Saturday, June 5, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust I

Whisper From the Dust

Ah, Ariel, Ariel,
The city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
Let the festivals run their round.
Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be moaning and lamentation
And Jerusalem shall be to me like an Ariel.
And like David I will encamp against you;
I will besiege you with towers
And raise siege-work against you
Then deep from the earth you shall speak,
From low in the dust your words shall come;
Your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
and your speech shall whisper out of the dust.
- Isaiah 29:4

Chapter One

July 31, 440 Y.A.


It started with a knife – but then, I suppose, it always does. Apprentice Marl slid it across my left cheek as though filleting some small animal. It scalded and seared and I bit my tongue to keep from shouting. He peered into my eyes – seeing, I imagined, whether or not I suffered. Whatever he glimpsed, he smiled thinly from beneath his jade cowl. And heated the blade again for the next incision.

Soon I would carry six scars in sum; four I’d gotten in years before. It was dark and hot in the Temple’s greater anteroom and I was half-blinded by the torches on either side of my face. I sweated like a madman. The ropes that bound me to the chair, ostensibly for my own protection, chafed my wrists abominably.

When Marl smiled I hated him, because I had once wanted to be in his profession. Too, we hold more than a passing semblance. Marl has my long winding frame, grand column of a nose and high cheekbones – but lacks my unkempt mane of auburn hair and desultory fragments of unshaven beard. Though our eyes are both soft brown, his reflect the piercing light of education, where mine, I’m told, convey the dull ache of protracted malnutrition. He smelled of incense and of parchment; my friends say I stink of the summer sweat and dust of the Market – but then, of course, they do as well.

Marl’s eyes in that moment served as the mirror that showed me how I could have been, given sufficient opportunities. My dejected gait could have been Marl’s stride of unconscious self-assurance. His medications could have prevented the illnesses that pocked my skin in infancy. His shelf of dusty historical tomes could have been my edification. And the dark, soft, heavy jade robes that give him access to the Temple’s vault of electric Profusionist wisdom, the arcane knowledge of the gods of history, could have settled upon my shoulders just as well as his.

But they never will, entirely for chance of birth. We Blooded have never been the only ones who wanted to end their privilege. We are, however, the only ones who will be able to.

“You are marked, Del Tanich of Ariel,” said Historian Senre, from behind me. The old Head’s words rumbled from the darkness. “You may not study at this or any other Temple of the History of the Profusion. You may not enter the trials of the Order of the Children of History again. Your formal service to the Temple and the Order both are ended. This, I, Senre, Head Historian of the city of Ariel, decree. ”

I might have mistaken his voice for that of the gods of the Profusion, were they not gone from this world entirely – and if I had not seen the fat old man nearly every day for twelve interminable years. The Temple cares for orphans, you see, and Senre has headed the local Temple for as long as I can remember. So it was Senre who took me off the street when I was very young, Senre who funded my meals, and Senre who, through my teachers, steered me toward the studies of Rhetoric and Sums. I owe very nearly everything to him.

“Yes,” I said, “I fear I shall always be a disappointment.” And I fear I will be ashamed whenever I finally do kill him.

As soon as my mouth was still, Marl took the chance to make the other incision, on the right this time. And he had not chosen the knife, long as both his hands, for delicacy. Heated to glowing orange along the edge, the blade would scar forever. I will for all my life bear marks like those of hardened criminals, or those who desert the veilmen – though mine, of course, will slant crosswise instead of vertically.

Still, shame will burn my cheeks, just as it has before. Each two scars bring me closer to my death — eight is the death knell. Any serious offence will now mean my execution.

“Do not take it hardly, Del,” said Senre. “Few have the stomach even for a second trial, let alone a third. When they fail, they feel themselves slipping toward the grave, though they are only ever sixteen or twenty-four years of age. Strange, is it not? Do all intend such heinous crimes? The righteous fear not – that’s what you should remember, Del. These mark you as a necessarily honest man.”

“Or an incompetent criminal,” I said, even as I winced. I kept forgetting to be insincere. Marl still stood over me, inspecting his work, turning my neck this way and that. He was not gentle. I began to suspect he’d enjoyed employing that blade – a state ill befitting a Historian. They should not enjoy anything.

Senre clucked, walking up along my right side. He had the soft jowls and red face of the obese, and his fingers when he reached for the nearest torch were thick and shortened like a child’s. But he strode manfully when he carried it with him across the room; one could clearly see authority and bearing and something of that athletic trait which men call grace. He maintains his rank despite the public embarrassment of his physical appetites. He knows his weakness and compensates for it by intellect. Following the Revised Orders, he has even let his hair grow out a bit, though of course the top of his head is always bald.

Apprentice Marl, finally releasing his grasp, carries no hair on his head at all. The same discipline which keeps his head meticulously shaven means also that he follows the Old Orders, the unaltered ones that Historian Staleph himself pronounced four hundred years ago. Marl’s young ascetism consequently knows no bounds – and no compassion.

It made me wish Historian Senre had wielded the blade. He, at least, would have been quicker. The whole ceremony was dragging on. The tiny, silvery, dust-like machines in the testing box had slid away from my hand nearly an hour before; they had not clung to it and warmed my skin. And there would be no faking their benediction. As shrewd as Historians are, machines are not to be deceived at all. Since those in the box had not hearkened to my call, he slim metal pages of the Histories of the Profusion would never scroll their lines before my eyes. They will remain to me always as dim and blank as stone.

My scowl just then was no affectation. And without reservation I let the Historians see it. Infiltration would have been a master stroke for all my kind. But commanding the electric Histories of the Profusion would have been sweet satisfaction to me. I would not be Blooded in the first place, after all, were I not fascinated by the past.

Yet I was glad of the coolness as Senre took one torch, at least, suddenly away. And gladder still when the senior Historian beckoned Marl over to him room’s small desk, against the far wall. Marl scowled as much as I had, but went. Doubtless, Marl the Apprentice would have not have hesitated to mark me dead there on the spot, solely to exercise control.

“You merchants are so self-conscious about your associations,” Senre said, writing.
“You need not be. Oh, I know there are those elements in the market who oppose the Temple, who consort with smugglers and would crassly purchase power with wealth – all of that is quite banal. But they are not many, I think, and driven solely by their own self-interest they cannot be very much adept, after all, at cooperation.”

I almost did not hear him. Glad to see again, I was watching the light of the torch’s flame limn the brass and gold and jade of the Temple’s intricately ornamented side. The vaulted ceiling and the tops of the columns that supported it were lost in darkness. But along the way the light threw shadows among the relief carvings of the gods of the Profusion departing the galaxy and the gods creating Thaeron by artifice. Machines the size of many cities, spiraled like shells, scooped up mountains and carved out the ocean between the continents. Where those great engines of the Profusion have gone, of course, absolutely no one knows.

To be certain, no one knows what the gods of the Profusion looked like either, but that stops no Temple from displaying their likeness everywhere: humanoid beings made entirely of light, people as we believe we might become through exaltation, winged with wisdom and casting not shadows, but illumination. What our gods actually were matters, I suppose, only to a very pious few.

“So the merchants of Ariel do not pose a threat to you,” I said, distractedly. I knew he was writing the letter to the High Historian that would formalize forever in the Jade Temple of Kasora what had happened to me here today in Ariel. “And, ” I added, “they happen to pay considerable sums to the Temple in taxes. They must constitute a tenth of the Temple’s revenue by now.”

Senre did not pause his writing. “Come now, Del, it is not good for you to be insulting. We do not tax the merchants for their coin. The donations of the people keep us comfortable enough. There, I said it – though Marl here would disagree, never in this life are we freed of base desire, never in this life does reason liberate our souls. But we need no merchant money. Rather, you need the wisdom to see that not all things can be counted in your coin.”

Marl, to please himself, wandered back to my side; he sniffed and brushed dust off of the beige collar of my best but tattered tunic. I wondered, dully, why he hadn’t put the knife away. That was as far as my conjectures went; despite my urchin streetcraft I did not see anticipate my next adventure, already set in motion.

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