forearm. Reaching into her satchel she withdrew a fine opaque thread of woe and sewed it into the man, weaving it between the scorpions. A Soother of Jiba with her talents could deliver woe as easily as she could remove it. He stiffened, his face contorting with guilt—or rather someone else’s guilt. It made him as pliable as watered clay.

“Untie me,” she ordered.

He did so, weeping apologies all the while. Freed of her bonds, Rana jumped from the carriage with Crow dutifully in tow. When she came to the front she found a surprised Bear gawking at them.

“What’s she doing out?” His gaze flicked to Crow. “Are you crying?”

He said nothing more, as his eyes met Rana’s. His woe grew out from his skin in rows of broken human teeth, and the Goddess took his measure. Reaching again into her satchel, she withdrew a bit of woe like a cobweb and flung it at him, then quickly sowed it into his flesh and watched the change take hold.

“Get down here with your friend,” she told him. Bear climbed from the carriage and stumbled his way to stand before her, sobbing a stream of regrets. She looked them over in contempt. They should consider themselves fortunate. She wanted nothing more than to send them off with misery that would haunt them for a week. But she needed answers first.

“What does this High Lady Suwe want with me?” she snapped.

“We don’t know,” Crow moaned through his grief. “She only made us find you out. Heard there was a Jiba girl in the slums, performing miracles and the like.”

So, she’d gone and drawn the attention of one of the high castes. She’d been more than careless these past days. She’d been a plain fool. Well, there was no changing that now. Her plans would have to move forward as they could.

“You told Eldra you could get me to the Inner Rings, even to the Tower. Is this true?”

Bear made an awkward jerk. “The Inner Rings, yes. But not the Tower.” He shrank away. “We was just to deliver you to the High Lady! If there’s more to know, she’d be the one to tell it!”

Rana glared at them, aware only at the last moment that she was reaching into her satchel—seeking out a particularly nasty piece of woe. She willed herself to stop. The Goddess had already passed judgment. At any rate, they were just tools. It was this High Lady Suwe who had so infuriatingly disrupted her from her path.

She looked over the carriage, noting the bronze-worked sigil of the noble house emblazoned onto the doors. She also now understood the sound of machinery: two mechanical Dread Birds taller than horses, affectations of the wealthy likely imported from Kons. These replicas stood still as statues, sunlight glinting from their broad golden beaks as jade eyes stared out expectant.

“The House of the High Lady Suwe,” she ordered the automatons. The two came to life at her words, gears spinning and valves releasing steam as their long legs flexed. Rana climbed into the carriage and slammed the door. She didn’t even spare a glance for the two men who remained kneeling on the cobblestones, inconsolable in their woe.

As promised, the High Lady Suwe’s sigil on the carriage granted entrance to the Inner Rings. Officials and lesser nobles moved from the vehicles’ path, bowing in deference. The first glimpse of the noblewoman’s estate showed parapets lined with liveried guards with pikes held over shoulders and long rifles at their backs. The carriage passed an evergreen topiary of fantastic beasts before arriving at a courtyard where a servant awaited. When he opened the door, his bushy eyebrows rose in bewilderment. Rana didn’t give him the chance to as much as shout. One glance and he fell as if struck, confessing to pilfering his mistress’s wares.

She left him there, walking past a set of prayer pools to the main house. Pulling down her caffa she let her coiled hair free—along with her gaze. She intended to make a lasting impression on this High Lady. Guards with spears and bucklers sped towards her, only to stumble to their knees bawling out their laments. Others groveled or wept as her vision swept over them. She found her way up a stairway and down a corridor to two lacquered doors. She pulled both open and stepped inside.

The High Lady Suwe stood before an oval redwood desk in a spacious rounded room. She was a tall woman in her prime, with coal dark skin and sharp amber eyes that shimmered in the glow of flickering lamps. Her head was shaved, as was common among Aruth’s aristocracy, and she wore a long sleeved black gown worked with silver crescents from shoulders to ankles.

Rana took in the glittering fire rubies strung about her neck as well as the chain knife that dangled at her side. Aruth’s noblewomen were trained with the dueling weapon, which could send a poisoned blade flying like a whip.

“I don’t mean you harm,” Rana said.

“Oh?” the High Lady asked. Her gaze shifted to the guards heaped outside her door now writhing in their own desolation.

Rana felt her face heat. Perhaps she had been a bit over zealous in her entrance. Still, she had made her point. The High Lady must have thought so as well, for she averted her gaze and let the chain fall.

“I do not mean you harm in turn, Soother,” she said in the clipped high speech of the nobility. “I must assume you met my men. If they were rough in their dealings with you, that was not my intention.”

“What wasyour intention?” Rana asked bitingly. “Sending men to kidnap me?”

“Again, forgiveness. Like yourself, I am a disciple of the Goddess of Sorrows.”

Rana was taken aback. A disciple of the Goddess among the Aruth nobility? “Then as an agent of the Order of Soothers,” she commanded, “I call on you to submit to my authority.”

The High Lady Suwe inclined her head in deference. “Of course, sister.”

Rana eyed a second set of doors. “You can start with them.”

On cue, they flew open, revealing a knot of guards led by a hard-faced woman with cropped greying hair. She also wisely deflected her gaze. The High Lady Suwe held up an open palm. The hard-faced woman straightened at the order, backing out with her company before closing the doors shut.

“How do you know what I am?” Rana blurted hastily. “How do you know of the Order?”

The High Lady’s lips quirked into a slight smile, and Rana’s face heated a second time. She needed to keep her control. “My father was of Jiba,” the High Lady answered. “And taught me well the ways of the Goddess of Sorrows, and their acolytes—who bring the blessing of Soothing upon the world.” She touched fingers to forehead, lips and heart.

Rana returned the gesture with a frown. The woman’s father was reckless. It was forbidden to teach the ways of the Goddess to those outside Jiba—even a foreign-born daughter.

“You still haven’t told me, what it is you want,” Rana put in. “Why you would interfere in the affairs of a Soother?”

The High Lady hesitated. Gliding forward, she went to her knees, pressing her forehead to the floor. Rana was again taken aback. Such prostrations were reserved for the priest lords of Aruth, and, even then, seldom given by those of status.

“I ask of you what you have granted others,” the High Lady Suwe breathed, “to receive the blessing of Soothing. There is a great distress in me, and I wish it to be taken away.”

Rana scowled. Had she been taken her path only for this? To satisfy some selfish high caste’s need for absolution? She stalked forward, thrusting out her arm to reveal the mark on her wrist. “Do you know what this is?”

The High Lady lifted her eyes to the black moon etched into Rana’s skin, swallowed in a circle. She released a held breath, before speaking the rote mantra. “The moon is life. The circle death. Forever entwined. For both are sorrow.”

“Then you know the Goddess’s judgment is no respecter of caste. Your guards may well return to find a dead woman in your chambers.”

The High Lady Suwe’s face was set in resignation. “Let the Goddess’s will be done,” she uttered, completing the ritual.

The woman’s intonations were flawless, Rana admitted. Her father had trained her well. Though if she had truly been born of Jiba, she would be more frightened now than she was. Still, no petitioner of the Goddess could be turned away.

She cupped the noblewoman’s chin in her hand. “However this goes,” she warned, “know that the Goddess will require her due.” Tilting her head, she brought their gazes level. The High Lady Suwe inhaled sharply, the pupils in those amber eyes expanding rapidly before receding to fine points. When her body went slack the words rushed from her lips.

“In Aruth you are taught as a child to play in the games of vendetta. The Lady Resha. I have known her since childhood. Like sisters. But when vendetta erupted between our houses, I played as I had been taught. I hired Vashi mercenaries, to kidnap she and her family. They would be held for ransom; I would pay it, placing her house in my debt. A considerable triumph.

“But it all went wrong,” she whispered in anguish. “Her eldest son, he fought back. The Vashi killed him. When Lady Resha screamed murder, they cut her throat. They slew the whole family. Every last one. My greatest friend, her children who I held in my arms as babes, all dead! By my hands! I cannot sleep in peace. I cannot eat without tasting ashes. Each day, awake or in slumber, my deed haunts me. It consumes me like a slow poison. Take it away Soother! I beg you! Take it away, however you must!”

Rana listened to the High Lady Suwe’s story in barely concealed disgust. The nobility, playing their wasteful foolish games while people starved in their slums. She looked over the High Lady’s woe—the thorns of a rosebush grown knotted with needle-sharp barbs. They crossed her like chains, bearing her down with their weight. Rana could make those thorns tighten, until they became a suffocating cocoon. The noblewoman might well gouge out her own eyes then to end that torment. But it was the will of the Goddess that was to be worked here, not her own. Pulling her scissor, she began cutting at the deep woe. When she finished, she stepped back and waited.

The High Lady Suwe remained gasping, coming out of the stupor. A slow relief spread across her face, perhaps at still being alive. But it was soon replaced with a grimace. “The pain, it’s different. But not gone.”

“It never will be,” Rana affirmed. “The Goddess decreed that I take away enough of your woe to allow you to find your peace. But you will have to live with what you’ve done. That burden you will carry with you to the end of your days.”

The High Lady Suwe looked as if she might protest, but then bowed in acquiescence. The fairness of the Mistress of Sorrows was not to be disputed. Picking herself up from the floor, she straightened once more into the regal figure. “And my due to the Goddess?”

“I require entrance to the Tower of Exultation,” Rana announced. “An audience with the Grand Benevolence.”

The High Lady started at the request, then bowed her head. “That is in my power.”

Rana nodded in acceptance, grateful for her fortune. It was a meandering route she had been set upon to be granted this gift. But as the sisterhood taught, the Goddess worked in her own mysterious way.

Moving to her desk, the High Lady pulled out several long parchments, a paintbrush and a jar of ink. With trained poise, she wrote out characters in the wide curving strokes of the nobility, stamping each parchment with a signet ring. Rana rose to take the rolled documents, noting the unfamiliar sigil.

“A false house,” the High Lady explained. “To protect my own.” She paused. “May I inquire Soother, why you wish this audience? With the Grand Benevolence?”

Rana paused, then answered in an unwavering voice. “The ultimate blessing of Soothing is to be given to the Grand Benevolence.” Even as she spoke the words she felt her stomach tighten. Goddess grant her the strength.

This time the High Lady Suwe did lose composure. “Gods preserve!” she exclaimed. “The Order cannot think to murder the High Benevolence! She keeps order in Aruth! She is our heart! It would bring anarchy—”

“The Grand Benevolence of Aruth is a Soother of Jiba,” Rana broke in. Speaking the words aloud felt like a confession.

The High Lady Suwe gawped, incredulous. “That is not... possible,” she stammered. “The Grand Benevolence is chosen in consultations and meditations—”

“Two years past,” Rana said, “a Soother of Jiba was sent to Aruth, to help ease conflict over trade negotiations with Dravish. She was to steer the Grand Benevolence in a more conciliatory direction, by relieving him of worry and doubt. This Soother instead broke with custom, deposed the Grand Benevolence, and took his place.”

The High Lady Suwe staggered, a hand going to her throat. “But the priests... bishops...”

Rana shook her head. “None were any match for a Soother.”

“Gods!” the High Lady breathed. “We went to war with Dravish!”

Rana nodded gravely. “Now Aruth masses her armies, threatening to ignite war across the continent. All while the poor gasp for life in your slums. The priesthoods are at each other’s throats. And you nobles play murderous games of vendetta. Aruth is a city on the edge of a precipice. I have been sent to stop this sister, to restore balance.”

The High Lady Suwe remained in silence for a long while. It was no small thing to learn your world was a lie. “The Order, has done this often?”

“More times than you can know. We keep the world in balance.”

“You seem to have missed the mark this time,” she stated pointedly.

Rana was grudgingly impressed at the woman’s boldness. “We remedy our wrongs. Every sister must answer to the Order and the Goddess we serve.”

“And who do all of you answer to?” the High Lady Suwe pressed. “Who passes judgment on the Soothers of Jiba?”

Rana gave no answer as she walked from the High Lady’s chamber, leaving the question to hang in the growing space between them.

Entrance to the Tower of Exultation came with ease. The documents provided by the High Lady Suwe allowed Rana to bypass the gathered throngs—the wealthy and powerful of Aruth whose generous tithes bought spaces in the temple’s prayer pools and meditation chapels. She walked the halls of the highest level of the tower freely, adorned in the pressed white robes of a High Acolyte. All bowed in deference at her passing, never seeking out the face hidden beneath the capacious hood streaked with crimson. Just ahead sat two doors adorned in golden circlets, marking the Holiest Chamber, where her fate awaited.

And her steps faltered.

The trepidation of the past days returned, that viper nestled in the pit of her belly. It sank teeth into her soul, dragging her down with uncertainty and fear. She could turn away now. Flee this temple. Flee this duty. Let the Order assign another to this task. She might have balked then, had Elder Awan’s voice not rang across her thoughts. The Goddess paves for us a path of sorrows. We walk it not because it is easy, but because we believe it is just. It was such faith that sustained her. Drawing on it, she resumed her steps and walked the path the Goddess had set.

The doors to the Holiest Chamber opened at a push, revealing a vast room bathed in light. Rana stepped over the two guards who lay at her feet and entered, her eyes taking in the breadth of the cavernous room. It was constructed of one continuous circle of stone where tall alcoves like slats opened into the night. A mural depicting endless divinities covered a domed ceiling, while the floor was a mosaic of vibrant tiles on which were written holy litanies. They spoke even in their stillness, a silent cacophony that converged into harmonious exultations—all represented by one figure.

The Grand Benevolence of Aruth sat in a high-backed chair upon an elevated dais, draped in black robes with a wide golden stole. She stared down at a sheet of parchment laid out across the tiles like a great rug: a map of the southern continent. High Acolytes scurried about it like harried servants, pushing pieces back and forth across the parchment as if at some grand game. Other men and women, wearing the armor and steel faces of war chiefs, huddled before the figure in the high-backed chair in counsel. The Grand Benevolence, becoming aware of the new presence in her chamber, looked up from her study. Rana’s breath caught.

Lika.

She wore her head shorn now in the Aruth fashion, but her face was unchanged. That full but firm set mouth. That taut jaw. Cheekbones that poked high beneath black skin. Had it truly been five years since their time in Errith? She pushed back her hood.

Recognition lit up Lika’s face. The war chiefs turned to stare at Rana and dropped as one, grappling with their misery. They had known enough to take care in the presence of their mistress. But they could not know this newcomer was just as dangerous. Lika—sister of the Order of Soothers, usurper of the seat of the Grand Benevolence of Aruth—rose.

“Dressmaker!” she breathed with a smile. “It really is you!”

“Lika,” Rana greeted in turn.

For a brief instant that she collected and held close, they were girls again. Friends and sisters, who dreamt of the deeds they would one day accomplish. And then it was gone, with Lika’s smile. Understanding crept into her eyes and warmth fled, replaced with stone and ice.

“So, they have sent you,” Lika murmured. “I thought it would be Elder Awan.”

“Is that the reason for all this?” Rana asked, gesturing. “To get Elder Awan’s attention?”

Lika snorted. “I care little about that old she-goat. How is she anyway?”

“Saddened. We were all saddened. She had a lot of faith in you.”

“Misplaced,” Lika replied ruefully.

“Why?” Rana asked, wanting desperately to know. “Why did you do it?”

Lika stared for a moment. Then she walked from the dais, moving to one of the alcoves. Rana took careful steps forward, around the High Acolytes who now stood swaying with stupefied expressions. Their glassy eyes showed traces of pronounced Soothing. Too much and it became a drug, a bliss nothing else could fill.

“Don’t pity them,” Lika said. “They aren’t worth that.” She looked out from the tower into the night sky. All of Aruth lay below, dotted with the glow of gas lamp that flickered like fireflies.

“They can’t be healed,” Rana realized, stopping at a distance. “You’ve broken their minds.” Her eyes searched the room. “What did you do with the true Grand Benevolence?”

“I passed judgment,” Lika responded.

You passed judgment. Not the Goddess.”

Lika didn’t deny the charge. “He and his Acolytes were draining the city dry, stacking their coffers while people begged and starved. I walked the slums. I saw their handiwork. But the Goddess proclaimed he should live, to work out some political quibble. Yet just earlier that very day, the Goddess had me pass the ultimate blessings of Soothing on some footpad.” She shook her head. “It wasn’t fair. So, I passed my own judgment. And the Grand Benevolence, overcome with grief, drowned himself in his private prayer pool.”

Rana sighed. So, there was the confession. “And you took his place.”

“Yes,” Lika said, with no hint of remorse. “As I watched his body floating in that prayer pool, I knew he would just be replaced—by some other puppet of their choosing. I grew weary of it all. The hypocrisy. The futility. So, yes, I took his place. All I had to do was give these weak priests a bit of Soothing, and they yearned for more. They pronounced me the new Grand Benevolence.”

“This is wrong,” Rana asserted. “You’ve turned your back on the Order.”

“I’ve turned my back on a life of hermitage,” Lika sneered. “A life of wasted effort, thinking small acts will bring peace to this world.”

Rana was saddened at this loss of faith. “Oh, Lika. Do you still think you could have saved your family? You were just a girl. The Togor raiders would have killed you if you hadn’t hidden. Elder Awan tried to tell you so long ago, it’s not your fault.”

Lika’s back went rigid. “Don’t try to read my woe, dressmaker.”

“We can’t banish all the suffering in the world. Balance isn’t perfection. We were taught that. There will always be sorrows enough to render to the Goddess. We all carry our woe with us. I’ve walked the slums of Aruth, and they’re only worse now. There are wars and new sufferings. For all your attempts, you haven’t taken away suffering, Lika. You haven’t made things better.”

The woman turned at that, her face flat, those dark eyes unreadable. “Better, dressmaker? What makes you think I want to make things better?”

Rana started, stepping back from the intensity of that gaze.

“You don’t understand yet, do you?” Lika asked. “We’ve been going about it all wrong. We worship a Goddess of Sorrows, and praise her with offerings. She sends us out to find more, ever hungry, waiting to feed on our wretchedness, our pain. She cursed us with her mark, with this power to sate her appetites. It is our sorrow she craves. And I will give it to her.”

Rana’s stomach went hollow as she stared about the room, truly seeing for the first time. The High Acolytes locked in their stupor. The map of ceaseless wars and wars to come. The chaos that raged among the nobility and priesthood of Aruth. This was no ambition of good intentions gone awry. This turmoil had been planned.

“The Goddess wants grief?” Lika sneered through clenched teeth. “I will fill her holy mouth with sorrow. I will choke her throat with it. Build her an altar of torment molded from Aruth’s bones and flesh. She will gorge until she is made drunk on its blood, reduced to an unthinking ravenous beast who will gnaw at her own belly to taste that sweetness. Because the Goddess, she devours!”

Rana trembled, staring at Lika in horror. What she proposed was perversion, a twisting of the Goddess into something cruel and dark. More frightening, the Goddess would let it happen—like a child who could not turn away the sweets placed before her. Not only Aruth would suffer; an entire continent would bleed to sate her hunger if that happened. There was no more question now on the course she must take.

Composing herself, Rana stood straight and spoke the irrevocable words, the ones she had run from for so long. “Lika Dolesh dal Paara, you have betrayed the sisterhood and your duty. By the will of the Order of Soothers, I pass judgment upon you as the Goddess sees fit.”

Lika gave a solemn nod. “Let the Goddess’s will be done,” she replied in ritual—and struck.

Woe flew like barbed arrows.

Rana’s shearing scissor was out with a thought, turning Lika’s attack away with speed her body could never match.

“You’ve been practicing dressmaker!” she taunted; notching more.

Rana ignored the gibe, concentrating on the steady hail of arrows. Lika’s mother had been an archer, so it wasn’t surprising the woman imagined her tool as a bow. It meant she was fast, something Rana had learned since they sparred as girls. But this was no duel of skills among initiates. These blows were meant to do harm.

Her scissor deflected most in time, quickly transforming into a needle that snatched and hurled them back. But they were too many. One got through and she stumbled as it drove home, flooding her with waves of intense doubt. Her thoughts scattered and she barely lifted an arm to strike away another.

She pushed back against the woe, remembering that this was someone else’s doubt, not her own. It wasn’t real. It wouldn’t rule her. Bending to her will, the woe fell away to nothingness. Reaching into her satchel she drew out three strands, hurling them like ropes. Lika’s bow shot down two. But a third caught the woman, and Rana quickly stitched it tight.

It was Lika’s turn to stumble. She fell back as Rana glided forward, defending against bits of woe flung her way. But the woman was quicker. In one deft move she severed Rana’s stitching, ripping it free, and then fired arrows in every direction.

Rana watched them fly past, and realized too late that she was not the intended target. The arrows struck the High Acolytes, who came alive with anguished cries.

“She would take away your joy!” Lika shouted. “She would rob you of my blessings!”

The High Acolytes turned, fixing their feverish eyes on Rana. They came for her with howls, like enraged beasts. Their minds had been soothed so often, her gaze was ineffectual. She turned to hurl woe at them instead, threads that wound about already addled psyches, dropping them like puppets of bones and flesh. But they were enough to divide her attention, which was the intent. As it was, Rana never saw the arrow that struck her side until the pain of memories flooded her.

A girl, taken from her father’s arms. Where she always felt safe. His tears. Her sadness. A face she would always remember. Learning of his death years later when she sought him out. The feelings of loss.

Grief gripped Rana in tight hands, pulling her to her knees. Her body wracked with uncontrollable sobs. This wasn’t someone else’s grief that she could will away. This was her own.

“Do you see, dressmaker?” Lika asked. “Sorrow catches up with all of us, in time.”

Rana squeezed her eyes tight as her emotions churned. It was like trying to swim against a rushing tide. Goddess help her! But the Goddess would not, feeding on her misery as she would any other. Rana reached out for purchase, for something to grab onto in the maelstrom, to fend off the hungry Goddess she served. She found it, in anger.

This woe had been an intimate one, shared once with a friend and sister. It should never be used in this way, to hurt. The betrayal flared inside her, fanning flames that consumed the woe that sought to swallow her, and burning it away. Denied her offering, the Goddess retreated back into the darkness. When Rana opened her eyes again she found Lika, and struck.

Unprepared, Lika took the brunt of the attack—falling back. Rana reached for several more bits of woe and let them fly. Conjuring up a second needle, she stitched rapidly, tying them tight and sowing them deep. Lika reeled, struggling to conjure up her bow but failing as the threads ensnared her.

“What is this?” she choked.

Rana didn’t stop to answer, lost now in her work. She pulled from the woe she had harvested these past few days: a fisherman who mourned the loss of a son to war; a broken man who would do anything to feed his hunger for Yellow Poppy; a noblewoman guilt-ridden at her own act of blood feud. And so much more. This was Aruth’s woe. The very misery which Lika had so assiduously planted and grown. Perhaps the Goddess had known she would need this. Or perhaps, Rana herself had always known. Whatever the truth of it, she heaped Lika with that woe now, until Lika fell and curled into a ball around her pain.

“Please!” she cried out in anguish. “No more!”

Rana stopped, staggering to her knees. Crawling, she made her way to Lika then sat down in exhaustion, sweat trickling down her brow. Lika stared up, her face contorted in pain. Rana flinched, knowing she had done this. For a long while they remained there, gazing at each other with regret.

“I thought the grief of losing your father was sure to do you in,” Lika whispered at last.

Rana said nothing. It almost had. But she had made her peace with that loss long ago. What Lika could not know was that Rana’s greatest woe had been that night five years past in Errith, when because of friendship she had not called her to task before the Order.

“The woe,” she said, her voice cracking. “I stitched it in you deep. It can’t be undone.”

Lika nodded. “It was going to be like this for one of us. Let the pain end now, please.”

Rana stifled a cry as she pressed fingers to Lika’s forehead, lips, and heart. With a visible effort Lika lifted to her feet and stumbled to an open alcove facing the night sky. She stopped, looking back at Rana. “This Goddess, dressmaker, she makes monsters of us all. She devours us, all.”

With those last words, Lika, Sister of the Order of Soothers, once Grand Benevolence of the Holy City of Aurth, flung herself into the Goddess’s waiting embrace.

Rana sat for a while in silence. When she found the strength again she stood, pulling off the robes of a High Acolyte and donning her simple hooded caffa. Sparing one last glance to the now empty alcove, she turned and walked from the Holy Chamber, carrying her woe with her.


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P. Djèlí Clark is a writer and historian whose fiction has been published in venues such as Daily Science Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Lightspeed, Apex, and more. His novella The Black God’s Drums—a tale of airships and orishas set in an alternate New Orleans—is forthcoming from Tor.com in August 2018. He currently lives with his wife and pet dragon (often mistaken for a Boston Terrier) in a modest Edwardian castle in New England.

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3 Comments on “A Tale of Woe”

3 Responses to “A Tale of Woe”

  1. Julie R says:

    The world-building in this is an excellent example of those tiny details that give the hint of the iceberg below. I loved it and hope you write more from this world!

  2. ShifterCat says:

    This is gorgeous! I’d be interested in reading more about this fascinating world of which you’ve provided a glimpse.

  3. Jenifer says:

    Such a spellbinding tale! I was transfixed by the richness and vibrancy in the detail and depth of character. Please continue this world.

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