F i v e
Under the strange, starless sky, deep into the darkest hours of the night, we snuck our caravan past the weary-eyed tax collectors without a hitch. The scouts had told us their exact locations the previous day, and it had been a simple task to keep out of sight of these areas. From there, the journey to Nidyum would take me an additional week if I did not stop in the capital, Yadid – which I never did. Fewer and fewer traders braved that territory now, where King Yadid's presence was felt like a dagger in the back of one's head, always watching, always waiting for a chance to steal the shums right out of nearly-empty pockets.
Still, half of the caravan remained behind in Yadid this year. The rest of us skirted the city limits at a distance, keeping the jutting skyline of ostentatiously foreign stone to the far horizon. I had no way of knowing if Yadid himself was in his own city currently, but I would not risk it.
The week of travel spared us any more unsettling events. The scratches on my arm healed and, during the day, itched terribly in the hot sun. During the night, traders had begun to comment on the unusualness of a night sky without moon or stars, particularly one that lasted several eves in a row, but they did not think too much of it. The heavens, they knew, were quite unfathomable to the minds of the human realm.
I was the sole trader among us who connected the starless nights with Inda's distressed revelation that Attra, Goddess of Night and Protection, was no longer communicating with her. But this I kept to myself.
Two months and two days after departing from the port of Laanur, the caravan arrived at the gates of Nidyum.
They rose taller than any sight on the fertile landscape behind us: A pair of twin ivory pillars, each with a twisting helix of carved hieroglyphs that started with the story of Nidyum's founding at the base and ascended higher than the eye could see, presumably ending with depictions of the gods and goddesses in the divine realm – although these inaccessible carvings had not been seen since their creation by a High Artisan sharir many years in the past. At the top of each pillar, hazy in the humid river air, was a gigantic bronze zuara, the symbol of the gods, bestowing protection upon the great city beyond them.
Around the perimeter of Nidyum was a wall as formidable as the pillars themselves, with imported stone at the base and hard, packed mud closer to the top, upon which stood a battalion of prowling archers and spear-wielders whose metal scaled armor glistened sharply in the setting sun. To gain entrance into the city, our dwindling caravan needed to present to the gatekeepers, the tabirn, who kept records of all those who dwelled within the walls of Nidyum at any given moment. The tabirn rarely gave traders any problems at the gates; we were welcomed for the luxury goods we bore on our backs, especially in the frolicsome weeks before the Great Flood when the planting and tilling were nearly completed and the shums and kash began to flow freely.
However, it was a stern, wary face that met us at the gates on this eve.
"Traders?" the man asked briskly, his reed stylus poised over a fresh clay tablet. While papyrus was readily imported into Nidyum, it was far too precious to use in everyday business such as this. Barely were we given time to answer before the man continued, "You will be hard-pressed to find the sort of carefree joviality that ususally takes hold this time of year. But in you go, if you must. You shall see soon enough." He inscribed our arrival onto the tablet in his hands, diligently pressing out the symbols for 'trader' and 'twelve' – our final count this year – before signaling us to proceed forward.
While the 'gates' themselves were merely an opening in the city walls flanked by the ivory pillars, they led to a long and heavily-defended bridge that served as the only way in or out of Nidyum from the northern direction. Originally, the bridge had been necessary to allow carts and mules to cross the muddied quicksand of the river valley, but now it also allowed the soldiers atop the walls an excellent shot at any invaders trying to gain entry. It was said that a Nidyume slingshot could hit an eagle mid-flight from six hundred hands away – a large, lumbering army hardly stood a chance.
"That was a cheery welcome, eh?"
Old Mungazi was the first to break the silence following the tabirn's words as we made our way across the bridge. A seasoned trader, it was no surprise that Mungazi would remain in the caravan all the way to Nidyum. Like myself, he knew the greatest profit could be expected here.
"A foreboding warning, to be sure," one of the other traders said. I knew his name to be Arezen, but my familiarity stopped there. "The latest of an increasingly long list, actually."
For some inexplicable reason this statement made me tense, and I thought for the first time in awhile of the necklace tucked away in the pouch at my hip – and of the anti-god who had tried to steal it from me. Warning after warning, am I foolish to keep them to myself?
"This year's trip to the south has proved a strange one," Mungazi agreed. The wheels of our carts clattered quietly over the uneven stones of the bridge. "If the Nidyume are reluctant to part with their shums in this time of unrest, I can't blame them. But I can be disappointed."
"Perhaps it would have been a better idea to stop in Yadid after all," another trader mused. "They are certainly more used to unrest."
"And more used to parting with their shums!" another, called Gidri, said with a barking laugh.
"Yadid can only squeeze so much out of those people before he is left wanting," Arezen said, a sentiment with which I fully agreed. "We do them a favor by passing over them and sparing them the greed of outsider goods."
"That is a noble sentiment, Arezen," said Gidri. "But we all know you pass Yadid because of the tax collectors, just like the rest of us."
Ahead of us loomed the great city of Nidyum, pride of the southernmost stretch of Greater Yadid, perched at the confluence of the rivers Jipaa and Malitzu like an overinflated bird zealously guarding her nest of treasures. To either side of us, we could see the great rivers flowing like shimmering cerulean ribbons that cut through the valley, each at a distance of less than a day's walk but far enough away so that their flooding could be contained before it reached the city limits. As soon as we passed beyond the outer walls, the square towers of Nidyum's central hub appeared to rise up from the green valley floor, most of their exteriors gratuitously decorated to designate their purpose: Administrative buildings, schools for scribes and scholars, sprawling artisan warehouses and the accompanying storefronts. Unlike in smaller villages, the clay here had been meticulously baked into individual bricks and laid with bitumen, giving every structure a more deliberate, detailed appearance. The skyline was dotted with bands of gold, bronze, and limestone facades, although each flat rooftop had been painted white to curb the unbearable heat during the Hot Months. Roads wound their way through the array of buildings, most of the main ones paved in stone and wide enough for three carts to pass without colliding. Temples, distinctive by their stepped ziggurat style, were plentiful in Nidyum – multiple ones for each god and goddess, ones for special occasions, ones only for men and only for women, ones where entrance was forbidden entirely except for sharire themselves.
None of these, though, compared to the Temple of Zuuli at the Royal Palace of Nidyum.
It stood at the very heart of the city, yet it was quite intentionally visible from the bridge over which we now passed. The main stone road led directly to its pillared portico; the ivory columns of the temple here were shorter than their counterparts at the gates but no less impressive, each inlaid with swirling patterns of lapis lazuli to honor Zuuli, the River God. Rich, pure white silk from the eastern territory of Mezuina draped languidly between the columns, fluttering softly in the barely-there breeze. Two impossibly tall, straight staircases flanked the temple and climbed to the adjoined palace, whose arched entranceway I knew to be guarded by at least a dozen soldiers, even though they were not discernible from this distance. Several rows of stepped architecture brought the ziggurat closer to the heavens than any of the surrounding buildings, and it was topped with the largest dome ever to be successfully constructed in historical memory. The king who resided within that palace was no more than a figurehead, one of Yadid's feeble puppets, but that did not diminish the grandeur of the place.
The bridge ended as the soil rose higher and grew firmer, but the stone beneath our feet continued on as the main road. It was here that our caravan disbanded, for we traders each had our own schedules and habits that did not include one another's company. Any camaraderie that had developed since Laanur was not forgotten (although I made a point of avoiding camaraderie, on the whole), and when it was convenient some of the traders might find themselves drinking or eating together while in Nidyum, but there was no longer any obligation to remain together for protection.
At a crossroads, Old Mungazi turned to the rest of us. "And so we have made it another year."
"Most of us," Arezen amended, a somber reminder of Urbara's unspeakable betrayal in the Kishar Desert.
"Aye," Mungazi agreed. "The God of Destruction strikes when he is least expected. Mekash is in Kinn's hands now, but Attra has saw fit to guide us to our destination and she is due our gratitude for that."
Gidri grunted. "If Shimennis sees fit to persuade his people to spend their shums, I'll be even more grateful," he said. "Just pray to all the deities that our journey wasn't in vain."
As the traders bid one another farewell – for now or forever, it was impossible to tell in our nomadic lifestyle – I grew increasingly uneasy. I should warn them, I knew. They need to be aware of the strange happenings all around us. But that would mean revealing everything: the necklace, the anti-god, Inda's revelation… They would never believe me. I would be thought a fool, my mind addled by the sun.
But it could save their lives.
"Wait," I called, just as the caravan began to disperse. Confused faces turned in my direction; I was always one of the quietest traders and not prone to initiating conversation.
"Kala?" Arezen prompted, which surprised me as I didn't believe he knew my name. Most just referred to me as 'the woman trader,' which was fine by me.
I hesitated. A fierce protectiveness rose suddenly in me – not for the other traders, though.
For the necklace.
"Be on guard," I finally said, looking at each pair of eyes in turn. "The starless nights, the rainless Respite Months, the incident with Urbara – it is all connected, it must be. Whether you choose to believe me or not, something is wrong. I wish no harm on any of you, therefore I beg you all to keep a sharp eye in your travels. May Attra continue to bestow her protection on us." Though what hope have we, if she refuses to answer even her most devoted sharira?
Arezen stepped forward and placed a hand on my shoulder. I was unaccustomed to such blatant intimacy, but I did not flinch and held his gray-green gaze. "Well noted," he said. A scar ran through one of his brows, cutting it in two. "We could all use some added caution during these times, yourself included."
"I intend to take my own advice as well, I assure you," I returned. My tone must have been cool, for his hand dropped at once. A flicker of skepticism crossed his solemn face, but he said no more and departed without another word, as did most of the others in succession. Mungazi, however, gave me a hard, scrutinizing look. When it was just the two of us, I confronted him, perhaps too harshly. "You think me unable to look after myself."
"You have made the same journey from Laanur as the rest of us; I think you equally capable in that respect." Mungazi's eyes were yellowed from a lifetime of unforgiving sunlight, his skin as thick and dark as leather, and in that moment I knew his many years had brought him an insight that I did not yet possess. "But I worry you haven't told us everything you know," he continued. "You, who says so little but sees so much – what else have you seen?"
Deep restless blue, surrounded by twisted silver prongs. Snout and fangs where a human face had once been. Claws of an anti-god raking down my arms. Smoke issuing from my blistered fingers, closed tight around the seeming cause of all of this. Sheer, unfiltered distress in Inda's pale, dotted eyes.
There is a reason I am the only one who can see the necklace, I told myself. It is my burden to bear.
"I am making inferences from the same evidence that has presented itself to you," I answered Mungazi, careful not to allow more than a beat of time to pass between us.
Mungazi sighed. "Then it appears neither of us has any answers for the moment." I could tell he did not believe me, but he also knew it was no use continuing to press the matter. "I shall take my leave of you. I need to be offering up my gratitude to the gods, anyway. If ever there was a time to visit the temples, now would certainly be it. Be at peace, at least for tonight. We have all earned some respite."
"Be at peace, yourself," I responded; the sharpness had left my voice when I heard the despondency in Mungazi's.
It was not a peaceful night.
Since we had arrived as the sun was already setting, there was no trading to be had for the day. I rented a room at the same inn I always used in Nidyum – for there were many options in such a big city, unlike Minzur or Simuri – and for once I settled in to stay awhile. This room was bigger than ones in northern inns, with a wool drape in one corner that hid the wash area. Once my sleeping roll had been set up, there was still some space to walk without stepping on it. I put the rest of my belongings, which consisted mostly of goods for trading, in the furthest corner from the entryway, so that no one would be able to reach them while I slept without waking me. While some traders were undoubtedly reveling in the Nidyume nightlife or kneeling in prayer at the temples tonight, I elected to call it an early night and managed to quiet my mind long enough to slip into sleep.
That quiet was short-lived.
"It is here."
The voice was soft and sibilant, like the passing of water over a smooth stone. There was no accompanying face, just a shapeless form, barely given an outline by some unseen light source.
"It is felt," another said, warm and saccharine. "Bound by mud and sky, it has been found."
"It is not certain," said a third, clear, level. "Nothing is certain now."
The image was shifting, colors and forms unable to adhere to a single description. Sounds had no origin, they merely existed in space, drifting in and out of range. The next words were wholly inaudible, yet they were somehow still present in that space, imposing mass in a way that sound alone could not.
"It should be-…" came the next sounds, before fading. Their meaning lingered, incomprehensible.
"It should be," said the clearest voice, in a tone of agreement.
Suddenly and inexplicably my head was rended open as though with a butcher's cleaver – my mind torn in two, the very essence of my being ripped apart, and I screamed without making a sound, thrashed about without moving, existed without consciousness except for that blinding, all-encompassing pain that had struck me as a lightning bolt strikes the immobile sand. How long it lasted I do not know, though it could not have been more than a few seconds because no human would have otherwise survived. When it cleared, my mind was pounding, or else something was pounding my mind, the laconic, thumping pulses now the only thing in the world of which I had any awareness at all.
And yet, I had not woken. The voices came again, this time through a veil of my own confusion and shock – although these emotions could just as easily have been attributed to the voices themselves.
No one voice was heard for more than a fragment of time, and the forms were scattering and reforming in a dizzying way. If a single color was to be assigned to the scene, it would have been a vivid and stark blood red, but that too was seemingly indescribable.
Slowly, as if coming through a dense, choking fog, I regained a sense of my own existence. I realized I was Kala, the trader. I realized I was asleep – dreaming? – and had been attacked by some unknown force of Eqqi. I realized, for I had yet to awaken, that I was listening to a collection of ethereal voices deep in discussion.
As I realized this, I bolted upright in my room with a rattling gasp, my eyes flung wide open.
The voices and forms and colors had all disappeared in an instant, as though forcibly snatched from my mind. I was left in utter, bewildered silence… save, of course, for the continued pounding of my newly aching head.