The school of Despair can blacken the soul, but a special problem requires a special tool. And if Arzey’s problem was anything at all, it was most certainly special: a precocious girl with big dreams who went by the birthname of Nurya.
She was thirteen years old, and ever since she was little she could bend fortune to her favor. Just the small things: she’d always win the draw to go with her father into Hadanna proper, or find coins and treasures buried in the forest snow. She was rarely bitten by a darter during wades into the river, and she’d never been sick a day in her life.
Her sisters taught her how to take advantage early on. At nine she was drawing crowds and winning big bags of money at the dice tables and the coin-wheels. By ten she was dominating the vice houses of the city’s center. When the pit wranglers came after her, she always slipped away without a trace. Never a mark on her. At twelve she’d built enough of a fortune for her mother to hire builders and erect a manor at the edge of their village.
And that’s when the Monastery of the Task found her.
Arzey sucked in the winter air and recalled the principles of Despair.
First, determine necessity.
He had watched the girl for many months to learn of her character. If she’d had indomitable integrity and compassion, he could have simply drawn from the school of Truth. He could tell her bluntly that her soulname was Garza, that she was a breaker of wheels in a past life, and that she would cause so much loss if she were allowed to live to her remembering. Then he could let her solve herself.
But she was a rogue of a girl, with loose interpretations of what was good and what was right. The school of Truth would not do. Despair was a necessary measure.
The second principle: gather information. Learn all you can despite what you remember from past lives. This was the first time Arzey had travelled to Hadanna in his current skin. He remembered that a caste system used to be in place a hundred years ago, but he’d learned that all lifelong vocations were now chosen by a kind of lottery. This drawing occurred on the day a child turned thirteen, whether or not they had endured their remembering.
The city-center was also much larger than when he’d been here last; it could take a full day to roam from one end to the other where the central span was longest. The buildings were taller, too, and shelled in lovely green stone he’d never seen before.
These gleanings were kept in a thick leatherbound journal on a hide belt. He wore it across his chest over the simple gray robes of the monastery, only partly obscured by a long scratchy beard. He’d read it for hours before completing the third principle of Despair:
Find or create a shatter point.
Just yesterday the critical moment had come and gone. Hadanna’s administrators had set off for Nurya’s house to deliver the Fates of Labor. The ritual was a grand one, involving incense smoke and diagrams chalked into the floor. The magistrate would loose a box of bones across the etched angles and read out the child’s new lifelong duty.
Arzey decided that he would be the magistrate that day. The black robes and red sash were easy enough to come by, but the ceremonial bone chest and the paperwood incense were a little more difficult. There were no convincing imitations at the markets of Nurya’s village, and there was no time to venture into Hadanna proper.
The simplest solution was to steal them from the magistrate himself. In the moonless morning of Nurya’s thirteenth turnday, Arzey snuck into the administration’s travelling camp and slipped out, his old bones creaking under the weight of the box and a bundle of fragrant wood. This had a dual purpose: now he had all the trappings of a government official, and the true official would be delayed until the crucial items were returned.
By noon Arzey reached the manor at the edge of the village and knocked on the front door. Nurya’s mother answered, glancing once at his red and black finery and hurriedly welcoming him inside.
“Nurya! The magistrate has come!”
She bounced down the stairs without a care in the world, crossing her arms and flaring her hip. A normal child would’ve been nervous, but Nurya—this most recent skin of Garza the Provoker, he reminded himself—was unshakable. She’d never lost a game of luck in her life, and Arzey was certain that she never would.
Which was why he removed the element of luck entirely. He drew out all the chalk diagrams and burned incense until the salon smelled of charred sugar, and then with great pomp and magnanimity he emptied the box of bones onto the floor.
He pretended to count how many landed where and made notes of their locations before drawing up his voluminous robes and breathing in deep.
“You, Nurya of Mohanna, ward of Hadanna,” recited Arzey, peering deep into her eyes. They were bright and hopeful. He knew she wanted to become artisan and work with gold and iron. “Daughter of Augray and Sarona, whose soul’s name is yet unknown.” Arzey took some small delight in this dramatic play-acting, but it gave him no pleasure to crush her dreams so thoroughly.
“It is decreed that you will work the fields and feed the city-state of Hadanna until the next life takes you, and not a year less.”
The girl’s mouth dropped for a moment, and then her brow dug into an angry ditch and her lip pulled into a snarl.
“Roll again!” she demanded. Arzey silently turned and began sweeping the bones back into the chest, his face blank. “Roll again!” she yelled, thumping on his back. Her mother restrained her in a tight hug from behind and kissed her repeatedly on the head.
“It’ll be alright, my baby, it’s okay, it’ll be fine, it’ll...”
Arzey finished cleaning and gave the Hadanna farewell, a shallow bow with his neck craned far to the left.
“Roll again!” Nurya was crying now. “Please, maa, tell him to roll again, please.” She looked at him with big liquid eyes, “Please, sir, sir magistrate, please roll again, this is my—please...”
Arzey looked down at her with a sigh and said, “This is the way. The Fates of Labor have been cast. You will be a good farmer.” And just like that, a shatter point in this girl’s life cracked into existence.
Arzey’s breath came out in clouds in the cold air. The fourth and final principle of Despair was upon him: shatter the problem and allow it to self-solve.
Nurya ran away from home and escaped into the forest. Bad season to try and leave without a trace: even with all the luck in the world you could never keep your boots from leaving tracks in the snow.
Arzey wrapped his shawl tighter around his neck and trekked ponderously through the fresh foot of powder, picking out the footsteps of his quarry as he went. The black columns of tree trunks rose up around him, making the landscape resemble a traditional Theid woodcut: all bold lines and minimal coloration. Perhaps one day he’d return to sear this scene into a block of white pine, but not today. He bottled his awe for a later time and continued with his Task.
The journey was a silent one. There was the occasional crackle of breaking deadfall and the muffled thump of it falling in snow, but the only constant was the crunch of ice under Arzey’s boots.
And then there was sobbing.
He perked up his ears and ran in its direction, crunch-crunching past black trunks until he found her at the base of a steep rock slope, sitting on a stone with bloody hands, scraped knees, and torn gloves.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
She recognized him. “I just wanted you to try again. I don’t want to be a farmer. I don’t want to be a farmer.”
“So you’re running away?”
Her lips trembled.
“You know what the penalty is for deserting your duty, don’t you?” He crouched low so as to look her in the eye. “They lock you up to make an example. Being a prisoner is much worse than being a farmer.”
“Living in the woods is better than both!”
Arzey wiped the ice-flecked tears from her face before they could freeze flush against her cheeks. He gulped hard, silently promised to meditate a full two weeks after this day, and produced a small steel flask from a hidden pocket.
“There is one escape that is both easy and painless,” he said. “You are decreed to till soil for the state until the day you die. That day,” he said, brandishing the flask, “can be today.”
She stopped sobbing for a moment. “What do you mean?” she asked, though Arzey was certain she already knew.
“One sip from this flask will drop you into a deep sleep, and you won’t wake up the next morning.” He passed her the poison and she held it as if it might explode in her hands.
“But this, this—“
“Self-harm can blacken your soul, yes. But what is the cost, truly? The remembering will visit you a little late. Perhaps at fifteen years instead of thirteen.” He put on a smile, and it pained him. “That is no cost at all.”
She uncapped the flask and swirled it around, sniffing at its contents.
“It smells better than I thought it would.”
“And it tastes like honeyed wine. As I said, this is a very pleasant escape.”
She stared inside for a long time. Then she shook her head, “Why couldn’t you just tell me this was tea?” Her shoulders slumped. “I would’ve drank it without even thinking. I’d be gone and back by now!”
Arzey squinted suspiciously. “That would have been murder,” he said, enunciating every syllable. “I don’t wish to break from the wheel of rebirth any more than you do. I will not murder.”
She sniffed at it again.
“What about my parents, won’t they be sad? I haven’t even seen my father since the drawing. He’ll miss me.”
“Once you remember them in your next life,” he lied, “you can travel to them to say sorry. Many make this kind of pilgrimage, I’ve seen it.”
The poison sloshed as she absently shook the flask about.
“Will it hurt?”
“No,” a second lie. Perhaps three weeks of meditation would be in order instead of two. “Just a very deep sleep.”
“Will you tell my parents I love them? And my sisters too? And, my friends in the city?”
Arzey nodded. That he could do. Nurya frowned and looked up, beseeching.
“Is there really no other way?”
Snow fell in the silence, and Arzey had to close his eyes and obliterate his mind for a moment to keep from feeling sad. Two heartbeats passed and his eyelids flashed open.
She wiped her nose and sniffed away snot. Her eyes were ringed red, and her hair fell in tangles. Her body was heaped like a puppet with the strings cut.
The two waited there in the snow for a long while, in silence.
And then Nurya emptied the poison into her mouth, swallowed hard, and began to convulse upon the spotless forest floor. She gurgled foam, soiled herself within minutes, and by the time Arzey knelt down to check for a heartbeat, she was dead and quickly growing cold.
He stood, readjusted his shawl, and began to make his way home.
Arzey spent the full three-week voyage back to Diligence in a state of meditative trance, drinking only water and eating only thick ginger-and-potato paste. The overseas route was but an empty blot in the flow of time. Apparently, there had been quite the nasty storm.
He arrived at the peninsula’s eastward port by noon and delivered his journal to the scholars of the Task for recordkeeping. He managed to retire to his home by evening.
For the following few weeks he gardened and tended bees, fed the countless animals in the forest meadows, and taught classes to young students from all over the Field. Nurturing life was the best way to purify the soul and earn an early remembering in the next life. This was necessary if a monk intended to realize his Task and find his target in time.
Arzey knew that Garza had found the skin of a newborn somewhere out there, and at sixty-three there was no guarantee that he could find him and solve him in this body. He was becoming old, and much frailer than his prime.
At the end of the month under the morning sun, he walked into a den of slavering wolves. There he held his hands high, folded away his mind, and gave up his flesh as food.
On her ninth turnday, Megha remembered the Field. This first memory was common to every soul in the world: standing in a vastness of silver wheat under a harsh, white sun. In the memory there was a spear in her hands. Others said they held wicker shields, or nothing at all. But for her there was a spear.
Then she remembered the name that had travelled with her across death’s gateways for twenty-one lives: Arzey. In her seventh life she had taken up her Task, this dancing game of predator and prey with Garza the Provoker. Her soul, she knew, was that of a monk’s.
“Megha,” said her mother. “Have you remembered?”
Arzey nodded, her expression disturbingly grave for a child so young.
Her papa came from the fireplace and knelt in front of her. Usually he would have put his hands on her shoulder, but a remembering almost makes it as if a stranger has filled your child.
He said, “Will you stay with us a while, or do you have to leave now?”
“I have a Task,” she said, in a sweet voice like wine not yet matured. “I need to go to Diligence.”
Mama smiled sadly. Her little girl was a monk of the old order. It was unlikely she’d ever see her again, even across all the lives on the spinning wheel. Arzey hugged her tightly and allowed some tears to fall down her face. Life was eternal but hollow unless you savored every moment. Every bitter sadness, every sweet joy. Nine good years were a droplet in a sea made of twenty-one lives, but she cried for them still.
Papa stood, “We’ll arrange for your food and voyage. Before you leave, is there any wisdom you might give us from the past life?”
She looked up at them with a sigh, sorry for their sake that she hadn’t been a seeker or an engineer. They looked at her expectantly, and she prepared the only answer she could think of:
“Don’t ever become a monk!”
She shaved her head with a knife bought from a peddler at the rear of the caravan. Captain Uday allowed her a place on top of his leading wagon, and there she began training her body.
Memories were a given, but the body you were born with had to be adapted to and built up strong. Luckily this wasn’t the first time Arzey had been a little girl. She knew the quirks of motion and stance in this kind of skin.
Days began balanced on one leg, first on the flat of the foot and later on the tips of her toes. As her legs grew stronger she crouched deep into a lake bird’s pose for as long as she could hold, shaking atop the jostling wagon’s roof.
Rest lasted until the sun was not quite overhead and passed by with good food and lovely views. This part of Theid was a network of sand, duning in canyons cut from rich, layered rock. With the sun at this angle she could see the colors brightly: red lines with yellow-gold lamina beneath, interspersed at times with rosy stone and walls of chalky white.
“How long d’you have left, of wheeling and adventuring?” A horseman rode close to a coach-driver, speaking in easy west-Theid tones. A childhood of speech could accustom a mouth to the phonetic flavor of a place, regardless of how many languages were locked in the soul’s memory. This man had been born in the region, like Arzey herself.
The coach-driver replied with a heavier north-Theid gravity, “Just the one year.”
“And then it’s off to the old man’s rotation, eh?”
“These bones’ve had enough wear and tear. Travel is a young man’s labor—I’ll take no issue with minding a garden or keeping the books.” The driver cracked his neck almost as if to emphasize.
“Hah, you’ll get bored within a day! There’s no doubt. None.”
The driver laughed. “Always the same story with you young people. No matter how many lives you live, you still forget how it feels to get old.” Arzey caught the driver’s eye, “Isn’t that right, monk?” She perked up. “You must be close enough to your remembering to know how it feels, yeah?”
Arzey smiled and nodded placidly.
“See? The girl knows,” said the driver, his seat gently rocking with the gait of his horses. “She’s young enough to know, now, isn’t she?”
The Grand Harbor was still a feast for the eyes: tall-masted ships with sails of blue, yellow, and purple on white, dashed, checkered, dotted, striped; short men with braided beards and women with tattooed faces; pierced brows, wrapped foreheads, oiled leather belts, spotless white gowns—ah. The spices of the Field were as strong as Arzey had left them. But stronger still was the smell of salt.
The great mass of the marina had moved further inland than she remembered, and great wooden logs that could’ve been cut from thousand-year old zam trunks kept the boat hulls from being dashed against the rocks.
Sometimes it seemed as if a deep collective nostalgia kept these places embedded in their maps: it would take many generations for anyone to bother creating a new Theid pier elsewhere, far away from this eroding coast. Arzey wondered if that would ever happen at all; it was a project she’d be happy to spend many lives on.
But always there was the Task.
The simple square ferry to the peninsula of Diligence was quite close to where she’d said her goodbyes to the caravan, but she hesitated. This place was so lovely. Surely it was worth it to visit the stalls, drink some tea, and practice all the Field’s languages with her new, untested throat?
Though much of the world spoke in a hybrid mishmash of every tongue from every life and region, there were many purists who preferred to throw themselves into each birth as if it were their first. It delighted her to hear them speak, and to try and follow along.
Just one cup of tea.
The ferry set off with the push of a long pole at a heading for Diligence’s westward port. The journey wasn’t long, and the shore was within viewing distance for the entire duration.
Playful dolphins came to dance on the bow-waves many times, and Arzey danced along on the rails beside them. “Hello dolphins!” she called. They squealed in joy, and perhaps, she hoped, in reply.
At sunset she began the daily conditioning of her arms and torso. She hung from the stern and held on from a combination of pure will and fear: if she let go she’d fall into the water and be left behind at night. When it was time she’d pull herself up with little difficulty. Being a child had its advantages.
She made herself into a bridge from one barrel to another and held there with a fire burning in the muscles of her abdomen. She closed her eyes, erased her mind, and remained for an hour and one half more.
Arzey needed to rest a full day before she could sit up again, and by the time she had, the columns of Diligence were in sight. They were long, thin, striated things—like dowels drilled from a tree with all the rings still intact. They were symbols of the Monastery’s dedication: each crooked pillar was built up as tall as a monk’s oath was long. A new foot of stone was added for every life spent on a particular Task, and the subtle variegations in color whispered at the flow of time.
She leapt off the boat as it made landfall and fondly regarded this forest of stones. They varied from gray to gray-green, some covered lightly in lichen and others clean and pristine. Together they gave the impression of a vast and ancient ruin sunk into the grass—which was, Arzey supposed, not entirely inaccurate.
She brushed her hand along each pillar as she picked the path to the central grounds, sometimes closing her eyes and navigating by touch and memory alone.
Her liveslong family of scribes and teachers welcomed her with open arms and wide smiles.
“It’s been far too long!” roared Pilae, picking her up in his arms and squeezing her into his big belly. “Nine years since I saw your ugly face walk off into those caves. And now a little Thediya girl? Hah!” His laughter was rumbly and as full as a heavy gong.
He set her down. “Okay, come. Let’s make the librarians happy, shall we?”
Over the course of an hour she sat to have her likeness drawn into a sheaf of records and her story written into the book of her lives. Time of death and rebirth: 1443 years After the Field. Birthname, Megha. Birthplace, Jugada in west Theid. Continued Task: the pursuit and sustained subdual of Garza the Provoker.
Arzey stroked his stubble and absently stoked the fireplace, thinking.
He was in a cabin on the very fringes of Dumma province in the southern highlands, the home of a young mother named Laran. Her son Jameel had shown signs of improbable luck, and the monastery dispatched Arzey immediately. Luck was one of the more obvious powers possessed by the soul of Garza the Provoker.
Laran set down a tray of spiced tea.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He’s never seemed very lucky to me.”
Arzey sipped at a cup, “Perhaps so. But his birth coincides perfectly with the last subdual: 1549 years After the Field.” His voice was gruff and rubbed raw by Nai Zama accents. “Would it be possible for me to see him personally?”
Laran nodded, “Yes. Of course.” She scratched at her mug. “Do you monks usually tell the mothers? That you might have to end their children?”
“No.” He took a long draft of tea. It reminded him of a dessert he had enjoyed during his lives in Hadanna.
“Then why did you tell me?”
“Monks of the Task spend a long time observing. I’ve watched you for several months, and came to the conclusion that you are of unusually strong character. As is your son,” he added. “I hope you don’t mind that I’ve been watching.”
“No more than I mind a lion hunting,” she said. Arzey didn’t know what to make of that; Jameel’s father had been killed by a lion while journeying with a caravan.
“It’s not often I can simply tell the truth. And telling a parent, in all my lives, is unheard of.” He finished the tea with a gulp and set it down on the wooden table. “But I was I certain I could trust you to value the many over the one. I’d say I was correct.”
“You were,” she replied. She had a supreme sense of calm about her, but Arzey could still sense her voice tremble.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Your son may not be the one I’m looking for. I’ll be sure the moment he wakes up.”
Jameel woke up at noon, munched on a bowl of fresh nuts and fruit, and went out to find Arzey sitting cross-legged on an old tree stump.
“Hi,” he said with a wave. The boy’s shoulders were broad, but his arms and legs were still like saplings. He had short-cropped hair and a voice that hadn’t yet cracked.
“Hello, Jameel. My name is Arzey.”
“Nice to meet you, Arzey!” He smiled brightly, and the monk did the same.
Arzey casually opened a bag and laid its contents out in front of him. A very old toy wagon, a fuzzy plush pillow in the shape of a blue whale, and a wooden figure of a woman mid-dance.
Jameel’s face lit up with excitement.
“What’s happened?” Arzey asked.
“I like that one!” He rushed at the whale and hugged it to his face. “Oh, it’s really dirty though.”
“Indeed.” Arzey produced another pouch from a hidden pocket. He laid out the contents of this one as well: a cut blue gemstone that shone like a star, a thick bronze coin, and a small clear marble with a black swirl inside.
Jameel opened his mouth wide and happy and swiped at the marble, rolling it between his fingers.
“Hm.” One more set: a small spinning top, a whittling knife, and a paintbrush with ragged bristles.
“Hey! How did this get ruined?” He picked up the brush with a frown. “It looks like it was nice.”
Arzey sighed and sealed the rest of the items away while the boy happily balanced the marble on the blue whale’s head.
He closed his eyes and silently waited for Laran to return.
“What did I do?” The child was understandably nervous. His mother was openly weeping and a very serious, very grim bearded man had set an unlabeled steel flask on the wooden table.
“You didn’t do anything.” Arzey leaned back and crossed his arms. “Your soul did. In a past life, a long time ago.” He steepled his fingers. “You wouldn’t have known this until your remembering, but your soul’s name is Garza.”
“If I wouldn’t have known, how do you?” Jameel periodically switched his gaze towards his crying mother, clearly wanting to go comfort her. “How could you know when I don’t?”
“A test. You can’t truly recall yet, but beneath your awareness you are who you I say you are. You chose Garza’s childhood possessions from a set of useless junk.” Arzey emptied the old toys onto the table. “There are subtler memories than the remembering grants you. And that is how I know.”
Laran’s sobbing had grown a little louder, but she turned away and hid her face with a hand. Jameel’s brow worried into a furrow, and he looked back at Arzey.
“But what did I do?” He shook his head when he saw Arzey’s look, “Not me, I mean. My soul. What did I do?”
“Garza was a Provoker.” Jameel’s face was blank. The boy had no idea what Arzey was talking about. “He would bring out the absolute worst in people. Worse than the worst. And when his victims were at the breaking point, they’d snap and kill him. Then Garza would be reborn, and do it again.” Arzey cocked his head. “Do you know what happens when someone commits murder?”
“They’re gone forever when they die. Forever forever.”
“Forever forever. Provokers stalk their prey and break them from the wheel of rebirth. They can never come back.”
Jameel sat back in his chair, silent. He shook his head, slow at first and then insistent. “Why? Why would anyone ever do that?”
“Being murdered offers certain advantages in the next life. Immunity to diseases. Enhanced resilience. Better than the usual luck.” Arzey stopped and pondered. “These are the clearest motives I can imagine.”
Jameel began to cry. “I took people away forever just for luck?”
“You didn’t do anything—”
“Not me, my soul!” he cried, “Why would I do that? Why would I be like that?” Laran got up to sit with him, and his sobs came muffled through her shoulder. After a time he sniffed and wiped his eyes.
“So what’s going to happen? Do I have to go to jail?”
“No. Any jail requires jailors, and they can be provoked.”
Arzey uncapped the flask on the table. “You drink this.” He slid it over to the boy. “It’ll kill you in minutes.”
Laran turned away and Jameel recoiled from the table, knocking away his seat. Arzey sat quietly.
“I don’t understand.” Laran spoke for the first time since they had all entered the house together. “Why can’t he just kill you instead?” Her voice was shaking and her eyes were like hot coals. “Then Garza will be gone and nobody will ever have to go through this again.”
“I don’t presume to know everything there is about a soul.” Arzey’s voice was like a wall of solid rock: impassive and implacable. “Perhaps one day Garza will make it to his remembering and realize the error of his ways. Or maybe, given enough time, even a soul can forget what once drove it.” He stroked his chin. “If even a tiny possibility of that exists, I cannot abide erasing someone forever.”
The flask shone on the table.
Jameel looked at his mom, and back at the flask. His mother nodded sadly.
They buried him in the soft soil of the garden.
“I’m sorry it had to be this way,” said Arzey. Laran remained silent.
The monk aimed his gaze skywards. The stars were very bright in this part of the highlands, and the Moon was nowhere to be seen. A river of milky white spilled from one end of the sky to the other, shedding sparks that twinkled shyly. Arzey regarded them as Laran stood quietly over the mound of fresh-dug dirt.
She noticed after a few minutes. “Budh is out tonight.”
She pointed to a red dot much brighter than the others, just a few fingers above the horizon. Arzey saw it and smiled. Red was a very pretty color, he thought.
“Are you a sky-mapper?”
She shook her head no. “I’m an astronomer.”
Arzey didn’t know what that meant, and Laran could tell. She went inside and brought out a brass cylinder. Arzey’s eyes widened when she extended a curious series of smaller cylinders from the end.
She looked through the smallest cylinder and passed the tool to Arzey so he could do the same. He looked through and gasped as the stars jumped to ten times their size in his vision. Laran gently pushed the end of the thing until Arzey could see red Budh glowering at him from the night sky.
“It has seas like the Moon!” He took his eyes away from the sky and she nodded to him. He hefted the brass device. “What is this?”
“It’s a telescope.”
He rested it in his hands as if it were worth a thousand lives of hard labor. “Where did you find it?”
“I invented it.”
Laran was one of the lesser-known minds in the Field because of the subtlety of her work. Arzey had only studied the greatest masters: Arda who devised how to cut Nai Zama from the mountains, Nargis who first melted iron, Jon who drew plans for the Grand Harbor of Theid.
“Actually, it was a team of us,” Laran corrected. “Using streams over many lives to cut out the pier was actually my idea.”
Arzey paused with the cup of clove tea mid-way between the table and his mouth, stunned. This was just the most recent of a series of similar revelations: she’d tested the rusting of several metals and alloys across seven lives, taken Svadt’s method of blowing glass and used it to create ‘focii’ for her telescope, and her latest project: co-opting Avara’s entire body of sky-maps to make a model of the heavens themselves.
Arzey spent most of that night simply listening with rapt attention. At times he just imagined what it would’ve been like to be there himself, consulting with these legends and creating wonders out of thin air.
Three kettles later and Arzey moved to leave. Garza had doubtlessly been thrust back from the wheel, and the Task was waiting. Another decade of searching and observing lay ahead of him.
“You look sad,” she said. “I’m the one with the buried son, but you’re the one who’s sad.”
After a moment he simply said, “It never ends.”
She stood up with the glint of a good idea in her eye. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my time here, it’s that an idea must be tested to see if it’s of any worth.” Arzey didn’t respond. “You said it yourself: you don’t know. Maybe Garza can reform. Perhaps even a soul can forget.” She shook her head. “How will you ever know unless you test?”
Arzey didn’t know.
“You have a very natural curiosity, monk. I think together we might make a great many things.” His eyes widened and he allowed his heart to beat a little faster. “We can draw out the cosmos and learn the nature of souls in one fell swoop. How does that sound?”
There was silence.
And then a creak of the divan as Arzey sat down.
Arzey sent back letters at the end of every month. This was the first time in fifteen lives that he didn’t spend Garza’s childhood with his brothers and sisters of the Task. Pilae, Mosa, Turan—he missed them all dearly, but this new life on the edge of the world was well worth the hurt.
Here he found that the planets in the sky orbited the Field in vast circles and epicircles. He could see that some were perfect and smooth and others were pitted like the Moon. With Laran, he studied the world and the beyond, and he loved it.
And he loved being with Laran.
“Well we’re a special pair, aren’t we?” She asked the question with some small amusement. They were lying on the scaffolding for their half-built stargazing tower, at the crest of a hill not far from the cabin.
Arzey shifted and turned to her. “What do you mean?”
She laughed. “I’ve been a seeker and inventor almost since the Field. And you’ve been a monk.” She turned to face him. “When was the last time you stayed with your parents? Or even in the city you were born?”
He rolled onto his back and looked at the sky, thinking.
“Perhaps my sixth life. After, there was always the Task.”
“Exactly.” She shook her head. “People aren’t like that. They don’t just leave to finish something they started in the past.”
He sat up on an elbow. “But why? Why would we have so many lives unless it’s to do something great? Whether it’s creating, like you, or...”
“Preserving, like you?” Her voice was warm.
“Yes, preserving.” Not just destroying. “Without that, what’s the purpose?”
“Some would say enjoyment.” She reached over and pulled Arzey towards her. “And some would say pleasure.” He felt himself blush as only a celibate monk can. “Some would say that we live infinite lives so that one day, long into the future, everyone in the Field has fallen in love with everyone else.”
“Hm. I’d rather just love one person,” he said. “For this life and seven more.”
“Oh? How greedy,” she said, hugging him close.
“I don’t mind being greedy.”
“That’s not very monkly of you.”
Pilae wrote that Arzey was a monkey’s ass for staying away for so long. Wasn’t death enough of a break from the family? Why die twice in one life?
Arzey chuckled to himself and placed the letter in the mulch pile. He’d post his reply when the courier returned next month.
For the moment he picked an orange from the garden and peeled it on the walk to the observatory. He climbed a switchback set of steps and saw Laran at a work-desk, her eyes flitting between her books and the viewer of her new, tree-sized telescope. She was very busy.
He took a bite from the orange, and, with the citrus still on his lips, he snuck up from behind and stole himself a kiss.
Arzey scraped at her scalp with a razor and peered through the tarnished telescope. Laran had told her it would never rust a lifetime ago, but she never mentioned that the brass would slowly turn black.
It didn’t matter. The tool fulfilled its function in service of the Task.
She saw the boy playing in the sand next to his house, strategically applying water from a bucket to build a sculpture. His birthname was Esa, and he was seven years old.
Arzey sprinted through the tree-line to get a better angle and put the scope back to her eye. Esa’s sculpture was a miniature of Nai Zama—a city of terraces cut into a mountain and fringed by a forest of giant trees.
Esa and his family lived in the lowest tier, a golden ring of pulverized stone and sand that moated the mountain. Above them were the green gardens and granaries, and above those were the white blocks and alleys that made up the city’s center. At the pinnacle of Nai Zama were the Forum and the Council House, where citizens could congregate and govern from their roosts on high.
She put down the blackening telescope. These past hunts had been the hardest she’d ever had. Garza did not reform. Garza did not forget. All those years ago, while Arzey had eaten fruit and loved under the stars, Garza had silently remembered and plotted. The Provoker did what he knew best, and a life evaporated from the wheel as Garza died laughing.
The murder had gifted him a kind of mental sharpness that made subduing him difficult. But if there was ever a lesson learned from Arzey’s mistake with Laran, it was all the strengths and weaknesses of the clever.
Chief of both was curiosity.
“Hey, what’s that?” Arzey had emerged from the shadows of the stories-tall trees with the telescope swinging freely from her neck. Esa caught sight of it and asked after it excitedly.
“It’s something very interesting,” said Arzey. The boy bounced in anticipation. She looked around the sandy flatland. “Are your parents nearby?” Her brow was kept neutral. For years, Arzey trained herself to have perfect control of her face.
On their last encounter, Garza had taken one look at her and started to run as fast as he could. There was a certain involuntary menace that wrote itself out in her eyes and wrinkles when she didn’t retain full discipline—and he could see it. She’d never show that face again.
“Abba is with a caravan, and Ammi went to the market.” He looked back at the telescope. “But what is that? Tell me, tell me!”
She flipped the scope in the air and let it fully extend, snapping it out of free fall and putting it to her eye. “I call it the Farseer.” She flared her fingers for effect, “It lets you see far!”
Esa’s mouth shrunk to an amazed O. “Woah!”
“You can use it if you like,” she said, casually dropping the scope and letting it swing free on its chain. “But you have to use it from the right spot to see all the best things, you know!”
One step further along the School of Calamity: set the lure. The school was as ruthless as it was foolproof, and compared even to a seven-year old Garza, she may have very well been a fool.
“Where do we do it?” Esa brushed the dirt off his hands and looked every which way. “What’re we going to see?”
“Have you ever seen the skin of a planet?”
“No! The Farseer can see that far?”
Esa pushed at Arzey’s knee. “Are we going up the mountain? We should go higher to be closer to the sky.”
“No, there are too many lights on Nai Zama. We’re going to walk a little further, through the trees. There’s another mountain there.”
“But doesn’t it have to be dark for us to see anything?”
“It’ll be dark when we get there.”
It was only midday by the time they reached the nameless mountain. It didn’t have the rough-hewn angles of Nai Zama—instead there were smooth curves and soft lines in the same shade of light brown.
“Are you ready?” Arzey tied a silk sash around her mouth to protect from the dust being blown from the slopes. “The climb can become very difficult when we get to the midsection there,” she said, pointing out where the mountain suddenly became a sheer column that thrust up into the sky. It towered head and shoulders above the gargantuan trees that surrounded them.
Esa was tired but he wasn’t fazed. He balled his hands up into fists and yelled, “Yeah! Let’s go!”
The surface was forgiving, a substance like clay or wet sand that gave way to form handholds and footholds as they crawled up the slope. It became more like packed dirt the further they went, softly crumbling between their fingertips.
Soon they reached the base of the sudden upthrust, and they stopped.
“You seem very capable,” said Arzey. “How about we make a deal?”
Esa hugged the wall and glanced down, shaking. “Yeah,” he said, breathing heavy. “I can do anything!” Dust poured beneath his feet and he pushed himself further into the mountain wall.
“I am going to move as fast as I can up this slope. The trick is to go sideways in a spiral, you understand?” Esa nodded. “If you can keep up with me, you can keep the Farseer forever.”
For a moment Esa stopped shaking and he smiled. “Let’s do it!”
The final step in the School of Calamity: spring the trap.
The small boy was no match for a monk. Arzey had trained her body daily for years, and she gripped soft and leaped far, gracefully bounding from handhold to handhold. Dust crumbled in all the places she’d gone and poured like little brown waterfalls. And there was something else: glistening things that shone in the falling dirt.
Esa tried all he could, but he couldn’t keep up. But his mind was working fast. He stopped in his tracks and just observed for a moment, thinking. Then he screamed.
Arzey continued her climb. She couldn’t stop now—not until she curved down and back off towards the trees. It was too dangerous.
“Hey, this isn’t a mountain!”
She didn’t look back. She kept focused and saw only the terrain directly in front of her.
“It’s a mound! It’s a termite mound!”
The angry insects swarmed in the falling dirt and crawled along the surface of the mountainous mound, worming between the handholds dug by Arzey and the boy.
“Help me! Don’t leave me!”
The blind creatures glistened white and wet in the sun, skittering on six legs towards the smell of the offender. The intruder. They found a hand here and a foot there and they did what they did best: bite, chew, bite, chew.
“Why won’t you help me?!”
The pleas dissolved into a wordless scream and Arzey began her descent, bleaching her mind of the eyeless swarm and their jaws and stings as she swung from ledge to ledge. Behind her, the tiny figure vanished through the wall of the mound and into the chittering nest inside.
If the School of Despair could blacken the soul, the School of Calamity would char it to a crisp. She doubted she could do enough kindness in a thousand lives to make her feel clean again.
Pilae followed him to the southern port with her arms outstretched.
“Arzey, you know what happened the last time you experimented.” Even born into the body of a slim woman, Pilae managed to own a voice that could put the hooks in you. She spoke like the crack of a whip: “Find him and end him quickly. There’s no other way.”
“It never ends,” he said. “It never ends, but at least I can do better. I can be painless.”
“He’s cunning. Even as a blank child. He’s been getting close to the remembering every time you go slow,” said Pilae. “This isn’t a risk you can keep taking. He’s going to wake up, and you need to stop him before he does. Quickly.”
Arzey leapt onto the boat before it could lower its gangway. He turned to his friend and said, “I will do it as quickly as kindness allows.”
North Theid was a place of grassy steppes and deep black soil.
Out in the middle of that green expanse were two bodies sitting cross-legged, empty vessels blown by the wind.
One suddenly woke.
“What is the point of all this?”
Arzey opened his eyes as well.
“This is how you elevate your mind above your body. Your soul above the flesh. It’s important.”
“Maybe for a monk.” The boy’s name was Jhor, and his voice had already deepened. “I don’t see why you’re teaching me all this. I’d rather go back to metallurgy, really.”
“What’s the purpose of metallurgy?” asked Arzey, standing and crossing his arms.
Jhor followed, “To make brilliant things...?”
“The true, true purpose?”
“To have a lot of fun making brilliant things?”
Arzey looked at him sternly.
Jhor sighed and rolled his eyes. He recited, “To make lives better for the people of the Field, to advance our understanding of the Field, and to nurture the spirit of creation.”
Arzey smiled and put a hand on Jhor’s shoulder. “Good. To make lives better, to advance understanding, and to nurture creation—all of these require a mind above the body. For the good of the many, a soul must make sacrifices. Learning to elevate your mind will help you cope with this.”
Jhor put his hands on his hips. “Okay, fine.” Then he brightened: “Now, tell me about the copper and iron. Why did they tingle when we put them in wine?”
Arzey clapped his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Well, there are a few interesting ideas...”
They ate by the fire in the center of the village. Jhor’s mother had made them a curry of yellow spices and fried cheese with disks of soft bread.
“What did you boys do today?” she asked between mouthfuls.
Jhor answered, “I perfected a lens series, mixed a new fertilizer, and I think I came up with some good theories about the flow of metal essence!” He could be very aloof, but with his mother, Jhor smiled often.
She said, “That all sounds very good and much too clever. But I’m glad you’re being productive.” Jhor nodded and scooped up more cheese with a chunk of bread.
“Your son is very intelligent,” said Arzey. “Capable of greatness.”
His mother beamed proudly, and he slipped into a trance to hide the things he felt inside.
The workshop was bustle of vials and glass racks, levers, pulleys, thin lenses, and all sorts whirring contraptions. The boy had been busy with his work. Arzey exhaled slowly. Such a waste.
“Today I give you your final lesson,” he said.
He produced the silver flask and placed it on the workshop bench. It landed with a thwack, and Jhor flinched.
“It’s not a lesson in reagents, metallics, light, or medicine.” He gathered his robes about him. “It is a lesson of identity.”
“Identity?” Jhor laughed uneasily. “As in, mathematical identity?”
“Metaphysical identity. Yours. This is going to be difficult to understand, but I’ve been trying to prepare you for just that. To help you cope. It’s the kindest thing I could do.” Arzey uncapped the flask and smelled the contents, placing it back on the workbench. “Your soul’s name is Garza, and deep down, you are a breaker of wheels.”
“I know.” Garza had moved to the entrance of the workshop, his hand ready on a heavy lever. “I remembered three months ago.”
Even with all his training Arzey couldn’t leap out from under the weighted net. He quieted his panic and observed:
The net was made of copper wire, meshed together in crosshatch. Bulb weights were regularly spaced on the grid, made of a very crude lead. One of the bulbs had landed on his knee and his bones were most likely broken. Shining metal lines snaked their way into the hidden attic, and there was no easy way to worm out.
Garza moved to another lever and slammed it down.
It was as if pain itself was a living thing that crawled down those wires and jumped into Arzey’s flesh. His body shook and shuddered uncontrollably even as his mind floated placid. If his knee wasn’t broken before, it surely was now. The convulsions against the press of a weight had caused the leg to jut at an odd angle.
Garza lifted the lever and it stopped.
“Copper in wine is well and good, but I’ve found that the best configuration is gold and hadannum in boiled vitriol.” He pointed up at the ceiling. “I have cells and cells of the stuff up there. Interesting discovery: their efficacy is additive.”
Garza pulled down the lever for another long pulse and then lifted it back up.
“The most important lesson, really, is what it tells us about the fundamentals of this world. The essence of metal flows down those wires, but what is it, exactly?” The lever came down again, and Arzey’s robe caught fire. “Pain. Pure pain.” Another pull. “Inside metal, maybe even inside stone, if I can find the proper solvent. At the very core of matter itself.”
Garza put out the fire with a bucket of wastewater from a bench of salts and fluids. Arzey slowly slipped his hand under a lead bulb while Garza wasn’t looking and rolled it into his palm. With all of his strength he threw the net aside—but there was too much mesh. He was still covered.
“Don’t try to escape.”
Arzey strained against the weight. “Why are you doing this?”
Garza stopped. “You’ve put me on the wheel more times than I can count, and you’re honestly asking me why I’m doing this?” He crouched down to look Arzey in the eye. “I have decades and decades of death ringing in my head. You understand? I’m trying to teach you exactly how that feels. I know you probably just go into your monkish meditation, but it does me good to see you shudder.”
He stood and gave the lever another pull.
Arzey gasped as he regained control of his breathing: “I did my Task as was needed. You are a danger to everyone around you. You should drink from the flask.”
“You know what the worst thing about you is?” He crouched down again. “In all the years you’ve been sent to end me, you never asked why. You never waited for me to wake up, never just asked, ‘Oi, Garza? Why? Surely you aren’t just mad?’”
“There is nothing that can excuse erasing a life.”
Garza shook his head, “See? Even now. You can’t see anything besides your Task.”
Arzey struggled to look up from under the weight of the steaming net. “Why?” His body shook from the effort. “I’m asking you now: why?”
“Every time you’re killed you go back to the Field.” Garza shook his head at Arzey’s puzzled expression. “No, not ‘the Field’ as in this place where you live. The actual Field. Silver wheat. White sun. Constant, constant happiness. A place so perfect that pain doesn’t exist.”
Arzey lay silent.
“You only spend a short time there, and then it’s back to the wheel. Back here. But it’s there.” Garza’s eyes were manic. “It’s out there, and I just want to know what it is. It’s where we come from—is there any greater question?”
Arzey raised his head. “Pehaps: how can we make this world just as happy?”
Garza shook his head, disbelieving. “There’s no arguing with you. And I’ve had enough of seeing you convulse.” He spun a wheel, and the copper net folded up into the ceiling. “This is the situation. Someone is going to end up killing me. Someone, somewhere.”
Arzey turned over on his back, finally able to breathe.
“I know the usual tactics aren’t going to work with you, monk. So I’m asking you plainly: who do you want gone? Some innocent bystander? Or you?” Garza shoved the handle of a knife into Arzey’s hand.
There had to be some way to subdue him. Arzey glanced around, but he realized that mobility was severely hampered with a broken leg. Several of his muscles failed to properly respond, as well. The metallic essence had damaged many things.
“Don’t think, monk, just do.” Garza took the silver flask and poured out some of its contents. He filled a few vials with dark liquids, mixed them in a pitcher of water, and put them inside with the honeyed poison. He shook it like a tavern keep and forced open Arzey’s mouth to pour it down his throat. “Remember, I’m smarter than you. In about five minutes, you’re going to fall into a very deep sleep and I’ll be long gone. And someone’s going to spin off the wheel for all time.”
Arzey felt a creeping hand working through his innards.
“That’s how much time you have. Are you going to use that knife, or will someone else?” The feel of cold needles pricked the inside of Arzey’s bones. “You know, don’t think I haven’t noticed that telescope you wear around your neck. Sentimental, maybe?” Garza leaned above him. “That belonged to Laran. Maybe after you go to sleep I’ll go look for her.”
Arzey’s head snapped up.
“Oh?” Garza smiled. “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe some of the usual tactics are going to work.” The world grew hazy, and Arzey could feel his lids begin to droop. “You’ll be out for a day or so. Enough time for me to get on a boat and disappear. I wonder where Laran is, nowadays. It’ll be a huge loss for the world after she’s gone, you know.”
A complex mixture of nausea, a lives-long exhaustion, and the sensation of a sleeping limb swept across his body.
“I wonder what techniques I might use? She may be too aloof to threaten a loved one with. Maybe torture? Or maybe—”
Arzey slit Garza’s throat as cleanly and painlessly as possible, and the Provoker smiled almost as if in gratitude.
The two bodies fell into their respective slumbers.
For the first time in all of his lives, Arzey saw Pilae cry. She and the others lit the thousand flaming kilns in the Funerary and passed around the begging bowl. It was made of simple stone with a long handle and an iron bottom, but inside was a heap of gold.
“A thousand kilns for a thousand sacrifices,” said Mosa, as he passed the bowl to Turan. Turan held the bowl over a flame and repeated the phrase, passing it on to the next monk and the next. It made its rounds over long hours until it came to Pilae, who held it inside the final oven.
“A thousand kilns for a thousand sacrifices, and now a golden end.”
They marched in procession towards the field of crooked columns—each built of one stone for every life a monk spent in service to the Task. Arzey’s column towered a storey up, and the monks required ladders to climb to its peak.
Pilae repeated, “And now a golden end,” and all the monks chanted. She swirled the fluid gold in its bowl before pouring it on top of the pinnacle stone, capping it forever.
The School of Murder was unofficial and untrained. There were no principles and no preordained steps. It was simply accepted among the monks that when there was no other recourse, it was allowable to give up one’s soul to save another.
Only five other gold-tipped pillars shone from their places in the field.
Pilae crushed him close and spoke into his ear. “What will you do now?”
He patted her softly on the back. “Travel. But I will come to rest here when it is time.”
She nodded silently and wiped her face clean of tears.
“We’ll keep your grave close.”
Arzey was accustomed to meditating or training on long voyages, but now he simply sat and watched. The sea was a beautiful thing. At times it would foam and chop into hard-angled waves, at others it would roll softly like dunes of sand. On windless days it would turn to glass, gold when the sun was low and deep blue when it was high. At night the waters could come alive with creatures that shone like the planets and stars, a mirror to the expanse in the sky.
His first stop was Pirrhos, the place he’d left behind in his seventh life to take up the Task for the first time after his death. His family was no longer there, of course. But the mountain was. The fountains, too. And Gian’s Library was finally finished: a gleaming thing of white marble and silver spars, filled with more texts and stories than anyone could possibly count.
He slept at a guesthouse and read for a month before setting off again for Avina, where he’d helped his father pick grapes at the start of his ninth life. It was the wine capital of the Field, and Arzey had not partaken in many hundreds of years. The sommeliers of the city guided him through the worlds of taste and sensation step by step. First with the sweet greens and iced whites, and later with the dry dark reds and boiled purples. From simple alcohols to more complex tinctures: truffled, wooded, and oiled concoctions that pulled you through other worlds and other times. Arzey stayed for a while, tasting visions of the Great Wheel and the space between spokes that were his many lives.
His third voyage was aboard an ocean-trawler on a heading for faraway Hadanna. Its route was purposefully meandering, he was told, so that the on-board seeker could collect as many samples of unique sea creatures as possible.
“That’s quite a tarnish you’ve built up on that spyglass, there.”
The man was slim and pale, with an easy lean and a face that was used to winking. He held out his hand, and Arzey gave him the now-black telescope, a matte hole in the sunlight. They walked belowdecks as he spoke:
“This is what you do,” he said, swiping a fistful of butter from the galley. “You get some fat, any fat’ll do—” He danced into a pantry and scooped up a small vial of dust. “And you get your lye. The rougher the stuff, the better.” He took a hard sponge and wiped the butter and lye onto the black surface of the scope, stopping once to pour an oilskin of salt water onto the mix before rubbing vigorously.
“Give it a good rub, and,” his voice strained, “And there you have it. Clean as a slade’s tooth and twice as shiny.” Then came a look of recognition. “Wait, where did you get this?”
Arzey cocked his head. “It was a gift from someone very dear to me. Why?”
The man smiled: “I invented it.”
The two struck a deal for the second time: Laran would have the curious monk’s help in collecting and studying the glowing stars of the deep sea, and Arzey would have free passage to all the homes he’d left behind in his past lives.
“I never thought I’d see you again. Not after...” Laran trailed off and let the heavy silence of a soul destroyed by Garza weigh in the air. “Not after our hypothesis was proven wrong.”
“Neither did I. I was going to go looking for you, someday. But it seems you’ve found me instead.”
“Almost a little too lucky.” It had been almost two lifetimes. For Arzey they had passed in single-minded dedication, but Laran must’ve lived full lives, rich with invention, and adventure, and love. “I’d have to do the mathematics, but the likelihood of us meeting by chance is near nil.”
Arzey quoted, “’With an infinity of lives, anything that can happen will happen.’”
Laran grabbed his hand. “Oh I know that. I’m just saying it’s lucky that it’s happened to us.”
He smiled and silently agreed. “So,” he said, looking out over the larboard rail. “Where do we go next?”
Laran’s teeth flashed. “Well, this is hardly dictatorship, you know. Where would you like to go?”
After sampling every kind of sweet in Hadanna they took an overland route to the outskirts of Dumma. The cabin had all but crumbled, but the stone observatory was still standing strong. The gigantic telescope angled up at the heavens, and the lenses were as clear as the sky.
Laran brushed the dust off the desk and took a seat at the viewer. He called Arzey over and showed him the sight: a distant spiral of bright stellar cream that hung enormous in the night.
“Circles in circles in circles,” he said. “Wheels spinning on wheels, forever.” Laran ran his hand through Arzey’s hair. “I have to say that I very much like spinning with you.”
Arzey chuckled as he stared, awestruck.
“What was it you said that night? On the scaffold of the first tower. You were being greedy.”
“Hm. I’m not sure.”
“Just one person. ‘For this life and seven more.’” Laran poked him in the chest, waiting with expectant eyes.
Arzey smiled weakly, knowing this would be the last lie he would ever have to tell.
“For this life, and seven more.”