Halla got halfway out the window, stolen brooch in hand, and then the dizzies hit.
She swore as the world rocked around her. She kicked off the sandstone wall by instinct and thumped to the ground. The gold plate stuffed down her shift knocked her ribs and all her breath whooshed out. She gasped like a fish in the humid air.
Halla stumbled over the cut stone and clover of the landowner’s garden. Her breath rushed back with loud wheezes and she flung herself into the ubiquitous bamboo groves dividing one house from the next. A bamboo leaf sucked into her mouth and she spat.
Once her family had been guests at this very house. Her father, one of the elite liaisons between the landowners and the holy, had been deeply honored...and feared. Halla had sat on that very bit of stone in a starched white shift, praying that she wouldn’t disgrace herself. But that was ten years ago and several classes above. That memory wouldn’t save her fingers if she were caught this morning.
The landowner was a heavy woman, whose flesh swung through the gaps in her chiton as she thudded around the side of the house. Two maids trailed her. “I heard someone!” she panted. “Search the house!”
Halla breathed relief as she crept through the narrow gaps in the bamboo stands, one hand pressing her laboring ribs. The dizziness was gone now. It was only short sharp bursts these days; nothing like the attacks of her childhood. The big ones came at predictable times. Stupid of her for staying in the house that long. The open brooch pricked her palm and she drew it up, watching its emeralds glitter in the green-tinted light. It was an unexpected haul, worth the pain in her side. If she added it and the plate to her small cache it might...might it be enough to buy a bit of land?
Halla squinched her eyes shut against that hope. She tucked the brooch under her shift and twisted her way out the other side of the grove.
The heart of the city was even more crowded today—market and temple, sellers and enforcers. The temple reared in the air as she turned corners, a golden glamour of stone, an island in a sea of blue-robed holy. She wended through priests, temple assistants, nuns, novices: all preparing for the next day’s celebration. And there, as she had known—a crowd gathered in the judging square at the temple’s front, where the Mouth of the God stood on the dais.
Morning judging had begun.
Sick fascination drew Halla in. She kept low, slipped behind a group of sturdy landowners. Ragged laborers argued in furtive voices, one gesturing with missing fingers. The stolen plate was rigid against her chest and she rolled her shoulders forward as she watched, trying to make her shift hang loose.
As always, the Mouth was flanked by his two young novices, a boy and a girl. His hidden hands, folded in his blue robe, signified that he carried out only the directives of the God. The girl and the boy stood in for the God’s two immortal assistants: mute Habek and one-handed Iva.
“Fellow possibilities of the God,” said the Mouth. He was dark and thin with sharp eyes. His smooth voice slid to every corner of the crowded judging square. “He is glad you have come to be with those who have erred, as they submit to divine will. Your eyes will be his eyes as he sees his will accomplished. We are all the eyes of the God.”
“May he see through us,” answered the crowd.
A palanquin stood at one corner of the judging square. More priests crowded around it, and a young boy in blue—the priestling, the chosen one—sat inside it. Tomorrow on the new decade he would be invested as the new Mouth. Then he would be the one to hear the directives of the God, to relay the justice of the divine.
“Through you, he will hear the accused submit to his fair judgment,” said the Mouth. “We are all the ears of the God.”
“May he listen through us.”
Two nuns lit smoky torches. The laborer being judged was chained to a pole in the depression at the foot of the dais. Guards fanned out around him and a short priest stepped forward, a moving bundle of net and feathers in his hands.
Halla spread her feet apart, bracing herself. She swallowed.
The Mouth made no gesture, spoke no words, just looked at the prisoner. The prisoner’s head swung up as the compulsion of the God surged through the Mouth and touched him. The short sharp dizziness hit Halla at the same instant. She kept her feet braced and rode it out. She did not know why she was attuned to the moods of the God, but so it always had been. Yet another reason she should have her rightful place back, among the holy rich.
“Morsel of the God,” said the Mouth. “A landowner has accused you of robbing him with a knife. Tell us what you have done.”
The man’s head swung wildly, his fingers grasping towards the straining netted bundle. The touch of the God on an unholy man was not pretty. Halla could sense it, crackling the air from the Mouth to the man. It was a compulsion that filled him with blood lust, blanketed his mind with one urge: kill the dove. “Nothing, I did nothing.”
The short priest held the dove just out of reach as the man frothed. The torment would not cease till he succumbed to the God’s compulsion and killed the bird—and the priests would not let him have the bird until he confessed. No one could resist the will of the God for long.
Then the Mouth would proclaim the sentence. The God generally decreed temple service for landowners, whipping or mutilation for laborers. But if the crime or the victim was great enough—death.
If the God decreed death, the priests would take the prisoner this night to the ring on the hill and chain him there. At dawn, the God would lay that same bloody compulsion on one of his subjects to carry out the execution. Perhaps someone who stood right there in the unruly crowd, gloating over the man’s agonies. Someone hard at work right now, or fighting or stealing or praying. The God chose at random. It was part of the service to him, and it had to be carried out. The condemned man would be executed.
Just like her mother.
Halla realized her crossed arms were digging the rim of the plate into her sore ribs, and she forced herself to let her arms fall.
“You must speak the truth of the story,” said the Mouth.
“I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me.” The prisoner shook, but he wasn’t crying. Sometimes they cried.
“We are all the fingers of the God,” intoned the Mouth.
“May he work through us,” answered the crowd. A ragged laborer woman next to Halla spat. Another was weeping.
The man was red and white now, neck corded, trying to reach the dove to kill it. This was the moment when they broke, when they babbled, when they said anything.
Halla lowered her head and turned away. She slid through the crowd to the back of the temple. There the shops and houses pressed up against it in profusion, there you could slip away unseen. Her heart still beat high with the tension of the judging square. Unreleased tension—the uncompleted death of the bird rang her bones like a prickling line of ants. The prisoner was holding out against the God longer than most.
Halla wove around blue-robed nuns, a landowner in gold embroidery, a dirty berry-seller with a wooden hand cart, until with a snap the prickles vanished and her bones went silent. The bird must be dead, and the touch of the God, vanished. She wondered, not for the first time, how it felt to have the God leave you. To know his touch, painful as it was, and then to see it go, to be human and plain once more. Her prickly visions were surely a millionth of what it would be to know the God himself. She crept into an alley shadow, away from the clash of crowds.
There she stood in darkness and tried to maneuver the plate down her shift. When she finally slid it free, she looked up to see the dirty berry-seller, leaning on his cart and looking straight at her.
Her first reaction was a shock of recognition, which she immediately dismissed. Her life had changed for the worse a couple times; instead of consorting with the landowners and holy, she knew the laborers and thieves. Yet even they had beds and roofs. She had not yet stooped to familiarity with vagrants. The man was old, his hair a white tangle. His face was so wrinkled and his grey eyes so wandering that she could not tell if his expression was lust or disgust. Plain old idiocy, likely.
She stashed the plate behind a pile of fish netting in the alley, hoping he wasn’t alert enough to steal it. Still, it was nothing compared to the brooch, or to what she mightfind within the temple. “Here you go, old man,” said Halla, and flipped him a cent. “Just stop staring at me.” The coin landed in a paper twist of yellow gooseberries. Halla stared a moment, then flipped her thumb and strode past. “You didn’t see nothing.”
She hurried on to the hidden door that led into the rear of the temple, attempting to match her rhythm to the crunch of people. Her palms were wet. The image of the prisoner, red-faced and shaking, was strong. But today was the day to slip into the temple—all the extra pomp would be out for the decade celebration tomorrow. The tithing room, the indoor altar, the worship hall—all those places would be guarded. But there was a little room at the back where ceremonial props were stored. Ten years ago she had been there with her father, just before the last investiture. They had met the Mouth in that room. Six-year-old Halla had played with a stained golden bowl while they talked in hard voices.
Her father had taken her into the temple through a door at the rear . She neared the bamboo stand that concealed it, looking for the opening. Ten years was a long time.
It occurred to her that she had been hearing one particular noise since she left the alley—the rolling of a cart. She turned around. The old berry-man was shuffling behind her. Following. Looking up, around, anywhere but at her. But following.
“What the hell are you doing?” Halla demanded.
“You forgot your pretty plate.” It was tucked under his arm. He was eating berries from two paper twists: blackberry, gooseberry, blackberry again.
She glared. “My business if I did.”
“You’ll never get rich that way. I’ll hold it for you while you go in the temple.”
Her hand flicked to the dagger at her belt. “Give me my plate and leave, if you want to help me.”
“Don’t go in there,” he said. “Dangerous. They’ll chop your fingers off, chop chop.”
She took a step closer to him. He was stupid, harmless—yet her spine was on edge. “Do I know you?”
He moved bamboo stalks, tottered right to the door. “Go back to robbing the landowners, my pet. It’s safer.”
Halla slammed her open hand into his shoulder and he staggered, fell back. “Move.” She reached for the door’s handle.
It was locked.
Of course; her father must have had a key. She should’ve known. Stupid girl! No key meant no stealing. No stealing, no land...no land, no vote. No citizenship. No possibility of change.
The berry-seller tugged at his wild hair, distracted by some internal struggle. “I could...show you another entrance.”
Her trust wavered, her ribs straining against breath. Judging was going to continue any minute now, and then—yes, here were the dizzies again. Another judging, another touch of the God, another blow from above.
Halla wanted in that temple, and she wanted it now. “What’s your name, old man?”
He looked up, down, around the alley. “Don’t have one no more, my pet.”
“We all have a name.”
“No one left to call me. What’s the use?” Berry juice flecked the hair on his chin.
“I’ll call you Gooseberry,” said Halla. “Show me the door.”
The temple was white and gold—marble on the floors and flaking filigree in the carvings on the columns. It stirred long-forgotten memories. Halla’s father had been of the holy rich class—not a priest nor a landowner, but one of the men who liaised between the temple and the landowners’ committee, equal in status to both. One of the three classes with citizenship. The holy rich spent a lot of time in both worlds, and Halla had gone with him. She had been in this part of the temple long ago. Back when she still had a family.
But now she was with a rambling old man who was going to get her in trouble. Every time she crept away from him he looked at her with mournful fatherly eyes, so she stopped. Stupid, this pull on her—she was used to getting along on her own. She didn’t need a familiar face, especially one that wouldn’t say his name. She tried again, her voice low. “Did you know my father? My mother?”
Gooseberry grabbed her sleeve. His eyes were intense and his smell rank. “She was the kind and beautiful wife of a holy rich man. But she murdered her husband and she had to be executed. The God decreed it, and so his people must be his hands here on earth.”
The cruel memory shocked her, made her fingers clench. “If I wanted a sermon, I wouldn’t be stealing from the temple right now.”
“Everyone thinks the executioners are random,” he said, letting her sleeve fall. He mumbled, and he didn’t accent the right words. Halla had to lean in closer than she wanted to pick sense out of his rambling. “The God does not give a task to one finger over another, for we are all equally parts of his hand.”
“I know,” Halla said. Six years living with her doctrine-obsessed father, seven spent whitewashing walls for the batty old nun who ran the lighthouse. Gooseberry could not teach her anything new. “It’s not murder, it’s divine will. The God might give the execution to any of his people to perform. Ah, the room.” She risked a peek. It was full: golden bowls, charred bamboo screens, iron shears. “You can go now.” She whisked the stolen plate out of his hands.
He followed her in. “But this God favors some fingers over others.” He put his sticky hand to his forehead, and Halla realized his third and fourth finger were missing to the second knuckle. “That’s not right,” he said. “It must be his hand. The Mouth, you see, the Mouth is choosing which fingers....”
Halla wanted to shake him. “Do you mean the Mouth himself chooses who has to perform a God-Death?” Heresy? Or merely temple secrets? It fit, somehow...but how would this old man know?
“Of course. Didn’t you get it? You used to be smart.” Three purple fingerprints spotted his forehead. “The God gives the power, but the Mouth manipulates it. The landowners who give money to the temple, you don’t think they get chosen, do you? The fingers, they’re giving sweet lotions to the God’s hand....”
“Old man,” said Halla. “If you say one more thing about fingers, I’m going to hit you with some.”
She touched the prism of a gold lamp. The room reminded her of happier times, being here as a child. She and her da had played games here. Funny games, where he had made her try to talk to the old Mouth with her mind. The room had gone dizzy and vague, her nerves aflame...but she had been sure the God was pleased with her. She’d even thought her father was pleased, which filled those memories with warmth, pride at her abilities. He was a hard man, distant...but then there’d been these golden moments, the two of them together in the temple. Before her mother had destroyed him.
Strange to think today of all these childhood memories she hadn’t thought of in years.
Gooseberry scowled. “What makes you fit to judge me? You aren’t temple or rich.”
“I will be. A landowner, that is, and then I’ll be a citizen. I’ll make changes to this city.”
“That’s why you’re stealing gold lamps, then?” he jeered. “Only reason you want to be rich is to sit on the committee? Tell me another one.”
Halla put down the lamp and picked up a tablet. “I don’t have to tell you anything. Why don’t you leave before they find us by your stink?”
He looked sadly at her. One grey eye rolled around. “Good-bye, my pet,” he said, and left the room.
Halla breathed relief and went back to studying the tablet. An overseas collector might like it. But Gooseberry’s face swam before her, the wild white hair, the vacant grey eyes. “Good-bye, my pet,” he had said, just like someone used to say when she was a girl. Not her father, but someone very like....
Voices rose in the hall. Someone was coming.
Halla hurried behind the bamboo screen, shoving the stupid stolen plate under her shift. The pin on the emerald brooch loosened and pierced her, but she managed not to swear. Judging usually took a full hour—how much time had she wasted arguing with Gooseberry? She peeped between two slats while refastening the brooch, this time to the inside of her worn boot. It was a thin man, a nun and three children, all in blue. Halla tried to breathe quietly.
“Are the priestling’s robes prepared for tomorrow?” said the man’s smooth voice.
“Yes, Mouth of the God.” The honorific was slurred with long use, closer to mowthgod.
“Go check on the sacrifice.”
“Yes, Mouth of the God.” The nun touched her lips in salute and left.
Not just any man, then. Beside the Mouth stood his two child assistants and the priestling. The priestling’s head lolled and he drooled. If Gooseberry was right that the Mouth had the ability to manipulate the God’s will, then this simpleton would be disastrous as the next Mouth. Why had the God chosen him?
“Look around,” said the Mouth. His sharp eyes scanned the room. “Find a knife you like for tomorrow.”
The priestling obeyed, head bobbing. He was young, too. Perhaps nine. Halla was just old enough to remember the current Mouth’s investiture a decade ago. But the current Mouth had been the age she was now when he took on his duties. A young man, not a boy.
The priestling swayed towards the screen and Halla froze. His hands wandered, picking up random objects that were not knives at all. He hefted the same lamp Halla had held, gaze captured by its prisms. “I like this.”
The Mouth nodded at a dagger, hands hidden in his sleeves. “How about this one?”
“Okay,” said the priestling. He dropped the lamp. Prisms clattered as it tumbled over chests and rugs, landed at the foot of the screen. The screen wobbled.
“Come, then,” said the Mouth, and he headed for the door, the three blue-robed children following.
Halla exhaled...then heard her name, echoing down the marble hallway. “Halla! Halla!”
It was Gooseberry.
The Mouth froze in the doorway, his blue robe outlining his thin frame. Through the screen Halla saw Gooseberry nearing the room. “I promised I’d help you, Halla.” Tears streamed down his lined face. “Don’t send me away.”
He was crazy. Absolutely crazy. And it was about to cost her half the fingers off her left hand.
Now the Mouth nodded at the room, at her screen, and the boy and girl assistants climbed back, clambering over trunks, skidding over bowls. The boy twitched the screen forward, revealing Halla.
“Submit, child,” the Mouth said softly.
Halla bolted past him and out the door, slamming Gooseberry aside. She pounded down the white hallway, plate banging her ribs, brooch scraping her ankle. It was incriminating to run, she knew it, but there was her stupid old uncle back there, too, and she thought she could make the back door if she just ran fast enough.
There was pounding behind her, catching up, and her thoughts caught up at the same time.
Gooseberry was her uncle.
She swerved, but the hallway opened in two directions and hesitation cost her. The guard grabbed Halla, twisting one arm behind her. She tried to go for her dagger, but his arm crushed the plate into the ribs she’d bruised earlier, making her double up, retching air. He dragged her back to the Mouth, who stood with the child assistants and Gooseberry. She kicked backwards into the guard’s knees.
The Mouth smiled, his eyes sharp on her skin.
And then Gooseberry lunged at the Mouth, knocking him to the floor. One of the Mouth’s hands almost came out of his robes in surprise. But it didn’t, not even to catch himself.
Gooseberry was on top of the Mouth, but the boy threw himself on Gooseberry, kicking and clawing. The Mouth lay calmly on the floor as the boy punched Gooseberry off of him and into submission. The Mouth stood and the girl straightened his blue robes with deft movements of her right hand. Her sleeves were in disarray, and for the first time Halla realized that the girl, like the immortal assistant she represented, had only one hand.
“Theft from one, and attempted deicide from the other,” said the Mouth. His narrow face was emotionless. “The God will lay his finger of justice on you.”
With a final kick at Gooseberry’s unmoving body, the boy stood, panting. The boy’s mouth was a dark hole, tongueless.
Halla swallowed at the sight of Gooseberry—her uncle—on the floor. “Let him go with a whipping. He didn’t do anything to you.”
The Mouth turned his still face on hers. “The God has chosen me to interpret his justice for him. You have no part in that.” His voice smooth, like wind. “Besides, what would the daughter of a murderer know of divine morality?”
“I know more of justice than you.” She spat at his feet.
The boy bent and wiped her spit from the Mouth’s robes with his fingers. “You’re just like your father,” the Mouth continued. His words rolled out, implacable. “You think you know more than anyone else. No concern for whose plans you’re disrupting.”
He left a pause, as if she might answer him. But she did not.
“Take the old man to the afternoon judging,” he said. “Put her in the dungeon.”
“She’s got something in her shift.”
“Get it off her, then.”
“It’s nothing of yours!” Halla went for her only weapon, but the guard pulled her hand tighter, kicked her knee out so she bent to the floor.
The Mouth nodded, and the one-handed girl crossed to Halla. With deft motions she slid the plate from Halla’s shift, maneuvering it with fingers and stump.
“Maybe so,” said the Mouth. “But it isn’t yours, little thief.”
Halla watched the pink lump of wrist in sick fascination. The God’s punishments were absolute.
The cell was cold and moldy, and there was nothing to do but pick at the blister on her foot and think. She couldn’t figure out how her uncle had gone from the swank and lively Uncle Ollan she had known—so different from his quiet little sister—to Gooseberry. Distantly she could feel two people being judged in the square, one after the other. Without knowing, she labeled Gooseberry as the one who caved instantly. She wondered what his sentence was—she didn’t care. She hated him for not taking her in after her parents’ death—she hated him for today. She hated him for saying, in the middle of all of it, that he was there to protect her.
At last there were clanks outside her cell door. Another door creaked, there were thumps, and the door creaked closed.
“Rest up till midnight,” one of the guards said. Their feet moved away and then there was cold silence again.
“I’m going to die,” Gooseberry said. His voice seemed far away.
“Your own damn fault.” She swallowed other words—”my uncle, my family”—swallowed them into silence.
In the dungeon, time slowed. She almost forgot he was there.
“I killed your mother.” The words drifted around the stone wall between them. They seemed to echo in her past long before she realized what they meant.
“I don’t understand.” Wasn’t his only crime that of abandoning her to the charity of the lighthouse?
“The God chose me. He put the God-Death in my mind and I was the executioner.”
His words were lucid but the meaning was not. He seemed to have forgotten everything he’d said about the priests supplanting the will of the God. His tone was singsong, lilting.
Anger, as the meaning sunk in. “You killed her?”
“The God convicted her. It was justice for killing her husband, and I was no one while I carried it out. The priests say no one is complicit then. I was the God’s hands, his eyes.”
“You killed her. Your own sister.”
“The God metes justice.”
“Your own sister! Do you know how I lived with no parents? The temple dumped me on a rock with a batshit old nun. I lost my citizenship, I became nobody. I slaved for her seven years before I ran away. I cried for my old life. For you.”
Silence and blackness.
“I thought someone must’ve killed you, too, or you would’ve taken me to live with you. Mum and Da were holy rich. I should have been raised in that class, in my rightful place as a citizen. Or with you—not that I’d want that, now that I know what you are. Not abandoned in a lighthouse.” With a nun who beat her for feeling the God’s touch, if it was the God’s touch, if all of this wasn’t some horrid perversion of the Mouth’s. Beatings twice a day until she’d learned to control what she felt, to hide it. “I shouldn’t have been tossed to the bottom. Left all alone.”
Crying from the other cell.
Halla shut her ears with her fists. “You deserve their death.”
Halla was awakened by the scrape of iron on stone. She strained her ears, but apart from that there was utter silence; no shouts, no curses, no prayers from Gooseberry as they took him to the ring on the hill.
She was tense after that, still and fraught in her cell. After a long time, iron scraped on stone again. A key. A small hand pushed the door inward. Golden light from an oil lamp spilled in. “You can go,” a high voice said.
A boy of nine or so, in blue.
The simpleton priestling.
Halla stuck her foot in the path of the door, pushed him aside, and slid out into the hallway.
He looked up with big unfocused eyes. His head wavered, but he was not drooling. She studied the black corridor, but he seemed to be alone.
“What are you doing here?” she said quietly.
“The God sent me. Also, I want breakfast.”
Halla sucked in her breath. “Can you lead me out?”
He put one hand to his head, waved it at the hallway. Short spastic movements. “Come.” He scuttled sideways, turning his head to look at her, lamp swinging, his feet feeling out the stone floor.
Halla crept behind him. “Does the God often send you to people?”
“Usually he sends me things. Rabbits and pretty dove birds to —” His hands mimed cracking. He smiled in the lamplight, a brilliantly sweet smile of yellow-brown teeth. “I think someday he’ll send me a pretty person, like you. The Mouth says I have to listen to the God.”
Slowly the words registered. “The God talks to you?”
“Almost every day, I feel what the God wants,” he said. “That’s why I’m gonna be his next Mouth. Sometimes he hurts. I get dizzy and fall down. But the God is just.”
Halla grabbed the small boy’s shoulder. “Does it feel like a crackling in your head? Like ants on your bones?”
He slid away. “Does the God tell you what you want, too?”
Halla shook her head.
They turned up a narrow staircase and the boy rocked his head in tune with his steps. “We play games. Little games, like I try to read the Mouth’s thoughts. Or sometimes the God makes me feel ferocious angry. Then the Mouth brings me something so I can kill it. A rabbit, maybe. As soon as I kill the rabbit the God leaves me. Sometimes the God makes me happy. Then the Mouth comes. As soon as it’s over I feel like nothing again. I feel like me.”
Little games.... An icy thought shivered up her spine. Had this boy always been a simpleton? What had he been like before the Mouth turned his attention—and the God’s attention—to him? And nobody to watch out for him.... “Don’t you have a family?”
“Father, mother. Uncle.”
“The Mouth is my father now. He has a plan to never leave me. I’m scared to be the Mouth, but Father says he’ll never leave me. Not even after today; he will never ever go. Did you bring me breakfast?”
“No,” said Halla. The story that the God chose each new Mouth must be a lie—or at least, it had become a lie, even if it was once the truth. The Mouth had handpicked this boy. Raised him. She suddenly remembered the current Mouth sitting in the room once when she met with her father and the old Mouth. He was even skinnier then, lurching and narrow with sharp eyes, and he’d watched her as the men talked. They hadn’t tried the games that day, but Halla had had a long dizzy fit anyway, that ended with her father rocking her. The skinny young man had watched her the whole time.
Halla wanted to ask more questions, but the boy stopped at the top of the stairs. There was a dark alcove, and ahead, a massive door. The lamp swung gold circles of light in the alcove, picked out a thin gleam.
“My dagger,” she said. “Wait.” She put a hand on the handle of the oil lamp, next to his.
But he opened the door and let go of the lamp, leaving it swinging in her hand. “I want my breakfast.”
She could not both keep the door open and look in the alcove, but she had not seen the boy use a key. She took the lamp into the black opening, alert for a trap. But there was nothing in there but her dagger. A chain with two iron keys hung from a hook.
The heavy door to the main temple clicked closed. Halla swung the lamp over—but the priestling had vanished. She was alone in the temple, unguarded and unmutilated. Her skin crawled.
But she was not going to let herself get caught again. She took the keys from the wall and strapped on her dagger. As a gesture of freedom, took the brooch from her boot and pinned it to the front of her shift. Then she opened the door, extinguishing the lamp as she did so. She slid out into a familiar white and gold hallway, keeping to the shadows. There should be an exit just a few yards. The door she had left was plain, unassuming. Strange how she had never known where it led.
She turned the corner and there was the outside door. Dawn must be near, and Uncle Ollen’s execution at the ring on the hill. He didn’t deserve the God-Death for toppling the Mouth to the floor. But he did deserve it for killing her mother. Halla could leave him to the temple’s justice.
Yet she stood there in the shadow of the exit, wavering.
From the other side of the temple, the gong rang. First waking call for the priests.
Halla left the temple in the near-dawn light. Only a few people were out at this hour, priests and sellers setting up for the huge crowds the investiture would bring. It would be a good day to slip in and out of familiar houses, with everyone in the center of town. This might be the day she stole enough to buy land, just that small piece of land. She had lost her chance at the wealth of the temple, but she would not lose sight of regaining her citizenship. It was unfair for children to suffer for the crimes of their parents. She mustn’t lose sight of her plan for change.
The decision cleared her mind. Halla strode away from the temple. She was just deciding on a house where she’d once been to a funeral when pain swept from one side of her body to the other. Her hands clenched, her body throbbed like a struck gong. It focused to a pinpoint in her head, then as abruptly, vanished. An image, a feeling blossomed in her mind, a blood lust without words.
He was at the ring on the hill, and she could kill him before his God-Death came. She could be the one to enact revenge, to make him pay.
And she should.
Flooded with that thought, she charged through the temple grounds. She passed nuns, assistants, market-sellers, but their eyes slid over her. They all looked away.
Down the stone road to the temple’s hill. No one climbed that hill, but everyone knew the path. Everyone knew exactly where the God’s justice was served, though the top was shrouded in bamboo, and there was no silhouette of a man shadowed at dawn, awaiting execution.
She slipped through that stone archway where nobody went without a purpose. It was strange how her feet propelled her forward. She had never had to kill anybody—why should she start with a man already destined to die? Almost she turned around but no, the path was there, and though the hill was dark and steep the path drew her upward. She would just see him, anyway. Just see if he was up there. Then she would turn back.
The bamboo pressed in thicker till suddenly it thinned, revealing deep blue sky. Why would she think of murdering Ollen, Uncle Ollen who had taken her to see the traveling animals, who had let her pet the snakes?
The dawning light picked out a figure in the middle of the clearing and her head rang.
He was chained to the pole, arms fastened behind him, crumpled. His nose bled and he drooled. The sight surged fresh blood lust through Halla. She stumbled from the bamboo, dagger high.
Uncle Ollen’s grey eyes watered and his nose trickled. He was so weak, so stupidly weak, so incompetent. How had such a fallen thing killed her mother? His death would be a relief. A relief.
She was on him then, one hand at his throat. He squealed, fought her with his knees. One knee caught her on the nose and cheek. Her grip loosened, but she seized him again and raised her blade. His white hair foamed around his face. She would kill him. She would be his executioner.
She would be his God-Death.
Her entire body convulsed on the handle of her dagger. She would be his God-Death. The Mouth had made it so. The dizziness she had felt all those years was nothing next to the actual touch of the God, yet that was what this was. The compulsion to obey thickened her spirit, crushed her fingers to the dagger’s handle.
Halla would not submit to the Mouth. She would not.
She would not be Uncle Ollen’s God-Death.
Halla gripped the handle with all her will and plunged the dagger into the ground.
Scrabbled away, the compulsion tearing her mind. Kill Ollen. Kill.
“I love you,” blubbered her uncle. His nose ran; his beard filled with snot and blood. She loved him and loathed him. She understood what he had done, what he had become from doing it.
He didn’t say anything else, just babbled and bled on the ground. Halla felt the God-touch like her own purest desire—she was dying to strangle him from his miserable existence. She breathed, funny little gasps, trying to sort out her wants from the God’s. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
It was clear now why they had let her escape. The Mouth had probably compelled the priestling to do it. She put one taut hand into her shift and pulled the chain with its two keys forth. That seemed to take forever. Threw it at her uncle’s curled side, the links clinking. He sniveled.
“Take it,” she said hoarsely. But as she threw it she realized he couldn’t. His hands were chained behind him. Halla flexed and unflexed fingers, took several more breaths. With long steady strides she crossed to her uncle, grabbed the smaller key, and unlocked his wrists. Dropped the chain in front of him and strode back to her spot in the bamboo.
They stared at each other, breathing hard.
Ollen wiped his face with his hand, his sleeve. With fumbling fingers he unlocked his ankles. He stumbled towards her.
“Stay away,” Halla said. Her hand flicked to her empty dagger sheath.
He wavered, tottered.
“Farther,” she said. “Out of reach. Out of a good long lunging reach.” She went towards the pole to get the dagger. He scurried around the circle, not really getting any farther away. She gritted her teeth and wished she could kill him for it.
“Now we’re going down the hill,” she said. “And you’re going to stay behind me where I can’t see you, and answer my questions. What do you know about my family? Our family.” The lust to kill him suffused all her questions with rage.
Halla strode down the path, smacking the bamboo with the flat of her hand. “Stop crying. And I don’t want any garbage about the God’s fingers either. Give me sane Gooseberry. Give me facts.”
“I can’t, I....”
“I.... Your father was of the holy rich.” He fell in behind her, his feet noisy and slow.
“Yes.” She smacked the bamboo again. It felt good to hit something.
“Your mother and I weren’t. Our family were landowners, on the outskirts, struggling.” He sniffled again. “Your father went between the committee of the rich and the temple. He was known to be close with the former Mouth. And he had, uh...nasty methods of making the politics go his way. Which was the temple’s way, for a long time.” Ollen’s feet slid and now he was too close, pacing her. He had wiped his face and smoothed his hair, and for a moment he looked quite sane. “But ten years ago the new Mouth was chosen. The one we’ve got now. Your father disliked the new choice.”
“This new Mouth wasn’t going to let my da run things,” Halla said slowly.
Ollen nodded. “So your father took you up to the temple, brought you to the old Mouth. He thought he could...he wanted you to replace...I don’t know if what I think is so. No, I know. You were so tiny. Each time you came home so...strange. Like you didn’t know what was going on.” He tilted his head, mimed a lolling motion.
Halla strode ahead, swallowing.
“Do you know what happened next?” he said.
“Yes,” said Halla. “My mother killed him.”
Behind her, Ollen was silent.
He did not say and then she was executed for it, but Halla’s fingers still clenched and unclenched at her sides. “And the Mouth had something to do with it?”
“She was an angel, your mother—my darling. Too good for your cold father. The old Mouth must have broke with your father. And when the new Mouth took over, I think the first thing he did was compel my darling, my sweet, to kill. A God-Death without the God’s wish behind it. I don’t know. I just—she wouldn’t have done it, not a sweet sweet woman like her, she wouldn’t have killed anybody without a compulsion.”
He underestimated her mother. Halla thought she might well have been capable of murder, if her daughter was in danger. “I’d almost rather believe she did it on her own,” Halla said softly.
She didn’t expect her uncle to respond, but he started babbling again, something about hands and fingers, and the God-given rage swelled. “Gooseberry,” she said, danger in the word.
Too much danger. Uncle Ollen flung himself at her feet, crying. “I had to kill her. It hit everything inside of me, horrible. I wanted to kill her, don’t you understand? My pretty sister, I loved her and the Mouth destroyed us. I wanted to hurt her. It broke our family, it broke me, made me a vagrant, no money, no land, no name. I remember, you see, all that true pure rage I remember, because it’s in me, and I wanted it. She made me promise to help you, but I couldn’t bear it. The God forgive me, I couldn’t.”
She stumbled and kicked at him, trying to get him out of reach. “Move it, damn you!” She escaped from his clutching fingers, backed up against the bamboo.
He sobbed again and she pulled the dagger halfway out of its sheath. She breathed long and low, stomach clenching. The God-lust was sharp and taut in her mind; she could feel its line stretching back to the Mouth, just as she always had during the judging.
One way or another, the Mouth had killed her parents.
Both of them.
“I’m going to that ceremony.”
The judging square was fuller than she had ever seen it. Every inch crammed, a mob of watchers and priests. Halla tried again to shake the God’s blood lust, but she was still taut with it. She remembered the prisoner reaching for the dove yesterday morning, his face distended. He had stayed in agony till he got to complete the God’s task of killing it. She swallowed and pushed through the restless crowd.
She caught glimpses between necks, under arms. The Mouth stood at the dais, loomed over the young priestling. A bleating goat was tethered off to the side. This was the part she had thought merely ceremonial, but now she was not sure. The old Mouth’s killing of the goat was the moment of investiture. Ritually, it showed that his hands were free again. That he was a citizen again, willing to act when the God required.
But perhaps it was more than ritual.
Perhaps it was the way the power was passed on.
She pushed through, moving to the front.
The boy’s head was upright and he looked more awake than that morning in the dungeon. She wondered what compulsion the Mouth was sending to him. Alertness?
The ritual continued, the words rolling on. “As the God speaks through me, so shall the power pass to his chosen one. So shall the next ten years pass with the God and his new Mouth.”
“May he speak to us,” answered the crowd.
She was nearly to him, this man who had killed her father and through other hands her mother, who had nearly killed her uncle. The Mouth of the God, her family’s death.
“By this sacrifice, he shall prove he is willing to act for you. His mouth is the mouth of the God....”
Maybe you didn’t have to be a landowner to provoke change.
“May he speak to us,” answered the people. Fingers touched lips.
Halla stepped forth from the crowd, onto the dais. “You’re using that boy,” she said to the Mouth. Her voice rang out over the judging square. “You don’t intend to step down at all. You’re perverting the voice of the God.” There was absolute silence in the crowded square.
“Take her,” said the Mouth. His face stayed calm, his hands still folded. A blue-robed priest moved in.
But the blood rage was still hot in her, and though directed at her uncle it was easy to let it loose on the priest. She had never killed anybody, but now she killed him, largely out of luck. She wanted to drop the wet dagger, she wanted to scream, but she did neither.
Temple guards were closing in from the sides, but the crowd pressed around the dais, bodies tense, tongues whispering. Watching the new drama play out in the judging square.
Harder to rein in the lust, but she took a deep breath and bent her mind to it, packing it back down inside her. She moved closer to the Mouth. In her mind, Halla could feel where the directive flowed from him to her; the open thread along which the compulsion ran. The tongueless boy at his side turned and ran, but the one-handed girl watched her with quiet black eyes.
“He’s abused this boy to stay in control,” Halla said to the crowd. “To keep control of you.” The roar of the crowd grew, and in her side vision she saw the guards encountering resistance.
On the level where her mind was focusing on the Mouth, she could feel that there were two channels open from him. From the Mouth to the boy, a well-worn path. From the Mouth to her, thick and shining. Her uncompleted God-Death made a channel he couldn’t close. She felt her way along it. “He’s not planning to pass anything on. He’s planning to compel the boy the way he compels the city. This boy is a puppet.”
“Your father would have done a similar thing to you,” the Mouth hissed. “Once he saw what you could control.” His body was coiled for action but his mind wasn’t. He didn’t even understand how the power worked. His mind was too limited. He was supposed to open a thread of compulsion to the boy, to the sacrifice, giving the boy access to the God. Then the old Mouth would sacrifice the goat, completing his own compulsion from ten years ago. He would draw back, cede his power, take himself out of the loop.
But he didn’t understand that. He didn’t understand that the same charged line was open from him to Halla. She didn’t think she fully understood the God’s power, but he definitely didn’t.
The guards were closer now, the Mouth smiling. “Ignore the heretic,” he said to the crowd. “The God will decide her fate.” To her, quietly, “I did you a favor. Your father would have destroyed you.”
Halla used that tendril, that slim thread he had left open to her. “Perhaps,” she said. “But he didn’t.”
And then she pulled with all her will, pulled along the thread of that God-driven blood lust, pulled it out of the Mouth and into her. The power spread into her hands, her feet, until for one moment she was lit up golden like a God herself, and from far away the crowd roared at the sight.
She could feel the thread stretching back into the weight of history, through the Mouth, who was crumpling in front of her, through the Mouth before him, and before him, back and back until it granulated and she could see no further. For one beautiful moment she saw the whole city strung beneath her, relationships, cause and effect, everything a network, a comprehensible tapestry. Threads and patterns, and she could see how events and people were there to be patterned and picked apart and rewoven.
But even as she watched, the tapestry grew more and more complex until it spun out of control, broke apart, and then the world glittered gold in her sight and was gone.
She was standing on the dais, a God, and then the world broke apart and she was all too human. There was immense power inside her, huge and trembling in her fingertips, but the corresponding knowledge was gone.
Yet there was—something—out there; it was not all the Mouth’s perversion and tricks. She almost felt giddy with the realization. She wavered and the crowd gasped and those at the front stuck out useless hands as if to catch her.
Uncle Ollen tottered up to the dais where she stood. Underneath the calm and power, the compulsion implanted by the Mouth—the former Mouth, now—still screamed.
It was too much to hope that the compulsion would end; it seemed to be the line through which all her power came. Unless she could figure out how to shut it down without losing her power, it would probably never end, not till his death. The future was suddenly dense and strange, both full of possibility...and empty.
Ollen looked at the unconscious former Mouth, the dead priests. The lolling priestling, the stone-silent crowd.
“Ollen,” Halla said. “My uncle. My family.” In the packed and silent judging square, she was the only person moving. She unpinned the stolen emerald brooch from her shift, the brooch with which she had hoped to restart a life.
Halla closed the clasp and placed it into her last living relation’s hands.
“Please,” she said. “Don’t come back.”
Return to Issue #5