Mist blanketed the Tsoi River. The clink-clack of the towing elephant’s harness became an eerie rattle from both banks, the gurgling chuck of water against the towboat’s hull were lips sucking flesh from chicken bones. A shiver went through Rahami Honra. She rubbed her forearm, careful not to scratch the spider-bite welts that marked her as Web Seer.
The Mother Oracle’s summons had surprised her, especially at this busy time of year when farmers relied on her prognostications to plan spring crops. It had provided no details beyond ordering her to leave at once.
An uncomfortable mix of anticipation and dread twisted Rahami’s stomach. Did this summons portend something good; an assignment closer to home, perhaps? It could as easily be bad news. Maybe an elder had complained about having to host a low-caste seer in the village. Her clients were content with her, but who knew how authorities saw the situation? No, it had to be more than that. The Mother Oracle would not summon her simply to change her assignment. But what?
“...beyond the divide.”
“Pardon?” Rahami twisted on the bench. The passenger closest to her frowned before resuming his stony gaze. Rahami tugged at her travel cloak’s sodden hood. Hallucinations were not uncommon in seers, but she had not experienced them before this journey. It was discomforting.
The first of Hatsi’s weathered silk warehouses emerged from the mist. “Pier a’coming,” the boatmaster grunted from his perch. Men carried poles to the rails. On shore, the elephant trainer backed the beast, letting its chains go slack while the pole men prodded the boat into position. Others hopped the narrowing gap to secure ropes. Rahami took her place in the disembarking line. She had hoped to visit her mother before meeting the Oracle at Matsomsa Spider House, but the boat was arriving a day late.
Young men crowded the landing. “Kashi!! Kashi!! Best deal here.” Some kashi were plain carts with two wheels. Others were festooned with low quality silks. Rahami spied a familiar red banner and a driver whose attention was fixed on the inside of his removed shoe. The tight brown curls of his hair were unmistakable.
She smiled. “You’ll not find a fare in there.”
“One mo—” Jonji Ingras looked up. “Rahami?”
“Tell me you were not expecting me.” Rahami had known Jonji since they were toddlers, his hut a stone’s throw from hers.
“Sorry to delay you, Madam Seer.” Jonji slipped his shoe on and helped Rahami onto the padded seat. “To your mother’s?”
“No, the Spider House.”
He lifted the kashi’s handles and started off at a trot. He remained silent as they passed the Green Leaf Tavern and Wayward Inn and turned inland onto an uneven path. Spring rains had left puddles, but Jonji seemed not to notice.
“How long have you worked the kashi?” Rahami said.
“Three years.” Despite his exertion, Jonji spoke firmly.
“Have you married?”
A pang went through Rahami. She recalled a couple holding hands on the boat. Lower castes married for love, whereas it was a process of social mobility for higher castes. Seers never married at all. Who would want a disturbed soul wrapped within a poisoned body?
A chipped-stone path carried them through groves of leafless trees and dispirited people. These were spinners traveling to the Spider House to begin their day’s work. Being Ashim, they could not walk on the path, only to its side.
“What is the gossip about my arrival?” Rahami said.
Jonji slowed. “Some say the Oracle will have you unmade for indiscretions and you will become Ashim-una again.”
Rahami nodded. It was possible. She wondered who would be more devastated, herself or her mother.
“What do you believe?” she said.
“It is not my place to guess an oracle’s motive.”
“I suppose not,” Rahami said. She remembered sneaking down to the docks with Jonji to watch men unload crates they imagined to be from all over the world. He had been comfortable with conjecture then. Those were the days, before apprenticeships and social expectations.
Forest gave way to trimmed gardens surrounding a stacked-stone building large enough to contain most of Hatsi. The Spider House’s roof was pounded copper, green with age.
Jonji walked the kashi to the main entrance, lowered the handles, and extended his palm. “Please, Madam Seer. Two tenths for the ride, an extra tenth if you found my service satisfactory.”
Rahami withdrew four tenth-standards from her purse. Her fingertips brushed Jonji’s and a vision bloomed into her—an elderly man presenting a platter of charred lamb chunks atop a bed of carrots and greens. The platter transformed into her father’s face, flesh-white with waterlog, eyes like dark wells. Caste is no excuse to hide from life’s challenges, he said through bloodless lips. The head rolled over, submerged, and was gone.
Rahami clenched. She missed her father more than she could say.
“Is something the matter?” Jonji said.
Rahami caught herself and dropped the coins onto his palm.
“That is most generous, Madam Seer.” He would not meet her eyes.
Rahami steadied herself. “Jonji, talk to me. Were we not friends? Did we not watch off-loaders and dream of exotic places? Tell me at least that memory is true. So little of my life is solid.”
Jonji closed his hand. “That was long ago, a different time.”
“The future is what we reach for,” Rahami said, “but it is the past that forms us.”
Jonji’s expression softened. “Come with us, Rahami. After all, you will be one of us if the Oracle unmakes you.”
“What are you talking about?” Rahami said.
“We’re going over the mountains.”
A chill blew through Rahami. She had heard rumors that the Ashim were plotting, but to attempt a crossing of the Spine of the World? It was a desperate, dangerous idea.
“Think this through,” she said. “You have a stable profession, a family to provide for. I know the prospect of war is frightening, but you cannot let fear lead you to a rash decision.”
“I’m not afraid,” Jonji said. “This is the opportunity we have waited for all our lives. Have you forgotten what it means to be Ashim?”
“Of course not,” Rahami said. “But even the most experienced climbers fear the mountain passes.”
Jonji shook his head. “Forget I said anything, Madam Seer. Forget you ever knew me.” He lifted the kashi handles and trotted away.
Rahami stared after him, wanting to call out. How could she? The gulf dividing them was as real as the stones beneath her feet. She gazed beyond Jonji to snow-capped peaks turned blue by distance. Surely, it was bluster. No one in their right mind would truly attempt to cross the Spine of the World.
Bands of black hexagonal plates girded the Spider House door. For a heartbeat, Rahami saw a man within the design: square shoulders, nose sharp and straight, dimpled chin. It was an unfamiliar face, stern and resolute, and yet she felt as if she knew it intimately.
Another phantom. She shook dew from her travel cloak, wishing she could clear her head so easily. Weaver, she prayed, if you have a care for my spirit, please do not let the Oracle’s purpose be my unmaking. Unmaking would remove her ability to enter trance but not the spider toxins from her body or the welts from her arms. It would not restore her past life.
She grasped the iron pull ring. “It is an honor to be called, Mother Oracle,” she practiced. Despite the door’s great size, it swung open easily.
Steps angled down into a cavernous chamber holding thousands of glass webberies in hexagonally arranged rows, each housing a single spider. Light washed down from windows high on the walls, where women balanced on crossbeams shooed leather-winged fliers and opened or closed vents to manage the day’s heat. Too much heat and the webs become flimsy, her mother had explained when Rahami came here to clean webberies at fourteen years. Too much chill and spiders go dormant. When Rahami had continued to stare, her mother added, The job’s not suited to girls. Leave the rafters to young men.
Rahami smiled at the memory. It had been the boys that interested her, not the job. Now women minded the rafters with so many men in the militia.
She started down the wooden steps, treads as familiar to her feet as if it had been only yesterday she walked them. Difficult to believe that three years had passed since she left the Spider House, and ten since she started her labors here. So much had happened in that time, her father’s and sister’s deaths, her brother moving to Asoman, her mother’s ongoing problems.
Sweet liquid smells mixed with a heavier tang of hickory smoke. Rahami savored the scent.
She paused at the stairway’s base to remove her travel cloak and tuck a curl beneath her headscarf. Ashim-una women wheeled carts loaded with buzzing fly boxes to keep the spiders fed, while Querca-debo workers in blue caftans made their way methodically from web to web, checking strand tensions, removing those to be soaked and spun.
Rahami navigated the busy chamber and pushed through a tapestry wall into a smaller section housing blue orb spiders. Unlike black orb spiders, bred to spin and spin, blues rarely rebuilt their webs. And unlike black orbs, they were fed Harrow bugs, striped beetles with a potent toxin. Ingesting that poison rendered the spiders deadly to all but seers.
A few paces within, the Mother Oracle tended a webbery. She was cloaked in alabaster silk robes, veils, and skirts that hid all but her sky-blue eyes. Even so, she was an imposing woman with a tall, sturdy frame.
Rahami cleared her throat, and the Mother straightened, becoming even taller. Rahami swallowed. Until now, she had been in the Mother Oracle’s presence only during Solstice Celebrations, and always at a distance.
“It is an honor to be called, Mother Oracle,” Rahami said. Her voice trembled despite her rehearsals.
“The honor is yet to be woven,” the Mother said. She extended one hand, palm down.
Rahami touched her forehead to a flesh-colored glove and backed two steps, head bowed.
“I am intrigued by many things I hear from the villages,” the Mother said.
“What things?” Rahami nearly bit her tongue trying to take back the impudent question. Your arrogance will do you in someday, Sister Mathe cackled from memory. A common laborer is what you are, and shall always be.
The Mother sniffed. “It has been reported that you reveal more than the thickest strands to your clients. Is this true? Do you tempt them toward less than likely outcomes?”
Rahami went cold. “In small ways,” she said. What seer did not allow some speculation? “There is little enough hope in the south without dire predictions.”
“There are reasons for our rules,” the Mother said. “They protect seer as well as client.”
“Yes, Mother Oracle.” Rahami knew in a foggy way of the balance between Family leaders, merchant castes, and seers. Politics interested her less than people. “I will restrain myself in the future.”
“I trust that you will,” the Mother said, “but that is not why I summoned you. I am sending you to Matsomsa Manor.”
Rahami’s heart skipped. “I do not understand, Mother Oracle. Matsomsa Family employs private seers, specially bred, specially trained. I’m not even a Sister.”
“Morshimon Matsomsa asked for you by name.”
“Why would he ask for me?”
Creases framed the Mother’s eyes. “Do not test my tolerant mood, Rahami.”
“Apologies, Mother Oracle.” Rahami cast her gaze down.
The Mother lifted her chin. “The Manor Sisters report that Morshimon does not trust their seeing. He wants more of the future than it is willing to grant.” Ice-blue eyes bore into Rahami’s. “An unfortunate power dynamic has taken root. You are to perform the duty you were taught, without conjecture, without twisting the Weaver’s design. When your reading confirms what the Sisters revealed, it will put an end to this nonsense. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mother Oracle.”
“Good. I will have a room prepared. You leave in the morning.”
“I would prefer to stay with my mother in Hatsi,” Rahami said. “If that is acceptable.”
The Mother hesitated. For a heartbeat her presence was anything but intimidating. As if in the throes of some distorted vision, Rahami saw through veils of silk and skin to the woman’s core, a writhing webwork of certainty and doubt warring for dominant pattern.
The Mother glanced away, then back. “Very well, Rahami. Tonight, you play the dutiful daughter. Tomorrow, you will perform your duty to our people.” She indicated the webbery. “I have chosen a blue for you. If the Sisters are content with your seeing, you will receive double your normal fee.”
“That is most generous,” Rahami said. Madam Seer, Jonji’s voice echoed in her mind.
The Mother Oracle’s eyes narrowed. “Do not disappoint me, Rahami Honra. Much depends upon this thread.”
Rahami cast her eyes down, and backed two steps. “Yes, Mother Oracle.” What is she not telling me?
Rahami gripped the goat cart’s bench, trying to retain dignity and her seat at the same time. The driver, a boy of fifteen or sixteen years, had not spoken during their bumpy ride through sycamore forest. Just as well. What would they talk about besides the impending war, or the task that lay ahead of her? Her nerves had already worn so raw with worry that she wanted to jump from the cart and run into the forest.
The lead goat veered. Rahami clung tightly as the cart shuddered into the brush and wedged between saplings. The driver hopped down. “Stubborn animals.” He rocked the cart free.
Rahami glimpsed movement through the trees. Deeper within the forest, women tended a fire near dun colored tents. She caught a whiff of meat smoke. Her mouth watered. She had eaten very little at morning meal, not wishing to deplete her mother’s limited stores.
The driver pulled the lead goat back to the road. The others followed grudgingly, and the cart turned. Rahami still smelled meat smoke, but the tangle was too thick to see anything now.
“Who were those people?” she asked. Another hallucination?
The driver remounted without acknowledging her question. Perhaps he hadn’t heard.
The cart gained momentum. Rahami’s thoughts returned to her impending task. She had heard tales of Matsomsa Manor, mortared walls as high as trees, extravagant halls bedecked with silk, that Morshimon Matsomsa was a man of such height he must stoop through even those doorways; his strength so great he might lift an elephant. With a flush, she recalled another story whispered in the privacy of a women’s chamber, never to be mentioned in the presence of children and husbands.
“Ashim,” the driver muttered.
“The people in the forest. I bring them supplies sometimes. The goats must have remembered.” A weight lifted from Rahami, a small weight but nonetheless welcome. The people were real. Maybe the delusions had ended.
“Where are they from?” she said.
“Runaways from Chindra and Ashoti, a few from the militia camp. They plan to cross the mountains.”
Rahami thought of Jonji. “Without supplies and proper clothing, they will surely die.”
The driver shook his head. “The Weaver will watch over them. The Lost City—”
“That’s a children’s story,” Rahami said.
“For some people a story is truer than life.”
Rahami had no reply for that.
The driver chewed at his lip. “Weren’t you once Ashim, Madam Seer?”
“Then you must understand. If you report them—”
“I will keep your secret,” Rahami said. What would she say in any case, that a handful of Ashim women glimpsed from a road she did not know planned to kill themselves in the mountains? It took no imagination to guess a high-born’s reaction to that. Fewer mouths to feed.
The driver relaxed. “Thank you, Madam Seer.” The goats settled too, pulling together, their low bleats less plaintive.
Rahami listened to the cadence of the wheels turning. Spiny berry thickets gave way to a row of whitewashed bee hives. She smelled honey and imagined the Mother Oracle’s lips moving behind her veil. You are to perform the duty you were taught, without conjecture, without twisting the Weaver’s design.
Why would Morshimon Matsomsa believe me over Sisters bred to the task?
The road turned along a ridge, and the view opened onto Matsomsa Manor sprawled along a peninsula into a vast lake. Three wings protruded from its central tower. Chimneys rose from blue slate roofs.
South of the peninsula, a militia camp numbered more gray tents than Rahami could count. Men practiced swords or bows or pikes, the ring of metal upon metal nearly constant.
As a child, Rahami had believed war would never reach Querc. A rugged coastline with few natural bays protected them from attack by sea. Invasion from the south would mean defeating a tenacious Amaali people and braving the Decid Plain, where ghosts intent upon bodily possession ruled the night. Now she knew better—the Amaali were not the warriors of legend, and it was said that certain magics could mitigate the ghosts of Decid Plain. Still, it was difficult to accept that the local militia, some of them young men she had grown up with, would soon leave for the front.
The road descended. Dried mud yielded to manicured river stone. The great manor rose before her like a foreign land. Rahami sat forward as the cart traversed a plank bridge. A boy not much older than her driver stepped from a guard shack, pike in hand. Interlinked hexagonal chest plates depicted the Matsomsa spider crest. Bulky shoulder protectors extended from his neck, making his head look too small.
“Who wishes entrance?” he barked.
No one, Rahami thought.
“I bring a seer for Morshimon Matsomsa,” the driver said.
The boy-guard pointed his pike. “She is to enter through the Elephant Gate. Take care to mind your goats. They may eat rotted apples, but nothing recent fallen.”
Clicking his tongue, the driver started the team along a row of apple trees. They passed statues of robed men holding scrolls and uniformed men with swords or pikes. These must be Morshimon’s ancestors.
Wheels clattered on cobblestone as they entered a courtyard featuring a water fountain. Girls spilled from a doorway, followed by a pregnant woman in exquisite blue silks, whose uncovered head marked her as Querca caste.
“I am Reuda Anch, Mistress of Women,” she said. Up close, she looked younger. “You are Rahami Honra?”
“Yes,” Rahami said. A girl brought a hand-cart, and helped the others load the webbery and Rahami’s satchel while a mustached guard watched. Not so much to protect my goods as to catch every detail of girls’ bodies moving within loose-fitting garments. Rahami remembered fondly when boys had watched her like this. Few seemed to notice her gender now.
“I am to show you to the seer residences,” Mistress Anch said. She motioned to an older girl, who scampered inside.
Rahami followed into a busy kitchen bulging with delightful smells: onions, pressed garlic, vinegar, mustard spice. Pots hung amid ropes of dried herbs. Blazing hearths dominated one wall where women worked dough on a lacquered table.
Hunger twisted Rahami’s stomach. They crossed a dining room with tables enough to seat fifty, ascended a flight of steps, passed a number of closed doors, and arrived at an arch decorated with river stones and shell and hung with layers of heavy silk. Rahami admired the material. Curtains of this quality, with dense weave and shining surface were rare in the countryside. To live amid such splendor must be wonderful.
Mistress Anch parted three outer layers: gold, yellow, and white. Colors to blind the spirits.
“I can escort you no farther,” she said. “The Sisters have been informed of your arrival.” She parted the three inner curtain layers: burgundy, blue and black. Colors to trick spirits into believing they return to their own world.
“Thank you,” Rahami said. Stomach churning, she stepped through the opening into a small hexagonal chamber with a mosaic floor depicting a blue orb weaver in a geometric web.
Three ivory-robed women entered from the opposite archway. They moved in unison, blue-eyed faces identically gaunt, blond hair pulled back in braids. Rahami breathed and released. Manor seers were said to breed like spiders. Maybe it was true. She could imagine these three emerging from an egg sac.
The first Sister extended her hand. “I am Armyni.”
Rahami touched her forehead to bony flesh. “I am honored, Sister Oracle.” The hand withdrew, and Rahami straightened. Armyni was clearly the eldest of the three, the skin of her brow and temples hinting at creases.
“It is unfortunate you must leave your village duties,” Armyni said. “I am certain they are pressing.” The corners of her mouth ticked upward. “But take heart. Your stay here will be brief. Have no doubt of that.”
Rahami forced a polite smile. Her year of training with Sister Mathe’s acid tongue had taught her to tamp emotion down.
“Thank you, Sister,” she said. “I am indeed needed elsewhere, yet the Mother Oracle has determined my duty is here. Perhaps, when we have solved this problem, she will send you South to aid me in settling a farmer’s dispute.”
Armyni’s jaw clenched. She turned on her heel and walked from the room.
“Come,” another Sister said. “I will show you to your quarters.”
By the end of the third day, Rahami began to question Armyni’s understanding of ‘brief’. She had already endured too much idleness in the seers’ quarters, a collection of alcoves surrounding a common area. With no books to read and no sewing to occupy her hands, she spent her days gazing upon the lake and her nights dreading. She had heard of seers tortured when their reports displeased a powerful client. Of course, there were consequences for such abuse, but fines held little sway over people with vast wealth. That Morshimon had requested a minor seer, one with Ashim roots, was troubling.
On the fifth night, she woke to peeling thunder. Flood! was her first impulse. Again she saw Father slip from the sandbag wall he had helped erect. Her younger sister, Owabe, reached out and was gone too, lost in a current stronger than her will. Lightning flashed. Rahami sat up, brow slicked with sweat.
A figure in white hovered by the common room windows. Ghost? Rahami pulled a silk sheet over her head for protection.
The figure resolved into the youngest Sister, Tifan, and Rahami relaxed. Of the three, she liked Tifan best. Where the others evaluated and dismissed, Tifan showed a spark of curiosity.
“I did not mean to startle you,” Tifan said. She entered the alcove. “The storm keeps me awake. Armyni says I am foolish to fear the weather.”
“Fear is a healthy response to powers greater than our own,” Rahami said. She removed her makeshift headscarf.
Tifan knelt onto the sleeping mat. “Armyni claims we are well protected within the manor, yet I often feel the hair rise from my skin.”
“I’ve felt that too,” Rahami said. “I believe lightning causes hair to lift as it energizes the air.”
“You are not afraid?”
“No,” Rahami said.
“Then Armyni is right. The Weaver has blessed us with an ability to see beyond his veil. We have no cause to fear nature.”
“Perceiving a future is not the same as controlling it,” Rahami said. “I may not fear lightning, but I fear other things.”
Tifan edged closer. “You do?”
“Floods,” Rahami said. “My father and sister....” She stopped. It was not like her to blurt personal details.
“I’m sorry,” Tifan said.
“It was a long time ago.”
Lightning flashed, and Tifan leaned forward. Rahami’s arm went around the younger woman. She remembered holding Owabe after they were caught sneaking to the slaughterhouse to watch an elderly elephant put down. Rahami remembered Owabe trembling, tears shining in her eyes. No, that direction was not where this conversation needed to go. Diversion was a better antidote for fear.
“I also fear love,” she said. “A man who pulls at my heart as lodestone draws metal filings.”
“Oh, yes.” Tifan sat straight. “We all dread that.” She cocked her head. “Have you met such a man? Your travels surely present more opportunities than we have here.”
“Once,” Rahami said. A thrill ran through her. She had not thought of Jankol in months.
“What was he like?” Tifan said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Rahami said. “I forget.” I hoped I had. She had danced with Jankol at Solstice celebration, knowing even as their hands touched—hers shielded behind kid skin gloves—they would never kiss or cuddle or whisper sleeping mat secrets. Only a man with seer blood might mate with her, and even that was risky.
“Tell me about Morshimon,” she said to deflect the subject. “What does his future hold? What choices did you see?”
“We should not speak of such things,” Tifan said. Lines creased her brow.
“I cannot help but wonder what I am expected to report,” Rahami said. “Armyni seems worried I will contradict her.”
Tifan sighed. “Armyni believes you will not stand up to the Honorable Morshimon. She believes you will tell him what he wishes to hear. It is no secret that you were not born to the craft.” A low rumble sounded. The storm was passing.
“I will do my duty,” Rahami said. Without conjecture, without twisting the Weaver’s design.
“I believe you,” Tifan said. She paused. “There is something else you should know, Rahami.”
Tifan looked into her lap. “The Honorable Morshimon went to Chindra, to recruit.”
“He’s not here?” Irritation surged through Rahami, a storm all its own. Who was this Morshimon, to toss her about like thistle seed? “I cannot remain here forever. People depend on me—farmers, fishermen, town elders.”
“Armyni understands this,” Tifan said. She pressed a coin pouch into Rahami’s hand. “Ten standards. We do not possess enough for the Mother Oracle’s fee, but Armyni wanted to compensate you at least.”
“Compensate me for what? I have not undertaken the seeing.”
Tifan looked up. “You are not the first person the Honorable Morshimon has abandoned. Armyni says he discards people as children discard torn kites.”
“Surely, he wouldn’t trifle with a seer dispatched by the Mother Oracle,” Rahami said.
“This is a difficult time,” Tifan said. “War threatens to turn the world upside down.” She lowered her voice. “Armyni knows what she is asking of you. You dare not return to the Mother Oracle, who would as like have you unmade as listen to your side, but.... Perhaps this is an opportunity too?”
“How so?” Rahami asked.
“This calling we share, is it not also a burden? When we open our eyes onto the Weaver’s tangle, it is his domain, not ours. We are constrained by forces beyond our control. Would you not wish to be free if you could?”
Rahami found herself nodding, even though she had never considered gaining her freedom in this manner.
“Accept this payment and leave Querc,” Tifan said. “In time the poison may fade, and you will have your old life back. Armyni says that you are not bred to be a seer.”
Rahami thought of Jankol. Rid of the spider poison, she might find love. She might even find a way to use her natural talents for something more meaningful than reading futures for farmers.
Tifan squeezed Rahami’s hand and stood. “Sleep, Rahami. Perhaps your dreams will convince you. I cannot help but to put myself in your place. For me it would be an easy choice.” She strode to the exit.
“Wait,” Rahami said. “You haven’t told me why Morshimon doubts his Sisters’ readings. Why was I summoned?”
“The Honorable Morshimon believes we withhold something. He will not let go of his suspicion.”
“Is he wrong?” Rahami asked.
Tifan looked away.
“What did you see?”
“His destiny, of course,” Tifan said. “His death.” And then she was gone, another shadow in the darkness of the common room.
Rahami’s dreams did not help. Again and again, she witnessed her father’s swollen corpse returned to the village for burial, her sister’s face disappearing into angry black water a final time. The grief seemed as fresh as ever. Her Mother had been healthy then, which only made the tears more cutting.
Each time Rahami woke, she thought of Tifan’s suggestion. Leave Querc. In time the poison may fade. And then she would whisper “no,” close her eyes, and eventually fall asleep only to have the cycle repeat, until, finally, she was too tired for even that to wake her.
Morning brought sunshine streaming through the windows. A coin pouch lay rumpled beside the mat like the bean bags some children kicked for sport. She should be glad that Tifan’s offer had not been another hallucination, but she could not get past a feeling of impending doom. Had Morshimon truly abandoned her? How would the Mother Oracle react? She gathered up the coin pouch and went in search of Armyni.
The passage from the common room was lined with tapestries depicting forests and lakes. Dark blue silks trimmed in gray draped from the ceiling.
A man groaned.
“Hold him,” Armyni’s muffled voice said from a side passage blocked by silk.
Rahami moved closer. Why would a man be permitted in the Sisters’ quarters? Even the female servant had been specially purified.
“He’s spent,” Tifan said.
“Do you think I will not know when he spends his silver in my inn?” Armyni said.
Rahami worked her fingers through the curtains. Across the room, Armyni straddled a naked man on a mound of pillows. Tifan held his hand while Orinda, the third Sister, leaned onto his shoulders. His breaths came as shallow grunts.
“He’s not well,” Tifan said.
Armyni snorted. “Oh, do not worry, precious Sister. He claims his mother comes from seer stock.”
The man choked. Spittle erupted from his mouth.
“You’re killing him,” Tifan said.
“She may be right,” Orinda said.
“Imagine that,” Armyni said. “A man who lies about his heritage. Well, I suppose his lesson is that lies return to roost.”
“What concern is his death to us?” Armyni snapped. “He is Ashim.”
Rahami swept the curtains open. Rage clouded her thoughts.
“What are you doing here?” Armyni said. “Do you want a turn?”
Rahami threw the pouch. Instead of striking Armyni, it landed on the man’s chest and skidded into his chin, drawing a startled grunt.
Eyes stinging, Rahami fled through a surreal landscape of fake forests, fake mountains, fake lakes. Nothing here was real.
“Wait,” Tifan called. Rahami ran faster.
The passage emptied into the hexagonal room where Mistress Anch had abandoned her. She crossed the mosaic spider floor and paused at the curtains.
“It’s not as it seems,” Tifan said, from the inner corridor’s mouth.
“It never is.” Rahami pushed through clinging silk into the hallway beyond. Stately paintings punctuated the walls as far as she could see.
Tifan’s shadow moved behind the curtains. “You are one of us,” she said. “Return with me, and Armyni will not punish you.”
“No,” Rahami said. “Come with me, Tifan. We’ll report her cruelty.”
“If Armyni is cruel sometimes,” Tifan said, “it is only because of the pressures of her station.”
“And the man?” Rahami asked. “Does the Honorable Matsomsa tolerate murder in his manor?”
The curtains parted. A blue eye peered through. “Murder? He is only Ashim.”
The words hit like a splash of scalding water. Rahami turned and sprinted through the corridor, listening for sounds of pursuit that did not materialize.
A stairway led down. She took it.
Girls in brown shifts replaced sconce candles from a cart. A pair of guards chatted by an archway leading to a room filled with tables set for breakfast. Only the farthest table was occupied.
Rahami willed her speeding heart to slow. The way outside was through the dining hall.
“What is your business?” the older guard said. The younger one was the mustached man Rahami had seen in the courtyard.
“I am needed in the kitchen,” she said.
“Use the servants’ passage.”
“Thank you,” Rahami said, pretending to misunderstand. She strode between the men.
“Are you deaf?” the older guard said.
Rahami continued walking, though every nerve in her body screamed at her to run. The dining hall was as high as it was wide, with skylights placed along the ceiling. No rafter women here.
A hand grabbed her. “Don’t touch me.” She spun, lifting a sleeve to expose her spider-bite welts. Her heart thudded.
The older guard drew back. “Spider-witch.”
“She’s the woman from the goat cart,” the mustached guard said. “Morshimon sent for her.”
“I doubt that,” the older guard said.
“One way to find out,” the mustached guard said. He nodded toward the occupied table.
“You will take the consequences,” the older guard said. “I want no part of this.”
The mustached guard grinned and shook his head at the other before leading Rahami toward the table, which hosted six balding men and a soldier in partial armor. The soldier’s face was broad-browed, nose sharp and straight, a dimpled chin. Thick, dark hair topped his head, more than enough to make up for the others’ lack.
Déjà vu washed through Rahami. She had seen this face before. The Spider House door.
“What is it, Kapren?” His voice was resonant and deep.
The mustached guard came to attention. “I found this woman wandering the halls, Honorable Morshimon.”
Morshimon? Rahami touched her bare head. She felt naked.
“Ah, the seer from the south,” Morshimon said. “The Mother Oracle promised you days ago.”
“I have been here nearly a week,” Rahami said. “The Sisters said you were away recruiting soldiers.”
“Is that so?” Morshimon sighed. “I shall have to educate the Sisters concerning my itinerary. These miscommunications grow tiresome.”
Rahami swallowed. “I am sorry to interrupt your meal, Honorable Matsomsa, but when I saw that man, I didn’t know what to do.”
“An Ashim man in the Sisters’ quarters. They were.... Armyni....”
Morshimon’s jaw tensed. “Kapren, instruct the Mistress of Women to find a suitable room for our guest. You will stand guard at her door tonight.”
Morshimon started to drop his lap napkin to the table but tossed it to Rahami instead.
“Thank you.” She positioned the cloth over her hair.
Morshimon stood, and Rahami suppressed a gasp. He was at least a head taller than the guard. Massive arms strained the seams of his sleeves. Hexagonal plates of silk-bonded armor covered his chest and shoulders.
A giant if ever one existed.
“I mean to pay a visit to the Sisters,” Morshimon said to the other men. “Anyone care to come along? They have invited one man into their quarters, what are a few more?”
“Your father will not like it,” one of the men said.
“There is much that annoys my father these days,” Morshimon said. “I doubt this will make the first five.” He nodded to Rahami. “Go with Kapren. Tomorrow you will undertake my seeing.”
Rahami averted her eyes. “Yes, Matsomsa-born.” Tomorrow I will see your death. A shadow passed over her, a chill of deep dread. Maybe she should have accepted Armyni’s payment and run.
It was nearly noon before Kapren escorted her to Morshimon’s sitting room. Three windows overlooked the lake. To one side, a table was strewn with maps. Across the room, a hearth warmed two stuffed chairs and a floral-patterned sofa. Morshimon drowsed in one of the chairs. The webbery stood by the other.
Kapren cleared his throat. “The seer is here, Morshimon.”
Morshimon jerked but recovered smoothly. “Thank you, Kapren. You may leave.” Kapren withdrew.
Morshimon stood. “Rahami Honra is an interesting name,” he said. “You hail from a Hashin Village near the river?”
“Yes, Honorable Matsomsa, that is where I am currently assigned.”
“Trained by the Oracle Mother?”
Morshimon nodded. “My militia captain recommended you. He is Hashin by blood, and claims that you reveal truths beyond the politically expedient.”
Rahami cast her gaze down. “I do my duty, Honorable Matsomsa.”
“As do I,” a new voice said. Armyni bustled into the room, the hem of her ivory robe clutched in one hand. Rahami adjusted her head-covering to hide her surprise. She had not expected to see Armyni again.
Morshimon snorted. “The Sister arrives at last.”
“As you requested,” Armyni said.
“As I ordered,” Morshimon corrected. “My father insists that one of you vermin be present.”
“He is wise, Matsomsa-born.”
“He is old fashioned,” Morshimon said. “Now, be silent or I will have you replaced with another spider-witch. I may have to tolerate your presence, but I will not tolerate your tongue.”
“As you wish, Matsomsa-born.”
Morshimon returned his attention to Rahami. “Scarred warriors have crossed Alenja River. They will reach the Decid Plains soon and push north. If we do not defeat the Ubi army at Apatsoi River, Querc will fall. This is what my Sisters tell me. All well and good, but it is what they hide that interests me.”
“We hide noth—”
“Silence!” Morshimon shouted. Armyni looked away. “We will begin when you are ready,” he said to Rahami.
“I want a full reading,” Morshimon said. “A true seeing, do you understand?”
“Of course,” Rahami said. She met Armyni’s glare. I will see this man’s futures. I will know what you know, and more if I am able. She removed her head-scarf. “If something has been hidden from you, Honorable Matsomsa, we shall soon know it.”
Rahami sat on an oval rug, shoes removed, toes touching Morshimon’s naked back.
“I summon the spider,” she said. She removed the webbery plug and extended wooden tongs through the opening. A blue orb spider, starved for days, pranced across invisible strands of its web. Rahami got it on her first try. Catching a hungry spider was not as difficult as catching flies.
She withdrew the flailing creature. “And now, the bite.” She pressed the spider to her wrist. This was the most difficult part, much harder than seeing futures.
When the spider did not immediately bite, she moved it elsewhere, lifting and lowering, pressing its mouthparts to her skin. The spider bites where the Weaver wills.
She felt a pinch and resisted the instinct to squeeze. A convulsion of her grip and the spider might be damaged, or worse, escape to bite the client.
“The spider has chosen,” she said. She dropped it into the webbery and re-plugged the glass.
“We begin,” she said. Morshimon slouched to make his spine more pronounced. She positioned her hands and forehead along his back.
The poison was already taking hold. Rahami’s heart raced. Heat coursed through her, sweat beaded on her face, breathing became as difficult as pumping air through damaged bellows. Be calm. Be calm. As many times as she had undergone this process, she still feared she would die. It was ironic in a way. Once, she had wanted the poison to take her, and it had not.
Her consciousness seeped through Morshimon’s skin, into his spine. Breathe, she thought. Breathe with this man. See with this man.
Heat dissipated in a rush, leaving a warm residue of knowing. A web opened within her, thousands of strands, possible futures, entangled futures, a pattern. Not all strands appeared equal, thicker, brighter ones being most probable.
A sexual encounter with a dark-haired woman. A river forded by militia. A forest camp. Meetings with war leaders. Angry disagreements. A forced march through mountain passes. Bone-biting cold. A highland meadow. Approaching the enemy from behind. A successful surprise. Invaders repelled. Death from infection.
A second strand. Marching, camping, a surprise attack. Death.
A hundred strands. Marching. Fighting. Death.
A thousand strands. Death.
I cannot continue, Rahami thought. The Sisters were right. This man has only death in his future.
A hundred more strands. Death. Death. Death.
Then, a small thread, barely visible. The militia leaving under seven banners. Morshimon remaining at Manor, hunting fliers in the northern forests. Ubi warriors invading, Ubi adepts controlling the Spider House. Villagers enslaved. Morshimon’s father and brother murdered. He weds a woman of Ubi heritage, has four sons and dies an old man.
A second thin thread. Morshimon remains at Manor. Ubi warriors invade. Morshimon’s life is spared. He does not marry or father children.
Others. Morshimon remains and lives.
Futures faded into the dark gauze of Rahami’s exhaustion. She struggled against it, searched for other threads, other options. She had never seen a clearer pattern. Morshimon’s life meant Querc’s death and vice versa.
Sadness overwhelmed her. This is what Armyni fears. For a heartbeat she felt sympathy for the Sister. To guide this client to his most promising future would require Querc’s destruction.
Feeling returned to Rahami’s fingers. She felt Morshimon’s muscles, the interlocked bones of his spine, and recalled her father’s body, so bloated she could only recognize him from the copper necklace embedded in his neck. Would he have chosen to sandbag the river if a seer had warned him he would die?
She disengaged. The Sisters had revealed that Morshimon would lead the militia to victory. They had clearly not told him he might choose instead to live. What do I say? Life radiates from this man.
Silk slid down Morshimon’s back. “The seeing is finished,” Armyni said. “Seer? Can you hear me? You are finished.”
Acid pushed up Rahami’s throat. She swallowed it down, unwilling to grant Armyni the satisfaction of seeing her vomit.
“Village seers are not bred for this, Matsomsa-born,” Armyni said. “Now you see the toll of it. She probably remembers nothing.”
I have seen, Rahami thought. Her face throbbed, her skin burned. Something was wrong. The Mother must have chosen an unusually potent blue.
“Poison clouds her mind,” Armyni said. “She requires time to recover. I will return her to the seers’ quarters.”
“My father may trust you,” Morshimon said, “but I harbor no such delusion. You are excused, Sister. Rahami will remain.”
“She requires attention.”
“I will attend her,” Morshimon said. “Now, get out!”
“As you wish, Matsomsa-born.”
Rahami tried to speak but only managed a croak. The spider poison was not dissipating. It was too potent. She clutched at Armyni, and the world tilted sideways.
Armyni’s breath tickled her ear: “You had your chance to leave.”
Rahami heard her mother’s voice—The job’s not suited to girls—and the world went dark.
Water flowing, heart thudding, breath in her ear. Rahami opened her dreaming eyes onto a surreal world, trees fuzzed with glowing green, a blue sky too intense. The river clucked for her attention. It was slick, too wide to cross, clogged with death.
She remembered the spider and opened her fist. There it was, huddled on her palm, legs kneed up around its pudgy body.
“Curse you,” she spat. It was supposed to bite. She had taken it from the Spider House, sneaked into the blue orb section and snatched it from the nearest webbery. It was supposed to bite. It was supposed to take her down into the depths with Father and Owabe, down there where her Mother’s grief lived. If she made it to the river, all the better. She would throw herself in and let the toxin take her.
Well, here she was at the river, and it hadn’t bitten. She squeezed her fist until the spider’s body deformed like clay in her hand. Still, it would not bite. She tried to fling it. It clung to her palm. She prodded with her finger until it turned its bulbous back.
Rahami considered jumping into the water. She did not trust herself to die. She was too strong a swimmer, and the river had lost its rage. Exhaustion came over her all at once. She sagged to the ground. She closed her eyes and cried.
A pinch. The spider had bitten at last. A dull heat spread from the wound, soothing her to relax, to calm, to listen. All around her the world went silent. She watched, fascinated, as the creature spun its web from her arm to her shoulder, her chin. She watched it skittle along strands too fine to see, watched it dance upon the air.
Rahami woke with a start. She was wrapped in blankets on a sofa facing a crackling fire. A cinnamon scent infused the room. She tried to sit, but only managed to lean heavily on the sofa’s arm. A vomit stain marked the rug by her feet.
Morshimon sat at the table across the room, mug in one hand, a book in the other.
“The spirits have released you,” he said. “For a time, your skin was so blue I feared you might not return.” He set the book aside. “The herbalist said your life was in the Weaver’s hands. I dismissed him. If a man is not going to help, why keep him around?”
Rahami rubbed her forehead. “I apologize for my weakness.”
“The weakness was not yours,” Morshimon said. He came to the couch and tilted the webbery bottom-up. There, etched into the glass, was a flower and three bees. “This is not a Spider House design, but the Manor’s. You were poisoned.”
Armyni, Rahami knew at once.
“The Sisters will answer,” Morshimon said. “Now, tell me what is so important that they were willing to kill you?”
Rahami gazed at the carpet stain.
“The Weaver spared you for a purpose,” Morshimon said. “Please, Rahami Honra, tell me my truth.” He took her hand between his.
Don’t touch me, she thought.
“Why does no one trust me with my destiny?” he said. “It is mine, is it not?
Rahami stared into the fire.
Morshimon sighed. “Will you horde the future, or return the power to shape it to we who must live out your visions?” He released her hand and flexed his fingers. It’s the poison, Rahami thought. It’s me.
“I do not create the strands,” she said. “My duty is to convey your most probable path.”
“I have heard enough of duty,” Morshimon said.
“I’m merely a village seer,” Rahami said.
“What we are born,” Morshimon said, “and what we become are two very different things. I could say ‘I am but the second son’. Does that mean I must live in my brother’s shadow? Can I not love him as he loves me and do the best I can to serve our people too?”
“That is your choice,” Rahami said.
“Do you not also have to choose?” he said.
Rahami frowned. “The Sisters have conveyed your most probable futures.”
Morshimon shook his head. “The Sisters assure me I am to become a hero if I follow their instructions. I have developed strategies for my captains, but it will not do if I am held responsible for butchering a thousand Matsomsa warriors. I do not trust the Sisters’ motives. I must know that my plan is the best possible approach. Am I leading my men into danger? Is this what the Sisters withhold?”
Rahami breathed deep. “No,” she said quietly. “Not that.”
Rahami met his gaze. “What the others did not tell you, what I should not tell you, is that the major threads lead inevitably to your death. If you go south, you will die.”
Morshimon did not look away.
“Circumstances vary,” Rahami said, “but your death is certain. It’s rare to find such a clear nexus. It is as if the Weaver has woven your destiny into the Web Beneath the World.”
“And the war?” Morshimon said. “The Ubi threat? What of that? Could you see?”
“I cannot be certain,” Rahami said, “but they are routed in nearly every thread before you....” She looked away. “It seems unlikely they would return.”
“My life for the land I love,” Morshimon said. “A fair exchange.”
“There is more,” Rahami said. She could feel the tension building in her chest, a sense of unwanted revelation. “Remain behind, Matsomsa-born, and you will live a full life.”
“Querc will be enslaved, our Spider Houses destroyed, families broken apart to serve Ubi overlords.” Rahami could be certain of these outcomes since he would be alive to witness them. “Sons will be born to you in many strands. You will know happiness.”
“Ah,” Morshimon said. “The stew thickens. But, tell me, little flower, how could I possibly be happy in such a future, with Querc in ruins, all I care about destroyed?”
“It is possible,” Rahami said, “for I have seen it. The strands are fragile, but there is hope. You have but to remain behind. This is what the Sisters fear.”
Morshimon erupted in laughter. “Spider-witches. How could I live among them all these years and they not know who I am?”
Confusion replaced Rahami’s dread. “You will go willingly to your death?”
“Of course,” Morshimon said. “I know that must be difficult for you to understand.”
“No,” Rahami said. “I understand what it is like to want to die.”
Rahami gazed into the fire. “It was a time ago. My father and sister had drowned, my mother was sick with grief. I stole a spider from the Spider House, and it bit me. I thought I would die, hoped I would die.”
“But you did not.”
“No,” Rahami said. “Villagers found me. The Sisters could not deny the miracle, much as they would have liked to, and sent me south for training.”
Morshimon whistled low. “And that is how an Ashim became web seer. The Weaver truly does watch over you.”
“If so, he must be laughing,” Rahami said. “The Mother Oracle shuffles me between assignments like hand-me-down clothes. I might as well be invisible.”
Morshimon chuckled. Rahami’s lips turned down. It was not funny to her.
“I’m surprised you would wish to die,” she said. “It seems to me that a man with your privilege and position should want to live forever.”
“I am the second son, not the first,” Morshimon said. “My demise does not much matter in the larger scheme. I only hope that our people will recall my sacrifice.”
“They will,” Rahami said. That was beyond her seeing, but how could the world not remember such a deed?
Morshimon stood. “You are welcome to stay as long as you wish. I would like nothing more than to personally show you the grounds.”
“I’ve been here too long,” Rahami said. “I will leave as soon as I can make the arrangements.”
“As you wish.” Morshimon paced to the table. “It is probably best that we do not let emotion cloud our resolve.”
“Yes, of course,” Rahami said. She watched him sit, his eyes going blankly to the closest map. For the first time in her presence, he seemed defeated. She longed to comfort him.
He did not look up as she exited, but she felt his attention on her like a strand of spider silk stretched to its breaking point.
Rahami mounted the goat cart sent for her return to the Spider House. She was pleased to see the same driver as before.
“You look well,” she said as he took her satchel. The Mother Oracle’s webbery had already been loaded.
He hopped onto the bench. “I brought a different team. It should be an easy ride.” He shook the reins, and the cart began a slow turn. Rahami looked to Reuda Anch, who stood alongside several serving girls, hands on her bulging stomach.
“Uh oh,” the driver said. The cart skidded as a towering man bent through the doorway. Serving girls scattered.
Rahami’s face warmed. A tingling sensation wriggled in her gut. She hoped it did not show in her expression. This was a time for professionalism, not girlish lust.
The driver tied off the reins, jumped down, and bowed so low his forehead nearly scraped. He went to tend the goats.
Rahami nodded. “To what do I owe this honor, Matsomsa-born?”
“I could not let you go without seeing you off,” Morshimon said. “Will you resume your duties in the south, then?”
“The Mother will probably assign a new region,” Rahami said. “I am nothing more to her than an uncomfortable itch she must scratch from time to time.”
“You are not alone,” Morshimon said. “My father sees past me whenever I enter the room. And yet, we will soldier on and do what we can to make the world better, yes?”
“Of course,” Rahami said.
Morshimon took her hand.
“Careful,” Rahami said. She felt the poison leeching from her pores. It would be days before she recovered.
Morshimon laughed. “It seems to me we should both welcome a little numbness.” He kissed her fingers. “I owe you a debt, I wanted you to know that, before.... You have given me hope.”
Rahami felt a surge of shame. She wanted to throw her arms around Morshimon and keep him here. She wanted to lie with him and give him the sons he deserved. How could he speak of hope, knowing that he would die in the coming months? And here she was, complaining about petty politics. She diverted her gaze to the goats. The future she longed for would never be, could never be.
Morshimon released her hand. “Safe journey, Rahami Honra. May the Weaver watch over you.” He started to leave but stopped after two strides. “No, there is more I must say.”
Rahami held her breath. Had he changed his mind and decided to live?
His steady eyes met hers. “We have reached an important juncture for Querc, Rahami. Once the militia marches, my father will no longer possess force sufficient to control our Ashim caste. Many of them plan to leave Querc for the Lost City.”
“The Lost City is a myth,” Rahami said. She thought of the people in the forest, the driver’s worry, Jonji’s offer to take her beyond the divide. She dared not admit these things to a Matsomsa.
“Perhaps not,” Morshimon said. “One of our ancient texts describes it vividly: ‘A white city built of the bone and sinew and blood of the pilgrims within a green valley so hidden from nature that the snows dare not intrude.'”
“Is the flying elephant also real?” Rahami said. She forced a smile.
“The exodus must succeed,” Morshimon said.
Rahami’s mouth fell open.
Morshimon chuckled. “What? You never thought a high-born could think in this manner?”
“Why would you?” Rahami said. “Ashim are to serve the higher castes. That is not a myth.”
“You do not believe in castes any more than I do,” Morshimon said. “I have argued with my father’s advisors for years. We waste precious resources—talent, intelligence, people like you—by continuing this outdated system. War brings an opportunity to prove it. The exodus must succeed, Rahami.”
“How can it?” Rahami said. “Without supplies, maps, a knowledgeable guide.”
“I know the perfect guide for them,” Morshimon said.
“He will need to be more than perfect to find a city that does not exist,” Rahami said.
“I was thinking of you,” Morshimon said.
Rahami stared. “Me? I’m no leader.”
“Ashim will trust your guidance,” Morshimon said. “Not only were you one of their own, you are truthful, resourceful... passionate.” He smiled gently. “There is more quality in your character than the three Sisters combined.”
“It’s impossible,” Rahami said. “I’ve never climbed a mountain in my life.” And yet, the idea sparked an ember inside her. “How would I find the Lost City in any case? An obscure reference in an ancient book hardly constitutes a map.”
“You have your sight,” Morshimon said.
“A seer cannot know her own futures or the futures of other seers,” Rahami said. “The poison masks us from ourselves.”
“You are not like the others,” Morshimon said. “You see the hidden things.”
“I see what the Weaver—”
“No,” Morshimon said. “If the future is fixed, what need have we for seers? No, we play a part in our destiny, even you, Rahami. This is an opportunity to make a difference. Did you not say yourself that the Mother does not want you?”
“I say a great many things I may not fully mean,” Rahami said. Still, she felt uncomfortable. Caste is no excuse to hide from life’s challenges, her father said from the depths of her memory.
“My station entitles me to command you,” Morshimon said, “but I find that I cannot send you unwillingly into hardship. Your safety is as dear to me as the whole of Querc. I have never encountered such a woman as you. Never. In another time and place, I would ask you to come away with me.
Rahami gaped. She wanted to run. She wanted to stay. A world took form in her imagination, green vegetation and golden skies, the spider poison gone, Morshimon beside her each morning as she woke. An ache pinched the pit of her stomach.
Morshimon sighed. “Yet, I must ask this of you, or perhaps you must ask it of yourself, Rahami. You offered me a choice, and so I offer one to you. The journey will be dangerous and is uncertain to succeed. You may perish.” He touched her arm, and time seemed to slow, the breeze, the goats, everything.
Rahami bowed her head, and the ground clarified into bedrock infused with glowing strands. A city bloomed within the glow, buildings with pristine white walls, a courtyard where many people gathered. First portion for our beloved Watcher, an elderly man said. The platter in his hands became her father’s face, no longer bloated-white, but red-cheeked, laughing. Fireworks splashed the sky.
Morshimon’s voice brought her back. “Will you undertake this quest, Rahami Honra? Will you lead our Ashim to their promised land?” Rahami felt his skin on hers, his hope entwined with hers.
The Web throbbed once, twice, thrice. What do you think, daughter, do you want to find a city above the world?
“Yes,” she said. “I will.”