The older I get, the less I understand about the world. When I was young, I was filled with energetic certainty. My faith in myself was unshaken and unshakeable. Or so I like to pretend, until I revisit the courts of memory. There I realize that I understood far less than I liked to believe.
The only curse worse than accurate foreknowledge is perfect hindsight.
Would you care to wallow in your every mistake, revisit your every error? Neither do I. Still, my role here at the Temple of the Silver Lily compels me to record my thoughts and deeds. And so I now sit, the pain from my two missing fingers stabbing even through the herbal teas provided by the Caring Mothers, and write of what occurred when a stranger came to Kalimpura. Not a foreigner, for we are as well supplied with those as the sea is with fishes. But a stranger.
A true stranger.
The matter of the Quiet Men had been vexing me again of late. The Temple of the Silver Lily held matters well in hand in Kalimpura, administering both the Death Right and the rough justice of the streets in even-handed measure in the decade and a half since I had become Temple Mother.
“I am sick of treasury business,” I growled at Mother Vajpai across the desk in my chambers. “Surely we have Justiciary Mothers aplenty who find the warfare of account books to their liking.”
She just sighed. Her hair was more silvered each year, and I had finally shed the pretense that she was simply acquiring character. Age is a thief which steals upon us all. “Green…”
“Yes, yes. I know.” Saying that, I applied myself to the wavering columns of numbers in front of me. Surely these were battles as unsubtly fought as any street brawl. But the decimal point was not my weapon of choice. I, who could kill with practically any object ever brought to hand. “I wish I was out running with the Blade handles.”
“As do I.” Mother Vajpai’s voice was quiet, distant. She had been the greatest fighter of her generation until Surali of the Bittern Court had taken her toes. I had taken everything from Surali in recompense, starting with her life and ending with burning her life’s work at the Bittern Court to the ground and causing the ashes to be salted. That had not brought back Mother Vajpai’s toes. Nor the life of Ilona, my lost love.
For all my compassion, I could not let loose of my grumble. “My impediment is more transient than yours.”
“If you believe authority is a transient impediment, I have failed in my teachings.”
I paused a moment to stare into her deep brown eyes. The first flecks of webbing could be seen there, a cataract that would someday flow between Mother Vajpai’s vision and the world she inhabited like a cat inhabits moon shadows. Her nostrils flared slightly, the fine pores in her oak-brown skin as clear and clean as ever. Some secret passion moved my second-favorite teacher. I’d long since given up guessing at her purposes or desires. It was better for both of us that way.
Still, a response was required. With Mother Vajpai, a response was alwaysrequired.
“I believe that the authority has been vested in me, and is best wielded by me in this time.” My remark had the cadences of formal declaration. “We all know how things were otherwise. Before.” Once more, I wondered as I so often had whether Mother Vajpai had ever thought to claim the Temple Mother’s robes for her own. If so, she had breathed no word of that ambition to me either before or since my own lustration during those bitter days now long and safely behind us.
“This from the girl who once fought all authority simply because it stood before her?” Mother Vajpai laughed. For a moment, the years were lifted from her face. The worry vanished from her eyes. For moment, she was young and I was younger. For a moment, we were both whole once again.
For a moment, my heart ached anew as part of it always had done.
“We become what we fear most, yes?” That was an allusion to the Stone Coast philosopher Chard Lindsley, whom I was fairly certain Mother Vajpai had never read. Still, she smiled to swallow her laugh and we returned to our labors.
I was bored. Bored in that twitching, dangerous way that one becomes bored when one is tired of one’s own life.
Later, there was a meeting.
Later, there is always a meeting.
I would rather have gone rat killing in the sewers, but some things must be done. We met in council: me, Mother Vajpai, and Mother Samma sitting for the temple as a whole. The council also held a Mother or Sister from each order of our temple— – the Domiciliary Mothers, the Caring Mothers, the Mothers Intercessory, the Justiciary Mothers and the Blade Mothers.
When Mother Samma brought up a new item on the agenda, my day brightened considerably.
She cleared her throat with a sidelong glance to me. Some old habits die hard. “Mukherjee in the Starling Court reports that the court steward seeks the services of the Quiet Men.”
A silence followed that was taut and loaded as any weapon. After a long pause, Mother Vajpai stepped forward. “How is he to be knowing this? How are we to be knowing this?”
Samma consulted a note. “Mukherjee meets Sister Natrona of a Friday for skittles under the banyans in Prince Kittathang Park. They talk. She sometimes reports as she sees fit.”
I had no inclination to insert myself into the flow of gossip which webbed the Temple of the Silver Lily into the life of Kalimpura’s streets, courts and great houses. Once of my chief disadvantages as a Temple Mother was that I had not been raised in this city, and did not have my own extended network of childhood associates to draw upon. Better to leave quiet whispers to those born to it. My other talents were literally the stuff of legend on the streets of Kalimpura. When I bestirred myself, I tended to make a disproportionate impression.
Mother Vajpai gently prodded Mother Samma. “So we are knowing it. How is he knowing of it?”
She glanced at her notes again, though her small smile suggested this was more something to do than for actual purposes of reference. “The steward drinks to cover the shame of his desires. Mukherjee is a practical man not so possessed of self-loathing. According to Sister Natrona, their pillow talk can be fascinating.”
I could not help myself. “Pillow talk with Sister Natrona or with the steward?”
That sally earned me a round of glares from the seven women assembled in my meeting room.
Laughing at them, I stared up at the ceiling a moment. It was painted with birds of all sizes and plumage, flying toward the edges of the plate of the world. After I’d taken over Temple Mother Srirani’s chambers, I’d had everything covered over anew. This was a minor scandal of the time, given the age of some of the art which was already there, but I wanted this place of power to be my own, not an echo of the women who had come before me.
My laughter left me as I looked at the pair of hawks with their steel talons and leather jesses. Hunters on the wing.
To business, then. “We have searched discreetly for the Quiet Men for well over a decade now. They might almost not exist. Now the steward of the Starling Court babbles of hiring them as if they were in a labor hall down by the docks?”
Mother Samma shrugged. “I report this, I do not know this.”
“What do we know? That a drunken sodomite speaks of the unfindable?”
She blinked. “Well, yes.”
I snorted at that, not so much humor as a certain species of low-grade disgust. Not at the man’s bed choices— – hearts and bodies went where they would— – but at his likely purposes. “Who or what is the target of this seeking of the Quiet Men?”
Samma blinked again. “You, Mother Green. The Temple Mother of the Lily Goddess. You.”
“Me?” I found myself filled with an odd and perverse delight. “In truth?”
“You seem pleased,” commented Mother Supanthi, of the Justiciary Mothers. Squat, graceless, perpetually irritated, she served me and the temple as well as any of the mothers or sisters of her order could do in the wake of their great disgrace under Mother Srirani.
“Pleased?” I leaned forward, placing my hands on the table. “It has been so long since I have had an enemy.” Finally, I had something worthwhile to do.
An acolyte slipped into my chambers, carrying the dark purple ribbon that signified an urgent message from one of the senior mothers of the temple. And well it was for her that she was so equipped. These meetings were not to be disturbed for ordinary matters.
“What is it, Sheenai?” I asked, schooling my voice to patience.
“To be begging of your pardon, Temple Mother,” she said, her tone quavering. I could not tell if she were more terrified to be speaking to me, or that I knew her name. “There is a disturbance at the Evenfire Gate. The Prince of the City sends word that you should come. And that the Lily Blades should bring the thunder-bows.”
We had not used those firearms since the overthrow of Surali and Mafic, the Saffron Tower shill who had brought the accursed things to Kalimpura in the first place. Thankfully no one since had taken up running guns into Selistan. That day would come, surely, but not yet.
So why now? And why the Prince of the City? His was a hollow title, as in truth he ruled nothing in the shambling anarchy of Kalimpura but his own bedchambers and the parties thrown by the wealthiest for their mutual amusement. A few foreigners were fooled from time to time, but none of us Kalimpuri.
She must have read the question in my eyes. “They say a stranger has come to town, Temple Mother.”
I must be blessed, I thought. Not one, but two disturbances in the same handspan of minutes. If I could not turn this to an excuse for me being out on the streets with a weapon in my hands, I was no Blade at all.
Smiling at fate, stupid as ever I had been, I rose. “Mothers, we have work to do.”
Optimism is as fatal a disease as anyone might catch. Optimism exaggerated by pride is like gangrene in an amputated stump, with the power to transform a terrible failure into an utter disaster.
Despite my ardent desire for a workout, we did not run as a Blade handle. Armed women in black were a routine part of street life in Kalimpura, but apparently I was too important to simply don my leathers and slip down the front steps the Temple of the Silver Lily and trot along past the Blood Fountain and the Beast Market. No, nothing would do to respond to such an unusual request but an honor guard, and mothers from the other orders of the Temple alongside me.
“We are not being invited to conference,” I protested. “There is a problem at the Evenfire Gate. The type that requires firearms.” After a moment of puzzled silence around me, I added, “Thunder-bows.”
“If you are to be going,” said old Mother Leeang of the Mothers Intercessory, “then we are to be going with you.”
“Bullets,” I offered by way of reply. But they would not be moved by mere words.
I did send the acolyte Sheenai to the upper reaches of the temple to scan to the west for rising smoke or other evidence of martial disaster. A stranger come to town hardly qualified as an army, but something had deeply frightened whomever had been foolish enough to send me a message in the name of the Prince of the City.
Idiot fop he might be, but the prince was the closest thing Kalimpura had to a head of state. Or indeed, a state at all. For the most part, we existed just fine without the trammels of government. Having overthrown and established more than one city government in my youth, I generally found myself more than happy with this state of affairs.
The stranger would indeed be a foreigner, or the Prince would not be involved even in name. But long guns and a Blade handle for just one man?
What manner of man was this stranger at the gate?
So it was that I peregrinated through the streets of Kalimpura at the center of something far more akin to a festival parade than a Blade run. We did not have torches or crackers or drums, thank the Lily Goddess, but practically everything else one might expect was along. Even the honor guard of beggars and shiftless children.
Thank the goddess my own Marya was busy at her work training Blade aspirants. I would not trouble her for this, or risk her so, if indeed there was risk to be found. As for her twin Federo… My mother’s heart even so sank at the years of his absence, but my son was long since taken into service with Captain Lalo aboard one of Chowdry’s kettle ships. Which had been so much the better than trying to keep the boy inside a temple of women when he had begun feeling the first stirrings of manhood. He had certainly prospered by going to sea.
Besides which, the ocean had called to him ever since the misadventures of his tiniest youth when I had borne both my children across the Storm Sea from the distant place of their birth in Copper Downs.
He is safe, part of me whispered into the gallery of my worries. Safer than you are.
Except this was Kalimpura and I was Green. No one was less safe than I. Not even now.
The streets near the Evenfire Gate are narrower and rougher than much of Kalimpura. Most of the great avenues are paved and maintained either by subscription among their inhabitants, or by donation from the very few of the city’s great who are also generous. This district of quiet alleys and braying donkeys and chattering souks filled with traders from dozens of lands didn’t support either the flow of cash or the ostentatious wealth required to make such civic virtue possible.
Instead the roads were dusty, rutted things that would turn to calf-deep mud at the next rain. An occasional forlorn paving stone rose from the patina of camel dung and rotting vegetables and discarded refuse that covered our way like the flower petals of a particularly demented cult.
I had loved this district since first coming here with Mother Argai, back when we were hunting Firesetter and Fantail. Back when Surali was huntingus. Fond memories I had of those days. Including the narrow, hidden alleys and tiny streets that ran within the long, rambling blocks of buildings. Their grubby stucco walls were decorated with abstract tilework accenting corners and lintels and character lines above the reach of the tallest or most determined. The joined, sinuous Sindi script characters were far more in evidence than the lined, organic Kalimpuri syllabary or the blocky alphabet used along the Stone Coast and through many trade routes. Fringed awnings fluttered gently in the desultory noonday breeze. Discreet symbols painted on the walls identified shops or businesses in this Sindu culture that forbade images in their art— – a sure incentive to learn to read, if one could not tell a tavern from a tannery by the picture on the sign.
Or one’s nose, naturally enough.
And the people. Normally they shoved every which way, passing back and forth on errands of family and commerce that engaged their attentions for an hour or a year— – for my part, I could never say which by looking at them. All I knew was that this district always smelled of reptiles and saffron and rosewater and mysterious smoky perfumes from faraway lands that I did not want or need to understand in order to enjoy.
Today, however, there was a determined tide of folk moving toward us, away from the Evenfire Gate. My processional folded into a bastard Blade handle after all. The clucking mothers of the inner temple crowded around me as if just discovering the fear I had predicted. By the Wheel, someone might step into some pig shit. Or be knifed to death. I couldn’t say which fate they saw as worse.
I, however, was in my element.
No smoke rose above the abattoirs and dye works that stretched before us. Flames did not shoot from the scriveners’ huts or the leatherworkers’ booths. The fruit and vegetable stands and the goat butchers that would normally have called to me were deserted, most of their wares covered or taken to rest within shadows off the street until the disturbance was over and done with. This crowd was determined, moving with the dipped chin and ground-focused stare of any group of people intent on departure no matter the cost.
The scent, though. Fear carries its own knives to slit the nostrils of anyone close enough to catch the odor. These people were very afraid. I could tell that even underneath the masking of foreign spices and the body odors of folk born to different skin than I.
Ahead of us loomed the Evenfire Gate. I had never had occasion to pass out of the city this way, but I’d seen it from the inside enough times to know the place. A great, blocky structure, its architecture almost cyclopean and remarkably unsuited to the graceful white walls encircling the city, let alone the curving elegance of most of our more public forms of architecture. Wealth and power always speak in their own codes when raised in stone or wood. The code this gate spoke was one of simple, brute force.
Keep out or keep in, those blocky, square lines said. We do not care which, but do not pass through us without permission.
A trio of thin green banners whipped from staffs atop the gate. I did not recall seeing them before. They did not match either the motley heraldry of this city or the far more formalized heraldry of Copper Downs— – the only two sets of blazons I could read easily from a distance. Was their Sindu Amir in residence just now?
I should have known such a thing.
A thin arc of New Guildsmen stood with their back to us. I had broken the Street Guild along with the Bittern Court. For the most part, I doubted the New Guild were much better than their predecessors, but from my personal perspective, they had two cardinal virtues. One, at least thus far they still remembered who had created them. Two, as of yet they had not tried to kill me.
Life has always taught me to take my victories where I find them.
I shrugged through my line of guardian biddies and guarding Blade mothers to approach the nearest New Guildsman from behind. He was a bit shorter than average. His armor had the look of pot metal sewn onto an old saddle blanket. The day was not so hot as it could have been, but still I wondered why he hadn’t already passed out from heat exhaustion.
The area before him was clear of everyone and everything except one oddly dressed man. Clear as no area in Kalimpura ever was. There were portions of walkways near the docks that had been passed down through generations of begging families. If you left an old shoe and a bag of feathers on your step, an hour later somebody would be making something new out of them and trying to sell it back to you.
A quiet street was a vanishingly rare thing.
“What is he?” I asked the New Guildsman.
The guard glanced sidelong at me. I recognized the flat, scarred face, the broad cheekbones, the deep brown eyes darting like guppies in a bucket. Hanchu residents in Kalimpura were rare enough to be memorable.
“Ah, Serjeant Dao,” I said.
His chin dipped fractionally, as if he’d heard about respect from someone in a tavern once but couldn’t quite remember how it was supposed to work. “Mother Green.”
“Why are you and half a dozen of the New Guild’s finest staring at a man standing quietly in an empty stretch of street?”
“Watch,” he said succinctly.
And so I did.
The doors of Evenfire Gate are made from massive hardwood timbers of a size not seen in this part of Selistan for generations. The two great wooden panels were each bound in great straps of iron and brass which had aged over the centuries to a corroded mass. It finally dawned on me that this gate had never been closed in the time I’d been in Kalimpura. Indeed, I had no notion of the last time it might have been shut. Normally the guards there set up a portable barrier through which to check the passage of goods and people. The city had not been attacked in generations.
Yet the gate was shut now.
The clay and garbage and stray stones flooring the archway were disturbed as if they’d been drawn over with an iron plow. Something had dragged those heavy doors shut against the knee-deep buildup which had accrued before them down the years.
That something was standing quietly, admiring the rough arch above him, built of the same gigantic mortarless masonry as the rest of the Evenfire Gate. He was male, at least apparently. Short and slender, skin so pale as to be perhaps an albino. Even my Petraean friends from the Stone Coast were more pink than white, and had a tendency to brown in the sunlight. This man’s face and hands were the color of parchment. Though I could not see his eyes just then, I would have bet on them being plain as water.
He wore a simple tunic and pants of some gray, slightly shimmering fabric. No belt of weapons or tools, no pack on his back, no beast of burden at his side. Just a small, pale man in gray staring up with a self-satisfied air.
“When and how did he approach?” I asked quietly. Closing the gates was a neat trick, to be sure, and I’d love to know how it was done, but that didn’t explain the fear reek which permeated the air around me.
Even out of the corner of my eye I could see Dao’s jaw working as if the words of his reply were precious and not to be let out of his mouth without good cause.
Finally, he spat out my answer. “Walked out of the desert along the Western Road, handy as you please following close behind Mansour’s latest date caravan.”
I knew of Mansour. A level-headed hard bastard. Precisely the type it took to survive both bandit and bankers for decades. “What did our caravan master have to say about this stranger?”
“Claims he never noticed.”
“Mansour? Really?” The old trader had a reputation for an eye even sharper than his tongue, which was going some.
Then the man in the gateway turned and smiled at me. My guts slid into jelly. Behind me, someone screamed, then abruptly cut herself short.
I have looked into fire. I have watched death leak like blood from a man’s eyes. I have seen the disintegration of a body bound to earth and time by centuries of magic. I have slain a god. I have delivered babies and succored the plague-ridden and laid out the dead in their scores and sat through countless treasury meetings.
This man’s small, simple smile was more terrible than any of those things. His eyes were as colorless and bland as glass. They were as devoid of meaning as any lightning strike, as impersonal as any heart attack.
And he wasn’t there.
I had no other way to describe the overwhelming impression of absence I got from the stranger. Without even trying, I knew that a knife thrown would pass right through the space he appeared to occupy without troubling him in the least. I could rush his position only to stumble into one of the now-closed gates. He was present, but he wasn’t there.
I had no other words for it.
“Ere you of substance?” he asked in well accented but strange Petraean. His words did not quite match the movement of his lips, nor did his voice seem to come from his mouth.
Already I knew that this was one I would never prevail over by either main force or through my bloody reputation. He would neither know nor care about the mountain of bodies that lined the trail of my years. Play for time, Green. Some advantage will always present itself. “That depends on what you mean by substance.”
His eyes narrowed slightly, as if puzzled by some errant insect at the periphery of his vision. “Ere you of substance?”
“Say yes,” growled Dao through clenched teeth.
Behind me, Mother Leeang shuffled up and put her hand on my shoulder. Not smart, not when I was in the midst of combat tension, but I knew enough not to take her wrist off for her. “Green… Do not toy with this one,” she croaked.
“Yes,” I said, and let my arms relax. The short knives in my sleeve holsters would not spring forward. Not now. My voice rose, clear and strong. “I am a woman of substance in this city.”
The stranger’s face broke into a smile that was every bit as terrifying as his blank eyes and out-of-placeness. “Perishably clean it is to make your muscular interconnection.”
It took me a moment to work on that. I’d had experience with a number of languages and many foreigners, being one myself everywhere. “You are pleased to meet me?” I finally offered.
“Am your taking to claim civic prudence above division.”
That made me tense my arms again. “I’m sorry, I’m not following you.”
Dust rose from the ancient planks of the Evenfire Gate. The garbage and gravel at my feet began to dance. The stranger’s eyes narrowed further, while my guts threatened to vibrate themselves right through my spine. “Civic prudence above division,” he repeated, still in his strangely flawless Petraean.
“Above division,” whispered Mother Supanthi. “Sur-render. Surrender.” Strangely, unlike Serjeant Dao, she did not speak Petraean.
“You want me to surrender the city?” I asked the stranger.
He beamed, as if the sun were lighting the sky with fire. Rivets and nails exploded from the wood of the gate like bullets from one of our thunder-bows. I was frankly terrified.
“It’s too late to kill him,” Dao growled again.
Once again, I could not stop the words. “Is it too late to kill myself?”
There are times when one rises to the fight. Not so long ago, I would have said any time one should rise to the fight. But having my children and being Temple Mother have shown me that there also times to back away and choose better weapons. Treasury meetings have taught me that, if nothing else.
I turned away from the smiling man and his violent parlor tricks. “Dao,” I said out of the corner of my mouth. “Set this aside. Return to your guild house and warn them. We can best this man no more than we can best a summer storm. He is only to be endured, not to be defeated.”
He barked a short, sharp laugh. “You say this?”
“I say this. Green, Mother of the Temple of the Silver Lily, says this.”
“Green, who burned an entire court and an entire guild to the ground and sowed them with salt just to prove a point, says this.”
I could not tell if this were a specimen of Serjeant Dao’s humor, or true incredulity.
“Go,” I muttered. Then I gathered my flock of women in black, thunder-bows and all. “We return to the Temple.”
“What preparations do we make?” asked Mother Leeang anxiously.
“If he comes for us, we die,” I said with more bluntness than even I am usually wont to employ.
The irresistible force had finally met the immovable object.
We swept back through the city, our faces as grim as the refugees we had pressed through earlier. I understood the slow fall of their feet now. Worried questions emanated from my cohort of Blades and mothers, but I ignored them. I ignored everything except my own fierce thinking.
The whitewashed walls of the compounds of the powerful loomed on both sides. We were on Histhayana Avenue, the westernmost of the wealthy districts. The perfumed scents of fruit trees carried over the walls. Guards with crossbows and spears eyed us from gatehouses and corner watchtowers. It was all familiar territory.
The stranger would walk through these like an armored man knocking over children’s play towers.
I had fought gods. Fought and won.
Or at least, not lost.
Whoever this stranger was, he was no god. Even gods were human in some aspect. The divine was a mirror of the mundane, after all. Who but the mad would worship demons out of the deepest hells? Or monsters cold as ice and night? We followed those who showed us ourselves. There was nothing of anyone I knew in the stranger, for all that he shared a bodily form with the rest of us.
Most of the rest of us.
“Mother Samma,” I said, breaking my own sullen silence. “Send a Blade to the temple and make sure that all of our mothers and sisters are called home. Leave no one out on the streets.” Especially not Marya. Someone at least might still be standing after our city walls had been shattered to sand and our houses cast down to gravel and splinters.
That had to be worth something.
Had I ever before planned for defeat?
Soon enough we marched into the circular plaza of the Blood Fountain, past the Beast Market in its odiferous disarray, and up the steps of the Temple of the Silver Lily. I was angry and fitful and depressed all at the same time. It was so unlike who I truly am.
In our front hall, I turned and faced the mothers who had followed me out to the Evenfire Gate and back home again. Others were waiting there again, from senior mothers of decades’ experience to the youngest just elevated from acolyte status. Even my Marya, her face paler than anyone, her expression set with daughterly exasperation. It suddenly occurred to me that she was now almost the age I had been when I was elected to the office of Temple Mother.
I set that thought aside for later consideration and studied my audience. All stared at me expectantly, as if I were about to birth a miracle.
“Leave the girls at their studies for now,” I said quietly. No sense in disturbing the children. “Pack the most valuable goods and art and store them in our deepest practice rooms.” They might survive the building’s collapse that way. “Clean and oil the thunder-bows and check their bullets.” It was something to do. “Offer prayers to our goddess.” Not that She would stand long against the stranger, either— – it was not Her way.
I considered sending Marya from the city, but it could probably not be done fast enough. In any case, I could not start playing favorites now, at this late date. Instead I settled for a moment of locked gazes through the crowd, from which she quickly turned away.
My daughter. Just like her mother.
“What will you be doing, Mother Green?” asked Mother Leeang in a quavering voice.
“I’ll be in the kitchens,” I announced.
Since my earliest days with Mistress Tirelle in the Factor’s house in Copper Downs, I have looked to food for solace. Not so much in the eating of it, though I love my sauces and breads; but more in the making of it. Cutting and chopping and stirring and sautéing. To make something worthwhile out of a pile of plants and a few hanks of rendered muscle and fat was to have worth in the world. Anyone could kill with a blade and the element of surprise, but it takes both love and a special genius to truly feed people’s hearts and stomachs.
Our temple kitchens are spacious. We cook for hundreds every day. That takes pots and pans and fires and racks of herbs and long spoons and scullions and pot girls and a whole host of others. Sometimes one just wanted a clean block and some flour and fruit and time.
I stalked down the Lesser Adamantine Stairs into Sister Shatta’s domain. She looked up from her stool on a platform at the center of the main kitchen.
Cooks know everything. Rumors are birthed and slain over the stockpot. Nothing that happened upstairs went unremarked belowstairs. I was certain she was already aware of what had taken place at the Evenfire Gate. The expression on her face confirmed that.
“Out,” I said. “Everyone but Sister Shatta.” Even I could hear the thunder in my voice, though I did not mean to be so hard.
“Bank your fires.” The old cook gave me a long, slow appraisal. “Except the least oven, I think.”
I nodded. This woman knew me well. I had brought the arts of Stone Coast baking with me when I’d come to the temple the first time, and the breads that Sister Shatta’s ovens baked were still the most valued in Kalimpura.
There wasn’t so much as a whisper as the cooks and scullions covered their bowls, pulled their pots off the fires, and set aside their knives with a clean swipe of the cutting blocks. One by one these women of all ages, from the smallest girls to some of our oldest still working, filed past me. None gave me a smile, but none showed fear, either. Most of them touched my arm or brushed my hand.
I felt for a moment as if I were in the receiving line at my own funeral.
In a surprisingly short span of minutes, I was alone with Sister Shatta. And the scents of the kitchen, of course. Fire smoke and dirty dishwater were there as always. Also the mouthwatering scent of pigs on the spits in the big hearths. Someone had been chopping jicama. The watery tang was still strong. The cloying odor of crushed greens halfway gone to rot. Fruity sweetness. Yeast. Beer.
I moved to the baking area. One of the bakers had a passable pastry dough going, which was unusual. I pulled it from the stoneware bowl and worked it lightly a little while. The damp, glutinous mass felt natural beneath my fingers. Every bit as a natural as a weapon, and at this moment, not nearly as frustrating. Though I might have chosen to blend it differently, this would do.
Time was not my luxury now.
I turned to find Sister Shatta standing at my shoulder. That she had approached without me reacting was a measure of my trust in the woman.
“You will not find your answers here,” she said gently.
“There are always answers in cookery. They just don’t always speak to the questions I mean to ask.” I looked around. “Do we have guavas?” In the moment, I would have preferred pears, but not here in tropical Selistan. I had not so much as seen one of those for over fifteen years.
“In one of the high baskets in the fruitery,” Sister Shatta said absently. The quaver of age once more slipped into her voice like a knife dipping into water.
Finding my guavas nicely ripened, I sliced them down and removed the seeds. I put them in a pan with ghee and the squeezings of three limes to cook just lightly, then poured a touch of honey and wine in. After some thought, I grated a bit of nutmeg and crumbled cardamom into the pan. Sister Shatta watched closely, not offering advice except in the degree to which she smelled of my cooking and I overheard the occasional hitch of her breathing.
Mistress Tirelle had been more impassive, and brutally cruel besides. I knew how to heed even a silent cook, though in this case I followed my own head.
Soon enough I had the pastry dough rolled out and dabbed with butter and a scattering of the rawest sugar, coarse and brown. I folded it into several small ceramic baking dishes, like so many white-hulled boats, then spooned the cooked-down guavas into them. Once they were ready, I darted into the cold room and found the meat scrap buckets. I scooped up shaved bits of pork belly and cured shoulder and chopped them almost to a mince. Back at my guavas, I covered each of my four little boats with a light carpet of meat, then wove a pastry top out of long strips of dough.
My new creation was a bastard child of Stone Coast baking and Selistani cooking, but it smelled good even unbaked. In the oven, it swiftly began to smell even better. Pork scraps and fruit are a lovely combination indeed.
“You have ejected my dinner cooks from the kitchen for the better part of an hour,” Sister Shatta said mildly. “I do not perceive how you plan to feed several hundred women and girls from four small pies. However, my faith in you remains unchallenged.”
“We’ve eaten soup before,” I told her, unsuccessfully trying to hide my smile.
“And sure we will again, unless the temple falls down around our ears.”
My earlier mood of fatalism returned swiftly to me. “Not before tomorrow, I think.” Stricken by a rare attack of conscience as I turned to check the fire in my oven, I added, “With luck.”
She had no answer to that. When I stood and turned once more, I saw why. Sister Shatta had sat heavily on a nearby cook’s stool, one hand over her mouth. A man stood beside her, clad entirely in leather save for an open strip across his face that permitted vision, and slits for his breathing.
I’d seen that style of leather armor once before, and heard a tale of it another time.
This was one of the Quiet Men, that I’d been seeking since my return to Kalimpura. That Mother Samma had spoke of in that council meeting we’d held during the lost innocence of my younger days, oh, about three hours previously.
“Green,” he said in a voice so ordinary as to be frightening. Surely a man like this should speak with silken menace or veiled threats.
Unveiled threats, I corrected myself. “And you are…?”
I glanced at Sister Shatta, who had control of her breathing once more and was waving me away. Good, I won’t have to kill him yet.
The time for social niceties was long gone, if indeed it had ever been present in the first place. “I cannot say that I am pleased to meet you, Master Quiet, but you have come into the house of my goddess, so here we are. What do you want?”
My short knives were in my hands with a flick of my wrists. “So soon…. Did the Starling Court send you?”
His eyes did not stray toward my weapons. The Quiet Man was watchingme. Which is exactly what I would be doing in his position. “No. I am here for our own reasons.”
“Who is ‘we’?” I breathed, barely articulating my question.
“You know.” His tone invited no challenge, but he was in my house.
“It is not your way to ask,” I hazarded. The utter impassivity was hard to speak to. That wasn’t simply his leather-covered face. This Quiet Man held his body preternaturally still. As Blade aspirants, we were trained to taut-muscled control and surety of purpose, but we had never been taught to hide ourselves so completely. I would have guessed this man could make himself all but invisible even within a crowded room.
“We neither ask nor tell,” my intruder admitted. “We are quiet.”
That was as close as I’d come to a statement of his identity, I was certain of it. Now, to kill him, or to keep talking?
“Do not strike me down.” He continued speaking softly. “You are one of the very few who might succeed, but even the mighty Mother Green would regret that victory.”
“I regret none of my victories,” I said on impulse, but we both knew the words for a lie before they left my lips. In truth, I had many regrets. Chiefest among these was the death of Ilona the day I’d sacked the Bittern Court. But there were many others. Many, many others. For a brief moment, I thought of Malice Curry, dying with surprise in his varicolored eyes. My first true assassination.
“You are not such a fool.” He cocked his head. “Check your pies.”
It was such a prosaic statement that I had to laugh. Resheathing my knives, I turned to my oven. True enough, the crust was overcooking. I moved all four dishes to the higher rack while wondering what near me could best be used for a weapon. Oh, for a pan of sizzling grease just then.
Instead I turned back to him. “You fear the stranger.”
“We have never feared anyone before this.” After a moment, he added, “Not even you, Mother Green.”
“You are not such fools.” I stepped within his striking range. The Quiet Man did not stir as I searched the bright, brassy brown of his eyes. We were so close we might have kissed, had his lips been exposed. His scent was oiled leather, a whiff of male sweat, and oddly enough, aniseed. “Tell me, Master Quiet,” I asked, matching his calm, low voice with my own. “Did you win or lose the draw to come here?”
“We are each given names.” His eyes flicked back and forth as he searched my face. “Each of us in the time of our initial training. We think on how best to bring quiet to those names, still them so they may speak no further. A study which may last a lifetime. Or longer.”
Much like me and the Duke of Copper Downs, actually, back when I was being secretly trained to kill by Federo and the Dancing Mistress in the first phase of my life.
“I am one of your names.”
“The draw was made years ago, Mother Green.” His eyes broke away from mine, almost like an ordinary man nervous in conversation with an ordinary woman. I was not fooled. The Quiet Man went on: “I have told you a true thing. A thing we never speak of outside our own.”
Own what? Not walls, surely, for if these had a house, I would have heard of it long ago.
Still, I had the sense of ritual being offered rather than menace. Ritual wasmy territory, something I knew too well already after a decade and a half as Temple Mother, and all the training in the years before. My next words I chose carefully. “Your truth is a gift unasked for, a favor unsought. I take no obligation from this offering. Yet I would know what you seek from me besides my name’s breath. Surely you do not require the services of a monstrous regiment of women.”
“Just one woman.”
We were so close now our breath would have mingled had his mouth not been wrapped shut. “And how may I serve the Quiet Men?”
“Help us with the stranger.” There was no question in his voice. No plea. Just a stark statement, somewhere between fact and confrontation.
I thought long, hard and very, very swiftly. One of the requirements of power such as I wielded among the Mothers of the Lily Temple was decisiveness. Otherwise one became bogged in endless debate that led nowhere. Women capable of killing and skinning a street rapist in less time than it takes to eat a handful of grapes can spend weeks arguing over a banquet menu. There must be someone who can say, “Enough bickering. This shall be so, and we shall do it thusly. The matter is settled.”
One of his brethren had nearly been the death of me back in Copper Downs. More to the point, he had been the death of my sweet Lucia, and a nearly-fatal threat to Mother Argai and my children. A tale I believed the truth of told of them sacking a village near Cape Purna. These Quiet Men did not use their powers for the good of anyone but their own selfish ends. They did not serve Selistan, or Kalimpura, or any god or goddess I knew of, or any higher purpose at all. I had not sworn to eliminate them, as I had with the child traders, but neither would I lay myself down alongside a nest of vipers just to test their resolve not to use their venom.
“No, Master Quiet,” I finally said, listening to the shift of the air currents in my kitchen as copper pots brushed against one another. The floors were stone, but some of the counterblocks creaked and sighed as well as any nightingale floor. A quick glance at Sister Shatta showed she was still breathing. I had no other Blades, no handle here with me, and now I knew that there were at least two confederates accompanying this Quiet Man in my kitchen.
In my kitchen.
“I must see to my pies,” I told him, and turned my back on this, my enemy, in the house of my goddess. A rag in each hand, I opened the oven door. I took two of the guava pies and turned, flinging them where I best thought his fellows to be, even as I spun for the rack within the oven, snatched it free, and swung the hot iron into my Quiet Man’s neck.
His larynx caught my impromptu weapon and he stumbled back. Still moving, I followed my two pies with knives thrown in each direction. A huge brass boiler came down at the reach of one hand and deflected a thrown dart doubtless coated with some terrible poison. I slammed the pot down across the second man’s head. The third came for me with one of my knives in his shoulder, but he stumbled, and I kicked him down and forced his head into the oven. Two swift blows with an iron stove lid kept him there a moment, before I used the same implement to flatten the face of my first opponent. Another step of mine, my second spin not yet complete, allowed me to land a solid kick in the crotch of the man still wearing my boiler.
I completed my move by rescuing the last of my pies from the floor, where it had landed ceramic side down, somehow unharmed. Already Blades were pouring in from the Lesser Adamantine Stairs, drawn by the racket. I took up a tasting spoon and sampled my work while my mothers and sisters saw to Sister Shatta and the three who would have killed me.
“What do you suppose they wanted?” Samma asked me a few minutes later.
I offered her a spoonful of steaming guava pie. She swallowed it absently, then broke into a shy grin. Sour, sweet and savory all at once— – it was a worthy recipe.
“Dessert?” I asked.
Mother Intanani of the Caring Mothers approached. “Sister Shatta will be well enough,” she said quietly, “but two of your attackers have died of some poison. The third lingers only because you crushed his throat and he could not swallow.”
That I considered for a moment. “Throat crushed, I imagine he cannot talk, either.”
“No,” she replied.
“Then finish him with a silken pillow. Cut the leather away from all three of their faces and display the bodies on the front steps.”
That started Mother Intanani. I signaled the first idle Blade mother I saw. “She is in need of assistance.” Sometimes I forgot that not everyone was trained to the same ruthlessness as I.
“Was that needful?” Samma asked softly.
“They came into my temple, injured my cook, and threatened my life. How shall I answer these Quiet Men?”
“You never were much for showing mercy,” she observed with some bitterness. That Samma still walked with a limp from a blow I’d landed sixteen years ago might give her some cause to be bitter, I realized.
“No one was ever much for showing me mercy,” I replied. “I only ever did give back what was first given to me. Or not.”
After a moment, she spoke again. “And this will solve the problem of the stranger how?”
“No way that I can see. But I will not put our full faith and credit to any ends these dark bastards seek. Nor will I reward their invasions of my domain.”
“You are the Temple Mother.”
“Did you ever think there might be a reason for my elevation at this time in our history?”
Samma laughed, a quiet, mirthless noise. “Green, I never thought there was a reason for anything you did. We are all of us lucky to still be alive despite your best efforts.”
“Or because of them, perhaps.”
She shrugged, and wandered off.
I am not much given to introspection. To learn from my experiences is absolutely an important goal of mine. But I have always preferred action to reaction, and I have always preferred reaction to reflection. Yet I wasn’t sure I’d handled the Quiet Man as well as possible. Had he not brought two more of his kind with him to confront me, we might both have left the kitchen alive.
Still, I went to light candles for their souls, the black and the white. A soul is a soul, and every man or woman must make their own way back around the Wheel. I would not lay them out or paint their faces, as we had at my own orders made other use of their bodies.
There is a little attic close to the very top of the Temple of the Silver Lily. Our brightly clad, curving roof rises to nearly a point. The room is tall and narrow and useless except for the trapdoor that leads out to the roof for maintenance. Very few of the aspirants, acolytes, sister or mothers in the temple have ever even known of its existence.
I took myself up there with three sets of candles and a tiny punk pot. The space was cramped and hot, far more felt than seen as warm and dusty darkness. In that place I was closer to the innocence I’d never experienced as a child, and nearer to the Lily Goddess than I ever felt at the altar in our nave.
I placed the candles, black and white and black and white and black and white. This was a ritual I’d followed since my earliest killings. It served as purgative to my own shriveled soul. I lit each candle, though I could not bring myself to speak of the hopes and good deeds of a Quiet Man. After a moment of thoughtful silence, I offered a neutral prayer to send each of them on their way.
“Goddess,” I told the flickering shadows which followed. “I do not know what to do next. My enemies have come forth from the shadows even as a stranger more terrible in his powers than one of Your kind has knocked at the Evenfire Gate and found us wanting. I had thought to claim the exhilaration of a good fight. Instead I find myself enmeshed in struggle. The Quiet Men will return for an accounting. Their sort always do. The stranger… who can say? But if You have a word for me, now would be an excellent time to show me the strength of Your plan.”
There was no answer. There never was, not when I prayed for myself. My personal needs were never Her concern. The needs of all Her templars were, and even more so, the needs of the women of Kalimpura and perhaps all of Selistan. When I prayed for them, for the temple as a whole, or for the city, She listened.
When I prayed for me, She was silent.
Which, I realized, meant the stranger was a problem for me, more than he was a problem for the city.
If that was the sum of Her guidance, She was still far wiser than me. I just wished with all my heart that I had any idea what She meant by that.
In time, I unfolded myself and picked my way down the rickety stairs out of the spire and toward the lower floors of the temple, where the women of my faith were arming themselves. I wanted to see my daughter Marya before I set foot back out into the city.
Someone would be a sacrifice soon, and I was not certain it wouldn’t be me.
“Mother,” she said. All the venom of every young woman dripped in her voice.
Was I ever so?
“I do not know what comes next,” I told her.
“Not a year ago I took my oaths. You’ve never protected me from anything.” Marya’s voice was hard, spitting. Young, as I never had been. Beautiful, as I never had been. Angry, as I always had been. “Now…?”
“I only wanted to tell you…” Words failed me, as they so rarely did.
We argued in one of the training rooms. In theory, this was private, though doubtless an acolyte or sister lingered just past the door. What could I do but love my child, however reckless or impulsive she was?
Marya stepped close and hugged me, as she had not done in several years. I held her, stroking her smooth chestnut hair and smelling the edge of her sweat. Exertion, maybe a little fear.
“Go do what you must,” my daughter told my shoulder. “I will be here with all my Blade sisters.”
No more and no less than I would have asked of any Blade mother.
“I love you,” I said.
She had no words for me then, but I glimpsed my answer in her eyes. I turned away before Marya could see my tears.
The people of Kalimpura have stood fast against hell and high water. I know because in my time I have brought both to my adopted city. In my time, I have vanquished both. Today, when I emerged into the plaza of the Blood Fountain with only the taciturn and ox-like Mother Adhiti for company, I saw a different thing than I had ever seen.
Folk were packing up to leave.
The Beast Market before our temple is never truly quiet. Even in the smallest hours of a night after a city-wide festival, moon calves complain while birds cluck and whir. It is not the sort of place where a merchant just shuts down her booth and totters home with a packload of pottery. Bright daylight or monsoon, commerce or quiet, the beasts must be fed and slopped. The processes of life know no calendar except the rising and setting of the sun.
Because of the Beast Market, we always have beggars. There are pickings for them, and sometimes warm places to sleep, minding livestock or simply close to the steaming piles of shit that are ever being shoveled out and hauled away. Because of the beggars, we always have the pettiest of merchants and the loose hangers on, those people whose lives and livelihoods keep them half a step above sleeping next to a kerbstone or beneath a parked wagon.
All were leaving. It was like watching ants depart a nest in the face of a rising stream. Each with their mite or pack or ragged armload. The beggars and their counterparts were mobile enough, but even the market stalls were being vacated in a slow and orderly manner.
It was the same exodus as from the area around the Evenfire Gate, except the entire city was preparing to drain away.
I walked over to a woman I did not know who was organizing a short train of stubby-legged mules. I did not know their kind, either, though from their wiry coats and foul, yellow-eyed dispositions, they looked to hail from some marginal mountain province far from this coastal plain. “Where are you going?” I asked her simply.
She glanced over at me and Mother Adhiti, who stood just behind me stolid and silent as ever. There was a reason I chose this companion on my trip out, much to the irritation of my council. I certainly was not repeating the earlier cavalcade that had gone to meet the stranger.
Thin, worn, a bit taller than I might have expected, the mule seller had the eyes and nose of someone from much further south and west than Kalimpura. Her clothing was of an unfamiliar cut, made from loosely woven cotton dyed shades of red and layered one atop the other until she looked like a costume of flame meant for a child’s drama. She, or her parents, had walked a very long way to sell mules here in our city.
“Beyond the walls,” she replied just as simply after a long moment’s appraisal of me.
“There is nothing there but fields, and open country.” I nodded at her whuffling string of unruly livestock. “You will find few there with coin to purchase your wares.”
“I will find fewer buyers and less coin here,” the mule seller snapped. “The streets are breaking beneath his feet.”
“Whose feet?” I knew the answer to the question, of course, but I wanted to see what she thought. What the people thought.
All I got for my trouble was a roll of the eyes and her turning her back on me. She knew the answer as well as I, of course.
Mother Adhiti and I found the stranger wandering slowly down Shalavana Avenue. He dawdled near a series of mansions I thought might belong to some of the spice factors. We were not so far from the old refuge that Mother Argai had brought me to on my return to Kalimpura with my babies, a decade and a half ago.
I knew this area, and held some small fondness for it.
“What is he doing?” Mother Adhiti asked, her first words since we’d left the Temple of the Silver Lily. Well, I’d wanted laconic, I could hardly complain now.
“I have no idea,” I answered truthfully enough.
Small, pale, the stranger stared up at the walls and rooflines as if by the agency of his very gaze he could capture the architecture. Though we were too far away to tell, and hiding behind an abandoned fruitier’s cart to boot, I would have bet my short knives that the stranger still had that gut-wrenching smile.
“We are not real to him,” I added after a few minutes. “Animals. Or mobile furniture.”
Mother Adhiti stared at me a little while. Her dark gaze held mine, those eyes as deep and patient as old sin. “Are the mice in the walls real to you, Mother Green?” That was practically an oration for her.
The words ‘but the mice do not build the walls’ died on my lips. Everything from termites to birds can build. Fish make little nests for their eggs in the sandy bottoms of streams. What more were we?
What more was he?
“How would a mouse get my attention?” I wondered aloud. If it bit me, I would just crush it with my sandal. If it spoke to me, though…
Truly I wish the Quiet Man had come to me with a more open hand. He had something in mind, some purpose with respect to this stranger, that I did not understand. Just now I very much regretted that lack of understanding.
“Let’s get closer,” I said.
Mother Adhiti stirred, but she did not object. When I began sidling slowly alongside the compound wall to my right, much as a mouse might run along the base of a door, she followed me uncomplaining.
Closer, the stranger once again churned my guts to roiling water. I wished I understood how that was done, for then I might resist it. This was like confronting a god for the first time. Except without even the essential humanity that underlay most gods. Or at least, the gods that people of my kind worshipped.
I might not have much experience being spoken to by mice, but I had talked to more gods than any priest I knew. Well, any other priest.
In that moment, I thought about how much it might have been nice to have Firesetter at my side, but he and Fantail were off in the Fire Lakes, hunting yet again for traces of his vanished people. Likewise the Rectifier, but that great Pardine warrior was safely across the sea. Doubtless sacking a temple somewhere.
Now we hung back in the shelter of a little postern gatehouse. The door wasn’t even locked, the occupants had left in such a hurry. The stranger was twenty paces way. If he were a human being, I could have easily struck him with a thrown blade. At that moment, I wished as I rarely ever did for the god-blooded knife I’d sent back over the Storm Sea to Blackblood, to be part of the dress for the altar of his temple.
Our stranger was studying the casting of an iron lamppost. Shalavana Avenue is one of those parts of Kalimpura with sufficient wealth and organization for the property owners along the street to raise subscriptions for luxuries such as lighting and street patrols. Here the posts had been wrought in the form of climbing vines with lacy precision that increased the labor but decreased the metal required, and therefore made for a lighter standing weight. It was an elegant enough compromise if you could afford the sculptor’s hire and the special casting.
“Do you imagine those are natural?” I whispered under my breath.
The stranger must have had hearing even better than mine in my younger days, because he turned without hesitation to meet my eye. The gorge rose in my throat.
“Be you rotated once more at behest of mine,” he said pleasantly in that same, strange Petraean. His lips still moved differently than the words that reached my ears.
Bile dripped down my lower lip. I wiped it clean.
I am the mouse that speaks. “No. I do nothing at your behest.” By the Wheel, I wanted to stuff that smile of his down his throat and draw it out upside down and backwards through his guts. So what if he was a god, from some creation so distant and strange that there was no human in him at all except the accident of shape? “It is time for you to go. You are destroying our city.”
“Sophisticated goats are entering slumber for mine.”
That was no answer at all. I stood, only then realizing that both Mother Adhiti and I had slipped into painful, cowering crouches. “Begone. You have no place here. I abjure you to pass beyond us and never return.”
His smile widened at that, and a spark came into his eyes. If the stranger were human, I would have considered it amusement. One hand came up and pointed toward me with a single, lazing finger.
Every piece of metal on my body exploded into heat and vibration. My short knives, my long knife, the tiny studs and buckles of my sheaths, the chain around my neck with its misshapen thunder-bow bullet that had once nearly claimed my life. Even the metal stays in the soles of my boots. I stripped myself of these things quickly and violently, ending with my leathers in disarray and my temper boiling as hot as the metal I’d dropped steaming to the postern gate’s flagstones.
“You will not,” I began, feeling the force of oceans and flowers building in my voice, but his finger twitched and I was blown backward through the gate and into the yard beyond, carried away on a wave of heat and pain and hundreds of splinters.
“That did not go well.”
I opened my eyes. Mother Vajpai was watching me unsympathetically.
A quick look around confirmed that my head and neck ached abominably, and that I was in my quarters back at the Temple of the Silver Lily. On my bed, specifically. Mother Vajpai occupied my favorite chair, a mug of kava in her hand.
“I got a full report from Mother Adhiti,” she added helpfully. “Well, as full a report as she ever manages to give. Also, you only had about four dozen splinters in your back.”
“Thank the goddess for good leathers,” I muttered.
“Satisfied now that you cannot beat this stranger face to face?”
“I knew it before.”
Mother Vajpai clucked. “Apparently you felt the need to prove your error.” Her eyes were twinkling.
I felt another rush of anger. “Is this a test!?”
“Of course.” She seemed surprised. “In the sense that everything is a test. I did not arrange it, nor I suppose did our goddess, though Her ways are ever and always Her own.”
“This is a test we’d better pass quickly, or it won’t matter.”
She stirred her kava with a roll of cinnamon bark. Though I rarely drink the stuff, I almost always enjoy the scent. The spice folded well into the musky brown. “How do you propose to pass this test?”
“We could brandish every firearm and blade in this city. He would just smile and make us drop our weapons to tend to our burns. I do not imagine that shooting from a distance will make any difference to this one, either.” I thought back to my earlier wish for large, well-armed friends. “Even Firesetter and the Rectifier standing shoulder to shoulder would barely merit a glance from the stranger.” And they were the two mightiest fighters I had ever known.
“You have tried negotiation.”
“Twice,” I admitted. “Unreasonable demands and incomprehensible statements.”
“Just like a man,” Mother Vajpai said with a small smile. For a moment I had to laugh.
“Neither force nor words will prevail. What we have left is patience, or higher authority.”
“And your Quiet Men,” she added after a moment.
“I laid them out.” Again, I wondered if I had done the right thing.
She nodded toward the door. “Perhaps.”
The man I had caused to be smothered after crushing his throat walked into my chambers. I rolled out of my bed, grabbing the long knife I kept strapped underneath the sleeping platform, and came up in a low crouch with the point weaving toward where he had been not a moment before.
Except he wore a simple, pale blue salwar kameez instead of the leathers of a Quiet Man. And there was nothing wrong with his neck, where I had punched him almost to death not a few hours earlier.
“You are a brother.” My knife was unwavering. “A twin to Master Quiet, perhaps.” I did not believe my own words.
“It does not matter.” This one’s voice was mild as the summer wind. The same wind that brought cyclones to tear down houses. But he was not the stranger. His power was like unto mine, and I knew I could break him should I wish to do so.
I was in no mood to bandy. “Speak now, and quickly.” Mother Vajpai was bland as a stone at this exchange.
“Our last approach to you was unsuccessful. We felt it important to try again.”
That sparked genuine curiosity on my part. “For what are you trying?” I leaned toward him. “Why do you care what the mothers of the temple think or do?”
He took a long moment replying. Not uncertainty. More like assessment. As if I were a candidate being brought before a ritual of elevation. I put the uncomfortable thought away and listened with my entire being.
“You see Kalimpura as a place of stones and people.”
I stirred at that, to offer objection and qualification, but realized that like a candidate I must hold my tongue for now. The galling sensation of being required to obey in my own chambers, in my own temple, before my own Goddess, I folded away for later.
Patience might not be my favorite virtue, but being Temple Mother these past fifteen years had certainly instilled it in me against all odds.
“Everyone does,” he went on. “It is the nature of being human. We are endowed with senses that draw maps of the world inside our head.”
So far, I could have delivered this lecture. Still, I clasped my patience close to my heart.
“Because we see people, we see how they are connected to one another. So the child knows the mother, and the sister knows the brother, and the woman knows her lover. And beyond. From the meanest beggar in the street to the greatest of merchants in her house, we know one another. That is the same knowledge we bring to the gods themselves, and to people in faraway cities and on long-voyaged ships, though we cannot see or touch them.” After a moment, he added thoughtfully, “Or at least most of us cannot see or touch them.”
I passed a small smile at that, which I did not trouble to conceal. “And where do you fit into this?”
“There are other… lines of view. Other ways of thinking. You know this, Mother Green. You understand the gods perhaps better than anyone in our city. For this you are famous. There is not another theogenetrix alive on the plate of the world so far as anyone in Selistan knows. But the world is not simply and solely divided into people and the divine. That you see two lines of view should tell you there are more to be seen.”
“Yes, of course.” Impatience bobbed in my words like a corpse in a stream. “I have glimpsed the power of the pardines and their shared soulpath back along the Stone Coast. I have heard tell of wizards and their ilk, though I know little enough of their magic.”
“Think of each of those lines of view as… modalities. ‘Noumena’ is a word we use to talk of such. The Kalimpura of stones and people is a noumenon. The most basic one, from a human perspective. The world of the titanics and the gods is a different noumenon. The modality that my brothers and I operate within, our noumenon, is yet another.”
His manner was of a man reluctantly parting with deep, hermetic secrets. But I’d spent the first years of my life with this sort of philosophical minutiae at the Factor’s House. Mistress Danae of the Pomegranate Court could have schooled this one quite handily. Not to mention Iso and Osi and their teachings from the Saffron Tower, though my time with them had been much more limited and necessarily confined to summaries of arguments rather than the full, grandiose details of philosophy.
It was time to slice open the wound. “What you are telling me is that the Quiet Men are wizards, and I may never understand your magic.”
His smooth power stirred to a flicker of irritation. “Well, yes.”
“And this stranger who has come to Kalimpura is yet another kind of wizard, or at least hails from a different noumenon.”
That drew another flicker of irritation. “Imprecise and false in a way that approximates truth.”
I glanced at Mother Vajpai a moment, then back at the Quiet Man. “You see me as a foreign half-breed in charge of a flawed house of fractious women. Most men in this city see me so. That can even be approximately true, in an imprecise and false way.” I gave him a nasty smile. “You know me to be god-touched. Half the people around the Storm Sea know that as well. But do not assume either of these things means I am simple or mad. Or lacking in education.” One of my short knives slipped into my left hand. I flipped it without looking. “And do not speak to me as if I were an errant servant who needs to be reminded of her place.”
A long, tense moment followed where the Quiet Man did not breathe. This lasted to the point where I began to wonder if his breathing before had been a masquerade, a posture of some kind.
Finally, his mouth shuddered open and he began to speak again. “The stranger’s noumenon is incompatible with ours. He bleeds power the way a god might, if that god were blind and deaf and mute and mad and unaware of the world of people and stones.”
That I could imagine. That I had seen. It was what so many people understood without knowing how or why, why the population of my city was emptying out rather than remain in the same place as this stranger.
“All of this is very interesting. But why do I care what the Quiet Men think of this? So far as I know, you are a secret society of murderous thugs.”
“So are you,” he observed mildly.
“There’s nothing secret about the Temple of the Silver Lily,” I shot back. One could hardly argue with my body count, though I preferred not to consider myself a thug.
“Fair enough. You care what we think, because while our noumenon is not capable of standing up to the stranger, we believe yours is. And we believe our power can help you to overcome him.”
“To save Kalimpura,” I said with distaste. “A day ago, you conspired with the steward of the Starling Court to claim my life, as if you somehow held the Death Right in this city. Today you come to my temple, first with knives and blood, now in supplication, to ask my help. Why should I imagine your interests and mine are common?”
He gave me the same answer I might have given him if our situations had been reversed. “We may play different sides of the game, even to the death, but all of us lose if the board is destroyed.”
“It is not me you wish to save, it is the board.” I held up a hand to forestall him. “I merely seek clarity.”
“In that case, yes.”
“And preserving your noumenon, your power, would just be a happy outcome of this. While risking me and mine at your throw of the dice.”
He shrugged, the most expressively human thing I’d yet seen this Quiet Man do. “The game goes on, even though the board trembles and smolders.”
“I will take your bait, and swallow it, and swallow you down as well,” I replied. “But my price is that you must tell me one thing, Master Quiet.”
“What is that?”
“Are you the same man I struck down in the kitchens, then had smothered?”
He answered my earlier smile with a secret, infuriating smile of his own. “Are you the same woman who struck me down in the kitchens?”
My short knife quivered in the plaster just behind his head. Several wisps of his hair floated free. “Try me and find out. I can kill you as many times as it takes to do the job properly. I have lots of experience at that.”
Mother Vajpai watched critically as several of the Caring Mothers anointed my body with camphor oil as the Quiet Man had instructed. We were following steps in a ritual of which we would never know anything more. But then, what would we know of the stranger?
“You might have bargained to set aside the Starling Court’s bid against you,” she offered.
“I might have.” Her I gave a genuine smile to. “Do you believe he would have agreed to such?”
“Any more than I would have waived a valid Death Right claim against him if our situations were reversed.” I raised my arms a little higher so that Sister Naphthai could properly coat my pits. The stuff was vile and sticky and made my nose run so hard I thought I might be bleeding there, but what must be done must be done. “I can deal with the problem at the Starling Court from the source.”
“The Quiet Men have been a thorn in your foot these many years.”
“My feet have known many thorns. They have erred in showing themselves. If the Quiet Men wanted me dead, they should have struck me down already, before I knew they were seeking me. Now I have a face, and some understanding. This particular thorn will never be so invisible to me again.”
She said nothing to that, but I could tell she was satisfied. I turned to allow another coat of the sticky mess down my back and hips. Nearby, several Mothers were working frantically on the loose copper net that would go over the oil to cover my body like armor against the dreamlike weapons of an errant god. Or whatever the stranger was.
“Do you wish you were going out to face this stranger a third time?” I asked my old teacher.
“Sooner wish I was Temple Mother,” she said, but this time there was sadness in her eyes, and I realized I’d questioned what I’d promised never to question.
“You will need to open a channel to the divine,” the Quiet Man told me. I felt rather an idiot, sticky and stinking in camphor and copper and cotton and layers of some dark, shiny cloth he’d provided to be wrapped around me like a funerary bandage.
“I believe we call that prayer.”
“Imprecatory prayer, I should hope.” This time his smile was almost kind, as if we were friends about some mischief rather than mortal enemies cooperating to save the burning game board on which we still wished to play.
“You worry about the noumena, I’ll worry about the divine.”
With those words, I turned away from Master Quiet.
Goddess. I sent a prayer rising from the boiling kettle of my thoughts. And Desire behind and beyond and around You. We are like old clothes to one another now, easily donned and comfortably worn and hardly noticed most days. My times of calling You down amid fire and sword are long passed. I of all people am surprised to see them come again.
The wind stirred around me, and a few cool drops struck my face though no cloud loomed overhead. That was often a sign that the Lily Goddess was close to hand.
This man our enemy has the right of it. The gameboard of our lives is afire. There will be no Temple of the Silver Lily, no fractious mothers and praying women from the city around us, if the stranger does not turn away. And so I am being made over into a kind of magical weapon I do not pretend to understand, and I am to be primed and armed with the focus of Your intent.
Your vision, my hands.
Your will, my word.
Your world, my life.
A tiny devil of the wind stirred before me, the shapes of a hundred women sketched in dust no higher than my knee. The titanic Desire, perhaps. Or perhaps my own will.
Had I ever doubted myself before?
Should I doubt myself now?
Of course not.
Still, I was afraid.
“I am impressed,” the Quiet Man said. I’d forgotten he was standing there yet. “Remember, you can only do this once.” A warning about the stranger, and also about me trying to turn his own powers back on himself. Of course the Quiet Man would not arm me to stand against his kind as well.
Before us, now at the lower end of Shalavana Avenue, the stranger was dissecting a goat, apparently by sheer force of will. I would have required at least a knife. The poor creature was bleating piteously and spouting blood in three different arcs.
Truthfully, I found myself somewhat amazed he’d kept it alive this long.
“That is my goat,” I told the Quiet Man. Inside me, the Lily Goddess stirred. I knew the sensations— – a faint fizzing in the blood, the edges of the world turning bright and sharp.
“This is my city.” Wind rustled more strongly around us, carrying flower petals and water droplets and the scent of something that might have been hope.
My voice grew bigger. Multitudinous.
“These are My people.”
Women everywhere suffer at the hands of men. So it has been since Father Sunbones and Mother Mooneyes first walked in their garden before time. This stranger, this man, was no more going to do to Me or Us what Iso and Osi had attempted, or the unfortunate Mafic.
I stepped forward into the street. The pavers crackled and smoked beneath My feet. Above Me, the sky wavered. Birds fluttered screaming into the air only to drop dead in a feathered rain, so many spent missiles from the sling of a juvenile god. Flowers spun on the gusts which surrounded Me, an armor of air and light. Tiny sparks crackled from My copper suit to send each blossom smoking as it twirled.
The stranger looked up from his work. The goat collapsed, forgotten, sliding with a bubbling sigh into a torn pile of flesh and fur and slivered bone. My adversary frowned, the first real expression I had ever seen on him.
Had the stranger once been a human being, I wondered, or is this form part of his guise as well?
That does not matter, echoed the power inside Me.
Nothing matters but the city, which is made of its people and its stones.
I raised my hand, palm outward, so he could see the sigil so painstakingly inscribed there by the Quiet Man while I had stood in sticky, uncomfortable ignorance.
Stop, We said.
The stranger’s frown deepened. His own hands flexed. “In chorus I defer to strangely this?”
We certainly had his full attention now. Not in the bemused, detached way of Our first two encounters. The Quiet Man had absolutely succeeded in inserting Us into the stranger’s view of his own noumenon.
Now We had a wonderful opportunity to learn exactly how big a mistake this might have been.
The sigil pulsed in Our hand, sending a wave of fizzling sensation that might been pain in some other world.
The frown twitched. He was perfectly still. That sense of sickening wrongness which had already evacuated half the city pulsed off the stranger like waves from a stone dropped into a pond. “You I am oceanic paravision aver.”
He was starting to make sense to Us. We did not think that meet or just.Pass onward. You cannot prevail here, regardless of whether or not you can be defeated.
Grit and dust began flying up from the cracks in the street to form a circling cloud over Our head. Soil lofted from the nearby walled gardens of the houses of wealth to join in. The land itself was coming to Us.
The stranger straightened, pulling himself up to his full but modest height. “The pedestal shall not kraken, neither will the statute arise.”
All will be spent for nothing, We said. Our arm ached with the fizzing sensation. Our skin was beginning to crack, to slough away and molt.
Wizard’s magic and divine power were not meant to blend, any more than kava and lemon juice were.
His face became mottled, as anger flushed through him. “Creature anima hold no spirit for my ways.”
Strangers hold no power for Our ways.
This one was rock, We were water. We could each move the other, but the endless war between sea and stone never would find a victor.
We closed Our hand over the pulsing sigil. The fizzing became exquisite, pain faceted to jeweled precision and bedizened with the good intentions of a thousand angry men’s souls. We came to the moment that all such workings come to, when a choice is made, a price is paid, a surrender freely given.
With Our left hand we snapped off the two littlest fingers of Our right. Our skin shattered like rotten ice. Our flesh tore free as old wood will do. Our knucklebones puffed to dust that flared in a hundred tiny sparks.
Some sacrifices can be made only once, but they can still serve a double duty.
We advanced on the stranger once more, sigil still open and pulsing, fingers clutched in Our left hand. One finger We couched within Our fist. The other We pushed until it prodded him in the midst of his chest.
Now We could touch him.
Begone. Our voice echoed down planes and aspects of the world even We had never before glimpsed. From the tiniest worlds-within-worlds that circle at the heart of every stick and stone to the deepest airless gulfs beyond the plate of the world, Our voice echoed in that moment.
He stepped backward. His footfall covered the pace of a million years and the time of the width of the universe. His clothing sparkled, his mouth opened, and the stranger folded in on himself like a paper swan, becoming all planes and none, and noumenon besides.
I turned, nearly passing out from the pain in my right hand, and sprinted back toward the Quiet Man. He looked astonished for a moment, until I pressed my second frozen, crackling finger into his chest. My enemy did not fold himself away so neatly as the stranger had done, but even my goddess-raddled sight could glimpse his wizard magics leaving him.
This particular Quiet Man had seen his last resurrection.
“Take your filthy noumenon and get off my thrice-damned gaming board,” I told his shrieking ghost as his true age overtook his shriveled, steaming corpse.
There was a long, quiet moment in which nothing much happened. Then Mother Vajpai slipped out from behind an overturned sedan chair and took my right hand in hers. “Most peculiar scars I’ve ever seen,” she said in a surprisingly gentle voice.
I looked. The last knuckle of each of my two missing fingers protruded slightly from my hand. Where there should have been a fresh wound, or even scarring and bit of gleaming bone, there was instead frost-white flesh neutral in temperature and texture. Embedded in each patch, where the knucklebone might have protruded, was a tiny gleaming dot of darkness. Like a black diamond.
“That was… not easy.” My entire body felt like a sleeve turned inside out. Pain still fizzled in my arm. I knew I would very soon pay a great debt for the loss of my fingers. At many levels. The Lily Goddess was gone from me, as were the Quiet Men’s magics.
Together we swiftly stripped me out of the black windings, the cotton clothes, and the copper armor. Then Mother Vajpai led me to a fountain and bathed me until the camphor lacquered to my skin by heat and energy began to slough away. I cried from the pain of the exposed skin, but I let her do it.
In time, a Blade handle found us there and took us home.
A stranger came to Kalimpura. Much was wagered, something was lost. I write these words now a month after the confrontation on Shalavana Avenue. I hesitate to call it a battle, for we did not fight. Not in any sense that I could really understand it.
The Quiet Men have not reappeared, though I am certain it is they who sent me a gift of two sets of finger bones carved from onyx. The bones were in a small box bound with leather almost certainly made of human skin.
They know I am here. I know they are there. We share a gameboard. Perhaps for a while we will not play for blood.
Likewise I have settled matters with the Starling Court, more in the usual fashion of the Lily Blades. It does my reputation no harm to correct misperceptions and misbehaviors on the part of others. Lacking two fingers, I shall probably never lead a handle again.
But then in truth, I knew I never would even before the stranger came.
Even my daughter has forgiven me for loving her as a mother does. As for the things I do to love myself, I have even learned to sew my bells with fewer fingers.
The question I cannot answer, unusually so for me, is whether I made a mistake in all this. I lack for certainty, but I also lack for understanding. I have offered the funerary candles even for the stranger, odd as that felt to do.
Sometimes I wonder if I should offer the candles for the girl and woman I used to be.
My fingers ache, where they no longer exist. And it is true that I understand less than ever.
Pain and mystery.
Are those not the lot of everyone’s life?