The Inevitable Corpse Season

Reads: 1859  | Likes: 20  | Shelves: 1  | Comments: 2

Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy

Featured Review on this writing by charlamaye

From the memoirs of Syndeeka, warrior-astronomer. For a young prostitute living in a tropical city-state, the prospect of becoming the court astronomer's new apprentice seems like a blessing, but an ancient prophecy threatens to destroy everyone and everything she's ever known. The first in a series of Sword and Sorcery Fantasy stories about the adventures of Syndeeka of the Ushe.

Mother Spider drops from the sky.
She rides a shaft of silk.
Mother Spider drops from the sky.
She scoops up mud from the waters.
Mother Spider drops from the sky.
She molds a disc of earth.
Mother Spider climbs the shaft of the sky.
Her children are all the Amu.
Mother Spider climbs the shaft of the sky.
Her children are men with beasts’ heads.
Mother Spider pulls the waters of the world.
Her children seed all the earth.
Mother Spider pulls the waters of the world.
Her children climb the shaft of the sky.
Mother Spider walks the strands of her web.
Men look up to her at night.
Mother Spider walks the strands of her web.
Men fear she will turn her head.
--From “Songs of the Ushe”
I’d been sharing the palm wine with the other girls when Madam Oyoku pushed through the zebra skin curtains, an old man in her wake. She raised her arms up and spread her fingers, a smile pulling across the cracked clay mask of her face. “Young ladies,” she said, “this is the royal court astronomer, Keeshofa.” The old man (short, balding, with skin like bronzed leather) smiled humbly. “He has requested of Lord Betahz an assistant to aid in his endeavor of creating a calendar for the kingdom.”
Few of us seemed impressed. I resumed sipping palm wine from a calabash shell. 
She brought her arms down. "He humbly requests one from the streets to be his apprentice. (Does he think one of us would know of a boy with a sharp mind, some runaway or purse-snatch perhaps? I thought). “Someone who knows how to follow orders and pay close attention for the littlest details. One of you fine young women shall become his student!”
I instantly gulped down the wine I’d been savoring in my mouth, and it burned my throat.
The old man Keeshofa stepped forward with the grace of youth. He wore the blue and white robes of the scholar class, and a beaten brass sash, inlaid with hieroglyphs, snaked from his hip to his shoulder. “It is my firm belief that those who are born of the streets have a greater sense for details than those tutored from infancy. To survive, one must be aware, and the field of astronomy was born of such necessities. For when men first started planting seeds in the soil, it was of prime importance that…”
My mind started wandering. I didn’t wish to find his words boring, but they were. Old men always have a bad habit of saying too little with too many words. All the older men who’d ever been with me seemed that way. They would lecture me as if I were a daughter, and the thought that a daughter and a sexual plaything could be the same in their eyes always filled me with fear. Since my mother had shared my profession, I sometimes wondered if one of those older men might be my father. It is best not to consider such things. Let them mount you and use you, or suck them off so they pay you the stated price--
“You there!”
I took another sip of my palm wine.
“You,” repeated the astronomer, weaving through the other girls and touching my shoulder.
I looked at him. Wide, blood-shot eyes regarded me from a wizened face. “Me?”
“Yes, young lady. You don’t seem to hail from these parts.”
I regarded my soot-black fingers holding the calabash shell. “My father…he may have been a traveling merchant from lands to the east, where the zebra pelts come from. Those are supposed to be the blackest of the Black Nations.”
“So it would appear. Do you ever look up at the stars at night?”
“Most nights, I only look up at the thatch of the ceiling. I don’t see too much of the stars.”
“Have you noticed that your bleeding cycles correspond with the phases of the moon?”
I took a sip of my wine. “No…Why do you ask me these questions? I could never be a watcher of the sky like you. I’m just a whore.”
He patted me on the shoulder. “Nonsense! You have great potential as a student of the heavens. I have a feeling.”
“You only see that I stand out with my darker skin.”
“If it can give you a better life than this, will you trust my judgment?”
“How is it you judge me as you do?”
“Because your differences make you less of people’s society.”
“It’s silly in a way. The white sailors and the rulers think we all look the same, but everyone else notices me.”
“That gives you an outsider’s perspective.”
“We are all outsiders here.”
“But you more than the others. That must make you more observant. You can see subtle differences with how others regard you.”
“You probably notice things they don’t.”
I downed the remaining palm wine in my shell. “Yes…I do notice things they don’t!”
He clapped his hands together and laughed heartily. Looking to Madame Oyoku, he grinned and nodded.
She returned his gesture and crossed the room. She placed a red-veiled arm around my shoulder and put her lips to my ear. “Congratulations, Syndeeka. You have a future.”
I had few possessions so packing didn’t take me long. Master Keeshofa led me to a rickshaw on the street outside the brothel. It was inlaid with iron and silver and its top was rimmed with elephant ivory. A tall, muscular runner with arms tattooed in the ritual style of the southern bush tribes stood at the handled poles before the vehicle. We sat in the seat behind him as he ran in a rapid trot through the streets of Aki Gbijume. As our journey progressed, I noticed that the potholes in the streets thinned out and that the people milling about looked more elegantly dressed. Their robes were more colorful, and some even wore the leggings of the eastern merchants (“trousers,” they were called). Soon we reached a part of the city where the houses were not made of mud but finer materials. We began ascending a hill, and it was then that I noticed ahead and above us a great structure many times the size of these houses. It had a great outer wall made of clay bricks and a double-doored gate of some dark brown wood I had never seen before. Upon our approach the doors, seemingly of their own mind, fell back and opened inward, and we passed through the space made in the wall.
Here was a miniature city in itself, with many buildings, some small and some large, placed in an orderly fashion. Many had elevated wooden causeways connecting each other, and young men and women scurried across these while pulling rickshaws carrying finely dressed people. All these buildings were dwarfed by a massive structure at the center of the complex. The building was about three stories high and had an arched wooden ceiling. Guarding the steps leading to its massive doors were two brass leopards. At either door stood a sentry with a spear. I knew upon seeing this structure that it must be the Great Hall of Kings, the center of the Warlord’s palace.
We passed it and then disembarked from the rickshaw in front of a smaller but still impressive building. Keeshofa pushed the doors in and we entered a large hall with red hexagons tiling the floor and two rows of iroko-wood columns running its length. At the end of the hall was an onyx table with a small, thin man sitting behind in a high-backed chair made of ebony. He was writing on a parchment sheet with a parrot quill as we approached. Seeing us, he set the quill onto a block of wood between the parchment and his ink bowl, gave me a quizzical stare, and said:
“This is the girl you want for an assistant?”
Keeshofa patted me on the shoulder. “Yes. This bright young girl shall be my apprentice.”
“Bright? She’s as black as night. We’re do you hail from, girl?”
“I am from this city, sir.” I found my fingers fidgeting with one of my cornbraids and immediately stopped.
“Are you a half-breed?”
I swallowed at the question. Why did people always call me that? Weren’t we all the same race? I could see that the barbarians who ruled our kingdom were of some other race, with their sallow complexions and far more slanted eyes, but why did people always question my race? “I am the daughter of an eastern merchant, sir.”
“What country is he from?”
“I don’t know, sir. I’ve never met him.”
“You are a bastard?”
Another name people used against me. “My mother had been with many eastern merchants when she was alive.”
“Your mother was a whore too?”
I swallowed again. “She was an outcast from her father’s house and had no other skills. She had to eat.”
The thin, small man sighed heavily. “Second generation whore. I don’t know if I like that. You probably would have had diseases regardless, but you may also have been born with a few to start. You don’t have any problems with your eyesight, do you?”
“Why would I? I am not a crone.”
“Well, that is good. One couldn’t perform the astronomical arts with sickened eyes. Keeshofa, are you sure you want a whore under your wing? Some of them are quite violent, you know.” He pulled up his purple sleeve and revealed a jagged pink line of puckered flesh.
Keeshofa smiled, apparently holding back a chuckle. “She is not a whore. She once was a prostitute, but then our great lord was once a nomadic barbarian from the far realms. Do you object to his past life?”
“I make it a policy not to object to those who give us employment, particularly when they have a penchant for running swords across the throats of people who displease them.” The small man looked around suddenly. “But you think she can be trusted. Her madam had no complaints about this young…uh, person stealing from her?”
“No. I received no complaints from her. She said this was one of her finest employees.”
“Girl, I assume you do not have much education. Am I correct?”
“I can read, sir,” I said with a faint smile. “I can also do some math. Madam Oyoku taught me how to figure the brothel’s finances.”
“And she taught you how to read?”
“No. That was a regular customer. He was a tutor. He insisted I learn hieroglyphs. There was a game he would play with me that required I know how to write them on a dirt floor--”
“Yes, yes! I’m familiar with the game. My only concern is that you are lettered. The calendar must be completed in a little over a year, so it is more convenient for Keeshofa if he has that much less to teach you.”
When the sun had sunk beneath the horizon and the servants had lit the oil lamps throughout the buildings of the palace, Keeshofa took me up a spiral staircase that wound its way inside the Astronomer’s Tower. The roof of the tower was expansive and round like the moon that hovered in the starry night sky. Great brick columns, placed periodically along the rim of the roof, cut dark silhouettes against the jeweled backdrop of the inky heavens.
In the roof’s center was a round pedestal of hardened clay with an iron shaft jutting up from its base. Affixed to the shaft’s top was a flat brass ring, twice as wide as a man’s torso, with numbered markings all across its circumference. Running through the ring’s middle was a vertical bar of brass.
Keeshofa extended his arms and slowly spun around, his eyes taking in the constellations above us. “This, my dear student, is the observatory,” he said, smiling. “Here is where astronomers such as myself have followed the motions of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets for generations. Here is where we come face the order of the gods. Not the false gods you were taught to worship, but the true intelligence behind cosmic creation.”
I didn’t know if I should tell him that I had little real schooling in the gods and their ways. Mine was a life of the streets when I was a child, and I didn’t see as those gods I’d heard mentioned in blasphemous epitaphs and old sayings would really care to answer the prayers of a starving, dirty, unhappy little girl. Yet Keeshofa didn’t speak of those beings.“Who are these gods you talk of, Master?”
Keeshofa let his outstretched arms slowly settle to his sides. "There is something many of my brethren know that most other people, including the priests of the various world religions, don't. You see, those of my profession have been carefuly watching the sky since before the first foundation brick was laid in this kingdom.We've learned a great many things about the machinery of the universe. It has a precision that the priests misconstrue. They see it as the plan of any number of pantheons of gods, gods inclined to petty warfare and acts of all-too-human jealousy. We astronmers know that this order is something that had been set in motion long before the first man or woman gazed skyward. All the religions have tried to explain the motions of the planets and the phases of the moon with stories of  their gods in perpetual conflict. But we know better." He returned his stare to the all-expansive ceiling of night. "We see no conflict, but harmony." He looked at me again. "And I will show you how to see this harmony yourself and to use your knowledge of it to understand the tales of the gods for what they really are." 
“What is there to know of this harmony?”
“Look up at that constellation to your right.” He pointed to a pattern of stars. “What do you see?”
I looked carefully. It was something, but it was not distinct to me. Like jewels outlining a thing draped in darkness. “I don’t know, Master.”
He laughed good-naturedly and said, “Do you know none of the constellations of the night sky?”
“No. Should I?”
“You shall know soon enough. That constellation is the Cane Rat. It marks in some men fear for those born under its sign. But this is just the superstition of the old astrologers from the time before my kind separated the myths from the truth.” He walked to the device and pointed to a marking on the ring. “If you set your gaze next to one of these coordinates, you will see that the Rat slowly scurries its way across the sky. In fact, you can follow its path around all the markings on this disc as it makes a complete circuit about the heavens-- it and all the other constellations. And unlike the more brightly lit planets, the stars forming the constellations move together as if they were affixed to the firmament. And”-- he pointed to a star immediately over the iron shaft-- “if you look there you can see the great pole upon which the whole sky spins, the way a canopy spins on the shaft of a parasol resting on someone’s shoulder. We call that the polestar. It is the shaft that holds up the heavens.”
“I see no shaft.”
“It isn’t really a shaft; just a myth that helps us to ground our thinking about the stars over our heads. We imagine that this shaft tilts with the changing seasons, causing some constellations to rise above the horizon while others sink below it out of sight. What remains is the star from which the pillar of the universe depends.”
“I see,” I said, bewildered.
“And we can know when the constellations will shift above or below the horizon by counting the months.”
“Well, of course. One knows when anything will happen by knowing what month it is.”
“Yes, but do you know how to tell when one month ends and another begins?”
“By counting the days of the week.”
Keeshofa laughed. “By paying attention to the phases of the moon! I’ve asked you this before, and I’ll ask again: haven’t you noticed that your monthly bleeding corresponds to the phases of the moon?”
“I’m afraid I’ve seldom seen the moon many nights in a row. Not since Madam Oyoku took me in. I’d only just begun to bleed back then.”
Keeshofa approached me and gently touched my cheek with gnarled fingers. “Oh, my child. You have been deprived of so much. Sweet child.”
Sweet child. A sailor once burned my arm with a flint, but soon learned his mistake when I slashed his face with a knife-- I’d felt guilty for weeks afterwards.
Keeshofa pointed to the moon. “I will teach you how to follow the phases of the moon to tell the beginning and end of any month. And I will teach you about the longest day of the year (the summer solstice) and the shortest day (the winter solstice), and I will teach you how to tell the coming of the rainy season by the positions of certain constellations in the zodiac. Yes, there is much for me to teach you and much for you to learn. You shall become a great astronomer. Never again will good men call you a whore.”
“And the bad men?”
“If they will not see reason, they cannot be helped.”
It was the morning of the second day at the palace that we met the Great Warlord. Keeshofa woke me up when the sun was just rising over the horizon. I shifted tiredly in the cot he had given me and tried to pull the blanket over my head, but he tugged it out of my fingers.
“Wake up already!” he said.
“It’s much to early to get up.” With my old job, I usually didn’t get out of bed till well into the day.
“It’s never too early for an astronomer. What if you should wish to measure the morning star?”
“I don’t think I would ever want to do that.” I yawned and closed my eyes. At first I thought I was drifting back to sleep for the cot seemed to be sinking beneath my weight. Then my face hit clay floor tiles. I jumped up surprised and looked around. Keeshofa held one end of the cot, which was now at an angle.
“You need to do your exercises before you meet his Lordship.”
Exercises? His Lordship?
“I will meet the Warlord?” I pulled myself off of the floor and carefully stood.
“Yes. He is very interested in what we astronomers do; this is why he was so enthusiastic when I suggested making a more updated calendar. If there’s one thing a barbarian relies on, it’s timing.”
Keeshofa forced me to jump up and down, repeatedly push my body off the floor with only my arms, and do many other grueling, painful things that even my most twisted customers would never have demanded of me. We ate roasted yams and kola nuts and drank fresh milk, and then Keeshofa went to a trunk in the corner of his chamber and took out a robe like his own. “Here, this is your uniform. It designates your noble profession.” I held the garment in my hands and regarded it. “You’ll want to try it on soon. It may not fit now, but I can get the court tailors to adjust it to your dimensions within a day.”
The hem made me an amputee from the ankles down, but Keeshofa loaned me several pins to hold the folded cloth in place after I’d rolled it up. Then we headed for the Great Hall of Kings.
At its far end was an alcove with a dais. Upon the dais sat a throne of iron, brass, and ivory, and upon the throne sat an old man with a strong, solid frame. His hair was long and white and flowed around an oval face set with wrinkles and scars. Draping his muscular shoulders was the hide of what I suspected could only have been an orange zebra. He wore little else but a leather kilt and sandals.
A tall, very thin attendant in a shiny red rob led us to the Great Warlord. We all knelt before the old man and the attendant introduced us. “Most gracious Lord Betahz, as you suggested, here is the royal astronomer and his new apprentice.”
“Very good, then,” said the old man, waving the attendant away. “You may leave us.”
The attendant stood, bowed formally, and left the hall.
“So,” said Lord Betahz, “this is your student, then, Keeshofa.”
“Yes, Milord.”
“Why a girl? Are you that lonely, you old scoundrel?” Lord Betahz cracked his knee with his hand and laughed.
“No, Milord. It is nothing like that.”
Lord Betahz groaned. “Oh, she isn’t another one of your charity causes, is she? Why else would you request some youth from the streets?”
“But I can see greatness in her, Milord. Are my perceptions ever wrong?”
“Occasionally, although never in matters of your science.” He stared at me with bright jade eyes. “Girl, what do you know of the heavens?”
I trembled before the Great Warlord. I’d heard many stories about how he’d lost his temper and smashed in the skulls of impudent courtiers. Even his age did nothing to lessen my fear of him.
“Well, girl?”
I cleared my throat. “I know my bleeding corresponds to the phases of the moon.”
Lord Betahz burst into hearty laughter. He went on for quite a spell and tears began rolling down his scared cheeks. “Oh…oh, but you are precious! Keeshofa, I’ll grant you that she at least knows one useful thing.” He sat forward and put his hand out to me. “Good to have you, girl!”
I took his hand. My elation was undercut by a sudden realization: his index finger did not extend beyond the knuckle.
“And now I shall teach you about the summer and winter solstices. I suppose I should enlighten you about summer and winter first.”
“Oh, I know,” I said from where I sat cross-legged on the roof of the tower. “I’ve been with a lot of sailors and merchants, Master. Many of them hale from other parts of the world. They’ve told me of these seasons.”
“Really? Keeshofa’s eyes widened. “Would you be kind enough to explain what you’ve heard then?”
“I’d be glad to, Master. Summer is like the dry season and winter is like the rainy season.” I felt proud of my knowledge.
Keeshofa smiled. “Not quite.”
My spirits sank.
Keeshofa’s smile took on a sympathetic warmth and he gently patted my arm. “But that is still a nice analogy.”
I thought.
I sighed heavily. “What does it matter, anyway? I can’t imagine myself traveling to far off lands.”
“Oh, there’s much you can accomplish, dear child! But the point of this lesson is to help you grasp some of the basic concepts of our science, and knowledge of the solstices will help you understand how to put a calendar together.”
“Oh, I see.”
“When the sun is at the highest point in the sky, that is the summer solstice. When you’re standing at the other end of the circle, the sun will rise over this column.” Keeshofa patted the tallest of the clay brick obelisks that marked the circle of the observatory roof. “When it is summer solstice in one part of the world, you can be assured it the winter solstice in another part.”
“But how?”
Keeshofa grinned, his eyes widening. “The world is round.”
“Yes, but how does that make the seasons different at the same time?”
“The winter solstice will be occurring on the opposite side of the world.”
“But I’m on the other side of this circle. How would it be that the sun would look lower to me?”
“The world isn’t a circle. It’s more spherical in shape, like the round part of a gourd. There are people living on what we would consider its underside.”
“I’d hate to live there. I don’t think I should like having to live like a monkey, always holding onto things with my hands just to keep from falling.”
“You wouldn’t have to hold onto anything. You could walk on your two feet.”
I laughed at his statement. “Do they have some sort of sap in the ground that sticks their feet to it?”
“No! It’s like here.”
“Why is that?”
“We haven’t quite figured that out yet. Some scholars think the earth acts as a kind of loadstone, but that it attracts more than just iron.”
“What does the earth rest on?”
“Nothing. It floats. Common opinion holds that it rests in a kind of liquid.”
“Well, these are the latest theories, anyway.”
“Oh, but I think I can understand why the seasons can be different at the same time.”
“Tell me, my child. I should like to hear your line of reasoning.”
“If the sun is high for us, it must be low for the people on the other side.”
“Exactly! You do understand.”
“Waite, I think I just figured something else out! When it’s day here, it’s night somewhere else!”
“Yes, that’s it. Oh, you’re coming along very well!”
“But the stars all move across the sky in a circle, right?”
“As I pointed out last night.”
“What if they are not really moving? What if they and the sun are not moving at all? Perhaps the earth is spinning around and it just appears as if all the heavens are in motion!”
Keeshofa shook his head slowly. “I’m afraid you’re terribly mistaken in that assumption, my student.”
“Can you imagine how great the winds would be if such a thing happened? We would all surely be blown off the surface of the earth if it spun.”
“Oh, yes. I didn’t think of that. I guess you’re right. Please forgive my hastiness.”
“It’s all right, Child. After all, you are new to astronomy.”
“Master, if the kingdom already has a calendar, why are you working on a new one?”
“We need to make a few refinements.”
“What sort of refinements?”
Keeshofa inhaled slowly. “To prevent something that mustn’t come to pass.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Inevitable Corpse Season.”
“The Corps--”
“This lesson is over.” Keeshofa headed for the trapdoor in the roof.
I stood to follow him. “But, Master!”
“Ahrena Sheyi, The Blood Shedder, makes a circuit of the zodiac over a long period of time. Specifically, he takes about two and half years.”
Wood blade made contact with wood blade, and my hands, swathed in gauze, sweated as I strained to hold onto the hilt of my sword.
“What is the importance of the Blood Shedder? So he is a planet as well as a god?”
Keeshofa’s blow dislodged the sword from my hand. It clattered on the polished floorboards. A sharp, hot pain lanced through my wrist and I rubbed it.
“Can we stop for now?” I asked, holding out a white-shrouded palm.
“If you insist.” Keeshofa sheathed his wooden sword in the scabbard that hung from the belt at his hip.
Winded, I sat on the floor and let my head fall back until it pressed against the chamber wall. Sweat soaked into my salty eyes as I panted-- this was usually around the time I would get payment for services rendered. “Master, why fight with swords? How does this help me learn to be an astronomer?”
“It’s all about focus, my dear child.” Keeshofa sat cross-legged against the wall opposite me. “One needs focus most when one is in a perilous situation. Sword fighting is an art that can instill a kind of automatic focus in your mind. When someone is trying to stab you with a blade, you’d best pay attention to only the most crucial things. Distraction can be dangerous.”
I ran the smooth wooden blade of my sword between my moist, gauzed fingers. I hadn’t thought astronomers would have calluses! “But the Blood Shedder, Ahrena Sheyi, is both a god and planet, so he is of course important. What is the significance of his movements through the sky?”
“The Sacred Leopard is my concern. When the Blood Shedder crosses into that constellation, there are dire forebodings in the minds of men.”
“I’ve always heard people swear by the Sacred Leopard, and I’ve certainly seen a lot of representations of him here at the palace.”
“He was the father of all leopards that now roam the earth. He attained the ability to leap to the vault of the heavens after filling the Sky Father with the greatest of pride. Even men have not accomplished so much.”
I started unwinding the gauze strips from my fingers, slowly working down to my hand. “Ahrena Sheyi is the god of violence in all its forms, correct?”
“Then his crossing into the constellation of the Sacred Leopard represents violence and power. Do people see this event as a sign of change in the kingdom?”
“It can mean many things, but the one coming in a few years means usurpation. It will correspond with a lunar eclipse. Mother Spider will turn the color of blood (her granting of great powers to the Blood Shedder) and darken to nothing, thus turning her head from the brutality of her son. A revolution may ensue if people follow the omen. This is what I’m trying to prevent. So long as people only have the old calendar to rely on, with its exact predictions for all astronomical alignments and eclipses, they will be expecting this event.”
“The Inevitable Corpse Season?” I pulled the last strand of gauze from my left hand.
“It is a legend that goes back several hundred years. Some thought it was fulfilled when Lord Betahz came to power thirty years ago. But there was no eclipse then and the celestial movements to come will show them another possibility.”
“Why would they care about a planet moving into a constellation and the moon going dark?”
“What goes on in the heavens is no small affair to many people, especially if they are discontent with their lives and feel powerless. Lord Betahz has never been the most practical ruler this kingdom has had. He is a man used to sacrificing for his own needs-- he wouldn’t have captured a kingdom if he were humane. He has taxed our people intolerably, and has given little back in the way of public works. Pageantry? Yes. Festivals? Yes. But has he done much to feed the sick or help widows? No. People want an excuse to rise up and overthrow him, and an astronomical event such as I’ve mentioned will be seen by them as a blessing from the gods to commit such an act.”
I sighed. “If Lord Betahz is so bad, why do want to prevent this revolution? I was poor and unhappy most of my life. I remember watching my mother die from some sickness she’d caught from a customer. Her nose and half of he face were eaten away by the disease. She couldn’t even tell me goodbye; she was coughing up too much blood. That barbarian from the Far Realms did nothing to save her.”
“Child, you’re thinking with your passions and not with your intellect.”
“What of it?” I yelled. “Did you ever watch your mother die? I remember the taste of her blood on my lips the last time I kissed her. You never had to beg for a single crumb all your life, did you? Or were you born of the gutter like me?”
“No. No, I wasn’t. I don’t condone Lord Betahz’s excesses, my child, but the alternative is far worse. This would be a truly horrible civil war. Most of the people you know and love would likely be killed in the frenzy.”
I began unwinding the gauze on my right hand. “There are few people I love, Master. I don’t think I’d have much to loose, aside from this new job. Although, I must say, I like this much better than whoring.”
Keeshofa uncrossed his legs, strode across the floorboards, and bent over me. “There is much to loose if we fail. If you don’t want to go back to selling yourself on the streets, you’ll help me.”
I sighed. “I am you humble servant, Master.”
My teacher’s face creased with a warm grin. “And I am your humble guide. I must retire for now. My joints are beginning to ache from the exertion.”
He headed for the arched doorway beside me, pushing through the leopard skin curtains.
joints aching from exertion? What about mine? For an old man, he certainly was in good health. I considered the exercises he always forced me to perform. Where those what made him so youthful and energetic? And he could certainly fight with a sword well. Of course, his opponent was only a girl. Or could I get as talented with the blade as he was? He seemed to think I could become as good an astronomer as he. A sword fighter or an astronomer, or both!
“Girl, who are you?”
I looked up, startled. A tall man with hard features and a long mane of dreaded hair approached me from the arch at the far end of the training room. He was attired in the white trainer’s outfit, his powerful legs wrapped in gauze.
“Who am I?” I said stupidly. “I am the Royal Astronomer’s new assistant. Who are you?”
“Is that how you were taught to address your superiors?” He looked me in the face with cold jade eyes. Jade eyes!
“Are…are you Lord Betahz’s son?”
He smiled and laughed. “At least the only one he claims. My name is Govewda.”
“Mine is Syndeeka.”
“Why do you let that old man defeat you so?”
“You saw us fighting?”
“I peaked through the curtain. I don’t believe in interrupting other warriors when they are training. It ruins morale.”
“I did not mean to let him defeat me. I am rather new at this. The only weapon I’ve handled before is a knife.”
“Oh, yes. I heard. You are from the streets. A prostitute, correct?”
“A former prostitute. That was my old profession. I’ve since moved on to more respectable pursuits.”
He smiled. “Yes, so you have. But I should think you would like to get your mentor’s upper hand in the training room. If you want, I could give you a few useful lessons in the art of hand-to-hand combat.”
“Oh, that would be good. You wouldn’t mind?”
“No, not at all. I have a few weeks until I begin my campaign.”
“A neighboring city-state needs to be put into submission.”
“Why? What has it done?”
“Nothing. It is an easy target, and I have lands to conquer if I am to ever carve a legacy out for myself like my father has. He certainly seems lacking in such ambition these days-- the old fool! With all the banquets and feasts he throws, it’s a wonder he hasn’t become one of those powdered fops who always mill about the court.”
“You heard our conversation, didn’t you?”
“The Inevitable Corpse Season?” He laughed. “I have heard the legends. Foolish nonsense. No one dares turn on my father, petty as he may be now. Everyone still remembers when he and his hoards invaded the kingdom on horseback all those years ago. And soon they shall fear me, too.”
“You won’t have me punished for what I said about your father?”
“I have too many grievances with him myself to fault you for your remarks. Just don’t let him catch you saying those words; he’d just as readily wrench your arm out of its socket as he would a man’s.” He grinned. “I don’t doubt that is the best quality about him to this day. Even with all the silly baubles he likes to amuse himself with, he still won’t tolerate someone’s nonsense. That’s why I can thank him for my own resolve. No petty displays of affection from him when I was a child.”
“Isn’t it better to be loved?”
“No. Only the weak are loved. A good ruler gets his respect through the terror he instills in his people.”
I regarded Govewda’s face. It was solid, chiseled, and handsome. No scars marred it but for those worked into a ritual triangular pattern on his right cheek. Only the eyes, stern and bright, bespoke his father.
“When can you teach me?” I asked.
“Whenever your mentor allows you free time.”
“That seems to be rather seldom.”
“Rewrap you hands then, girl. This is probably the best time you’ll have in a while.”
“But I’m tired from Keeshofa’s lesson.”
He unsheathed his sword and raised it above his head. “Defend yourself, girl!”
Before I could grab my own weapon, his wooden blade slammed into my head, knocking me to the floor.
My first encounter with Govewda had been traumatic, but it taught me even more to be on my guard. Quickly I learned to anticipate every parry, every repost from this mad son of a barbarian. Keeshofa began to notice my improvement, but could still tell that I needed much practice before my skills with the blade would equal his own. Govewda remained course and unpleasant. I didn’t really like him or entirely trust him, but he did teach me fighting techniques I’d never considered.
With all this practice came the focus Keeshofa had told me any good astronomer should have, and I became more aware of the nuances of stargazing my mentor always tried to impart to me in his lessons. I soon learned to tell the time of the month by following the waxing and waning of the moon, while charting the movements of the planets through the constellations of the zodiac gave me a skill for measuring the year.
Each lesson taught me by both men sharpened my own mental focus, and I began to see the world as a kind of hierarchy of minutia that added up to a unified structure. Order sheathing chaos. Yet the chaos always remained. It sifted into our skins and our lives. The violence of times to come always encroached like the shadow that would one day engulf the moon.
Govewda never seemed able to shut up about his illustrious campaign and the glory it would bring him. Candid as he was, I sometimes wondered if he might feel some attraction towards me. But in spite of my being smitten with his handsome looks, I couldn’t bring myself to feel such emotions for him. I feared him. Yet he was an effective teacher, when he wasn’t abusing me.
The weeks passed  before my eyes in the night sky, and soon Govewda was to begin his campaign of conquest. I didn’t approve of his mission (how many paupers and orphans would come out of this “glorious endeavor”?) but I was careful to avoid discussing politics with him. Lord Betahz saw his son’s departure as an occasion to throw a grand banquet and ball. I hardly wished to attend the event, but Keeshofa insisted that all members of the court staff should make an appearance.
“Should I wear my astronomers’ robes?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “This is a celebration, not an identification of rank. I shall ask the court tailors to make you a dress appropriate for the banquet.”
The dress was green with a jagged swath of orange running down the torso like Keeshofa’s sash. Its hem covered my ankles while the sleeves draped my wrists (much too stifling for the tropical climate of Aki Gbijume). Colorful like the outfits I once wore in the brothel, but much more conservative. The tailors had made some sort of stupid headdress to go with the gown, and I instantly hated it. The part that fit over my head was a kind of skullcap with flaps that fell around my ears and hair, making it appear as if I had an emerald mane. Extending from the crown was a wide disc of green material that would have shaded my feet if I were to wear the garment in the sun.
I’d seen some of the women of the court garbed in similar outfits, and I’d always thought they looked foolish. Perhaps they were trying to do with their apparel what I had done with mine when I was a prostitute. The thought did nothing to inspire confidence in me.
My mentor had donned a bright blue robe with short sleeves.
He smiled upon seeing me in my new clothes. “How do you like the suit the tailors have fashioned for you?” he asked.
“I don’t.”
He put a hand on my shoulder. “I think I would loose all respect for you if you indicated otherwise.”
I returned his smile.
We were whisked off from the Astronomer’s Tower in a rickshaw pulled by a boy attendant not much younger than me. He ran us across the boards of the causeway that looped up from the tower until it merged with another elevated walkway, which weaved through several buildings before sloping down into the maw of a brick portal above the Great Hall of Kings. There we descended a spiral staircase into the hall. An attendant at the foot of the steps announced us and Keeshofa lead me between two pearl-beaded columns to the long table where Lord Betahaz, Lady Lushafosi, and their son, Govewda, sat surveying the arriving courtiers and courtesans.
Because the Great Warlord’s other wives, his barbarian generals, and his soldiers were in attendance, Keeshofa and I were made to sit at one of the far ends of the table. From where he sat, Govewda quickly regarded me with a disdainful stare before returning his gaze to his new guests. I swallowed and looked down at the spider patterns in the red tablecloth.
Dinner was served not long after we had arrived, but only after an ijoko purified the feast by pouring libations of palm wine on the floor in front of the table. “Before we eat,” he said with upraised arms, “we must acknowledge the Amu and the spirits of our ancestors. Ours is a delicate relationship with these powers.” He spilled the contents of a gourd on the tiles until a pool shimmered before us. He then used the empty vessel to salute the four cardinal points of the universe (which Master Keeshofa had only recently taught me about).
Then we were allowed to eat. A lovely feast: roast chicken and mudfish mixed in a stew of kola nuts and herbs. I enjoyed my meal and discussed sundry matters of the heavens with my mentor for most of the feast.
The Minister of Palace Affairs, the purple robed fellow so reluctant to accept Keeshofa’s choice for a new apprentice, was seated a few guests down from me. Seeing me, he nodded and smiled in acknowledgement. I returned his salutation with a rather vacant nod and then did my best to ignore him. Noticing who I’d just exchanged greetings with, Keeshofa told me the man’s name was Nilosha, and that I’d best keep on eye on him throughout the evening. “Our friend over there didn’t receive his scar for good manners,” he said.
Normally, and much to my dismay, Keeshofa generally forbade me from drinking alcohol, but tonight he allowed me to partake of the palm wine the servants had brought out. “I promise not to get drunk,” I assured him. But my tolerance had apparently gone down in the past few weeks, and I began feeling groggy after only five goblets.
Soon after the effects of the spirits had set in, Lord Betahz stood and the chattering court fell silent. Dressed in a long sleeved black robe with a high collar, his goatee trimmed to a white spade, and his hair tied back in a bronze ring, he looked very different from the barbarian ruler I’d met my second day in the palace. He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder, but Govewda seemed ready to squirm out from under it. “My son has always struck me as a fine man, but there was forever something inside of him that seemed to be trying to break out. That something seems now to be cutting its way from its flesh bonds with a bloody blade. Govewda yearns for the grandness I have acquired, and he hardly seems willing to merely inherit it like so many ruler’s sons are. He doesn’t have the patience of one of those pampered princes. No. My flesh and blood burns with the passion of conquest and glory. He will only have what his father has-- a kingdom taken, a crown earned by the blood of his sword!” His fist pounded on the table, causing even the dishes set before me to clatter.
A cheer rose up amongst the guests, first from the barbarian generals, and then from members of the court. Keeshofa remained stoic, and I happily kept my mouth shut as well.
Lord Betahz grinned broadly. “To aid him in his exploits, I have decided to grant him half my legion, for they are the finest warriors in many a kingdom.”
The court cheered again, and I took another sip of my palm wine.
“Now,” continued the Great Warlord, “let us celebrate with music and dance!”
The tall brass doors at the front of the hall opened and a brightly clad throng of musicians strode in, some blowing arm-length ivory horns, and many beating textured tattoos on the leather hides of drums. Many of the guests had left the table and were milling about the musicians, jumping to and fro and writhing.
“Why do they do that?” I asked, wincing.
“They have an excuse to free themselves from the formalities of court,” Keeshofa said. “Perhaps you should go out there.”
“No. But I think I’ll stand up. Walking about might help me clear my head.”
I rose from my seat and drunkenly zigzagged through the columns until my dizziness forced me to stop. Pressing my hands against one of the pearled supports, I took a deep breath.
“Are you sick?”
I jumped at the sound of Govewda’s voice behind me and turned to him. He strode up to me, a wry grin on his face.
“I said, are you sick?”
“Yes. Well, no. Drunk. A little.”
“I take it you don’t wish to dance, then?”
“I’d rather not. I’m sure my head will clear in a spell.”
“You know, I won’t be able to teach you my fighting skills anymore.”
“I’ve learned so much from you, though. Thank you.” I replaced a hand on the column to support my weakened body.
“Do you want to test yourself, see what you’ve learned? Tonight?”
“No. No, I’m in no state to do that. I think I may throw up if I exert myself.”
He placed a hand under my chin and pushed my head up till our gazes met. “I want to tell you something, girl. You’re not like the other women in court. You’ve got a fire in you. I’ve only seen that kind of fire in men. Show me what you can do. Throw up if you have to, but I want to see your sword-fighting skills.”
“Honestly, this isn’t a good time.”
“If you win, you will have my undying respect.”
“Oh? Well, may I ask something of you?”
“What is it?”
“Keeshofa thinks that by falsifying information on the new calendar, he can stop the Inevitable Corpse Season. A partial lunar eclipse instead of--”
“What do you ask of me?”
“…Will you come here with your soldiers to prevent it from happening? I detest brutality, but my mentor says things will be far worse if this season of corpses transpires. Oh, but I’m sick!” I winced.
“You want me to bring my legion here when that astronomical event comes to pass? You don’t have faith in the strength of my father’s forces?”
“But he is dividing them for your sake. He weakens his own defense.”
“May I see you fight, then? If you win, I’ll give you a job as my own personal court astronomer. If you loose” --he caressed my arm-- “then I partake of your other graces.”
“I don’t like those terms.”
“It’s in you, girl. Don’t deny it. I must touch that fire which burns beneath your skin.”
“Oh, but you are a poor poet!” I staggered.
“Perhaps I should wait till the evening is ended. After the last dance, meet me in the training room.”
“I’m not sober!”
“Neither am I! I’d say it’s an even match. If you agree to my terms, I promise to do as you ask.”
“Really?” I let a sigh whistle through my teeth. “Then it would be a small price to pay on my part.”
Jade eyes narrowed as he smiled.
In the morning, just before sunrise, I rapped my knuckles on the door of the Astronomer’s Tower. No one answered. I began pounding with my fist. Had Keeshofa decided to spend the night somewhere else? I sighed. My fingers were still wrapped in gauze. The bandages seeped with dark stains. Weary, I pressed my sweaty face against the door. Someone was working the bolt on the other side. The door opened and I stumbled forward, my palm slamming into the doorjamb to break my fall.
Keeshofa stood holding a lamp, his features lit from below by its orange radiance. “Dear child!”
“I need sleep.”
“I don’t doubt that. Why are dressed in your training outfit?”
I staggered through the doorway and pressed my back against the wall. “Some things are best left unsaid.”
“Oh. Oh, I see. You’re bleeding. Would you like me to get something for your wounds?”
“I’m so tired.”
“Very well. You can sleep the whole day if you need to. Whenever you’d like us to resume our lessons--”
“Thank you.”
I plodded to my sleeping quarters at the far end of the chamber, dropped into the folds of my cot, and sobbed.
Two days later, Govewda and his legion left the city.
Keeshofa enlightened me to the symbolism entrenched in this leave-taking. The Warlord’s palace was on a hill at the center of Aki Gbijume. Surrounding the royal dwelling on the hilltop was a large public square where the merchants, farmers, and fishers held market every week. Four avenues converged on this square, forming a cross that extended to the four gates of the protective wall surrounding the city. The overall layout was designed to correspond to the cardinal points, so the Warlord’s domain was at the center of our spiritual world; Lord Betahz, the god’s greatest earthly representative, was giving the Ushe a gift.
Additionally, the palace gate faced north, the direction of the pole star. Keeshofa explained that this alignment was intended to give the ruler of the city-state access to the gods and spirits, who journey to our world via this celestial shaft. Interestingly enough, Govewda’s object of conquest lay to the north, so his departure from the palace grounds and out of Aki Gbijume carried extra symbolic weight.
There was much pageantry to this exodus, and I was again forced to make an appearance. Keeshofa and I stood with the other members of the court atop the outer palace wall. We looked in the direction of the Warrior’s Barracks as Govewda, his face covered with a blood-reddened ivory mask of the Blood Shedder (a lion’s face with elephant tusks), lead the procession from where he sat on a white horse. At either side of him, also adorned with masks and on horseback, were his military advisors. Drummers tagged not far behind. Marching in their wake were countless columns of leather-clad foot soldiers armed with swords, spears, bows and quivers of arrows.
I hadn’t seen Govewda since the night of the banquet, and I felt relief when he finally rode out of my line of site. I knew he probably hadn’t seen me. Now there was nothing to look upon but the marching procession of foot soldiers tramping out through the palace gates. I wanted to leave, but Keeshofa stayed me with a restraining hand on my shoulder.
“I only wish to try another view.”
He removed his hand and nodded approval.
I made my way through the crowd until I was near the center of the outer wall. Lady Lushafosi and Lord Betahz were not far from me, and she began moving through the courtiers and courtesans now that Govewda had disappeared. She stepped passed two attendants next to me and then stopped at my side.
She was tall like Govewda and her features had the same cast as his. But for the dark eyes and the silver-streaked hair she wore in a coif, she could have passed for an older, female version of her son. Her dress, an elaborate piece of beadwork with alternating yellow and red diamonds against a field of blue, had to be one of the pricier offerings of an eastern merchant.
I smiled and did a slight bow.
“I don’t believe we’ve met, young stargazer,” she said, extending a hand to me. “You of course must know who I am?”
I took her hand. “Yes. You are Lord Betahz’s wife.”
“His primary wife.”
“I heard he doesn’t care as much for that custom as the various amode of old did.”
“Things are different where he comes from, but he doesn’t want to brush off too many of our traditions.”
“You must be proud of your son.”
“Yes. Not as much as Betahz, of course. My husband does so wish to be closer to Govewda. But that boy won’t have it. He wants to be stern like his father.”
“Govewda-- is he ever affectionate?”
Lady Lushafosi’s eyes widened.
“Oh, I meant no offense by my question.” I bit my lower lip.
“No, you did not offend me. I understand what you meant. Govewda can show me love, but no one else. When he was a child, he was not given any kindness from his father. The Great Warlord was much more cold-hearted than he is now.
“I distinctly remember a time he once beheaded one of his fellow barbarians after the young man committed some transgression. Not only did he execute the man, but he also placed the man’s head atop a stake outside the palace so that the birds and insects might pick it clean. When it was but a skull, he took it and washed it and gave it to your mentor, the court astronomer, as a gift.”
“My mentor?”
“Betahz had such a brutal streak in those days. It’s little surprise he had trouble expressing love for his own child. He has since confessed to me that this unfeeling demeanor was a weakness of his, one which has taken him many years to overcome. I wish it had come sooner.”
“So do I. About the barbarian.”
“Oh, but I must make my rounds. There are many fine people to see on this wonderful day.”
Lady Lushafosi sauntered off.
Three months passed, and then a proclamation was made: the Great Warlord’s son had won himself a kingdom. Lord Betahz announced an eight-day festival for our own nation. “Let no expense by spared,” he was rumored to have said. A new sales tax was quickly implemented to cover the unforeseen overhead that soon resulted.
“I’m sure the merchants won’t like that,” Keeshofa told me over breakfast one morning. “And they’re the ones most likely to rally the people into a revolt.”
“But wouldn’t they benefit from all the sales made for the celebration?” I asked.
“Not most of the local merchants. Lord Betahz has a flair for the exotic. This wouldn’t be the first time he’s funded foreign traders with money taken from the local businessmen. You should know that the calendar is more for people of their class than those from your former ranks.”
The calendar took far less time to complete than Keeshofa had originally predicted and the scribes soon set to work transcribing additions to be sold in the markets. A royal decree was given to return all old calendars so that they might be burned. I could only wonder how one minor alteration to such a vast scientific tome could keep thousands of dissatisfied citizens from rising up. I knew from personal experience what it was like to be starving, desperate, and devoid of hope. Compassionate as he was, what could my mentor know of such loss and hopeless despair?
The moon cycled through it’s phases, and I was surprised at how soon the day of the eclipse snuck up on us. Had it been that long? Govewda had not come as he’d promised. Such was his honor! My sacrifice had been a waste.
Yet I had still gained much to replace what he had taken from me. I was now a very well read, perceptive observer of the heavens, and my talents at swordplay had grown considerably.
“You may find much use for both soon enough,” Keeshofa said on the day of the eclipse.
He knelt before the large wooden chest where he kept his personal effects, pulled the lid back, and removed two sheathed swords and two jerkins and handed one of each item to me. I ran my thumb over the iron rings sewn into the leather.
“That’s ringmail, my child. I want you to wear it and the sword under your robes tonight.”
I pulled my new weapon out of its scabbard. The blade was black. Iron!
“Master, do you think the Corpse Season will come to pass?”
“I don’t know. Go and change. We have to prepare for the evening.”
I put my privacy screen around my quarters, changed into the jerkin, wrapped my legs with fighter’s gauze, put on my sword-training boots, and re-donned my robes. My sword bounced on my leg as I returned to Keeshofa.
The trunk beside him was still opened, and I noticed something white in one of its corners. Keeshofa followed my gaze and hurriedly reached for the lid. I intercepted him and held the trunk open while I fished for the object. It was a skull.
My mentor’s eyes were wide, nervous.
“Why do you have this?”
“It was a gift. Lord Betahz gave it to me. I couldn’t refuse.” He took the skull from my hands and returned it to its resting place in the trunk.
“But why would he give you a skull?”
He stared at the floor. “Who understands a barbarian?”
“Who understands anyone?”
“Come. The sun is about to set.”
We stood atop the tower in the observatory, watching the shadow of the column immediately behind us stretch out before our feet on the clay bricks of the roof. The moon had already risen above the horizon in front of us, and though it was to the side of the shadow, we both knew it would soon cross into darkness.
“Master, what do we do if the people rise up? Do you expect it will be tonight?”
“I don’t know, my dear child. We can try our best to defend ourselves. That and flee the palace grounds, and then get out of the city entirely. I have enough money so that we can buy passage onto one of the ships at the port. One that’s going upriver, preferably.”
“You do no wish to go out to sea?”
“No. It would be easier to start a new life in a neighboring country. Easier to learn the language, adjust to the social customs.”
“When should we leave? You don’t want to wait till there are people at the palace gates, do you?”
“If they come, it won’t be till after the eclipse is complete. They’ll want to confirm the statements of the calendar.”
“Won’t they be angry when they realize the lie you told?”
“They certainly would not want to spare me. Many prominent merchants of the kingdom have been invited to court over the years, and they can easily point me out.”
“You don’t regret what you did, do you?”
“It was all I could do. I’m afraid it may not have been enough. But you should know that I was here when Lord Betahz’s forces took the palace thirty years ago. I remember the bloodshed, the violence. Barbarians from the Far Lands have a strict code of honor, but some of them had gone mad in the frenzy.”
“So I figured.”
“Imagine the people rising up. Imagine a mob driven, not by glory, but by pure hatred and rage. Years of poverty, constraint… It would be even worse than those barbarians who briefly forgot their code.”
“Why do you have that barbarian’s skull?”
“How did you know he was a barbarian?”
“I never told you that. How did you know?”
I slowly inhaled.
“Someone told you the story?”
“Yes. Part of it. Not the whole thing.”
“Do you know the reason Lord Betahz gave me the skull?”
“Not exactly.”
“Well, it wasn’t because of anything that happened on the day of the raid. I was given the skull several years after Lord Betahz had established his rule.”
“Are you glad you have it?”
“I’m surprised.”
“I’m not proud of what I feel.”
As we talked, the gold light on the bricks dimmed, the shadows merged with the darkness, and the moon turned red.
As soon as Mother Spider was gone from sight, Keeshofa hurried me down to the base of the tower, where we ascended the wooden causeway that threaded its way about the upper stories of the palace buildings.
“Why this route, Master? This is mostly for rickshaws.”
Keeshofa, several paces ahead, looked back at me. “We don’t want to be on the palace grounds if there should be an attack.”
In the darkness of this moonless night, my mentor was only a silhouette against the constellation points. The causeway path we had chosen eventually ended up at the top of the outer palace wall and we alighted on its crenulated walkway.
“There’s a passageway that leads to the streets beyond near the guard post.” He pointed to a small dried-mud shack with orange light illuminating its portholes. “There should be a trap door not far from this structure.”
We hurried to the guard post and were met by a sentry in leather armor and helmet. He pointed an iron spear at my mentor. “Go no further!” he said. Brown eyes stared at us from behind a mask of ritual scars that marked his rank.
“My dear fellow,” said Keeshofa, “we only wish to step out for a constitutional. There’s something about the crisp night air one breaths on a city street that--”
“No member of court is to leave the palace grounds until otherwise noted by the Warlord. Come, you will wait in the guard post until a retinue can be summoned to escort you to the Great Hall of Kings.”
We were made to sit inside the small building while a drummer who’d also been stationed in the shack beat out a message on the goatskin of his instrument. Presently two additional soldiers appeared in the doorway, and they made us follow them to the Great Hall of Kings.
“Did you think you two could just run away?” Lord Betahz asked from his throne. He was dressed in leather armor, and an iron helmet with nose-guard covered his head.
“My Lord, I meant no disrespect to the formalities of courtly conduct, but I--”
“No excuses from you, astronomer! Do you think I don’t know what night it is? Your own apprentice there warned my son about what could happen.”
Keeshofa quickly glanced at me and I lowered my face to the floor tiles.
“Why didn’t you warn me, yourself?” the Warlord continued.
“My Lord, I felt this could be prevented.”
“Well, my spies in the city have prooved you wrong. Indeed there is talk of revolution! And if you were so confident in your ability to deceive the people with a lie in your calendar, then why are dressed for battle?”
The retinue that had taken us from the guard post had searched our persons and, discovering our secret, had decided to shame us by presenting us before the Warlord stripped of our astronomers’ robes. We now stood in front of him in our ringmail armor, our blades hanging from our hips. Behind us were all the members of court, and many of them also wore weapons.
Lord Betahz unsheathed his sword with a broad stroke and pointed the blade at my mentor’s neck. “You would betray us by fleeing for your sorry lives?”
Keeshofa, breathing steadily, shut his eyes before looking again at the barbarian.
“My Lord, I…I shall assist you in defending the palace if you want me to. Or if you wish to kill me, then so be it. But please spare the life of my apprentice!”
Hard jade eyes locked on me.
“Girl!” said the Warlord.
I was shaking and could feel sweat drenching my armpits. I tried to swallow, but my mouth was dry.
“Girl, is he right? Should I spare your life?”
“I…I, I don’t want you to harm Keeshofa. You wouldn’t”-- I took a breath-- “be so ready for an attack if I hadn’t told your son. It would be dishonorable of you to kill my master.”
The sword arced from Keeshofa’s neck to my own.
“No!” pleaded Keeshofa.
“Shut your mouth, astronomer! Girl, you speak to me in such a defiant tone?”
“What of your honor?” I asked.
Lord Betahz gave me a cold, heavy smile, and then lowered the sword. “You know me better than I thought. Yes, you did warn us, didn’t you? Not your master, but I would indeed be dishonoring you by killing him. Very well. I will spare the both of you, but only under the condition that you two wield your blades against the coming mob.”
“What other choice could there be now?”
The hours wore on an no one slept. My mentor and I sat on the floor against one of the pearl-beaded columns, talking of the stars and planets. The ancients had always felt the that the earth mirrored the sky’s order. Keeshofa insisted that only the heavens were ordered and that mostly savages unconcerned with celestial symmetry peopled our world. I woundered aloud if the order of the heavens wasn’t really reflected after all. “They don’t call it the Inevitable Corpse Season because of its unpredictability,” I said.
It was when I thought I would nod off that we heard the first report of an attack on the outer palace wall. Lord Betahz’s archers and spearmen were picking off as many members of the mob as possible, but there were just so many. I kept turning over in my mind the thought that maybe I was on the wrong side. What could it matter now? The rebels would surely kill me if they had the chance. Men who had taken me in the throws of lust a few years earlier would give no thought to driving a blade into me and rending my entrails. I imagined that the fiery passion in which such men would kill me wouldn’t be much different from what they’d felt when they were my customers.
Lord Betahz paced about in front of his throne, his hands clasped behind his back. Only when a messenger arrived with a new report would he stop his grim circuit. I was tempted to start pacing myself. We were all waiting for something to happen, but until it did, we couldn’t leave the hall.
Lady Lushafosi sat in a corner with Lord Betahz’s three other wives, so I decided to talk to her. She smiled upon seeing me, touched a hand to my face, and asked me how I was fairing in the midst of all this turmoil. “Well,” I replied.
Immediately after I gave my answer, the Great Warlord summoned all armed members of court for an audience with him. He stood on the top step of his dais, his sword unsheathed and clenched in a veined fist.
“This is it!” he said. “Our outer defenses have been broken. It appears the vanguard of this mob is made up of professionals. Mercenaries! Those damned merchants must have planed this out long ago. The rebels are on the palace grounds and are heading for the entrance to the Great Hall of Kings. I have a few archers left, and they’re on the roof. I’ve ordered them to take out any professional. That will leave the rest of the mob, and we here can try to hold them off while the women and children of the court work their way to the upper levels so they can escape via the causeway.”
“But you want me to stay here, My Lord?” I asked.
The barbarian smiled. “Yes, you are a woman and a child, aren’t you? Yet the mother of my son has told me of your skills in warfare.”
“I didn’t know she knew about that.”
“You’re to assist us in fighting this rabble from the streets, as I’ve said before, girl. Come!” He raised his sword. “Let us all show these dogs they’re not even fit to lick the dirt from our feet!”
A pounding began to drone on the bronze doors. Angry cries could be heard from behind.
“Everyone!” cried Lord Betahz. “Go to your assigned places.”
The women and children of the court began ascending the spiral staircase to the second floor while our group slowly tramped to the doors. The pounding grew fiercer and I could see the doors reverberate with the force of the mob’s blows. The wooden bar that crossed over the two doors began to splinter and crack. Keeshofa pulled out his sword, and I slowly followed suit. My hands were shaking, and the hilt of my blade was becoming slippery with sweat. Lord Betahz was to the rear of our group and, to my surprise, there were only a few men in front of me. With each jar to the doors, the wooden bar sent additional shards spraying. A thick crack was expanding in the iroko barrier.
Then, the crack split.
Bronze folded inward and a howling mass of screaming, growling, writhing men flooded in. The courtier before me fell back and slammed into my body. To my horror, I realized that my sword had impaled the man in front of me. He flailed on my blade while the invaders hacked into his chest. Blood spattered my face, dripped into my eyes. I couldn’t see! I felt the force of bodies pushing me back. My boots slid on tiles, and I desperately tried to keep from falling. I blinked my eyes and my vision returned. My head reeled. I felt the sweat on my face go cold. Before me were bloody courtiers being cut up by angry men. A wriggling hand arced in the air above me. Everyone was shouting, screaming. Blood mixed with sweat. And I was still trying to pull my blade out of the back of the courtier in front of me. What use were all my sword lessons? (This wasn’t what I’d been taught!)
A loud battle cry intoned above the noise. Someone was pushing through our ranks from the back. His sword arm raised above his head, the Warlord nudged me out of his way. Then his blade swept down, cleaving into the skull of one of the rebels. Blood and chunks of brain sprayed out as the barbarian’s iron split the man’s head in two. I winced in revulsion. Lord Betahz yanked the sword from his victim’s jawbone and drove the weapon into another man’s shoulder. This new victim screamed as his sword arm was cut from his body. Bright blood spurted from the stump as the man bounced off the scarlet-stained tiles.
I pushed the flat of my hand in the back of the courtier I’d accidentally skewered and pulled my sword out. The courtier, his face and chest ragged red meat, crumpled to the floor. My blade was dripping with blood, and I wished I had a rag to wipe it off.
Lord Betahz was still hacking the invaders to pieces. The courtiers, encouraged by their ruler’s bravado, began rushing any rebels still standing. Keeshofa was with them, and he struck the enemy with swift, sure strokes (he knew what must be done). I inhaled, raised my own sword, and charged into the fray.
An adolescent boy came at me with a spear. I deflected the iron shaft with an upward curve of my blade. The spear spun in the air and clattered on the tiles. The boy stared at me with wide eyes, his mouth agape. Don’t think of him as a person, I told myself. With a smooth and sudden stroke, I cut him down. He clutched at the red fountaining from his opened jugular, his knees buckling beneath him. I wanted to wince, but held my eyes with a cold resolve; these people wanted me dead.
A man wielding a long dagger came in the boy’s wake, and I simply repeated the last two moves I had made before. But I experienced a rush of energy at that moment. I looked in disbelief as his head fell from his body and blood shot from his neck in a spattering arch. I was drenched. Keep moving, I thought.
The next man was different: ringmail armor like my own, his sword blade of an unknown lustrous metal, and his skin white! A mercenary. His hair and beard were long and blond, and a smile cracked from beneath his pale whiskers.
“Come on, bitch! Let’s see how you stand against me.” He hefted his blade at me almost too quickly for me to block.
I was nearly knocked to the floor, but managed to lock my knees in a bowlegged squat. Our blades scraped each other, his attacking and mine shielding. I didn’t know how much longer my legs could hold. Then he kicked them out from under me. My head slammed into the tiles and I only had time to see his sword glide down to my left shoulder. Fired lanced through the wound he opened in me. I screamed and he looked like he was about to burst out laughing. My blood lapped the blade, which pierced the flesh beneath my shoulder. “No filthy bitch like you should bare children.” My right arm still swung at him, but he easily sidestepped my pathetic attack. Grabbing my wrist, he pulled my sword from it’s grip and then drove its iron at my crotch. I reflexively shifted my right leg inward to deflect the blade. The sword missed its target but still cut into the skin of my inner thigh. Blood spilled from between my legs.
Congratulations, Syndeeka. You have a future.
No, I die as I lived.
The white man pulled my sword out of my bleeding wounds. “Waite. You’re still too pretty.” The blade merged with my cheek and cut it open. Why didn’t he just finish me off? He could have been a customer.
His smile suddenly melted away and his body tensed up. From his once mocking lips poured blood. He toppled forward and fell on me. I felt a burning in the side of my nose as the iron blade exited my flesh.
Keeshofa pulled his sword out of the white man’s back and rolled his twitching body off of me. “Dear child.” He gently removed the mercenary’s sword from my shoulder.
“Thank you…Master.”
“I think you need treatment for your wounds.” He laid his hand just below my bloody shoulder. Then I heard the sound of rending tissue. An iron spear jutted out his throat. He made a gasp as a river of blood splashed down his neck.
I didn’t think; I grabbed the mercenary’s sword from Keeshofa’s hand and swung it behind my dying mentor. It caught and someone groaned. I could see legs behind my kneeling mentor stagger as his murderer fell to the floor.
Keeshofa’s eyes were still open. Slowly, he sank back until he lay on the rebel’s carcass.
One last gesture, I thought. Forcing my pained limbs into motion, I cautiously stood up, fell forward on my knees, and regarded his face. Blood from the neck wound had spilled over his features. Let them kill me. I planted my lips on his forehead and tasted salt.
A solid hand slid beneath my ribs and pulled me off Keeshofa’s body. “Come on, girl, we have to go!” cried Lord Betahz over the den as he hauled me away. I stared at my mentor’s blood-drenched form while the barbarian carried me to the stairs. The floor was an ever-expanding sea of tattered corpses, but my eyes never lost sight of my dead friend. Flooding the doorway was a second, larger wave of attackers. The deluge of their sweaty limbs soon drowned the old astronomer’s body. Columns curved by me as the Warlord carried me up the spiral staircase, a few straggling courtiers behind us trying to outpace the torrential mob. 
Those of our party not too injured did their best to barricade the doors of the second floor antechamber we hid in with any tables, chairs, and footstools that could be found. It was during this search for furniture that one of the members of court found Lady Lushafosi hiding in a small side-room. “I didn’t want to leave you, my love,” she told the outraged Warlord. “But all my other wives escaped,” he replied, but soon took her in his arms. I was in no mood for this touching display, especially in light of my mentor’s murder, and quickly averted my gaze from the royal couple’s affection.
The one ijoko among our ranks cleaned my wounds and bandaged them with strips of gauze he took from a leather satchel hanging from his shoulder. “None of your injuries is lethal, but I don’t recommend any heroics for the rest of your stay here,” he advised me. His wizened features vaguely reminded me of Keeshofa, and I couldn’t but help feel the loss of my teacher. He fished out some roots and leaves, dropped them in a wooden cup, crushed them to a fine powder with a stone, and then filled the cup with water. “Drink this,” he said. “It will kill your pain.”
Some of my pain.
The rebels had grown exhausted by the time the sun began to rise, and they set up makeshift camps all about the palace grounds. It made sense; there was only so long we could hold out with our almost non-existent provisions. Lord Betahz had had one of his warriors stand guard on the balcony in case anyone tried to get to us via the causeway. Some resourceful courtiers had collected a few items from the basement galleys before the actual attack, but these proved to be little more than rations amongst the lot of us. I knew I would probably die soon, but I was tired. I found an alcove, curled up as much as my pained body would allow, and fell asleep.
I awoke, groggy, tired, with cramped joints and aching limbs. I had sweated in my clothes and they stuck to my cold skin. I crawled out from my hiding place and looked around. Courtiers and warriors sat about or slept curled up on the clay-tiled floor. Lord Betahz sat in an ivory and leather chair on the balcony. He stared out at the morning sky. Black smoked billowed in several columns against the blue. I sniffed the air and winced at the acrid odor-- they must be burning anything they could haul into the courtyard.
I crept up to the barbarian where he sat, put out my hand to touch his shoulder, but thought better and let it rest on the leather of my sheath. “Excuse me, my lord…”
“Good morning, Syndeeka.” He did not turn his head to me, but just stared before him.
I stepped to his side and looked over the railing. Many of the rebels slept in clusters, but a few stood around bonfires that they fed with furniture, rugs, clothing.
“May I ask, my lord, what can we do?” I swallowed. My arms shook. My skin was clammy.
“Girl, I can only imagine now that we fight till we’re dead. But not you.”
I looked at him. His white beard was unkempt and his eyes were crusted with sleep. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand, your greatness.”
He stood up and touched my shoulder. “Pull out your sword, girl.”
I complied with his request and unsheathed the mercenary’s blade. I was embarrassed to see that it was stained with dried brown. I had been so weary the night before that I hadn’t bothered to wipe it clean. Then I realized with a shock that some of the blood was my own.
Lord Betahz took the hilt from my hand and inspected the weapon. He turned it over and sunlight reflected off the metal free of blood. Gold dazzled my eyes and I blinked.
“Do you know what this blade is made from, girl?”
“No. No, I cannot say that I do.” Purple splotches danced across my line of vision.
“This is steel. It cannot be mined from the earth like iron. It’s an alloy. It had to be created by smelting different minerals in a furnace.”
Something awoke in my mind.
He pointed the blade down till its tip touched tiles. “I had one like this, but I gave mine up to Govewda for his campaign. But this is yours now. I will not deprive you of what you’ve earned with your own blood.” (I looked at the stains on the blade). “I want you to use this on a mission.”
“A mission?”
“To save my wife. I love her so; I cannot let her stay here to face death.”
“But why do you want me to do this?”
“You have the finest blade in the kingdom, girl. I also saw how you fought. You are swift and brutal.”
I swallowed and felt a chill wash over me. I saw images of the courtier I’d accidentally skewered and the man I’d beheaded.
“If anyone here can spirit Lushafosi to safety,” he continued, “it’s you. But also, I owe your master for what he tried to do. He failed, but it was an honorable effort.”
“Thank you. I loved him dearly.” My vision blurred with water in my eyes. I blinked and let it roll down my cheeks.
Lord Betahz laid a firm hand on my shoulder. “You must leave when night falls. We have a rickshaw here. I want you to pull it with my wife in it. Cross the causeways till you get to the outer palace wall. Once there, you will probably have a demon’s fight on your hands. But I have faith in you. Kill anyone who threatens her. Where the causeway ends there will be a sentry hut. In every sentry hut there is an exit leading to a series of catacombs that tunnel under the outer palace wall and end in anonymous places throughout the city. This is how my spies were able to go to and from the palace grounds undetected. When you’ve gotten out of the vicinity of the palace, find someplace to hide the two of you. I’ll make sure you have any provisions we can find. Try to hold out for a week if possible. Then I want both of you to get as far from the city as you can.”
“Why do want me to hide so long?”
“These people have blood on their tongues. They won’t be satisfied until they’ve slaughtered every one of us in this palace. Give them that illusion. Once satisfied that we’re all dead, they won’t be so quick to look for survivors.”
I noticed I was still crying. “Why has all this happened?”
“I’m afraid this is mostly my fault.”
I wiped my eyes with a hand. “Not just this. Everything. My entire life. Why have the gods cast the kolas for me thus?”
Lord Betahz sighed.
“I decided your fate when I took this kingdom. My decisions have shaped your life from the beginning. They shaped your mentor’s life, too.”
“You gave him his post?”
“No, he already had that. I deprived him of his daughter. One of my men raped and murdered her. But I made the bastard pay.”
“I saw his skull.”
“Yes, well, I don’t know that my action could make up for what happened.”
“My master had a daughter, then.” I stared at the tiles, slowly inhaled, then returned my gaze to the warlord. “I never even knew my father.”
“Yes, Syndeeka.” He pulled his heavy mouth into a smile. “You did.”
As the day progressed, the rebels in the courtyard became loud with shouts and began throwing stones and pieces of furniture at the balcony. We all stayed indoors and tried to reinforce the makeshift barricade that blocked passage from the lower level.
The scent of smoke became more pronounced and I crept to the balcony to see what was transpiring. A rock glanced off my bandaged shoulder. Kneading the stinging wound with my hand, I ran to Lord Betahz where he supervised the loading of the rickshaw with food and weapons. Lady Lushofosi stood by his side, arguing with him.
“Please reconsider, my love,” she said. “If I must die, I’d rather die with you.” She placed her hands on his muscled arm.
“Foolish woman! I’m trying to save you. Would you deprive your son of his mother? He has a kingdom. You can go there and advise his poets on how best to perpetuate my name in the sagas. Those who have taken the palace will only vilify me.”
“A man’s name is not as important as the man.”
“I’m dead regardless! At least let me have my honor.”
“Excuse me, my lord.”
Betahz gave me an annoyed stare. “What do you want, girl?”
“The rebels are throwing torches at the causeway.”
“I only had a moment to glance, but part of it seems to be smoking. I fear they’ll burn it before I can escape.”
Betahz looked to an attendant securing some gourds to the side of the rickshaw with rope. “Hand me the bow and quiver.”
The man removed the weapons from a cloth bag and handed them to the Warlord. Betahz briskly strode to the balcony, slinging the quiver on his back and knocking an arrow against the bowstring. I followed, hoping his massive form would shield me from any more stones. A flaming torch bounced off his helmet and I had to dodge it. Betahz ignored the blow and launched an arrow into the courtyard. Someone screamed below. He rapidly fired a volley of shafts and several more exclamations confirmed his kills. He turned to me, jade eyes smoldering in a stone face. “We’ve no more time to waste. Get to the rickshaw, girl.”
I had a round wooden shield strapped to my left arm and Betahz placed his helmet on my head. It slid down over my eyes, but he readjusted the strap under my chin so the helm better fit my proportions. A sheathed iron sword was strapped to my back in case I lost my steel blade. In each of my boots was placed a vicious looking dagger. The quiver of arrows was secured to the remaining free part of my back and the bow was attached to my belt using a leather thong.
“Do you know how to use a bow?” Betahz asked.
“No. Keeshofa never taught me.”
He sighed through clenched teeth. “Just do the best you can then.”
His wife, now attired in a warrior’s jerkin and helmet, still protested the mission, so the warlord had his attendants bound her hands and feet with rope and gag her with a piece of someone’s cloak. I asked Betahz if the gag was necessary. “You’ll have enough distractions without her screaming in your ear,” he said. She was placed in the seat of the rickshaw and propped up on either side with gourds and bags. I got into my position at the front of the rickshaw and placed my leather wrapped fingers on the handles. I tried pulling and found my load very heavy.
“Just pull on it, girl,” said the Warlord. “There’s no point in us helping you move it because it won’t get any lighter once you’ve left the Hall of Kings.”
I groaned in the back of my throat, but realize he was right. Tightening my grip on the handles, I began trudging forward. The wheels began to creak. Ahead was a wooden ramp leading through a small porthole out of the building. I slowly worked my way up it, trying to keep from sliding too much on the iroko planks of the incline (it didn’t help that the souls of my boots were leather). When I had reached the portal, Betahz said: “There’s a fairly straight route from here to the outer palace wall. Follow it and you should be fine. If there are any sections of your path on fire, use the water gourds on the side of the rickshaw to extinguish the flames. But don’t dally; you’ll only get the both of you killed if you do that.”
I swallowed. “Goodbye, my Lord. I’m sorry things have turned out so badly.”
“Don’t pity me, young lady. I accept my fate.”
“Since I’ll never see you again, I’ll tell you something. Although I’ve always disagreed with many of your policies and ideas, I still find great cause to admire your character.”
“Quit wasting time!”
I felt anger surge up inside of me. How could he be so callus at a time like this? It was as if he had no use for my sentiments. In hindsight, I suppose he had a point, but at the time I was deeply hurt.
I took a slow, deep breath, closed my eyes for a moment to collect my thoughts, and exited the portal. Sunlight washed over my face and I put my head down to keep it out of my eyes. Now I could see the ground below and felt frightened. No time to be afraid. Just move. I proceeded at a steady rate, the clopping of the causeway’s plank boards under the rickshaw wheels creating a constant beat in my ears. I noticed rebels below. More of them were waking up and pulling down their camps.
A few saw me and screamed obscenities at me and threw stones in my direction. Most of the rocks fell short of their target, but several thudded off my shield. The sound of them making contact unnerved me. I was so angry I wanted to spit over the edge of the causeway, but figured that would just halt my progress, so I refrained. The yells and the shouts became louder and began to multiply (they didn’t even know me!). Lushafosi moaned through her gag pathetically, especially when a rock would hit my shield or the rickshaw.
“I’m sorry, My Lady,” I said, not looking back. “I promise I’ll get us out of this as fast as I can.”
Up ahead was a tower. Part of the causeway curved off to connect to it. A fairly straight route, he’d said. I kept on my course. The tower grew larger and then passed to the side. It was still a ways to the outer palace wall, but I could see that it was getting larger. Then a man appeared in front of me (he must have climbed up one of the causeway’s support beams). I stopped the rickshaw, released its handles, and pulled out my sword.
He removed a rather long dagger from his sarong. He was middle aged but lean and with wiry muscles. He smiled a cracked-tooth smile at me.
I thought. I no longer cared about my unfair advantage, but raised my sword to a stabbing position and ran into him. As the blade penetrated his chest, he tried to slash at my arm but only managed to scrape wood chips off my shield. Using my shield arm, I knocked the dagger out of his hand. It clattered below.
His other hand clawed into my sword arm and slid under the leather of my sleeve. Nails dug into my skin. I groaned through clenched teeth but still managed to push his spasming body off of my blade. He fell over the side and landed with a thud, and I could only think that the architects who’d designed the palace must have been stupid not to give the causeways protective railing. There were no rebels further up the path, so I returned to the rickshaw and resumed my trek. 
Lady Lushofosi persisted with her moaning and I became annoyed with her. I felt like turning around and saying: “Would you rather I left you up here to die? Because I can do that if you don’t behave yourself.” I didn’t say anything, but suddenly a wave of guilt washed over me for even thinking such a thought. I touched my sleeve and saw that my fingertips were covered with blood. I sighed heavily.
As I continued on my course, I couldn’t help but to notice what lay below. Scattered about the courtyard were the corpses of slain warriors: some with missing limbs, some with spilled entrails. Swarms of flies swirled about the dead men like dust devils. In many places, pools of blood had formed, and the hungry insects blackened their red surfaces. The sight nauseated me. I averted my eyes and looked to the path ahead.
A flaming brand landed on the planks in front of my feet. I didn’t stop but kicked it away. We reached a crossroads in the causeway and passed several more buildings, including the Queen’s Hall were the Lady had once held her own smaller court.
Finally the outer wall of the palace loomed over us and I felt relief. I stopped and turned to the Lady. “If I take off your gag, do you promise not to scream and complain?”
She nodded ascent and I undid the rag tied around her mouth.
She gasped and coughed. “Thank you, dear girl…Thank you. Now, you might as well undue my bindings.”
“You promise not to try to escape?”
“You have my word. And you know a woman married to the Great Warlord would never dishonor him by lying.”
I untied the rope around her wrists and she began rubbing the impressions in her skin. “Thank you, Syndeeka. You are a wonderful child,” she said, placing an affectionate hand on my shoulder.
“Let me get your feet now.” I knelt and began untying the rope around her ankles. Her hand increased its pressure on my shoulder, as if she were trying to support herself. My shoulder wound began to ache. Then I noticed a scraping on my back. The iron sword! I shot my head up, only to see the flat of the black blade come down. I felt a dull blow hit the top of my helmet and was stunned. Falling on my side, I gasped. There was a rustling sound and then the clapping of shoes on the wooden boards. I managed to pull myself onto my feet and staggered around.
Lady Lushofosi was holding the rickshaw by one of its handles and pushing it back. No, I realized in shock, she wanted it out of her way. It curved sideways and then tumbled over the edge of the causeway. There was a loud banging and clattering below, followed by the sound of several voices shouting. Her path now clear, she began running back the way we’d come. Stupid woman!
“Come back! You’ll just get killed trying to return to your husband.”
She ignored my calls; I had no desire to chase after her. The iron sword was still in her hand, pumping back and forth as she ran, but was weighing her down on her right side, causing her to wobble. She increased her pace and the wobbling only grew worse. I notice her feet were getting closer to the edge of the causeway. I started to call a warning to her, when she toppled over, screaming. In horror, I let my gaze follow her body as it plummeted to the hard-packed dirt of the courtyard. She bounced a little when she hit the ground. Then she just sprawled there.
I felt my heart racing. Was she dead? She suddenly moved a little. But it was too late. Angry rebels rushed in from all sides and began beating her with heavy sticks, clubs, and spears. She screamed the most agonized scream I’d ever heard. I wanted to cry. The mob intensified their attack and the scream grew shriller. Then it faded out. I quickly turned away, wiping my tears.
What now? She was dead and I still had to escape. I unsheathed my blade, held my shield up, and slowly walked forward. Just a few paces ahead the causeway ended on a ledge of clay bricks. To the side was the sentry hut. If anyone was in there, they would have seen me coming a long time ago. I walked the last few steps of the causeway, alighted on the rim, and approached the sentry hut.
I peered in the window. A bald man with a paunch lay sprawled across a stool, a gourd hanging from his fingers. What was left of the gourd’s contents had splattered on the floor below. The place had the sour smell of palm wine. I snuck in, quietly re-sheathed my blade, and stood over him. He was snoring through his nose. Drool stuck to the whiskers on the side of his mouth. I noticed a short sword barely hanging from several fingers of his other hand.
What should I do? If I woke him, he might call out. I felt a pang of regret as I pulled a dagger out of one of my boots. Even if I kept him alive as a hostage, what would happen if I let him go? His round belly rose and fell with his breathing, causing the green and yellow triangles of his tunic to expand and contract. He seemed so pathetic in his helplessness.
I knelt by his side, extending both hands out to him. My left hand clamped on his mouth, while my dagger slid across his throat. His bloodshot eyes sprang open. The gourd clattered to the floor. The man’s whole body spasmed. I took my hand off his mouth and stepped back. Blood spurted out of his neck while his limbs flailed. Futilely, he swung the short sword in an arc as if fighting an invisible spirit-- I felt so ignoble having dealt him a deathblow while he slept. After a few more moments of hacking at the air, his limbs slumped down and his jaw fell open. I approached him and looked at his face. Moist eyes stared through me. I closed them with one hand.
An idea occurred to me. I grabbed his tunic and pulled his body up, knocking the stool over on its side in the process. I dragged the corpse to a corner of the hut, lay it on the floor, and started undressing it. The man’s clothes were big for me, but that meant I could keep my ringmail jerkin on underneath. I decided not to wear his sarong, since it was too long for my legs, but instead used my dagger to cut it into large strips of cloth I could wrap around my head and shoulders in the manner of the nomadic herdsmen from the northern desert--that would cover most of the blood that had soaked into the top of the tunic.
Unable to conceal the shield and untrained in the bow, I removed them.
I picked the stool off its side and sat down to rest. I still didn’t see the exit Betahz had told me about. As my eyes wondered the bricks of the floor, I noticed a square pattern under my feet. I stood, pushed the stool aside, got on my knees, and placed my hands on the square. It felt like clay, but it wasn’t brick. I rapped on it with my knuckles and discovered it sounded hollow. A trap door. I inserted my dagger into one of its crevices and tried to wedge it loose. No luck. I drove my sword in the crack and began prying the covering from the floor. Finally it came off and I threw it aside. A cool gust of foul air came up and dried the sweat around my eyes. So much for the demon’s fight Lord Betahz had predicted.
“Have some more palm wine, dear.”
“Thank you, Mala.” I raised the calabash bowl out to my friend and she filled it to the rim from the gourd she held. I downed the brew in one swallow and let the burning rise in my throat. It was good to be home again.
I’d managed to stumble through the dark catacombs for only a few hours until I’d found a passage leading to the surface. There I’d come out of a small door in the base of a statue of the Blood Shedder. There were many food offerings to the war god placed about the base and on its surface. Strangely, no one seemed to be around. The shrine was in a park, behind some shrubbery, apparently placed there so Betahz’s spies could surface and exit unnoticed. The offerings, though, indicated that the citizens knew its location. I picked up a bowl of roasted yams and a wineskin and filled my empty stomach. Some in my part of the world would say that it is bad luck to consume the offerings made to a god unless you are of the ijoko class, but I’d come to accept my master’s assumption that the only true pantheon of deities was one never worshiped by the masses.
I left the park and found myself in a street filled with revelers who danced about, yelled, sang, made love, and got drunk as if they were hidden away in a tavern or a brothel. I’d seen much in my days as a prostitute, but even I found this unnerving. Thinking about why these people were so uninhibited and overjoyed, I felt disgust. The innocent as well as the guilty had died for this celebration to transpire. I began to think there was no right side to be on. Everyone was wrong no matter their intentions.
It wasn’t till late afternoon that I finally got my bearings and could tell where in the city I was. After I sighted some familiar landmarks, it was not too many minutes before I set out in the right direction for Madame Oyoku’s brothel. Of those people I thought still alive, she certainly could be trusted.
I had to walk several blocks before I came upon the residence out of which she ran her business. It was one of the more old-fashioned style homes in my kingdom-- not a single building, but a walled-in compound with a series of structures surrounding a tree-filled courtyard; almost like a miniature of the palace grounds. I walked around the circumference of the elaborately painted mud outer wall (which always had to be reshaped after the rainy season) until I reached the gate. I composed myself and knocked on the wooden planks.
After about a minute, a small prepubescent girl opened it a crack and peered at me. “Yes?”
“Hello,” I said through my face wrappings. “I’m a friend of the madam and request an audience with her.”
The girl gave me a bewildered look. “May I know the name of her caller?”
“Syndeeka.” I doubted any rebels would know my name so I didn’t mind giving it.
“Just a moment…Sir?” She closed the gate.
It wasn’t too much later that the gate reopened and Madam Oyoku came out and regarded me. “Is it really you?”
I looked around to make sure no one was watching and then pulled down the cloth covering my mouth. Without realizing it, I’d accidentally undone my cheek bandage in the process.
The old woman gasped. “What a terrible scar!” She hugged me tightly to her. “Did you get that during the storming of the palace?”
“I’m afraid I have worse scars than that,” I said, crying.
My former employer was happy to take me in for as long as I needed to recover from my battle injuries, and she even summoned an ijoko to suture my wounds and give me drugs to ease my pain and kill any infections I might have. She let me stay in her house on the compound and had her girls keep me company when they weren’t working. They related to me news of how the rebels had dragged the charred remains of Lord Betahz and his fellow barbarians through the streets of the city, and how the populace had beaten the corpses with sticks-- I cried upon hearing this. Mala, my best friend from before my days at the palace, frequently visited me and always brought palm-wine to dampen the pain in my heart.
A light breeze rippled the zebra skin curtains of the doorway, allowing sunlight to occasionally wash out the powder blue of my room’s walls. I sat cross-legged on my bed in a pale green wrap-round shift.
Mala sat on a stool in a white dress that exposed her shoulders. A calabash gourd of palm-wine nestled in her lap. Dangling from a leather thong about her neck was a green charm packet made from a piece of palm leaf. Her bushy hair crowned a brown face too fair to be pure Ushe; it was our mutual muttishness that had always made us close.
“You’ve lost some weight in the time you’ve been gone.”
I smiled. “It’s the daily exercise regiment my master foisted onto me. I need to get back in the habit. This place is making me soft.
“You know, Mala, I’m surprised there haven’t been any riots in the city.”
“Oh, the merchants have hired mercenaries to patrol the streets so that we don’t have a total outbreak of lawlessness.”
“Kind mercenaries,” I said through clenched teeth.
“I don’t know what it was like for you when the rebels attacked. I am sorry about your master.”
“Yes, I am too.” The wine was making me dizzy, but I savored its deadening effects. “I don’t want to stay here, though.”
“Why?” Mala looked hurt.
“I cannot live amongst the people of this kingdom, having seen what I have. I want to find some place in the world less cruel.”
“You’ll never find such a place, love.”
“I’ll try. I wish to pursue my science and study the heavens. Prostitution is no longer an option for me. Not just because of my injuries or the scar on my face.”
“Oh, I know a few customers who don’t mind scarred women.”
I laughed bitterly. “Those aren’t the kind of men I wish to know. No, Mala. Astronomy is my calling. A most rational pursuit. I’m tired of seeing human beings act like wild animals. If the only way to avoid witnessing such displays is to look up at the stars, then I’ll do that.”
“You’re more cynical than I remember.” She refilled my shell and handed it to me.
“Cynical or just more realistic?” I sipped my wine and set the shell on the floor. I stood up from my bed and crossed the room to retrieve my sword from the corner where I’d left it. Returning to my spot, I sat cross-legged on the bed and slowly unsheathed the blade. “My, but this is filthy.”
Mala winced at the sight of dried blood and looked away. “I wish you wouldn’t mess with that.”
“It needs cleaning.”
“You’re not planning on keeping that thing?” Her eyes widened.
“Of course. I’m not stupid. What if I should need to defend myself? If you’re right about there being no places in the world without cruelty, then I certainly do need this.”
Mala sighed. “A good girl only needs a dagger.”
I’d not intended to stay more than a week, but found myself at the brothel five days after I’d first showed up (a week being four days by the Ushe calendar). But on the fifth day, I found reason to leave. Mala told me that one of her clients from the night before was a sailor who’d recently come ashore from a trip down the river. He and his shipmates had seen a legion marching in the direction of the city. By his estimations, the legion should be at the border of the city the following evening. When Mala related this to me, I knew what I had to do. I donned my ringmail jerkin, my gauze leggings, my boots, and my sword. Afraid of seeing Mala upset, I didn’t bother saying goodbye; I just left.
It took me most of the day to get to the outskirts of the city, but I finally reached the gate in the northern wall of Aki Gbijume. As the sun was still up, the great wooden doors were wide open. The merchants had posted a mercenary at the entrance to the city and he wore a jerkin similar to mine. He was a tall, light-brown man with blue eyes, and I realized he probably hailed from the lands immediately above the northern desert. I quietly marched to the rectangular portal where he stood with a hand on the hilt of his sword. Seeing my attire and my blue-black skin, he probably just assumed I was another mercenary in the merchants’ employ, for he gave the merest of glances when I passed through.
Outside the earthen wall, I crossed a wooden bridge over the moat (merely a dry ditch since any stagnant bodies of water would only serve as  breeding grounds for mosquitoes) and I stepped onto the dirt highway that connected the various Ushe city-states. On either side of me were palm and iroko trees, vines, and tall grasses; for the highway cut through a jungle land we call the Bush. My mother used to tell me stories of the nature spirits that haunted this wilderness and how they sometimes tormented weary travelers at night, but I no longer knew what to believe, and now I feared my fellow humans more. Eventually, I passed by a side road that I knew must lead to the docks on the river. If I ever got out of this alive, I thought, I might consider going down to those docks and boarding a ship to somewhere else. But now I had more pressing concerns.
Ahead, the road curved in a bend masked by trees. My feet were aching  from the tiring journey I’d made from Madame Oyoku’s brothel, so I decided to sit cross-legged in the middle of the highway and rest. I would need my strength soon enough and the legion would have to come this way before they arrived at the city.
The sun had gone below the horizon and its last rays tinged the swaying palm fronds with gold. But for the cries of birds, everything was silent. I took a series of slow, deep breaths and watched the sky turn a darker shade of blue. The first stars materialized and the crickets began their mating calls. After a while, a low thumping was added to the insects’ chiring. It grew louder and became more distinct. Drums. They tattooed out complex polyrhythms as they neared. My heartbeat melded with the percussion.
I shakily stood and focused my mind.
A light appeared on some of the trees where the road curved. It grew in intensity, as did the sound of the drums. Then the legion marched into view. They turned round the bend in the road and approached me. At the front of the procession rode a masked Govewda on horseback, his advisors on either side of him. Framing the trio in flickering light were two torchbearers. From behind them came a line of drummers pounding the skins of their instruments. Then row upon row of warriors followed like the flanks of some vast, leathery serpent.
I placed my hand on the hilt of my sword.
Govewda notice me and raised a hand. The procession immediately halted. He rode forward and stopped his horse a hand’s breadth from me. “You survived then.” He reached a gloved hand down and caressed my check, running his thumb across the scar. “Apparently not without some damage.”
“I cannot say the same for my master.”
“My apologies.” He removed his hand. “And my father?”
Govewda snorted. “Damned fool! He could have escaped if he’d wanted to. It was that insane barbarian code of his. I didn’t believe in this Corpse Season until one of my father’s messengers stumbled into my court with news of the attack. I assume my mother is in good health, though certainly not in good spirits.”
I took a breath.
“No. She’s also dead. I saw her die.”
Govewda said nothing, but his gloved hands slowly pulled off his mask. Jade eyes gave a dead stare.
“I tried to save her,” I continued. “She ran from me, though, and was killed by a mob.”
Govewda slid off his horse. Staggering to the side of the road, he dropped his mask and began retching. He fell to his knees and vomited. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and covered his eyes.
I ran to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Govewda. I did my best to save her.”
He whimpered. “Why didn’t that savage get her to safety?”
“He tried to. But she didn’t want to leave him.”
Govewda cast a hard glance at me. “She was the only truly good person in the world. Even you’re not as good as she was.” He looked into the sky, his mouth agape. “Innocence is dead.”
“That’s not true. I have to believe there’s still good in the world. I know there is.”
“I’ll avenge her.”
“Please be cautious. No more innocent should die.”
He stood and looked me in the eye. “That’s not possible.”
His hands squeezed my arms.
“Don’t do anything rash. Think of what your mother stood for.”
He smiled a hollow smile. “Her world is gone. It wasn’t superstition, was it?”
I inhaled with shuddering lungs. “We make of life what we will. There are things we don’t have control over…but we can still make decisions. Don’t succumb to this folktale.”
Govewda shook me gently. “I have a destiny to fulfill. It is the will of the Blood Shedder.”
“If you believe that, then you must also believe he allowed your mother to die. Why would you serve such a being? People subscribed to this notion of destiny and killed her. This isn’t a notion you should believe in.”
He released me and walked to his men.
“Listen to me,” he called to them. “The astronomer’s apprentice brings us terrible information. My father, the Great Warlord, has been slain by his own people.” Govewda took the reins of his horse from one of his advisors. “We must not let this evil deed go unpunished. All the people of that place, with the exception of her”-- he pointed to me-- “are responsible for this travesty. Collectively, they have defied the will of the gods.” He placed a boot in a stirrup and swung up on his mount. “Death then is their reward.”
“Govewda, no!”
His eyes stayed on his soldiers. “No one in that city deserves mercy. Not one of them is to be left alive.”
I unsheathed my sword. “My lord, get off that beast and fight!”
Govewda looked at me and smirked. “You wish to fight me?” He pulled out his own steel. “Wasn’t your last humiliation enough?”
“These are my terms. If you can defeat me, then do as you would. But if I defeat you, you must turn back and go home to your own kingdom.”
He dropped to the road and approached me.
I held up my sword in a defensive stance. He circled me, his blade ready. I lunged at him and he parried my attack. Sparks flew off our clashing steel. I pulled back and circled with him. We both stepped carefully, ready for the other’s attack. He swung in an upward thrust and my sword barely deflected his. We stayed locked for a few seconds, and then I withdrew. He lunged again, but this time with a greater thrust from his entire body. My boots slid on dirt, yet I still managed to keep my footing.
“I’m getting tired of this,” he said. His free hand signed something.
A lancing pain shot through my left calf. My eyes darted to it and I saw an arrow shaft protruding from my limb. I cried out.
Govewda stabbed his sword into the ground. “Don’t worry. I won’t let them kill you. Unless you persist.” He stepped up to me and yanked the arrow out of my leg. Blood spilled from it and I moaned in agony.
“Why, why did you cheat? There is no honor in these actions.” I re-sheathed my steel and grasped my wounded leg.
Govewda frowned at me.“Honor is lost now.”
He walked back to his horse, remounted it, and raised his sword up. To his soldiers he cried: “Tonight is the night of vengeance. We fulfill the prophecies.”
He waved his sword before him and set his horse in a trot.
The legion proceeded.
I ran to the edge of the road to get out of their path. Tired, defeated, and angry, I sat down on the grass and watched them march. Where is there loyalty? I wondered. Many of them had friends and loved ones in the city. I raised my head till I could no longer see the soldiers.
There were the stars glowing against the black of the night. They were warm and calm and silent. Movements would and had repeated with endless uniformity for thousands of years: cycles within cycles. And down below them for thousands of years past and thousands of years to come, a gibbering, violent, cruel, unreasoning creature called Man looked to them for guidance. Lived by them and died by them and set his life to them and murdered and destroyed, and thought he was their reflection.
I wept all night. Eventually, I fell asleep. When I woke, the sun was beginning to rise. The mask of the Blood Shedder lay in the road.
I sighed.
We are such fools.

Submitted: December 20, 2021

© Copyright 2023 Thomas LaHomme. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:



Interesting story and good cover

Tue, February 22nd, 2022 7:46pm


Thanks so much for reading my story. I'm glad you liked it and the cover illustration I did. Much appreciated.

Tue, February 22nd, 2022 4:03pm

Facebook Comments

More Fantasy Short Stories

Boosted Content from Premium Members

Short Story / Horror

Poem / Poetry

Book / Religion and Spirituality

Short Story / Mystery and Crime

Other Content by Thomas LaHomme