Friday, June 25, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust VII

Chapter Three

July 41, 440 Y.A.

“The Blooded do not proselytize,” once said Ryn Batyst. “Those who come are called. Those who are called, come. And they come alone. The Wells of the Dead do not make exceptions.”

We spoke in the urchin’s tongue I had learned long before the Temple found me; this pidgin language has the great virtue of sounding like nonsense that only simpletons might understand. It has been of great service to the Blooded.

“But how does that work?” I asked, still exuberant after my first successful Blooding. “The Wells of the Dead have slept for a thousand years. How can they elect a single soul at a specific time and know that it’s the right one? And how in all the Profusion do they possibly agree?”

Batyst laughed. It was spring and the cormorants cried out upon the lake – that is, where the docks reach out into the broad deep waters of the Profuse River to greet the Profusionist and common ships. We were standing atop the Portage Stair, where we had agreed to meet, because the crowds would ensure our anonymity.

“That,” said Ryn Batyst, “neither the Blood of History nor the Wells of the Dead have ever deigned to say. Nor do they say who does the choosing, or how they cooperate. It is not for nothing that we call them our mystery.”

I started to object, but Batyst raised a finger to caution me.

“But it is no mystery why we do not ourselves reach out. The Blood ensures our loyalty. We ourselves cannot. And simply failing to report recovered Profusionist technology to our dear Temple carries the penalty of death. Can you imagine if the Historians knew we were using it ourselves? Never forget, Del – we are dead if we’re discovered. It’s not worth the risk.”

Then he turned to look me in the eye – we both had been admiring the westward view over the lake and up the hills on the other side and up, up into the snows and glaciers of the Gidwinn Mountains – and did what Ryn Batyst always does. He promised more.

“The Blood of History, Del, proselytizes more capably than you or I could ever hope to do. The Wells of the Dead have safely expanded our ranks for decades. And it is the beginning. It is only the beginning. Today there are hundreds. There will soon be thousands. And by the time the Blood of History is done there will not be a soul in this city who will not hearken to the Wells of the Dead of Ariel!”

His hand upon my shoulder felt like the weight of truth itself. “Only,” he said. “We must be patient. We live on truth’s time, not our own. The Blood of History decides who becomes Blooded. We ourselves do not.”

So on the day that she came to me, Adlasola Oso waited as I slowly measured out her seed. While my hand remained steady as a mason’s, I do not know how it did not shake.

“You must be patient,” I whispered, peering down into my sacks so that none could read my lips. “We serve the Blood of History, and we come only when it calls. In a few nights or a week, probably no more than two, I will come for you. Can you tell me where you live? Quietly, you are still my customer.”

She nodded, “Corin’s Row in the Flats, beside the shrine to the sixteenth Faith, number seven.” She slid her coin toward me across my counter. I stood up again, settling the larger bags again behind me.

She lived but ten blocks from me – and little better. I nodded too, and handed her the paper pouch carrying her small cupful of seeds, my eyes still fixed upon the ground.

“I know it.” I said, pocketing her shilling. “I’ll knock before midnight. I’ll say ‘By day, the common.’ If you are ready and alone, answer ‘In truth, the people.’ If you say anything else, or if you say nothing, or if you are not alone, I will leave. But if you say that, I will take you to the Blood. Wear loose dark clothing and shoes for long walking, and do not expect to return before the dawn. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” she said, her eyes wide. Already, I thought, she goes deeper than she expected. I felt suddenly that if she went with me, then she would surely die.

“You’ll gain nothing,” I said, low and quiet. “The night I enter, no one dares to paint.”

She flared, and was devastating in her beauty. “Then I think perhaps you all are cowards,” she said, and in a whirl of robes – I remember she was wearing blue that day, the azure of the summer sky – she was gone within a crowd of masseuses, those women who wear their own sleeves shortened to show their oiled hands.

It was precisely, I imagine, the sort of exit she always makes: abrupt and without any kind of explanation. Even in that first encounter she seemed one of those who lacks that otherwise ubiquitous capacity which men call self-regard.

I stood for ten minutes shuffling through my sacks and did not call out a price. I remember very little else which occurred that day, and profited almost nothing for the afternoon. I’ll never know if the morrow would have returned my mind to normal; the Blood of History called me again that very night.

I have hesitated to describe this summons. The closest approximation is that it starts as appetite. One begins to look forward to the Wells of the Dead as one anticipates satiating hunger, or satisfying other attractions of the flesh – that same warm tingling, a sort of low dull fire. But it does not stop at this; rather, the burn becomes an itch, the crawling becomes particular, and then one feels as though a worm burrows within one’s skull, and it is only walking toward the acting Well of the Dead the relieves of that particular discomfort. If you still do not come – in some few hours it feels as though every cell within your skull has utterly combusted, and the worm within your brain is digging out through one’s own head.

The way to the Well of the Dead is the way, the only way, into coolness and relief. Most Blooded come as soon as they are able. Few have fought it very long. And no one has ever dared discover what happens if one resists entirely.

I say all this, dear reader, because for Adlasola Oso I delayed. The call of the Well of the Dead came to me from the south and west, near the Needle Stair; I knew this as clearly as I knew that her apartment lay to the north and east, near the tip of the plateau. The walk would add an hour to the journey; a wiser soul would have picked a better night.

But to the north and east I went, as soon as I had closed and locked my door. As I did, I hid my key inside my boot, loosening my rough cloth trousers over their tops, so that no pickpocket could reach it, but Lud the stevedore would find it readily. I worried already about Adlasola – who would see her to her rooms, if I was to be unconscious? Whom could I trust? And what could I tell Batyst, if I could not avoid him?

Such thoughts carried me to her door; I do not remember precisely how I got there, and it does not matter – all the little streets of the Flats crook and meet alike, one block of rooms very much undistinguished from another, even to those like myself who once called the alleys of Ariel our home. But I was warmer than I should have been and sweating by the time I reached the shrine of the sixteenth Faith, and paused there to take my breath.

Unnamed, undistinguished and only dimly remembered, a shrine is all he gets, a marble statue of a man kneeling, as all the Faiths have knelt, to drink the vial of Letherium by which he forsakes his previous life entirely, and forgets everything he has done before that day. Thus each Faith can serve the world selflessly for another forty years or more – if the grace of the Profusion grants it, though of course it seldom does.

Her door was open, a possibility I had not anticipated. There was no light inside, and I wondered suddenly if she had gone or never lived there at all. But a knocking sound came from just inside.

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