Niri the World-Walker
Niri hated hoeing weeds. She hated the heavy hoe and the blisters it left on her hands, she hated the sweat that trickled all over her body, she hated the hired laborers working alongside her and the noise and smell of their chewing idith, and she especially hated the fact that this was only the beginning of the growing season, and this was only the first of dozens of days she would spend hoeing, hoeing, hoeing!
A girl came around offering water, but Niri wouldn't drink from the same jug as idith-chewers, so she refused it. Certainly, she was thirsty, but she was so miserable in so many other ways that it hardly mattered. Thirst, sweat, idith-sound-and-stench, blister, heat, sweat, hoe! Shouldn't the day be over already?
At first she felt only an ache, dull and spreading through every part of her body. Then the heat stopped, and she even began to feel strangely cool. Dizziness came next, and once she mis-aimed the hoe and struck her foot. The pain in her smashed toes eased, and after that there was only a gray fuzz. Niri had topped thinking long before, and didn't even exclaim in wonder when the hoe disappeared. Nor when her feet began moving without her direction, and she began walking alone down a broad causeway of yellow stones, up a flight of steps, with a cool, salty breeze teasing her hair and stinging faintly at her eyes.
At last, something like tired curiosity made her raise her head, and she saw that the causeway was leading her to a pier thrusting into a dark ocean, with the shear-cliffed coast of an island rising in the distance above the silver-capped waves. Hard to tell in the flying foam, but it seemed a tiny white craft slipped over the water, sailing for the island. Niri gasped, and wondered if her steady approach—it hadn't stopped, and she still was unable to control it, or even feel as if she could or should—would halt at the pier or continue to carry her into the sea, but with another step, the world changed again. Now she walked on a narrow rise of earth past gorges that feel away thousands of feet from the black floor of a forest heavy with spring growth. And yet a few steps more took her onto a river of ice crawling down a purple mountain, and then to a barren plain filled with nothing but rocks, sand, and orange dust. The stench of iron filled her nostrils, then changed to a sweet tinge as she stumbled through a field of something like clover—but the leaves weren't three-lobed clover leaves, and the smell was far headier than that of clover.
When she appeared onto a narrow walkway hanging over a chasm floored in burning lava, Niri felt the urge, then the ability, then the sensation of coming back to herself. She grasped one of the walkway's rails and closed her eyes. She didn't think about where she was, or what was happening. It wasn't over yet. Home. I need to get home.
She heard nothing but the low roar of heat from thousands of feet below, felt nothing but fire on her skin. She imagined the walkway pulling free of its supports, falling, melting on the way down…
And to think I didn't want to hoe weeds!
She turned to face the end of the walkway, then took one step, then another. She heard her leather shoes against the iron walkway, felt the heat; nothing changed. Another step, thinking of home. Another--I don't want to be here forever!
With a shock that knocked the breath from her body, she realized she was no longer standing. It was not like waking from a dream—she had been awake all along, only one moment she was some place and then next, somewhere very different. She wished it had been more like waking, that there had been some shift in consciousness to match her shift in situation. As it was, everything felt far too—well, far too real.
What just happened to me?
Niri lay on her back on something soft, though a little scratchy: a straw-stuffed mattress. She opened her eyes and saw the arched roof of her family's house. All around the fringes of her vision were the faces of her mother and the servants, all pale with concern.
She pushed herself up, shaking off the hands that immediately reached out to help her. Fear and lingering disorientation made her irritable. "I'm all right."
"But—when did you come in? Sweetheart, you weren't right here a moment before--where were you?"
"I…I don't know. I was out in the fields…then I was somewhere else." She brushed sweat-matted hair from her face. "An ocean…and then a mountain…and a desert…and some fields. And I think there was a forest. So many places…"
"How did you get there?" whispered a husky-voiced serving woman.
"I walked." It was the only explanation she could think of.
"Do you think--? Could she be--?" The serving women turned to each other and began demanding opinions, do-you-thinks, agreements, awe.
"What's going on?" Niri asked. Her voice came out in a scratchy whisper, and she didn't think any of them heard her question. Louder, she said, "Is there water?"
A serving woman offered her the brimming drinking horn with an air almost of reverence. As Niri drank, she heard the door open and her father's voice, deep and angry. Her mother replied with a startled shriek, tears. Niri couldn't hear their words, but she heard the servants around her, and before her eyes fell closed, she made out one question.
"Is she the one? Is Niri A'Tawn the World-Walker?"
In all the grand city of Xeocib, no towers reached higher than the clouds but one. Even in that gathering place of colossi, where stone and steel and crystal and orichalcum stretched into the sky beyond the following of human eyes, the low clouds that covered the plains in summer cut no man in his chamber off from the earth but one, Sular NaAlad.
He said the clouds helped him see better.
The thin air up in that tower would leave most men gasping like netted fish, but Sular was made of sterner stuff than most mortal men. Still, as he looked out today to see that his study was a single golden dome in a desert of gray vapor, he began to feel a bit light beneath his pointed gold Physician's Cap. There was also a sort of churning in his stomach that probably had nothing to do with the egg hash he had picked at that morning.
The world might be ending down there, and I wouldn't even know it. Of course, Sular reasoned to himself, if the ground below fell into the Abyss, his tower would likely follow, and he'd come down from above these clouds right quickly…
Morbid thoughts for this time of the morning. He looked at the pendulum clock above his bed—later than he had thought, hardly morning any more at all. This was not a day to be late, with the meeting awaiting below; that he almost had been felt like a dark omen. Sular rose from his desk, pushing aside the bowl with the model of a hurricane he had been working on, and went to the tiny iron-bound door of the stairs that led down to the rest of the palace.
As he passed through the Hall of Scholars, e found Sabbad NaKarem in one of the ornate study alcoves, seated at a table with the sheets of a manuscript spread around her. The silver emblem of the Divine Intercessor, Ceshim the Compassionate, hung over her breast. The sight of it troubled Sular. Normally, Sabbad hid the medallion when she wished to study, not wanting to lord her position among the librarians. If she wore it openly now, she must be on official business and only reading to pass the time.
And there were only a few things that could bring the High Devotee of the Intercessor , Honored Priest of the God, to the palace of Xeocib on official business.
Sular sat down across from her and fussed with the tattered edge of one of the papers. "Sabbad, ah…are you here about the girl?"
She glanced up, then back at the page. "I am."
"Do you…" The words caught in his throat; he swallowed them and tried again. "Do you think she's the one?"
After a minute of silence, Sular realized that was all the answer she intended to give. "Why not? Not that I want her to be, or that I'm saying she is, but you sound awfully certain…"
Sabbad pushed aside the manuscript and sat back in her chair. "Don't you think Ceshim would tell me before the God unleashed Her on the world?"
"I suppose that would be the, ah, compassionate thing to do," Sular conceded. He was never entirely comfortable around Sabbad. She was always so certain of things, too certain for his scientist's mind. It came of her religion, perhaps. And to make it worse, she wasn't even pushy about such things, as if she took everyone else's belief in her own ideas for granted. Or perhaps she didn't care what others thought, because she was so certain she herself was right. Not the way of Sular's thinking at all.
But before either of them could say more, the Chant of Noon echoed through the halls, carried from the Day-Callers in their chamber at the center of the palace to every room within it by a series of pipes and trumpets Sular himself had designed.
Sabbad rose and gathered the manuscript pages into a neat pile. "Do you know where we're meeting?"
"The River Garden," Sular replied, then bit his tongue. Why had she asked? As a test? Or did she really not know—though surely she would have been told, if the Empress wanted her present? Did the Empress want her present?
Or was Sabbad simply nervous as he was, and trying to make conversation?
He let her lead the way through halls and down stairs, past servants and courtiers who held their own court in the Empress's shadow, past and around and through the salons of ladies in waiting, some of them queens in their own right who came to Xeocib with pride at the honor of serving its mistress. The River Garden was close to the center of the palace, set on a passive pane of crystal covering the Sheb river, which flowed through and under the city. A few pumps of gold-colored orichalcum stood at various places throughout the garden, for servants or courtiers to draw water for whatever they saw need for. The plants themselves grew in waist-high marble basins set seemingly at random, some clustered close and some like lonely oasis, with orichalcum-covered and ivory-inlaid benches set in the shades of ferns and trees.
The girl, Niri A'Tawn, was standing amid a crowd of dark-suited women around a circle of unused benches. The Empress herself was nowhere in sight.
"Well, then." Sabbad sighed and approached the women. "Good morning, Ladies of A'Tawn. I am Sabbad NaKarem, a servant of the God and friend of Ceshim. This is Sular NaAlad, the court Physician. We are here to review your case."
"Review our case?" a woman, by the dark eyes they shared likely Niri's mother, sputtered. "Are we on trial?"
Sabbad replied without batting an eyelash. "Not at all. But before we allow you to claim that your daughter is a girl awaited by entire worlds, we must be sure she is in fact…that one."
Sular wondered if Ceshim really would warn Sabbad before the World-Walker arrived. If it were Sular's place, he wouldn't. He'd rather watch the surprise dawn on her face when she realized that she couldn't know everything after all.
Matron A'Tawn was looking around the garden. "Isn't the Empress supposed to be here?"
At the disrespectful question the hair stood up on Sular's neck. Attending women exchanged glances and shook their heads. Even Niri squirmed uncomfortably. But Sabbad and A'Tawn remained perfectly composed, if the latter a little shrill.
"Her Puissance will arrive in her own time," Ceshim's Devotee said at last. Then there was silence but for the thundering of the river beneath their feet.
Sular leaned close to whisper in Sabbad's ear. "You do realize," he said, "that if the girl is the World-Walker, her arrival might foretell the destruction of Xeocib?" Surely she wouldn't be so calm if she knew, if she really realized it deep in her bones as he did, what the outcome of today's review might mean…
"The prophecies are vague," Sabbad replied.
Sular was about to ask more when the garden was filled with the clarion sound of trumpets. It was not a comforting sound, and what it heralded was no less disquieting.
Aurmid-Nash, Empress of Xeocib, strolled through the River Garden with what was, for her, a tiny escort: five guards each for her and each of her five daughters. That all of them were present was unusual, and said something about the gravity of the occasion; the Spymistress Vedia-Nash would have been absent, as it was best her face remained unknown. Apparently this concern was minor compared to the appearance of the World-Walker. Only mildly less worrying was the way Tsea-Nash, Xeocib's General, bristled with every weapon she was known to wield proficiently—though that was perhaps the reason for the minuscule escort.
Of course, Sular realized, this means only twenty-five soldiers see this meeting rather than the usual hundred. And I don't suppose Her Puissance expects to be assassinated right here in her River Garden.
No, there were greater worries than that.
Sabbad went to her knees and touched her forehead to the crystal ground. Sular followed her, and with a gesture brought the A'Tawn ladies and their attendants down as well.
Aurmid-Nash was a large woman who found it uncomfortable to stand for long periods of time, and after acknowledging their obeisance with a nod she made her way to a bench. The petitioners, Sabbad, and Sular rose at her signal and took their own seats or stood around her.
"Good morning, Ladies A'Tawn." Aurmid-Nash's voice was deep and rich; she sounded completely untroubled at the circumstances chance had laid before her. "I hope that your journey to Xeocib was pleasant."
"Very much so, Your Eminence." Sular was pleased to note that Matron A'Twan's voice held a note of awe, despite her earlier surliness. "Thank you."
"Then we shall begin." The Empress sat back. "The Devotee of the Intercessor has made a sort of side-study of prophecy. She will be the one who determines your case, though my Lord Physician will ask some questions and make an examination. I am only here to witness." She smiled at Niri in a way that was not unkind.
Sabbad rose. "I would like to clarify a few definitions first," she said, "to avoid any later confusion. The prophecy we believe Niri A'Tawn might fulfill is one spoken by the priest Dahuan of Ilnar, about a girl called the World-Walker. This child can move to places by will alone that no other being can reach, and her appearance will coincide with other events…some of them disasters. But the word 'World' is misleading. What most people call worlds are actually globes orbiting other suns—more properly called planets. There are records of a few, though not many, people whose raw will alone can carry them to another planet and back, and some--" She glanced at Sular "—believe that Dahuan's prophecy was simply a corruption of one of these tales. The worlds the true World-Walker can reach are separate creations—places made by a being other than the God."
"Who might bless the Empress," several of the serving women said, then kissed their fingertips.
Aurmid-Nash smiled in amusement, and Sabbad belatedly repeated the country ritual out of courtesy.
"So what we must discover," she continued, "is if the places Niri has seen are in this universe, or another."
"I can take things from here," Sular said hastily. "Now, child, if you could, please tell us about the places you saw—with as many details as possible."
The Matron A'Tawn settled in her bench with a look that was not entirely of satisfaction. Beside her, Niri was blushing beet red. The poor girl never wanted any of this, Sular realized.
"Now, child," he said as gently as he was able. "Tell us."
She did her best. She spoke of the landscapes she had wandered through, and what it felt like to wander through them. Sular asked questions to clarify—how deep were the gorges in the forest? Did the white boat have a carved figurehead? What was the bridge over the lava made of—iron or stone or something else?
Sabbad watched the questioning in silence. Her face was expressionless, unlike Aurmid-Nash's, whose eyes darted from speaker to speaker with lively interest. Xeocib's five princesses stood at their places between benches. Some, like Selian-Nash the sorceress, looked interested. Tsea-Nash seemed to be watching something else, hands resting on her sword and dagger.
"Did you see any people?" Sular asked.
"I…" Niri looked around wildly, as if she might find the answer in the River Garden. This question seemed to agitate her more than all the others. "No. I didn't. I don't think I did. I don't remember."
Sular and Sabbad exchanged glances. The Devotee of the Intercessor uncrossed her legs and rose.
"Can you repeat your journey?"
"Try world-walking again. See if you can find people."
Niri frowned but obediently closed her eyes. Sular glanced at Sabbad. What was she trying?
"I don't want to be here," Niri whispered. All eyes in the garden turned to the space she had been when she vanished.
It was only a short while before Niri returned, but to Sular it felt longer than his entire life up until this day—no small accomplishment. When she finally stepped from thin air to collapse in Matron A'Tawn's lap, he felt like hooding arms with Sabbad and dancing praises to Ceshim's Intercession, which he wasn't certain he believed in. The Intercessor's Devotee herself turned from a examining gnarled topiary and went to Niri's side.
"Did you see anyone?"
The girl combed through hair that looked windblown. "Yes."
"What were they like?"
"Men and women on a road. Dark-skinned, with brown hair. Some were wearing armor and helmets—they looked like guards. I think it was a caravan, like the one Mother and I traveled in to come to Xeocib."
"How many fingers did they have?"
Niri frowned. "Ten, I think. One of the armored men was missing half his hand—"
Matron A'Tawn looked aghast that her daughter had seen such things, but Sabbad said only, "And what about their eyes? What were they like?"
"Gray or brown."
"Shapes like ours?"
"Yes. A little narrower."
"What about everything else? Height, ears, noses, hair, the shape of the brow? Lips, teeth, tongue? They are all completely similar to ours?"
"Did they speak?"
"Some of them. I didn't know the language."
"Did their voices sound normal?"
"They sounded like people."
Sabbad sighed and stood back, eyes on the ground. After a long silence, she raised her head and spoke. "She is not the World-Walker."
"What?" Matron A'Tawn roared.
"What?" Aurmid-Nash echoed.
"I beg your pardon?" Sular stammered.
Niri said nothing.
"While the Creator of this universe chose to make all humankind the same, it goes against reason that the people of other worlds would also look like us. If Niri saw something human, especially so closely human that she saw no difference between them and ourselves, she cannot have left our universe, our 'world'."
"That's it?" Matron A'Tawn sputtered.
"She still has a great gift," Sabbad said mildly. She looked to Niri. "Cultivate it, child. Your will can make great things possible."
"You're lying! You have some scheme, some secret plotting behind this! What's your reason? What do you want?"
"Now, Matron A'Tawn," Sabbad NaKerem said, "it won't make things better to accuse me of lying. If Niri was truly the foretold one, it would do me no good to deny it."
Matron A'Tawn looked ready to spit, but mercifully restrained herself. She rose, grasped Niri's hand, bowed to the Empress, and walked out of the garden. The attending women rose and hurried after. Vedia-Nash gestured and sent some of the guard after them, likely as an escort rather than spies.
Sular wondered, as she passed him, if Niri looked a little relieved.
When they were gone, Aurmid-Nash leaned back on her bench with a sigh. "If this girl had been the one, it would have meant the destruction of Xeocib, wouldn't it?"
"The prophecies aren't very clear," Sabbad said.
"Yes. Well." Two of Aurmid-Nash's daughters helped the Empress rise. "Perhaps it was for the best." After a pause, she added, "I do pity the girl, though."
Sabbad NaKarem and Sular NaAlad touched the ground before the Empress, before all three left the gardens their separate ways. Beneath the crystal floor, the Sheb river flowed on, and in the distance bronze gates were opening as Niri A'Tawn, who was not the foretold, left the city of Xeocib.
For the edification of the reader, here is a pertinent excerpt from the prophecies of Dahuan of Ilnar: The World-Walker will come from the fields, and will move where she will beyond Gods and Men. Creation will not contain her, and she will sow destruction in the Great Cities. And some will not know her, and some will set others in her place, and after her coming none of the Worlds will be as it is before. Yet the only sign of her coming will be her leaving, and what place she might come from, none know.
If, perchance, the reader suffers any great epiphanies while reading the above, they might write with their findings to Sular NaAlad, in the tallest tower of Xeocib. Any postmaster worth his salary will know where to deliver it.