Saturday, April 26, 2014

Chapters 22, 23 and 24 of the Bard's Apprentice.

Continuing with my mildly popular serialized fantasy novel.

(Including the talkiest chapter in the book, which is the middle one here.

I've always loved talk. The first film I ever went to see was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when I was seven. I remember I wanted to see Star Trek: The Search for Spock, but my father said: "You wouldn't like that. It's all talking." I remember thinking: "That would be great!". My favourite chapter in Lord of the Rings, from the time I was a kid, was The Council of Elrond. My favourite part of Sherlock Holmes stories was always the initial consultation in 221B Baker Street. Nothing makes for riveting fiction, in my view, like a good long chinwag, especially in some cosy setting.

BUT, I realize I'm in the minority here. And therefore I ask your apologies for Chapter 23, and reassure you it's as sedentary as the book gets.)

Chapter Twenty-Two

The warmth of the fire lapped at Fox’s face, his arms, his shins. His back was propped against a huge pile of rugs, that reached almost to his shoulders. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of Armala’s tamzan, and watching the slow breathing of a white cat lying in luxurious contentment by the fire. If it had been lying any close to the flames, its hairs would have been singed. Fox wondered once more at the arrogance of cats, their disregard of danger. It was something he could never understand.

Cats were not the only visitors to the storyteller’s tamzan. Hens, dogs, crows and even mice wandered through, as well. Sometimes Fox wondered if they were her eyes and ears, bringing her news of the outside world. She seemed to know everything that was happening out there, after all.

Like the coldfire stones. Fox had told nobody except Grandy, when Cambrice Swan had gone. Grandy had been like a little boy, looking at the gems from every conceivable angle, holding them up to the light, running his fingertips over every inch of them.

“I’m the last person you mention this to, boy”, he had ordered, not taking his eyes from the coldfire stones.

And Fox had obeyed him. But this was the very same day, and Armala knew all about the stones. And the Blue Stag.

“So why are you sitting there looking like a dead dog?”, asked Armala, interrupting her story of the ancient widow and the man with twelve fingers.

“It’s just…” began Fox, when he realised that silence would only meet with silence. “It’s just that…I could have died.”

“Yes”, said Armala, matter-of-factly.

“You sent me”, said Fox.

Armala only looked at him. She reached her hand out to stroke the face of the cat, who woked up and strolled towards her, still sleepy. The storyteller gathered her up and held her on her lap. The cat purred, and Armala looked back up at Fox, still not answering, as if he hadn’t said anything worth answering yet.

“Did you know I could have died?”, asked Fox. “I could have been torn apart by frolic bears?”

“I knew something was going to happen”, said Armala. “Didn’t you?”

“No”, said Fox, after a moment’s thought.

“Then you haven’t learn as much as I hoped”, said Armala. “You’re not a quick learner, Fox.”

Fox tried not to look stung by this. “Did you know I was going to come back alive?”, he asked, his anger slowly burning within him.

“No”, she answered, scratching the cat’s stomach. “No more than I knew that I would still be alive when you did come back. I’m not a fortune-teller, Fox.”

“Don’t you care about me?”, Fox asked.

“Yes, I do”, said Armala. “Remember, you were the one who came to me, begging to be my apprentice.”

“And is that how you learnt to be a storyteller?”, asked Fox, not caring now if he showed his anger. “By wandering through the wilds and almost getting eaten?”
“No”, said Armala. “I’ve hardly stepped outside a tamzan in my life. But there’s a difference, Fox.”

“Oh? What?”

“I’m vastly more talented than you”, said the storyteller, with not a hint of boastfulness in her voice. “I never had to venture out into the world to know it. Since I was a little girl, I was able to read a man’s history and heart just by glancing at him. You have no such ability, or very little of it.”

Fox bowed his head, not out of shame, but out of agitation.

“You have something, though”, said Armala, and if there was no boastfulness in her voice before, there was no reassurance now. “A lot of confusion.”

“Confusion?”, asked Fox, looking up. He was certainly confused now.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing”, smiled Armala. “Confusion. Even by your age, most people are growing certain about everything. Far too certain for their own good. Confusion shows an openness, an awareness of life’s mysteries.”

“So the best thing you can say for me is that I’m confused”, said Fox, looking the storyteller in the eye. He always found that difficult, when she was at her most direct.

“I’m not here to flatter you”, she said, her smile fading. “I’m here to teach you. But don’t be insulted. Confusion isn’t all you have going for you.”

“What else, then?”

“I’m not going to tell you, for three reasons. First, that you wouldn’t understand. Second, that it’s never a good idea to tell people what they should find out for themselves. Third, because even I can’t see into the bottom of another person’s soul. Nobody can do that. Life would hardly be worth living if it was possible.”

Fox looked away into the shadows. The storyteller’s tamzan was no bigger than most, but it seemed endless. The fire was always burning so brightly, and there was so much clutter, that shadows sprung up everywhere. Suddenly Fox saw Sleep gazing out from behind a hanging tapestry, a tapestry whose details he had never been able to make out. As usual, she wore no expression except a voracious curiosity.

“What about Cambrice Swan?”, asked Fox.

“What about him?”, asked Armala. She always seemed reluctant to answer vague questions.

“I feel like he’s important, somehow”.

“How could he not be important? The Ezwayna have been cut off from the Anarchy for more than twenty years. He brings us stories of this Legislatrix, of great changes in the world outside. How could that not change things?”

“I mean”, said Fox, feeling Sleep’s eyes burning into him, “I feel like he’s important to me”.

“Then he probably is”, said Armala. “And you might not have been so backward in your lessons as I thought. But that’s enough of that. Back to the widow and the twelve-fingered man.”

And she continued the tale of deception and witchery, which he had already told him in five different ways. Afterwards, she would get him to tell it back to her in yet more ways. Being her apprentice was occasionally exciting. More often it was tedious.

When he left for the day, the children were cleaning up after Fools’ Feast. Little teams of them were scraping up whatever mess had not been eaten by dogs and cats into deep sacks. Some of them had less disposable marks of combat upon them, huge yellow and purple bruises on their faces. Fox guessed they were proud of them.

He realised Sleep was walking by his side.

“What did you do when I was gone, Sleep?”, he asked, irritated and knowing that his being irritated wouldn’t bother the girl in the least. “Who did you follow then?”

“Nobody”, she said. She always gave direct answers.

“Is Truevow working?”, he asked. Sleep always knew where everybody was. He had long since stopped wondering how.

“No”, she said. “He’s with Grandy in the Spiral House. Grandy won’t let him go anywhere without him. I don’t know why.”

I do, thought Fox. Grandy was convinced that Truevow was a giddy young man, the sort who would gossip about the coldfire stones. Fox had tried to tell Grandy about Truevow swearing him to silence, but Grandy was unimpressed.

“He doesn’t want you to steal his glory, boy. Well, the Elders are meeting tonight, along with me and you and Truevow, and I’m sure you’ll both be scared to say a word about anything for a month after that.”

“The Elders?”, asked Fox. “In the…”

“In the Stone House, yes”, said Grandy. “They’re going to decide what to do about the coldfire stones. Until then, I’m not letting Truevow out of my sight. So bring him to me right now. As for you, you know what’s in store for you if you even think about those stones in the wrong company, don’t you?”

Truevow had still been asleep when Fox got to his tamzan. His sisters, tall and thin like himself, were stepping over his body, getting breakfast ready, occasionally giving him a not-too-light kick to wake him up. Even when Fox joined in the efforts to rouse him, it was a long time before he opened his eyes.

“Jasma”, he moaned at one point, and both of his sisters cursed at once.

“Well, he can get that notion out of his head, for good”, said the elder girl. “She says she’s moving to the Anarchy.”

“To the Anarchy?,” said Truevow, sitting up, suddenly wakeful.

“With that grinning fool who came with the explorer”, said the younger girl, who was the skinniest of the whole family.

“The explorer?”, asked Truevow, staring at her.

“It’s meant to be a big secret”, said the elder girl, stirring a pot with brisk, almost violent strokes. “But lots of people know already. An explorer came yesterday, during Fool’s Feast. All the way from the Anarchy. There’s some new woman in charge of things there.”

“And he brought a servant with him”, said the younger girl, who seemed to take a joy in tormenting Truevow with the news. “A bragging, mugging fool who’s as crazy about Jasma as the rest of you.”

“But handsome”, said her sister, sniffing the pot. Her eyes glowed for a moment.

“Oh, wonderfully handsome”, emphasised the younger girl, watching her brother.

She must have been gratified by his reaction. He looked furious and desolate at once.

“And she’s going…?”, he began, unable to finish the sentence.

“That’s what she says,” said the elder girl. “If I were you, Truevow, I would put the silly chit out of your head. She’s vain, shallow, bossy, narrow-minded. I’m gladder than I can say that she’s never going to pay any attention to you. I’m glad she’s moving to the Anarchy, where everybody is as silly as she is.”

“I have to go to her”, said Truevow, rising from his bed. He was wearing the thin, long white robe that all Ezwayna wore in bed. “Tell her what a fool—“

“Not yet”, said Fox, putting a hand on his sholder. “Grandy wants to see you. Immediately.”

“Not before he has something to eat”, said the older sister. “And you, too.”

“How do you know I haven’t eaten?”, asked Fox.

“You can always tell when a boy hasn’t eaten”, she said, tapping the wooden spoon on the edge of the pot. “Or a man. He looks like all the blood has been drained from his body.” Her sister snickered, and they ate in silence. Truevow chewed the porridge like a dying man.

And now they were in the Spiral House. Fox made his way towards it, Sleep still dogging him. It was next to impossible to throw her off without ordering her.

“Summer is coming”, she said, looking at the thickening leaves.

“Something is coming”, said Fox. Dread and excitement had been welling up in him since he’d seen Cambrice Swan.

The Spiral House was as crowded as ever. Sometimes, Fox thought that it was the heart of the settlement. Nowhere in the village seemed more alive, more awake. He loved the solemnity of Armala’s tamzan; it was like a look-out post from which you could see all that had ever existed, in this world and every other. You could see all life from the gloom of her tamzan, but life was happening here. One tiny fragment of life, but that was always how life was lived.

It was full of murmurs, as always. The more time that went by, the more keen on the game its fans seemed to become, and the more fans there seemed to be. Most Ezwayna under the age of twenty-five took some interest in it now, if only because those who didn’t felt they were missing out on something. There were almost as many young women in the tamzan as young men. And it wasn’t just the young who had been hooked; some of the spectators were almost as old as Grandy.

Grandy was in the audience. As soon as he saw Fox and Truevow entering the tamzan, he moved through the huddle, which immediately parted for him. It was not only his crankiness that made them step aside. The Spiral fans seemed to consider Grandy the head of their little tribe-within-a-tribe. They adored him, and almost felt flattered when he frowned at them.

As he was moving towards them, Fox noticed that Goodfellow was playing a boy. He could hardly have been older than Fox himself. Fox had heard that some Ezwayna had—finally—been allowed to compete at Spiral, but somebody his own age? The very thought annoyed him.

But by then Grandy had caught up with them, and he grabbed Truevow by the shoudler, not roughly, but not gently, either. “You two”, he said. “Come with me”.

He led them outside—nobody seemed to be watching them, as all eyes were fixed on the game. He did not speak them as he marched them towards a clump of trees perhaps a hundred feet away from the Spiral House. Fox had otten seem boys and girls kissing here, or small groups playing marbles. (Marbles had lost some of its popularity, since the arrival of Spiral. It seemed to played now as a kind of relief from the new and more important game.)

When they had reached the trees, Grandy turned to them and addressed Truevow:

“First of all, I have to thank you for saving my grandson. That showed more guts than I thought you had.”

“You’re welcome”, said Truevow, without much enthusiasm. His mind was obviously elsewhere, and his face was white.

“But you’re a young man, and all young men are fools. The world would be in a pretty pickle if they weren’t. No more babies, for one thing. So I’m going to keep you with me until we meet the Elders tonight. To make sure you don’t drop even the slightest hint of what happened out there. Now I’m going back to watch the game, and you’re coming with me.”

“Please, sir—“ began Truevow, with a sudden urgency in his voice.

“What’s that?”, asked Grandy, who had already turned to walk back to the Spiral House.

“I want to talk to Jasma”, he said, and for a moment Fox thought he was going to start crying. There was a catch in his voice when he spoke her name, and Fox found himself feeling sorry for the young man.

Grandy swore under his breath, and said: “Please believe me, sonny. Jasma is a flighty, chattering fool. Loyalty is her only virtue.That, and a complete lack of sentimentality. And she’s besotted with this Greatcastle fellow. I’d advise you to leave it.”

“I can’t leave it”, said Truevow. His face was becoming harder, more determined. He seemed about to defy Grandy. Fox had never seen anyone do that before.

Grandy seemed to recognise it, too, because he sighed and said: “Very well. We’re going to see Jasma, then. I’m sure she’s mooning about somewhere with her sweetheart.”

You should just ask Sleep, thought Fox, wondering where she had gone. She came and went like a headache.

He went to follow Truevow and Grandy, but Grandy placed a restraining hand on his chest.

“No, not you, Fox. You still have a healthy young mind. I don’t want it to become polluted with love-talk. It will come to you all too soon. You stay here, and don’t talk to anyone. This isn’t going to take very long”. His jaw tightened after he said this, showing his determination, but Fox guessed Truevow might be just as determined.

He watched their figures shorten, moving into the distance, and realised he was alone for the first time since Truevow had saved him from the frolic bears. Around him, there was silence. Even the commotion in the Spiral House did not reach him here. The day was still; no breeze played through the branches overhead. Far away, birds were singing, but the distant sound only made the silence seem greater. It was as if the world was waiting, drawing breath.


Chapter Twenty-Three

The crow stood on the ledge of the window, staring into the room inside, like a sentry. Or a prison guard. It reminded Fox of the guilt-crow who had inspected Grandy’s house, back when all this had begun. The day that Piper came.

The day that Piper came. Armala had taught him about glowing phrases, phrases that would stick in the mind, and that was one of them for sure. Perhaps he was learning, after all.

She was sitting across the table from him now, her hands folded upon it, listening. Truevow was sitting to her left, still looking dismal. Jasma had obviously not changed her plan. Fox knew she wasn’t going to.

Grandy was at one corner of the table, and Goodfellow was to Fox’s left. Nine other Elders were present, and the Eldest himself was sitting at the head.

The ceiling was low, and the room—although it was the size of most tamzans—was no bigger than Grandy’s old study. This was the grandest house in the settlement, but it would have been of average size, by the standards of the Empire.

It still managed to be impressive, though. There was something about its very simplicity that made it seem important. All of the furnishings seemed several generations old. Even the poker by the fire had a wise look about it.

The Elder was talking. The coldfire stones were lying on the table before him. They flickered in the light of the low fire. They threw blue reflections on the faces of those sitting around them.

“They will destroy us”, said the Eldest, looking at the drops of blue fire as if they were poisonous. “Finding them was the worst fortune we have had since we came to this place.”

The last time Fox had heard the Eldest—the last time he had expected to hear him—he had been reassuring, thankful, good-humoured. It was a very different man who faced this little assembly. No, that was not quite true; even then, Fox had sensed this power within the old man. But now it was bared, and awesome. The glint of his eyes was harder than the glow of the coldfire stones.

Even Grandy seemed cautious in his presence.

“And yet, we did find them”, said the Mother of Mourning, who Fox had last heard speaking at the graves of No-Sooner and those who had fallen at the hands of the Red Dogs. “Don’t you believe there is such a thing as Providence, Eldest?”

There was an intake of breath around the table. She had not named God, but she had come close.

“Of course”, said the Eldest, smiling at her. It was not a polite smile; the Elders had no need to be polite. Fox had never seen a group of people so serious, so open with each other. Here were people who had known each other for decades, who had been through countless trials and sorrows together, who respected each other profoundly. Who loved each other profoundly. It was obvious in the way they they looked at each other, the way they spoke to each other. Even to an eleven-year-old boy who was not especially quick at noticing things.

But all of that—the love, the respect, the weight of a shared past—just made the tension even starker.

“Then surely”, said the Mother of Mourning, “we were meant to find these coldfire stones. Especially considering the…strangeness…of the manner in which they were discovered”. Fox blushed, though nobody looked at him. “Does Providence send us poisoned gifts?”

Again there were grimaces around the table, that God had come so close to being named.

“Providence is not a book for us to read, Mother”, said the Eldest. “How many terrible crimes have been committed by those who believed they knew what Providence wanted? If we are going to find a hidden meaning in events, who is to say we are not being tempted?”

The last word, tempted, hung in the air. Fox imagined that the coldfire stones glowed brighter for that moment.

“What are our choices?”, asked another man, whose name Fox did not know. There had been no introductions. The Elders had already been sitting when Grandy brought Truevow and Fox into the Stone House. This man was the only one of the Elders who was not white-headed; his black hair and beard was mixed with grey.

“As I see it, these are our choices”, he continued, in answer to his own question. “We can do nothing. We can forbid any mention of the coldfire stones.” He looked at Fox, and Fox could understand why he was so confident that such a ban would not be broken. To disobey the Elders, now he had seen them, was unimaginable.

“Or”, he continued, looking from face to face, “we can let their discovery be known, but forbid any further investigation. Of course, we can imagine the excitement the coldfire stones would send through the youngsters.”

The Elder with the beard had opened his mouth to speak again, but he was interrupted.

“It was Fox”, said Truevow.

All eyes moved towards the young man, and even he seemed surprised that he had spoken. He flushed, and looked down, as if gathering his strength for a speech. Then he said:

“It was Fox who saw the Blue Stag. It’s Fox who will decide.”

“Decide what?”, asked Goodfellow, looking at Fox anxiously.

“It’s a superstition that has grown up amongst us”, said the Mother of Mourning, promptly. “That the first person to lay eyes upon the Blue Stag would decide the fate of the Ezwayna. Just a superstition”, she added. She stressed the last word.

“Why has their been no mention of this before?”, asked the Eldest, looking straight at Truevow. Fox shrank in his chair, frightened he would be the next person on the end of that stony stare. Truevow merely looked back at the Eldest, as if he was trying to understand what he was saying. He had opened his mouth to reply, still looking confused, when somebody else spoke.

“It was me”, said Grandy. “I told them not to mention it.” He was staring at the Eldest in his steeliest manner, but Fox could tell that he was intimidated.

“Why?”, asked the Eldest, neither softly nor harshly. The Eldest had no need for dramatics.

“Because”, said Grandy, scowling, “I’m not going to let you lay any more burdens on them. They’ve been through enough already. Fox has endured more than any of us had at his age, and come through it better than any of us would have.”

Fox burned with pleasure. It was the highest praise Grandy had ever given him, or ever would.

“And besides”, continued Grandy, folding his arms, “the Mother of Mourning is right. It’s a superstition. A folly.”

“Superstition or not”, said the Eldest, “there’s no cause for anything to be hidden from us. Please don’t do it again.”

Grandy scowled a second time, but Fox saw respect in the scowl. His grandfather liked people to be blunt.

“The Blue Stag is important”, said the Eldest, and now he did look at Fox. But his eyes were gentle, even sympathetic. Then he turned to the adults again. “It’s important because our people think that it’s important. I don’t believe it’s a portent, or a sign. But there are those who will.”

“And who can say for sure that they’re wrong?”, asked Armala, with a slight smile. “Even the Eldest doesn’t know everything.”

“That’s the last thing I need reminding of, Armala”, said Eldest. All of the Elders were smiling now. Suddenly, Fox felt completely safe, sitting amongst these old men and women. He trusted them like he trusted the sky to stay up. It was a delicious feeling, even if it passed in a moment.

“Eldest, I agree with you that these toys are dangerous”, said another lady, sitting beside Armala. She gazed into the middle distance, and it took Fox a few moments to realise she was blind. “But I hate to think how insecure our lives are here, despite all our work and sacrifice. A few bad harvests, a plague, and who knows what will become of our people? The people we have sworn to protect?”

Now the smiles had faded from the Elders’ faces, and the image of sick, starving children seemed as real as the coldfire stones on the table.

“What do you suggest, Sana?”, asked the Eldest.

“I suggest nothing”, said Sana. “I do not know which evil is the greater. But these trinkets, and the news from the Anarchy, have only strengthened an anxiety in all our minds.” Some of the Elders looked down, and there was a definite tension around the table.

Fox looked up at Goodfellow, but he seemed as confused as he was. Only Grandy seemed to understand what was happening in the room. He followed it like he followed a game of Spiral, with the light of understanding in his eyes.

“It's anxiety that has been in my own mind for a long time”, continued Sana, cautiously. “The anxiety that we’re wrong to continue with out…exile. What right have we to force our dreams upon the young people? All through the famines and the epidemics, we kept going, because we believed in the future. But now…”

She paused for a long moment, and Fox thought she was going to leave it at that. But then she finished: “But now, even though we’ve survived and prospered, we can see that it’s not the country of joy that we dreamt it would be. The young people dream of the Anarchy. They do not feel this country in their blood, as we hoped they would. It does not belong to them, and they do not belong to it.”

Fox saw that Grandy was nodding and smiling. But his reaction was different to that of the others. The faces of the Elders were masks of sadness, and the Eldest was looking Sana with no expression at all.

“Sana”, he said then, and Fox could not decide if the name had been spoken fondly, or sadly. Perhaps it was both.

Then the Eldest shook his head. “We must see beyond the moment, my dear friends. I know that the young people dream of crowds, and excitement, and to be unknown amongst thousands of strangers. What young person never did? Any of us?” There were smiles around the table, and the Elder smiled himself. But the smiles were sad. “And what young person ever thanked his elders, in future years, for letting him have what he wanted?”

“They say that youth is the season of folly”, one woman said.

“So it is”, said the Elder. “And very properly so. But if our people return to the Anarchy, and if this Legislatrix proves to be a disappointment—like so many others who have tried to tame that miserable land-- then what will be the price of letting our young people follow their hearts? Our people—these innocents who hardly understand the concept of one man stealing from another—living out their lives in that mayhem of murderers and conmen? And, at the least, throwing away the chance for a nobler life, a chance that has been bought with the lives of many, and the sacrifices of many more?”

“Oh, rocks to that!”, cried Grandy, and the faces of the Elders were shocked, if only for a moment. Then they had resumed their calm, and everyone was looking towards Grandy.

He still seemed less than entirely sure of himself, but Fox glowed with pride at the way he met the eyes of the Elders. There was something in these old Ezwayna that might have made a bull think twice, but it didn’t stop Grandy.

“I’ve heard that too often in my life”, he went on, looking straight at the Eldest. “Parents telling their children that they must become a doctor, or get married to some haflwit, or not drink wine, or a thousand other things, because somebody made sacrifices or died on their behalf. You know what? I think you should ask for a person’s permission before you die for him.”

“That is not always possible”, said the Eldest, and he smiled. It was not an unpleasant smile. Fox felt a jab of disappointment. The Eldest seemed amused at Grandy’s outspokenness, rather than impressed.

“Your young people were babies”, Grandy went on, “or not born at all, when you started this trek into the wilderness. They owe you nothing. They have a right to dreams of their own, whether you think them foolish or not. Roast it, a man is not a man until he is allowed to risk everything.”

“Thank you, Grandy”, said the Eldest, and he spoke without irony. Fox realised he had not been looking down on Grandy at all. Grandy, for his part, seemed surprised at the Eldest’s reaction, and fell silent.

“I do not agree with entirely with Grandy”, said Armala, who looked very different outside the half-light of her tamzan. She looked older, frailer. “Responsibility is not such a simple thing. We have burdens we never agreed to, and that nobody can take from our shoulders.” With this she looked squarely at Fox, and he flushed with surprise and dismay. Everybody must have seen that look, and wondered what it meant. What did it mean, anyway?

“But in essence, he is right”, she said, and she gave a Grandy a slight nod. Grandy nodded back, looking more surprised than ever. He had obviously decided the storyteller was an idiot, before he even met her. “We cannot be wise for our people, no matter how truly our hearts beat for them. And I do not know that our course has been wise, after all.”

“You never did”, said the Eldest. He spoke wistfully, and Armala looked sad when she nodded in agreement.

“I never did”, she said. “But all along, I hoped that I was wrong.”

“Perhaps you still are, Armala”, said another man, who was sitting not from Grandy. He had a shock of curly white hair, but little else seemed old about him. More than anything else, he looked like a twenty-year-old who had somehow been aged fifty years in a single night. “Maybe the dream is not dead.”

Fox could see the Elders were stirred by his words. All of their faces seemed excited and pained at once, as if he was reviving hopes they had begun to give up.

“We have survived, and prospered”, he said. “I believe that, when the children of today are our age, this little village of ours will have given birth to towns, that thousands rather than hundreds of Ezwayna will inhabit this country. Perhaps ten of thousands. I believe that, one day— and perhaps not so long in the future— this land of ours will have as many people as the Anarchy. Can you imagine it? A society as great as the one we left, but built upon noble ideals, not the love of money and power. Perhaps,” he finished, looking at Grandy, “our biggest debt is not to the dead, but those who have not yet been born.”

Grandy shrugged. He seemed irritated, though the man had not spoken bitterly. “Where I come from there’s a saying,” he said. “The future is on everybody’s side.”

“Truly spoken”, said the Elder again. Fox thought he could feel a cautious respect between the two men, Grandy and the Elder, who were so different and yet so similar, like sunrise and sunset. “And yet, perhaps you are being more romantic than me, Grandy.”

“Oh?”, asked Grandy, who seemed too surprised at being called a romantic to be offended.

“Perhaps”, repeated the Elder. “You say a man has a right to dreams of his own. I can tell you, the Anarchy—unless it has changed very much—is not a good place for dreams. One man in a hundred might be a great success there. Twenty will do well, and the rest will scrabble for the leftovers. There may indeed be a wider sky in the Anarchy. But it’s a sky full of hawks.”

“Better a sky full of hawks than a cage”, said Grandy, though he did not seem entirely convinced by his own words.

“You say that a man is hardly a man, unless he can risk everything”, continued the Eldest. There was no hostility in his voice; he might have been arguing with himself. “But it’s a rare enough man who has anything to risk in the Anarchy, besides his life. And often he has no choice but to risk that, just to stay alive.”

“But, Eldest”, interrupted another lady, who was remarkably pretty for her years. Her eyes were dark and her hair was a silken white. She had a low, musical voice. “Aren’t we forgetting the coldire stones? I have as little liking for them as the rest of you”, she said, looking at them as if they were maggots. “But you know how important treasures are in Anarchy. If we were to return—and I am far from sure that we should, since I don’t know if I trust this Legislatrix—the Ezwayna would hardly be poor.”

“Not at first, Elleyr”, said the Mother of Mourning, who was also gazing at the stones with dislike. “But how long would our people remain together? Nothing turns people against each other like wealth. How many would demand their share of the wealth, and go their own way? And how many of those would not be swindled of every penny by the conmen of the Anarchy? Only when they had lost all their money would they return to us. Let us not rely too much on these stones. And let us not forget that we only have a few of them now, and that a troop of frolic bears stand between us and the rest.”

“And we shouldn’t forget”, said Sana, “that even wealth is no guarantee of safety in the Anarchy. Not all of the Ezwayna were hungry. The Eldest”, she said, looking towards Grandy, “was the richest man in a city of fifty thousand.”

Grandy tried very hard not to look impressed, but did not quite succeed.

“Everybody knew the Ezwayna were honest, and a good name can make you money like everything else. But that only made us more hated. When we were poor we were hated for poverty, and when we were rich we were hated for our wealth. And yet”, she said, sighing, “I do not know what we should do, either. Perhaps the future lies in the Anarchy. Or—as we should perhaps call it now—the Seven Nations. Our people yearn for it, and a life lived in yearning might be the worst fate of all.”

Silence fell over the room, and the eyes of all the gathering turned to the Eldest. Except for Armala, who—Fox realised, without turning his head—was watching him.

“I think we have said enough for today”, said the Eldest. “And this is my decision. It will surprise none of you. We do nothing. We leave the coldfire stones to the earth, or to be the toys of the frolic bears, who cannot be harmed by them. We leave the Anarchy, or the Seven Nations, to this Legislatrix. We do not let our people risk their lives in it. We continue to chase the dream that brought us to this country.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement around the table.

“And”, he said, looking at Grandy, with a smile that made Fox a little nervous, “we do not mention the coldfire stones to anyone, or stir up trouble amongst our people. Agreed?”

Grandy scowled again, but he said: “Agreed”.

“Then I think we can stop talking”, said the Eldest, rising to his feet, “and drink some chora, to warm our old bones and joints. And perhaps bore our young friends with tales of the old times.”

Amidst much creaking of chairs and with the incredible slowness of the old, they filtered into a smaller room, where chora and cake was laid out upon two small tables, and a faded tapestry showed the Great Pledge of the Ezwayna. Fox stood on the edge of the little gathering, listening to their conversation and wondering why it felt like nothing had really been decided at all.


Chapter Twenty-Four

“I’ve brought more books”, said Fox, when he realised that Swan was not going to look up.

Swan was sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading. The thing he was reading could hardly be called a book anymore. It had almost fallen apart. It was more like a bundle of pages, and it looked as if most of them might be missing..

There was a neat stack of books beside him, perhaps two dozen in all. Besides those, the tamzan was almost empty. There weren’t many books in the Ezwayna settlement. A truth becomes a lie when it is written was one of their proverbs.

Swan looked up now, startled. It was as if he had been woken up and had no idea where he was. Then he smiled. When he smiled, he looked almost handsome, despite his long nose and his bulging eyes. Fox had often thought it funny that such an awkward-looking man was named after such a graceful bird. His clothes, though, were as elegant as could be wished.

“Wonderful work, my friend!”, he said, rising hastily to his feet.

“Don’t get excited”, said Fox, feeling a bit abashed. “They’re not exactly books. I mean, there’s a collection of sewing poems—I didn’t even know there was a such thing, they’re poems women recited while sewing—and there’s a cookery book about soups, and there’s this one called The Merchant’s Mysteries. I think it’s some sort of guide”.

Armala had begun sending Fox from tamzan to tamzan, getting him to tell stories and recite poems. The Ezwayna seemed to prefer his poems to his stories, and often asked him to repeat them. On these visits, he also gathered books for Swan to read. The supply had never been steady, and now it was drying up.

“They’re perfect”, said Swan, eagerly taking them from Fox’s arms. He held them with reverence, glancing at each cover in turn. “Didn’t you ever want to climb down a mousehole? Or see the bottom of the ocean? Or know what the potions of the doctors are actually made out of? Or watch a book being bound?”

“The ocean one, maybe”, said Fox. “But I don’t see what that has to do with sewing songs.”

“Nothing, perhaps”, said Swan, flicking through the pages. Dust rose from them as he did so. “I’ve had this disease all my life, Fox. Nothing fails to interest me. Most people have a kind of mental net, a shield that protects them from the overflowing richness of life. I’ve never had it. I don’t understand why sewing songs are dull. I’m to be pitied.” But as soon as he said this, he gave Fox a cheerful grin.

“Aren’t you ever bored?”, asked Fox, who was often bored himself.

“Oh yes”, said Swan. He looked up at Fox, and must have read his mind from his face, because he said: “Don’t feel bad because you get bored, Fox. The mind has its seasons and its cycles, just like the body, and the earth. The body must sleep, and the mind must feel bored.”

“Jasma always said boredom was a sign of a dull mind”, said Fox, feeling reassured. “Whenever I went to complain about feeling bored.”

“Ah, Jasma, my servant’s beloved”, said Swan, still leafing through the books. He switched between them every now and again, as if he wanted to read them all at once. “What do the Ezwayna think about her new romance?”

“Well, the women are jealous”, he said. Since he became Armala's student, he'd grown used to keeping his ears open.

“Truly?”, asked Swan, still not looking up.

“Truly”, echoed Fox. It was one of Swan’s favourite expressions. “Because Hardcastle is so handsome, and because they think he might be well-off.” There was a question in that last remark, but if Swan heard it he ignored it. He just kept reading. “And because he’s going to take away to her the Anar….to the Seven Nations.”

“He’s always been a favourite of the ladies”, said Swan, still looking through the books.

“And many of them hope to be your wife, too”, said Fox.

Swan did look up this time, and Fox almost laughed at his bewildered expression. “Me?”, he asked, and he took a step back, as if he was afraid that a husband-hunting woman was going to step through the door that moment.

“Yes”, said Fox. “They say you never pay attention to them, though.”

“In truth, I never noticed them”, said Swan, looking thoughtful. Then he laughed. He did not seem flattered, but amused. “You might let them know that….that I didn’t come here in search of women”. He laughed again, and Fox felt sure he was laughing at himself.

“Don’t you want a wife?”, asked Fox. The whole village wondered about Swan, who was always eager to talk but never gave away anything about himself.

“I had a wife”, he said, and his bulging eyes filled with sadness. “One of the servants in my father’s house. She died.”

“Oh”, said Fox, feeling clumsy.

“More than twenty years ago, now”, said Swan, softly, looking back down at his books but not reading. “She died of what they called the dreaming sickness. She would pass into a trance and seem to dream, twitching and whimpering, and when she came out of it she would be horribly weak. There was no cure then, and there is none now. I suppose that’s what took me out of my study.”

“What do you mean?”, asked Fox.

“Well, when I retired from the cloth business”, he said, “I thought I might spend the rest of my life reading, and happily. But when Anki fell sick, I quickly went through all the medical tracts I could find. I went out to the people, looking for folk medicine and cures, hoping that the ordinary people knew something that the doctors did not.”

“And they didn’t”, said Fox, somehow surprised that Swan had ever been married.

“No”, said Swan, shaking his head and giving a sad smile. “But I found lots of other things. I learned that, though there was a world inside books, there was a world outside them, too. Part of me, Fox, wants nothing more than to sit in my study all my life, trying to get through a fraction of all the books that have been
written. But at the same time I’m gripped by the desire to see—to find out—to experience”. He said this slowly, thoughfully, as if he had spent a long time pondering this inner conflict.

“I’m glad you came here”, said Fox, a little shyly.

“I’m glad, too”, said Swan, and now he was buried in his books again. He seemed perfectly capable of talking while reading. “I just hope that I haven’t outstayed my welcome.”

“I don’t think so”, said Fox. “You give the Ezwanya something to talk about.”

“All the same”, said Swan, “I’ve been here two months already. For once, I find that my wealth means nothing at all. Except for creating excitement amongst the ladies.” He smiled again, as if he could not get used to the absurdity of this idea. “I can’t pay for my keep. It will soon be time for me to set out upon my return journey.”

“But—“ said Fox, hardly knowing what he was going to say. When he had left the word hang in the air for long enough, Swan looked up enquiringly. “What?”, he asked, smiling.

“But I thought…you were going to be important…to me. And nothing’s happened yet!”

Feeling ridiculous to have said such a thing, Fox was grateful to see understanding in Swan’s eyes. “I know what you mean,” said Swan, “because I have felt the same thing. But who knows? Perhaps something has happened. Perhaps we just don't know it yet.”

They stood in silence for a few moments, and then Swan said: “Where is that servant of mine? I want to speak to him. Do you think, Fox, you could find him and send him to me?” He smiled again. “I’m rather frightened to go outside, knowing what I know now.”

“Certainly”, said Fox, smiling back, and turning away.

But, despite his show of readiness, his heart was heavy at the thought. He knew exactly where Jasma would be, and he knew exactly what she would be doing.

He made his way through the settlement, keeping as far from the popular paths as he could. He had discovered narrow alleys between tamzans, lanes between trees, passages where he could pass without being seen. Ever since he'd returned from the quest for the Blue Stag, the Ezwanya children's fascination with his supposed powers had grown and grown. The rumour had got out that he had actually seen the Blue Stag. Grandy had been furious, but eventually he had accepted that neither Truevow nor Fox had let the truth slip. The rumour just seemed to have come about by itself.

It was the high tide of summer. The sun made the leaves on the trees seem like green fire. The lakes and ponds sparkled like glass. The heat clung to Fox’s body like a film.

The Ezwayna were a passionate people at all times. Now, men and women were locked in embraces everywhere you looked. Nobody stared. The sight was too common. Children hopped over the couples sprawled on the grass in their play.

Jasma and Greatcastle had taken one spot as their own, by the bank of a pond that was sometimes called the Pear, for its shape. More often it was not named, being too small and rather distant from the village. It was not very romantic, but neither Jasma nor Greatcastle had the souls of poets.

They were lying there, Greatcastle in his violet shirt and black trousers, Jasma wearing a green flowery dress. She was lying on top of Greatcastle, almost covering him, kissing him feverishly. Fox cursed under his breath—he had just started to learn Ezwayna curses—and started along the margin of the pond

Greatcastle spotted him first. Fox was startled when he met his eyes. The young man was not lost in passion. He looked rather bored with Jasma’s kisses, though he was clutching her body to his own. He was seemed to be staring into the sky when Fox came into his view.

“Jasma, it's your young friend”, he said, when he saw the boy. But Jasma did not hear. She was too busy kissing. Greatcastle closed his eyes for a moment, smiled, and said: “Jasma, it’s Fox. Fox.”

His lover rolled away and lay on her back, looking up at Fox. She scowled.

“What in the twelve heavens do you want, Fox?”, she asked. “We don’t want to hear a story now.”

Fox ignored her, and said, “Greatcastle, your master is looking for you.”

“Is he indeed?”, asked Greatcastle, sarcastically. “Well, the master must not be denied, must he, Fox?”

“I suppose not”, said Fox. He detested Greatcastle. He thought he was the most smug person he had ever met. He always seemed to be laughing to himself, laughing at other people. And yet Swan said he had become a better servant after becoming a follower of the Legislatrix. How bad had he been before that?

Greatcastle got to his feet, and carefully straightened and brushed his clothes. Jasma picked leaves of grass from his trousers. He looked at his reflection in the water of the pond, staring at it (Fox thought) for longer than was necessary. But then, he was not the only one who thought he was worth looking at. He was shorter than average, but his features were perfectly shaped. His skin was dusky and his eyes were a hazy grey.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can, my sweetling”, he said. “Think of me when I’m gone.”

“Think of me”, said Jasma, but Greastcastle was already moving away. He looked back once or twice, placing his hand over his heart in a quick gesture.

Jasma followed him with her gaze until he had all but disappeared. Then she turned towards Fox, but she did not speak. It had been a long time since they had spoken.

“I wonder what Swan wants him for?”, asked Fox eventually, unable to think of anything else, but tired of the silence.

Jasma snorted at the irrelevance of this remark, and said: “I’m pleased to see that you’re making something of yourself, Fox. I’ve heard that you’re working hard at your apprenticeship. I’m very glad. Whatever a boy finds to do”—her tone suggested that storytelling might not be the best choice—“he should do with all his heart. Better than hanging around with undesirable company, anyway.”

Her tone irritated Fox, and he snapped back: “Who do you mean? Truevow?”

She glowered at the name. “I didn’t mean him in particular”, she said. “But that sort of person. They don’t have much to distinguish them, after all.”

“I don’t know anybody like Truevow”, said Fox, angrily. “He’s brave and he’s kind and he’s intelligent.”

“He lives in a dream-world”, said Jasma, venomously, as if she knew no worse insult.

“Just because he doesn’t care about money and getting on”, said Fox, wanting to push Jasma into the water. “Even when we found the coldfire—“

He stopped, with the feeling that he had put one foot over a cliff. He imagined the face of the Eldest, and went cold all over.

But Jasma, thank the heavens, seemed hardly to be listening. She had closed her eyes, basking in the heat of the sun. Obviously, she had never heard of coldfire. “When you found what?”

“I meant to say, when he found the cold fire of his courage”, Fox said. “You know he saved me from the frolic bears.”

“You’re beginning to talk like him now”, said Jasma, her eyes still closed. She smiled, as if remembering her lover’s embrace. “I don’t want a hero”, she continued. Fox was taken aback; she had never been so open towards him before. But recently, she had seemed less frosty than the old Jasma. “Heroes are impossible to live with. Just look at Grandy. I want a man who treasures his lady enough to make a home for her. Who doesn’t want his children to grow up in poverty. I’ve had enough of that in my life, thank you. What on earth do you know about poverty, anyway?”

“Nothing”, admitted Fox.

“And I like him because he’s handsome”, said Jasma, opening her eyes. There was defiance in her look, in her voice. “Why shouldn’t I? After all, your precious Truevow doesn’t mind yammering about my looks all the time. Why is it that men can write poems about beautiful women, and people think they’re very deep
fellows? But if a woman likes a man for his looks, everybody calls her shallow?”

“I don’t know”, said Fox. “I’m only twelve.”

“Then don’t come complaining to me about these things, little boy”, she said, closing her eyes.

Fox knew that was her signal for him to leave her. But he kept thinking of Truevow. They had hardly spoken in the last weeks.

“I wish…I wish you would say something to Truevow, though”, he said. Jasma gave him an angry look, but he kept going. “He’s like his own ghost now. He works as much as he can, and when he’s not hammering away, he spends all his time in the Spiral House.” Fox had been amazed to find Truevow there. Truevow, looking miserable, had told him that Spiral was soothing to him.

“You don’t have to feel anything with Spiral”, Truevow had said. His dramatic manner was gone from him now, and he muttered when he spoke. “Just think”. Then he had fallen silent again, lost in the game.

“You don’t understand these things, Fox”, said Jasma. “If I say anything, it will just encourage him. Truevow should be a man. A man doesn’t mope when a woman rejects him. He finds another.”

“Aren’t you be sad to be leaving Grandy?”, asked Fox, after another long silence that Jasma did not seem about to end.

“No”, said Jasma. “He obviously doesn’t give a spit about me. He hardly even says hello anymore.”

“He has…worries”, said Fox, feeling worried himself. How much of his life had he spent worrying about Grandy?

“What kind of worries?”, asked Jasma, without much interest.

“He’s not doing so well at Spiral”, said Fox. It hurt him even to say it. “He’s…he’s slipping behind”.

Jasma burst out laughing. She seemed genuinely amused, something that was rare with her. “And that’s something to be worried about?”, she asked. “Can’t you see how ridiculous that is?”

“It’s not ridiculous to Grandy”, snapped Fox. “Or anybody else.”

“Well, he is an old man”, said Jasma. Brutally, Fox thought. “He can’t expect to stay sharp forever. He always spoke about facing up to reality.”

“How can you be so cruel?”, asked Fox, wishing now that he could punch Jasma. Every Spiral fan was depressed about Grandy’s failing powers. His supporters had only grown more devoted to him. He was making embarrassing mistakes, spending more and more time over his moves. When he played, the whole Spiral House was nervous.

“I don’t understand how a rude, arrogant man can make you all love him so much”, said Jasma.

“Because he’s Grandy”, said Fox, wondering how she couldn’t see that.

“I suppose I’ll miss him”, she said, stretching lazily. “I’ll miss you, too. But life goes forward, Fox. Not backward. That’s what the people here don’t realise. Now leave me alone.”

“Don’t worry, I will”, said Fox, turning and striding away. His nurse had always been an ignorant, selfish woman. Why should she change now?

He had other things to do, anyway. Armala had told him to memorise seven verses of a hunting ballad, 'The Madman’s Chase'. He enjoyed that. He’d never thought much about poetry before Truevow had quoted those lines that woke his imagination, on the quest for the Blue Stag. Since then, Armala had recited verse after verse to them, and he had often asked her to repeat verses. When collecting books for Swan, he had feasted on what little poetry he had found. The best ones carved themselves on his memory without him even trying to learn them.

The summer air is made of lovers’ sighs”, he said aloud, wondering how love poetry could be so wonderful when love itself was so boring. His mind strayed towards thoughts of Grandy, but he pulled it away. He was used to doing that.

But it moved in another direction that was almost as disturbing. Once again he saw the long nose and bulbous eyes of Cambrice Swan. His face kept coming into Fox’s mind, and as always, Fox was filled with the belief that Swan could open the door to his future. He didn’t know if he wanted to walk through that door. He only knew that he was going to. And he had no idea what was on the other side.

2 comments:

  1. I didn't think there was anything wrong with Chapter 23. Good work.

    ReplyDelete