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Summer Solstice

Summer 66


THE SUMMER SOLSTICE arrived eleven days later.

In the north among the Merikit, the Earth Wife’s chosen one, Hatch, would fight to keep her favor. Jame wondered, though, if he would try very hard, given how he had avoided the role during her year at the college when she herself had held that position. She also wondered about the Merikit girl Prid, Hatch’s beloved, and about the new crop of babies credited to her, Jame, from her stint as the Favorite. It was odd to think about her growing family in the hills when among the Knorth she only had her brother and cousin Kindrie as blood-kin. Here in this distant land, she missed them all.

The question remained, though: should she visit Kothifir on this of all days? Did she want to risk getting mixed up with the elemental Four again, assuming they had any role in this city at all? So far, she had only met the Old Pantheon goddess Mother Vedia and such New Pantheon deities as Krothen and Ruso. The suspicion nagged, though, that if the Kencyrath was to make a real home anywhere on Rathillien, it had to come to terms with that world’s native powers, and no one but Jame seemed to be making that effort.

Anyway, she was curious.

And by good fortune, the sixty-sixth of Summer happened to fall on one of the cadets’ free days.

Hence by midmorning Jame again found herself Overcliff, at the foot of the avenue that curved inward away from the Rim. The street swarmed with people, mostly apprentices gay in their holiday attire, bedecked with ribbons denoting their guild alliances. The shop shutters were closed against their boisterous nature, although many had set up small stands out front to sell the holiday makers refreshments and trinkets in honor of the day. There were also many spectators, mostly pushed to the side or leaning over balconies above. From the excited overall roil, it appeared that the crowd was waiting for something.

“Come to join the run?” asked a voice in Jame’s ear.

She turned to find Kroaky loitering at her elbow, festooned, it seemed, with the ribbons of every guild in the city. He grinned down at her from his lanky height.

“What run?”

“Look. Tell me what you see.”

Jame scanned the mob. It was made up of young men and women but also of child apprentices in their own huddles. Now she saw that similar ribbons clustered together and that one in each group carried something golden—a glove, a carved piece of wood, a fire-iron, each apparently the emblem of their guild.

“Look,” said Kroaky again, and pointed at a walkway over the street. Three figures stood there. Ruso, Lord Artifice, blazed in his red armor. Beside him stood a plump youngster in a white tunic whom Jame recognized as Lady Professionate. The tall, elderly man stooping next to her must therefore be Lord Merchandy.

The latter spoke to the crowd, but his thin voice was inaudible this far back. Kroaky grabbed Jame’s wrist and tugged her toward the front of the crowd of spectators. Lord Merchandy gestured, and the child ’prentices pushed forward chattering like so many sparrows. Then a silence fell on them and they tensed. A white handkerchief fluttered down. When it hit the ground, they rushed forward, many of them carried off their feet in the crush. The crowd roared. The hurtling youngsters took a sharp left into the next side avenue, trailed by someone’s crying toddler. Birds fluttered up as the runners pursued their torturous course through the canyons of the city and distant onlookers cheered their progress.

Lady Professionate spoke next. Stray words reached Jame as she neared: “. . . city . . . guild . . . honor . . .”

The young women among the runners pushed to the front. Down flitted another white cloth and off they went, this time turning right onto the next side street.

Kroaky put his hands on Jame’s shoulders. “Now comes the main event, a straight dash to the central plaza.”

The young men jostled forward. As with the previous groups, each centered protectively about someone carrying something golden, but at the edges fights had already begun with the neighboring clusters of apprentices. This race was shaping up to be a running battle before it even started.

Ruso addressed the boys in his booming voice: “For the honor of your city, your guild, and the Great Mother whose day this is . . . here now, wait for it!”

One group, jumping the signal, had surged forward. It checked and drew back to jeers from the others. Ruso waited a beat longer until it was in position, and then down came his handkerchief.

Simultaneously, Jame felt Kroaky’s hands tighten on her shoulders and thrust her forward into the surge.

It knocked her off her feet. Bodies tumbled over her, cursing, kicking, until she fought free and managed to scramble up. Even then, the run carried her along with it. She had surfaced between two battling guild groups. Boys on either side pummeled each other between strides, then sprinted to catch up with their standard bearers. Jame wove between their fists. Never before had she used water-flowing and wind-blowing on the run. Her main goal was to avoid being trampled, but in doing so she found herself slipping through the crowd toward the lead runners. They were nearing the plaza. Suddenly a boy in front of her tripped and his precious cargo flew out of his hands. Coming up behind, Jame caught the golden boot. Its protectors re-formed around her.

“Run, run, RUN!” they panted.

The plaza lay just ahead. In another moment she would burst into it.

“. . . the Great Mother,” Ruso had said, “whose day this is . . .”

Oh no. Not again.

Jame thrust the gilded boot into the arms of the red-haired boy who ran next to her and tried to brake. Those following carried her forward, a pace behind the redhead. Thus they rushed into the plaza, just before the girls erupted from a street to the right and the children from one to the left.

Everyone was shouting. His friends seized the redhead and hoisted him, dazed, still clutching the golden boot, onto their shoulders. They started a boisterous procession around the Rose Tower, followed by the other apprentices wildly waving their ribbons. The noise was an assault in itself.

Jame eased out of the crush. On its edge, a lean hand with grimy nails reached out to pull her clear. She found herself looking into Graykin’s wrathful eyes.

“Just what were you trying to do?” he demanded, all but shaking her.

“Not get killed, primarily.”

Kroaky shouldered his way through the crowd of cheering onlookers.

“There you are,” he said with a wide grin, “and you too, Master Intelligencer.”

Jame took in Graykin’s dusty robe and the dirty white sash bound around his waist, this time understanding the latter’s significance.

“You’re the master of the Spies’ Guild? How did that happen?”

Graykin fussed with the sash, half proud, half defiant. “I’d just arrived here and joined the guild when the last Change came. Believe me, I was more surprised than anyone to be chosen.”

“It’s been known to happen,” said Kroaky cheerfully. “Look at Lady Professionate. Just be careful which of his questions you answer, Talisman.”

“You can compel the truth now?” Jame asked.

Her servant squirmed. “As Master Intelligencer, from the unwary, yes. I swore that I would never use tricks with you and I won’t. However . . .”

“You would really, really like to try.”

“You never tell me anything!” he burst out. “For example, why did this boy just call you ‘Talisman’?”

Jame almost told him, but stopped herself.

“I’ll answer as I see fit, thank you. As for you,” she turned on Kroaky, “why did you shove me into that maelstrom?”

The ginger-haired boy shrugged. “For fun. Why else does anyone do anything? Besides, I hear that you Knorth are remarkably hard to kill. Consider it a test.” He took her arm. “Now come along if you want to see how these festivities end. But not you,” he added to Graykin. “You aren’t welcome where we’re going.”


LEAVING GRAYKIN BEHIND to melt resentfully back into the shadows, Jame let Kroaky tow her through the crowd, then shook off his hand. “Where are we going, and why do you keep touching me?”

“Don’t you like it? Fang does.”

“That’s another question: what is a Waster doing here?”

“That’s your fault, indirectly. She lost her family at the Cataracts. The Horde tends to eat its orphans, so she wandered westward to Kothifir in search of a new clan.”

“And those are the Undercliff children?”

“Yes. Runaways and orphans, most of them. The boy with a broken head is better, by the way.”

“Glad to hear it.”

They were in the back alleys now, approaching a dark hole in the road.

“The Undercliff again?”

“After you.”

The huge cavern below bustled with people, as crowded as the square above. Some were Overcliffers in their bright, holiday clothes. Others were Undercliffers, more subdued. Many seemed to be from outside the city, farmers and herders, perhaps, and some even from the Wastes, notable for their blue cheches.

“This is best seen from above,” said Kroaky. He made another grab for her arm, and grinned when she evaded him. They climbed the stair to the children’s sleeping cave. Fang met them, scowling, at the top.

“Why did you bring her?”

Kroaky attempted to put an arm around each and was rebuffed by both.

“Now, ladies.”

Jame sat down on the ledge overlooking the cavern, followed by Kroaky and, reluctantly, by Fang, who placed herself on his far side.

“How far back do the caves go?” Jame asked.

“Miles and miles,” said Kroaky, dreamily, “getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s where the Old Ones live. Oh, there are wonders in the depths—draperies of stone, cascading water, lace-thin shelves, caverns that glow with even a hint of outside light, silent pools where eyeless fish swim and nameless creatures eat them. Just think of it: all that below and above, tower on tower of marble, limestone, and travertine. They say that only the god-king keeps one from collapsing into the other.”

Fang snorted. “If so, he doesn’t always succeed. What about those rock falls this past spring? We lost one whole branch of side caves and the river nearly broke through.”

“That wasn’t his fault,” said Kroaky, with a rare show of defensiveness. “He was distracted during the last Change.”

“He always is. And it’s getting worse.”

“As I understand it,” said Jame, “King Kruin exiled the Old Pantheon Undercliff. Why?”

“His precious prophet didn’t want any competition, did he?” said Fang. “Not when he claimed to represent the one true god.”

“What prophet?”

“The leader of the Karnids, of course.”

“What god?”

“As to that, all I know is that they claim this world is only a shadow of the one to come where the faithful will be rewarded and the rest of us will suffer.”

Jame had heard of such beliefs before, and of other prophets, but this one somehow sounded different. Perhaps it was because of the black history that the Kencyrath shared with Urakarn.

“I take it that Kruin’s son Krothen doesn’t share that view,” she said. “Why hasn’t he welcomed the old gods back?”

“How many d’you think we need Overcliff?” Kroaky demanded. “Krothen is enough for us topside.”

“And the guild lords.”

“Huh. Them.”

“And the grandmasters.” Now Jame was goading him, but she was also unclear about the difference between the three lords and each guild’s individual grandmaster.

“You call them gods?” Kroaky laughed scornfully. “All right, so they have special powers, but they aren’t immortal. What’s a god without that?”

“Still,” said Fang, “you have to admit that the Changes have come more frequently and hit harder since the Old Pantheon gods were exiled. The king should think about inviting them back.”

Jame agreed. “It isn’t safe to lock up gods in your cellar, so to speak.”

Kroaky harrumphed, then pointed as if glad for the interruption. “Hush. Here they come now.”

Faint music sounded from the back of the cavern and the crowd stilled. It drew nearer, echoing—pipes, flutes, drums, something eldritch that might have been the wind whistling between the worlds. Figures advanced carrying torches. Their shadows preceded them, casting fantastic shapes on the cavern’s fissured walls. The crowd drew back as the procession entered the body of the cave.

Jame was reminded of Mother Vedia’s approach on her feast day. There, in fact, she was, again seated like a living statue on an upraised litter, again surrounded by her dancing, snake-wreathed attendants, but this time without bats or followers.

Before her went a gross figure looking like a younger version of the Earth Wife but also hugely pregnant, attended by a host of waddling women in a similar state.

After them, unaccompanied, came a skinny crone carrying a box. While people cheered the other two, they turned away from this last figure, shielding their children’s eyes.

“The Great Mother in her aspects of healer, life-bearer, and hungry tomb,” said Kroaky, raising his voice over the renewed clamor of the crowd as the next god emerged from the shadows.

“What’s in the box?”

“Death, of course.”

Jame regarded the diverse figures and remembered her conversation with Gran Cyd, queen of the Merikit. Showing her a fertility figure and an imu, both representing the Earth Wife, she had said, “These images were ancient long before Mother Ragga was even born,” which made sense since the Four had only come into being with the activation of the Kencyr temples, some three thousand years ago.

Jame had wondered at the time if the Earth Wife and the other three of Rathillien’s elemental Four, while each a distinct individual, wore different, older aspects in different cultures and were subject to older stories. Here, perhaps, was the answer.

It raised a further question, however: how had the deification of the Four affected the Old Pantheon, which preceded them?

There was the Earth Wife, at any rate, in three of her earlier native aspects.

Next came a cauldron seething with river fish. Fingerling trout crept over the edge of the pot and pulled up a figure glittering with scales. Cold round eyes regarded the crowd through a net of green hair and pouting lips parted over needle teeth in a smile meant to entice.

The Eaten One, thought Jame, or some variation of her, probably linked to the Amar. Did she also take a human lover? Where was Drie now, still blissfully in his beloved’s arms or deep within her digestive tract?

The goddess of love and lost causes walked behind her, backward, gazing into a mirror whose surface rippled like water. Around her feet, threatening to trip her, swarmed a host of green and yellow frogs.

“Geep!” they chorused. “Geep, geep, GEEP!”

Rain pattered in their wake.

Gorgo, thought Jame, happy to see an almost familiar face, or faces. She wondered how he and his priest Loogan were doing in Tai-tastigon. Sooner or later, she would have to find out.

The last frog hopped frantically past, followed by a long, low, dark shape with a scaly tail on one end and a cruelly toothed snout on the other, waddling on the plump, pale limbs of a human baby.

More followed. Those clearly aligned with the Four seemed to fare the best. Others passed as phantoms of their former selves, and received little recognition from the crowd. Who now worshipped that dog-faced being or that drifting tatter of silk, that murky orange glow or that thing of clattering bones?

A dazzling light entered the cavern.

“Ooh!” breathed the crowd, and covered their eyes.

Jame peered through her fingers at the sun in all his glory. She could almost make out a figure at the heart of the blaze, a man in red pants stumbling forward supporting a giant, swollen phallus with both hands. It was this member from which the light emanated.

The moon circled him, her face alternately that of the maiden, the matron, and the hag, just like the pommel of the Ivory Knife. She looked up with shifting features and saluted Jame.

“Sister, join us!”

Was this also a mortal who had undergone at least a temporary apotheosis—like the guild lords above? Like Dalis-sar in Tai-tastigon? Like she herself, eventually, if she became That-Which-Destroys?

Heat washed through the cavern, worse than when the sun had come among them, but without his dazzling light. A woman carrying a hearthside firepot, a martial figure clanking in the red-hot armor of war, and then came a stillness. Heat gave way to a sudden, mortal chill. Jame felt the sweat on her brow turn cold.

“I won’t look,” said Fang, and hid her face against Kroaky’s shoulder.

A cloaked and hooded figure had entered the cavern. He made his way forward slowly, feeling ahead of him with an iron-shod staff. Why should he cause such dread? Perhaps it was the smoke seeping from within his garments. Perhaps it was the stench of burned flesh. Perhaps it was because he came alone, without attendants, and all turned their backs on him.

“Nemesis,” said Kroaky, glaring down defiantly although his voice shook. “I had nothing to do with the old man’s death. Ask Tori. He was there.”

“Wha—” Jame started to ask him, but memory caught her by the throat.

My father, nailed to the keep door with three arrows through his chest, cursing my brother and me as he died. . . .

“It wasn’t our fault,” she said out loud. “D’you hear me, Burnt Man? Neither one of us was there!”

Wind frisked into the cavern. It swirled around the dark figure, teasing apart his robe, releasing streamers of smoke until with a flick it twitched away the garment altogether. For a moment, a man-shaped thing of soot and ash hovered there. Then the wind scattered it.

The crowd cheered.

“They think he’s gone,” said Kroaky in an oddly husky voice, “but he always comes back. Like sorrow. Like guilt.”

The wind remained, now tumbling about the onlookers, snatching off this man’s hat, flinging up that woman’s skirt. Laughter followed its antics, all the louder with relief. A figure appeared, whirling like a dervish in a storm of black feathers, long white beard wrapped around him, feet not quite touching the ground.

“Who . . . ?” asked Jame.

“The Old Man,” said Kroaky, almost reverently, holding down his ginger hair with both hands. “The Tishooo. The east wind.”

“In the Riverland, we call him the south wind.”

“Well, he would come at you from that direction, wouldn’t he? In fact, he moves about pretty much as he pleases, the tricky old devil. Some say that he governs the flow of time itself in the Wastes, don’t ask me how. Here we most often get him direct from Nekrien. He keeps away the Shuu and the Ahack from the south and west, from the Barrier across the Wastes and from Urakarn. We don’t honor those here.”

“What about the north wind?”

“The Anooo? That blows us the Kencyr Host and occasional weirding. Blessing or curse? You tell me. Without the east wind and the mountains, though, Kothifir, Gemma, and the other Rim cities would be buried in sand like the other ancient ruins of the Wastes.”

The procession wound around the cavern until it reached its center. Here torches were set in holes drilled in the limestone floor and the avatars of the Four joined hands within the circle. They began to rotate slowly sunwise. Their worshippers formed a withershins ring around them, then another going the opposite way, and so on and on, alternating, to the edges of the cave. Jame grew dizzy watching their gyrations. Everyone was chanting, but not the same thing:

“There was an old woman . . .”

“There was an old man . . .”

“There was a maid . . .”

“There was a lad . . .”

The circle next to the gods slowed, swayed, and reversed itself. One by one, the rest corrected themselves until all were revolving the same way, those innermost going slowly, those outermost running, panting, to keep up. The world seemed to shift on its axis. Torches flared blue, casting shadows across an open space grown impossibly wide, split by fiery sigils.

They had opened Sacred Space.

Into it stepped two figures, one dressed in loose red pants, and the other in spangled green. Jame recognized the former as the engorged sun god. The latter was the redhead into whose arms she had thrust the gilded boot, the winner of the boys’ run. So that was how they chose the Challenger, which she nearly had become. Again.

The boys bowed to each other, then crouched and began to glide back and forth, sweeping alternate legs behind them. At first their movements were slow, almost ritualistic, and incredibly fluid. One swung his foot at the other, who ducked under it, then swung in his turn. Thus they pinwheeled across the open space between fiery sigils and back again. The Favorite in red aimed a leg sweep at his opponent. The Challenger in green jumped over it. In the middle of a cartwheel, the Challenger launched a roundhouse kick at the other’s face. They were seriously going at it now, weaving back and forth, striking and dodging in a fury of limbs.

Jame watched intently. She had learned the basics of Kothifiran street fighting from Brier, but had never before seen two experts engaged in it. They barely used their hands at all except to block foot strikes, and their legs seemed to be everywhere in graceful, swinging arcs. Some moves were like water-flowing and some like fire-leaping, but in surprising combinations. No wonder first Brier and then Torisen had beaten her at the beginning and the end of her college career, both knocking out the same tooth now barely grown back.

The Challenger leaped and twisted. His foot, scything through the air, caught the Favorite a solid blow on the jaw that dropped him where he stood.

The crowd roared. All the women in it rushed into Sacred Space, collapsing it, converging on the new Favorite whose smug look turned to one of dawning horror. A moment later they had overwhelmed him.

“There,” said Kroaky, patting Jame on the back. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t win the run?”

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