9.3

Edzie spent that first day surveying her newly-claimed domain, passing from corridor to corridor, idly considering her limited range of options. She investigated the exterior path, from the impassible ravine to the cave entrance, marking anywhere her hands might find purchase in the rock. Escape wasn’t impossible, she decided, in case of starvation or sudden danger, but it would be hazardous, and it wasn’t worth the attempt, unless self-preservation demanded it.

She noticed, almost immediately, that the lonely terrace was disconcertingly devoid of animals. Perhaps, in summer, a few might make their nests here on the barren mountainside, but in winter, it was still as death. Aside from a few large birds of prey, black slivers pitching across the gray sky, the only movement on the mountainside was Edzie herself, and the occasional rustle of dried scrub, jostled by the cold winds.

Edzie returned in the afternoon, resuming her survey of the empty tunnels. She made deft use of Eryff’s fishing-line, tying it to one of the sconces to lead her back to the main tunnel, and she carried a torch in front of her, checking the walls and floor with each step. As it turned out, most of the narrower side-corridors led to tiny, featureless stone chambers, or they terminated in unfinished cul-de-sacs, pockets of stale air where delvers had apparently gotten tired of delving. She couldn’t explore every offshoot… some were too small, or too hard to climb through, and some went deeper than her fishing line would allow… but she got a good sense of the caverns’ extent.

Edzie did find one notable landmark within that network of narrow tunnels. At the end of one corridor, she saw the torchlight disappear from the walls, and she realized that the walls themselves had vanished. She had stumbled upon an extraordinary chasm, like Dissadae’s pinprick driven into the heart of the earth, and if she had been less careful, she might have fallen right off the precipice into the depths of the mountain. She thought, far in the distance, she could see the firelight flickering against the opposite wall, but there was no sign of any floor, nor any ceiling.

Edzie considered shouting into the depths of the mountain, but the thought made her uneasy, so she refrained.

Edzie returned to the main tunnel later in the afternoon, intending to investigate the waterfall staircase leading up from the underground lake. She spent a few minutes in the chamber, admiring the placid beauty of the black water, before she mounted the first step and began to climb.

The stairway wound around the cascading riverwater, skipping from platform to platform without breaking the falls themselves. Every few minutes, Edzie glanced down, and each time she felt a disorienting shiver pass through her. She thought of her passage over the ravine, clinging to her tree limb, and she almost swooned from the rush of vertigo. Still, she kept climbing, pushing through her anxieties. It took her twenty minutes to reach the top, not because it was so high… it was only a bit higher than the tallest buildings she had seen in Resine… but because she advanced with extraordinary caution, checking her stability with every step.

At the summit of the stone staircase, Edzie found a generous platform with a massive iron door in the far wall. The platform also hosted a pulley system, its chain coiled around a massive winch, whose crank was as long as Edzie’s arm. The pulley hung over the side of the platform, presumably allowing very heavy objects to be hoisted up to the temple entrance.

Edzie tried the door and found it locked and immovable, as she expected. She surveyed the platform once more, and then started back down the stairway, taking each step with grave discretion, wondering what she would do when she got back to her campsite. She didn’t even make it as far as the highest landing before she heard a booming voice ring out from above her.

“YOUR DISPENSATION IN MY DOMAIN IS NEARING ITS END, YOUNG INTRUDER. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF IT?”

Edzie turned around, mildly startled, to find the old man sitting on the platform above her, his dangling legs kicking idly, his toes wiggling. She recoiled a little, unnerved by his shameless nakedness, and privately she thanked Dissadae for his loincloth. She was dumbstruck for a moment, but he seemed to be patient enough.

“Just getting to know it,” she said. “Better than the mountain air, certainly, especially with the torches lit.” She hesitated, still unsettled by the arrangement. “I’m going back down, if that’s okay? Not used to such high places.”

“WE SHALL CONTINUE OUR DUOLOG BELOW, THEN.”

Edzie shifted her focus back to her steps, taking them one at a time. Reaching the bottom, she turned to see if the Guardian was following her, but there was no sign of him. She sat down on the third step from the bottom, and after a brief pause, he appeared from her left side, emerging from the darkness outside the torch’s range.

“How did you get down here?”

“I COMMANDED THE STONE TO BEAR ME HENCE, AND HERE I AM.” The Guardian folded his legs and sat beside the torch, which lent its fickle illumination to his right side. “SO NOW WE MUST DECIDE, YOUNG TRIBESWOMAN, WHETHER TO GRANT YOU ANOTHER DAY OF REFUGE IN THE GUARDIAN’S CAVERN.”

“Fair enough,” Edzie said, knowing she had nothing better to do for the moment.

“I PUT THE QUERY TO THEE: WHY SHOULD I LET YOU STAY?”

Edzie held the Guardian’s gaze. “Do you really think it would be so easy to remove me?”

“DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE… THE MEANS OF…” The Guardian faltered as he tried to articulate a threat.

“Please, you can stop talking like that,” Edzie interrupted.

“Ahh, praise Dissadae,” the old man said, his voice suddenly gentle, if a bit uneven. “So to answer your question: I may not be the burly beast I used to be, but I have a whole temple full of monks above us who would probably not be nearly so patient or understanding as I am. So yes, I suspect I could remove you, and honestly, it’s probably wiser of me.”

Edzie wasn’t sure what this treatment would entail, but she had some distasteful ideas: being locked away while they investigated her tribal affiliation, being forced into the service of the Order, or simply being cast out and having the doors barred to reentry. Worst of all, she imagined how furious and disgusted Stray would be if he saw her, still hovering in his shadow. For now, diplomacy and deference seemed her best options.

“I hope we can come to some kind of understanding, just for a little while. I’d rather not be thrown back to the wind.”

The old man raised a skeptical eyebrow. “We will see, my lord… Edzie, was it? A refugee of the tribes? May I ask which tribe?”

Edzie’s mind raced through all possible responses. She drew up several plausible lies, but recognized the danger in getting herself caught up in a web of falsehood; she considered being fully honest, but for the moment, it seemed a careless approach. Finally, she settled on a forthright sort of evasion, something cautious, with at least a modicum of respect.

“I’d rather keep that to myself, if it’s all the same. It’s not my first choice for small talk.”

The old monk nodded, folding his arms across his chest. “Fine. Be as reticent as you want… you won’t stop me from guessing.” He inspected her, and he was silent for long enough that it made Edzie mildly uncomfortable. “Aerimus, maybe? Entrane, the nomad? Denoria?”

Edzie gave the old monk a wry smile, but didn’t give any other sign. Presently, he seemed to give up, and asked an unrelated question. “So you’ve followed the Prospects to Gryffepeak, but you don’t want to partake in the Prospectus yourself. May I ask why that is?”

Edzie shrugged, trying to look ambivalent as she sorted out her reasons. “I’d make a terrible monk. I have no respect, restraint, or benevolence. Like I said, though… I needed a place to go, and seeing all the Prospects coming up the Cragstep, Dissadae just moved me in the same direction.”

The guardian monk pondered this. “Well, I suppose the seed must find its soil. So there are several things you’ll need to think about: what kind of life you’re willing to live, now that you’ve left your tribe’s protection… what you want… where you can go to find it.” He walked up to the next landing, his leathery skin brushing against her as he passed. “Those are your burdens, of course, warrior seedling. As for me, I just need to know how long you plan on taking advantage of my hospitality, so I can decide how long to allow it.”

“Well, I would like to stay at least these next twelve days, if it’s okay,” Edzie suggested impulsively, thinking of the duration of the Prospectus. “If I don’t starve by then, at least.”

Edzie felt, as she said this, that she had made a subtle mistake… asking for too much time, or revealing too much of her motivation. She couldn’t repair the damage, so she tried to pass over it quickly, continuing: “Thusly do I beg your forbearance, oh monk whose name I have yet to learn.”

The monk was already halfway up the stairs. “I’ll consider it,” he said, his voice receding. “You’ll have to wait until our next meeting for an answer, and for my name, also. Unless…” He gave her a mocking grin. “Unless you’re willing to see me up the stairs! Maybe I’ll introduce myself on the way!”

Edzie considered the offer, but she thought of that slow climb and the emptiness of the elevated air, and a tremor of anxiety ran through her. “No,” she said, “I think I’ll go back to check on my campfire,” and a few moments later, the naked monk had vanished beyond the torch’s reach.

 

Stray had never imagined so many books could fit in one place.

The Prospects had spent the day in meditation and lectures, first focused on their tonic – a review of the previous day’s lessons in frequency and introspection – and then moving on to their focus word, a topic in which Stray didn’t have such a head start. Their teacher, a towering monk named Djest’ra, conducted the Prospects through several memory exercises, reflecting on the names of their oldest friends and replicating sounds from their childhood sanctuaries. They were asked to combine and explore these sounds… to find inversions, or simplifications, or responses… and through these tasks, they were each led to a single, complex utterance that combined their strongest aural memories. This, Djest’ra said, would eventually become their focus word.

After individual sessions with Djest’ra, consisting of clumsy attempts to physically “interpret” their focus words, the Prospects were given an early supper of bready vegetables. Leaving the dining room, they were corralled by Miggish and led back through the garden, up a narrow staircase, and finally to the Envoclajiz library, where they were now standing.

The Envoclajiz library was situated on the second floor of the temple, wedged in between a dusty workshop and a row of monks’ shared quarters. The second floor lacked the majestic high ceilings of the cavernous ground floor, but still, those shelves – stacks rising to twice Stray’s height – were enough to dislodge Stray’s mind from its moorings, leaving him a gaping ghost drifting through the solemn study.

In the Envoclajiz, with its poverty of mineral facades and brutal articulations, the library was the closest thing Stray had seen to opulence, or at least indulgence. Its floor was padded in woven mats, and instead of crackling torches, it was lit with rows of candles set into gaps in the shelving. There were enough benches and tables for all three-dozen Prospects to sit, with some space to spare for organizing into small groups. The furniture was sanded and finished, presumably fashioned by craftsmen from the cities far to the west.

When the wooden doors closed behind Stray, the sounds from the hallway — grinding and tapping and hissing from the workshops across the hall — suddenly ceased, as if Stray had plunged into still water.

Stray gazed up at the stacks, his brow furrowed. “Respiris oquay… how many of each book must they have?”

Grave approached from behind on his left. “Enough for each reader to have her own copy, I would imagine. Maybe hundreds!”

Bastris approached from Stray’s right. “No, each book is different. There’s one of each.”

Grave frowned in the shade of her open brivsa. “No, that can’t be right. There’s no way this many books have been written. You’d have to record the whole universe, thrice over.”

Bastris chuckled inexplicably at this remark.

Once their awe had subsided, the Prospects were welcomed by three monks, the library’s attendants. They were Drydiss, an ageless muscular woman whose leather belt and straps featured prominently in her uniform… Pendro, a ruddy red-headed male barely beyond his boyhood, whose eyes had a chronic distracted glaze… and Brett, a rough-shaven man whose robes fell heavily over a frame that seemed wretchedly hunched, considering his face looked younger than forty winters. They were a curatorial fellowship, standing at attention before their verbose sanctuary, vigilant as they admitted the new harvest of Prospects. With the formalities concluded, Brett took leave to return to his meditations. Drydiss and Pendro stayed to supervise.

Pendro, his voice a gentle tenor, led the Prospects around the perimeter of the library, explaining the organizational scheme and reciting the rules of the space: nobody but the curators should place books back on the shelves, and the books were one of the great treasures of the temple, so they had to be treated as sacred objects, spared from abuse and neglect. In fact, Pendro noted, the Envoclajiz had a few rare tomes of language scholarship and geographic survey, including some of the most ancient documents ever found to use the transitional common tongue. These were kept in a vault on the top floor, safe from constant use.

Pendro said the library itself… this single room of phrase and shadow… was large enough that it had books of every standard sort, but small enough that it had to adhere to some specialties. In particular, it was well-stocked with histories, poetry, and scientific texts (biology, optics, physics, acoustics). Under Pendro’s close scrutiny, the Prospects took a few minutes to pull individual volumes from the shelves, page through them, and share what they found amongst themselves.

After a few minutes of this idle exploration, the Prospects were set to their task for the evening: researching the early history of the Order, starting from its roots in the Precaesurite sect of the Upriver Kingdoms. They were urged to look in many places… books of history, certainly, but also collections of poetry, anthologies of folk stories, and studies of art and architecture. Stray conspired with Grave and Bastris to check three different corners of the library, find anything that might be appropriate, and meet at the open table furthest from the entrance door.

Stray managed to find a book of cryptic parables and advice from historical spiritualists, and he began to leaf through it, mildly bewildered in the face of such density. As he scanned the pages, he kept a discreet eye on the other Prospects, observing the social dynamics that were forming. They were already self-segregating, building loyalties through a steady process of identification and exclusion, and though some of these seemed entirely random, most were based on superficial commonalities: they came from similar parts of the Pastures, or they had spent time in the same city, or they recognized each other’s accents. The Concordance youth were reproducing some of the tribal affinities that were already established, and one tribe – the Ellakay – had enough Prospects that they formed a significant social group all by themselves.

As he surveyed his colleagues, Stray became aware – only very gradually, as if his eyes were adjusting to dim light – that there was another presence in the library, a figure seated in a recessed back corner. Though the room seemed evenly lit, the newcomer had managed to find a sort of ebb in the glow of the candles, effectively concealing herself in plain sight. She wore a hood, like a brivsa, and Stray couldn’t tell whether she sat in a very low chair, or whether she was simply perched on a hassock and leaning against the wall. She was as still as a stone carving, and Stray could feel her eyes upon him… not upon the room, but upon him, specifically, reflecting his curious gaze back at him. None of the other Prospects seemed to notice the observer, but Stray was trapped, gaping, like a wide-eyed boundeer skewered on a spit.

The spell was broken, at last, by a rise in activity at one of the intervening tables. Stray’s attention was wrenched aside, and his gaze settled on a tribesgirl, a granite slab of a warrior with hair cropped to a few shaggy inches, who had gathered several other Prospects around her. They were bent over a book, pointing at a picture… a few of the tribesgirls looked severely uncomfortable… and they all seemed so riveted, it drove Stray to crane his neck to see what they might be looking at.

He wasn’t disappointed… the short-haired girl held up the open book, and Stray saw that the pages had a whole gallery of faces, all illustrated in a loose realistic style. The tribesgirls recoiled and gasped and grunted, throwing up their hands as if to ward off their disgust, and the short-haired girl laughed crassly, waving the tome around a bit before closing it and setting it back down. Bastris passed by on his way back toward his own table, and he looked baffled by these proceedings. Grave, separated from the laughter by several disinterested bystanders, was making a visible effort to ignore the ruckus.

“What so interesting over there?” Bastris asked, once Stray and Grave had rejoined him.

There was an extended pause as Stray and Grave exchanged glances. Stray wondered, fleetingly, how much Grave knew about the sensibilities outside her tribe, and then he wondered whether he needed to educate Bastris, or Grave, or both. Part of him still felt a twinge when he saw those drawn faces… a deep-seated nausea, as though some elusive equilibrium had been disturbed… but he had talked with Edzie about this, many times over, and had come to terms with the nature of the taboo: its convention, its artifice, the tribal solidarity it represented.

“You don’t see anything wrong with the drawings?” Grave asked Bastris, keeping a measured tone.

“No. They seem fairly skilled, but nothing brilliant… or odious, for all that. Is there something I’m not seeing?”

“It’s the face,” Stray said.

“Aye, the animus, we call it,” Grave elaborated, and she couldn’t keep the contempt entirely out of her voice. “In the tribes, we respect the animus, we don’t go scratching it in dusty old tomes.”

Bastris was obviously still confused.

Stray spoke to Grave, firm and polite. “He doesn’t know, Grave,” he said, and then turned back to Bastris. “In the Concordance, it’s one of our rules: we don’t draw faces. The face is a sacred symbol of Dissadae, and marking it on any surface – wood, paper, leather, stone – is an obscenity. You’ll want to be careful about that, being around all us tribesfolk.”

Bastris nodded, but raised a skeptical eyebrow. “So how do you learn better? How does anybody draw a person, or… an animal?”

Grave interjected, straining for patience, trying her hardest to navigate this social terrain. “We are taught through a story, as small children. It’s one of the stories about how the eight tribes were formed. Maybe we can find it in one of these books.”

Stray touched her forearm as she began to rise. “I think you can just tell him yourself, right? You might do a better job, anyway… the voice of the tribes, as it were?”

This sounded reasonable, so they agreed: that evening, after their studies were complete and the Prospects were gathering for the night, they would reconvene, and Grave would tell the story of the animus. Stray barely remembered it, lost as it was in the fog of his early assimilation, but Grave had studied its origins and its historical precedents, and she knew several variations, verbatim, from the elders of the Solavera tribe.

They returned, presently, to their assignment, poring over books and isolating valuable passages. When Pendro visited their group to assess their progress, he seemed pleased, and he asked them to choose a representative to present their findings to the group. Stray volunteered, glowing with the pride of recognition. He practiced his presentation a few times, hungry for Grave and Bastris’s approval.

His pride faded considerably when Pendro started calling up various Prospects to participate in a short group lecture, revealing a discouraging fact: every group was expected to present, not just Stray, and not on the basis of merit. Despite this disappointment, Stray did his best to listen to his colleagues’ presentations, and when it was his turn to read a few passages, he performed the task with sagely seriousness. Of all the presentations, his was probably the most heartfelt and dramatic, but also, judging by the quiet shifting of seated bodies, it might have been the most boring.

Stray looked for the shadowy onlooker a few more times, but the figure had vanished, and apparently nobody else had even noticed it in the first place.