Authors: Elizabeth Bear
Because suddenly—she needed the support.
The doorway stood open, its curtains drawn wide, and sunlight streamed into the long room through windows glazed against the cold with oiled rice paper. At one end of the solar, heat rolled forth from a brazier beneath a hooded chimney. The face of the servant who crouched on a stool behind it, slowly lifting and lowering her fan, was dewed with sweat.
At the other end—the end closer to the doorway—fifteen women of various ages sat on thick rugs and cushions, their feet in horned slippers, their brocade robes falling about them in bright layers like the petals of so many variegated roses. Three of those women were princesses—Songtsan’s and Tsansong’s wives, Yangchen (with her babe at her breast), Tsechen, and Payma, who was barely fourteen. One of the women—Tseweng—was the Dowager Empress and Regent, accorded a stool in deference to her age and stiff joints and (Samarkar thought uncharitably) the skinniness of her ass.
It was to Tseweng-tsa that Samarkar bowed first, extending her tongue in a show of respect. “Honored Stepmother,” she said, before turning to Yangchen—”Honored Sister”—and the other princesses in turn.
It was protocol. And it was easier to look at Payma’s kind young face as it broke into a smile of delight at seeing Samarkar than it was to look at Yangchen gloating over her son.
In another life, that would have been Samarkar sitting where the light fell across her cushions, a baby chewing peacefully at her breast. It was she who would have read aloud in a bright room where her women sewed and spun. In another life, it would have eventually been Samarkar sitting where Tseweng sat, the entire empire hers to rule as she saw fit until her son turned twenty-five.
Samarkar flattered herself that in Tseweng’s place, she would have lost less territory to the ceaseless gnawing of the Song and Qersnyk, and perhaps even gained a little. But she would never know that now.
“Samarkar-tsa,” Tseweng said, extending her tongue as well. “What a delight! Are you well? Have you been refreshed? Will you sit?”
Her age precluded her rising, as the babe at Yangchen’s breast precluded hers, but Payma and Tsechen and all the ladies started up, setting their embroidery hoops aside with a great rustling of silk and wool.
Honored Stepmother,” Samarkar reminded gently, allowing herself to be led to an unused cushion and seated. She squeezed Payma’s hands before the girl got away, careful not to pinch the princess’s fingers between the elaborate rings and finger-stalls she wore, careful too of Payma’s long enameled fingernails. Samarkar remembered embroidering or serving tea with hands so decorated, and winced when Payma said, “Can I bring you tea, Honored Sister?”
But one didn’t say no to tea. “I would be honored.”
Samarkar settled the inky skirts of her coat around her, a silent reminder of her new honorific. Tseweng-tsa’s plucked and stained eyebrows rose. Samarkar made a show of not noticing.
“Of course, Samarkar-
” the regent said. “How silly of me. How proceed your studies?”
“Very well, thank you.” Samarkar took the celadon porcelain tea bowl Payma placed in her hands and bowed her head over it. She could see at a glance the two or three wilted, translucent flower petals that rolled in the depths of the clear greeny-amber fluid. Sweetened with rose jam, in just the idiosyncratic manner Samarkar preferred when it was not served as a meal. Someone had seen to it that the room was prepared for her visit, and she suspected it wasn’t the regent.
If it had been—well, the odds of the jam being poisoned were lower than they had been when Samarkar still could have produced an heir.
“Can you make it rain?” Payma asked, her face alight below her elaborate headdress as she settled back onto her cushion.
Samarkar laughed gently. “Not yet.” Roughness scratched her fingertips; she pulled them away from her collar self-consciously and forced them to return to her tea bowl, aware that the nervous gesture had already given away too much. “There’s a weather-working tomorrow night, however. Perhaps I can arrange for you to be invited. I shall beg it of my masters.”
The regent’s sniff echoed. She disapproved of a member of the royal family acknowledging any mastery but hers. But a weather-working meant rockets, and rockets would please the princes’ wives.
Here, too, Samarkar realized, she could hear the rush of the wild Tsarethi. It might run like a millstream through the city, channeled and mollified, but it was not the sort of river one could ever treat as tame. It would tumble on, down through the valleys that divided the Steles of the Sky, gaining tributaries as it fell. It would grow and grow, broad and calm now, until it fell into the sea fourteen hundred
away as one of the world’s great rivers, bearing the fate of three empires, a dozen city-states, and countless crofts and farms on its broad grass-smoothed shoulders.
What was arrogance like the regent’s before something like a river?
said the sometimes-doubting voice in her head.
Now you are thinking like the wizard Samarkar.
Samarkar reached across rugs and cushions to set her bowl on a small lacquer table. In so doing, though, she leaned across the great mirror set against the far wall—wizard-work, because no mere craftsman’s hand could forge that span of glass and silver.
She saw herself like a shadow among the jeweled and flowered ladies. She saw the black ropes of her hair and how they caught the filtered light behind her; she saw how that same light lay in oil-sheen gleams on the silk brocade of her coat. She saw herself—again—as a dark, predatory raptor, waiting in the midst of jeweled cage-birds.
She was surprised the comparison pleased her.
She addressed herself to Yangchen, bowing her head a little as in respect. If Samarkar was a once-princess, Yangchen was Empress-in-Waiting, and though Samarkar was older, their ranks were not so dissimilar than that. And of course now Samarkar was also a lowly newly elevated wizard, and if Yangchen could force her into that role, all hope of wresting some advantage from this situation would be lost.
“Honored Sister,” she said. “Do you know why it is that your elder husband wished to speak with me? And so urgently that he came when I still lay in my sickbed after initiation?”
Yangchen looked down, too, seemingly consumed by the process of shifting her son the prince to the other breast. She might have demanded wet nurses—Samarkar had been raised by a string of them—but a show of devotion to a firstborn son was considered womanly. Yangchen would never lose a chance to stroke the lute of her own regard.
And, Samarkar thought more charitably, nursing would likely keep her from conceiving again soon.
“I am sure I don’t know, Honored Sister,” Yangchen murmured. “But I am confident he will see you, if only you wait a while. As I am certain you know he is exceedingly busy.”
Samarkar knew it very well. She’d been her father’s only heir for seven long years before he or one of his brothers managed to get Songtsan on a different mother, and she remembered the endless preparations, the tutorials, the history and language and tactical lessons—in case he should not get a son. She smiled and picked her tea up again, cradling the bowl in her palm. “Then there is no remedy but patience,” she said agreeably. “Were you reading?”
Gently, Yangchen lifted the rustling scroll from her lap. The two halves of the case were blue-enameled and weighted, so despite the baby, she could hold it open easily with a section of the case in one hand while the other rested in her lap. She said, “I was just about to read of the Carrion-King.”
Of course you were,
Samarkar thought patiently.
* * *
This is the tale Yangchen told:
There was a prince among the horse peoples in the west who learned sorcery at his mother’s knee, for his mother had been stolen by her husband from a clan even farther west, where the people have blue eyes like devils and white skin like ghosts. And there in the outermost and foreign west, their magic is not like the good, homey magic of our wizards, who bring rain with black-powder rockets and knit poisoned wounds with silk thread and the soft blue-gray mold that grows in soy curd left too long.
The prince’s mother did not teach him wizardry. Instead, what he learned at her knee was sorcery, the reddest sort.
He learned to cast the evil eye. He learned to curse with pennies and with oats. He learned spells to turn an enemy’s ankle; to throw him from a horse; to make the wombs of his women and his cattle go dry. He learned spells of drought and downpour, spells of fire and flood. He grew into his manhood, and as well as a prince, he became a sorcerer, and eventually a king. He raised the dead up to do battle for him, and so some called him the Carrion-King.
Such was this Carrion-King’s renown, both on the battlefield and in the ways of magic, that all his neighbors feared him. They believed no god could protect them from his wrath. They believed no blessing could avert his ill will.
His father’s empire grew and grew, for this Carrion-King conquered every land he set his hand against. And the Carrion-King’s power, too, grew and grew, until even his father and mother feared him a little. What would happen if he were not content to wait for the throne of his people? What would happen if he decided to overthrow his father’s reign?
No one brought these whispers to the Carrion-King, for while he was feared, he was not loved in equal measure. And as his empire burgeoned, and his troops in their horse-hoof armor rode out to conquer every city of the Celadon Highway, the good people of Rasa heard the rumors of war in the wind and grew afraid.
As well they should, because although Rasa—girdled in its mighty pillars of stone, walled away from the wars of the world—was a mighty empire, it was also wealthy, and the Carrion-King craved gold. The emperor of the Rasani decreed that a Citadel be built, then, and wizards found from all over the empire to defeat the Carrion-King.
So it was written; so it was done. The wizards of Tsarepheth—for so they came to be called—researched and consulted. They experimented and delved. And finally they came back to the emperor and told him, “There is nothing we can do that will defeat the Carrion-King.”
“That is unacceptable,” said the emperor. “I will have you beheaded and your order disbanded.”
“Wait!” said the head wizard. “We said we could not defeat him. We did not say we could not remove the threat he poses to Rasa.”
The emperor sat back in his chair. “You have my attention,” he said. “How do you remove him as a threat without defeating him?”
The head of the wizards leaned in to the emperor’s ear and began to whisper. Slowly, the expression of puzzlement on the emperor’s face began to change to amusement, then joy. When the wizard leaned back, the emperor smiled and nodded.
“I see,” he said. “Make it so.”
So one of the wizards, who was from far Asmaracanda, summoned a sort of devil indigenous to that place, called a djinn. This djinn’s power was concerned with the granting of wishes, and he was constrained to answer three wishes for each master. The Asmaracandan wizard explained to the djinn that it was the wizard’s will that he be sealed into a ruby phial, and that the phial was to be sent to the Carrion-King as tithe.
Because it was manufactured by the wizards, it was of incomparable beauty of design, and of course the Carrion-King could not bear that it be opened by any hand but his. “Such a treasure,” he mused, weighing it in his hand, “must contain something even more precious.”
So saying, he pried the stopper out. And a smoke flowed out, and a mist flowed out, and the djinn said unto him, “Master, I am the djinn of the bottle, and I must grant you three wishes. What is your first wish?”
The Carrion-King was no fool. He said, “I wish first for eternal youth and second for eternal health.”
And so it was granted.
And the djinn said unto him, “Master, I am the djinn of the bottle, and I must grant you one wish. What is your last wish?”
The Carrion-King was no fool. He said, “I wish third to rule the world.”
And so it was granted.
But in his immortality and invulnerability, you see, the Carrion-King had ceased to be human. He was a god now, a god among gods of many nations, and the other gods did not take kindly to him usurping their territory. Now if he had wished to be undefeatable instead of invulnerable, this might never have come to pass—so perhaps the Carrion-King was just a little foolish after all. But what happened was that the Warrior-God of the Messalines, he whom they call Vajhir the Red, rode out to face the Carrion-King.
And Vajhir the Red’s chariot was drawn by the sun, which in their part of the world is an enormous lion with a golden mane, and Vajhir the Red’s javelins were lightning bolts, and Vajhir the Red fought the Carrion-King until the steppe trembled and the mountains called the Buttresses of the World cracked and Vajhir the Red was wounded and grew tired. And those mountains are called now the Bitter Root, and they lie between Messaline and the Great Salt Desert, which was a green and lush land before Vajhir the Red fought the Carrion-King.
But when Vajhir the Red grew tired, there was the Scholar-God of the Uthmans. And
fought the Carrion-King with her globes of glass filled with tincture of vitriol, with her vast mirrors curved to throw the sun’s flame a mile across bright water, with her tamed angels ranked ten deep and sporting spears that reached the breadth of the sky. And the God of the Uthmans, who has no name, fought the Carrion-King until the mountains called the Pillars of Heaven cracked and the span of the sky sagged at two corners.
And those mountains are called the Shattered Pillars now.
And then the Eternal Sky of the Qersnyk fought the Carrion King—and the Eternal Sky’s weapons were arrows faster than thought, and he rode upon a pale stud horse of the steppe breed that looked more like skin stretched over a skeleton than the steed of a god. And the Carrion-King bellowed and beat his chest, but he had forgotten to wish from the djinn that he never grow tired, and after two and a half battles with the gods of the world, he was weary.