Kingspeaker

Issue #3

I have not spoken with my own voice in nearly seven years. I knew this would be my fate long before it happened—but only now do I understand what it means.

They took my voice away in Anahata. Standing in the High Temple, I prayed to each face of the God and Goddess, speaking one final time in their praise. Then the priests took my voice away. They bound my mouth; they feigned cutting out my tongue. They gave my voice as a gift to heaven.

Taking a voice away is easily done, but this was more; I had to be prepared for the voice of another. Thus I spent eight days in silence, in purification. They stopped up my ears with wax, that I might not hear profane sounds. I bathed in blood, in wine, in milk, and then in clean water. I ate austere foods. The silence beat at me, maddening me more every day, until I wanted to tear the wax from my ears and scream simply for blessed sound.

I wanted to speak, but I had no voice.

On the eighth day, quiet fell over the holy city. No bells sounded from dawn onward, and the markets were closed. Noise was forbidden, on pain of dreadful punishment.

The king had come to Anahata.

I met him for the first time in the sacred garden of the Temple. Passing through an archway of fire, I found myself on a path of flower petals, which bruised delicately beneath my bare feet. Two attendants clothed me in a robe of more petals, fragile silk holding blossoms of the flowers for which the days are named. Still barefoot, I proceeded, marking along the path the measured steps of my dance.

For that moment, they say, I was the Goddess Triumphant, but I felt no difference. Only nervousness, that I might misstep in some way.

They had removed the wax at dawn, and even the tiny, faint sounds I had heard since then were a balm for my mind and soul. Soon, I would hear more. A new voice awaited me.

The king sat on a bench at the heart of the garden, a delicately carved staff of cypress in one hand. He was dressed simply, in an unadorned linen robe, the garb of an old man. I knew he was to play the role of the Keeper today, the eldest face of the God; no one had told me he was a mere boy. Fifteen, I learned later. Younger than myself.

His smooth, youthful face lifted to see me, and in it I saw all the burden this ritual held for him: the new weight of kingship, the fear he would not be equal to it, and the determination to do what he must. I did not know what to make of this boy I found waiting for me. I had envisioned a king like the old one, whom I had seen a few times before. Instead I saw a youth, and I did not know what that would mean for me, for him, for us.

I imagine he asked himself the same questions.

But the ritual did not give us the time or leisure for doubts. He rose as I approached, and together we danced, eight measures of movement repeated by kings and purified women throughout the centuries. At their end, I laid a kiss on his lips, too focused on the prescribed steps of this ritual to tremble at kissing the king. He lay down on the scattered petals, as the Keeper accepts his gentle death at the hands of the Goddess Triumphant. I completed my dance in a circle around him, invoking the circle of the year, and then I knelt and raised him up once more, for I was spring, and with spring comes rebirth from death.

Kneeling with me in the center of the garden, the king spoke. “I am Shandihara Idri,” he said, “and you shall be my voice.”

For a duty which began with such solemn ritual, the daily reality has been substantially more mundane. The king’s life is bound up in tradition and ceremony, yet at the heart of it lies a human man, who eats and drinks and sleeps like any other. And I am the only person with whom he can share himself.

Idri is attended by deaf servants. The king’s voice is too powerful, too pure, to be heard by profane ears. His ministers receive his words through me, though they have been purified enough that they may sit near their lord, experiencing the quiet murmur of his voice as he conveys his orders to me. In formal audience, lesser nobles of his realm or courtly petitioners must keep their distance.

I am the kingspeaker, the only one Idri has ever had, for my predecessor died with his father the king. From the moment of Idri’s accession until he spoke to me in the garden, he communicated only by the written word.

Immediately after I became his voice, Idri was shy with me. That did not last more than a day, though; so newly made king, he was unused to the restrictions of his position, and craved speaking with someone. He confessed to me that he had talked often to the servants, who could not hear him, but it was not enough: he wanted to speak to someone, and have them respond.

So I gave him what he desired—conversation—but always conscious, as he was not, that the words I spoke were his, and the voice with which I spoke them, his. He converses with himself, truly, when he converses with me. This is what the priests prepared me for, in the days of ritual before I became the kingspeaker. Every word I speak belongs to the king. I must never forget this.

While my conversations give solace to Idri, then, they give none to me.

Anything I need, I ask for in writing, using my hands in place of my absent voice. Some believe that even this is too much, that the kingspeaker should communicate only the wishes of the king, but they will not deny me that gift crafted by the sisters Surai and Sulai in their exile from one another. Writing has always been a woman’s art.

We are permitted to write for ourselves as well, we kingspeakers; the priests warned me that I would need this outlet, though I should be wary of whom I share my writings with. I have not needed to be wary. Perhaps because Idri was so newly a king, I vowed to be the perfect kingspeaker, to confine myself only to occasional notes, informing the servants when I had need of something in particular. And for nearly seven years it has been so.

Now, for the first time, I feel that I must write. Idri is a grown man, twenty-two, and we have both become accustomed to our roles. This one matter, though, I must write down; I will commit it to paper, and then bear it to the Temple when we travel to Anahata in a few days. I will burn the record of this event, and it will be done.

We go to Anahata to celebrate our victory against the western warlord Baswar Jal, a victory brought about through the courage and cunning of our king. For three years Baswar troubled the desert edge to the west, evading the forces Lord Khilgani sent to capture him, even seducing away Khilgani’s daughter, who joined him as his bandit queen. Luck and ingenuity won him victories, and victories won him followers, in ever-growing numbers.

Idri had no desire to address the problem himself, but auguries cast by devotees of the Goddess Triumphant revealed that Baswar Jal would not be defeated without him. The court moved from Aishuddha to the western city of Lageshatra, a scrubby, dusty place far removed from the luxuries we ordinarily enjoy. Many of the nobles complained, but one of Idri’s councillors advised him wisely, saying they should not be left unattended in the capital while their king was away. Kings have been unseated by such mistakes before.

We made our home in Lageshatra, replicating as best we could the elegance of Aishuddha, and Idri called Khilgani to him. When the lord came, I saw that he resented the summons, which drew him away from his hunt for the warlord. Khilgani did not expect Idri to be of much use, whatever the auguries said. But he came, and made a gift to the king: two horses, beautiful Nidhiri with golden coats, a matched pair of stallion and mare. “May these humble mounts carry you to victory,” he said, bowing deeply to Idri.

“I am certain they will,” Idri said, and I knew that he was pleased with the gift. Nidhiri, they say, are the horses made by the Goddess Triumphant herself; all other breeds are but lesser children to her. Only Nidhiri are fit to carry royal blood.

But the horses, it seemed, would carry us nowhere save around the walls of Lageshatra. Riding on the stallion, with me on the mare, Idri conducted sporadic “inspections” of the city’s fortifications, such as they were. Lageshatra was not a defensible city, nor was it expected to be; reports put Baswar Jal much further out in desert country. Lageshatra was no more than a place to keep the nobles out of trouble, while Khilgani conducted the actual business of war.

And so the days dragged by. I heard the edges of discontented rumblings, and knew there must be more where I did not hear. The nobles were displeased to be in Lageshatra, deprived of their accustomed elegance. Khilgani was displeased to have the king present, watching over his shoulder while contributing nothing of use. Idri was displeased to be there, bound by augury to do something important, not knowing what that might be. He had his tutors, of course, who trained him in the art of the sword, spear, whip, and bow, but at twenty-two years of age Idri had never faced combat outside the practice floor.

In the end, he offered a great bounty: so much for information leading to the capture of Baswar Jal, more for the head of the warlord himself. Lesser bounties were on the heads of his lieutenants, and one for the return of his queen, Khilgani’s daughter, provided she was unharmed. Khilgani’s soldiers spread coin liberally, showing their generosity in dozens of villages too tiny to merit names. The people feared Baswar Jal, but greed could overcome fear.

And so it did. Word came at last that the warlord had a camp in a maze of gullies to the northwest, several days’ journey away. Water was supposed to be nonexistent there, but villagers told us there was some, that Baswar’s men had dug deep wells to keep themselves supplied.

In the central hall of the shabby building that passed for the governor’s palace in Lageshatra, Idri met with Khilgani and other commanders, who spread out maps on tables for the king to see.

“It would be a difficult area to assault, Golden One,” Khilgani said, marking with small figurines the region that had been described to us. “We must approach through the gullies themselves; only in certain places are the slopes gentle enough for us to enter. But we would be vulnerable to ambush from above.”

Idri nodded, his golden eyes on the map, and I believe that only I knew him well enough to see the uncertainty that underlay his mask of royal composure.

“Of course,” one of the other commanders added, “we would send out patrols to sweep the mesas, killing any lookouts we find there, and hopefully keeping Baswar from learning of our approach. But if he has stationed men in the canyon walls themselves, we would have a hard time reaching them. And if they decide to run, we won’t have enough men to block every exit.”

“Golden One,” Khilgani said in a respectful tone, “I do not like the idea of this assault. The territory favors Baswar Jal too much. My recommendation is to send scouts to confirm whether he is there or not; we cannot be certain the information we have bought is reliable. Once we know, then we can position the army here —” He laid a figurine on a nearby mark that indicated a tiny village with a well. “And leave scouts stationed near the exits from the area. When Baswar moves out, we will know which way he has gone, and we can attack him on more favorable ground.”

Silence fell. Idri’s gaze roved uneasily over the map, and one of his long fingers tapped erratically on its surface. Even I, who knew his thoughts so well, could not guess what was in his mind.

At last he beckoned me close, and murmured in my ear.

In my early days as kingspeaker, I might have hesitated before conveying his words. After this many years, though, I knew that my place was not to question; it was to speak on his behalf. “No,” I said, repeating his words perfectly. “We have struggled too long to find Baswar Jal. Now we know where he is; now we will put an end to him. Gather your forces, General Khilgani. We will march immediately.”

No one was unwise enough to make a sound of disagreement, but I felt it in the postures of the men around the table. They did not like this order. But what could they do, save obey? The king had spoken, and the auguries said he was needed for victory.

Were it not for those auguries, I think Khilgani would not have said his next words. “Will you be joining us, your Eminence?”

Another silence, but this time I knew Idri’s words before he spoke them. “Yes. We will be there to see this warlord thrown down.”

Khilgani sent out swift riders as he began preparing the army to march in force; I think he hoped their reports would give him a reason to dissuade Idri from this course. The warlord’s camp was far enough away, though, that they did not return before the first units were ready to go. He had to begin, and hope for the best.

Most of Khilgani’s men had been scouring the region in smaller patrols, fighting dozens of minor skirmishes with bands of Baswar’s men. Now they were drawn in, the hammer gathered to crush the warlord utterly. They made a brave sight, riding forth from Lageshatra with their banners snapping in the wind, and Idri’s priests blessed them all, ritually turning the eyes of the Blood Goddess to the enemy, and calling down the favor of the Goddess Triumphant.

Idri’s own force rode out last, well to the rear of the great army. Five hundred men, one hundred of whom accompanied him as bodyguards, their sole purpose in life to die protecting their king. Idri and I rode at the center of that mass, both of us armored and mounted on the horses Khilgani had given to him. The tightly-laced plates of the armor felt strange to me, but war was no time for a king to lose his voice.

A little over a day outside the city, trouble struck. A snake moved suddenly in the path of Idri’s horse, who reared and staggered into mine. I had no chance to avoid it. Our mounts fell heavily, and only by great fortune did I get my leg clear in time; otherwise it would have broken under the mare’s weight.

Equine screams broke the air. Talrak, captain of Idri’s bodyguard, hesitated only a moment before laying impertinent hands on the king and dragging him free—a presumption no one would blame him for. The stallion and the mare writhed on the ground. They had fallen badly, and both had broken legs.

Nor were they the only ones injured; Idri was favoring his right leg. I moved forward and took Talrak’s place, supporting the king, so that he could murmur in my ear. But Idri was silent, staring at the horses.

We all shared the same thoughts, though only a few of the men were rash enough to mutter them aloud. A snake, and the beautiful Nidhiri; a servant of the Blood Goddess, harming the children of the Goddess Triumphant. She is one deity, as the God is one, but her aspects may be at odds with one another. And now bloody slaughter had struck down the emblems of victory.

We could not help the horses. Idri gave the order. Talrak nodded to one of his soldiers, and the man drew his knife swiftly across the stallion’s throat, then the mare’s. Their blood vanished into the thirsty ground. More than one man uttered a prayer, that the Blood Goddess accept the offering and be satisfied.

The soldiers erected a canopy to shade Idri while the physician came and examined his leg. The bones were whole, though the king’s knee and ankle had been twisted in the fall. The physician wrapped them in tight bandages for support, and when he was done Idri stood, refusing help, and tested his weight.

Talrak bowed deeply. “Golden One, we have fallen behind, and you are injured. Please allow this servant to send a messenger ahead, informing the general that your Eminence has turned back to Lageshatra. My men can arrange a litter for the journey.”

Idri was pale beneath the dusky cast of his skin, but resolute. “No. We must be there for the defeat of Baswar Jal. I am fit to ride. Bring me a horse; we will catch up with the army. See to it.”

The cheek-plates of Talrak’s helmet made his expression difficult to read, and then he bowed a second time, putting his face out of sight. “As the Golden One commands.”

The delay meant we had to make up time. While the soldiers brought horses for us—lesser breeds, and unfit for a king, but the best they could provide— Talrak planned a different route, cutting across rougher territory that would nevertheless bring our small force up on the army’s rear. We had never intended to go that way, but had we not, Baswar Jal’s latest move would have escaped us entirely.

The warlord, as I have said, was a cunning man. When he had need of stealth, he did not set fire to the villages he sacked. Our first sign was not smoke, but buzzards, circling in the late afternoon sky westward of our course.

“With your leave, Golden One,” Talrak said, “this humble servant will send scouts to check that. No doubt it is nothing more than a dead camel, but we must be safe.” Idri nodded his permission, and off the scouts went.

It was not a dead camel. When the two men came back, Idri insisted on seeing for himself. I do not know why; perhaps he was trying to harden himself for war. Whatever the reason, our entire force diverted, and soon we stood on a rise overlooking the ruins of the village, and the bodies sprawled there.

I rode at Idri’s side through the carnage, reflecting his silence. Buzzards flapped away at our approach, but the flies remained, black blankets seething over the corpses. Talrak’s men interpreted the slaughter for us. “Over a thousand men,” they said, having examined the hoofprints packed into the dust around the village. “Riding southeast. They passed through this morning, before dawn.” The water jugs in the houses were empty, proof that the women had not yet gone to the wells for the day.

No one spoke Baswar Jal’s name. They did not have to.

“Golden One,” Talrak said, “we must get you to safety. This force is heading for Lageshatra. We must make for the rest of your army.”

Idri jerked in his saddle, as if the captain’s words were the first to penetrate his mind in some time. His distress made him speak too loudly; Talrak instinctively covered his ears. “Find me—find me a house that is . . . clean. I need privacy. I need to think.” He cut off abruptly, looking sick, and I repeated his words for Talrak.

The captain did not look happy, but he obeyed. The soldiers led us to an empty barn: hardly fit for the king, but the best they could do in this place of death. We filed in, Idri, myself, and his deaf servants, and then he stood in the center of that space, staring blankly at the wall. The late afternoon sunlight pierced the loose, warped boards and dappled his black hair with gold.

“Leave me,” he said. “All of you.”

I turned and gestured to the servants, who bowed and went out.

All of you,” Idri repeated, and when he flung his hand toward me, he turned enough for me to see the tears beginning to spill from his eyes.

Seven years he has been king; he is accustomed to my role. He is alone, even when I am there, because I am his voice. For him to send me away meant he was not, at that moment, the king. He was a man, and overwhelmed.

I bowed and left him alone.

Outside, I composed my face into a careful mask. Talrak came forward and bowed. If he was surprised to see me alone, he did not show it. “Please tell his Majesty that we have found more suitable mounts to carry the two of you—escaped from Baswar’s force, we believe. If you would care to inspect them, they are tethered nearby.” He nodded to a courtyard of packed dirt, that held the last of the sun. Two horses waited there.

I waved him away and walked into the courtyard, my mind elsewhere. Even separated from Idri, I could imagine his thoughts well enough. Lageshatra was not defensible, and her armies were gone to assault the canyons. A thousand men was not Baswar Jal’s entire force—the rest, no doubt, waited to play bait for Khilgani—but it would be enough. The warlord would kill some of the nobles, but hold most for ransom. One hostage might be sacrificed for the good of the realm; not all of them. Baswar Jal would be able to negotiate for whatever he desired.

The horses were a stallion and a mare; I checked them reflexively, more to be seen doing something than out of interest or concern. Standing between the two, shielded from the eyes of others, I laid my hand on the neck of the mare and closed my eyes. The matter was simple. Idri must keep himself alive and free. He must ride with all speed for Khilgani’s forces, and hope for a chance to turn fortune in his favor later. The cost would be high, but what other choice did he have?

The mare whickered and sidled beneath my hand. Her soft nose shoved against my chest, nudging my chin up. Her tack jingled, as if she were eager for a rider.

Standing there, dismounted, I formed an image in my mind’s eye. Lageshatra, with Baswar Jal’s forces descending upon it, to pillage and loot and rape.

Dismounting, to take the city at their leisure.

An instant later, I was slipping through the barn door and bowing to the floor in apology for my presumption. With my hands on the dirt, I wondered what I was doing. I had no paper, brush, and ink. How could I communicate my thoughts to the king?

When I looked up, those thoughts fled my mind.

Idri was curled in a corner of the barn, arms wrapped around his middle, dusky face blank and pale. Twenty-two and a man grown, but this was his first war; aside from his own father’s body laid out in state, and the woman who had been his kingspeaker alongside him, Idri had never seen a corpse before coming to this village. He knew now what failure in war meant, and he was afraid. He knew his own mortality.

Seeing that, I could not scratch characters in the dirt; I could not present Idri with a note while he was in this state. He needed someone to speak to him. But how could I?

He spoke to me in the early years, instead of through me, and I responded as a mirror of his thoughts. Surely I could do that again.

“Idri,” I said, my voice soft but urgent.

He did not look up from where he sat huddled.

“Idri,” I repeated, a little louder. “You must listen.”

But he could not. Fear overwhelmed him, fear and despair. I saw a chance for him, but he could not hear me.

He could not hear himself.

The idea burning in my head warred with my sacred duty. Every word I spoke was, must be, the king’s; I had no voice of my own. Even if I wrote a note, not to Idri, but to Talrak, what good would that do? No one need obey the kingspeaker. Not in a matter such as this. Only the king could give such an order.

I rose and opened the barn door, stepping across the threshold. The soldiers turned to look at me. Past them, I could see the horses, and now I looked at them, saw them for the first time: Nidhiri. A matched pair, more perfect than those we had lost.

Which Talrak’s men had found, just when we had need of them.

Not by chance, but providence. And looking at them, I knew I was right. Every word I spoke was—must be—the king’s.

“Baswar Jal’s men are making for Lageshatra,” the king’s voice said. “They will be pillaging the city, and taking the nobles prisoner. This means they will be dismounted, disorganized, and unprepared to defend themselves. We will ride quickly, and take them by surprise. Send two messengers to General Khilgani, but the rest will ride for Lageshatra. Immediately.”

I am the kingspeaker. I speak for the king.

Men leapt into action. Talrak was giving commands, selecting his messengers. I did not stand to watch. Instead I turned, and found Idri standing just behind my shoulder.

He was not without courage. If his fear spoke loudly in his mind, then I would speak against it, on behalf of that courage.

“Come,” I said to him. “Victory awaits, and the Goddess Triumphant herself has blessed us.”

A full moon rose as we set off into the dusk, and no horse so much as stumbled. We rode faster than the wind, our pace set by the perfect Nidhiri Idri and I bestrode. Talrak’s trackers found sign of the enemy’s passage, growing fresher as we went. We traveled through the night and through the day, stopping only briefly for water, and reached Lageshatra at sunset.

Screams arose from the city, and the clash of metal; fire burned in one quarter, for Baswar Jal had no need of stealth. He believed himself safe, with the army far away. No massed force, no body of bandits waited for us. Having found the city unprepared, they were taking it at their leisure.

Talrak looked at me, and I looked at Idri.

Our horses reared as one, in perfect unison. When Idri opened his mouth to speak, I did not wait for his words; I spoke with him, overlaying his pure voice with the safe one that resided in me. “Bring me the head of Baswar Jal!”

Carried by the Goddess Triumphant herself, we rode into Lageshatra.

They say Baswar Jal was bitten by a snake, before the soldiers overwhelmed him. I do not know if it is true. Certainly the Blood Goddess touched our doings, as she touches all slaughters, but I do not think she was present that night. Our victory came from another hand. Of this, I have no doubt.

When the city was retaken, Idri and I dismounted, and the horses were not seen again. The men tell many tales of what happened to them, each more impressive than the last. Soon we added to our tales the victory of Khilgani’s force; they engineered the collapse of canyon walls that blocked the exit of the bandits, forcing them against the massed ranks of our own soldiers. Patrols scoured the hills, chasing down those last remnants who had not surrendered, and reclaiming Khilgani’s daughter.

This is the great victory we go to celebrate in Anahata. I have laid down my story, as truthfully as I can, and I will burn it at the temple in honor of the Goddess Triumphant.

In the small hours of the night, when I lie awake, I still wonder at the decision I made. The Goddess put the vision of Lageshatra in my mind, but the choice to speak was mine.

I do not regret it. The words I spoke were Idri’s; it must be so. I have no voice of my own. Anything I say is said by the king, for my voice is his.

There is dangerous power in this. But I pray heaven to keep me on a straight path, that I never abuse Idri’s voice. My service is only ever for my king and his people, for whom I will speak until the day I die.


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Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for a World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. She is also the author of the Doppelanger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and more than forty short stories, nine in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, including two set in the world of the Onyx Court series and three set in her Driftwood world. For more information, visit www.swantower.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Beneath the Mask” by Aliette de Bodard
“Driftwood” by Marie Brennan

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Comments & Scrivenings
2 Comments on “Kingspeaker”

2 Responses to “Kingspeaker”

  1. Guest says:

    11-07-2008, 07:05 AM
    Guest

    Cool Story (spoilers lite)

    This is my favorite of the BCS stories so far (didn’t read Crystal Stair yet). The world feels 100% real, the plot is elegant, the conflicts come to a head beautifully….

    The Goddess Triumphant/Blood Goddess is an interesting counterpoint to what we see in modern fantasy, where the gods are often at best incompetent and at worst bloodthirsty and incompetent. I think Brennan played a strong hand balancing that sort of divine intervention with a sense of “fantastic” mystery, (e.g., the second pair of Nidhiri: where did they come from and where did they go?…so simple and so cool).

    Michael

  2. JS Bangs says:

    11-14-2008, 04:50 PM
    JS Bangs

    This is probably my favorite story yet here at BCS (although I also really liked YHL’s story). I especially liked the way that it confounded my expectations about the treatment of the ritual speechlessness, and the way that motif was involved in the story.

    I wrote about this in more depth here: http://jsbangs.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/subverted-subversion/.

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