I’ve got some guests in from out of town and will have dinner with them tonight. I’m making an apricot chocolate tart, and I would share it with you, if I could. Since I can’t allow me to offer a party favour. It’s a novelette called “A Fire in the Heavens.”
Now… if you are interested in process, this is a story that we brainstormed on Writing Excuses. We’ve put out an anthology last year, Shadows Beneath, that has an original story from each member of the cast plus the way we created it. So, brainstorming, outlines, early drafts and all of that. The idea was to show story creation from start to finish. I’ve got some of the supplemental materials on my site that you can take a look at, although, clearly, spoilers abound.
Or, you can just read the story.
A Fire in the Heavens
by Mary Robinette Kowal
A mutiny would not begin with a knock. At the simple rap upon her cabin door, Katin sent a prayer to the Five Sisters to grant her calm. Closing the Principium, she tucked the small book of scripture into the sash at her waist.
“Enter.” She swung her legs over the side of her hammock and set her bare feet on the smooth wood floor of her cabin. She had removed her leg wraps to sleep, letting the loose fabric of her leggings puddle on the bridges of her feet.
In the deep night, the light of the sailor’s glowdisc cast swaying shadows in the tiny space. Lesid ducked his head into the cabin. “Pardon, but the captain says we are in sight of land.”
“Praise the Sisters.” Months at sea, and even she had begun to think there was no other shore. She slipped the chain of her own glowdisc over her neck and flipped the cover back to expose the phosphorescent surface. Ashore, a disc would fade to darkness as its dust settled during the course of a night, but the constant motion of the ship agitated the powder trapped within and kept discs always glowing at least dimly. She shook hers to brighten it further. With its light, she took a moment to bind her scarf of office around her neck before following Lesid above decks. The heavy beaded ends swung about her waist as she walked.
Katin looked up for the cluster of stars that the Five Sisters inhabited in the heavens and murmured praise to them for guiding the search this far.
The captain glanced over his shoulder as she approached. Stylian’s tall form swayed easily with the rocking of the ship. “Well. You were right.”
His words made her feel more alone among the Markuth sailors than ever. She had no one of her faith aboard the ship to share her joy.
Stylian had mocked her goals, but how was that different from the mockery that the followers of the Five Sisters faced daily? He had taken the church’s commission . She was only grateful that he had been willing to sail on a course other captains had considered foolhardy, following the trail of ancient stories about a land far to the west. And the storm chased the Five Sisters from Selen, across the dark sea.
A glow lay on the horizon, marking the division of the ocean from the sky. In the darkness, she could just make out the rounded shadow of land. Katin closed her glowdisc so it would not interfere with her night vision. She frowned, slowly understanding what the light meant. She must be seeing a mountain with a city at its base. “I don’t know why I expected the land to be uninhabited.”
Captain Stylian grunted in agreement. “I’m of two minds about this. One part of me is relieved, because this means we can definitely restock. The other is apprehensive, because big cities have more regulations than others.”
“Why are you expecting a big city?”
He nodded toward the horizon as if his statement were obvious. “The only time we see that much light before we arrive is when we cross the Narrow Sea to Arland and sail into the harbor at Porvath.”
Katin looked back to the light and had to struggle to catch her breath. So many people . . . so many people who shared a heritage with her.
Her people had suffered persecution for their beliefs in every country. In Marth alone, the followers of the Sisters had been barred from holding office unless they renounced their beliefs. Even then, the visible differences between those who were ethnically of the Sisterhood still marked them. Hair twisted into pincurls at night to mask its coarse straight lines. Dye to cover the early gray—in some of the older families, hair grayed at puberty. Nut stains to darken the skin from the ruddy hue of a Sister, and still people could tell.
It was hard to comprehend that they had found Selen, the homeland.
She raised her gaze to the sky. She was not alone as long as the Sisters watched overhead. “The Five Sisters have prepared a way for us.”
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to keep the crew sailing west. Thought we were going to go right off the edge, they did.” He laughed and bent his head back to look at the sky. “Perhaps we’ll see the ‘moon,’ too.”
Katin snorted. “That’s exaggerated superstition.”
“And tales of a land aren’t?”
“Modern scholars feel that our holy texts are guides for ways to live a better life. They are allegories, and yet . . .” She tucked her hands inside her sleeves, crossing her arms over her chest as though she were lecturing at the seminary. “There is always some basis for the tales. A land, even if it is not a new continent, must be at minimum an island. This moon? We believe that it is a corruption of the word ‘musa,’ which means ‘city’ or ‘town’ in Old Fretian. So we think that it refers to the city the Five Sisters came from. ‘And the light of Musa lay behind them, casting silver across the sea.’ This refers to the wealth and knowledge of the homeland, as does the passage which refers to Musa as the ‘Brightest light in the darkness, it consumes all who enter.’”
He grunted again. “I’ve been to one of your Harvest Feast pageants. That whole glowing disc behind a sheet thing?”
“Illustrates a metaphor.”
“Not much point in arguing with you about your own religion.”
“It does seem unprofitable.”
To her surprise, he gave her a crooked smile. They watched the distant glow brighten, while the wind played around her, lifting her scarf and tickling her with the ends. No one seemed inclined to go to bed as they raced across the ocean toward landfall.
The light from the city was like nothing she had seen before. It was cool and silvery as though a glowdisc were reflecting in a polished metal mirror. It grew brighter by the minute. She heard a startled cry from overhead.
In the crow’s nest, a sailor pointed to the horizon. His words were snatched away. When she looked back to where he pointed, Katin’s heart seized.
A low mound of light had emerged above the horizon. It was not city lights, but a single broad arc that glowed with an unearthly light. She tried to make sense of the size but could not grasp the distances. “How big is that?”
“I . . . I am not certain.” Captain Stylian’s voice had a hesitation she was unused to in the man. “Pardon.” With a half bow, he made his way to the foot of the mainmast.
He called up to the sailor in the crow’s nest, asking him for some numbers. The wind blew them away from her, but the answer caused the captain to spin abruptly and stare at the horizon.
She crossed the deck to where the captain stood. “What is the matter?”
“It’s . . . The measurements . . . they cannot be correct.”
“Surely you can’t tell from so far—”
“But we can. When we see another ship upon the horizon, or land, we need to be able to calculate how large it is and how far away. This . . .” He waved toward it as though the words had been stripped from his mouth. “This is vast.”
The glowing edge of the light pulled her gaze once more. Enough of it was visible now to draw shadows from the rails. Long crisp shadows as though a dimmer sun were rising. The light lay before them and cast silver across the sea. It was like seeing scripture come to life.
Katin’s breath left her body in a rush. Dear Sisters . . . If the moon was real, what else was?
A sailor spat on the deck, and touched his fingers from his mouth to his forehead in a warding gesture. Scraps of conversation began, getting tossed on the wind toward her.
“. . . no land after all . . .” “unnatural,” “turn back,” and then the epithet “nightlover.”
“No.” Not now. She would not let them stop this voyage when they were so close. “You may not believe in the Five Sisters, but you must acknowledge that our stories speak of this. Of the moon.”
Stylian tugged an end of his mustache. “I thought you said it was a metaphor.”
Looking at the—at the moon rising higher above the horizon, Katin swallowed. “We hired you to sail west. Thus far, all of the indications prove that our texts are correct. The land of Selen is ahead of us.”
“Has it occurred to you that your Sisters may have sailed to this point from somewhere else and then turned back?”
Her gaze slipped to the light rising in the sky. She had been taught about the metaphors and had written papers on what they meant. Her work was, in part, what had led to this expedition. But what else could this be? Katin met the captain’s gaze as though he were a congregation of one. “Old Fretian is not related to any other language. Where did it come from if not the West?”
A muscle twitched in his jaw. “You paid us to sail for four fifnights, and so we shall. You have until the eighth of Reed, but not a day past that.”
Katin forced her voice to be calm. “There will be land.”
The moon rose higher as they sailed farther west. Katin chewed her lower lip, watching the pale object. It was impossible to grasp the size of it. A dinner plate held out at arm’s length would just cover it, but a dinner plate would not be visible past the curve of the world.
Its shape varied through the course of the day. From a bowlike crescent, it swelled to a shining disc, then gradually diminished again to just an arc of light. The cycle repeated with slow regularity, but the moon never vanished entirely. It was clear now that it hung in the heavens, stationary as the sun and the stars spun their course behind it. She had studied enough astronomy in seminary to understand that the stars were actually far flung bodies, not the spirits of the dead. This object—this moon was closer, so of course stars would pass behind it.
It only appeared to rise higher because they sailed around the world. If they kept going, it would eventually hang directly overhead. But why did it not move?
At noon, the sun skirted the edges, and daylight dimmed as though a storm cloud covered the sky. Each day, the moon seemed to eat a little more of the sun as it passed. Again, she understood intellectually that the changing face of the moon was a shadow. She understood that the sun was not truly being consumed, and yet the line from scripture kept running through her head. Brightest light in the darkness, it consumes all who enter. . . .
The moon had risen high enough over the past week that it came close to the Five Sisters’ path across the heavens. With the hour approaching midnight, it was now swollen to nearly a full disc.
Water splashed on Katin’s skin as she went through the five postures of night meditation in the bow of the ship. Meditation did not come easily. As she balanced on one foot, in Dorot’s stance, she watched the sky. Katin pulled at her scarf of office, which seemed too snug. She had trouble breathing as she watched the sky. It was one thing to believe, and quite another to see the proof of one’s convictions floating in the sky.
“Ship ahead!” The call came from the topsail.
Katin lowered her foot and scanned the horizon for what the lookout had seen.
On the sea, backlit by the light of the moon, floated the unmistakable silhouette of a sailing ship like in a Harvest Feast pageant. And a ship sailing toward them could only mean that there was land ahead.
The captain called for the ship to turn abreast of the wind, and gradually they slowed in the water.
She hurried across the deck to him. “What is the matter?”
“They’re running dark.” He nodded toward the ship. “No lights. Either it’s a pirate ship or everyone is dead. Either way, we wait until daylight to approach.”
Once the dawn came, it took several hours for them to meet the other ship. Its rigging was strange, even to Katin’s untrained eye. It rode very low in the water and had a beaked bow that curved in the air like a swan’s neck. By the light of day it was clear that the ship was inhabited, but they made no hostile moves. Fishing nets hung over the side, and bandy-legged men worked to haul catches aboard.
When it came close enough to really see the individuals, a weight lifted from Katin’s heart. Gray hair. Ruddy skin. They must be from her homeland.
How glorious to see a ship filled with people who looked like her.
Captain Stylian stood at the rail and cupped his hands to shout to the other ship. “Where do you hail from?”
A man in tight blue trousers and a long tunic of embroidered silk shouted back. Katin frowned and cocked her head. The wind had garbled what he said. It was almost understandable, but slid so that she could barely distinguish the breaks between words.
The captain switched to Paku and asked again, but the other man just held up his hands in a shrug. Shaking his head, Captain Stylian said, “It was too much to hope that they spoke Markuth or Paku.”
“I think that’s a variant of Old Fretian.”
He cocked his head at that. “Worth a try.”
She only ever used Old Fretian to read scripture in its original form and hardly ever spoke it. Katin took a moment to gather her thoughts, trying to martial them into a semblance of order. The declension for this would be masculine interrogative case, which meant that she would have to append the appropriate suffix to the word “land.”
Wrapping her mind around Fretian, Katin spoke in that tongue. “What land-the you from?”
“The Center Kingdom. You?” His next words eluded her. Then came a phrase almost straight from scripture, “. . . Sailing beyond the Moon?”
“We from Marth.”
The captain leaned down. “You can understand him?”
It was a relief to switch back to Markuth. “Some. But we haven’t said anything complicated yet.” Beyond the Moon . . . did they never sail past here?
“Ask how far behind them the land is.”
Katin nodded and painfully stitched the question together in her mind. “Land-the, how far?”
Katin reported this back to the captain. “May I hope that we are continuing on?”
“That’s what you are paying us for.” He stroked his chin, staring at the sailing ship. “Ask if they have any charts they’re willing to trade.”
The captain called Katin to his cabin. When she entered, he shut the door behind her and showed her to the map table. There, he had unrolled the chart they had traded for. “Look. We would have missed it with the course we were sailing.”
A narrow spit of land jutted out from a landmass that filled the map. Islands dotted the coastline up and down it, but this one piece reached out into the ocean as though it were a finger pointing to the east. “How large is it?”
“I’m only guessing, but their captain says it’s five days. If we’re here, which he indicated we are, then that length of land alone is longer than the distance from Marth through Arland and into Gavri.”
The scale staggered her and she put a hand on the table to steady herself. If the scale was correct, then this land—her people’s homeland—was three times larger than all of the known countries assembled. The map was mostly concerned with the coasts, but even so, the towns that were shown were so numerous that she could not count them all. One city dominated them all, clearly, from the way it was drawn upon the map. A great river came through the continent to emerge at the base of the peninsula, and a city occupied both banks, spilling onto the narrow spit.
The script on the map was strange, with letters more simply shaped than what she was used to, all ornamentation stripped from them. Still she recognized the Old Fretian word “remek,” which meant “center.”
Scripture rose to her mind, “The Sisters said, ‘The center has held us together. Without it, we must create our own center and from this comes a new way of life.’”
She had always taken it—the way she had been taught in seminary was that the center was a place of meditation within each of them, but looking at the map, the words revolved. The capital has held us together. Without it, we must create our own place of government and with this comes a new way of life. Katin touched the crescent drawn in the midst of the city, vaguely surprised that her fingers were not shaking. The Center Kingdom must revolve around the city Remek but . . . she saw no borders of the kingdom or other countries. The map was labeled as one vast empire. “This is the capital.”
“Mm.” Captain Stylian shook his head and tapped the map, finger coming to rest on a natural harbor farther down the mainland’s coast, with a small town drawn around it. “What’s this one called?”
“Iolokiv. It means Bardstown. Roughly.”
“Good name. We’ll head for here.”
“Why not the capital?” The harbor he indicated was . . . well, if they were five days from the capital, it was a full day’s sailing from Remek. The center has held us together . . .
“Because capital cities always have the tightest regulations. I would rather go into a smaller town to find out what harbor fees are like, if there are any shipping prohibitions, and so on . . . If we dock at too small a town, they won’t know how to deal with foreign ships. So, we look for a mid-sized town.” He flashed her a grin. “Plus, their officials tend to be easier to bribe.”
Iolokiv seemed to sparkle in the sunlight. Glass filled windows in the walls and even in the roofs of buildings. In some places the walls seemed to be nothing more than thin pieces of metal existing solely to hold glass upright. The wealth on display staggered Katin, but the people in the port paid no heed to it. They walked along as if they passed nothing more exciting than simple stucco.
Their ship, on the other hand, attracted notice. As the crew worked to tie it up, they used a mixture of sign language and grunts to communicate with the dockworkers. Even the ships here had glass set into the cabins. Their own ship, The Maiden’s Leap, seemed dark and squat next to the ships of Iolokiv.
The captain climbed onto the forecastle. “Listen up! You know the drill for a new port. Once we get the lay of the land, then and only then will I consider requests for leave. Expect to be aboard overnight at least. Until then, I want us to be ready to cast off at the first sign of trouble.”
A sailor snorted. “That’s a certainty with a harbor full of nightlovers.”
He grinned and leaned over the man. “You knew this was a possibility when we accepted the commission.”
“Ha! I thought we’d sail in circles and then come home.”
The other sailors hooted with laughter and the captain let them.
Katin stood by the rail and felt her skin burn even redder with anger. If she could bring her people here, then any amount of abuse would be worth it.
Footsteps crossed the deck to stand behind her. Captain Stylian cleared his throat. “Is it a festival day?”
Not a word of apology. She turned from studying the dock to face him. “Festival?”
“The banners. Every ship is flying a red banner, sometimes two or three.” He nodded toward the crowds. “And see. People with armbands in the same red. What does it mean?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” She had been so distracted by the variety of costume that she had not noticed the armbands. Despite the sailors’ comments, the harbor was not full of “nightlovers,” though they were certainly the dominant type. There were nutbrown men, women with flaming curls, and people whose pale skin had an almost green hue.
Now that the captain had pointed it out, the scraps of red were obvious, fluttering behind people as they walked. She pointed to a man with a blue armband who walked behind two burly men that appeared to be bodyguards, clearing a path. “There. Not everyone has red bands.”
“I thought this was supposed to be your homeland. So you ought to know, even by the calendar, if this is a festival day.”
Katin shook her head. “We’ve been gone so long . . . Perhaps they added festivals?”
“You sound uncertain.”
“And how am I supposed to be certain? I have not set foot upon the land.”
He held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Fair enough. Shall we remedy that now?”
Katin took a breath to steady herself and nodded. The captain led the way to the gangplank that stretched from their boat to the pier. The man with blue ribbons met them at the gangplank. His straight gray hair had been tied in a queue down his back, and his cheeks were so pink they looked rouged. He held a flat plank of wood with paper affixed to it by means of flat springs on the sides.
Katin wanted to retreat up the gangplank before the captain could look to her. She did not speak the language, for all that he thought she did. And yet, likely she was the best chance for understanding what the blue gentleman wanted.
He spoke very rapidly, with that same sliding inflection as the ship’s captain they had met on the sea. Katin had spent the intervening three days reading scripture aloud in Old Fretian, trying to make herself more comfortable with the language. Still the torrent of words undid her.
She held up hands in supplication and spoke one of the sentences she’d prepared. “Please slow down. I speak very badly, but am the only translator the ship has.”
The official snorted, but did slow down. Still, she only caught scattered words and phrases: “Where from,” then “none crew-yours,” and he finished with “official language?”
She could answer only the beginning. “Across sea-the.”
“Ah. South Islander . . .” His voice carried amused contempt. “What happened husband-your?”
He slowed even further, pausing after each phrase until she nodded. “Husband your. Husband ship’s. Examinations. Must pass. Or he would not. Command. Be given. If no one aboard speaks Setish. Then something happened. Husband ship’s your.”
Katin stared at him while she tried to parse that the separate phrases into a sentence. The meaning of the word husband must have shifted over the centuries. It was paired with ship, so maybe it meant captain?
“What is he saying?” Captain Stylian’s voice was low and easy, as if this were perfectly natural. He flashed the official a smile.
“I think . . . I think ship’s captains are required to know the language, which I think is called Setish, so he believes something has happened to ours. Also, I think he thinks we’re from islands to the south.”
“That’s a lot of ‘I thinks.’”
“Well, I don’t actually speak the language. I’m making a lot of guesses.”
“You sound fluent.”
“I’m mostly saying, ‘please slow down.’”
He grunted a little and offered the official another smile. “South Islands? Don’t contradict him. Just make apologies for our stupidity and ask if we can offer him some hospitality for his trouble.” His tone as he said this was so deeply apologetic that she almost thought he was apologizing. He bowed his head, as if abashed. “Don’t look so surprised.”
Katin bent her head in supplication and pulled some of the words of atonement from scripture. “Oh noble master, forgive us our trespasses.” It got harder from there, and Katin could feel the language breaking under her tongue. “New husband-ours offer apology-the you. Would you hospitality-ours accept?”
At her side, Captain Stylian produced a flask and passed it to the official with a deep bow. That language seemed clearer than any Katin could produce. The official made a pleased noise. As the captain straightened, he flashed her a brief wink.
Katin would not be exploring the city just yet.
The negotiations with the official had not taken long. The celebrations with him, however, had eaten the better part of the morning. Still, they had permission to dock and with that accomplished, the captain had been content to let Katin go ashore—with protection.
The sailor Lesid trailed after her through the market, one hand on the knife at his belt. She was not entirely sure if he was there to keep her safe, or because the captain wanted to make certain that his translator returned to the ship. Stalls lined the sides of a large cobbled square, set between low stone walls. Canvas awnings in blues and pinks stretched between the walls to provide a little shade to the merchants. Tables sat under the canopies, spread with unfamiliar fruits, fish, great heaping bouquets of pink flowers, and bolts of cloth. In the center of the square, a fountain burbled merrily. Around its edges, people had spread blankets on the dusty cobbles and squatted displaying cheap handiwork.
Gazes followed them as she and Lesid walked through the market. Most of the people had ruddier skin than his. Their hair tended toward gray. There were a few with darker skin like Lesid and some with golden curls, but none with both. On the ship, he looked like any other sailor. Here he looked . . . exotic. Katin slowed and glanced back at the sailor. “Walk with me?”
“You’re walking behind me.”
“Oh.” He frowned and took two steps to close the gap between them. “Better?”
“Yes.” Katin resumed her stroll, feeling a little less exposed with someone beside her. She shouldn’t feel so much like a foreigner, if this were really their homeland. If. What else would it be? The land was in the right place, and they spoke a version of the sacred language. But the people here kept staring at them and . . . nothing was familiar. Katin rolled the beads of her shawl beneath her fingers. Gefen grant patience.
“What’s that?” Lesid pointed to a stall that had pink egg-shaped fruit that seemed to be covered in green-tipped scales. At least, she thought it was fruit.
“I don’t know.”
Lesid furrowed his brow. “I thought this was—”
“My homeland, yes. I know. Everyone thinks I should know all about it.” Including her. “My people have been gone from here for hundreds of years. . . . This is as new to me as it is to you.”
“I— I hadn’t thought about that. Sorry.”
Katin shifted her hand to her belt where her coin purse was tucked. The official had given them some copper coins in exchange for a bottle of the captain’s whiskey. She was certain they’d gotten the worse end of the deal, but the captain had seemed pleased. “Shall we buy a fruit and see what it’s like?”
The sailor’s eyes lit up at the suggestion. “Seems half a year since I had something that wasn’t salted or preserved.”
Katin grinned and steered them toward the stall. “I don’t see how in the heavens you can stand to eat that all the time.”
“Well, it’s not always. Usually we aren’t at sea for more than a week, maybe two. You can carry enough rindfruit to last that long.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Then, you know, you pull into port at someplace like Nil-Mazzer and they’ve got barkberries or, oh . . . in the late summer we get in sometimes in redmelon season and you can buy big slices sprinkled with spice and a tall glass of chilled juice. There’s this one place off the south canal that has a chef that grills it, right there while you wait, but he does it so fast the inside is still cool and the outside is warm. Just lights your tongue up, it does.”
She blinked at him in surprise. “Seaman Lesid, you are quite the gourmand.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “I’m not fancy. I just like food is all.”
Katin stepped up to the booth and pointed at the fruit. She wrapped her head around Old Fretian, which was as close as she was going to come to speaking the local Setish. “How much? Two?”
The old woman behind the fruit had her hair wrapped up in a yellow scarf, which let a puff of white hair escape out the back. “Two musan each. Four total.”
Katin assumed that a musan was a coin and fished four of the smallest coins out of the wallet and handed them over. The woman took them without surprise or fuss, and Katin let out her breath.
She said something very fast and Katin had to shake her head. “I speak bad Setish. Slowly?”
The woman grunted and picked up a wicked machete, flecked with bits of pink rind, and gestured to the fruit. “Cut?”
“Um . . . Yes?”
The woman nodded and pulled two of the fruits off the pile. She paused before bringing the machete down, and peered at the sky. Speaking very slowly, she said, “Almost noon death. Wait? So naro-a dries not before birth-the.”
Katin made a guess that the fruit was called naro-a. She wasn’t entirely certain what noon death had to do with the fruit drying though, or even if she’d heard the question correctly. “Thank you.”
The woman set the machete down below the table. When she stood, she had a small roll of heavy blue cloth. Woven into it were yellow quatrefoils of thread that suggested stars at night. She shuffled around the table, unrolling the cloth as she stepped out of the booth.
Lesid eyed her and then the fruit. “She just took our money and didn’t give you anything?”
Katin shook her head, realizing that he had not understood any of the exchange. “She will. After the . . . Well, it translates as ‘noon death,’ but I think I have it wrong.” Noon death . . . death . . . Maybe the point when the sun went behind the moon? That could be a death, couldn’t it? But why did she think the fruit would dry because of that?
The market had stilled. Other people were pulling bundles of cloth out of bags, or from straps slung across their back. She drew her head back in surprise. It wasn’t just a few people. Everyone in the market was doing the same thing. To be sure, some were continuing to shop with the cloth held loosely in one hand, but they all had a cloth. Some of them were threadbare, and others were so fine they had tiny mirrors sewn upon them.
The fruit vendor laid her cloth on the ground and unwrapped the scarf from her hair. Those with their hair covered were removing their hats or scarves. All of them had their heads turned down, watching the ground. What in the world were they looking for?
Then twilight swept across the market. Bells rang, seemingly from every corner of the city. As one, the people in the marketplace dropped to their knees and placed their foreheads on the cloth they had unrolled. A caged bird clucked in the sudden stillness, its chirruping cry bouncing across the stone walls of the market.
No one in the entire market, or down the nearby streets, had remained standing. It appeared that the entire city knelt.
Katin grabbed Lesid’s arm and yanked him down. To his credit, he didn’t fight her or ask what she was doing. He just mimicked the posture of the woman closest to them.
She could only hope it didn’t make a difference that they had no cloth to kneel upon. With her face pressed to the hard cobbles and the dust caked between them, her nose twitched. She wrinkled it, trying to stifle the sneeze. Pulling her attention away, she tried to distract herself by playing a guessing game with what was happening.
“Noon death” clearly meant when the sun went behind the moon. That was happening now. The light continued to dim, farther than it had aboard the ship it seemed, or perhaps that was her imagination. If the birth was when the sun emerged, then it would explain why the fruit vendor had been concerned about the naro-a drying. That was near to seven minutes.
The bells sounded again, while the dark still gripped the market. Cloth rustled around them and Katin pushed herself to her knees. She froze before rising any further. The people were not moving to stand. They had rolled onto their backs. Lesid turned to look at her, brow turned up in confusion.
She had no idea what they were doing, but given that everyone was lying down, it didn’t feel like they had a choice. She could think of nothing back home that would induce a crowd of people to act as one like this.
Swallowing, not knowing what else to do, Katin lay down on her back. Lesid followed a moment later.
She stared up at the sky and for a moment lost her worry about understanding what the people were doing. The sky . . . On the ship, the sun had passed almost behind the thin crescent of the moon, but an edge of it had been visible. Here though, they had evidently traveled far enough that the entire sphere had vanished.
What remained was a dark disc with a fiery halo surrounding it. It undulated in a glory of yellow and red against a backdrop of deep blue. The sky was dark enough that stars shone. She searched the sky for the Sisters, but— But none of the stars were familiar. Katin shook her head, trying to slow her breathing. Of course they weren’t. These were the daytime constellations only visible when the sun died. Noon death.
She took in a painful breath, understanding. Brightest light in the darkness, it consumes all who enter . . . Not when the sun died, but when the moon killed the sun and then gave birth to it. Had the Sisters worshiped in this manner? What had their lives been like to lose this display of magic in the sky?
Above her, it was as if the moon wore a fiery crown. Or a skirt. Dorot’s bloody hands, but she wanted to find out how their scripture accounted for this. The myths and legends here must be as gorgeous as the streamers of fire that danced around the edges of the dark sphere.
For a third time, the bells in the city chimed. Again the sound of cloth rustled around them. Before moving, Katin glanced to the side to see that everyone was rolling back over to their stomachs, kneeling upon the ground with their heads bent. Lesid had already followed suit, tucking his knees under his body. Katin rolled over and pressed her face against the cobbles.
Had the entire city done this? Based on what she saw, everyone in the market had. She would have expected there to be nonbelievers at the least, and most definitely thieves who would take advantage of the time when everyone’s faces were pressed to the ground. No one here seemed to have that worry. Katin couldn’t imagine that happening in Marth, except in very small towns.
The ground lightened around her, shadows coming back to etch the edges of the cobbles. Around them, the bells pealed again.
She had expected a simultaneous movement, but the people in the market moved as if released from a spell that had momentarily bound them together. The fruit vendor bobbed to her knees, then pushed herself to her feet with a groan. She bent down to pick up her cloth, shaking the dust from it. The man on the ground to Katin’s right stayed with his head down for a few seconds longer, before sitting back on his heels. Another woman knelt and rolled her cloth up before standing.
Lesid turned to Katin, eyes wide. Despite the fact that he spoke Marth, he lowered his voice. “What by the blessed gods was that?”
“I think it was a group prayer service.”
He glanced up at the sun. Overhead, the sky had returned to its usual daytime blue. No stars were visible. The sun, blazingly bright, rode in the sky where it had just been released from the crescent of the moon. Did they see the shape as a bow?
Lesid shook his head and lowered his head, blinking away tears from having stared too long at the sun. “Praying that the sun will come back?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry, I keep saying that a lot.” Katin turned to the fruit vendor, who had hobbled behind her booth again. She had wrapped her hair back up in its yellow scarf. Katin switched back to Old Fretian to address her. “Pardon. University? Is there?”
The woman stared at her, mouth screwed up in a frown. “Oh— A university. Yes.” She rattled something else off and then stopped at Katin’s look of confusion. “Bardstown College. Water Street.” She lifted the machete and swung it at the pink fruit. It split open to reveal a creamy interior, ringed with a thick circle of vivid pink. “South Islands, right?”
Remembering what the captain had said, Katin did not disagree with her. “Library-a there?”
“Aye.” She swung the machete again, halving the other naro-a. With a little nod, she handed the naro-a to them, along with an odd wedge of some thick reed.
After a moment, Lesid grinned. “Oh! It’s a spoon.”
He stuck the end of the reed into the pale center of the fruit and dug out a scoop of the soft flesh. Passing it under his nose, he inhaled slowly, filling his lungs. Katin watched him slide the piece of fruit into his mouth and close his eyes in concentration.
He held up the hand with the reed-spoon, shushing her as he chewed. After a moment he gave a grin and opened his eyes. “Subtle. Almost creamy, but a little acidic. Not enough to make your mouth pucker like rindfruit. Maybe like a rindfruit ice . . . Anyway. There are also little seeds that crack when you bite. It’s nice.”
“Nice.” Katin shook her head and scooped out a spoon of her own. “You describe food the way other people describe wine.” Anything else she was going to say was forgotten as she tasted the naro-a. The texture was the first thing that stopped her. It was soft, somewhere between a ripe melon and a pudding, while the little seeds in it burst in tiny pops. The flavor was a little like cream, but the thing Lesid had said about rindfruit was right. It made her mouth feel clean with each bite. “Wow.”
“I know. We should find out how long they store, in case we can take them back to Marth.”
Katin drew in a breath, somehow shocked by the reminder that they would be returning to Marth. It had always been the plan, of course. Find the homeland, then come back for her people. She just had not expected . . . this. Civilization. Or unfamiliar culture or— She wasn’t sure what she had thought they would find, but not this city with its people praying to the moon. Did they do that in Center too? Did the entire city fall to its knees at noon?
Lesid cleared his throat. “Why do you want to find the university?”
“I’m hoping someone speaks Old Fretian.”
“Isn’t that what everyone here speaks?”
“No . . . It’s related. Probably a descendent from a common tongue, but I’m fighting to understand anything.” And maybe the university would have information about the Five Sisters. Surely they must have left some historical trace.
A knot in her stomach formed around the naro-a. Unless the Five Sisters were unknown here.
They found the university easily enough by simply repeating the words “Bardstown College?” as a question until someone pointed them on their way. The campus grounds had a broad expanse of fragrant ground cover with tiny leaves and even tinier purple flowers, spread between gravel lanes. Young men and women that Katin took to be students walked along the paths with yellow and blue ribbons tied to their left arms. The thin pieces of fabric fluttered behind them in a miniature festival.
She repeated her trick and said, “Library?” to the first student she met. Eventually, she and Lesid found themselves in front of a broad glass-fronted building. Brightest light in the darkness, it consumes all who enter.
Wide marble steps led up to glass doors set into brass facings. Did they use glass for everything here?
Inside, ranks of shelves stepped back through a well-lit great hall. At home it would have been filled with glowdiscs, while here the light came from a cunning arrangement of skylights and mirrors, but the sense of being a temple to books was still the same. Desks stood at intervals between the shelves, with students bent in study over stacks of books. At the center of the library a series of counters formed a square. In the hollow of the square, a pair of older faculty members sat at matching desks. A heavy book rested on the counter facing the front of the library, open to a page filled with names and dates. A registry, perhaps, of the people using the library.
As she approached the desk, Lesid dropped back slightly to stand behind her shoulder. Katin wet her lips and tried to think of how to phrase the questions she wanted to ask, but all of the sentences were too complicated for her meager grasp of the language. One of the librarians, an older man with thinning brown hair, looked up and smiled.
“May I help you?” He stood and approached the counter where Katin stood.
The relief that she had understood all of the words, even in such a simple sentence, made her sigh with thanks. “Please.”
“What do you seek?” He waited, and still she had nothing easy to ask.
Did he have books about the Five Sisters or about a voyage beyond the moon, or ancient histories, or— Katin’s head came up as she thought she saw a way out of her dilemma. “I speak not Setish.”
She paused as his eyes widened with surprise, and she filed the surprise away to consider. Like the marketplace of people kneeling, what were the chances that a university, even in a middle-sized town, would not have foreigners passing through?
Katin put the questions it raised aside, and offered an apologetic smile as she constructed the next sentence in her head. “Is any person who speaks . . .” What was that phrase from scripture . . . ? “The ancient tongues?”
The librarian drew his head back, and turned to his colleague, a woman of middle years with blonde hair that had silvered at the temples. “Can you . . .” and then Katin lost the train of the rest of his question. Whatever it was caused the woman to raise her eyebrows and stand. She came to the counter, blue and yellow ribbons fluttering from her arm as she walked.
She tilted her head and studied Katin. “What language?”
“I call it Old Fretian.”
There was no answering sign of recognition in the woman’s eyes at the word Fretian.
Gnawing her lower lip, Katin reached into her sash and pulled out her copy of the Principium. It was not a translation into Marth, but had the original Old Fretian scriptural text. She opened it to the first page and slid it across the counter. “This?”
The woman pulled it closer and bent over the page with a frown. The man leaned over her shoulder, chewing on his lower lip. “Can you read it?”
“Not well.” The woman traced a finger along the opening of the first chapter. With an accent strangely formed and stumbling, she read aloud from the Principium.
“We give all praise and thanks to the Five Sisters for our Safe Deliverance.
Straight the Course and True the Path of the righteous.
Dorot, Gefen, Nofar, Yorira, and Abriel have kept us safe from the Ravages of the Deep.
We left behind Woe and Hardship in the Path of the Moon.”
After a moment, she simply traced her finger over the text, lips moving occasionally as she sounded out a word. The woman riffled forward to a later chapter and placed her finger on the text again, mouthing words.
Behind Katin, Lesid shifted his weight and nudged her in the back. She glanced over her shoulder at him.
His brow was furrowed and he jerked his chin at the librarians. “What’s going on?”
“I’m hoping they can help us find a better translator than me,” she answered in a low voice.
The sound of flipping pages pulled her attention back to the librarians. The woman had turned to the back of the book and frowned over it. “Where are the printer’s marks?”
“The printer’s marks.” The woman tapped the back endpapers of the book.
Katin spread her hands and shook her head. “I understand not. I mean— I hear words, but I do not know meaning-the. Printer’s marks. We come from beyond the Moon.”
The woman laughed and scooped the book up, slapping it against the chest of the man. “A prank. You should—” The rest of her words slid past Katin’s understanding.
He caught the book as she released it, striding back to her desk. As he looked down, a flush of red highlighted his cheeks. “But so much trouble . . . ?”
“One year, they . . .” Katin lost the words, but thought she was talking about a forged play. Or ox-tails. Or maybe a manuscript. The woman waved her hand in scorn at the book. “. . . not trying . . .” and “language” were all Katin caught.
“What language?” Katin held her hands out. “Please. What language is it?”
“Ancient Setish.” The man answered reflexively.
“Anyone who speaks? A . . . ancient-an Setish speaker?” If Katin could talk to someone without having to struggle so much to understand modern Setish, then perhaps figuring out what had happened back in the days when the Five Sisters had left would be easier.
Again, she just barely grasped what they were saying, clawing meaning out of the words.
“Center University? Department of ancient languages?” She repeated to make certain she had understood it.
The woman’s expression had gone from amused to annoyed. “Stop this farce.”
Katin held up her hands in apology. “Sorry. And thank you.”
“It is nothing.” The man turned back to his desk, still holding her book.
He paused, with his brow raised. “Yes?”
Sighing, he looked down at the book in his hands. “You think not it return would I.”
“But it is mine.”
With exaggerated care, he said, “No printer’s marks. Illegal.”
Katin gaped at him for a moment. “I told you that we aren’t from here.”
“You are fortunate I do not call the Factors.” The woman gestured to the man and took the book from him. With a glare, she dropped it into a waste bin. “Good day.”
Lesid stepped forward and looked from Katin to the woman. In Marth, he said, “Did they just throw your book away?”
“Yes— No!” She grabbed Lesid’s arm as he put his hand on the hilt of his knife. By the Sisters, if he went after one of the librarians there was no telling what havoc it would bring down on them. “Lesid . . . We should go.”
“But that’s your holy book.”
“I know.” Her stomach twisted at the sight of the scripture lying in the waste bin. “We’ll go back to the captain and see if he can ask the official to help us get it back, all right? But right now they think we’re college students pulling some sort of prank.” At least she thought that was what they had said. Maybe there was a fine she could pay.
“This isn’t right.” He glared at the librarians.
It wasn’t, but for the moment, she had to accept it. “Let’s go.”
He lowered his hand with obvious reluctance and let her turn him back toward the doors of the library. She had taken no more than four steps when Lesid turned. “It’s not right.”
He ran back to the counter and vaulted over it. The librarians started up with shouts. The man hurried forward, but Lesid shoved him back with one hand to the chest.
Reaching the wastebasket, he grabbed the book and spun back. Tucking it under his arm, he ducked away from the woman librarian as she snatched for his arm.
She shouted and Katin understood the word all too clearly. “Alarm!”
Lesid put one hand down on the counter and sprang over it, running toward Katin. “Go! Go!”
His words released her from her shocked hold, and Katin spun to run for the doors. Students staggered up from their tables, hurrying to see what the commotion was about. Lesid caught Katin before they reached the door and passed her, pushing the heavy glass open on its springs. They ran through. She bounded down the steps two at a time, sprinting beside Lesid as they ran across the lawn. Behind them, the woman librarian had followed, still shouting, but her words were mercifully unintelligible.
When they reached the street, Lesid glanced behind them and slowed to a walk. “I don’t see them, so I think we’re all right. Best not to grab attention.”
Katin laughed, the patter of excitement still urging her steps forward. “You sound like you’ve done this before.”
“Let’s just say, I had a strong reason to go to sea.” He handed the book to her, with a wink. “We’ll walk for a bit. See if we can find a shop to duck into, maybe.”
“Thank you.” Katin tried to slow her breathing to something that involved less panting. “Do you think they’ll come after us?”
“Dunno.” He shrugged. “I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. Might be that I need you to teach me this language.”
“If I actually knew it, I would.”
From behind them came a shout that needed no translation. “Stop them!”
Katin whirled, her prayer scarf flying wide. On the university grounds behind them, the woman librarian stood on the walk, pointing with a straight arm. Running toward them were two burly men with blue streamers flapping from their arms. These must be the Factors. They each carried a short sword with a strange grip in a small sheath at the waist. Across their chests, little mirrors had been sewn into the dark blue silk and flashed light with each step.
With an intake of breath, Lesid grabbed Katin’s arm and pulled her back around. Running in earnest now, they sprinted for the nearest side street. Lesid kept the pace rapid, dodging through the crowds of shoppers. He slipped between men in long tunics, women with bared midriffs, and everywhere the little ribbons streaming from their arms.
They wound through the unfamiliar streets, not slowing to look at textiles and brass vases or anything else that caught their eyes. Glass windows granted crazed views behind them, where their pursuers bobbed in and out of sight through the thick crowds. Lesid rounded another corner, narrowly missing a baker’s cart.
Katin grabbed his arm and yanked him into the shop. He looked over his shoulder and pushed her farther into the shop, until a set of shelves filled with pastries hid them from the street. Standing in the shop with sweat-slick skin, Katin tried to master her breathing and look less suspicious. She inhaled deeply and stopped with her ribs expanded as a tantalizing fragrance caught her attention.
A stupid reason to think this shop was safe, but it was the first familiar thing she’d encountered here. It smelled sweet and spicy, and of dough that had been dipped in fat to fry until it was golden. She could almost taste the crust of sugar that would cling to the top.
“What?” Lesid whispered, still glancing back to the street.
“It smells like rolada. A pastry we make for the Harvest Feast in autumn.” She inhaled again, savoring the comforting scent of home.
On the street, the blue-clad Factors ran past, pushing through the pedestrians without a glance into their refuge. Katin let out a breath and thanked the Sisters for guiding her here.
From behind the counter, a slender young woman was watching them with furrowed brows. She fiddled with a bell on the counter, as if on the verge of ringing it. Maybe it just brought someone from the rear of the shop, or maybe it called the Factors back. Either way it was best if she didn’t ring it.
Katin smiled and stepped to the counter, looking for the crescent-shaped rolada. Hoping that the word wouldn’t have changed much since they left the homeland, Katin cleared her throat. “Forgive me my trespasses.”
“Excuse?” The young woman let go of the bell and cocked her head.
Katin made note of the short form of the apology and ducked her head to look at the pastries. Pale gold dough filled with some red jelly stood in rows next to a flatbread sprinkled with nuts. Heavy dark loaves glistened in the light from the ever-present windows. She did not see any crescent-shaped confections. “Are there rolada here?”
The baker stared at her. “What?”
“Rolada. A . . .” She winced, trying to think. What was the word for pastry in Old Fretian? “Bread? Hot oil . . . cooked in?”
The woman’s brows came together in concentration and she repeated the words back to Katin. “Bread? Cooked in hot oil? What’d you call it?”
“Rolada.” She said the word again, as if she were chewing it. Then her eyes widened. “Oh! Rolada!”
Katin blinked at her. What had she said, if not that? “Yes. Do you have them?”
“Aye.” Hopping off her stool, the woman bent down to a lower shelf and pulled a tray out. Upon it were a dozen flat crescents of pastries, crusted with caramelized sugar. Peeks of color from the dried berries embedded in the dough made Katin’s mouth water. “Just came out of the oil. How many?”
The pastry cost less than the fruit, which said something about how the fruit was valued here. In a few moments, Katin had a handful of small coins in change for her single musan. The woman wrapped a sheet of waxed paper around the pastries and handed them to Lesid, who inhaled with a slow smile as he took them.
Katin almost snatched hers from him. The paper was already warm from the pastry within. She broke one horn off and the crust made a soft crack as the sugar broke. A sweet and spicy steam curled out of the flaky interior. She sent up a silent prayer that it would taste right, then felt silly for asking the Sisters to intervene in something so trivial. It either would or it wouldn’t.
The crust dissolved against the roof of her mouth, carrying rich butter and the tang of spice. It was almost right, but in the way that pastries are different when someone else’s grandmother makes them. The overall sensation was of comfort and home. Memories of being a little girl on her mother’s lap, eating a pastry as the shadow play showed the Sisters’ flight before the storm. A glowdisc behind a sheet had stood in for the light of Musa, but it had given her no preparation for the reality.
Katin’s eyes watered with longing. Home. When had she started thinking of Marth as home? To be certain, she had been born there, but always, always she had been taught that it was not home. That their true home was across the ocean and that Marth was only a resting place until they could find their way back. There had to be more comfort here than a pastry. She just had to find it.
“God. That’s good.” Lesid sighed beside her. “Can we get some more to take back to the ship?”
Katin nodded and wiped her eyes. “Yes. That’s a good idea.”
They meandered back to the ship, following a circuitous route that took them far from the university, just to be safe. The baker had wrapped up a bundle of the rolada in heavy brown paper. It had cooled as they walked, but Lesid said the sailors would just be happy to have something that wasn’t salted fish.
His pace slowed as they walked down the dock to the ship, so Katin pulled ahead of him a bit. Lesid shifted the pastries to his left arm. “Hold on.”
At the foot of the ramp of the Maiden’s Leap, the captain was speaking heatedly to a man who blocked his path. The man wore a blue armband like the official who had let them dock.
More troubling though were the two enormous bodyguards with him. They were the Factors who had chased them from the university grounds. Katin backed up. They would return later, after the men had gone.
“Katin!” The captain’s voice boomed down the dock. “Thank the gods you’re back. I can’t make a seabound dog of anything the fellow is saying.”
Sisters take them. Katin gestured Lesid to leave before she stepped toward the captain. Maybe Lesid could slip away in the crowd. With a smile, she faced the ship again. “I’m happy to help.”
One of the guards nudged the other. At the same time, Katin felt Lesid’s presence at her elbow. Curse him for being a stubborn gallant. The captain beckoned her, so Katin slipped past the guards and onto the gangplank. Remaining on the pier, Lesid watched her with the bundle of pastries still under his arm.
Clearing her throat, Katin marshaled the Old Fretian in her mind. “I give you greetings.”
The official stared at her and said something very rapid. She could not even tell where one word ended and the next began. His voice slipped like oil upon the water.
“Speak slowly please.” She slowed her own speech to demonstrate. “I do not understand.”
His lip curled and he spoke slowly, mockingly, as though she were a damaged person. Still she caught only a few words, making her aware of how kind the other people had been to use simple words. “Name” and “travelers” and then “oxtail.”
“Did you say ox-tail?”
“Yes. Show me your oxtail.” Then his speech exploded into a confusion of words. “Oxtail” again and then “center” or perhaps “Middle.”
“I am sorry. I do not understand.”
The man threw his hands up into the air in an obvious sign of aggravation. He turned to one of the bodyguards and gestured toward the ship imperiously. “Take it.”
The bodyguard to his left stepped toward the ship and unsheathed his sword— Except it was not a sword. It was a hollow tube, which he pointed at the captain.
“Move.” The bodyguard gestured roughly, making his meaning clear.
The captain put his hand on Katin’s shoulder. “What is happening?”
“I—” She did not know. This was not what she had studied for. Katin turned to look over her shoulder at him. “They want something. He keeps asking for an ox-tail. Maybe it’s an offering of some sort? And now, I think—but I don’t really understand. It sounds like they want the ship. But I might be wrong.”
Lesid shouted, “Hey, there! None of that.”
Katin grabbed for the rough rope rail as the gangplank shuddered. She turned back in time to see Lesid grab a bodyguard by the arm and pull him back from the ramp. The huge man looked astonished and angry. He pointed the tube at Lesid and then—
There was a flash and a clap of thunder. Smoke billowed from the end of the tube. On the docks, people screamed and ran from the sound.
Lesid took a step backward and then sat heavily. Red stained the front of his jacket. He toppled to the side and fell into the water.
“Lesid.” The captain pushed past her and stared at the spot where the sailor floated facedown. Blood curled around him in the water. “I need a lifeline!”
No. No! What had happened?
The blue man on the dock said something and it took Katin a moment to realize that he was speaking to her. “I do not understand.”
“No one move.”
“Dead. Already. Stay still. Tell them.” He spoke with exaggerated care.
Swallowing, she said, “Captain. He wants everyone to stay still.”
“No. I have a man down.” He bellowed back to the ship, without taking his eyes off Lesid. “Where’s that rope?”
A sailor ran to the edge and wrapped a coil around the rail. His fingers tightened a knot.
The blue man spoke again, in that strange sliding Fretian. “I said, no one move.”
“A man drowns!” Katin pointed at Lesid. The water was so red.
He snorted and turned to the bodyguard. “Make it two.”
The weapon flashed and thundered again. Katin covered her ears, shrieking at the noise. Below her, the captain jerked and stumbled. He grabbed the rope railing with both hands.
His feet went out from under him and he dropped to his knees, still clutching the railing. As the acrid smoke curled around her, Katin found herself behind him, pulling him back before he could fall into the water.
She wrapped her arms around him, feeling the blood soak into her tunic. Her scarf of office fell across his chest. “Stop. We do what you say.”
“Good.” The blue man’s teeth glinted in the sun. “Good.”
The bundle of pastries sat on the pier beside him, still perfectly wrapped.
Katin sat by Captain Stylian’s cot and dipped a cloth in the dish of water she had begged from the guards. “The guards tell me that we will have titam and kalcoist this afternoon for lunch.”
He grunted and shifted on the cot. “Dare I ask what that means?”
“Titam are potatoes and I think that kalcoist is lamb. At any rate, it seems to share a root with kalca, which is the word for sheep. Ist should be a diminutive, so . . . lamb. I think.”
A man came every day to give them language lessons. Proctor Veleh was patient to the point of seeming a machine, but she was the only one of the crew that made any effort. The others all muttered about escape, as though getting past the guards and their hollow tubes were a possibility.
“Any luck finding out what our crime is?”
She shook her head. In the fifnight since they had been taken, her grasp of Setish had improved enough to almost understand. Almost. Or rather, she understood the words “shy of an ox-tail,” but the meaning eluded her. “When I ask what an ox-tail is, Proctor Veleh says that it is the tail of an ox.”
“Next time I’ll have one pickled.” He shifted again on the cot and hissed. Stylian closed his eyes, breath held between tight-pressed lips. He let it out slowly. “So . . . lamb tonight, eh?”
“Yes.” She dipped her cloth in the water again and looked across the dormitory. The first mate stood in a tight cluster with three other crewmen.
She kept imagining Lesid in the corner of her eye, jacket stained red. Katin swallowed and focused on the living crewmen. One of them seemed to be blatantly counting the number of times the guard walked past the door. “Proctor Veleh says that they would normally provide a translator for the trial, but no one knows Markuth. Or Old Fretian really for that matter.”
One of the sailors broke away from the group and crossed to the captain’s cot. “I can take over, if you like.” It was not an offer.
The captain raised his eyebrows at the man’s tone. Katin bit her lips and put the cloth back in the basin. “Of course.”
She stood and strolled away, trying to linger long enough to hear what they were going to talk about, but the captain said only, “Katin tells me that we’re having lamb tonight.”
Scowling, she squatted by one of the walls and smoothed her scarf of office. With her arms crossed, she took the ends of the scarf between her hands, symbolizing the path the Five Sisters took through the heavens, and began rolling the beads between her fingers. Each Sister had a separate role in guiding a person’s behavior through life. Katin appealed to Nofar, the middle Sister, to grant the captain resiliency. He must get well and do nothing foolish. She sent a plea to Abriel to guard Lesid’s soul. Though, if the Sisters cared for an unbeliever, they should have granted him favor for rescuing her book.
Briefly rescuing. The guards had taken it from her and presumably back to the library to be destroyed.
“What are you doing?”
The man’s voice called her back to herself. She opened her eyes, ready to scowl at the crewman who had disturbed her before realizing that the question had been in Setish. Proctor Veleh stood in front of her. It was not his day to teach.
“I am praying.”
He frowned. Lines creased his face more deeply than they should have in one so young. “No, you are not.”
“What—? I— Yes. Yes, I am praying.” She held up her scarf. “This is how we pray where I come from.” Or rather, it was how the followers of the Five Sisters prayed.
“I have studied all six of our provinces, and no one prays to the moon squatting.”
“It’s not the position, it’s the—” Katin bit her explanation off. If she drew attention to her scarf of office, they might take it from her. “I have told you. We are not from one of the provinces. We are from the other side of the sea.”
He lifted his chin. “Stand. The Apex Councilor has decided to hear what you have to say.”
The Apex Councilor sat in a squat room, not at all grand, with a broad table in front of him. Yet even here, in the most utilitarian of chambers, great windows stood behind the councilor and cast light across his table. Stacks of paper crowded the surface in front of his aides, piled in neat right angles, every corner squared to the edge of the table.
On either side of the door stood guards with tall spears. Tassels hung from the shafts, making the weapons look almost ornamental, but the light that gleamed from the edges made it clear that these were honed and sharp. Their breastplates were painted with a lacquered rendition of the full moon, with silver rays blending into the metal of the armor. The velvet of their livery was a blue so deep as to be almost black. Tied around their upper arms were blue armbands, which appeared light only in contrast.
As Katin was brought into the room, the councilor shifted a pile of paper closer to himself. “You have been accused of being shy of an oxtail. How do you respond?”
“I do not know what an ox-tail is.”
Silhouetted by the window, his face was not visible, but the sharp jerk of his head was unmistakable. “Do not toy with me.”
“I am not! I have no understanding what you are speak of.”
“Every citizen must have an oxtail to travel outside their city of birth.”
“Perhaps that is the problem. I am not citizen. We are from Marth, across the sea.”
The councilor broke into laughter at this. “Even if there were land across the sea, there is no way to navigate outside the light of the eternal moon. The fine for being without your oxtail is not so egregious that you must make up fairy stories.”
“I am not! We have been trying explain since we got here that we are explorers from the other side of world. Where I come from, an ox-tail belongs firmly on an ox.”
He cocked his head. “Are you saying ‘ox-tail’?”
“Yes.” Katin slowed down and tried to adjust her speech so it was more accurate. “That is what the man at the ship asked us for.” Before he shot Lesid.
He uttered a noise that sounded as though he cursed. “You were supposed to have had language lessons.”
“From a historian. Your province speaks a particularly backward form of Setian.” He rubbed his forehead. “Still, that might explain some of the confusion. You are saying ‘ox-tail’ but what I mean is ‘oxtail.’”
Aside from a slight change in emphasis, Katin could hear no distinction. “What is the difference?”
“One is the tail of an ox. The other is a license to travel.”
She gaped at him. Lesid had been shot . . . “One of my shipmates was killed because we couldn’t understand what the man at the dock was saying.”
“All provinces have the same requirements. You should have undertaken this before leaving your home.”
Katin lost her temper and felt the touch of Dorot on her soul. “I told you. We are from across the ocean. We could not possibly have gotten an oxtail before leaving because we didn’t know that there was such a thing. If you tell us where to go to get a license, I’m sure we’ll all happily pay the fee.”
One of the aides scribbled something on a piece of paper and passed it to the councilor. “I understand that you first disturbed the library with a prank.” He studied it for a moment. “Why do you keep insisting on this fiction? Navigation is not possible out of the sight of the blessed moon.”
“We navigate by the stars. Really, have you had no one else visit your shores?”
“Castaways from one of the lower islands.” The councilor stroked his chin. “The stars move. How do you propose that one navigate by them?”
Katin faltered. She knew nothing of the subject beyond seeing the captain do it. “I . . . I am not certain.”
“Because it cannot be done.”
“No. Because I am not a navigator. If you were to ask our ship’s husband, I am certain he could explain. I am here solely because I have some ability with your language.”
“And to what do you attribute that?”
“It is related to our holy language. I am a priest and required to be versed in it.”
With her words, something in the room changed. The councilor became very still. By the door, one of the guards shifted his hands on his spear.
The councilor leaned back in his chair slowly. “I will grant that you and your crew are not native speakers of Setish. That much of your story appears to be true. So it is possible that you mean something else by the word ‘priest.’”
Katin reviewed what she had said and worried the inside of her lip. She had taken the word from Old Fretian, so perhaps the meaning had shifted. “I mean a holy woman, or man, dedicated to the service of the Five Sisters.”
“The . . . the Five Sisters.” She raised a hand to her scarf of office and held the beaded ends out to him. “Our holy book says that they came from across the ocean and we—”
“Are you saying that this is a religion?”
The sweat on Katin’s hands clung to the scarf, adding to the dirt from the fifnight in the prison. She lowered it and wiped her palms on her leggings. “By my understanding of the word, yes, but the language may have changed.”
“Do you worship these Five Sisters?”
“So brazen.” The councilor barked a laugh. “Ironic that the most damning piece of evidence against you is the one that convinces me your story is true.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Every year, the Council of Purity finds someone misled by one old cult or another and takes steps to correct the poor soul. These fools have turned their back on proper worship of the eternal moon and, knowing that it is wrong, they try to hide their depravity. Yet here you stand claiming allegiance to goddesses that no one has ever heard of as though there would be no consequences.”
“They are not goddesses.”
“So you deny it now?”
“No.” Katin’s voice was louder than she intended. “I merely wish to be clear. Goddesses are born that way, if one believes in such things. The Five Sisters came from here and shared their wisdom with the early Marth people. It is said that they were elevated to the stars to continue to watch over us and guide us.”
He waved his hand to dismiss her words. “You do not deny, though, that it is a religion.”
“I do not.” Katin licked her lips. “You spoke of consequences. What are those?”
“The moon is eternal and so we live by her light. Either accept that, or accept the absence of her light.”
Laughter rose unbidden to Katin’s lips. “Given that until a fifnight ago I had never seen the moon, I can easily accept the absence of her light.”
Looking down, he made a mark upon the paper in front of him. “Place her in a cave. Then blind her.”
The councilor waved her away. “You are not to be trusted now. Of course you will profess to love the eternal moon, but you have already shown that you do not.” As they led her from the room, the councilor spoke behind her. “Wait. Do not blind her yet. If she is the only one who speaks their language . . . It occurs to me that we should speak to this ship’s husband. If they do come from out of the sight of the moon, then we should find this land and bring them into the light.”
A torch flamed in an iron wall socket, lighting the crude underground passage. One of the guards held Katin’s arms behind her as the other ran his hands over her body, searching for weapons. He focused his attention at her waist and sides, but when he found nothing tucked into her belt, he stepped back with a grunt. Neither man seemed to care about her scarf or notice the pockets sewn into her sleeves. She had a moment to realize that she’d seen no heavy sleeves here, before the guard thrust her into the cell. Katin stumbled over the threshold and nearly fell on the rough stone floor.
The guard smirked, face crazed in the dancing light. “Enjoy the dark.”
The door slammed shut, dropping the cell into twilight. Katin waited for the darkness to descend.
Light trickled under the door and from a crack in the wall. It was not bright, but enough to make out the shape of the room. A small table with a chair stood by the wall. A cot stood opposite it. Her final piece of furnishing was a bucket to hold her waste.
The cave was nothing more than a windowless room.
Katin sank onto the bed and pulled the glowdisc out of her sleeve pocket. She turned the disc over in her hands without opening it. There was nothing she needed to see, but having the smooth surface under her hands helped her think.
Their ships ran dark. Windows everywhere. Crude torches . . . Had she seen a single artificial light besides the torch? No. With the light of the moon, they did not need anything except on cloudy nights.
And perhaps . . . perhaps they thought this was a dark room.
Regardless of what they thought, she needed to get out of here before they blinded her. Katin shuddered. The scriptures were full of stories of people being blinded, and she was suddenly certain she knew their origin.
On the small table, Katin had placed her glowdisc facing the door. The bedsheet hung from the rafters, to create a loose partition in the room. She held the bottom corner of the bedsheet in one hand, waiting until she heard the footsteps of her guard close to the room. Shaking the disc until the light reached its brightest, she tried to keep her breath steady.
Her glowdisc’s silver-blue light slipped under the door into the hall. The guard’s footsteps stopped outside.
“What in heaven’s name?” His keys rattled.
Katin let the sheet fall in front of the glowdisc, to diffuse the light and make the source seem larger than it was, as if it were the Harvest Feast pageant. She leapt across the small room and grabbed the waste bucket by the door.
The keys scraped in the lock, and the door swung open. The guard gawked at the glowing sheet and took a step into the cell. His torch guttered as he crossed the threshold. Katin upended her bucket of waste on the torch, covering the smoking end with the metal. The guard cursed as the excrement and urine ran down his arm.
Katin swung the bucket hard, catching him across the side of his head. The guard stumbled forward and his feet tangled in the ties for her leggings. He staggered and fell into the cell. Katin dashed the bucket against his head again, and he lay still. Shuddering, she dropped the bucket. Moving as quickly as she could, Katin began to strip the guard of his clothes, wrinkling her nose at the stench of the waste bucket. As she rolled him over, her hand brushed the sheath by his side. He wore one of the hollow tubes.
Hesitating for only a moment, Katin unbuckled the belt that held the tube at his waist. It would surely be more useful than his uniform, if she could figure out how to work the weapon.
Katin kept her shoulders back and marched with as much authority as she could muster. She had needed to roll the cuffs of the guard uniform up, but it hid the worst of the staining, and in the shadows of the reflected moonlight she hoped it would pass. Though for all she knew, they had height restrictions on who could be a guard.
With her lower lip clenched in her teeth, she slipped into the building where her shipmates were held. The captain was not in good condition, but they needed to leave and this was likely their only chance. Katin approached the guard slouching by the window. It cast a beam of light across the corridor. Anyone approaching would be well visible.
The guard straightened upon seeing her and made a movement with his hand over his heart. A salute? A greeting?
Guessing, she hastily copied his movement, hoping it was even remotely appropriate.
“What can I do for you?”
Praying to Yorira for aid in the deception, Katin lowered her voice. “The foreigners.” She had been rehearsing this phrase the entire way here, so it would roll off her tongue as if she were a native Setish speaker. “The Apex Councilor says they aren’t worthy to see the light. Supposed to take them to the caves.”
“Now? The eternal moon will be full in less than half an hour. You won’t get them there before prayer time.”
She shrugged, as if she didn’t care. “Orders.”
His frown deepened. “And by yourself? For twenty men?”
Before the guard could finish enumerating the reasons that this made no sense, Katin had the end of the tube pressed against his forehead. He choked off his words, going cross-eyed looking at the weapon. His swallow was audible in the stillness of the night.
“Is this clearer? Take me to the foreigners.”
He held very still, which was fortunate, as she had no idea what to do with the weapon. Only the fact that one end was obviously a handle gave her even a hint of how to hold it. Reaching forward, she pulled his weapon from the sheath and tucked it into her belt.
His voice was steadier than hers would have been. “I could yell.”
“I could kill you.”
“The gunshot would call the other guards.”
“So the outcome for me is the same either way, but very different for you.” She pressed the tube against his head more firmly. “Stand. If you want a chance to live.”
The guard wet his lips and let out a slow breath. He slowly rose and led her down the hall to where the crewmembers of the ship—no—to where her fellow countrymen were being held. Katin followed behind, with the weapon trained upon his back.
When they reached the cell, she rested the tip on his spine. “Unlock the door.”
The guard reached for his keys. They unclipped from his belt and fell to the ground with a clatter. Katin scowled at him. That was clever. He had followed her instructions, but in such a way as it would force her to take the gun off his back to pick up the keys.
And this was where the Five Sisters’ meditation exercises came in handy. Katin kept the weapon against his back as she reached forward with one foot. Sliding the keys toward her, she was able to scoop them off the floor with the toe of her boot as if she were practicing Dorot’s stance. With her free hand, Katin gave them back. “Unlock the door.”
The guard grimaced but did so, without attempting anything else.
When the door swung open, Katin gave him a shove forward. In the cell, the crew of her ship sat up, blinking in their beds. Tempting as it was to look to the captain, Katin kept her gaze on the guard. She spoke in her native tongue. “Someone secure him. Quietly.”
One sailor stared at her in open disbelief for a moment, before yanking a rope made of torn sheets out of his cot’s mattress. Where had the rope come from? In a matter of minutes, the guard was stripped of his uniform and trussed in the makeshift rope with a wad of cloth shoved in his mouth for a gag. The other crewmen scrambled into their clothes, pulling on boots and shirts in disciplined silence.
Now, Katin could take the time to look to Captain Stylian.
He stood by his bed, pulling on the guard’s uniform. That morning he could barely sit and now, aside from a wince as he slipped the shirt on, it was as if his health had never been in question.
They had been planning an escape and had not told her. A knot of nausea twisted in her stomach. They had not trusted her because her people were from here. Clenching her jaw, Katin turned away from him and headed to the door.
A moment later, Stylian was by her side. He leaned down to breathe in her ear. “I give thanks to the Sisters that you are safe.”
Katin shook her head. “You’ve been pretending to be sicker than you are.”
“I kept hoping that they would take me out of the cell to a doctor, or bring a doctor here that we could use as a hostage.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“It seemed safer to pretend to everyone than to chance our captors guessing.”
She snorted, just letting the air huff out of her nose softly. “You were ready to leave without me.”
“We were ready to come find you.” He laid two fingers on her wrist. “I wouldn’t leave one of my crew behind.”
At his words, her nausea eased. They were all fellow countrymen in this place. Katin handed the captain one of the weapons. “Thank you.”
By the door, a sailor waved his hand, signaling that the hall was empty. They headed out into the moon’s cold light.
With each turn, Katin expected them to be caught, but the shadows served them well. As the moon swelled to full, the cold silver light flooded the streets and houses. They were exposed when crossing the streets, but tucked under the eaves, in the shadows, they were nearly invisible.
The wind carried hints of salt air, and the captain straightened his head. Even without a nautical background, Katin’s own stride quickened at the scent. The sea would carry her home.
The captain held up his hand, signaling a stop. He eyed the end of the street, where the harbor lay. He chewed his lip and straightened the guard’s uniform. “I’m going to scout ahead in case they are waiting for us.”
Katin whispered, “I can go.”
“I can tell the state of the ship, and you won’t know what to look for.”
It was sensible, though she still wished he would not go. “Both of us? As if we are patrolling?”
He shifted his weight, looking again to the end of the street. “Agreed. It will look more natural with a pair, I think.”
As they strode down the street toward the harbor, the captain rested his hand upon the hilt of the tube weapon. “Do you know how to work this?”
Ahead of them lay their ship, tied to the same dock they had first arrived at. Only a single guard waited at the foot of the gangplank.
The captain’s breath eased out in relief. “Thank the Sisters. No one has noticed our absence yet.”
Better than that, the guard lay on his back on a mat, with his face tilted up to face the moon in an attitude of prayer. Their arrival had coincided with the midnight moon reaching its full brightness. Though Katin and Stylian were exposed walking down the street, the guard would be night-blind from staring at the bright orb overhead.
Stylian turned briefly to wave the crew forward.
They responded instantly and hurried as one down the street to their ship. Katin quickened her own pace. When they hit the wood of the docks, their footsteps echoed against the houses behind them. The guard looked down from the moon.
He blinked, staggering to his feet. “Alarm!”
As his voice rose into the night, Katin recognized him—not a guard at all, but Proctor Veleh. Behind them, metal clattered as a half dozen soldiers appeared on the dock, cutting off their retreat.
Katin sprang forward and shoved the tube against the Proctor’s chest. Her bluff had worked once; perhaps it would again. In Setish, she shouted, “Stop! Or the Proctor dies.”
The soldiers slowed at the end of the pier, their weapons raised to point at the sailors. There were far more sailors than soldiers, but every single guard had one of these cursed tubes.
The proctor looked past her to the sailors and appeared to be counting their number. “I confess surprise. I had not thought to check the prison after your escape from the caves.”
“Tell your soldiers to leave.”
“No. You may shoot me if you like, but you shall not escape judgment under the blessed light of the eternal moon.” Proctor Veleh looked down his nose at Katin.
“As long as we escape here, I’m fine taking my chance on judgment.”
“Even if I stepped aside and let you aboard, what then? You are advocating a heresy, and the Apex Council will find you no matter where you go.”
“We’re from across the sea.” The image of the moon sinking below the horizon gave her an idea. “If your ship follows us, our Five Sisters will drown the moon.”
The Proctor laughed. “You think we do not know that our world is round? The moon does not drown if one goes too far east. She remains over the capital to provide her blessings upon our people.”
Katin looked to the captain and switched back to her native language. “Ideas on what to do?”
“This?” Stylian pointed his weapon at the guards.
A tremendous flash and clap rang out in the night. The guards scattered, ducking behind barrel and poles, but none of them fell. The sound unleashed the sailors to fall upon the guards. More claps resounded through the night.
Yells, cries of pain, and a brimstone stench crowded against each other. Katin pushed the Proctor hard in the chest, and he stumbled back. His heel went out past the edge of the dock and he tumbled over.
“Move! Move!” Stylian bellowed, and like wharf rats, the sailors swarmed aboard the ship.
Scrambling and cursing, Katin hauled a wounded sailor up, throwing his arm over her shoulders. The others followed, leaving behind the bodies of the guards, but not their fellow shipmates.
As soon as the last one was aboard, Captain Stylian gave the order to cast off. Katin helped with the wounded, attempting to serve some purpose as they pulled away from the dock.
She glanced back once.
Proctor Veleh splashed in the water at the base of the dock. The blessed light of the moon shone upon him.
They sailed due east under full sail for hours. Katin stood with her hands tucked beneath her arms. Between her fingers she rolled the barrel of the weapon as if it were a prayer bead, begging each of the Sisters for aid in their escape.
The prayer was automatic, but the comfort did not follow. There was no safe place for her people. Not at home, not here.
The captain came to join her at the rail, still in his borrowed uniform. He sank down on a coil of rope with a groan.
Katin tore her gaze away from the waning moon. “Are you all right?”
“I may have lied a little about faking my illness.”
She snorted and went back to watching the path behind them.
“Thinking about your Sisters’ birthplace?”
She rolled the barrel another turn. “The Apex Councilor said that they would send ships after us.”
“You mean the fellow at the dock? Even if they got a crew up and running as soon as he was out of the water, we’ve got a significant head start on them.”
“No. His boss. And I don’t mean just us, I mean Marth. I think they’re going to invade. The map of the Center Kingdom had no borders. Remember? They’ve conquered the entire continent. Bringing everyone under the light of the eternal moon.”
He pointed at the weapon in her hand. “With those . . . Maybe the Five Sisters led us here to give us warning.”
Katin stared at him. “That’s the third time you’ve spoken of the Sisters tonight. You don’t have to act like you believe in them.”
“To my surprise . . . I’m not. Not pretending, I mean.” The captain pointed at the cluster of stars in the sky. “You told me that every story has some truth behind it. Finding the truth here . . . ? Makes me trust the parts I haven’t seen the truth of yet. Feel like they must have been watching over us, you know?”
Katin followed his gaze up, to where the Sisters traveled their path across the heavens. The trail of stars behind them might even hold Lesid. Maybe the truth was that the Five Sisters had fled their homeland, or maybe they had been blown off course, or maybe they were guardians who looked over her people. And the light of Musa lay behind them, casting silver across the sea.
Brightest light in the darkness, it consumes all who enter. . . . Not all. She had passed through the light of the moon and returned.
The moon threw its silver light in a band across the sea, chasing her home.
17 thoughts on “I’m 46 today! Have a novelette as a party favour.”
Happy Birthday, Mary!
A very happy birthday!
Loved this story in the Shadows Beneath anthology. So awesome and valuable to be able to see its development. Thank you for writing it!
Happy Birthday! Have a fantastic day!
This was beautiful. And happy birthday to you! 🙂
Happy birthday. I love this short story. The question… “Why did the five sisters flee?” doesn’t seem to have occured to them. ANd the arrival to a highly civilized insular country… played out quite nicely.
Happy birthday, and thanks for the gift.
Lovely, Mary–thank you for sharing this gift with us! Happy Birthday!!
Happy birthday, and thank you for the birthday present!
Happy birthday, and thank you for the story!
Ah! I remember this “Excuses” episode. I’ll have to look up the book to see what lies between. Thank you for sharing your talent with us.
And happiest of birthdays. 🙂
Happy Birthday! As an engineer I’m not to, well, anything artistic. But I have to say, it is amazing to my how easily you write.
Sincerely impressed, Eliot “Gunner” Gunn
The secret is that you only see the finished work. Usually.
It’s kind of like saying, “I’m amazed at how easily that bridge stands there.” It stands, but getting it there wasn’t easy.
But…I didn’t get you anything! It’s delicious. How kind! Thank you and Happy Birthday.
Happy Birthday! 🙂
VERY nice world buildng! As Oliver said to Mr. Bumble in “Oliver Twist”, “I want some… more?”
Sooo…. it’s your birthday, eh. You seem to be confused. On one’s birthday, one should RECEIVE gifts, not GIVE them. So… in keeping with the tradition:
I’d give you access to more but my “writing” page doesn’t seem to be working for me just now. I’ve posted a variety of shorts and short-shorts there. If you can make the blog behave, help yourself, and “happy birthday” (kid.)
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