Friday, May 15, 2015

Whisper from the Dust: Chapter One

For Stefan
Part One
And any person may, at eight years, and sixteen, and at twenty- four, come to the local Temple to be tested, to see if he or she might serve.
- The Rule of the Jade Temple, by Historian Stalef
He always knew it would end with a knife. The blade slid across his cheek as though filleting some small animal. It scalded and seared and he bit his tongue to keep from screaming. The Temple’s anteroom was dark and hot and he was half-blinded by the torches on either side of his face. He sweated like a madman. The ropes that bound him to his chair, ostensibly for his own protection, chafed his wrists abominably.
Apprentice Marl peered into his eyes – seeing, Del imagined, whether or not he suffered. Whatever the young Historian glimpsed, he smiled thinly from beneath his jade cowl and heated the blade again for the next incision. Soon Del would carry six scars in sum; four he’d gotten in years before.
When Marl smiled, Del hated him. Del hated Marl's long winding frame, his grand column of a nose, his high cheekbones. Del hated his shining brown eyes, and his smell of incese and parchment. He hated that Marl's stride as he walked around the chair was smooth and self-assured. And he hated most of all that Marl's dark, soft jade robes granted him access to the Temple's vault of the electric tomes of Profusionist history.
Del wanted that access more than anything. And he was just as tall and thin as the apprentice, but his mane of auburn hair and beard were both unkempt. And his eyes were dulled by the ache of protracted malnutrition, and he stank of the Market's sweat and dust. When he walked, dejection slowed his gait - and it was the weight of poverty instead of Temple finery that stooped his shoulders. Marl showed him, then, everything he could have been, given sufficient opportunity. 
“You are marked, Del Tanich of Ariel,” said Historian Senre, his words rumbling from the darkness beyond the apprentice.  “You may not study at this or any other Temple of the History of the Profusion. You may not attempt to join the Order of the Children of History again.  This, I, Senre, Head Historian of the city Ariel, decree.”
Del might have mistaken his booming voice for that of the exaltants, were they not gone from the world entirely – and if he had not seen the fat old man nearly every day for twelve interminable years. The Temple cared for orphans, and Senre had headed the local Temple for as long as Del could remember. So it had been Senre who had taken Del off the street when he was very young, Senre who had funded his meals, and Senre who had steered him toward the studies of rhetoric and sums. Del owed very nearly everything to him.
“Yes,” Del said, “I fear I shall always be a disappointment.” He wondered if he would be ashamed whenever he finally did kill the two of them.
As soon as Del’s mouth was still, Marl made the other incision on his right cheek. The knife, heated to glowing orange, would scar for life. Del would forever bear marks like those of hardened criminals, or those who deserted the veilmen, though his were cut horizontally. Still, another offence would now mean his execution. 
“Do not take it hardly, Del,” said Senre. “Few have the stomach even for a second trial, let alone a third. Failure frightens the young. Strange, isn’t it? The righteous fear not – that’s what you should remember, Del. These mark you as a necessarily honest man.”         
“Or an incompetent criminal,” Del said, wincing. He kept forgetting to be insincere. Marl still stood over him, inspecting his work, turning his neck this way and that. Del began to suspect he’d enjoyed employing that blade – a state ill befitting a Historian. They weren't supposed to enjoy anything.
“You merchants are so self-conscious about your associations,” Senre said, writing at a lectern in the corner.  “You need not be. Oh, I know there are those elements in the Market who oppose the Temple, who consort with smugglers and purchase power with wealth. But they are not many, I think, and cannot be very much adept at cooperation.”
“So we don’t pose a threat to you,” Del said. He knew that Senre was writing the letter to the High Historian that would forever formalize his verdict concerning Del. “That's good,” he added, “because our taxes must contribute 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. Besides, 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 you need to see that not all things can be counted in your coin.”            
Senre finished writing with a flourish and walked across the room to seal it. He had the soft jowls and red face of the obese, and his fingers when he reached for the nearest message case were thick and shortened like a child’s. But Del could not help but see in him authority and that trait men called grace. Senre maintained his rank despite his physical appetites. He compensated for weakness by force of intellect. Following the Revised Orders, he had even let his hair grow a bit, though of course the top of his head was always bald.
But Apprentice Marl, who finally released his grasp, carried no hair on his head at all. He followed the discipline of the Old Orders, the unaltered ones that Historian Staleph himself pronounced four hundred years before. He had found no weakness, then, and thus needed no compassion.   
Del now wished that Historian Senre had wielded the blade. The whole ceremony was dragging on. The tiny, silvery, dust-like machines in the plastic testing cubes had slid away from his hand nearly a watch before. They had not even warmed his skin. And so the slim metal pages of the Histories of the Profusion would never scroll their lines before his eyes. They would always remain to him as dim and blank as stone. He could already hear the disappointment in the smooth deep voice of Ryn Batyst, though his mentor would try to hide it. 
He did not need to affect his scowl. Infiltrating the Temple would have been a master stroke. The Blooded were not the first group to have dreamed of bringing the Temple down, but they were the first who might succeed, and he had wanted to contribute.
Around him, the light of the torches limned the brass and gold and jade of the Temple’s intricately ornamented side. Along the way the light threw shadows among the relief carvings of the exaltants of the Profusion departing the galaxy and the exaltants shaping Thaeron by artifice. Machines the size of cities and spiraled like shells scooped up mountains and carved out the oceans between the continents.
Yet no one knew where those machines had gone. And no one knew what the exaltants of the Profusion had looked like. But that stopped no Temple from displaying their likeness everywhere: humanoid beings made entirely of golden light, people as they might become through theophany, winged with wisdom and casting not shadows, but illumination. The Historians published whatever truth they chose. 
            Marl wandered back to Del’s side. He sniffed and brushed the dust off of the beige collar of Del’s best but tattered tunic. Del wondered why he had not put the knife away. But, in the next instant Historian Senre turned toward Apprentice 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 Del’s throat. He jerked in astonishment, which movement meant that the blade pressed more closely against his skin.
Senre stepped toward them both.
Del clenched his jaw and bit back a low despairing cry. He was doomed, then. They knew everything. He would be tortured until he died or gave up his accomplices. Marl clamped a hand against his forehead, and forced it back. Del feared for the Blooded because he would not hold out. He had never been resolute. 
But with a rustling sound Historian Senre drew from his sleeve a scroll of ordinary parchment. He unfurled it before Del’s eyes.
Del froze his face, afraid to react.
Upon the sheet was sketched in gray ink the portrait of a young artist. He recognized her instantly. She sold her art in one of the stalls down the street from him. She brought four or six paintings each morning and produced more throughout the day, selling them in turn.
“Do you know this woman?” Senre asked.
She never spoke to him. Instead, she walked past in calm determination, as though she did not see him. He wished he were so cool. When he saw her, his mind whirled like the frames of a daguerreotype. A sort of electric paralysis seized him, as though he were epileptic. He had hired a girl the first night he left the Temple’s care, but to this one he stammered to say hello.
She was never dusty.
Marl twitched the knife against the skin of his throat again. “We said, do you know this woman? We’ll know if you lie, we always know.”
Daily, he cursed himself for cowardice. His only consolation was that she rarely spoke to anyone. And once, at the height of boldness, he had purchased one of her self-portraits. It had cost him a week’s earnings. But he could not help but buy it when she saw that she had drawn herself walking by the canvas, dark red hair trailing as she passed, ringlets shivering in her wake. She reminded him of someone he couldn’t quite remember. He had found her name, Adlasola Oso, signed along a branch in the painting’s background. 
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I have never seen her. I swear that I have not!”           
            The porcine senior motioned again and Marl delicately danced the point of the knife across Del’s throat.  “Good,” boomed Senre. “We believe you, but… have you ever heard of the Blooded?”
            Del’s mind lurched. He was totally confounded. Were they toying with him, not satisfied to simply have him in their grasp? He had never been a good deceiver, and Historians trained to read each other’s lies. 
“N—no,” he stammered, “What are they, one of the smuggler’s gangs?” He began to tremble. “No! I swear I do not know!”
The blade pricked another drop of blood from his throat. The Head Historian’s gaze bore upon him with piercing calculation. Long ago, he would have assassinated his predecessor to take the seat of Ariel. And he would now be training Marl to do likewise to some other key Historian. The horror of all their mental discipline was that they truly could master their emtoions to an unnatural degree. 
But Senre withdrew, sighing. He nodded to Marl, who cut Del’s bonds and turned away, holding the knife before him. But, Senre, still standing at his feet, pointed to the scroll just as Marl vanished behind a heavy jade-dyed curtain.
“Well, she has heard of the Blooded, if you have not. Beware, Del Tanich. They are terrorists. The Faith doubts me, and says I’m chasing rumors. But the Blooded would destroy this city. Why does this woman ask for them? Our artist is quite fantastic, don’t you think?”
“Oh,” Del said. “Yes. It’s striking. She could be real.”
Senre nodded. “She is all too real. And while we would not harm her, we would like to ask her questions. Why would anyone seek the Blooded? How do they recruit? If you find her, we might find some...unofficial capacties, within the Temple.”
            And he nodded once again to indicate that Del could go. Still shaking, Del rose and walked dazed toward the great double Temple door. When he thought of Senre’s question about recruiting, he nearly laughed outright. The Blood of History had its ways.
But the long walk across the broad stone sanctuary was sobering. He had just stepped closer to death. He could only thank the lingering grace of the Profusion that Head Senre’s familiarity had dulled his perceptions. No doubt Senre remembered the rashly pious youth who'd gone to Temple every Eightday. In a few more paces, Del had driven away even his fears. 
Outside, atop the broad Temple stairs, stood a baker in his faded white guild smock, with hair like a mess of straw. No doubt the man had just observed the Rites of Dusk, those devotions which marked the final extinguishing of light before darkness fell. The evening rites were the most popular, because everyone knew that humanity lived at the end of the long diminution of its days. Even now, Thaeron downed the last dregs of the benefits of the Profusion throughout the galaxy - and called it grace. 
“Beautiful evening, yes?” the baker asked, nodding in his direction.
Del nodded again. “I prefer the evenings. The sun’s not been down an hour, there’s no smugglers or thieves, no courtesans or gangs. Honest merchants can just walk home smelling dinner – rice and beef and eggs.  It’s the time for ordinary men.”
The man smiled. “Ah, look,” he said, pointing back over the Temple’s outline of dome and spike and spire. “Perhaps the exaltants still listen. Isn’t that supposed to be a sign?” 
            Del followed the baker’s pointing finger toward a streak of fire in the sky and shook his head. The street around them was filling with a dull whisper that deepened to a shriek as the object came toward them from the south. “No,” he said, over the noise. “You are thinking of a meteor, but those are smaller, and make no noise. This comes too close and fast.”
“Then what is it?” he asked, as the trail of orange and yellow flame streaked overhead, beyond the mountains, and fell sharply toward the Fackablest, the boreal forests of the north. “Something from the exaltants themselves? Perhaps they’re returning from beyond the void.”
Del shook his head. “No. But it is a relic of the Profusion – that plume comes from the engine of a starship. The crews are long dead, of course, though their equipment still guides them to their destination. But because no one helps them land, they stumble into our atmosphere and burn.”
The other man sounded uncertain. “That seems like an omen to me, Initiate.”
Del shook his head again. “I’m no part of any Temple. But I suppose it is an omen. It will only happen once or twice in our lifetimes. And the Historians thought there might never be another. It's just that no one has ever been able to guess their significance.”
“Well, it couldn’t be a good one,” the baker said.

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