Authors: C. J. Cherryh
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|ChapterÂ 01||DISTANCE DECEIVED THE|
eye in the Lakht, that wide, red land of the First Descended.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 02||“IN HERE,” THE|
Ila's men said, and made Marak duck, shielding his head from a low doorway.
|ChapterÂ 03||HE HOPED FOR|
single audience. In his wildest hopes.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 04||THE SUN ROSE|
as a vast, expanded disk and climbed above the Lakht in an unforgiving sky.
|ChapterÂ 05||DAY CAME. THE|
world might resume its sanity, but the mad continued in their course.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 06||AFTER THIS CAMP|
they left the pans, and if it was flat and featureless before.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 07||THE NIGHT OF|
that day came hazy and hot as a furnace, the stars shimmering in the heavens.
|ChapterÂ 08||IN THE NEXT|
night they arrived on a road of sorts.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 09||THEY FOUND THEIR|
missing pair staggering along toward noon, glassy-eyed and confused.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 10||FEVER BURNED IN|
Marak's skin, ran in veins of fire through his body.
|ChapterÂ 11||TOFI ARGUED WITH|
|ChapterÂ 12||THE SKY WHITENED|
into day, and they reached an alkali pan.
|ChapterÂ 13||THE RAGGED UPTHRUST|
of the Qarain.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 14||THEY DID NOT|
rest. The beasts remembered water or smelled it in the air.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 15||MEMNANAN BROUGHT HIM|
alone through the maze of veils.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 16||THE PRIESTS CAME|
to the Ila's tent.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 17||THE ILA MIGHT|
never have ridden in her life, Marak thought.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 18||THE WIND THAT|
had made pitching the tents so difficult at least blew the clouds away.
|ChapterÂ 19||A SMALL BAND|
of Haga had already ridden out on Tain's track.
|ChapterÂ 20||THEY TALKED AT|
times, Marak and the lord of Kais Kurta.
|ChapterÂ 21||ARAK MENDED, IN|
pain and fever. Patya stayed close by him while the storm wind blew
|ChapterÂ 22||STARS FELL, AND|
multiplied streaks of light across the night sky.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 23||THEY RESTED FOR|
two measured hours on the tribal clock.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 24||MARAK, THE VOICES|
dinned in his hearing, voices thrumming with anxiety and disaster.Â .Â .
|ChapterÂ 25||VISIONS CEASED, THE|
providers of visions grown exhausted, and resting.
|ChapterÂ 26||THE AIR WAS|
cold and clear.Â .Â .
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|About the Author|
|About the Publisher|
Imagine first a web of stars. Imagine it spread wide and wider. Ships shuttle across it. Information flows.
A star lies at the heart of this web, its center, heart, and mind.
This is the Commonwealth.
Imagine then a single strand of stars in a vast darkness, a beckoning pathway away from the web, a path down which ships can travel.
Beyond lies a treasure, a small lake of G5 suns, a near circle of perfect stars all in reach of one another.
This way, that strand says. After so hard a voyage, reward. Wealth. Resources.
But a whisper comes back down that thread of stars, a ghost of a whisper, an illusion of a whisper.
The web of stars has heard the like before. Others are out there, very far, very faint, irrelevant to our affairs.
Should we have listened?
âThe Book of the Landing.
DISTANCE DECEIVED THE
eye in the Lakht, that wide, red land of the First Descended, where legend said the ships had come down.
At high noon, with the sun reflecting off the plateau, the chimera of a city floated in the haze, appearing as a line of light just below the red, saw-toothed ridge of the Qarain, that upthrust that divided the Lakht from the Anlakht, the true land of death.
The city was both mirage and truth; it appeared always a day before its true self. Marak knew it, walking, walking endlessly beside the beshti, the beasts on which their guards rode.
The long-legged beasts were not deceived. They moved no faster. The guards likewise made no haste.
“The holy city,” some of the damned shouted, some in relief, some in fear, knowing it was both the end of their torment and the end of their lives. “Oburan and the Ila's court!”
“Walk faster, walk faster,” the guards taunted them lazily, sitting supreme over the column. The lank, curve-necked beasts that carried them plodded at an unchangeable rate. They were patient creatures, splay-footed, towering above most predators of the Lakht, enduring the long trek between wells with scant food and no water. A long, long line of them stretched behind, bringing the tents, the other appurtenances of their journey.
“Oburan!” the fools still cried. “The tower, the tower!”
“Run to it! Run!” the junior guards encouraged their prisoners. “You'll be there before the night, drinking and eating before us.”
It was a lie, and some knew better, and warned the rest. The wife of a down-country farmer, walking among them, set up a wail when the word went out that the vision was only the shadow of a city, and that an end was a day and more away.
“It can't be!” she cried. “It's there! I see it! Don't the rest of you see it?”
But the rest had given up both hope and fear of an end to this journey, and walked in the rising sun at the same pace as they had walked all this journey.
Marak was different than the rest. He bore across his heart the tattoo of the abjori, the fighters from rocks and hills. His garments, the long shirt, the trousers, the aifad wrapped about his head against the hellish glare, were all the dye and the weave of Kais Tain, of his own mother's hand. Those patterns alone would have damned him in the days of the war. The tattoos on the backs of his fingers, six, were the number of the Ila's guards he had personally sent down to the shadows. The Ila's men knew it, and watched with special care for any look of rebellion. He had a reputation in the lowlands and on the Lakht itself, a fighter as elusive as the mirage and as fast-moving as the sunrise wind.
He had ridden with his father to this very plain, and for three years had seen the walls of the holy city as a prize for the taking. He and his father had laid their grandiose plans to end the Ila's reign: they had fought. They had had their victories.
Now he stumbled in the ruin of boots made for riding.
His life was thirty summers on this earth and not likely to be longer. His own father had delivered him up to the Ila's men.
“I see the city!” the woman cried to the rest. She was a wife, an honorable woman, among the last to join the march. “Can't you see it? See it rise up and up? We're at the end of this!”
Her name was Norit, and she was soft-skinned and veiled herself against the sun, but she was as mad as the rest of them that walked in this shuffling chain. Like most of them, she had concealed her madness, hidden it successfully all her years, until the visions came thick and fast. Perhaps she had turned to priests, and priests had frightened her into admission. Perhaps guilt had slowly poisoned her spirit. Or perhaps the visions had become too strong and made concealment impossible. She had confessed in tears when the Ila's men came asking for the mad, and her husband had tried to kill her; but the Ila's men said no. She was from the village of Tarsa, at the edge of the Lakht in the west.
Now increasingly the visions overwhelmed her, and she rocked and mourned her former life and poured out her story in her interludes of sanity. Over and over she told the story of her husband, who was the richest man in Tarsa, who had married her when she was thirteen. She wasted her strength crying, when the desert ate up all strength for grief and all water for tears. Her husband might have been relieved to cast her out.
The old man next in line, crookbacked from old injury, had left an aged wife in Modi, a woman who would live, likely, as an unwelcome guest on the charity of her children. The old man talked to spirits, and could not remember his wife's name. He wept about this, and asked others if they knew. “Magin,” they would tell him in disgust, but he would forget, and ask again in a few hours. He had hidden his madness longest of all of them. Sometimes he forgot why they walked. But so did the rest of them. The walking had gone on so long it had become ordinary, a condition of existence.
The boy, the young boy, Pogi, who rocked and talked to himself whenever they stopped and sat down .Â .Â . he had been the butt of village jokes in Tijanan. Everyone had accounted him harmless, but in what the Ila's men said, the village grew anxious and delivered him to their hands, throwing rocks at him when he tried to go back to their street. He was no one's son. The village had found him one morning by the well, which they said was reason enough for suspicion. A devil might have put him there. So they thought, after the Ila's men asked for the mad: he was the only madman in that village.
The others all had their stories. The caravan was full of the cursed, the doomed, the rejected. Villages had tolerated them as long as they dared. In Kais Tain long before this, Tain had issued a pogrom to cleanse his province of the mad, ten years ago; but the god laughed at him. Now his own son and heir proved tainted. Tain of Kais Tain had successfully rebelled against the Ila and the Lakht, undefeated for ten years, and had all the west under his hand. But his own son had a secret, and betrayed himself in increasing silences, in looks of abstraction, in crying out in his sleep. He had been mad all along. His father had begun to suspect, perhaps, years ago, and denied it; but lately, after their return from the war, the voices had grown too persistent, too consuming to keep the secret any longer. His father had found him out.
And when shortly afterward his father heard the Ila's men were looking for the mad, his father had sent to the Ila's men .Â .Â . had given him up, his defiance of the Ila's rule broken by the truth.
His own son, his own son, Tain said over and over. Tain blamed his wife, and sat gloomy and furious in his hall, a man of war finally seeking peace.
For the rest of his life, Tain said in the document he signed, he would not make war. Tain said this aloud to the Ila's men, and signed their book, and they gave him amnesty in exchange for his only son. That was how much sane men feared the mad, who lately, so the rumors said, proliferated in ungodly fashion: the mad appeared all over the land, more and more of them, a plague among the sane, and the sane began to fear a contagion.
“Marak,” his mother had called to him as he marched away,
like the voices that resounded in his head.
But his sister Patya, who was the soul of laughter, had drawn her striped aifad over her face, casting sand on herself, as if he were already dead. He still saw her sitting there in the street of Kais Tain, a heap of bright cloth and grief.
In his dreams he saw his mother, who had spilled tears for days before his leaving, who walked beside the caravan as it filed out of Kais Tain, and who had walked with him all that afternoon, until sunset.
Then she had agreed to go back to the village, to what fate he was not sure. He had no idea whether she had walked back to Kais Tain at all. She was Haga, out of the lowland tribes, and might have turned aside and gone by paths the Haga knew, and sought wells the Haga knew.
The taint is in your blood, his father had shouted at her when he knew the truth, but he had not struck her. If he had done that, Marak would have struck him down. But his father then looked at him and asked that damning question: “When did it come on you?”
“I don't remember,” he had had to confess to Tain, to that strong, scarred face. “From very young.”
His father had turned his face away and said not a thing more. So the madness reached back and back to stain all they had ever done together. All the trust they had for each other was a lie. That was the last time they had looked at one another eye to eye.
The sun reached the zenith. The caravan spread its canvas for shelter from the light, the mirage of the city having faded, and the wife of Tarsa, still talking to herself, subsided sobbing into rest.
The others huddled together and averted their eyes from the sun outside their patch of shade, and the boy rocked and talked to himself. The red-bearded man, a middle-aged tanner with the skin on his shoulders peeling yet again from the sun, sat on the heated sand and rocked and prayed to gods the faithful well knew would not heed the mad.
Marak did none of these things. He only sat and stared at the horizon, beneath that shade of an open-sided tent, as sure as his guards and the caravan master that tomorrow, perhaps tomorrow evening, they would reach the end of their journey.
None of the other madmen had ever made the trek across the Lakht. None of the other raving prisoners had ridden to war against the Ila's long-lasting power, and helped the fiercest of the abjori rain fire on those towers.
None of the others had risen so high on a lie. None of the others had been the heir of Kais Tain, or the hope of Tain's long-surviving ambition.
In those days his dreams were secret, mostly at night. A young fighter bent on following his father's path could keep that secret even if he bit his lip bloody, even if the voices distracted him at his father's table or blinded him while he was riding breakneck down a dune face.
But their war had failed before their love did.
Three years had passed since the retreat from the holy city. And in this last year the secrets had multiplied into visions and visions gained voices. Visions that came like threads and sticks of fire wove themselves tighter and tighter until the sights they conjured unpredictably replaced the sight of his eyes.
Come to us,
the inner voices said now, more and more insistent.
Come to us. Listen to us.
At such times the whole world swung, repeatedly, violently as if the demons within his eyes attempted to swing the whole body left or right. It was hard to resist the tug when it came. The mad commonly twitched and jerked in the depth of their affliction.
Some houses might not have given up their mad sons. Some houses, even whole villages, might be wholly given over to the taint, and secretive about their shame.
Other houses, other villages, might have killed the afflicted quietly, so as not to have any madmen left to turn over to the Ila. The caravan of the damned had stopped at villages where no one confessed.
The wife of Tarsa wailed and prayed in the grip of her visions. “Look!” she would cry. “The city! The holy tower is here!” and at other times, “Gods bless the Ila,” as if the soldiers would have pity if she praised the tyrant.
“The devil is in the east!” the tanner shrieked, and that set off the old man, who asked after his wife, and cried that he had fathered devils who betrayed him.
Sweat trickled down Marak's face and down his neck and under his arms, drying on his ribs. A man's body betrayed him in the heat. It readily gave up its water. In sorrow, it gave up even more.
Somewhere above the sky had been a land rich in life, where all men were born.
Somewhere up there above the burning blue been a paradise of water, a pool that never stopped flowing.
That place might have been in the heavens, as the priests said, but the heavens during this march hinted nothing of paradise, only a cold light of stars by night and the burning eye of the sun by day.
They said, the priests did, that when the First Descended had come down onto the Lakht, the Ila, undying and eternal, had divided men from beasts, and beasts from vermin: afterward the world and its order was ruled by the god, the single god, and administered by the Ila and her priests.
Marak, like his father, like most of the west, had rejected that belief. There was no help in the heavens, no reliance on priests on earth, or on the god's viceroy. But having fought that authority and having come to this, there was nothing to do with his life on earth except, perhaps, to end it, pouring out the life he owned like water, until the desert drank it dry, until the vermin of the sky swarmed thick. A man died in the day and nothing was left of him by sundown but the bones.
But he had resolved he would see the holy city again. They were within a day's walk. He had come this far out of sheer persistence, knowing he had nothing else to do but die, and seeing what the next day would bring had thus far been better than not seeing it at all.
Now with the illusion of the city in his eyes, he recalled that he might not only see the city, but that the Ila herself had desired to see the mad. And thinking that, he foresaw he might live long enough to find the Ila's throat within his hands.
was an ambition.