Saturday, June 12, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust II

In the next instant Senre turned toward Marl with an abrupt whirling of his dark jade robes. He raised a finger, as though he suddenly remembered something –and Marl’s knife nicked at my throat in a blink. I jerked in astonishment, which movement meant only that the blade pressed more closely against my skin.

Senre stepped toward me. I was doomed. They knew everything, and I would be tortured until I died or gave up my accomplices. With clamped jaw I bit back a low despairing cry. Marl clamped his vice of a hand against my forehead. My head was tilted back. I feared for the Blooded – I would not hold out. I have never been known for my resolve.

But with a rustling sound Historian Senre drew from his sleeve a scroll of ordinary parchment. He unfurled it close before my eyes. I froze my face, lest I show reaction. Upon the tanned sheet was sketched in gray the portrait of a young artist, who sells her art in the row of market stalls across from mine. I knew her instantly. She brings four or six paintings each morning and produces more throughout the day, selling them in turn.

“Do you know this woman?” Senre asked, imperious.

I balked. She never speaks to me. Rather, she walks past in calm determination, as though we are not colleagues. Were only I so cool. When I see her, my mind whirs like the frames of a daguerreotype, and no words in all Thaeron could catch up with them. A sort of mad electric paralysis seizes me, as though I were an epileptic. I, who hired a girl the first night I left the Temple’s care, stammer to say hello.

But her brisk soft step elides my comprehension. I cannot decide if she is floating or simply mimics the marches of the veilmen. And I cannot possibly declare her station, in this city where class and caste determines everything. Some days she dons jade, the light green of the robes the pious wear. Sometimes it’s gold or scarlet or yards of turquoise cloth, but most often she wraps herself in dresses of loose white linen. I have no idea how she keeps them clean, or how she manages to dress like rich and poor in turn.

She, at least, is never dusty.

Marl twitched the knife against the skin of my throat again. “He said: do you know this woman? We’ll know if you lie, we always know.” But my mind was not with him.

Daily, I curse myself for cowardice. My only consolations are that she rarely speaks to anyone, and that, at the height of my boldness, I purchased one of her self-portraits. It cost me a week’s earnings, as she would have known – I shout my prices for all the passersby to hear. But I could not help but buy it. Somehow, she had drawn herself in motion, walking by the canvas. Her dark red hair trailed as she passed, ringlets shivering in her wake. I did not negotiate. She reminds me of someone I knew or liked a long time ago, but who’s now vanished, gone beyond recall.

“No,” I said at last. I shook my head. “I have never seen her. I swear that I have not!”

The porcine senior motioned again. Marl delicately drew the blade across the base of my throat, cutting not a bit. “Good,” boomed Senre. “We believe you, but… have you ever heard of the Blooded?”

My mind lurched. I could not possibly have been more confounded. Were they toying with me, not satisfied to simply have me in their grasp? Or were they, indeed, simply probing for information? To lie to the Historians carries penalties of imprisonment or worse. But I had already deceived them once.

“N—no,” I stammered, “What are they, one of the smuggler’s gangs?” I trembled. “No! I swear I do not know!”

Each shiver of fear brought forth another tiny drop of blood from my throat. The Head Historian’s gaze bore upon me with murderous intensity, reckoning the calculus of our entire interview. He had, if rumor held, assassinated his predecessor to take the seat of Ariel. And right now he would be training Marl to do likewise to the Head Historian of some other city. His eyes held no evidence of that trait which men call compassion. The horror of the Historian’s rigorous training is that it actually works. They indeed master their emotions to some unfathomable degree.

But at last Senre withdrew, sighing. He nodded to Marl, who cut my bounds and turned away, holding the knife before him as though it had been soiled - I supposed it had. Standing at my feet, Senre pointed to the scroll he still held in his hand. Marl vanished behind a heavy jade-dyed curtain.

“Well, she has heard of the Blooded even if you have not,” Historian Senre said.
“Beware them, Del Tanich. They are criminals, terrorists. The white guards tell me I am chasing rumors. But the Blooded would destroy this city and kill anyone who opposed them, and this woman asked for them by name. Another prisoner recently described her. Our artist is quite fantastic, don’t you think?”

For a moment I thought he was asking about her again. “Oh,” I said, after a too-long delay. “Yes. It’s striking. She could be a real person.”

Senre nodded, once, while he undid my bounds. “She is. And while we would not harm her, we would ask her a number of very pointed questions. Why would a decent person seek out the Blooded? Has she been recruited? How do the Blooded do so? Find her, Del Tancih. While we cannot offer you any official capacity within the Temple, we might be able to find you some… opportunities. Opportunities – and privileges.”

Senre nodded once again to indicate that I could go. Still trembling, I mustered as much conspirator's calm as I could manage. I rose and walked dazed toward the great double Temple door. Of course, not even for the Blood of History itself would I give her over to any such as them. But the walk across the broad stone sanctuary was sobering, and seemed to last for several distinct eternities.

As I left I thanked the lingering grace of the Profusion that Head Senre’s familiarity with me had dulled his perceptions. He had known me until I was nearly sixteen, but that was eight years hence. Doubtless, because he sees me at Temple every Octday, he believes I’ve remained the rashly pious youth that I once was. He believed my petty thieves’ tricks because I’ve never been arrested for a crime.

In this manner I drove away my fear by the time I pushed the Temple doors apart. This evening’s knife was hardly the first pressed against my neck – and it will not be my last.

So I stepped outside into the cool night air of Ariel, nodding to a tall man with hair like a mess of straw. He was leaving the Temple by another door, and would have just finished the Prayers of Dusk, those devotions that mark the extinguishing of last lights in the face of coming darkness – and all our time upon this world. Thaeron lives, we know, at the end of the long diminution of humanity’s worthy days, the last dregs of the benefits of the Profusion throughout the galaxy.

“Beautiful evening, yes?” he asked, shuffling in my direction. He he clutched in his hand the simple talisman of the Baker's Guild, a copper emblem of a loaf of bread.

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