The Penareh docks had been my favorite place as a child. The walkways above the harbor were planked in golden wood, lustrous with a thousand years of painted designs—shells and outmoded galleys, water serpents, gears. Maintained by the power of my ancestors’ deepnames, the designs did not fade or tarnish under the heavy traffic but mellowed with age, almost translucent, a whisper beneath the workmen’s feet.
Under the paved walkways the sand too was golden, even more delicately chiseled—every grit perfect. I used to shift it through my fingers, looking for petrified starfish or pieces of wildTaryca emerald tangled in the seaweed—pieces I would later drag to my mother’s workshop to weld into my first clumsy designs.
If my mother wasn’t away trading with her Khana allies, she’d be at the workshop—arrow-straight on the bench, peering at some intricate piece of machinery. With my mind’s eye I would see her two deepnames engaged and poised over her head, their magic held ready to manipulate the pieces too delicate for her tools. Sometimes my mother would sing while she worked. She sang in Niyazi, always the same song about a dark maiden who drew her power from the earth, a maiden spurned by the man she loved. But it was she who had rejected my father.
I had seen him earlier in the day. He came to bid me a good journey, my first journey alone over the squall to Niyaz. To pass my heirship rite I would trade there, on my own, in my mother’s name. He would no longer guest at her house, so he came to me at the docks, where the golden light of the wood cast his face into intricate shadows. He looked so handsome—perfect olive skin and slightly slanted almond eyes, not tall but powerfully built. Some years ago he took to growing his hair, and now it was almost as long as mine, hanging straight to mid-back. It looked good on him. Everything looked good on him, but it wasn’t his looks that made people’s heads turn when he passed—it was his deepnames, his power, never on display, always just there, dazzling like a stormcloud around his head.
Even those without the gift of magic could feel it—a dull throbbing headache at his approach, the air hanging heavy with stultifying moisture. It was his power that had called me to him, to the docks. His face was grave, but his eyes crinkled when he saw me. When I was littler, he’d go on one knee to greet meface to face, but now my eyes were level with his. “Vendelin, daughter,” he said, formal, always too formal these days. “I come to wish you luck in your venture.”
So much pain in him. I only had one deepname, a two-syllable, not the most powerful, but my friend Taemin had taught me to use that to my advantage. Long names for mind-healing, the craft he had learned from his father; and so I could sense mind-pain. Perhaps I was too young for such knowledge, how people’s lives grew fossilized with burdens, like a piece ofTaryca emerald strangled in petrified debris. And unlike Taemin, I didn’t have a healer’s gift. I couldn’t heal my father’s hurts; the many secrets he carried, some concealed, others opened to me; but I could embrace him, and I did. “Thanks. I’ll be fine.”
He pushed me away from him. “I have been to Niyaz in my youth, Vendelin. It is not a place for a young woman.”
“Mother went many times,” I said, “and she is fine.”
His mouth twisted. “No. When she courted me, she was already wounded. She still hurts, and I....”
His hands curled into fists, and I turned away from my father’s weakness. The perfect family. His dream that never was. Always he wanted to fix things. But not all things could be fixed by the application of power. Some could only be further broken. “I’ll be all right, father.”
“They don’t let women take deepnames in Niyaz.”
“I only have one.”Yes, my mother had drilled that into me, how in Niyaz a woman should be doubly careful never to show too much ability. It chilled me, yes, for all I hid it from my father. And when my mother had warned me to stay away from the Shahniyaz, her mind twisted like watersnakes, and my mouth had gone sour.
Still, south I had to go. House Penareh prospered from the Niyazi goods, and to be confirmed its heir I would trade with that city’s ruler. But better indirectly. My mother’s Khana allies would help me, the trading folk that lived among Niyazi. “I’ll be safe in the Khana quarter. I’ve been there twice before.”
“Under your mother’s protection.” He frowned. “It is a fine idea to hold off until your mind is more mature, but you are mature enough. You should take a second deepname now.”
More power had always been my father’s answer. I didn’t want raw strength, I wanted something intricate, specialized, like my mother’s magic, or Taemin’s. Not a weapon, but a tool to make wonders. “Now that would be very offensive to the Niyazi.”
His brows knitted. I had offended him. “Don’t think about what is and what isn’t pleasing to others, Vendelin. Do what you want, what you find right in your heart.”
“Yes, father.” He would never change. For all he surrounded himself with artists, innovators, wonder-makers, he wouldn’t even contemplate a different path. But what good was his might if it couldn’t keep my mother close, couldn’t make his children follow in his steps?
I waited for him to say something predictable, maybe try to convince me to take a bodyguard along, but he said, “Remember this when your moment comes. You may be your mother’s heir, but you are also my daughter. Rage will feed you. And do not let anyone trample you.”
I vented an exasperated sigh. “This is a trading venture, not a war!”
“As you say.” We embraced; he was formal again, armored in distance. My mind was already away.
My cabin on the Cormorant was smaller than the one I had shared with my mother on our previous journeys, but the simple lines and the well-oiled wood of it pleased me. I placed my trading box beneath the single round window. Its glass was fogged; I drew on my deepname and cleaned it, butit wasn’t much of an improvement—all I could see was the deck.
I kept resolutely to my room. The sailorwomen didn’t welcome idle gawkers, and it wouldn’t do to offend. House Bodumi competed with Penareh in the southern trade, but it was the Bodumi seacraft that could speed or stall us in our ventures.
I spent my time rereading the letters my Khana friend, Sureh, had sent me. I had seen her last when we were both eleven. Her letters were all about trade and customs, buther words made me giggle—and she tugged the tails of her letters up and doodled little gears on the margins, just for me. The Khana belief forbid the depiction of living creatures, but some of Sureh’s gears had little eyes penned inside. I hadn’t made close friends with the mainland nobles at school; and now my brother and I had quarreled over Taemin, and Taemin was far away. Sureh.... I traced the gears with my finger, imagining her smiling face behind the paper.
On the sixth day, a messenger came to me from the captain to summon me to her steering station. I threw a quilted half-coat over my shoulders and went out to the deck, blinking against the salt and the reflected sunlight of the waves.
Above me, the sails bloomed red, painted with traditional yellow Birds. The goddess was a cormorant for the Bodumi, a partridge for the rest of us on the Coast, a quail in the capital, a hawk in Niyaz, a pelican in Burri. Taemin and I made a game of it once, laughing and shouting out Birds to match the imaginary countries we would visit: bald-necked buzzard! cockatoo! zebra titmouse!
Captain Bodumi was at the helm. Her three deepnames were engaged: a two-syllable tested the water, another two-syllable aligned the ship’s body, and the strongest name, the one-syllable, controlled the wind. Another sailorwoman was there, talking to the captain; they saw me but didn’t react. If my mother had chosen a Bodumi husband, I would be apprenticed now, learning the namelore to steer a ship across thecurrents. My mother had courted my father instead.
The sailor extended hernames into air and water to take over the steering, and the captain pulled her own names into her mind and walked towards me. Her face was too broad to be beautiful, its Coastal olive coloring darkened to harshness, but her eyes were bright and angry as a seabird’s.
“Penareh.” She didn’t call me by my first name or give my title. Not a good sign. “Now. Did you set this up?”
I clasped my hands behind my back and breathed. When I spoke, my answer was my mother’s, not my father’s. “Forgive me, Captain Bodumi, but I know not what you mean.”
She grabbed me by the shoulder and led me below deck to her cabin. It was cramped: two burly sailorwomen stood guard over a heap of stained white clothes and ropes.
“I mean this stowaway,” the captain said.
At her sign the women hoisted the heap—the person—up to a kneeling position. Small, with mouse-bright eyes, curly brown hair, trembling lower lip, and startling birch-white skin that marked his mainland origins.
Oh, Taem, what in Bird’s feathery cloaca....
What was he doing here? The school was out for the Summering, but still, what was he doing alone, away from home and my idiot brother? Hiding, in danger—Taemin, who wouldn’t even go on his own for a walk on the beach, who still slept with a candlebulb in his room.... Something must have happened.
“A man on my ship,” the captain said—ill luck among the matriarchal Bodumi. “He says he is your servant.”
“He’s not my servant!”
“Then pitch him overboard.”
I willed my face to smoothness. “You misunderstand me, Captain. This is my friend Taemin, from the house Kekeri.” My father and his had been lovers since before we were born, long before they both married. You touch this boy, and my father will make quick work of the house Bodumi.
“I only live in the house,” Taem whispered. “I’m not a noble.” He was rarely comfortable speaking up, especially among strangers. And now tears veiled his eyes; he was close to a breakdown. “My father serves lord Kekeri,” he said stubbornly, “and I serve the lady Vendelin.”
The captain stared at Taem for a while. No doubt the name Kekeri had set her to thinking. I did not regret speaking it. My father was not my crutch, but Taem was here now and needed my protection.
With her lips curled up in distaste, the captain spoke. “Very well. Keep your servant friend in your quarters, Penareh. Pray that your mother’s Khana will be just as understanding of a man’s presence among them, because I am not taking him back for you.”
She motioned me out of the cabin, and my insides lurched. My father’s name might have forced the Captain’s hand, but it would help me not at all among the Khana.
We ended up in my cabin. It was too early to speak. I perched on my berth. He cried himself dry first, leaning into my knees; next he tidied himself up, and then he ate and ate, fastidious and furtive as a mouse. I watched him, waiting for all of it to pass.
“Did something happen?” I asked at last.
He shook his head mutely. I wasn’t sure whether to believe him.
“Then why, Taem?”
He whispered, “You shouldn’t travel alone.”
“How did you think you’d help me? No, don’t cry.” I stroked his curly hair. “No, really, did you think I’d need a mind healer for my trading? You’re not a bodyguard, you don’t know anything about the Niyazi....”
“I know enough!” He looked straight up at me, no longer whispering. “Do you know what they do to women who take deepnames?” He sniffled. “Theirnames are destroyed!”
What makes you think I do not know this? But in truth, I was glad for him; he was always so earnest I couldn’t begrudge him anything, not even his affected servitude.
“Don’t you worry your pretty head, Taem. I know what I’m doing.” Or knew, at least, before he oh so helpfully came along. “My mother’s Khana friends will shelter me and bring my goods before the Shahniyaz. The Khana may live in the city, but their women take deepnames, and the Niyazi still trade with them.” Yes, but the Khana would never host a man.
Oh, for Bird’s sake. Taemin’s gloom was getting to me. Surely I’d think of something.
“Right, want to see what’s in my trading chest?”
He perked up at once. It made me feel better. I whispered my deepname in my mind to unlock the guard of invisibility I had stretched over the wrought iron chest. Its lid was a puzzle lock fashioned after the seven great Coastal houses. The first puzzle was a watersnake, the sigil of my foremother Ranra Kekeri, who brought our people to the Coast. I put the serpent together from interlocking pieces that slithered slyly upon the surface. Once locked, the watersnake spun, broke into new puzzle pieces, slightly smaller than before.
With practiced fingers I put together the lion, the scorpion, and the rest of them, down to the last—the apple tree. Taem watched, bright-eyed, as the lid swung aside, revealing my trading goods.
“Geckos!” he cried out, and so they were, golden-hued lizards with sleek articulated limbs and agate eyes and hinged jaws that could open very wide indeed.
“The Niyazi have been suffering from locusts,” I explained. “The desert swarming locust has no natural enemy, but these geckos should be pretty effective, I hope. I designed them myself!” I smiled warm encouragement at him as he stretched a slim finger to touch a lizard’s golden tail.
“They are so very beautiful, Vendelin....” His voice was a whisper again, and I felt his pain surface, a wave in the small harbor of his chest. I had planned to show him the other compartments, but now I locked the puzzle lid and drew a breath.
“Now. Tell me.”
He sniffled, shoulders hunched, a single dark curl trailing down his bent neck. Oh yes, I could guess what this was all about. “What did Laukur do now?”
Taem’s head hung even lower. “Nothing.”
My baby brother was an ass.
Taem turned away from me, stared blindly out of the small window. Beyond it, the deck had darkened. Sometimes as a child I’d gaze up at the stars and think they’d be, up close, these giant fiery balls made entirely of names more ancient than the land, more mighty than my father. Syllables of molten light.
“He said I was an odd little weakling and that he didn’t care if I went away forever. Happy?”
And so you ran away to me. Damn Laukur. Damn the school. Damn the mainland. People there had guano for brains. To be a plebe was shameful; to have a long name was shameful; for aman to be with a man was shameful, especially if one was a plebe, especially if one had a weak name, especially if one was shy and didn’t take the lead.... Unwritten rules that made a kind of a twisted sense if one tucked feathers into one’s behind, stood on the head, and tilted one’s toes to the south in a straight line. And yes, these rules had made perfect sense to my brother, for all he had liked Taemin very much indeed before they’d gone to the school. “No. I’m not happy.”
“I... I’m sorry, Vendelin, I’m sorry....”
Oh, great, and now he thought I wouldn’t want him either.
I stretched my hand to wipe his tears, turned his face to me, pallid and marred with his pain under candlebulb light. “Hush. You’re with me now. Just do as I say. And do not speak... in Niyaz, they don’t understand Coastal families, yes?” His eyes were closed, but he was listening; so attentive, quiet, that my heart broke for him. “They also forbid for men to be with men, and women with women....” I wasn’t sure what the Khana permitted. Their customs might well be different. Still, better to play it safe. “Just don’t speak of it, right?”
He nodded, once. I let his chin go. Damn it all. Damn my father. When he’d returned to the Coast, he’d built a new home for his perfect family, a great house blazing with deepnames, supported with pillars of blue ebony and multicolored spun glass, strewn with Niyazi carpets, perfumed with marsh flower and gray rose. He wanted to fill it with wise adults and brilliant power-hungry children, all perfect for him, reflecting him. I missed it still, the family that never was.
“Go to sleep, Taemin.”
I covered up on my berth, but the air was too chilly for comfort. Taem stretchedbelow me on the floor, his head almost touching my trade chest. He sighed once, then engaged his names. Slowly, breath by breath, he built a grid of woven light above him, feeble, intricate. It looked warm.
I couldn’t do anything like that.
As a child, I’d often visited Taem’s father in his hospice at the capital. He’d heal the poor that came to him, for free; his long names, thin and barely visible, entered the minds of his patients so gently they felt no pain. I wanted—yes, I wanted something like that, a power that arose from weakness like a very thin knife that cuts away hurt, not life. But I couldn’t even take a long name. My stupid mind was shaped for brute force.
If I had a longer name now, I could mimic Taemin’s blanket. With a short one, I could at least make a contained fire. A two-syllable was respectable for a person my age; only Taem knew how much of a struggle it had been for me to resist taking a shorter name. I could take it now, and be warm, if I gave up my dream of crafting mastery.
I would stay cold that night.
We reached the southern harbor a mere four days later, and passed under the great Seagate of Niyaz, an enormous, sinuous arc chiseled out of the hollow bones and gold-streaked ivory of the mythical razu beast. The gate was carved into roses, wound with name-garlands that sparkled even in broad daylight; at night, I remembered, they flared, a necklace at the throat of the city, summoning ships from near and far to trade here under the glorious rule of the Shahniyaz.
The city beyond the ivory gate was enormous—gates, turrets, golden domes, domes painted in blue and white stripes under the polished blue dome of the sky; a city overflowing with people and beasts of burden, a city clogged with gardens, each planted densely with fragrant flowers that bloomed all day and night. The air was a cacophony of smells: freshly caught fish and ground turmeric, seaweed and tuberose, sweat and sun-warmed cedarwood. If someone squeezed the whole of the Coast into a very dense ball, it would perhaps amount to this city in size, but probably not.
I glanced at Taem beside me on the deck. He was seeing all this for the first time, and his eyes were glazed, his breath a little short. The dress I had picked for him had been too long, and his hemming of it clumsy; but he’d look enough of a girl for the Khana, I hoped. I told him to construct a ward for his mind, for good measure, and what he wrought was intricate and pretty as a net of woven lilac flowers.
Five people waited for us at the pier, immovable among the swirling crowd of porters, sailors, sherbet-sellers, fish-cart drivers, jongleurs, itinerant fire-eaters, and all the impossible rest. I tugged Taem towards the group, the chest and my seabag between us. Four women; the three elders of a height, the fourth very small, a head shorter than Taem.
I couldn’t see the women’s features; all four of them were heavily veiled in layers of glittering spidersilk, beaded with black pearls for the elders, seed garnet for the smaller woman. I squinted my eyes to see what power they held, but the veils extended beyond the physical plane, masking the wearers’ minds—and deepnames?—from even my trained eye. The fifth figure turned out to be an automaton, two-legged, two-armed, smooth-breasted and constructed completely of enameled white metal, with little blue squiggles running over its torso and thighs.
I bowed politely to the three elders—the one on the left, the one on the right, and finally the middle one, as protocol dictated. “I greet the Kelli-khatoun of the Khana, and make known to you my servant, Taemin.” Thank Bird for a name not conspicuously male or female.
The three elder women inclined their heads, and the middle one spoke in a warm, deep voice that reminded me of pleasant times I spent in her company years before. “The Kelli-khatoun welcome you, Vendelin-khatoun. I bring to your memory my granddaughter Sureh, who will be as your guide and companion.”
The smallest woman bowed. Sureh! I thought she’d be taller by now. I bowed, too, and when we were straightening, Sureh moved one corner of the veil away from her face for a split second. A large lucent brown eye winked at me, then was again concealed.
The Kelli-elder motioned to the automaton, and it relieved me of my trading chest and seabag. I longed to talk privately to Sureh, to hear her laugh, but that would have to wait until we were safely among the Khana.
We passed through the narrow streets of seaside neighborhoods, where whitewashed houses were stained with salt and brown-skinned children played complicated games involving multicolored pebbles and squares. Beautiful women, their nut-brown faces round and generous with smiles, hung laundry on ropes and sang of apple blossom, willing suitors, nightingales. Some stared at us as we passed; others turned their eyes away and made the three-fingered sign to avert the uncanny.
Taem watched them intently, and I could feel his hurt rise to the surface, gulp the unfamiliar air. None of the people here had deepnames, but these were plebes, and plebes everywhere had little potential for magic. Taem’s father had been a fluke among his people, in the slums at the capital. My father had tutored him in magic, and supported his innovations. It always felt right to me that Taem would study at our school, but with the noble kids tormenting him, I was no longer sure.
The city changed, further inland—the buildings taller, gridded and fortified by deepnames. Here, too, the people seemed happy enough—men in embroidered kaftans escorted women turbaned and perfumed in persimmon; maidens and youths peered at us from the windows, their clothes adorned with garlands of fresh alyta flowers. Taem gasped once—I followed his horrified gaze to where, in the shadow of an ornate doorway, there lurked a womanshape that reeked of hurt layered like grime in a building taken over by flies and orphans. You cannot heal her—but before I could speak, Sureh squeezed his hand.
She leaned over to me next, and whispered, “My grandmothers set me to watch over you, so don’t do anything stupid, all right?”
I whispered back to her, “Like what?”
“Times are difficult now, and the Kelli had to argue with the other Khana to let you come,” she whispered back, “Just play it by the rules, all right?”
Or else? What will you do?
She trailed her hand on my sleeve, but I wasn’t soothed.
We didn’t speak further until we came to the Khana quarter. Gray stone walls rose high, sheltering the Khana from the rest of the city. The walls were sleek withlittle power grids that protected the stones from the growth of ivy and the touch of strangers. Within the Khana quarter there was a smaller quarter, I remembered, walled in white stone, guarded by even stronger wards. Men lived there—inaccessible, untouchable Khana men who spent their days immersed in their holy Book of Birdseed. A woman would pass through the inner gates for her nuptial rites and return to the outer quarters at dawn, and again every night until a child was conceived. Boys lived with their mothers only till the age of four, and then passed through the white gates and out of the women’s domain.
At the horn gates of the outer Khana quarter, another surprise waited for me. Flanking the gates there towered two automatons, man-shaped and easily thrice as high as myself. Like our porter, the giant sentinels were welded of articulated white metal and adorned with blue designs, tear-shaped, or seed-shaped—yes, like little germinating seeds—and within the seed-shapes something more, maybe letters.
At a signal from one of the Kelli-khatoun, the sentinels stepped aside to allow us passage through the gate and into the inner court, shadowed and comforting like a drink of chilled sherbet.
Sureh took us to our rooms to refresh before the traditional Eight-Fish Meal, during which our alliance would be confirmed and all manner of trading business decided. Taemin stumbled to his room without as much as a backward glance. I didn’t like how he seemed to me, worn to the bone, exhaustion trampling even pain. Perhaps the earlier vision of the woman with the nameloss haunted him, or perhaps the dress drove my brother’s bullying even more sharply home. I should have thought about it before I made him wear it, but what else could we do?
My brooding was interrupted by a sigh from Sureh as she took off her veil—both her veils, the one of spidersilk and the one woven with magic. I’d cherished her letters, looked forward to seeing her again—but now I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
She drew on her deepnames. There were two—and beautiful, so beautiful—a single syllable and a three-syllable. I’d never seen another person with this configuration anywhere, except my mother. The shorter name felt white and warm; the longer name was also a warm white but more delicate, as if filigreed. She called forth three candlebulbs, and they spun up above her head to the ceiling, illuminating her dark hair, her flawless brown skin, her generous mouth, the brilliant eyes—a face I could look at forever. She stepped closer, and her short name extended curiously to touch my mind. When I didn’t resist it, she smiled, and her cheeks dimpled. Sweet Bird! I smiled back—more a demented grin, I suppose. I had to close my eyes, but behind them Sureh’s names still burned.
She perched on the bed and motioned me to sit by her. “I can brush your hair,” she said, and I shivered. Bird! I hoped she hadn’t noticed. This was only a brushing, for Bird’s sake, and I had to look presentable for the feast, but for once I was glad to be sitting. I turned my back to her, and she pulled the watersnake-ivory pins out of my hair and ran her hands through it. For sure she felt me shiver this time, because she giggled. “It’s so long and straight,” she said.
Surprised by the wistfulness in her voice, I twisted my head back to look. Her hair was lovely, haloing her head in a spray of curls. “What’s wrong with yours?”
“Look! It’s a mess.” She blew some stray hairs out of her face. “I bet yours would stay put if I make four braids.”
We sat in warm silence while she tugged gently at my hair with her comb.
At last, she broke the silence. “So tell me about your Coast.”
Images of the Kekeri house with its blooming springtime gardens flashed before my eyes. “It’s... not too big, and kind of... well, it’s beautiful.” I sounded like an idiot.
“Not that, silly!” she giggled. “I heard... I heard people do all kinds of things on your Coast.”
Oh. That. In the mainland too, they always asked me about it, as if Coastal families were odd or wrong, and for some reason they expected me to get embarrassed. I felt disappointed a little. “Anything you want, as long as the others agree.”
She didn’t respond, but the combing stopped. I refused to be embarrassed. “So, do the Khana allow men to be with men, and women with women?”
Sureh cleared her throat. “Women with women, sure. I....”
I turned to face her. Her hands were in her lap, playing with a large horn comb. She looked flushed, although it was hard to tell with her skin so dark. “I shouldn’t know about the men...,” she said, “But no, we really don’t. You’re not supposed to spill, umm, seed... any seed... without a purpose, like when making a child. Seeds are sacred to Bird.”
Her knee touched my thigh. If I leaned over now, I could kiss her. Would she like it if I kissed her?
She looked down at her hands, and I had to resist the urge to stroke her hair. “So... have you been...,” she said, “You know, with a boy?”
“Yeah.” Boys were all right, I supposed. The prospect of marriage didn’t repulse me, although I wasn’t looking forward to it, either. “I like girls better.”
She looked up. Her eyes were warm brown like autumn pools and other poetic things, and I was feeling very stupid.
She nodded, blissfully. “Me too.”
My heart croaked in my chest, but then she said, “I’m really looking forward to the other Sureh.”
When she saw my bewildered look, she said, “Trader women go in groups to protect each other on the road, and they take the name of the strongest, yes? Like the Kelli-khatoun. And then they can be together.”
“I see.” In a warm room I felt suddenly cold all over, my skin beaded withsmall cold drops of sweat. “And these other Sureh... do they have to be Khana?”
She hesitated, as if in a grip of some unreadable, unpleasant emotion. “Strangers are dangerous to us,” she said. “My own mother....”
—and of course at this exact moment Taemin emerged from his room with my black formal dress in his hands.
Before he could speak, Sureh jumped off the bed. She walked a few steps towards Taemin. I felt him go tight and still, hands gripping the stiff shiny fabric. The name-veil trembled around his head, a halo of five-petaled lilacs so lifelike I felt disappointed that there was no fragrance.
“A very pretty ward,” Sureh said, “but you can take it off now. We’re safe, I promise. Far from men.”
He shot me a terrified glance, and I nodded. He sighed, then let his ward wink out, flower by purple flower, until his names were revealed.
Sureh watched him, enraptured. “I’ve never seen long names like yours. So delicate, and yet strong, like precious metal threads. Such a beautiful power. How do you use it?”
I felt jealous all of a sudden. In the house Kekeri, everyone always admired Taemin. Everyone but my brother.
“That’s not any power,” he muttered. “That’s nothing. I’m kind of powerless. A weakling, people say.”
People. Say. Damn Taemin and his fairly transparent moods. “Taem’s a mind-healer,” I spoke, my words like a caw in my own ears. “His dad is the greatest mind-healer in the world.”
Sureh froze. I clamped my hand to my mouth, but of course, it was too late. So much for that particular deception. It hadn’t even lasted a day.
For what seemed like forever, none of us moved. At last, Sureh said, in a dead, flat kind of voice, “I shouldn’t be in the same room with you. You’re not even Khana.”
He looked at me then, his pain all jagged and brittle as a dry thistle. “Taem,” I said. “Please.” I’d have to talk to him later, comfort him, after I’d sorted it out with Sureh....
“Whatever you want.” He waved a desperate hand, then stumbled out. I heard him collapse on the bed.
Sureh looked up at me, and I felt watery pain rising off her, a hurt so different from Taem’s, and yet so strong it made my throat catch. Don’t do anything stupid, she had said. Her grandmothers had sent her to watch over me. Play it by the rules, she’d said.
Or else what? She’d have to tell, wouldn’t she? So why was she still standing here? She read it on my face, I think, because she took my hand between her palms, squeezed it. When she spoke, her voice was like a wounded bird’s. “I don’t... Vendelin-khatoun, your mother means so much to me, taught me so much, and you.... But a man here, and especially now.... I don’t know, I don’t know what to do!”
Oh, Bird. It was my fault. My error. I’d lied to the people I sought to ally with. I’d put Sureh in this position, and still she was trying to stand by me, and I wasn’t even her liege! What if I did convince her to keep quiet, and her people found out? What price would she have to pay, for my deception? No. I couldn’t risk it. I had to make it right with the Khana.
My father had always taught me to speak the truth, no matter how bitter. A Kekeri owned up to one’s mistakes, and true allies should honor truths. But it was my mother’s alliance I sought to uphold, so perhaps I could soften the truth with a gift.
I squeezed Sureh’s hands back, then jumped off the bed. Knelt by my trading box. I hadn’t had a chance to show this to Taemin, but there was another puzzle lock at the side, and a secret compartment. Three levels. Not pictorial, just antique syllabary. The first lock spelled out Taemin. Second, my brother’s name, Laukur. Third one was for me.
The perfect family that never was. I twisted up the side lid and pulled out my gift, wrapped prettily in patterned cotton.
I looked up. Sureh was chewing nervously on a stray strand of hair, and her eyes searched my face.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll fix everything.”
Then I left the room in search of the Kelli-khatoun.
I found the oldest of the Kelli in the feast-room, a long, tight chamber lit with candlebulbs. She was directing women in the setup of the Eight-Fish Meal. The first two dishes were already laid out: a carp stuffed with carrots, and a steaming pilav in a vast legged vat. When she looked at me, still in my traveling clothes and my braids half-plaited, she sent her women away, but waited for me to speak.
I breathed in. “Kelli-khatoun. This is for you, from me, made by my own hands in the house Penareh.”
I unwrapped the gift and engaged my name to start the clockwork going in its body. It soared above the table—a long fish of hammered silver, its eight fins flaring to expel eight different perfumes: apple, musk, and peppered fig; sycamore, meadwine, and marsh flower; alyta, and gray rose. The Coastal odors made me feel more grounded, more myself.
“A splendid gift,” the Kelli said, “That would have been appropriate to reveal at the feast.”
Here it comes.
I had to do this for Sureh. No. I had to do this for myself.
“Kelli-khatoun, I witness to you now that I broke your hospitality. I make my apology now, and ask that you still consider my gift, and the good will of my house, for the fault is mine alone.”
She grunted, noncommittal. “Let’s hear it.”
“My companion, Taemin, is a boy.” I didn’t take him, he came himself. But I wouldn’t stoop so low, and besides, he was under my protection. “He and I have been raised together, Kelli-khatoun. He is mild-mannered, and will make no trouble.”
The Kelli’s eyes cooled, slits of winterdark. “He’ll have to leave at once.”
She flipped her wrist, and two names reared above her head, short and strong. I couldn’t resist her even if I tried. The light in my fish went out, and it crashed to the table. Its tail twitched, and the pooled bitterness of the marsh flower made my nose and ears water.
“Outside men are dangerous. I thought Myna-khatoun would teach you this?”
I frowned. Mother had told me not to bring male servants, but why should the Kelli fear a small teenage boy? “She taught me that the Khana women were strong and wise. You go south to Burri, and Lepaleh, and over the great mountains to Keshet....”
“And everywhere the Khana are welcomed, and everywhere we are despised. Who else has women traders?”
“On the Coast....”
“The south is nothing like your Coast. For hundreds of years we have made our home here, but lately there have been so many attacks. The holy artificers made the Raw Guards to keep us safe, the holy Birdseed writ for all to see, but even that is not enough. The other Khana stood against us Kelli in admitting you, a stranger, at so dangerous a time, but Myna-khatoun has always honored us. And what will I do with you now?”
She rubbed her mouth, as if chewing on a rotten walnut. Finally, she spoke. “The others will think me dangerously foolish, but for your mother’s sake I will suffer that. The man will leave here. You can stay.”
“No!” She wasn’t even listening to me! You want me to send him out there to your hostile city on his own? “He is not dangerous to you! To anyone!”
She shook her head. “All outside men are a danger to the Khana. When we trade, we go in threes, in fours, for our protection, but sometimes it is not enough. There are more of them, or they are stronger, or one of us falters. Name loss is horrible, Vendelin, but even worse is rape. You should ask Sureh what happened to her mother.”
Oh no, I thought, my stomach lurching like the fish. Please, no. No wonder Sureh froze like that. But Taemin would never even touch a girl that way. I had to make her see—”He’s not that kind, Kelli-khatoun, I swear! He’d never harm you!”
“Yes? The harm is done. We welcomed you because of Myna Penareh, but no outsider men are allowed here. Ever.”
I bowed to her and left, abandoning my fish. There was nothing left to say. What she said made sense, but not applied to Taem. But she wouldn’t bend her rules, even though I spoke the truth. So much for true allies.
And for me to send Taem away? Never. He was in my service. I was his liege. He was under my protection.
I collected Taemin from his room, outfitted him in his original clothing. Veiled my mind. And out we went, dragging the chest and the sea-bag between us. I didn’t care how dangerous it was. I’d find another place to sleep tonight. And tomorrow....
I did not need the Khana to complete my rite. My mother had told me to avoid the Shahniyaz, but now I had to convince him to trade with me.
I didn’t have any trouble finding a place within walking distance of the Khana quarter. This was an affluent area that teemed with hostels, bathhouses, fancy brothels, and the like, all brightly lit with rows of candlebulbs dangling between iron poles. The guesthouse I chose was opulent, with oiled copper lamps and carpets imported from further south, delicately embroidered with red flowers and birds, name-woven, flat, never-fading.
I shelled out for a spacious room, a bath, and a breakfast that was delivered in the middle of the night and consisted of quail eggs, candied figs, goat cheese, and the surprisingly potent plum wine—a Niyazi specialty; I told them to take away the fish.I dropped money like birdseed from my fist, not very appropriate for a Penareh trader, but I was angry, so angry, too angry to care.
Throughout these proceedings Taem did not speak. I doubted it was only fatigue. His eyes shone with an unnatural brightness. I told him to eat, but he didn’t, only smeared figs with goat cheese for me and poured my wine. When the maids filed out finally, he spoke. “It’s all my fault, Vendelin. I’m worse than useless to you. I should have stayed at home, and now I spoiled your venture, and the Khana sent you away, and....”
“Do I look to you like a person who cares one bit about the Khana’s so-called hospitality? You don’t do that, Taem. You do not send a guest away. Any guest. I don’t care for what reason. You know what it means when you send a guest away?” War, that’s what it means.
“Now you speak like a Kekeri.” He sighed. “If not for me, you wouldn’t have been forced into the deception. Or this thinking. You would have spoken softly in the manner of the Penareh, you would have eaten with the Khana, traded peacefully here, and gone home to claim your heirship as you planned.”
Birdseye. But I wasn’t about to tell him that he was right. And I felt awful about Sureh. I hadn’t even had a chance to say good-bye.
At least I should write Sureh a letter. And say what? I’d promised her that it would be all right....
Perhaps I could still repair this. Later. After I’d claimed my heirship.
Taem said, “You should have sent me out alone.”
“No!” Was he out of his wits? “You are under my protection!”
“And what did I do under your protection? Spoiled your journey. What a great way to serve! My dad will be so proud!”
I grabbed him by the hair and pushed his head back to look up at me. His eyes were huge, defiant, full of grief. With every mile away from the house Kekeri he was growing wilder and wilder.
I asked his father once why he wouldn’t take money from his more affluent patients, the nobles that came to him not at the hospice, but quietly at our Coastal home. With money, I said, he could live comfortably, free of my father’s demands.
“Be free of my lord?” he said. “Never, not even when Bird comes at last for my soul. When he picked me up I was nothing. Friendless, powerless, poor. I couldn’t afford schooling. Everything I am now, everything I have flows from the lord Kekeri.”
Yes, so he loved my father, and service to my father filled his life with warmth and meaning, but Taemin had never been starving, never untutored, never alone, always surrounded by people who told him how clever he was, how pretty he was. If they’d wanted him to be more like his dad, they should have left him to his fate in the slums at the capital.
But now he wasn’t exactly a plebe, and he wasn’t a noble. He grew up with us on the Coast, but our peers all expected him to behave in accordance to his looks and his origins. No wonder Taem was so confused and lost; and my bully of a brother couldn’t care less about him.
I cleared my throat. “If you want to serve me, brush my hair.”
He loosened Sureh’s tight pleating and brushed it out, even more gently than she did, but there was no warmth. We went to sleep in silence.
I woke early, still full of nervous energy. I had learned from yesterday’s maids that the Shahniyaz traditionally received unscheduled noble visitors during the Breakfasting hour, and I was ready to take the Diwan by storm.
Taem unpacked my formal dress again. Tailored of a deceptively simple, but very expensive shiny blackLepalese cloth, it hugged my upper body tightly, and flared out majestically at my feet. Hopefully it would make the right impression.
I veiled my mind, but not my face, and commanded Taem to carry my trading box out to the carriage. Hopefully it would make him feel good to be useful.
The Diwan was magnificent, even to my eyes—built on terraces, in seven circles colored after the rainbow. The Breakfasting took place in the outermost circle, the red circle, in a vast pavilion wrought of intricately filigreed metal birds, their feathers enameled with liquid fire. Garlands of fresh carnations adorned the pavilion, and red-robed servants circled on quiet feet, offering cherries, kineh, strawberries, and spiced red wines. The menwere all named strong, although none felt too powerful to me; the women, empty of inner light but beaded in rubies and bedecked in ivory, smiled vapidly at each other. It occurred to me that I should have worn red, but there was nothing to do now but to strut confidently to the center of the pavilion, where the Shahniyaz was seated on ruby-red cushions in what appeared to be a gigantic bird-cage carved entirely of razu ivory, its double doors wide open.
The Shahniyaz was a handsome, stout man in his late fifties, brown-skinned and round-faced like his subjects, with a smooth, short, well-oiled beard without a hint of gray. He was clothed in intricate flowing white robes, and his powerful hands were laced at his belly. Behind him, a tall man, dark-skinned and woven entirely into shadow, followed my motions with quiet eyes. The Shahniyaz’s eyes were bright upon me as I strode towards him. At my back Taem huffed discreetly, struggling with the heavy box. I reached the ivory cage-throne and was about to introduce myself, but at that moment the Shahniyaz lifted his left hand and spoke.
“My, I believe I recognize that swagger.”
He had three short names, I perceived, the strongest configuration I had seen here yet, as strong as anyone anywhere could become, barring my father and his strange innovations. Presently the Shahniyaz sent his deepnames forth, and they combined and spun into a protective stronghold around his body.
“And that face,” he said. “Yes, I do believe I recognize.”
What in Bird’s...? I’d been here before, but my mother hadn’t taken me to the Diwan. No doubt the Shah had met my mother, but we looked nothing alike.
I smoothed all emotion from my face and stood very straight. I did not break eye contact, even though I could see, from the corner of my eye, the bodyguard turn ever so slightly aside. He engaged his two names, but I’d swear his names were his least dangerous weapons. I knew a Second School assassin when I saw one.
The Shahniyaz made a small motion, and dozens of white-robed servants appeared as if out of nowhere to usher the guests out of the pavilion, until the court was empty save only for myself and Taem, the Shahniyaz, and the assassin behind him.
“So tell me,” the Shah said, in a voice as silky smooth as the treacherous plum wine, “How fares the Great Raker?”
“Excuse me?” I should have bowed to him, and called him lord. I was growing as wild as Taemin. Well, too late now.
“You probably call him something else. But see. Is this familiar?”
His protective stronghold folded down like a fan, and his freed short names flared out. I turned to follow his power towards the pavilion doors. He projected a picture for me out of the air—an image truer than shadows, a memory almost touchable, almost real.
A man strode towards us. My height, and young, dressed in flowing black shimmering breeches of Lepalese cloth and a kaftan that opened at the chest, where hundreds of diamonds embraced his torso in a fishnet of light. His hair was long, as long as mine, as dark as mine—a trailing train behind him, studded minutely with stars.
Most of my life his hair had been closely cropped. I didn’t know he ever went like this. His face was the most startling thing of it all—yes, so much like my own mirrored face, but brighter, full of polished iron and impossible, demented glee. I’d never before seen him grin. His eyes contained a universe that tilted towards no-care, no-law, making real only him, only his will, and to him the whole world bowed breathless, bent in adoration to his golden crown of names. I counted only four, but he seemed mightier to me in this reflected light than in his current, full configuration—as if his fifth name had tamed the violent brightness I now saw before me.
He made a motion with his hands. Unfolded something. A small carpet, beautifully detailed in vines and flowers, stained dark with congealed blood. I watched him sit down upon it, the twisted grin never leaving his face.
“You know him,” the Shahniyaz said. It wasn’t a question.
He pulled his names back to his head, unraveling the vision. In a moment, his protective stronghold was on again. “Then satisfy my curiosity, girl. Who is he?”
“You do not know?”
“I do not,” he said. “The Raker arose from the southern sands, but he was only passing through. He said much in praise of the old King of Burri.” At the word “Burri,” the Shah’s mouth curved down; in anger or disgust, I couldn’t say. “But no, he didn’t give his name.”
Of course. Travel was the Kekeri rite of passage, a year-long journey without a set destination, the farther away from home the better. One traveled without the trappings of power or money. A true Kekeri needed no crutch. A true Kekeri traveled alone, in disguise, unserved, for a true Kekeri needed no one. I have never seen my father so brilliant, so joyful, so alone.
I snapped out of my reverie and faced the Shahniyaz again. “If he didn’t give his name, my lord, then neither shall I. It is easily enough discovered. I am not my father’s heir but my mother’s, and I come here bearing her name, to offer you my trade wares and to pass the rite of my house. Trade with me, and I will be confirmed as heir of the house Penareh, and will trade favorably with you ever after.”
At the word Penareh the Shahniyaz rose slightly from his seat, as if in shock, and then fell back upon the cushions. He barked a laugh, then coughed, and the shadow man placed a full goblet into his hand. The Shahniyaz drank deeply. “Oh, this is rich,” he said at last—not, I presumed, about the wine. “Or do I misunderstand you, girl? The Great Raker married Myna Penareh?”
“She is my mother,” I said. “I am Vendelin Penareh.” Great to meet you too.
He frowned. “Are you illegitimate?”
“No!” Why would he think that? Because I didn’t bear my father’s name. I kept forgetting how different the Niyazi were from us. “My brother inherits...”—Kekeri—”...my father; and I, my mother.” Our parents decided this between them, before we were born. The firstborn would inherit Penareh, because my father used to honor my mother above all people. “My parents are estranged.”
“Curious,” he said, “how Myna never bothered me with these details. Women, huh.” He handed the goblet back to his man and nodded to me.“Well then, let’s see your wares, Vendelin Penareh.”
I motioned Taemin forth. He was pale and visibly trembling, but I would worry about him later. At a nod from me he went on one knee, and swung open the lid, which I had unlocked earlier. I extended my power and tipped a finger into the box, and immediately a golden gecko ran up to my elbow. I approached the birdcage throne and swung my arm out. The lizard ran down my arm onto my fingers and over to the Shahniyaz. It settled around his wrist, glittering gold like a tiny-toothed bracelet.
“Huh,” was all he said.
“As we at Penareh are both artificers and traders, I come to trade with you in these my own designs,” I explained. “I constructed many of the geckos with my own hands, under my mother’s tutelage. They are singularly effective against the swarming desert locust.”
“Huh,” he said again, and took my hand. The gecko ran back to me, but the Shah didn’t yet release me. His slightly oily fingers rubbed mine. I didn’t take my hand away. So diplomatic. My mother’s daughter. I felt no anger yet, but it was a close thing, building under the surface of my skin.
He smiled then, eyes bottomless with slow-maturing hunger. “Effective against locusts. Most useful... for peasants? Yes, very sweet, Vendelin. Oh, but I am sure you can do so much better, especially with your heirship resting upon this, as you say. Make me a locust.”
I drew my hand back, and he touched his fingers to his lips. I held myself in check, barely. “A locust?”
“Yes,” he hissed, “a locust that obeys commands. A locust that will come among other locusts, and make them swarm, at my command, wherever I desire. Yes? There you’ll have something worthy of the Raker. Or is that beyond you, girl?”
“No,” I snarled, “It is not beyond me.” My sweet-clawed baby Bird! I couldn’t very well refuse his challenge, and yet, and yet—
“Then return here in three days.”
I shook the lizard back into the box, threw shut the lid, and stormed out without as much as a bow. I felt his eyes on my back as I walked, and I knew, I just knew, that he smiled.
On the way back to the hostel, in the carriage, Taem sat shivering opposite me. The iron box crushed his thighs and knees, but he hugged it tightly to his body, although it would be safer and easier to plunk it on the floor. I could hardly see him behind the thing, but his eyes were glazed and his breathing too shallow. It took me a while to come down from my rage, but I managed at last to ask him what was wrong.
“I asked my father once,” he said, “why he continued to serve the lord Kekeri. Certainly any debt he’s incurred has been repaid hundreds of times over the years?” Taem sniffled and rubbed his nose on my box. Disgusting.
“He got angry. Said I didn’t understand. That the lord Kekeri was gentle with us. Vendelin, I know for sure your father hurt him, in the beginning. I don’t know how; he always said your father made it right. They had been together for such a long time. But what if he’s staying because....” Taem gulped.
“My father said that if I’d only see the great lord in his true form, arrayed in his full might, I would understand. Well, I just saw his true form, didn’t I? A man so strong he doesn’t need anyone. A man so mighty people throw themselves at his feet just because he looked their way—and he just tramples them and laughs. I’ve always admired your father, Vendelin. He’s been very kind to me. But it’s all been a lie.”
“I don’t know, Taem,” I said slowly. “If that was his true self, it is no longer. We’ve known him all our lives. He’s never looked like this. He is annoying, arrogant, a worrier, but I have never, ever seen him alone. He is always with people.”
Taem sniffled again. I fought for more words. “Look, this... image... only had four names. Only four, but nobody else has even four short names, Taem. At that time, returning home from the sands of Burri, he already had more power than anyone we know. He had no need for more, nothing left to aspire to. He has five names now. Do you know why?”
In truth, I didn’t know either, except in the roughest of ways, but what I knew was enough. “He had to take it, to protect someone in his service.” There was a good reason why so few had short deepnames, and fewer yet attempted to take more than two. The moment of powertaking was dangerous, as an excess of power could easily burn out a mind; there was no good way to gauge how much more one’s mind could hold. “The fifth name was too much even for him. He almost died.”
Taem looked at me, and I could feel the glazed hurt giving way, but not enough, not enough.
“The man we know is not the man we saw. The man we know—my father—his family is the most important thing in the world to him, Taemin.”
The perfect family that never was, as I was fond of saying. But it wasn’t true. My father’s family wasn’t a negation, wasn’t an absence, I now realized, for I had just witnessed how absence looked on him. His family—imperfect though it’s always been—was here, was now, in us.
“He loves your father, Taem, with all his crabby heart. He loves my mother still. And he loves you.” He loves you better than his own son, I thought, for while all this affection and praise flowed to Taemin, what did my brother get? Only endless obligations, endless expectations that he could never quite measure up to. Endless reprimands. I wondered suddenly if Laukur’s bullying of Taem had been a desperate ploy for some of that attention all of us assumed he was too strong to need. I shook my head. Whatever his reasons, Laukur was still a damn bully.
“You think,” Taem whispered, pain a quiet thing again within his chest, “You think that people change.”
“I do,” I said, and hoped I wasn’t lying.
Back at the hostel rooms, I sent Taem out in search of non-crumbly foodstuffs and watered wine, and hoisted the trade chest upon the desk.
Watersnake. Lion. Scorpion. Kestrel. Lily flower. Wolfhound. Apple tree. The lock clicked, but I twirled the lid again, and the new puzzle appeared, its tiny pieces enameled yellow and black. With sure fingers I composed the little weaverbird, the sigil of my mother’s house—and beneath it, five words in syllabary, words as ancient as the Coast.
We make for Ranra Kekeri.
I touched the words with my finger, and a true vision came to me. My foremother, Ranra, face lined with care and eyes aglitter, at the helm of a ship—she looked middle-aged, stout, straight-backed, her legs braced, arms held out, her index and middle fingers spread, her deepnames aligned in control of the waves. Behind her, in a blaze of dying light, the Sinking Lands. In front of her, unknown and marsh-ridden, the impenetrable Coast. At her back, my people. She had done what she had to, for them to survive. For them to grow. A true Kekeri may live very well on her own, but how can any leader lead alone? I didn’t know what to make of all this.
We make for Ranra Kekeri.
I touched the words and flipped the lid, pulled out my tools from the secret compartment. Pliers and tweezers, screwdrivers, thin long knives, hingers, cutters, hooks, a retort, joints and gears. I opened the main compartment and grabbed a few geckos, broke them down for parts. The Shahniyaz wanted a locust? I’d give him a damn locust, and a piece of my mind besides.
I make for myself.
At the House Penareh I’d had ample time to study the habits of the locust that my geckos were to hunt. A swarming desert locust was nothing more than a slightly oversized blue-bellied grasshopper whose hind legs had been rubbed very rapidly by other grasshoppers. The leg-rubbing caused the locusts to breed faster and to swarm, although I wondered why the Coastal grasshoppers never swarmed. I hadn’t needed to know this to construct my geckos, but now I had to guess. There was something special about the locust. Something to do with sand. Something about vibrations.
Taem brought teff wraps stuffed with figs and quail for me, and some nasty-looking watered porridge for himself, but I made him share my food. We ate in silence; he knew I couldn’t stomach chatter when my mind was on the making. Regretfully I pushed the wine away, guzzled down some honeyed tea, and went back to work. My locust was to obey commands. My locust had to be the fastest Birddamn locust in the world.
I fought with the tools. Too crude. My fingers too clumsy. My name, extended, was too strong for this.
“Would you like some help?”
I shook my head blearily. Not Taemin—with my reawakening senses I could hear him snoring thinly in the little room next to mine.
“Mmmm?” I looked up from the work, and there, on the chair by the window, perched a small person. With faltering heart I watched Sureh peel her mind-veils and her cloth-veils, look at me from beneath those lovely long lashes of hers. Above her head, in the window, the gnawed boat of the moon traversed the sky. It must have been three or four in the morning. “How...?”
She giggled, and her cheeks dimpled again. “I am sneaky.”
“What are you doing here, Sureh? Your people do not welcome me.”
Her smile went away with the dimples, and selfishly I wished for them back.
“Forget I said that—but I thought, your people... I couldn’t convince your grandmother, but Taem would never harm you. He’s very shy anyway, he....” I might as well be honest. “He likes boys.”
She nodded once, nervously. “You didn’t need to tell her anything. I’d never tattle.”
How could I be sure? How could I even ask you to deceive your family? “You shouldn’t get into trouble because of my secrets, Sureh. Hadn’t they set you to spy on me? You said so yourself!”
She got up and dragged her chair to the desk, sat by me. She smelled of muscat and hazel-spiced fish. She took up a pair of pliers, snapped the air gently. “You know how I have two deepnames, Vendelin-khatoun?”
“The one-syllable for protection. Khana women must take the strongest names they can, for when they are on the road. All kinds of things happen.”
Your mother. I nodded. “I’m sorry....”
She motioned me to silence. “But I took one other, the long name, three syllables. The making name. Among the Khana, only the men learn to be makers. The holy artificers learn from the Book of Birdseed. I’ve seen... behind the white walls, they make wonders. But when we trade, it is only the meekest, most profane of their designs that go out into the world. I wanted to be an artificer, like them. But women have so many other tasks. Holy tasks.”
I nodded, listening.
“Then your mother came among us. She is both trader and maker, but she is foreign, and good to us. My people welcomed her. She comes here every year. She taught me in secret.”
I digested this in silence.
“I took two names, Vendelin-khatoun, just like your mother has. I wrote to you. I asked my grandmothers to let me be your guide. I would never have betrayed you.”
“You should have told me this,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m as bad as you, Vendelin-khatoun. I am used to secrets....”
“Yes?” I watched her lips, how they moved when she spoke.
“Last year, I climbed the white walls in my veils to learn the Birdseed writ. Nobody saw me. And now I have told you all my secrets, Vendeh....”
I bent over. Her lips were soft and sweet as loukum, her hair like summer to my fingers. Her eyes tasted of tears. Her throat was muscat and honey. She was so small it was no effort to lift her, and carry her to bed.
Sureh left before dawn but returned again when I was waking up, the sun already halfway through the sky.She told some lies to her Khana; I don’t know. Taem brought us food to bed, thin buckwheat crepes wrapped around leafy greens and peppered goat-cheese, sliced thinly into flowerlike finger-bites. A Coastal dish, and beautifully served. I think he was happy for me, although he didn’t speak.
Sureh and I went to work at last, around dusk-time. I explained my design. She was unhappy with the idea of our mechanical locust at the service of the Shahniyaz. She said he’d send it against his sworn enemy, the king of Burri—but it wouldn’t be the Burri court who’d starve, but rather peasants, simple people. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I know what I’m doing, and we’ll get to it later, yes?”
She extended her names. Trusting me. I stretched out mine. One, two, three syllables. I’d never worked with anyone before, but it was so easy with her, as if we were welded in our minds. Her long name was tiny enough for the locust’s vibrating legs. We had it by the tipping-moon time—a locust golden, glittering with names, its tiny eyes facetedTaryca emeralds.
I put it into a little paper box, wrapped it in patterned cotton. Hesitated. “Listen, Sureh....” She sat on the bed, kissable lips slightly open, waiting for me. I hated to break the mood, but I needed to ask. “I don’t know, but if your mother... is still alive, only broken, Taem can maybe fix that. Can we try?”
She came behind me, wrapped her arms around my waist. Pressed her cheek to my back. I strained to hear what she said. “You’re kind, Vendeh, but you don’t understand. Trader Penareh already offered. When this happened, your mom said, she said she would bring the greatest mind-healer in the world to Niyaz, to help us.”
Taem’s father. “And?”
“My mom wouldn’t let another man into her mind. The elders supported her. Name loss is a horrible thing, Vendeh.”
I turned around and pressed her close. Eventually we went back to work, the rest of the geckos broken into parts on the table, waiting to be refashioned after my will.
Our plans made, Sureh left on the evening of the second day. She asked for my traveling chest. To make something, she said. I didn’t question her, but it was hard for me to spend the day without her, and idle. I complained to Taemin, but he was sulky again, no doubt immersed in memories of my brother; his face went by turns sweet and bitter, and his names extended and recoiled at odd times. I slept fitfully and was grateful for the dawn, and my black dress, and the relief of the carriage to speed me to the Diwan.
This time I was expected. Two white-robed servants led me through the red circle, and the orange circle, and the brilliant yellow circle with its bronze filigree and gold mechanical suns that spun suspended between golden-scaled trees. We stopped finally in the green circle. The simplest of all I had seen so far, the green circle was straightforwardly a garden, a garden without blossom, stoneless and seeded with plush grass. The birdcage throne was set here, its intricately carved double doors open; within the cage, the Shahniyaz waited for me on emerald cushions. His white robe was open at the waist, revealing his naked chest; once shapely, I guessed, now running to fat and covered with short graying hair. Why would a ruler display himself so to an equal? To conceal my bewilderment I bowed, and Taemin knelt, five steps behind me, on the grass. Wordlessly, the Shahniyaz stretched his hand, and I placed my locust into it.
He spoke. “Oh, you wrapped it for me, pretty Vendelin. How nice.” The Shahniyaz tugged at the wrapping, and shook the locust onto his palm. “How does it work?”
“Your will. But you must imprint it first. I modeled the lock after your names.” I explained the mechanism, and all the while he watched me with his large, slightly wet eyes, and his large index finger caressed the grasshopper’s long hind legs. He motioned me to him. He’d put perfume on—musk, and some cloyingly sweet flower that made my eyes water. His protective stronghold was engaged. A three-named stronghold was impossible to collapse. He had nothing to fear from me, but was the reverse quite true? No, no. He’d never dare attack me. I was a peer, from a prominent family. But then again, he didn’t know my father’s name, and I was still determined not to speak it.
I’d started the morning in excellent mood, but it was gone now, replaced by some kind of a dark feeling, unrecognizable, coiled in my stomach like a snake. I willed my face to stillness. This would be over soon.
“You are so obedient,” he said at last. “Your father did what he wanted here, and none could thwart him. How can you be his daughter?” He took my hand in his again, turned it palm up. His index finger touched the vein upon my wrist. “You have his coloring, if not his character. It would be sweet, at long last....” He inhaled noisily, through clenched teeth. “You know, he was a friend of the King of Burri?”
I did not understand the Shahniyaz. He admired my father, or hated him—both, I decided. And he knew my mother. She had traded here for decades. But not with him directly, she had said.
The Shah spoke again, an answer to my thoughts. “I asked Myna if she had seen him, on your Coast. She didn’t say. But then she ran off to bed him.” For a moment, anger flashed in his eyes, and then was clogged. “Ah, Myna. Coastal women have no shame.”
His mouth curved into a smile over the rising miasma of suppressed pain. “Did she not tell you how she pleaded with me? And for what? These useless names of hers. What use are names for women? Do I not have enough wealth? Are there not enough wonders in my court? Even the infidel Khana leave the making to men.”
He breathed in, shiny-eyed. “I would have been gentle with her. Name loss is painless if the woman submits. What price to pay to join my household in marriage?” He made a circling motion with his arm, and the locust hopped down from his sleeve. Lightning-fast, he caught it in his fist. Smiled. “I wonder if the Raker knows of your mother’s little exploits. She comes to visit me. She loves me still, you know.”
I recoiled, and the dark snake-bile rose up in my throat. My father wouldn’t mind. But no, she didn’t tell anyone. Why? What was so wrong in this, in having a lover? Everybody had lovers. My father certainly had his share, old flames that guested with him at odd times, not to mention the permanent presence of Taem’s father—and I always had.... Never mind. This was expected, encouraged. Monogamy wasn’t our custom, and why should it be, when both men and women controlled their fertility with deepnames? As long as we children continued his blood, why would my father care if she loved the Shahniyaz?
His hand reclaimed mine. I breathed in deeply, struggling for calm; inhaled his musky, cloying scent that made my head spin. Rising anger fought in me with some impossible attraction. I wasn’t thinking straight. She never told me, but she must have told my father.
He wouldn’t mind.
But she did. She cared. Because she didn’t love them equally, perhaps?What had happened here?
The Shah’s fingers traveled up and down my arm, but I hardly noticed, blinded by the whirlwind of feelings.
“You like it, huh?”
I did not know what I felt. He must have been attractive once, for my mother.... What did she see in him? Or perhaps he lied. He must have hurt her. He said she still visited him, so why did she trade with him now only through the Khana? He lies, he lies....
I often wondered why my parents split. Each too strong-willed, I’d always thought. But now I didn’t know what to think. “She came to me broken,” my father had said, on the pier. He couldn’t fix something.
Couldn’t fix this.
My mother was the one to break the marriage.
I heard the Shah’s voice rising through a wave of nausea. “She is too old for me now, of course, but you, my sweet....”
I had to act, but my whole body felt frozen, my tongue a log in my mouth. “Rage will feed you,” my father had said—but all I felt was the miasma of bewilderment, indecision. I had to defy the Shahniyaz somehow, without breaking this alliance.... I had to trade with him still for my heirship.... My mother thought he was too dangerous for me—
He’s only joking. He cannot mean it! Nobody would dare—
He must haveseen some of my feeling in my face. “Ah, little girl. The dreaded Raker’s daughter. So naïve. So weak. Truly, I am fortunate.”
Abruptly his stronghold folded. His names struck. He tore my mind-veil off. Before I could react, the names retreated, reformed his stronghold. All too powerful for me. He laughed. “The Raker’s daughter has taken a single two-syllable. Women, huh. Weaker even than your mother. So be more sensible than her, sweet Vendelin....”
Behind me, Taem sucked in a breath.
The Shah continued. “You don’t need it, sweetie. It isn’t strong enough to protect you, it isn’t long enough for craft, it’s -”
“Stop bullying her!” Taem cried. I swung round to him. It’s all right—but it wasn’t –
“She only came to trade with you, she made your locust, please!”
“And such a pretty servant boy,” the Shah said. Yes, the boy who bore my brother’s taunting in silence, the boy who hardly spoke above a whisper when with strangers—
But he spoke for me. Spoke when I couldn’t.
The Shahniyaz settled back upon his cushioned throne. Chuckled. “And what will you do, pretty little servant boy?”
I felt Taemin extend his names. He touched the Shahniyaz’s stronghold, still engaged, impenetrable at his skin. The Shah was so sure we couldn’t harm him, he didn’t even have his bodyguard around. Taem’s names slid off the shining grid, and he cried out in pain. The man laughed. “Even more feeble than your mistress.”
I felt Taem’s mind bend with a horrible creaking as he took a new name, a five-syllable, even weaker than the rest, as thin as gossamer, almost invisible. A five-syllable deepname was a joke. Good for absolutely nothing. Not even to light a candlebulb.
I saw the Shahniyaz’s mouth warp in a smile just as Taem sent his three names one after another in a rapid sequence towards the man’s mind, in a zigzagging hopping motion familiar to me from his mind-healing, but faster, lightning-fast, locust-fast. Tap tap tap went Taemin’s names upon the impenetrable stronghold, finding purchase, finding holes, gossamer-thin, locust-legs, scurrying around, moving in. The stronghold stayed intact, but his names bypassed it, settled on the Shah’s mind, tap-tapping here, vibrating there, running, running, running, little scurrying insect legs. This wasn’t mind-healing, this was—
The Shahniyaz screamed.
Tap, tap, tap his mind bent, unhinged. His stronghold folded. He rolled out of the birdcage throne, collapsed on the grass—and Taem—my Taem, sweet Taem, my servant, healer, gentle friend—grinned in mad triumph at my tormentor, or his, I hardly knew.
Then a white flower-dart blossomed in Taem’s chest. I saw the shadow of the assassin fall in from behind us, arm still extended from the throw.
Taem fell backwards onto the grass. His lips moved in a whisper. “Not so powerless....”
My confusion sloughed away. I threw myself on my knees, on the ground by his side. Time seemed to stop as I broke my useless two-syllable in my mind, breathed it out again into a single mighty syllable.
I flailed around with my senses. The earth beneath me pulsed with life, bugs, rotten leaves, unfolding seeds, warmth from the sun. I tore at that. The second name settled in my mind, short and strong, stronger than the first. I moved them both behind the wound, over the wound, dissolved the bolt and plugged his chest.
It wasn’t enough. He was dying. Around me, the grass went still. The shadow of the assassin, unmoving, lay sidewise on the grass, his arm extended in another throw. Behind me, the Shahniyaz froze mid-scream.
Above us, the beating of wings.
I looked up. When Bird came for Taemin’s soul, she was a little thing, just as he had imagined. A little round bird with a little round crested head and a little black beak. Her feathers striped in black and white. A zebra titmouse.
My mouth fell open, my arms two clammy logs useless at my sides, blood a frozen black river in my veins. The goddess fluttered over his chest.
“No!” I cried. My mouth couldn’t move, but she heard me. She heard. “You cannot take him!”
I reached up, my body slumping to the earth. She twitched and cocked her head. I plunged my hands into her. Something larger than a titmouse hovered behind the vision. I looked. A fiery Bird as vast as the sun. Not a titmouse, not a partridge, not a buzzard. Unlike any bird ever. My hands caught fire. Her beak a thing of swords. Her eyes –
“He is under my protection!”
I grabbed at her. Tore a feather out. Plunged it into my mind. Inside, I was screaming. Too much, too much, too much. A torment of flame.
I clamped it down.
Looked down, my attention fully on work. I set my fiery third name through his veins, the other two along. Mind-healing was for long names. This was not. I did what I wanted.
I did what I had to do.
He drew a breath.
With my mind clear and reformed around my power, I called my names forth, spun them into a protective stronghold around us, flipped the structure to invisibility. Healed my blistered hands. Hoisted him upon my shoulders. Only then did I release the fiery name. The world filled with sound again. The Shahniyaz screamed, and the assassin’s second dart hissed by my ear. I carried Taemin out of there, past the bewildered assassin and his fallen master.
I trusted the Shahniyaz would recover. And if not? Well. I could recommend him a mind-healer.
Sureh waited for us by the Desert Gate. Like the Seagate, it was carved from Razu ivory. Like the Seagate, the space teemed with people—pie-sellers, fire-eaters, camel-drivers. Sureh was not alone—at her side, a little gray metal donkey with very long ears stood obediently, its skin dotted with black squiggles that weren’t quite seeds. A wooden traveling chest was strapped upon its back, my smaller iron chest balanced upon it.
I had veiled myself and Taem tightly against assassins, but Sureh didn’t look surprised when I whispered a greeting into her ear. The donkey looked up. It had the Khana emblem on its forehead, the eight-edged star made of two overlapping squares. “That’s the best I could make,” Sureh said, “In a single day.”
“You are a mighty artificer.” The Shahniyaz had pocketed my locust, but somewhere in his gardens, the large green gecko we had made was curled between the branches, waiting for the locust to come out and play.
Sureh shook her head. “I’m not a real artificer. Not like the Khana men. But you might like this.” She giggled, patted the large box. Leaned to whisper in my ear. “I stole the Book of Birdseed!”
“Really?” How will you ever go home? But she looked happy, and I smiled.
“Not the whole Book of Birdseed. There are eight Tractates....”
Of course there are.
“I stole the Tome of Black-Eared Seeds. I don’t understand anything, but maybe in time....” She quieted, peering closer at me. Blinked. “What happened to your mind, Vendeh?”
I told her. I hadn’t understood, before I spoke, how thoroughly I’d failed my mother’s rite.
Taem added, “It’s my fault. She wanted to make things, and now her configuration is completed with strong names unsuited for making.” He rubbed his lips. “I robbed her of her choice.”
“No, Taem,” I said. “I made a choice. My choice was to protect you.” As you protected me. Now away from the Diwan, my clarity returned. What the Shahniyaz had done to me was wrong, but I didn’t have the experience to recognize it, lash against it. Taemin did.
And so we uphold each other.
He sighed, but there was a new strength in his spine. His voice wasn’t loud, but it was no longer a whisper. “A Kekeri choice.”
“Yes.” I looked out, southwards to the Burri desert. I had always assumed I would inherit Penareh, but that feeling, that need to placate no matter how much I was threatened—it sat ill with me. And now I was a three-named strong. I had failed my mother’s rite, so I might as well go on—do the travel rite of the Kekeri.
But not alone. I was doing it all wrong already.
And as for names... nobody had more than three, but my father had five. So why should I stop at three? If I could find a space in my mind for more, why not a three-syllable?
I grinned. We’d travel south, and later tonight Sureh and I would make a small articulated weaverbird to carry a letter to my father. He’d been growing restless and bored of late; maybe a small conflict would entertain him. I’d write to my brother too, I decided. Taemin felt stronger to me now, more whole, but some wounds could only be healed by the hand that had dealt them.
“Where shall we go?” Sureh asked.
“Burri first.” And then Lepaleh, and then even further south, where the mythic land of Keshet lay beyond the mountains. My father had never visited Keshet. I’d read a travelogue about the folk that lived there, wise people in conical hats who studded their land with slender silver towers, climbed them to observe the midnight sky through bronze tubes capped with curving glass. Perhaps we’d see the stars from there, their hearts held close in syllables of light.
Return to Issue #80