Monday, July 26, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust XVIII

“You’re here,” she said, when I arrived. She stood with her arms crossed behind her back, hands touching their opposite elbows.

I realized then that I have never truly understood her. I find her graceful motion and postures as inevitable as they are surprising. I can’t understand the fine hair of her arms, or the strands that fall to her neck when she ties her hair above her head. Not her easy cracking laughter or her hands still carrying traces of whatever soil she’s been tending in her garden, or the oils she’s been using for her paints. I can’t understand her cooking or the way truth bursts astounded from her mouth.

“I am glad,” I finally said.

“You were not so glad I think a while ago. But perhaps I was glad for you.”

She motioned me inside. I could still hear the noises of the street, subdued through the walls. By day people can forget the siege and the war and briefly laugh or smile. By day the Orchids, it seems, are much less visible.

“I’m sorry if I was cruel. People aren’t fully themselves, I think, when they are ill.”

She frowned. “But then who are they? On the contrary, perhaps people are more themselves then than at any other time. I think illness strips away pretenses. But you don’t have to worry. You were only shy and silent, like a frightened child. You seemed terrified of what was happening to you, like you couldn’t control it? But of course it was your idea all along. But I only meant, of course, that you weren’t glad because you were sick.”

I stepped inside. “Well, I’m glad to be well.”

I looked around her rooms, of which I had not been cognizant either in my illness or in my enraged departure that morning. And her rooms...reflect her, seeming a constrained clutter of things intentionally placed. On her open windowsill, a piece of wood wraps around a bar of Profusionist metal, rocking softly in the wind. On her walls hang what I supposed to be her most recent art: Thaeron transformed into an Orchid, the Faith wearing a wakened white veil and a jade Historian cloak. In a third painting, a golden sun illuminates mastodons crowding the market in late afternoon. Beneath it on the floor sits a rock rounded by the Profuse river, and a particularly imaginative clay statue of a Profusionist exultant, with her wings extended. Against one wall leaned an oil painting of screaming men and mastodons charging a wall of golden light. And one still unfinished etching showed a Shuni heatwhip wrapped around a quicksword.

I started, remembering what I’d been saying. “I’m glad everywhere, now. I am grateful. Do you mind?”

“Your being grateful?” She laughed, waving toward a chair. She returned to the kitchen, where I smelt dinner stirring. “What for?” she asked.

“Everything I haven’t seen before. I meant: do you mind me here?”

“And I meant: what for? To who are you so indebted?”

Wreaths of flowers hang everywhere, petals not quite the colors of the paintings. Everything seems almost, but not quite, a pattern. I asked her how she makes these kinds of decisions.

“Who can tell?” she asked me back.

“Anyway,” I said, “I’m not grateful to anyone, specifically. Or glad for any particular thing. I feel I owe someone something I cannot give. And I’m even glad of that. I don’t understand.”

“I think perhaps you don’t have to understand. But you are welcome.”

I laughed. “But I didn’t thank you.”

She offered bread, cheese from the market. She still sells her paintings there. I ate, speaking between bites. “How are you?” I asked, when I belatedly remembered myself.

“Trying to decide something.”

“What?” I was of course truly curious, and not only feigning it.

She sat on a mat she’d unrolled on the floor, using her calf for a seat. At my puzzled expression, she explained that she didn’t understand beds or any other furniture. She kept chairs solely for her guests.

“I can’t say,” she said, “exactly what I’m deciding. But then who can?”

I reached out and wrapped my hand around not her hand, but her wrist, in that sort of accident of gesture which occasionally occurs. And found I did not want to let go. Beneath my fingertips stirred the rhythmic susurration of her pulse. I would feel that living hum forever, because it meant that I was not alone. But of course she moved with an odd laugh and said it felt odd, though she pulled away only slowly.

How long we ate and talked I cannot say, though when I finally looked out the windows again it was long past dark; both the moon and Orchids had fully risen. I finished the last of the bread, realizing that though I’d enjoyed the conversation, I could not possibly have remembered everything we’d talked about. But just then we must have been talking about intuition, or perhaps it was the unknown.

“Now mystery,” I said, “that I understand. Batyst is nothing but mystery. Do you know the Temple believes we’re actually some kind of heretical cult? But that’s reminded me of something he told me to tell you, when I saw him this morning. I wanted to right away, but forgot it because I was so glad to see you. At any rate, he says you don’t have to come to the Public of the Guilds tomorrow, because not everyone will be attending.”

I looked up at her gasp. She was putting down her bread with a quick emphatic motion.

“What?” I asked. “What’s wrong? Surely you weren’t so eager to paint a conference.”

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “I think there’s no meeting at all, if not everyone attends. But it’s a code that he arranged the last time we met. It means that he attacks the Temple tonight, Del. It means he’s been forced I think to move before he wanted to. It means perhaps that there is something wrong.”

I stood and bolted toward the door. And I would have run down the street and right into the Temple, were it not for Adlasola’s arresting hand; her grip was astoundingly strong upon my arm.

“Del,” she said, “Del! This a code for me, you understand? For me. It means there’s nothing I or you can do. He has been planning this for twenty years, but I do not know his plan. If we went we would only foul it or get arrested or killed ourselves. And you were his hope. Whatever he said, he did all of this for you. So perhaps we should just wait? We should stay and see what happens, then decide what to do, I think. Okay? Okay?”

I nodded, knowing she was right. I relented and slumped against the doorframe; she stepped out in front of me so that she could have the same perspective. And the Temple was visible, somehow, or at least its spire was, so I watched , we both watched, to see if Batyst had won, if he had accomplished that conflagration that he had promised for so many years would happen. I refused to move again.

But, dear reader, though we watched so long that Adlasola sweetly slumped against me and I held her while the stars wheeled overhead, and the dark spheres of the Orchids plied their courses, there was not a sound that was not entirely natural to a quiet summer night in Ariel. So incongruently pacific was the anxious, endless stretch we shared that it was not until the first pale light of dawn was creeping over the mountains that I realized that one sound, at least, that should have been there had not actually occurred.

“There are no patrols,” I told her. “No Whites or Greens have passed at all. That only happens when they’ve been recalled, when there’s been a real disturbance. But there’s been nothing. The Temple’s quiet. It means they’ve won. Whatever else has happened, the Temple surely has Ryn now.”

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