We are all a thousand people, but they only show their faces
In the dust of different days, in the light of different places
… … … … …
With Edzie's parting, Stray came to the final, withering, arduous denouement of his pilgrimage. The cold, wet air darkened the mountainside, and the soil vanished from the slope entirely, leaving rough road and bare stone. Stray felt the presence of that fecund, fertile valley behind him; ahead, he saw only a steep stone path, weaving back and forth over the mountainside, always skirting some ridge or precipice. Here, he could see the first signs of the permanent mountain winter: the dusting of snow highlighting the bluffs and ridges, the frozen droplets suspended from cracks in the stone. He did his best to keep his eyes forward, lest the relative warmth and shelter of the valley soften his resolve.
As he climbed, and the descent behind him yawned and stretched into an impenetrable void, he became incessantly aware of the pain in his feet. The stone pathway, just smooth enough that a sturdy cart might traverse it with difficulty, pounded against the soles of his feet, and his legs started feeling like threshweed stalks beating against an anvil. He did his best to keep himself distracted... to his left, he fixated on a pair of waterfalls pouring out of channels in the mountainside... but his feet always called his attention back, reminding him with every step that this was his fifth day of walking.
The path grew steeper rapidly, until Stray felt himself leaning uncomfortably into the mountain, lest he topple over backwards and tumble into oblivion. The path was weaving up the mountainside, lurching to and fro in a succession of folds, each marked with a small statuette. His pace was regulated conveniently by the speed of the next Prospect, several hundred steps ahead, who was trudging along like a century-old tribeswoman. In a few places, the mountain fell away completely, and the path was extended by wooden scaffolding until it could pick up again on solid ground.
Before the ninth twist in the path, there was a short expanse of evergreen trees, some species that Stray didn't recognize, except in that it resembled pitchfir. In the shade of the trees, he stopped and unwrapped his feet... a few toenails were dislodged, and the grit of caked blood rubbed between the toes of his left foot. He did his best to remove the loose toenails, wipe off the blood, and secure his footwear, and though both feet still felt like they were being ground in a mortar, they were more tender now, and less disconcertingly numb.
Leaving this final, misplaced stretch of soil and trees, Stray found himself doubly exposed. He could see the entire vale of Gryffe below him, including the tower he had climbed several hours before, and he wondered if he might catch a glimpse of Edzie. He watched for thirty fruitless seconds before he returned to his climb, feeling vaguely heartbroken.
Stray crossed a swift, narrow stream on what appeared to be a natural stone bridge, wide and strong enough that it would have supported the weight of a whole caravan. He veered around another switchback turn and crossed the same stream again, passing another statuette. His senses were dull from the pain of his listless stride, but he managed to survey his surroundings, piercingly sharp in the cold, muted air. To the west, he could see two icy sheets of water tumbling down the mountainside from some unseen spring. The eastward mountain was so irregular that he couldn't see much further forward, so he followed the path with a sort of numb blindness.
Stray noted, at the next turn, a branch of the road splitting off to the right. He was apprehensive for a moment, shaken by the choice of direction, but then he saw that the path to the right, continuing east, was blocked by three chains, thick and heavy enough that he doubted he could have lifted them. The path to the left was more promising: after kilometers of steeply-graded road, it suddenly leveled out, and the surface was smoothed and polished. The Mistras had told him to go straight up to the temple's front gate, and this left-hand path beckoned him onward, signaling the final approach.
Twenty meters on, the path broke suddenly to the right, making a perfect right-angle around a bend in the rock. There Stray discovered, leading upwards like a promise, a massive flight of stone stairs, wide as five wagons side by side. It seemed to fade away into nothing in front of him, continuing for hundreds of steps, but at the top, he could just discern the lip of a plateau, flanked by a pair of barely-visible stone towers, and in the center, a stone arch fixed with a massive wooden door, its surface engraved with a silhouette of a bird hovering above a tilted square.
Dissadae's Relief, Stray thought. And he still had a night and a full day to spare.
Edzie waited until Stray was out of sight, and then scowled and stamped her feet, trying to keep her eyes dry and her cries quiet. She shivered, suddenly tense with the cold, and turned back toward the shadows of the forested valley. She took ten steps in that direction, shuddering with each one, and then reconsidered, retracing them exactly and returning to the shelter beneath the boulder, just out of sight of the road. Feeling less visible, mercifully obscured by the lifeless stone, she curled up, hunched over, and buried her face in her elbows. Aside from an occasional sob that escaped her brivsa, she might have been mistaken for a sleeping child.
Edzie's mind cycled as she sat, motionless, and seconds stretched into scores of minutes. She thought about the settlement, about her mother's indictments and Ghada's helplessness, and she remembered the faces of women from the other tribes: unfamiliar, and yet perfectly, precisely identical to her own neighbors and elders. Her thoughts shifted to the swarming crowds and massive, unified stone edifices of Resine, and she felt some momentary comfort in its palpitating strangeness and anonymity... but in every passing image, in every reassuring flight of imagination, there was a poisoned barb, a toxic intrusion that corrupted each promise: Stray's absence, the relentless, voracious awareness that he wouldn't be beside her.
Edzie passed from despair to disgust, directed at her tribe, and her enemies, and herself for being so helpless. When this became too exhausting, she slipped into a troubled half-slumber, drifting in and out of consciousness without breaking her protective huddle. After a particularly disorienting lapse in consciousness, she found her emotions calming (perhaps numb from the strain), and so she finally looked up into the evening shadows.
Feeling the cold of the mountain air, Edzie willed herself to start back the way she had come, walking languidly into the forest. She passed a single fire, far off the path, but aside from that lonely campsite, there was no other sign of life in these woods. Walking in complete solitude, Edzie got as far as the ruins of Gryffe before she felt her determination waver once again.
It might have been the depth of nightfall, or the drop in temperature, that broke Edzie's nerves. It might have been the ruins themselves, a voice on the wind, telling her that the world was passing slowly into oblivion, and that her sole prerogative was to follow the light source that had become her beacon. At the first moonlit glimpse of the fallen watchtower, Edzie turned around and headed back into the forest. She was resigned to her impulses, shackled by her own emptiness, and finally, she embraced her purpose: she would follow Stray, even in defiance of his rejection. It was the only role that was left to her.
Edzie had to stumble and grope her way through the forest, but once she was back out the other side, she found that the bitter midnight cold had pushed away the clouds, so she could follow the path by the moonlight. The climb up the mountain was not easy... she counted nine turns as sharp as stitches, five successive waterfalls cleaving channels in Gryffepeak's stone, and seven smoldering campfires, attended by silent pilgrims, pressed up against the edges of the road. She was glad she had secured padded soles for her footwraps, but she still felt like her legs were going to buckle and collapse with every step.
After three hours of this punishment, she finally succumbed, ducking under the first natural bridge and clearing herself a small nest in a tangle of brambles. She rested there for a few more hours, unthinking, half-asleep... when she awoke and resumed walking, the pre-dawn atmosphere was prone, breathless, ready to give itself over to the morning sun.
At last, Edzie – sick from the thin air, buffeted by a stern westerly wind – found herself at some sort of split in the path, whose main branch was clearly turning back northwest. The branch heading to the east was blocked by three chains, each as thick as Edzie's arm, but the barrier was a statement, not a physical obstruction. Knowing she had no plan, and not wanting to be noticed at an inconvenient moment, Edzie decided that deviance and curiosity were her only reliable guides. They pointed her east, along the blockaded branch of the mountain path, and as the first traces of light started bleeding into the sky overhead, she slipped under the chains and vanished around the far side of Gryffepeak.
The path, Edzie found, was wide and fairly level, a welcome change from the preceding struggle up the mountainside. Its surface was strewn with stone, crushed into dust and gravel and gouged with ruts from wagon-wheels. From this path, Edzie could see south and east, into the boundless face of another ridge. A word came to her from a dormant memory of some long-forgotten book – tsushayma – a term originating with the barbarian Fisher Kingdoms, referring to a mountain rearing up like a massive wave, ready to sweep away the world.
After a short stretch, Edzie came upon a ravine cutting across the path. It was only about five meters across… far enough that it would be impossible to jump over, but close enough that the idea was dangerously enticing. Edzie could see a well-organized pallet of planks and timber on the other side, a bridge that had been dismantled and left out of reach. She approached the precipice with careful steps, and when she saw the bottom, thirty meters below, she reeled a little from the sudden consciousness of its depth.
Edzie looked left, and two things impressed themselves upon her. First, she saw a slender breach in the mountain, wherefrom there flowed a steady stream of crystal-clear water. Second, Edzie saw a single, sagging, dilapidated tree, clinging by its roots to the stony dirt a couple steps from the mountain. It was stout and gnarled, perhaps a relative of the orebark, but without its leaves, she couldn’t identify the species. The root system was large, plainly visible, and mostly dead and cracked, but some of the roots had grown back into the fissure, where they could soak up the water trickling out of the stone. The half of the tree nearest the mountain seemed alive, though dormant for the winter. Its trunk bifurcated at Edzie’s eye level, and one large spur extended over the ravine like a hand reaching out to pilfer a piece of fruit.
Edzie lingered at this obstruction for half an hour, her brivsa pulled tight around her face, as the dawn twilight turned into an overcast morning sky. She dared herself to step closer to the drop-off, and then she tested the tree’s integrity, and then she glanced along the path behind her. Finally, unwilling to abandon her capriciousness, she resolved to make the crossing. The lower limbs of the tree were easy to reach, and footholds were plentiful, but she still took a few seconds to test each step, terrified of the yawning depths below her.
Between waves of panic, Edzie managed to advance along the tree limb, clutching the bark with her arms and thighs, moving handspan by handspan. The tree limb sagged considerably as she moved away from the trunk, and though this was expected and favorable (getting her closer to the far side), it still sent shivers of anxiety through Edzie. At one point, she allowed her eyes to drift downward, and she was so overcome with terror that she had to close them and remain motionless for a full minute. From that point onward, she moved by touch alone, feeling every shift in her body weight, focusing intently on the contact between her muscles and the tree’s fiber.
The fear seemed to build as she moved over the ravine, until it finally climaxed with the last departure from the tree-limb, a clumsy half-lunge and protraction of her upper body. She landed hard on her knees, her calves hanging over the chasm, and the tree branch leapt out from under her, creaking and cracking as it returned half-heartedly to its upright position. Edzie was consumed with giddy, nauseating relief, and she lay on the road, panting, for another ten minutes before her strength returned. She stood and glanced back with pride, fully aware that she had denied herself any recourse but to move forward.
Edzie didn’t have far to go: the road looped back on itself as it climbed the side of Gryffepeak, and after two tight turns, she found the path leveling out and suddenly widening into a small terrace, hacked artlessly into the mountain. Beyond this platform, the road ended suddenly, terminating in a sheer rock face. Edzie approached slowly, warily, wondering why this path, with its wide berth and dismantled bridge, would lead to an abrupt dead end. When she finally stepped into the open terrace, wide enough that she felt the wind pick up around her, she discovered a tentative answer: on her left side, the path continued into a cave, wide as a small dromo, that bore directly into the mountain. It was chiseled from the bare stone, rough-hewn, with sconces just inside the threshold, their torches cold and wilted.
Edzie stood on the terrace for a moment, contemplating her path to this strange, lonely outcropping, and then turned toward the tunnel.
The tunnel's first blessing was its shelter from the wind. Even a few paces inside, the oppressive air became mortally still, though it was still frigid. It was a simple matter for Edzie to gather some dried twigs and foliage and make herself a small fire, and once it was burning, she felt surprisingly secure in her stone refuge. The air around the fire grew just warm enough that she could curl up and let her muscles loosen, and she found she was bone-tired. Sleep took her, and she didn't wake up for several hours.
When Edzie finally stirred, she could see it was the middle of the day. She felt physically refreshed and mentally sharp... the only drawback was that her muscles, back, and kidneys all seemed to have gotten sore at once, and when she stood up, it was like trying to push a sledge up a hill through black mud. Fighting through the ache, she plucked one of the torches from its sconce and lit it from the last embers of her tiny campfire. Whatever oil coated its head burned brightly, with a flame whose yellow tongues were cold, almost white.
Like the path outside, the tunnel remained fairly level, curving to the right a few meters into the mountain. Shortly thereafter, it opened into a small chamber, around the size of Elkansa's gathering room, where the rhythmic clefts left by some human delver flowed into the natural folds of the rock. At the rough corners of the chamber, the stone had been sculpted into sinuous lines that seemed to be growing from the floor to the ceiling. There was an upright pedestal where another long-snuffed torch was propped up, and Edzie lit this one, as well, feeling oddly cavalier about claiming this whole stretch of tunnel. The pathway branched off to the left, and she continued along it.
Edzie followed the chipped and chiseled walls deep into Gryffepeak, her torch casting a dancing light on the rough culmination of many laborious hours. The floor seemed particularly well-fashioned, having been ground down to the remarkable flatness of a mansion's banquet hall. Only the walls remained tortured and angular, crumpled into folds and crevices and depressions. Edzie passed a couple of narrow corridors on her left, and she was tempted to deviate, but she was determined to follow the spacious main tunnel until she could go no further.
It turned out, after the second side-path she elected to ignore, she didn't have much farther to go. There was one more antechamber, and then the tunnel suddenly became perfectly straight, its walls polished, its artfully sinuous pillars suddenly appearing at consistent intervals. This tunnel, which seemed more like a ceremonial hallway, ultimately opened up into a vast empty space, large enough that Edzie's modest torchlight was entirely devoured by the darkness. She could hear a sound here – a whisper that resonated through the atmosphere – and she retreated to the nearest wall, suddenly nervous that this cavern might have another resident.
Following the wall, Edzie found another pedestal, holding a significantly larger torch, which she promptly lit... and a few paces further on, another. In the glowing diffusion of torchlight, Edzie could see deeper into the chamber, which was broad and exquisitely empty, its walls exhibiting all the natural rock formations that a delver might expect to find in the bowels of the earth. In the center, starting a few meters in front of her, there was an expansive underground lake, its waters perfectly still, like a black mirror. To her left, the light fell away into the abyss, but to her right, she could see the source of the whispering noises: a wall that hosted a series of cascading waterfalls, each taller than Edzie, but whose flow was unbroken, and thus barely audible. Intertwined with these waterfalls, weaving around them up the wall of the cavern, there was a staircase fashioned from massive stacked stone blocks, connecting natural ledges and shelves as though they were landings in an architect's petrified dreamscape. Edzie strained to see where the stairway led, but the light didn't quite reach.
Edzie spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the cave and the mountainside near its entrance, still intending to stay entirely out of sight. This didn't turn out to be a problem... it seemed as though this side of Gryffepeak was entirely deserted, at least for now. Returning to the underground lake, she discovered a sturdy wooden bridge, gently elevated in the center, that led across the very center of the still water. She tried to explore the two smaller corridors... the first one led to the fissure above the ravine, overlooking the half-dead orebark and the dismantled bridge. The second corridor led to a tiny antechamber, barely large enough for a human shoulder-span, and this opened up into two more corridors. At that point, Edzie turned around, not wanting to get lost in some endless branching maze of featureless subterranean hallways.
At dusk, Edzie tried to climb the staircase by the waterfalls, but as the light of the torches behind her began to fade, she felt a profound fatigue settle over her, informing her that she was too exhausted to make the full ascent. She was satisfied with her situation, however, and felt secure in this well-prepared, absolutely deserted underground tunnel that seemed to pierce the bowels of Gryffepeak itself. She returned to her small fire pit at the tunnel entrance, and with a little effort, she raised a more comfortable little camp, with a torch at the ready and a small nest, assembled from dead leaves and personal effects, giving her a soft place to sleep. She allowed herself a few of the rations she had taken from Stray... a cache that would not last very long, she realized... and when her hunger was sated and the moon was high in the sky, she closed her eyes and slept the sleep of annihilation.
The colossal door of Dissadae's Relief opened at the expected hour, more or less. The Prospects on the stairway couldn't really tell if it was “dawn,” precisely, because the upper reaches of Gryffepeak entirely blocked the sun. Nobody cared much... the opening of the doors brought a surge of relief, the kind of shiver that only comes after long hours of anticipation. The Prospects... thirty-four of them in all... climbed toward the doors serenely, wonder in their eyes, feeling their long journey finally coming to an end.
Stray had spent the final day resting and meditating, nibbling the last of his root vegetables, and observing the other Prospects. They arrived all through the intervening night and day, some settling on the steps, some making camps under the lonely evergreens. Most were apparently tribespeople, their heads bound up in brivsas, their bodies bundled in wool and huskin fur. A few wore more exotic garments: ornate traveling cloaks from distant cities, or awkward cotton robes that didn't seem appropriate for the cold midwinter. When Stray caught glimpses of faces, they had the glazed eyes that came with an interminable, torturous journey.
The entire group had conceded to an informal code of silence, keeping their distance from one another, presenting fierce disinterest in their campfire light. Stray had seen one boy moving from camp to camp, desperate for food, and though one of the other Prospects reluctantly supplied him with a spare ration, she refused to converse with him otherwise. Any pilgrim who wasn't familiar with the custom – the requirement of complete isolation during the journey – was quick to learn it, as any attempt to socialize was met with a wall of refusal.
The spell seemed to break when the door opened. Nobody spoke, but the Prospects suddenly looked at one another, their eyes bright and hopeful, their mutual interests aroused. They had all gathered their belongings, and were preparing to surge up over the top step – many had already gathered into a crowd at the threshold – when a monk's shadow filled the archway. The Prospects were all suspended in place, as if a spell had been cast on them, and the monk spoke.
“Welcome, Prospects. Your journey is over. You are in Dissadae's hands now, and your period of compulsory solitude has concluded. Rest, talk, admire our lovely grounds. You're safe and among friends.”
Stray took note of the monk. He was short and square-bodied, with thick eyebrows and a dense black beard cut into a neat rectangular slab below his chin. He robe was simple, and though he was obviously shivering in the cold, he kept his stance wide open and his arms proudly upon his hips.
“Thank you for receiving us! What should we call you?” asked the perky young Prospect who stood directly behind Stray.
“I am Miggish,” the monk replied. “Now be still, galeed, we will have time for better introductions at the Arrival Banquet.”
Through the open gate, the Prospects could survey the ample grounds, larger than the eye could take in, with a carpet of thin mountain grass turned fallow in the winter cold. At some distance on their left, they could see a small cluster of one-family homes, like a tiny hamlet along a country road. Just ahead, on the east side of the grounds, they drank in their first glimpse of the Envoclajiz itself, a temple-fortification embedded in the dauntless face of the mountain. The Envoclajiz was mostly obscured by a massive wall of quarried stone blocks, presided over by three watchtowers. The part of the Envoclajiz that was visible above the wall was an angular bastion made from the same blocks as large as huskin-drawn carts. The temple was stout, multifaceted, and sunken into the mountain behind it.
The outer wall of the Envoclajiz was accessible by a wooden double door, thrice human height and wide enough for three carts to fit through abreast. As Stray and the other Prospects approached, the doors swung outward, confoundingly silent, like they were floating open on a breeze.
“Wait here until I signal you,” Miggish said, “and approach the doors alone. Say your word of sanction, clearly and proudly, before you step through the threshold. Once you've spoken your word, you are free to enter.”
Another Prospect, a younger boy standing to Stray's right, called out, “Who are we saying it to? Will somebody tell us if we get it right?”
“You are saying it to Dissadae,” the monk replied. “You won't see any guards or overseers... but we are all listening. If there's a problem with your appeal, we'll know.”
Stray lingered near the Relief, where he could watch the Prospects step up, one by one, and approach the door to the Envoclajiz. Each of them paused there, looking small and brave before the yawning temple entrance; Stray could only see the backs of their heads, and they were too far away to hear their words, but he imagined them all recalling their Mistras' dispensations, condensed into a single phrase that would open the way to their future.
When Stray was called – the seventh Prospect to enter – he tried to stand up proudly, walking steadily under the morning sun. He couldn't see much through the open door... shadows shrouded the architecture and geometry within... but he felt a strong, unsettling presence as he neared the threshold. He stopped at last, looking up, and said his words.
“Iproma val trastis bronton dragnin avre dribidis ben ritasna.”
The presence in the air seemed to suddenly dissipate – Stray wondered if he was just imagining it – leaving the air thinner and cooler, and the interior of the temple less ominous. Stray strained to see the Prospects before him, but they were already out of sight. He glanced back at the other petitioners, pondered the great, silent procession that had absorbed him, and took his first step into the Envoclajiz.
Edzie woke slowly, groggily, and uneasily, with a remote impression of footsteps and prying eyes. Her fire was cold, and the light through the tunnel entrance was soft and misty. She couldn’t tell whether it was morning or evening.
Presently, her eyes were drawn to a dark recess at her flank… not so much to movement or volume, but to an apparent absence, as if a hole had opened up in the cavern wall. She watched it for several seconds, and eventually, unable to shake off her discomfort, she approached warily, reaching toward the shadow.
“WHOSE FOOTSTEPS HAVE SOILED MY CAVERN?” came a voice from the recess, loud enough that she felt the tunnel struggle to contain it. Edzie stepped back defensively, fighting panic… she mentally accounted for her katsun, though she didn’t take her eyes off the dark corner.
Her eyes adjusting, Edzie could make out a figure, barely silhouetted in the dim light... a tall, gangly physique, hunched over under the weight of years, apparently naked except for a wisp of gray hair and a loincloth. The figure had stood up – making its presence visible – but it wasn’t coming any closer, so Edzie didn’t make any rash moves.
“Who are you?” she demanded, doing her best to sound authoritative.
“YOU HAVE NO CLAIM UPON ME, INTERLOPER. I DEMAND YOU… MAKE… ANSWER…” The voice hesitated. “YOU FIRST.”
“I’m Edzie, a refugee from the tribes.”
“SO YOU ARE ONE OF THE PROSPECTS?”
Edzie struggled, perhaps too obviously. “No, but I followed them up the mountain. I didn’t really have anywhere else to go.” She waited for a response, but none came. “And who are you?”
“I AM THE GUARDIAN OF THE CAVERN. YOU HAVE TRESPASSED UPON MY SOVEREIGN SOIL. THE PRICE MUST BE PAID.”
Edzie glanced down, looking for her katsun... it wasn't by the the campfire, where she remembered leaving it. “And what is the price?”
“YOU MUST BE REMOVED! CAST DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN! YOUR FATE IS SEALED!” The figure shuffled a bit forward, taking form in the soft light: it was indeed an old man, at least sixty, whose white hair had left his head and sprouted from his eyebrows, ears, and upper lip. Edzie would have relaxed, but the stooped body that presented itself was so completely at odds with the booming, all-consuming voice that spoke, she was afraid to trust her own eyes.
Also, this old man was holding her katsun!
Edzie, feeling disoriented and vaguely furious, hesitated a moment, and then lunged, closing the distance between them in three steps. The Guardian moved surprisingly fast, pivoting away from her like a dancer and withdrawing the katsun from her reach. She nearly stumbled as she landed, but she was quick to catch herself and turn back toward him.
He grimaced, showing an array of uneven teeth. “YOU ARE SPIRITED, FOR ONE WHO IS ABOUT TO BE CAST INTO THE VOID!”
Edzie remained taut as a harpstring, ready to spring. It struck her that she was now separated from her campsite and supplies, stripped of her katsun, and feeling more exposed with each passing moment. Still, she doubted this old man could possibly catch her and throw her off the side of Gryffepeak, so she kept her composure.
“And is there any... alternative? To my sentence, I mean?”
“YOUR BREATH SPOILS THE AIR OF THESE SACRED CAVERNS, YOUR FOOTSTEPS INSULT THE STONE. IF YOU HAD A FRACTION THE WISDOM OF THESE ANCIENT CATACOMBS, YOU WOULD HAVE ALREADY CAST YOURSELF OUT, MERELY IN DISGUST.” The Guardian paused, apparently considering Edzie's question, and then continued. “HOWEVER, AS YOUR MEAGER DESIRE FOR SELF-PRESERVATION HAS CLEARLY HAMPERED YOUR JUDGMENT, SOME PROOF OF YOUR WISDOM AND WORTHINESS IS DUE.”
Edzie waited in silence for the outcome of this digression. Finally, it came.
“YOU CAN EARN ANOTHER DAY IN MY CAVES BY ANSWERING... THE GUARDIAN'S RIDDLE!”
“And what's that?”
“WHAT DO YOU CALL A TRIBESMAN WHO'S BEEN DISEMBOWELED, STUFFED, LAQUERED, AND MOUNTED?”
“That's not a riddle,” Edzie replied, trying to suppress a sneer. “That's just a dumb joke. And yes, I know the answer: drislis pramistae, the perfect husband.”
“WELL DONE,” the Guardian's voice boomed. “YOU MAY REMAIN IN THE CAVERNS UNTIL THIS TIME TOMORROW, WHEN I SHALL RETURN TO RENDER MY JUDGMENT ANEW.”
Edzie was perplexed by the whole situation, but before she could think it through, a practical consideration came to mind. “What if I don't have enough food? I might die in here anyway, even with the... uhh... guardian's mercy.”
The old man shrugged as the Guardian's voice thundered through the cavern. “THE GUARDIAN SEES ALL. HE ALSO HAPPENS TO HAVE CHECKED IN YOUR PACK. YOU'LL BE FINE FOR AT LEAST A COUPLE MORE DAYS.”
Edzie frowned at this, but before she could proffer a reply, she saw the Guardian doing something with her katsun. His arm cocked across his body, and without warning, he hurled the weapon out of the cave entrance. It landed in the scrub a mere meter from the edge of the cliff. Edzie gasped and sprinted after it.
“NEXT TIME, KEEP IT CLOSER BY YOUR SIDE!” she heard the Guardian call after her, but as she emerged from the cavern entrance, the voice was blunted in the thin mountain air, losing all its majesty. She snatched the katsun from the ground, inspected it for damage, and turned back toward her campsite, her jaw tense with indignation. The expression was wasted... peering back into the cavern's shadows, she found the Guardian had disappeared.
she closed her eyes and slept the sleep of annihilation
Stray had been to many feasts, large and small, and as far as he was concerned, the "Arrival Banquet" didn't qualify. Each Prospect was served a modest cut of huskin flank that didn’t taste particularly fresh, and each table had a shared bowl of preserved fruit, and that was the extent of it. Stray found a place among the other Prospects, but he ate in silence… he felt detached, hypnotized, like an empty dromo suddenly opened up to the cold air. It took a particularly determined young Prospect… the same one, in fact, who had asked Miggish’s name… to crack open Stray’s reverie, which he did by offering him an extra serving of huskin.
“What? Why? Don’t you want it?” Stray asked, suddenly alert, dimly aware that the other boy had been trying unsuccessfully to talk to him for several minutes already.
“No, I’ll just eat the fruit. Maybe have some bread later. I’m a forage-boy… no eating animals but what I kill myself.”
Stray looked the boy over. He was not beautiful in any principal sense of the word, but his face had a charming openness to it: gently-set hazel eyes, an expression like a child looking for approval. He wore a dark reddish tunic with a plunging neck-line and a square hood, lowered to show a neat crown of curly auburn hair. He was more pale than the tribespeople, Stray noticed… almond-skinned, only as swarthy as Stray himself. Stray couldn’t entirely judge the boy’s physique, but he seemed tall, sturdy, and lean.
“Forager?” Stray raised an eyebrow. “I think I remember something about that… from the woodlands way out west?”
“Aye, Alcovale, myself. First time among you tribesboys.”
“You must have been on the road a long time. I can’t believe you’re not famished.”
The Alcovalean shrugged, speaking with disarming candor. “I am, but hunger and me are old friends. Wasn’t bad traveling, back before Horizon and the Range River, but spoils are more scarce out here, where the chill drives it into the soil.” He paused, apparently shy for a moment, and then asked: “So, is it like they say out here, that you have beasts that just stand idly by for you to kill and eat them?”
Stray scowled at this. “No, I don’t think so. The huskins will put their horns straight through a herder’s gut if she gets too close.” He paused. “I mean, we’ve domesticated a few of the herds, so we don’t have to hunt them down every time we need some meat, but… that’s not what you’re talking about, right?”
“No, I suppose not. I don’t know much about your big slow animals. On the way out here, I passed through the supply cities... that was the first time I ever saw cattle... but those aren’t wild, like yours.”
“Yeah, probably a little different.” Stray took the cut of huskin meat. “Thanks for the second helping, at any rate. I’m Stray, of the Denoria tribe, bulwark of the eight.”
“Bastris Corvish of Alcovale.”
Stray and Bastris spent the rest of the meal discussing big, slow animals… the nuances of wildness and domestication, the appeal of a food supply without the thrill of the hunt. Stray noted Bastris's fetching red tunic, and Bastris boasted that it was specially-made and packed for his arrival at the Envoclajiz. Bastris offered an account of his town, their means of hunting and trapping small game, their fears of large animals and their distaste for big hunting parties. He was talking about tracks and trap-setting when Miggish returned to the dining hall and summoned the Prospects to their quarters.
... ... ... ...
There was a time, when our spirituality was in its infancy, that we – the followers of the wise, obscure spirit of the world – could only understand that spirit in terms of presence and absence, being and non-being. That was the age when all were of a single sect, living in a stronghold near the source of the Tempus River. You all know this as the Age of Names, and you know this sect as the Precaesurites.
Those who have studied history also know of the schism, and the exodus of the Caesurite faction. Led by Exile Luxus, revered servant of the fevered earth, we left the riverbank and crossed the plains. Several hundred followers joined us along the way – tribeswomen, freed slaves, exiles from the barbarians who roamed the prairie – and at the foot of the Crag Mountains, they built the town of Gryffe, and we built this monastery, the Envoclajiz: the organ of the world's voice.
Through our studies and meditation, carried out in isolation from the archivists and bureaucrats of the river kingdoms, we discerned a new nature in the world-spirit. We called him Dissadae, and by focusing our meditation and worship upon him, we have found a path, however tortured and furtive, to a higher unity: oneness with the earth, communion with the sky, integration of mind and body, the four paths as our scaffold, the mantle as our site of convergence. These are the things you will learn over the next twelve days, and this training will culminate in your final trial. If you pass, you will undergo the Caesura Prospectus, becoming a councilor of Dissadae.
Today, we will start with Dissadae's first principle, the recognition of a rhythmic world: the principles of pattern and break, of continuity and disruption, of articulation and aggregate. The simplest way to see into this unified aspect of the universe is to study your own body, which is a minor masterpiece of rhythms and repetitions and disruptions. Today we will learn to listen to those rhythms: the breath, the pulse, the heartbeat, the cognitive cycle.
Here in the Caesura, we call this the path of Viscitae the silent. Viscitae teaches us to listen to ourselves, first and foremost, and to exercise those rhythms and patterns in a way that's beneficial to our mental and physical performance. Today we will take the first step in the first length of the first lap of your journey: we will examine the surface where your mind makes contact with your body, and we will try to find your baseline resonance, which we call your tonic.
Stray sat, legs crossed, in a recess in the mountain, under a jagged protrusion hanging low enough that he couldn't stand up. He had sat for two hours already, and he had watched the afternoon turn into late evening; the light was almost entirely gone now, and from the darkness, a cold wind rushed into the niche, roiling around his head and shoulders. His eyes remained shut tight, and he dissociated himself from the roar in his ears, focusing instead on the stillness of the stone beneath him.
The day had been eventful... Miggish had shown the Prospects to their communal bedroom, a cavernous dormitory called the Eyas Quarters, situated directly beneath Envoclajiz's large garden. They stowed their belongings – for some a single pack, for others a small cart – and they were promptly led back through the cramped stone corridors, up the stairs, and on a tour of the first floor of the temple. This first floor seemed to consist primarily of four spaces: the dining room, the garden, the salon, and the Dissiduary.
The garden was enclosed by the temple's outer wall, and it was inert and depressing in the winter cold: the loose groves and paths, so spontaneously placed, looked like they belonged in abandoned ruins. The dining room, the Prospects had already seen... it was lit by a row of tall west-facing windows, and it might have been grand and stately, but in the cold air, with most of its torches still barren, it seemed like a songstress's throat closed up tight by a coughing fit.
The salon was a massive, windowless interior courtyard, lightly furnished with crude wooden seats and tables. Its ceiling, five human heights aloft, was supported by rafters as large as tree trunks, with monumental chains still dangling from anchors in the wood. This salon was also home to an enormous circular stone hearth, complete with bellows and metal racks, that Miggish called the Daeforge (“or just The Forge, if you're in a hurry”).
The Dissiduary was a large auditorium with a bronze pedestal in the center, surrounded on three sides by pews raised up on lofted platforms. The pedestal held a ceremonial firepit, its embers still glowing red; a few meters past, the Dissiduary's back wall was bare mountain stone, lit by ambient daylight seeping in through an aperture in the ceiling. In the thin air of the Dissiduary, Stray could feel the density of the mountain... it seemed to brace itself with the Prospects' every breath, an impermeable shell around the fragile atmosphere. Any sound in this room, Stray thought, would cut into us like a predator's cry to a nursing mother.
Miggish informed the Prospects that this – the Dissiduary – was where their final transition into the Order would take place, if they made it that far.
Stray let the wind back into his thoughts for a moment. After the temple's vast, volumetric silence, the sound of the wind out here was positively deafening. He looked for his tonic, as Mistra Septa had taught him, and though it was drowned under the fury of the atmosphere, he could still sense traces of it, a comforting hum emanating from his center of gravity.
In the grasp of his tonic resonance, Stray let his mind fall back into its memories of the day's lesson. After they toured the ground floor, the Prospects were all herded, like unruly animals, into a spacious underground practice room, a few twists and turns away from the Eyas Quarters. There, they were introduced to Fedra, a stately young Caesurite Monk with round cheeks and a disorderly skein of black hair, loosely curly where it fell in locks around her ears. She was a specialist in the emanences of meditation, she told them... Aaraya (the cry) and Viscitae (silence). She spent the afternoon instructing the Prospects in the art of listening: first to the ambient rhythms of the environment, and then to their own bodies, so rich in interior echoes. This culminated in each Prospect looking inward for their tonic, their private resonance, by approximately the same method that Stray had once learned from Mistra Septa.
Stray returned to the present, and found himself, for a moment, teetering on the edge of introspection. At one moment, he would sink into that warm, dark place that he had visited so many times in his exercises with Mistra Septa. This would consume him for several minutes at a time, and he would start to feel himself falling upwards, into the clear sky of his imagination… then suddenly, there would be a vibration in the stone, or an unexpected gust over the mountaintop, and his body would take back control of his consciousness, sending him a thousand overlapping messages in a tactile barrage.
Eventually, a few of these sensations converged, and he became aware of approaching footsteps, tentative, coming down from the bluffs above.
Momentarily, he caught a glimpse of another Prospect passing by his niche, making their way carefully over the unrefined terrain. They were slender legs clad in standard tribal attire: thick canvas trousers, feet bound in cloth. Without thinking, Stray reached out as the legs passed by, touching the Prospect’s calf. The Prospect jerked around in Stray's direction, leaning in to see him.
“Prystia oestis, greetings.” The glow of the evening light illuminated a pair of dark eyes beneath a light gray brivsa. “So some of us are still out here, after all this time?”
“Well, you’re not the last to give up,” Stray said, “but certainly not the first, either. But you haven’t missed the signal to return… that I can promise. They just haven’t given it yet.”
“So do you think I should go back up the mountain?” The Prospect was trying to whisper, but the keening wind was forcing her to shout.
“I doubt it matters now. We’ve both already broken the rules. I think we may as well stay here and wait for the signal together.”
The Prospect raised an eyebrow. “You are not in violation, or at least, not to the same degree… you only tried to help me. It is I who let her patience wane, and lost her nerve. I should go back up.” She hesitated.
“If that’s what you want,” Stray said, “but like I said, I don’t think it matters. It’s not like we know what they’re thinking, right?” He pulled his brivsa down to his throat. “This seems like as good a place to wait as anywhere.”
The other Prospect hesitated another moment, and then sat down against the rock, facing Stray. She pulled down her brivsa, revealing a stern face, strong in the jaw and chin. “I saw you on the staircase, before Dissadae's Relief. It looked like you were here early. Did you travel a great distance?”
Stray shook his head. “No, not compared to some of the others, like the boy from Alcovale, or… any of them, really. I’m from the Denoria, the closest Concordance tribe. I’m Stray.”
“I am Grave, of the Solavera,” she said. “Thank you for helping me.”
“Grave?” This amused Stray, but he tried to sound unassuming. “Like, a dead person's marker?”
“Indeed. I am named in honor of Dissadae's death-aspect, in hopes that it will watch over me and spare me its embrace. You are named for Dissadae's wandering heart, are you not?”
Stray shook his head. “No, I think somebody just liked the sound of it.” He let the conversation pass, and then pressed on. “So you're of the Solavera, the reverent… I haven’t met many of you. Do you come to our festivals?”
“No, we don’t send ambassadors to any festivals, nor do many come to ours. We’re too small a tribe, I think… we often escape notice.”
“What brought you to the Order?”
The girl gave a wry half-smile. “Fate. My parents petitioned me for the role before I was brought into the world.” Stray looked confused at this, so Grave elaborated. “That is our manner of choosing Prospects in the Solavera tribe. Each season, the favor is given to one of the child-bearing mothers, and the child, once born, is groomed for the Prospectus, given special attention by the elders and the Mistras, and taught the behaviors necessary for a life in the Order. Honestly, until two years ago, I didn’t even know that all the other Prospects come of their own accord.”
“Your Mistras have been tutoring you your whole life?!? You must be better than half the monks by now! Hardly fair to the rest of us!”
“No, not quite so,” Grave corrected him. “It is contrary to Dissadae’s custom for a child to learn the emanences. We're merely conditioned for discipline and self-possession, and kept from spending too much time with the rest of the children. Solitude and self-control are our virtues, they say.”
“And how did you take to it?”
“I was exceptional, or so they reassured me. Now that I’m here, I’m less confident.” She arched her stiff back. “So, my tale is told… now for yours.”
Stray struggled to put his journey into words. He considered telling Grave about his father's departure, about his debt to the tribe, about his growing uncertainty and his search for some solid ground to stand on... but this all seemed too intimate, so he gave a simpler answer. “I became close friends with some of the Mistras, and they told me I should come. I guess I always felt like I needed something else, beyond what the tribe could provide, but they're the ones who opened the door for me.”
“Your experience seems common,” Grave acknowledged. “Of the few Prospects I've spoken to, most seem like they needed to find a new home, and this seemed to be a way of choosing one for themselves, rather than allowing fate to choose it for them.”
“That must be strange to hear, coming from a situation like yours.”
Grave turned an incisive gaze toward Stray, as if she felt threatened, but then it softened and turned to resignation. “I was almost bitter, for a time, but I've given it some thought, and I've realized... Dissadae chooses all of us, whether through our own restlessness, or through the hopes and ambitions of our parents. Choosing the Order... it may give us some small satisfaction, some feeling of control, but the other Prospects don't know the future, any more than I do... we are all being cast by the hand of fate into this trial, and Dissadae has cleared a path for each of us alike.”
Stray nodded, feeling reassured by this answer. The wind blew into the crevice, battering his ear and cheek, discouraging him from talking any further, and when he glanced back over at Grave, he saw that her eyes were closed, and she was breathing evenly, focused inward, ready to return to the strange work of solitude and concentration. Stray turned inward, as well, absorbing back into the night air.
It was several more hours – nearly morning – when they heard the sound of a brass bell, their signal to climb back down the mountain and return to the temple.
Stray awoke to an obscure voice, like tree limbs creaking in the wind, coming to him through the walls of the Eyas Quarters. It seemed to bypass his ears entirely, absorbing directly into his mind. It was saying his name.
The Prospects had returned to the Envoclaijiz after the private meditation sessions. Those who had held out, lingering in the higher reaches – Stray and Grave among them – found a significant contingent of Prospects waiting at the temple entrance, watched over by Miggish and Fedra, some silent and timid, some whispering amongst themselves. Some lecture or reprimand had been delivered, it seemed... the Prospects who had endured the entire exercise were congratulated on their patience, and everyone was led off to secure a few hours of sleep before they commenced their second day.
Stray listened for another moment... hearing the even breath of sleeping adolescents, the occasional creaking of the beds' frames... someone muttering something from an anxious dream... and then the voice said his name again. He pulled himself out of his bunk and dropped to the floor, and without a second thought, he followed the voice that beckoned him.
The sound, which seemed to converge upon Stray alone, might as well have been coming from the stone itself. He guessed the dawn wasn't far off... none of the other Prospects woke, or even stirred, as Stray slipped past toward the hallway. The voice continued calling, leading him along the narrow passageway, up a staircase that seemed fastened in the vice grip of the surrounding stone, and finally up into the garden, writhing and disfigured in the moonlight, where two silhouettes waited for him under a leafless tree. Stray approached cautiously, shivering in the wintery air.
The figure on the left was Fedra... Stray recognized her by her height and hair, tied back behind her head. The other monk was a male, looking significantly older... perhaps in his sixties, bald except for a splash of thin hair around his ears and the crown of his head. His beard hung down to his collarbone, and then ended abruptly, as if severed by a single clip of a pair of shears. His robes hung loose around his chest, revealing a mat of gray hair, and a wide sash bound the garment closed above his indelicates.
“Greetings, my lords. Hello, Mistra Fedra.” Stray spoke cautiously, choosing to employ the traditional teacher's title.
“Greetings, Stray,” she replied, as the older monk looked on with a vacant stare. “We'd like to talk about the exercise this evening... your meditation in the upper reaches.”
Stray spared the older monk a curious glance, then turned and spoke to Fedra. “Of course. I suppose you've spoken to Grave already? I pulled her aside, and we meditated together for a while. I'm sorry if this was... an offense.”
“You are quick to admit the mistake. I appreciate that. But you knew that it was an exercise in solitude, and you knew the signal hadn't been given to return. Did you think we wouldn't know?”
Stray shook his head, trying to look contrite. Fedra didn't respond immediately, so Stray continued: “No, Mistra, I didn't. I knew you could hear us.”
“Very good,” the older monk said unexpectedly, his voice as deep as a ravine and expansive as a riverbed.
“The exercise was to teach patience in the face of uncertainty,” Fedra said. “Those who came down early – after the evening passed and they lost their composure – we had words for them, so the exercise would be meaningful. Now at least one of them... the Solavera warrior named Grave... will be denied that meaning. What would you say to her, then?”
“I apologize again.” Stray looked into Fedra's eyes. Anxiety quickened his heartbeat and pulse, and he fought against its inevitable rise. “I don't think my transgression will ruin her training... she's a strong candidate, my lords. I think, if anyone deserves censure, it's me.”
Fedra's expression didn't change. “My concern, Stray, is that you seem to understand, better than anyone, the purpose of the exercise... and you knew we could hear you. So why did you stop her?”
Stray was silent for a long time. He reflected on the question and tried to listen to his instincts, caught between deference and honesty... and in some other part of his consciousness, he struggled with his strategy: was this a test of some sort? Was it an ethical juncture? These considerations, which seemed to take a lifetime to Stray, stretched out over a silent half-minute.
At last, Stray chose candor. “Mistra, I stopped Grave and begged her company because I thought it was the right thing to do... wiser, I figured, than blind obedience to the test. We've come a great distance in solitude... for some, it's been a few weeks... for others, months. For many of us, this solitude has chased us our whole lives. What made this test challenging was that we were misled... we were led to believe, if only by implication, that the exercise would be a few hours, not an entire evening and night passing into the morning. For our first day to end in isolation, and trickery... inflicted by the very Order we've come so far to honor... that challenge inspired neither joy, nor loyalty, Mistra.”
Fedra continued looking impassive, but the older monk allowed himself a guarded smile.
In the face of the silence, Stray continued. “I am sorry, Mistra. I hope I still have the chance to prove myself.”
Fedra allowed the question to linger for a moment before she spoke. “There is sense in your defiance, Stray, and you've spoken well for yourself. I will discuss it with Prima Pradjiss, and we will let you know if there are any consequences.”
Stray nodded, keeping his head down.
“You can return to the Eyas Quarters, and get tonight's last morsel of sleep.” She paused for a moment, seeing Stray's downcast eyes. “And Stray... it's okay. Mercy warrants mercy. Dissadae's hand guides you.”
Stray lingered a moment, until it was clear that the monks were done with him. They remained motionless, statues by the gnarled tree trunk, and Stray finally turned away from them, passing under a sinuous stone arch and returning to the temple corridors.
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.