The Language of True Things

Issue #115

The boy’s new master wore a dirty wig, slightly askew—a halfhearted gesture at propriety. His old master and his journeymen, who suffered no insult from guards, priests, or Viceroy’s soldiers, withdrew in fear and stumbling bows from this rumpled little man, who might have been a drunken petty lord but for his owlish stare.

Those cold yellow eyes were fixed on the boy, and he felt he could not escape them, even if he could circle the world to the other side. He did not want to leave with this man. He wished only to remain, to unspeak the word that had made him like a leper in his old master’s house. Tears began to well in his eyes. His new master drew back, as if slapped.

“Why are you crying? You will learn the tongue of gods and angels—the language of true things. Yours will be a life of power. You will no longer muck about with useless paint.”

His old master said nothing to this slight, though the boy had seen him throw a cavalry officer out by the lapels for daring to criticize his brushwork.

“Come along,” his new master said, and he turned to leave, though the boy could not escape the feeling that those eyes remained on him, still watching from beneath the ratty wig. He gathered his few possessions, and, as he left, pocketed a little horsehair brush—a small thing to remember a life he’d only just begun to love.

The streets outside were full of midday crowds, but this gave his new master no pause. They did not go toward the day market, which was the only place the boy had gone as a painter’s apprentice. Instead, he realized with growing horror that his master was leading him down the Way of Gods, where he had not been for a very long time; where he hoped to never go again. The hundred temples, all cold marble or mother of pearl looted from old Vash ruins, were meant to fill onlookers with a pious awe. To the boy each looked like a hungry mouth. One of them was worse than all the others, though; the source of his fear—the Heart of Balan, with its doorless walls inscribed in their endless sacred labyrinth. Its mouth was firmly closed, and it stood out among the other temples like a grotesquely sated parasite.

His master did not turn to see him, but he sensed the boy’s unease.

“Why do you shudder? Balan will not emerge to harm you.”

“My mother....”

Then his master did turn to face him, and the look in those fierce eyes was suddenly kind. He patted the boy’s shoulder.

“I am sorry,” he said. “Very little is worse than not knowing.”

The boy’s father had died a soldier in the Silk Wars; an honorable death, and even better, a comprehensible one. The boy had never known him, but whenever he had enough money saved he left a flower at the memorial statue in the day market.

The boy’s mother had revered Balan, not only above other gods but other men, women, and children as well. His first remembered years had been marked by fasts and endless contemplations of Balan’s riddle. But when war had come to the otherworld, and Balan had fallen with the others, his mother had rushed to meet the god at his temple and pledge her devotion in person. Few of the faithful whose gods fell fared well. Keresh devoured its followers, Ejimah told them their worship of her had been a waste of time; Bel Battleson did nothing but drink and weep, confounding his bloodthirsty flock; while radiant Iores deposed his own Archlector and seized the throne of Nemla for himself.

Balan surfaced in the city of Axa and called his faithful to him, promising mysteries finally revealed. When they had gathered, he sealed his temple, its stone walls sealing over doors and windows. None had entered or left since.

“There are some reasons not to despair,” said the boy’s master. “First, while some things last a very long time, longer than we may imagine, very few things are truly forever, even the lives of gods. An uncertain state has its benefits, as well. I know a philosopher who claims those within a sealed structure like Balan’s temple, subject to his unknown will, must be thought of as both alive and dead at the same time. Until we can see and know, those within must be both things, or even all things at once.”

The boy quickly banished the thought from his mind. If he started imagining what might be happening within the temple, he would go mad. He had to assume his mother was as dead as his father or he would beat his hands bloody on the sealed temple walls. He had to live with the pain of her absence, and the other pain, the one he could not bring himself to voice: he had been raised in her faith, professed it with a child’s iron certainty; yet when Balan had returned and called the faithful, she had left him behind.

His master’s house was a bulbous misshapen heap of stone and thatch—a rude forest cottage somehow transported to an alley off the street of bookbinders. Birds nested in its eaves. His master’s name, which he only heard from the trembling few who sometimes came seeking his aid, was Master Speaker Martyce.

The boy was given a cot wedged between dusty bookshelves, and told to clean and dust the books, to tend the fire, to fetch water and to scrub the floors. Things all apprentices knew; the stock-in-trade of orphans. One thing was different. Once a day, a journeyman from one of the bookbinders came to teach him letters—Eresti, high and low Nahal, and even old Vash, which took a very long time to make any sense to him and cost him a few beatings for his lack of progress.

Master Martyce kept a little gray lizard in a cage, and sometimes the boy could see the tiny globes of its eyes track him with seeming interest while he formed the words.

Master Martyce’s journeyman was hotheaded and impatient, as most journeymen were in the boy’s experience, and he would frequently curse the boy’s slowness and his own misery for having to tutor an orphan prentice, even if that prentice was a Speaker in training. He still bowed in silence every time Martyce entered and did not question what he was paid.

One day, after the journeyman had left, still cursing his lazy pupil, the lizard spoke.

“Don’t listen. You form the words well. I have not heard that poem in a thousand years, and it is pleasing to hear again.”

Its voice was sweet and airy, not the croaking one would expect from such a creature. It almost sounded like two voices in harmony. The boy caught his breath in awe, then pestered the lizard with questions—what it was and why it could talk—but these clearly bored the lizard, and it spoke no more.

When the journeyman sighed and pronounced him good enough, Master Martyce had summoned him and had him read from all the languages he had learned: lines from the Eresti seafaring epics, the Nahala philosophical dialogues, both cultures’ meditations on the glory and misery of war. The boy puzzled through a few halting stanzas of the Sur-Vasha.

“All of these words have one thing in common,” Martyce said. “They are all lies.”

Now he held up a book, open to a page floridly illustrated with curling flames.

“What is this?”

“Fire?”

“No, it is only a picture of fire. A beautiful lie, like your old master makes. Words are the same, written or spoken abstractions—they stand for things, only. That is what is different about the language of true things. “

Then Martyce spoke a word, and it emerged from his mouth not as speech but as the crackling roar of a fire, and the boy could feel its heat on his cheeks.

“In the language of true things—the tongue of the otherworld—a word and what it represents are the same. One is equal to the other. To say fire is also to make fire. Now, I want you to speak the word you uttered in your old master’s shop. The word that ceased your life as a painter’s apprentice, and heralded your study of the true language.”

“I... I don’t remember, sir.”

“It is not a question of remembering. You know it. Speak it now.”

He wanted to forget, but in truth he could not. The image came to his mind against his will. He had been tasked with grinding cave beetles for their purple pigment. It had horrified and disgusted him in his first weeks as a painter’s apprentice, but it had soon become routine—a thoughtless task, almost pleasant compared to the delicate work of tying bristle brushes. Then, at the edge of his mortar bowl, he’d seen a twitching motion, a futile scrabbling on the stone. One poor beetle had been alive in the sack of its dead fellows he’d purchased at market, and now it struggled, half-crushed, at the edge of death. The boy was filled with sadness watching the little blue-black insect’s last moments, and his head was suddenly ringing with a word for what he witnessed—a word which was struggling to escape his mouth as urgently as the beetle was the bowl.

He spoke that word again, now, in his new master’s house, and it seemed to contain all the urgent sadness of life’s last few seconds.

Then, like before, he became aware of things—half glimpsed shapes in the walls; things beneath him in the earth, down deeper than he could imagine the city reached. He was surrounded by forms he could barely see—and they were whispering. The first time he had heard the sounds, he had thought it was nonsense, but now he could hear the inflections of the old Vash language, though he could scarcely understand anything more than a few words. Cold was one, and forgotten.

“You hear and see the dead,” his master said. “The old Vash, who built this city, entombed their loved ones within the walls of their houses. Axa is bricked and mortared with corpses. The Eresti, even the Nahal, are but guests here—this city belongs to the dead.”

The boy retained all his old duties, but now he read on his own. Master Martyce assigned him every book in his ramshackle library, one by one. At times, when he knew he was alone, the boy would try to mimic the word for fire that his master spoke. He managed only hoarse croaking.

“You’ll never get it like that,” the lizard said. “You have to understand it, not as the philosophers do, or the Rukh in their spiral towers, but as poets do. For starters, you must be burned.”

“What are you?” the boy said.

“Open my cage.”

He backed away, and did not speak to the lizard further.

“What are gods?”

Every so often, Martyce would call him away from his chores or studies with questions like these.

“Human heroes who attained immortality and power in the otherworld.”

“Some, yes. Others are powerful spirits, who have always called the otherworld home. Still others are ideas given life, or fragments of other worlds long forgotten. Telling which is which is never as easy as it seems. Gods are notorious liars.”

The boy thought of Balan and his endless riddle.

“But don’t they speak the true language?”

“Gods speak many languages—sometimes from many mouths. What are angels?”

“Servitor beings which can be summoned and commanded.”

“Again, that is only part of the story. They are aspects of nature, living laws. They speak only the true tongue.”

“And they have no will of their own?”

“Not as we do. They are not slaves, though, anymore than the wind is a slave. What are spirits?”

“Denizens of the otherworld, as people are of this world.”

“Yes, but they are not like people. They live by strange laws, which to us seem like mere whims. They... they do not understand us well, nor us them. But that is not important. Your studies are progressing nicely.”

His master smiled at him, and the boy felt pleased at his progress—pleased enough to chance a question of his own.

“What is the lizard in the cage?”

“Why do you ask this?” Martyce’s tone was clipped, the smile gone from his face.

“It spoke to me.”

His master’s face twisted into a pinched scowl. The boy stammered out an apology, but this did no good. Martyce seized him by the ear, dragged him outside, and switched him hard across the back with his cane. He did not stop until the boy bled. 

That night he took the lizard’s cage from the boy’s room. In the darkness, as he lay there, unable to sleep from the pain, the boy heard his master screaming and cursing, and then crying... pleading with the lizard in the cage.

A gray-haired woman visited them sometimes. Her blue lips and red robe trimmed in gold marked her as a Rukh of high rank. The boy had heard stories of them, how they created marvelous artifacts in their spiral towers and made even the Viceroy and his Queen dance with their intrigues. They gave gifts to rulers and their cities, like the gas-burning lamps that lit Axa by night or the pistols young noblemen used in matters of honor, but they saved the finest marvels for themselves, and visited the most terrible punishments on any that tried to steal their secrets. She came with two hooded underlings, Rukh of a lower rank, who attended her every whim and did not speak.

The Rukh woman and Master Martyce greeted each other as old friends, and the boy made them a steaming pot of tea. To his surprise, his master introduced him with pride to the woman, who was called Gelera.

“My apprentice. He has a good command of old Vash for his age. A year ago he was an unlettered painter’s boy.”

Gelera nodded, looking the boy up and down. “Not bad, but if he were Rukh, he would have mastered twice as many tongues by now.”

“Bah, be glad you aren’t, boy. The Rukh don’t take apprentices, they buy new members as slaves, and they never earn their freedom, even when they command power to rival the peerage, as Gelera does. Their lips are blue because they all must drink the essence of Esma from an early age.”

“It sharpens the mind,” Gelera said.

“And builds an appetite only the Rukh can sate.”

Gelera frowned at this, and for a moment the boy was afraid, but as she and his master talked it became clear they had been friends a long time, and the little barbs in the weave of their speech were ornaments of their friendship. She called his master Eresti barbarian, and he called her Nahala savage, and they laughed. He called her Rukh spider and she called him mad mumbler, and they laughed harder. The boy listened to them talk as he cleaned and served them spice cakes and more tea. He could understand little, but he knew the subjects were heavy: the politics of men and gods, the Viceroy’s latest foolishness or the predations of the Erestia Trade Company. Then Gelera went too far.

“The schemers will scheme as they always do. I should know, I am one. What interests me more are matters of the heart. Tell me, Martyce—how fares your beloved?”

The boy’s master grimaced, and the boy once again feared a fight, dreading what forces a Rukh and a Master Speaker would unleash in this little cottage. But his master stood up without a word and withdrew to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.

Gelera sighed. “Love will be the death of him. Boy, do me a favor. Do not end up like your master. Speakers think that because a thing can be done, it must be. The worst prey on the weak, and even good ones like Martyce desire things beyond human reach. Power is far worse a need than essence of Esma. Listen close—I will tell you the greatest secret of the Rukh.”

The boy shivered, and he fought an urge to clamp his hands over his ears. He had seen the etchings of thieves hung by their own entrails from the spiral towers.

“Do not be afraid. This is freely given, though lesser secrets would merit the harshest penalties. Our greatest secret is this: we observe, we test, and we record what we see. Our power is not in ourselves, but only what we learn. We have shared this secret for years, yet none have arisen to challenge us. They do not care for our knowledge, only what it can do.”

Gelera stood and bid the boy farewell. In the new silence of the main room, he could hear the soft sound of his master weeping through the door.

When he found time, he read all he could on his mother’s god.

Balan was a Nahala deity, but the Nahal did not worship him like their other gods. It had taken rebellious highborn Eresti like his mother, with their foolish colonists’ notions of ancient Nahala wisdom, to found Balan’s cult. In the Nahala scriptures he appeared as a confounder and trickster, but very different from Lar, the Eresti child-god whose tricks mocked the powerful and serious. Balan promised secrets and knowledge rarely delivered, and never without price. In one version of the Ahalema he led an errant prince to true wisdom, but in another he deceived the foolish prince and betrayed him to his doom. In some stories, the truth he delivered was worse than the cruelest deception.

The boy’s father had been Nahala, yet he had served with valor in the colonial army at the cost of his life. His mother had been Eresti, yet she had sacrificed her highborn life, her family, and all else for an enigmatic Nahala god. These were the sorts of paradoxes sacred to Balan. In temple iconography he was rendered as a pious little monk with a bald head, but the boy could see cruelty in his graven smirk and a love for chaos in his eyes. Among old women in the markets, ‘Balan’s smile’ meant misfortune that was almost perfect in its reversal of expectations.

The more he read, the more the boy despaired of learning anything—and yet his new life gave him a kind of mad hope. All sorts of doors might open for a Master Speaker, even the doorless walls of Balan’s temple. If he could not understand, at least he might have power. Let the Rukh watch and learn; he would act.

He gazed into the flames for hours, listening to their crackling voice. He tried to speak the word for fire, but nothing came. Remembering the lizard’s words, he gritted his teeth, pictured the temple’s faceless walls and his rage at being shut out, and plunged his hand into the fire, and left it there until the pain overcame him.

He awoke in his bed, his hand numb beneath wrappings and herbal paste, but the fire’s hunger, its anger as it consumed air and oil and flesh and was not calmed, stayed with him. He spoke, and through dry mumbling lips the word emerged like a wave of scorching heat.

“You were very foolish,” Master Martyce said. “Still, I was beginning to wonder what was taking you so long.”

He held up his own hand, showing the scarred flesh on one finger.

He could never say when a new word would come. It did not depend on feelings only, or on learning, but a mix of both. It was like his old master had said of painting—a spark of talent was wasted without work, yet work would be wasted on those without the spark. Thoughts of his former master often made him sad. Old Master Eneas had not been a patient man, or even very kind, but his love for his art was plain to see in everything he did. Beauty had ruled his world, not the unforgiving laws of truth and power. His love had been open and full of life, while Martyce’s was a painful secret. Yet it promised so much more.

The boy spent nights naked on the roof, lashed with rain water, but he did not learn the word for water until later, reading Ordal of Nemla’s Mysteries of the Deep, when he had felt it filling his chest and coughed it out like a lungful of brine.

Other words were not so obvious. Each morning he observed a seed he had planted in a little pot, thinking to learn the word for plant. Instead, he watched the seed sprout and grow as his own worn-out shoes became too small for his feet, and the word that came to him was grow.

Sometimes he would concentrate on the locked door to his master’s study, thinking of the doorless walls of the temple, but the word he wanted most did not come.

When he had learned a few more words, Master Martyce called him to demonstrate.

“Very good,” Martyce said when the boy finished. “You have truly progressed. Do not rush to learn as many words as you can, though. Words aren’t everything, and a Speaker with the largest vocabulary is powerless before one with a true understanding of a few words and a good grasp of sign and syntax. Observe....”

The master spoke the word for fire again, but as he did he made a sign with his hands, tracing a motion through the air that, in the boy’s mind, created the instant impression of a fire sparking to life. When he opened his hand, Martyce held a little crackling flame in his palm.

“I have many candles in my study, boy,” Martyce said. “Your job is to light them.”

After hours of wiggling his fingers, remembering the feel of the fire, and consulting tome after tome, the boy began to see, and he let his fingers join and complement the crackling roar of the word fire. With delirious glee he beheld the tiny flame guttering at the tip of his finger.

“Good. Sign and word are stronger than word alone. But do not get lost in your little flame—for all its truth, it is no better than flint or phosphor. The true tongue is good for much more; written glyphs and conjured spirits and things we will not speak of here. There is much you are not ready for.

The boy conjured gentle breezes to cool his master and fetched him water with the power of word and sign. With practice and control, he learned to use the wind to turn a single page, to make a flame dance and leap from finger to finger, to coax sprout from seed without causing it to wither. His master showed him other books, which were kept locked in strongboxes—books by Speakers on their art. Some were incomprehensible ravings, filled with references to houses of the gods and seasons of the otherworld. Others brought a formal rigor to their art, with charts and measurements of effects and the equation of symbols and ideas to numbers and obscure geometry. Some, which the master did not share, were written in glyphs and could not be opened without consequence. Most of what the boy read felt worthless, but now and then he saw something that made sense, a glimmer of wisdom.

“We are a mistrustful breed,” Master Martyce said. “Most Speakers trust only their master and their apprentices, and some not even those. You have heard of Arag, to the north of Erestia? It is ruled by Speakers, and they say there is no more cruel and inhospitable nation. We are fortunate that all its strength is turned inward, like a body feeding on itself. A funny thing about truth is how personal it is—we speak the only true language, yet each of us learns it in a different way, and no one can directly teach it. We fear, in another, that truth we love in ourselves, and so we cannot work together, cannot build, or lead, or love each other.”

“Balan’s smile,” said the boy.

“Yes. We give Balan much cause to smile. Come, there is one more thing I will show you today.”

Master Martyce led the boy into his chamber, where he had never been admitted before. There were other books here, glyph-books secured with lock and key—their bindings shaped like guardian demons. One volume made a faint humming sound, and another seemed to be whispering quietly. A third made the boy’s eyes hurt when he looked at it directly. The gray lizard was here, too, sitting motionless in its cage. The boy tried to ignore it and prayed that it stayed silent.

Thankfully, Martyce also ignored the lizard. Instead, he retrieved a little glass box from a shelf above his bed. Within was a dark brown lump of bone.

“What is it?”

“The boundaries between our world and the other were once far looser, and many creatures seeped forth to dwell here. There are few left, but their bones, even their ancient remnants preserved in rock, hold essence of their power. They say the Rukh have invented all manner of wonders fueled by them, but we Speakers crave them most of all. No power of word or glyph alone can match what comes from even a small sliver of it. In Arag it is worn in crowns and scepters, and in Old Vash a small shank commanded a price of one hundred slaves.”

Martyce placed it back on the shelf.

“That is quite enough for today. I need new feather quills cut and the pot washed, and I want all done by hand. Never rely on only your words.”

The boy worked, and learned, and was in all ways an obedient apprentice, but now thoughts of greater power consumed his mind, and he could not stop thinking of the little lump of bone. He could see it in his dreams—a little corner of the web of fate extruded into the waking world. If he could seize it, he could blast the doors of Balan’s temple wide, and maybe... he did not even dare himself to think... he would be an orphan no more.

One day, Martyce ordered him to fetch his best waistcoat and clean his wig. His master shaved the few-days’ growth of gray beard that he usually ignored and retrieved a fine mahogany cane the boy had never seen him carry.

“In Axa, all Speakers serve at the Viceroy’s pleasure, boy. You’d best remember that. Otherwise we’re like to endure inquisitions and drownings, like in Nemla. Today I have the good fortune to be called to service.”

Nothing on Martyce’s face suggested good fortune.

“I do not know how long I will be. You are to keep my house clean, to practice, and to read only those books I have specified. You may hear voices from my chamber. You must pay them no heed, even if they cry for help or threaten your death. Good day.”

The boy tried for one day to follow his Master’s orders, then the pull of the closed chamber door became too much and he spent hours contemplating it, wracking his brain for the word of opening. He read any book that might offer insight—Geovestus’ Nature of Locks, St. Inver’s Narrative of my Imprisonment and Freedom through the Light of Iores. Nothing came to him. He listened at the door, and sometimes thought he heard a faint whispering, too low to make out, but it was no help to him. 

Martyce might return at any moment, and there might never be another chance. He wondered if he were being tested again—if Martyce wanted him to open the door, as he had wanted him to burn himself to learn the fire word; or if the reverse were true, and Martyce was watching now, testing his loyalty. There was no way to know. There was only the door and what it kept from him.

After two days of nothing but pain and frustration, he collapsed, crying and beating his fists on the rough wood planks. In his mind he was back where the Orphan Master had found him, pounding his tiny fists against the seamless, maze-etched outer walls of Balan’s temple. Then something surfaced in his wordless cries, emerging as the sound of rattling keys and creaking hinges. The lock did not budge to the word alone, but he practiced the sign until he had this as well, and when he turned both on the door it clicked open as if to answer in the true tongue.

He paused at the racks of forbidden books, some of them whispering for him by name, but he could not hope to control any power he’d find within. Instead, he fixed his eyes on the little glass box with its knuckle of ancient bone. He could discern no hinge or seam in the box, and when he spoke the word for Open and made the sign it did not even stir.

“That is a Vash heartbox. You’ll never open it.”

The boy jumped when he heard the voice, spinning around to see only the gray lizard in its cage. “Leave me alone,” he said.

“There is still one lock you can open here, though. And if you do, I can give you what you seek.”

“Martyce has you in there for a reason. You’re probably some sort of demon, waiting to feast on my soul the minute I open the cage.”

There was a little tinkling sound from the lizard. It took the boy a minute to realize it was laughter. “I am no demon. Martyce’s only fear in imprisoning me was that I would leave him. For mortal beings, you are remarkably ill-suited to grasp when a thing has run its course. Time does not mean the same thing to me, but still I have spent far too long in this cage. Take pity on me, let me out, and I will give you what you seek.”

The boy hesitated, remembering the beatings his master had given him; the fury in his unearthly yellow eyes. He had already assured himself of Martyce’s enmity for breaking into the study, though. His name would be written in the Book of Lies, and all Speakers would know him as a betrayer of the only bond they trusted. One more betrayal would not matter. 

Focusing on the cage and its lock, he spoke the word and made the sign. The lock was a simple, flimsy thing, but it was bound tight with Martyce’s wards, with all the strength of his lost love. The boy would never have been able to break them, but he did not have to. Martyce had focused every ward on the being in the cage. When the lock snapped open, a great, despairing howl shook the foundations of the house. It was the sound of years of pain, loneliness and jealousy, and it rang out like an alarm bell.

Breathless, the boy waited, and when no further sounds came, he looked up at the cage, only to see it empty.

“You promised me the box,” he said.

“Of course.” The voice behind him was Martyce’s. The boy whirled to see his little master standing there, a sly smile on his much younger face. He was no taller, but he stood straight, with none of his accustomed weariness. The yellow glare that made his eyes fierce and predatory was now only a flicker in the iris.

“Even after all that has passed, I still know him best as I first loved him,” said the thing that wore Martyce’s shape. It picked up the box. The boy could see a faint red light where its fingers touched the glass. After a moment, the panes of the glass box dissolved as if melted into air, and the bone fragment fell into the boy’s waiting hands.

“Only the right heartbeat will open the box,” not-Martyce said. “Thank you for releasing me. Perhaps one day you will see me again.”

It winked before it left the room. The boy did not hear the door open, but when he stopped trembling and searched the house, whatever had lived in the cage was nowhere to be seen.

That day as the sun went down he stood once again at the Heart of Balan. The pearl tracery of the labyrinth in the building’s smooth walls caught the day’s last glimmers of light. Further up the street, the lectors of Iores sang their lament to the setting sun. The bone was surprisingly light in his hand, and he wondered briefly what sort of creature it had come from.

He looked to his left and right, but no one was approaching. He took a deep breath and held it in, exhaling slowly. He held the knuckle of ancient bone tightly in one hand, then made the sign and spoke the word of opening. It thundered out of him with a force almost greater than he could stand, trembling through his body like lightning. He was thrown to the ground by the force of his word. In his hand, the bone unraveled in loops of thick, blue smoke that rose against the wind. Nothing remained in his palm.

When he picked himself up, he saw that a narrow gap had appeared in the front of the temple, stretching from floor to ceiling. It was barely wide enough for him to squeeze through, which he did as quickly as possible, lest it close again.

Inside, the temple was open to the sky—all he could see was a narrow corridor no wider than the gap he had squeezed through, ending a few yards down in a turn to the right. The next passage was slightly wider, but it only lasted a short way before splitting to the right and left. The boy ran his finger along the maze-like pattern traced on the walls and knew he was inside yet another labyrinth.

He breathed deep and clenched his fists to keep from despairing. Perhaps this was all there was within the temple. Perhaps he would find his mother lost here, wandering the corridors.

Something was wrong with the sky here. It had been sunset when he entered, but it now looked blue and cloudless, bright as midday but with no visible sun. The narrow stone walls were much too tall to see over—for all he knew they went on forever.

Then he heard a sound from up ahead and caught a glimpse of a boot heel disappearing behind a turn. He took off running. He turned a corner, only to see the same boot heel disappearing again further on. He followed the stranger in this way for longer than he could say, running until his breath came in ragged gasps. He shouted for the man to wait, and seemed to grow no closer no matter how fast he ran. When he had all but given up hope, he rounded a corner to see a tall man in an officer’s half-cloak and epaulets facing a dead end. The man stood completely still, as if he were contemplating the wall and its pattern.

Slowly, the man turned to face him, and the boy beheld his aristocratic Nahala features, the face still youthful but with old and haunted eyes. The boy also saw the ragged, bloody hole in the medal-decked chest. It seemed to cause the man no pain or worry. Instead, when he laid eyes on the boy, he stood transfixed for a moment, then tears leaked out from the corners of his weary eyes.

“No,” he said. “Don’t tell me it has claimed you too.”

Then the boy knew; the same way he simply knew things in dreams.

“Do not tell me how you died,” his father said. “I cannot bear it. The hope of your birth was all that sustained me on the battle lines. When your mother’s faith bound my spirit here, the thought of your freedom was all that brought me joy.”

“I’m alive,” the boy said. “I spoke the word of opening, and came here hoping to free my mother.”

Then his father caught him up in both arms, and embraced him tight, and the boy felt warm despite the coldness of his father’s limbs. He told his father of everything since his mother was sealed within the temple. How the Orphan Master had brought him to the house of lost boys—boys who had grown up knowing nothing but hunger and dark alleyways and had despised him for the signs of mother-love he still bore. They would have killed him before long, he knew, if Eneas the painter had not needed another apprentice and if his nimble fingers had not tied the best brushes. He told his father of the word, and Master Martyce, and everything that had followed.

“My own boy a Speaker.” His father spoke these words with a mix of pride and something else, which the boy hoped was not disgust or fear. “I wish I could have seen it.”

As they walked the temple corridors, his father told him stories too. “If I had lived through that blasted war, everything would have been different. I would have taken your mother from this hopeless cult and found a home for us far from Axa, from Nahal and Erestia, where we could simply be as we were. I had never met anyone like her, so free, so uncaring of the weight of tradition. Back then even her worship of a god whose name my parents only spoke in curses was somehow a mark of freedom—a chance to choose our own way. I had renounced all gods in my heart, but tradition still bound me to the Burning Orchid order, like my father before me.

“I was not so fortunate, growing up in surrender. The Viceroy’s snake of an advisor, the Trade Company man, found those within our order whose hearts were false and bribed them to engineer a debt of honor to turn us into soldiers for our enemies. I fought as I was commanded to, and the Burning Orchid never fight with less than all their heart. In the silk wars I faced the exiled prince of Axa himself. I cut down his bodyguards and demanded he face me sword to sword. The last thing I saw was his sneer of disgust as he shot me down with his Rukh-pistol.”

The passageways of the maze went on and on as they talked. The boy was now thoroughly lost, and his father seemed to have no idea of where he was going.

“Now my soul is trapped here, at the periphery of the temple. Every time I think I have found the way, I lose it again. I have searched for your mother for years.”

“I have the true language,” the boy said with more confidence than he felt. He called his mother’s name, hoping it would work as a true word, leading them to her. It did nothing that he could see. He wracked his brain, looking for a word for finding what was lost. He had rushed blind into the heart of madness.

“Balan will use the truth against you,” his father said. “He has two mouths, one which you see, and one which you do not, and from these he speaks both truth and lies together.”

When they reached another dead end, the boy spoke the word of opening again. When the word and sign did nothing, he cursed and beat his fist against the wall.

“There may be another way,” his father said. “The fragment of power that brought you here is not enough to penetrate to the temple’s sanctum, but I’ve heard that the same energy is contained in the bones of Speakers themselves. You are a conduit for the otherworld. You can open the way.”

“That is forbidden,” the boy said. He didn’t know this. Martyce had never mentioned it. There had been some references in the Speaker books he’d read to ‘cursed bone pluckers,’ and ‘ghul-Speakers,’ but nothing else. Still, the very idea felt wrong.

“You have already risked much in coming here,” said his father. “It will take more, my son. I am sorry.”

He was right—he had already come so far. It couldn’t be for nothing.

The boy faced the blank wall again, holding up the littlest finger on his left hand. He hoped he did not have to sever it first. He tried the word and sign again, this time thinking of his finger and the bone inside it, offering it, willing it as part of what he did, as he had with the ancient knucklebone. 

Something was different. As he spoke the words he lost a sense of the finger as his—he could feel it, but it no longer seemed a part of him. It was a thing, a growth on the end of his hand to be discarded—yet he felt its pain. Thick tendrils of purple smoke began to rise from the finger. It was excruciating, like burning and tearing, fire and ice all at once. It was far worse than any lash or beating he had ever endured. His eyes watered, and he almost blacked out from the pain.

When he opened his eyes, the finger was gone, the flesh sealed over it as if it had never been. Then the wall bucked and groaned, and a hairline crack appeared in its surface. Light came pouring out through it—a strange sort of light the boy could not describe.

“Yes,” said his father. “It is opening. You must give more.”

“Where does this lead?”

“To the heart of Balan’s temple. To your mother.”

“How do you know?”

“I can feel it. We are close. You must give more.”

The boy looked at his missing finger, and at the narrow crack, and at the strange, unearthly light that seeped through it, like the lights he had read sailors describe sometimes rising from the depths of the sea at night.

“No,” he said.

His father whirled on him. On his face was despair, and a bitter, helpless rage. Below this the wound on his chest was changing, opening wider, showing teeth in a smile—a smile the boy knew from his books.

“Do not stop,” both mouths spoke as one. “Open the way for me.”

He ran. Tears streamed down his face, and he pushed his burning lungs and aching legs beyond what they could bear. He dared not look back, or even stop long enough to guess which way he had come. Nothing in the labyrinth was familiar. For all he knew, the walls moved when his back was turned, and any corner he rounded could bring him back to that horrible smile.

The passageways he ran down grew narrower and narrower, until somehow ahead of him he saw the little opening he had squeezed through. He raced for it, pushing his already ailing body to its limit. The walls were drawing closer together. If he did not move fast they would crush him flat. The edges of the walls brushed his shoulders now, and he ran sideways like a crab, throwing himself for the opening.

He landed face-down in the street. The temple behind him had sealed shut, without even a crack remaining. The boy had lost a shoe in his dive for freedom—the only reminder of his passing in Balan’s temple, and the only change he had wrought besides his missing finger.

The boy expected judgment to fall on him any moment—Martyce waiting for him at the house with the Viceroy’s guard, or with some ghastly spirits called to serve Speaker justice, name hounds or a hungry thought, or something worse.

Instead, he found a cold hearth and an empty cage. His master should have been alerted when he broke the wards on the cage, should have raced home as soon as he’d been able, but no one had set foot in the house since the boy had left. 

He had no strength to flee, or even to kindle a new fire, so he gathered his blankets and lay down on his little cot and slept.

When he woke, for a blissful moment he thought it was another normal day, and he would rise to cook his master’s breakfast. Then he felt the ghostly ache of his little finger, which continued to pain him even in its absence, and everything returned to him. Outside the firstday bells were ringing. He’d been in the Heart of Balan four days.

He made a fire in the hearth using flint and steel, not words, and fetched water by hand from the well. He knew that he should flee for his life, but he saw no point in running when Martyce could send spirits to track him down. He held no fear of torture after what he had seen in Balan’s Heart. 

Hours passed, yet Martyce made no sign of returning. Likely he never would. People went to the Viceroy’s palace every day and never came back. Whether he had died in loyal service or been executed for some imagined treason hardly mattered. He was gone, and the boy was once again alone.

Something in the boy’s heart longed for punishment. The power he had clung to as relief had proved hopeless. He could strive for more, live life as Martyce had, obsessed with a goal he may never achieve. He could turn his back on the world and end his own life. Or he could do something different. Beneath his pillow was the wire-hair brush he’d stolen from his old master what felt like so long ago. He had never forgotten it. 

He painted, but not with pigments and brushes as Eneas had. He looked for the words and signs, and they came to him easily—far more easily than any others had. He etched colors into the wall with word and gesture, using his art to bring the shapes in his head directly into the world. The results were crude attempts—half-recognized faces rising from a sea of line and color: his mother, his father, Martyce and Gelera, the lizard in the cage; fire and water and wind and the feelings they gave rise to in him. 

He covered the walls of the cottage, and when there were no more walls left to cover, he packed his few belongings, and some few of his master’s books, and he left.

It was not real comfort. The pictures were only lies in line and color. Yet something in them was more true than the words of the true language. This was Balan’s smile, but he had claimed it for his own, and one day he would return.


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Nick Scorza was born in Seattle, grew up in Washington, DC, lived for a while in the Czech Republic, and now resides in Astoria, Queens. He writes both spec-fic and what's usually called 'literary fiction.' Stories of his can be found in Something Wicked, Hobart, Dogwood, and previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

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