Missing Pieces: A Stone of the Heart
This story originally appeared in Myth Makers Presents 4: Jade as Perfect Beauty. Modified, it appeared in the fan charity anthology Missing Pieces
By James Bow and Erin Noteboom
“Once upon a time, the people of Kir-ithnan were like cats. They lived only a little while, and then they died.”
“Is this a true story?” said Osshe, skeptical.
“It is. But it happened a long time ago.”
“They died? Like cats?”
“Like all animals. But the people of Kir-ithnan didn’t want to die. And they were very clever people. They learned to hold the tiniest parts of themselves very still, so that Death could not see them.”
“Did it work?”
? ? ?
In the last days of Osshe, the one-thousand, five-hundred and thirty-second Selah of the line, a magician came to Kir-ithnan, the Court Changeless.
Osshe was having tea with her grandmama when the demons dragged the man past the door, down the hall outside her sitting room. His boot heels and the demon’s armour clattered like the kitchen people doing dishes. Osshe had never seen anyone struggle, and she got up smoothly from her cushion and came to the door. The statue she was dining with did not move.
“Hold,” she said. The demons stopped, looking at her with their blank and glittery eyes.
A man dressed in black twisted free. His elbows were tied together behind him. He fell, got up. His eyes flashed at her an instant, then he knelt and cast his gaze down. His hair was cut short, neither shorn like the kitchen people’s, nor long like the courtiers’, the only two styles she had seen. It was a browny-black, traced with white as if salt spray had dried in it. His bow was neither humble nor terrified.
A woman walked around the demons, her stiff silks hissing. She inclined her head fractionally at Osshe and pushed the stranger into a deeper kowtow. “An intruder, Selah. Caught in the laboratory. The matter is in hand.”
“An intruder, Kishon?” repeated Osshe. “Not of the Court?”
“That is what I meant by ‘intruder,’ Selah Osshe,” Kishon’s eyes rode the edge of meeting Osshe’s. “Resume,” she snapped. The demons stirred, lifting their knuckles from the floor, their armour rattling.
“Override,” said Osshe. One of the demons made a small, unhappy sound in its confusion, shifting on its great flat feet, but Osshe ignored this. She stepped towards the stranger. “What is your name?”
“I have nothing but what you give me,” he said. Daring, he looked up and into her eyes.
“The matter is in hand, Osshe.” repeated Kishon.
“Selah Osshe. You have to call me Selah,” said Osshe. She looked back at the stranger. His eyes were strange—nearly golden, like an animal’s eyes, and round. “Ephah-Etam,” she decided. “Blackbird.”
“Carrion crow,” said Kishon.
“Selah Osshe,” he said. “You give me my name. Give me my life.”
“Selah,” said Kishon, her fingers tight and straight in the folds of her jade-green robe. “This matter is in hand.”
“Dismiss,” said Osshe. The demons bowed as much as their stooped bodies could, then shuffled down the hallway. Their painted armour gleamed in the torchlight, the points of the shoulders swaying from side to side as they walked. “Unbind him,” Osshe said.
“Selah,” said Kishon, again, her fingers twisting. Osshe looked at her and she obeyed, pulling a little knife from somewhere in her robes. The stranger gasped in air and fell forward onto his hands.
Osshe said, “I give you your life.”
“Thank you, Selah,” he said, and sat up.
“Selah Osshe,” said Kishon, “He has seen too much to leave.”
“You will find him a place here,” Osshe said. “What can you do, Blackbird?”
“I am a scientist,” the stranger replied, his gaze level.
“A what?” She frowned at him. “I am divine. You must not look at me.”
He bowed his head. “A scientist, Selah.”
“Harasha,” Kishon translated. “A — magician.”
“A jester?” said Osshe.
He blinked. There was nothing the least clownish about him. Even with his arms pinned, he had been delicately dangerous, like a sword master. “Yes, Selah,” he said. “I can be a jester.”
“Good,” she said, and turned from them.
“Selah Osshe,” he called after her. Kishon cuffed him across the face, her nails leaving long red trails.
Osshe turned back. “Yes, jester?”
“A riddle from your jester: why can’t you see your eyes?”
Kishon watched Osshe walk through the wall. The sealfield flickered like a candle over the grey stones of the corridor. Water dripped from the ceiling and plinked into a kettle set on the floor. “Bolt,” said Kishon, “and I’ll have you killed.”
The man named Blackbird pulled his hand away from his scratches and made a suave, bloody shrug with it. “Better know the answer to the riddle, then.”
? ? ?
Osshe knelt before the statue which was enshrined in her room. She was supposed to be looking down, but she was looking up, at the statue. It was of a girl not much older than she, dressed in the elaborate robes of a Selah. The stone was kneeling as Osshe was supposed to be kneeling with perfect calm, her hands on her knees, her face downturned. Ever detail of the statue was perfect, from the embroidered genetic codes of the outer robe to the long separate eyelashes. “Pekah,” she said. “Why can’t I see my eyes?”
“You have no mirror, Osshe,” said Pekah. She paused from clearing the tea stuffs and knelt before the child. She widened her warm eyes. “See them now?”
“Two of me,” Osshe giggled. Then she pushed past Pekah and climbed onto the statue’s pedestal. She poked the statue-girl in the cheek where the jade — so pure it was nearly white — seemed to blush a dappled green. “I mean my grandmama. She was me.”
“Many selves ago, Osshe,” Pekah replied. “Come get dressed now. There’s a pilgrimage coming to see you.”
“So why can’t I see her eyes?” Osshe peered close at the statue’s face. Between the lashes, the statue-girl’s eyes were smooth as eggs.
“You are too big to climb around like a little monkey,” said Pekah, lifting her down and carrying her, squealing, across to her bed. She drew the screen closed around the shrine. “And you are too old to call her grandmama. You understand what you are.”
“Who passes into the stone. Who carries the whole world’s death from life to life.”
“Why do you look at me? No one else can look at me.”
“How could I get you dressed if I couldn’t look at you, Osshe? I’d polish the hair off your head.”
Osshe giggled and shucked her common robes. “You’d polish my eyebrows off. You’d polish my nose off!”
“You’d be a funny-looking statue then!” Pekah put a dot of the polish on the end of her nose. The cream spread out, covering the tiny wrinkles and pores until Osshe’s skin was smooth as polished stone.
? ? ?
The pilgrims were from the guild of roadwalkers, who tended the lightingbug globes and shoveled gravel into the bogholes on the long roads. They smelled of lighting bug pheromones and brackish bogwater. The silk banners of their guild hung limp on their poles.
Osshe knelt, her hands on her knees and her face modestly downturned, still as a statue among the statues in the courtyard of the Court Changeless — the heart of the heart of the world, through which the axis of the planet passed. The place was called the Garden of the Chosen, though nothing grew there except the sleeping roses — white flowers with open blossoms as big as a children’s faces. Their tangled briars made a soft, high mound of the toppled outer walls.
For nearly an hour, no one had moved. The polar sun threw the shadows of the statues and the pilgrims across the subtle waves of stones. The pilgrims shifted restlessly, and lightingbugs flapped around their reverent hands. Osshe let only her eyes move. With the polish on her skin and the colourfield over her, she could not be told from the statues kneeling in the courtyard.
Or the workers could not tell. Kishon, who knew the pattern of the statues, cast sharp glances toward her, and Blackbird, unseen in the shadow of one toppled wall, was looking right at her.
At last Kishon stood and climbed the dais in the center of the courtyard. The workers stirred in relief. A few rose brought forward their offering of food and hand-tools, a new colony of lightingbugs in a murmuring box. “For your lives you are indebted,” said Kishon, “and by this gift you make a payment. In the name of the Selah, I thank you.”
“The Selah,” the pilgrims echoed. Osshe stood. The colourfield fell away from her, but the living moonglow color of her skin was made strange by its stony polish. And strange, too, was her walk. She walked as a statue might walk, slowly, holding points of balance far longer than looked possible. She hoped someone might touch her — a sewing woman had reached, just last month, to brush the hem of her robe. But today the walker nearest her leaned away, making a warding sign inside his praying hands. Osshe climbed the dais and knelt back down in front of Kishon. “For your lives you are indebted,” she said. Her lips barely moved. “But the debt is not recalled. You are welcome. Go in peace.”
The pilgrims stood, groaning. They milled around. Kitchen people appeared, bearing tea and drugs in tiny jade cups. The walkers circled, some leaving offerings for particular statues. (The offerings, Osshe knew, were claimed by cats and rats.) A few climbed the dais shyly, laying fruit and even a bag of sweets before her. The polar shadows had stretched across the garden of the chosen by the time the pilgrimage came together beneath its banners and walked out the gap in the wall that was the gate of the Court Changeless.
When they were out of sight, Osshe pocketed the sweets. Kishon snapped her fingers, bringing garden people to rake the stones, fetchers to furl the flags, kitchen people to clear the cups, and Pekah to handle Osshe.
“Why do I have to accept all of their offerings?” Osshe asked.
“You are the Selah,” Pekah replied. “It is because of you that they have their long life.”
“But it is boring,” Osshe said, with the seriousness only a child can manage. “I hate it. May I see my Blackbird, now?”
Pekah let slip a rare expression of discomfort. She kept herself out of Osshe’s view. “Are you sure that is wise, Selah Osshe?”
“He is my jester,” said Osshe. “I will see him.”
Pekah hesitated a moment longer, but Kishon’s sharp eyes picked Ephah-Etam out of the shadows. Her glare pinned him like a search light, but a smile was the only indication he gave of having seen her. He walked to the foot of the steps and kowtowed before the demons forced him to. He got to his feet and kept his gaze just out of eye-contact.
Most of the court people wore simple robes in the colours of jade — creamy greens, pinks, and yellows. He wore a black robe of slightly foreign style over his alien clothes, embroidered over with black thread patterned like feathers. Red and yellow thread-feathers capped his shoulders. The scratches on his face had not healed.
“Where did you get your robe?” said Osshe. “Did you make it by magic?”
“I have a magic box,” he said. “Bigger on the inside than the outside, and full of wonderful things. I can take you to see it, if you wish.”
“Outside the court?” asked Osshe.
“The Selah belongs in Kir-ithnan,” said Kishon. “Certainly you will take her nowhere.” She looked him up and down. “Remove your gloves and…” she gestured at his shoes, at a loss for the word. “The Court Changeless is sacred ground. Or did you not know that.”
Etam tucked his gloves into the sash of his robe and dropped lithely to sit beside Osshe, his long legs dangling. He undid his shoelaces. “My dear Selah,” said her Blackbird. “How may I be of service?”
“What is the answer to the riddle you gave me?” asked Osshe.
“Ah, are you sure you want me to answer that, Selah Osshe?” asked Etam.
“What do you mean?” Osshe’s eyes narrowed. “Do you yourself not know the answer?”
“I could answer the question, yes,” Etam replied. “But I think you already know the answer yourself. And that, Selah, is what makes the riddle worthwhile.”
Kishon took a step forward. Etam gave no indication of being aware of her movement, but quickly changed the subject. “Selah, you have given me my life to be your jester. I assume that you did not call me here simply to answer one riddle. How else may I entertain you?”
A repair mouse had scurried out and was trying to bind two ends of the shoelaces together. Its long-fingered little hands worried at the string. Etam was watching the mouse so closely Osshe thought he might pounce. She laughed. “You are like a cat, do you know that? Still partly wild. I think I made a mistake in calling you Blackbird, but it sounds better.” She bolted to her feet. “Can you show me some magic?”
Etam paused, stroking his neat beard. Then he stood. Kishon tensed as he raised his hands and showed his empty palms, and then reached into the sleeve of his robe.
He pulled out a black cloth. At first, Osshe thought that it was a handkerchief, but there was too much fabric for that. Etam pulled out some more, until it was longer than a scarf, and longer still. The black cloth looped over his hand again and again, Etam kept pulling, as Osshe giggled at the sight.
Finally, he pulled out the last of the impossibly long cloth. He then began to ball it into the center of his clenched fist, making all of it disappear. When it was all in his hand, he slapped his wrist — and was holding a black kitten with one white sock by the scruff. He set it before Osshe.
Osshe laughed, delighted, and clapped. “Wonderful!” The kitten took two tottering steps and fell over. “What’s wrong with it?” asked Osshe. “Is it dead? Can you bring it back to life?”
He lifted the little animal and set it in her lap. “I took it from the roses,” he said. “It is only sleeping.”
“You are a magician!” she exclaimed.
“I am unworthy of your praise, Selah,” said Etam, bowing low. “I am but a single magician here, amongst many of greater ability.” Deep in his bow, he turned his head, and he looked Kishon in the eyes.
Kishon turned on her heel and left the Garden.
“What is wrong with Kishon?” Osshe asked.
“I think she’s the only one who can answer that.”
“Do you speak in anything but riddles?” asked Osshe.
Etam’s gaze met hers. “I think the truth is plain for all to see. We only see riddles because we’re blinder than the statues around us. Here is another riddle, Selah, to ponder alongside the first. How many must benefit to justify the suffering of one?”
? ? ?
Osshe knelt, frozen to the spot. Her arms were outstretched, palms down, and her head was bowed forward. For several minutes, she didn’t move. Then, without warning, she broke her position, gracefully standing up, showing no sign of stiffness. She tilted her head back and raised her hands slightly, palms up, offering benediction. Then she froze again.
“How am I doing?” she asked, her lips hardly moving.
“Very well, Selah.” Pekah replied. “Be careful about your lips, though. Statues smiles are very prim; their tongues should never flap in the wind.”
Osshe giggled. Her body shuddered once, and then she brought it under control. “How is Blackbird? I wish to see him again after these exercises are done.”
For a moment, there was silence. Then came the reply: “I don’t think you should associate with this stranger as often as you’re doing.”
“I am the Selah. I am Divine,” said Osshe. “You cannot deny me my wishes.”
Pekah looked away. “That is true, Selah.”
“And, yet, you wouldn’t allow the demons to let me leave this place,” said Osshe.
“You were younger then,” said Pekah. “You didn’t understand your station. We had to protect you from your own childish ways.”
“Am I being childish, now?” asked Osshe.
Pekah didn’t reply.
Osshe turned her head towards Pekah, adding a daring twist to her stance. She froze again, hardly blinking as she stared at her courtier. “You may speak freely,” she prompted. Her lips hardly moved.
Pekah hesitated. Finally, she said, “We do not know why this stranger is here. He is not one of us. We can’t trust him.”
“For what purpose could this stranger be here?” asked Osshe. “There is nothing he can steal, and the demons will ensure that he does no harm.”
“But you are the Selah,” said Pekah. “You are the only reason he could be here.”
“And what is wrong with that? Don’t the pilgrims come here to see me as well?”
Pekah’s frown hardened with frustration. For a while, no one said anything.
Osshe moved her head slightly, cocking it to one side and fixing Pekah with a stern glare. In this statue form, she said, “Summon him.”
Pekah turned and nodded to the demons, who left the room.
Minutes later, Etam returned, with his charming smile and his calculating eyes. They blinked in astonishment as he came upon Osshe, still standing motionless in a position that he knew he couldn’t maintain for nearly as long. It was the first time Osshe had seen him surprised.
“Selah Osshe,” he said, finally. “What are you doing?”
“Practicing,” said Osshe, with the ability of a ventriloquist.
Etam opened his mouth and took breath to speak. Then he stood speechless for a moment before closing his mouth again. Pekah watched him closely.
Osshe stepped from her position, with the suddenness of a statue coming to life. “I’m done.”
“Ah,” said Etam, now composed. “For what have you summoned me, Selah?”
“Your first riddle,” she said. She paused to consider before saying, “I can not see my eyes because I am looking out from them. I could look into a mirror, but I would not see my eyes, only their reflection. I can not see what I am seeing with. Is that the answer?”
Etam raised his eyebrows. “Yes, that’s one of the possible answers. We can not see the truth that we are a part of.”
“One of the answers?” asked Osshe. “What are the others?”
“Perhaps you will discover them yourself someday, Selah. Is there anything else?”
Osshe went over to a table and from beneath it, pulled out a hexagonal checkerboard with nine hexagons on each side. Onto the board, she poured out a box full of jade and amber pieces, some resembling rooks, some resembling knights and others resembling more modern implements of war. “I want you to play Candace-Medan with me, Blackbird.”
“Ah,” said Etam. “I fear that I have never played this before. I’ve played something similar; I think perhaps a predecessor of this game, but I don’t know the rules to Candace-Medan.”
Etam watched as Osshe explained how each piece moved and how they captured other pieces. Then she set up the pieces on the board, and the two played a practice game. By the time it was over, the stranger was ready. They set up the pieces again, and Osshe moved first.
As the play progressed, and the strategies developed, Etam would often look up, studying Osshe, plotting his next moves outside of the game. Osshe’s attention was fully fixed on the game board.
“Have you played long?” asked Etam.
“Kishon taught me when I was six.” Osshe replied.
“Have you been at the court that long?”
“I have been Selah all this life,” Osshe replied matter-of-factly. “and I was found very young. In a city called Ush. I like to play, but Kishon never has time, and Pekah doesn’t understand the rules.”
“Are you not… lonely? … bored? Do you miss your family?”
“I am the Selah,” Osshe replied. “I have no family.”
“Candace-Enos,” said Osshe, toppling Etam’s amber queen with her rook. “You have fallen.”
Etam blinked and peered at the board. He hadn’t even seen the beginnings of the attack that had slipped past his defense and brought him down. He calculated the strategies behind Osshe’s moves, and raised an eyebrow at the strength of them. “Brilliant.”
He leaned forward and set up the pieces again. This time, he paid his full attention to the board. The game took longer. Osshe paused to consider her moves at times but, in the end, she brought forward her squadron leader triumphantly and toppled the amber queen.
“Candace-Enos,” she said with a giggle. “You have fallen.”
The stranger sat back in his chair in shock. Osshe had punctured his carefully crafted defenses and moved in for the kill. When he ran over Osshe’s moves and calculated the strategy behind him, the numbers in his head danced. “Brilliant,” he muttered again.
He leaned forward and set up the pieces one more time. “Osshe, would you be interested in something more challenging?”
Osshe perked up.
Etam placed the pieces on the board in a mid-game setup. “From this position, could you make Candace-Enos in…” he thought a moment. “twenty moves?”
Osshe peered at the board. Then a smile crept over her face and she wagged her head affirmative.
“You move first,” said Etam.
Osshe moved. Etam countered. “One,” he said.
They moved again, jade pushing forward, amber pulling back. “Two,” said Etam.
The game progressed. Osshe’s forces surrounded the stranger’s, who had pulled back into an impenetrable shell. Each time, the stranger called out the number of moves made. “Nine,” he said.
Osshe moved. Etam counter-moved. “Ten.”
“Candace-Enos,” said Osshe, toppling the amber queen with her general. “You have fallen.”
The stranger sat back in his seat, his eyes wide. “My word,” he breathed.
Osshe sat back, a satisfied smile on her face. “You play well. You may go, now. In two hours’ time, you shall have tea with me and grandmama.”
The stranger took a moment to hear her. “I see,” he said, finally, standing up. He walked in a daze as Pekah led him into the arms of the lacquered demons, which took him away. Pekah nodded respectfully at Osshe, and then followed the prisoner.
? ? ?
The kitten purred as Osshe gently tickled it under its chin. She held it in her lap when Etam was brought into the room. The stranger bowed low. “I must say, you humble me with your abilities at Candace-Medan, Selah Osshe. I hope we may play again soon sometime.”
“Maybe,” Osshe replied. “But first, we shall have tea. Sit.” She indicated a cushion across a table between them, loaded with tea stuffs.
In her arms, the cat hissed and spat, and the stranger stood back. Osshe stared at the cat, perplexed. “Gispa!” She had to lunge to grab the cat before it sprang. She held it tightly while it twisted to sink its milk teeth into Etam.
“Pekah!” Osshe called. Her courtier stepped forward and Osshe placed the spitting cat in her arms. “Take him away.”
Pekah bowed, and placed the cat in the far corner of the room. There, out of sight of the stranger and Osshe, she smiled, and fed the cat a small delicacy from off the shrine offering.
“I thought you were like a cat — but the cat does not like you.” Osshe grinned at the pun.
Etam chuckled. “The thing to remember about cats, my dear Selah, is that they are only pretending to be tame. They — understand the benefits of the situation. But at heart, they are solitary.”
Etam knelt, carefully, across from Osshe. Pekah returned and poured out the tea. After first taking a sip herself, she nodded at Osshe, and the meal began.
As they ate, Etam looked around, curious. Finally, he said, “May I ask you something, Selah?”
“You said that we would be having tea with your grandmother. Is she here?”
“Yes,” Osshe replied. “She is here.”
“Is she Pekah?” he asked, perplexed.
“No!” Osshe laughed. “She is to your right.”
Etam looked to his right. “This statue is your grandmother?” he said.
“I call her that,” said Osshe. “But she is really me.”
“She is you?” he repeated.
“All of the statues are me. I am the Selah. I carry my people’s mortality from life to life.”
“As every one of us knows,” said Pekah.
“But, Pekah, I never claimed to be one of you.” Etam poured tea delicately and offered the maid a cup.
The motion bared his outstretched arm.
“What happened to you?” Pekah reached out and took Etam’s hand before he could pull it back. She pushed up the sleeve, and gasped in shock.
From where she sat, Osshe’s eyes widened in horror.
The stranger’s skin was flaking above the wrist. It looked like long-fallen leaves, falling apart. “What is wrong?”
Etam pulled his hand away and his sleeve down. “I’m… ill,” he replied, his gaze dropping further from her eyes.
A hissing sound distracted Osshe’s attention. She looked to the floor, and saw that the kitten had crossed the room to them and was glaring at Etam. It hissed, and lunged, claws catching at Etam’s wrist. The jester let out a cry of pain.
Alarmed, Osshe grabbed at the cat, only to cry out as the claws drew red trails on the back of her hand.
The demons and Pekah moved forward immediately, knocking the cat away, and tending to Osshe. Osshe was rapidly recovering, and telling the demons that it was only a scratch. The stranger sat, forgotten.
He stared down at the floor where two droplets of blood lay. One of them was his. The other changed color before his eyes, going from red to a dappled green within seconds.
Etam picked up the green blob, which had now solidified into a lump of jade that he was able to roll between his fingers.
? ? ?
“Ah, Kishon,” said the man called Ephah-Etam, was the chatelaine came stalking through the laboratory doors. “I thought you’d find me. You’re about five minutes late.” He wore a close-seer along one eyebrow. Kishon could see the magnified jade droplet spin on the red-veined membrane that covered his eye. He stroked the tiny creature and it curled into his palm.
“How did you get here? Did every guard forget about you.”
“Most did. It was not difficult to make the others forget. Does that surprise you?”
Kishon shook her head. “No.”
“Does that frighten you?”
Ephah-Etam looked up and smiled like a fox, clever and predatory. “Liar. You know what I am.”
“Why don’t you admit it, yourself.”
“I am a scientist,” the stranger replied.
“Ah,” said Kishon, smiling grimly.
“Let us talk, as one scientist to another.” He barked with laughter to match his smile. “You ought to see your face, Kishon. Hearing the word—you see the ghost of the friend you murdered. I’ve read your papers.”
“Yes. I found the earliest ones unindexed in the humanspace archives, forgotten as the unremembered dead. Forgotten as the colony that cut itself off to keep its secret. So I found the colony. Found the next set of papers. Found how you rewrote the cellular aging mechanism. The Juhtah. The stretching. The retroviruses you used to do the recoding. The Secacah Syndrome—children becoming stone at puberty. The phenotypic marker was yours, I think.” He tapped at the corner of his eye with a decaying finger. “A nice piece of genetic engineering, though some might say the transparent iris was—”
“—an attribute of a god,” Kishon said.
“Ah. It was planned. Ruthless. Clever. We could help each other, Kishon. You see, I’m a student of immortality. Though a mere dilettante in the presence of a master like yourself.” He showed his teeth to tell her she’d missed a joke. “Mine is a—personal interest.”
Etam clapped his hands together and threw the resulting skin into the air like a magician. “Horribly,” he said, and grinned.
“You want the secret of immortality.”
“Got it in one.”
Kishon bared her teeth. “Take it from the archive.”
“I tried. The remembering machines are insane. All immortal things go insane eventually, I suspect. One loses too much.”
“Why should I help you.”
“To get rid of me, of course. The balance of power here is delicate, Kishon. Twenty thousand years of grief and anger, twenty thousand years of dead children, all held up in the arch of a pretty religion. A delicate structure. And I can be—disruptive.”
“The dead are rarely disruptive.”
“On the contrary, Kishon. The dead are powerful. Osshe is the keystone of the arch above your head. Do you not think that my death would—perturb her?”
“Osshe is twelve, Etam. How long can she protect you?”
His eyes flared and flickered. “You mean she will—how do you put it?—pass into the stone.”
“No pretty words, Blackbird. She will die. And I assure you, she is no god. She will not protect you then.”
“You don’t believe in the divinity of the Selah.”
“I created it. How should I believe in it?”
“Then let me take Osshe with me. Let me go.”
“You want to use her as a genetic subject. The exception that shows the rule. You will find a jade statue hard to test.”
“I can save her life.”
“It cannot be done. The Juhtah would be uncoded. The death could spread to the general population.”
“Let it,” said the stranger with a shrug. “You are twenty-thousand years old, Kishon, and every year was stolen from a child like Osshe. You are a vampire. It is time for this to end.”
“It cannot end. Osshe will turn to stone. Others will follow and also turn to stone. It is the price for the life of a world. It is our greatest accomplishment. Should it be thrown away because a single girl suffers?”
“The riddle again.” Slowly, he looked past her. “Have you solved this one, Osshe?”
Kishon whirled around, and stared at Osshe in shock. She glanced back at the stranger, and glowered at his satisfied smile.
Osshe backed away, staring hard at Kishon. Then she turned and bolted for her room.
“Selah!” Kishon shouted, rushing to the door, but Osshe was already out of sight.
“I rather like being an oracle,” said Etam. “Riddle me this, Kishon. What gods are real but the ones we make ourselves? And what do you worship but living death?”
“Riddle me this,” Kishon spat, then whistled. Two lacquered demons lurched into view. “Kishon was not the name on those papers. Do you know what it means, Blackbird?”
In the demon’s arms, Etam smiled, and selected the obscurer meaning. “The twisted. You wanted eternal youth, but you should see your eyes.”
“It means Snarer of Birds. I’ve caught you. I don’t have to kill you. I only have to let you die.”
“Haven’t you surrounded yourself in enough death?”
“I see your eyes.” Kishon laughed bitterly. “Have you?”
“Enough.” said the stranger. He raised his hands, surrendering to the demons, and stepped ahead of them, leaving them to follow as he walked back to his cell.
? ? ?
Osshe woke, and found she was blind.
“Why can’t you see your eyes, Osshe?” Blackbird’s voice. She tried to look toward it, but could not.
She was kneeling, still as on her most perfect days. The stillness seemed to be a skin she was wearing, the way cold can feel like gloves and stockings. She tried to make her hands shiver, just a little, not enough to draw Kishon’s sharp eye, but enough to bring her skin back to her. She could not. Kishon was not there. There were no pilgrims, no courtiers, just her, trapped in the stillness that crept in from her own skin.
Osshe jerked out of bed, really awake this time. She passed her tiny, empty room, restless, aimless, touching things to prove her fingers still worked, walking to prove she could move. She stopped a moment before the shrine. The stone girl gazed quietly down at her. Shivering, Osshe pulled on her heavy outer robe, pattered out of her room and into the corridor beyond.
? ? ?
The Garden of the Choosen was lit only by the moon, rising, red as blood. Osshe could just make out each statue. The blowing, twisting shadows of the roses danced over the intricate patterns of the stone. The garden and the frozen girls seemed to shift, restless. Osshe swallowed.
She made her way to the first statue, and pulled herself onto the plinth, bringing her level with the girl’s face and eyes. Like the others, they were as smooth and as featureless as eggs. She let herself down and moved to the next statue. Though the girl knelt perfectly, her eyes were very wide, and quite blank.
Osshe wandered from one statue. Her step, which had been silent, began to raise a little clatter as the loose round stones shifted underfoot.
She had been in this place more times than she could count all her life. She had become so used to the statues, that she hardly saw them anymore. Now that she looked at every one. Their faces, each, were as different as any set of faces might be. All girls, all about her age, all kneeling, all— She had her hair done in the style they wore, every day. She wore the robes they wore, every day. She knelt as they did, every day. She had the dream they were having—
Osshe stumbled over a wave of stone, caught herself on the rough plinth of the nearest statue. She looked up into the stone girl’s eyes. Like the rest, the eyes had no retina or pupil. The girl was staring blindly forward with her hand on her chest, and her mouth open as if to speak. Osshe reached up, and carefully inserted her fingers into the open mouth. The fingertips ran along the perfect set of teeth, the bumps of the gum-line, and over and under the solid tongue, raised as if the girl was caught at the last, taking a final breath.
She took her hand out, spooked by the sudden thought that the mouth could close on her hand.
The tunic of the statue was crafted in loving detail, right down to a slight part between the buttons, where the fabric had been stretched. Osshe poked her fingers inside, and ran them along the girl’s stomach. Hidden from view was the belly button.
Osshe pulled her hand from the tunic, and stepped back.
She smelled the rotten-sweet lighting-bug pheromones and she jerked to hide—but the bugs’ soft bodies had already made a glow-green ring in the air. At the center of the cone stood Blackbird.
“Kishon keeps you under guard,” said Osshe. Her voice creaked a little, for her mouth was dry.
“I chose to escape,” replied the stranger. “Does that surprise you?”
“No,” she said.
“Does that frighten you?”
Osshe took a step away from the statue. “No,” she said.
“But it doesn’t,” Osshe replied. “Why are you here?”
The stranger paused. For a moment, the red shadows shifted weirdly over his still, careful face. Finally, he said, “to tell you the truth.”
“The truth about what?”
“You. This place. Everything. Even me.”
“What about you?” asked Osshe.
He paused again. “I am…” he stumbled. “I am known as…” He straightened himself up, and looked away from her gaze. “I call myself the Master.”
“The master of what?” Osshe said.
His chuckle was brief. “At the moment, very little.”
“That tells me very little.”
“But that is the truth about me,” the Master replied.
“And the truth about me?”
The Master paused. She noticed that he was holding his arm, the one that was flaking and mottled, gingerly, as though it hurt, but had done so for so long that the gesture was an empty habit. “You don’t have to die.”
“I have not died. I have passed from life to life, carrying my people’s mortality — “
“I think you know that’s not true,” the Master cut in. “You are a little girl affected by a syndrome. You heard Kishon say so herself.”
“I don’t believe her. And I don’t believe you. I am the Selah. That is the truth.”
“Let me show you the truth.” said the Master.
He stepped up to her and she stepped back against the statue’s base, then frowned, leaning forward as he knelt in front of her, not in homage, but searching for something in the ground. “It took me some time to find this,” he said. “I knew it had to be here, and after I thought about it, I knew were it had to be. But still, it took — ah, here!” he said, and rose, holding in his hand one of the stones. It seemed quite ordinary to her, except that it was round as the moon. As he held it, it began to glow.
“What are you doing?” she said. “Is it magic?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s necromancy.”
And as he spoke, the grand gave way under them, stretching down like a rubber sheet till they stood on the floor of a cavern. A little light trickled down the sides of the funnel of loose stone that the patch of garden had become.
The Master dropped the stone he’s picked up. The click of its fall echoed around them, and the ground slipped up.
Osshe knew it was only a sealfield, but it was hard not to trust her eyes, which said that the stones were swallowing them up. When it reached her neck she tilted her head up and closed her eyes. The seal field ran up her face and to the end of her nose — it felt just like walking into a room. She opened her eyes. With the illusion of ground above them, it was entirely dark.
“Wait,” said the Master. He snapped his pheromone rod in half and threw the pieces whirling through the air. The lightingbugs swarmed, filling the room with crawling light.
Osshe gasped. It was no wonder why the room sounded as big as the Garden of the Chosen — it was its mirror image. She was standing on the same type of steps leading to the same dais upon which she received visitors in the courtyard. The cave was the same length and breath, and had a floor of the same smooth ripples of stones, the same subtle pattern of statues. But the statues were very different.
Osshe gasped again, in horror, at the first statue she saw. It was of a girl, the same age as she, frozen with her body contorted, arms fending off invisible monsters, her mouth open in a scream.
Osshe backed away in shock. She bumped into a jade arm and whirled around. The Master watched with folded arms and tightened eyes.
The next statue was of a girl on her knees, not in mute supplication but rather in anguished despair. Her mouth was locked open in a soundless wail, and jade tears streamed from her featureless eyes.
A third girl was gripping her throat, choking as her lungs turned to stone.
A fourth girl was looking at her fingers and screaming.
A fifth girl’s leg was broken. She had fallen back, while her stone legs remained rooted to where they are. The contorted skin joining the leg to the rest of the body had frozen where it was.
Osshe recoiled and tripped over a statue of a girl throwing her body against an invisible wall. Her hands were clawing at it, and the first joints of the stone fingers were missing.
“A few girls had to be locked in cages,” the Master said “and, afterward, their fingers struck off to remove them from the bars. Not a spot for pilgrimage, is it—though you may notice it’s kept nicely dusted.”
Osshe covered her eyes, and screamed.
The Master took two steps toward her as if hypnotized, then bounded down and swept up Osshe into his arms. He held her for a long time while she wept.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last.
“What is this place?” Osshe wailed.
“I doubt they gave it a name.” He said
“It’s lies,” Osshe sobbed. “The Garden of Lies.”
“You are not a god,” he told her. “And you do not have to die. I can save you, Osshe.”
“Is that why you came here? To save me?”
“Yes. You are why I came here.” The Master pulled Osshe back and looked her in the eye. “I am dying, Osshe. And your people are immortal. I came to find the secret of your people’s immortality. If I can find what makes you different from the rest, and cure you, I can cure myself of my mortality.”
“Even you don’t want to save me,” she said. “You want to save yourself.”
“That’s not true,” he began, soft, persuasive.
“Truth! You liar!” she demanded. “Tell me the truth.”
He began again in that silky tone. “Of course I want to save—”
Osshe sobbed and struck at him, like a child betrayed. Her fists pounded against his chest. He fell, folding into himself and covering his head in his arms. Osshe struck at his back twice, then stopped. She listened to him struggle to get breath into his weakened body. In the dark cavern, the sound of that seemed very loud.
She knelt down next to him. The Master looked up at her, panting. “Tell me the truth,” she said.
“Don’t ask me that,” he whispered. “Truth is nothing but a weapon to me.”
“I trust you,” she said. “Tell me the truth.”
“I don’t even know it any more.” The Master lay his hand against her hair. He hugged her body to him and she listened to the strange heartbeat flutter like a wounded bird. “Perhaps the truth is that we can save each other. Come with me, Osshe.”
“I cannot go,” she said, desolate. “Where would I go?”
“With me. Anywhere you want. Anywhere in the universe.” he said. “Osshe, I don’t know how much time we have.”
“Yes,” she said, dry-eyed. “Let’s go.”
He took her by the hand, they stood, and the ground picked them up. The moon above the Garden of Lies was higher, and the light a cleaner, brighter white. They were met, there, by Kishon.
“No further,” she said. She held a sleeping rose in one gloved hand. The flower was twisting back on its stem, its petals trying to borrow through the fabric of her gauntlet.
“Kishon, get out of our way,” said the Master.
Kishon snapped the rose out. The flower raised its head, scenting toward them like a snake. “A scratch will put you to sleep. I will take you outside the wall and leave you there.” said Kishon. “Two scratches will kill you. It is your choice.”
The Master hesitated. Then he let go of Osshe’s hand.
The Master swung around, swinging his fist up and catching Kishon across the jaw. She screamed and fell, dropping the deadly blossom, which lay twisting on the ground. The Master’s other hand darted into his tunic pocket and pulled out a rod-shaped object that he held out like a gun.
“No!” shouted Osshe.
The Master stopped, his TCE aimed at Kishon, and he looked hard at Osshe’s pleading eyes. Then he nodded. Fine.
He pocketed his TCE and scooped up the rose in his gloved hand. He held Kishon steady with one hand, though she twisted like the flower. “One, you said,” and raked the thorns across her face. Kishon’s eyes closed as she slipped into sleep.
He threw the rose clear, and took Osshe’s hand. “Come on.”
They ran into the silent Garden of the Chosen, and Osshe was surprised at the way her footfalls echoed back to her. She was expecting more of a commotion. “Where are the demons?”
“I switched them off before I met you,” the Master replied. “The only guards we have to worry about now are the human variety, and they’re probably all occupied trying to revive the demons.”
They ran through the Garden towards the gap in the wall. In the center of the gate stood Pekah.
“No further,” she said. She was not armed. She was impassible.
Osshe stepped in front of the Master. “Pekah,” she pleaded. “Please, Pekah, stand aside.”
“You belong in Kir-ithnan. You are the Selah. You are our life.”
“If Osshe leaves, you’ll still be immortal,” said the Master.
“Silence, stranger!” Pekah snapped. “Osshe, child… Osshe, don’t leave us. Stay.”
“Pekah, I saw them. I haven’t been reborn. I’ve died. Over and over! I’ll die again if I stay. Please, Pekah!”
“You have your life,” said the Master, quietly. “Give Osshe hers.”
Pekah paused, then lowered her head. “Go in peace, Selah.”
Osshe sobbed, running to hug her maid. “Thank you, Pekah.”
Pekah returned the embrace. “My child,” she said. Then her grip hardened.
“Pekah!” shouted Osshe. Pekah dragged and twisted them both toward the roses and rubble. Osshe’s sleeve brushed the face of one blossom, which struck out at the fabric. “Blackbird!” she screamed. The tangled briars reached toward them, snapping each other’s stems in their blind eagerness.
The Master wrenched Osshe from her maid’s arms, flinging the child back across the rattling stones. He and Pekah fell, together, into the flowers.
The Master covered his face and rolled. The embroidered feathers of his robe snagged on thorn after thorn. He grunted as he felt one cut into his skin. “Selah,” he gasped, climbing up through the pain and the poison. He blinked clear his eyes, knowing he had lost time… how much?
Osshe was trying to lift Pekah, with little jerks. The woman was bound with briars. The Master dropped his ruined cloak over the almost still body and pulled Osshe away.
Osshe turned on him, staring. In his tunic and trousers, shoes and gloves, he looked alien and unreachable. But he stared at Pekah’s body, a little line between his eyes.
“You killed her,” Osshe wailed.
The line between his eyes deepened.
“She tried…” said Osshe. “Will you die too?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Though they’ll kill me when they catch me.”
Then the stars started to go out.
The Master and Osshe looked up. A black eclipse was spreading out from the zenith of the sky, eating the stars: a dome sealing off the Court.
“This way!” the Master shouted, and he half-led, half-dragged Osshe towards the gate in the crumbling wall. They ran down the path as the shimmering shield crackled down towards their heads, fifty feet above, then thirty, and then ten.
The Master threw Osshe forward to safety and then dived, rolling, under the descending wall. It sizzled into the stones next to his ear. Smelling thunderstorm and his own scorched hair, he staggered to his feet. The two of them ran up the road while, behind them, Kir-ithnan came alive with light and sound. Through the dome, it shone like a carnival in the fog.
“Where—” asked Osshe.
“My ship,” the Master said, gasping. “The magic box. This way.” He turned off the road by one of the light globes. There was no path to be seen, but he picked their way through the boulders and bogholes and just short of a run. Osshe kept pace with him, panting. She staggered.
The Master glanced toward her. “Are you alright?” he asked.
She was moonpale and breathing in little gasps. “Yes,” she said. He turned away and Osshe started to follow. Then something caught her eye and she stopped.
Alee of one boulder stood a stunted digger pine. Once, she guessed, it had been covered by a shift of the bog, petrified, and uncovered again. Running away three years ago, she had stopped by this stone tree. It was the furthest one could go and look back to see Kir-ithnan, and it was that which had made her turn back, then. Even now, she could feel the image of the court behind her, whispering in her ear like a conscience, tugging at her shoulder, turning her head.
Osshe turned to look.
It took a moment for the Master to realize that nobody was following him. He frowned. “Osshe?”
Across the murmuring field of reeds, Kir-ithnan glowed, strange and perfectly beautiful.
He stepped back down the path to Osshe’s side. He reached out, gingerly, then laid a hand on her unyielding shoulder. Osshe didn’t move.
The reeds spoke to him of missed chances and death. Osshe, of course, said nothing.
The Master stared a long time at the lovely statue of a girl looking over her shoulder at the Court of Kir-ithnan. Then he looked away and returned to the path that would lead him to his TARDIS.
He did not look back.