Back | Next

Chapter Three

“I heard she’s a werewolf,” Indrajit said.

“Oh, I heard she was an illusion,” Fix murmured. “She doesn’t exist at all. She’s a figment of the public’s imagination.”

“No, she changes into a wolf. On the full moon. Or the new, I can’t remember.”

“Maybe you heard that she’s Orem Thrush’s secret daughter. Maybe that’s why someone wants to kill her.”

“One of the other great families, you mean? The Lord Marshal? I heard he’s a real bastard. Killed a servant for boiling his tea too long. When one of his horses came up lame at the Racetrack, he had a nail pounded into the groom’s heel.”

“Perhaps she’s a priestess in the entourage of the Vin Dalu Rao.”

“The Dismemberer? He’s terrifying. I heard he’s incapable of feeling pain, and that he runs a foundling house entirely to care for the children of the enemies he’s killed, raising them as his own sons and daughters as the ultimate act of revenge.”

“I’ve also heard she’s a Xiba’albi spy. And that she’s part of a burglary ring, and while theatergoers watch her perform the part of Zolit in The Wanderers of Love, her accomplices are burgling their homes.”

“Now you’re making fun of me.”

“A little bit.”

“Still, the burglary thing sounds like a good idea. Maybe we should suggest it to her.”

Indrajit and Fix moved laterally across the Crooked Mile, up toward the Crown. They walked alleys and secret staircases and through the cracks between stores, taking a winding route free of sedans and retinues from one zig of the Crooked Mile to the next zag and on to the next. In their shortcuts, they scattered pecking flocks of long-plumed red Kishi Fowl and hunched-over, scurrying rats.

At a wooden post supporting the sagging corner of a plastered building Fix abruptly stopped. Leaning closer to the column, he examined a sheet of parchment pinned to it with a brass nail.

“What are you doing?” Indrajit asked.

“This notice is outdated.” Fix collected the scrap of writing material, secreting it inside his tunic. “So I’ll reuse the parchment.”

Indrajit snorted.

They were headed for the Palace of Shadow and Joy, a theater in the Crown, where Bank Street with its guildhalls collided at an oblique angle with the Street of Fallen Stars, lined with old-money villas and foreign embassies. The Palace was one of Kish’s grandest theaters, the sort where only the highest of high opera could be performed, and where only residents with good taste, spare money, and lots of leisure time attended.

The sort where actresses like Ilsa without Peer performed.

“So are you part fish?” Fix asked. They skipped across another stretch of the Crooked Mile, briefly exposed to the bright blue sky, and then plunged again into narrow, brick-lined darkness. He made fish lips and mimed blowing bubbles.

“I’m Blaatshi,” Indrajit said. “We’re an ancient and noble people, but in recent years our numbers have dwindled.”

“Everybody is an ancient and noble people,” Fix said. “But my question is, since you’re green and you have eyes on the sides of your head, are you descended from fish? Also, that bony ridge you have for a nose…it would look good on a fish.”

“That’s ludicrous. In the first place, I’m not green. I’m mahogany, with hints of green.”

Fix considered this. “Mahogany is brown with red in it.”

“I know what mahogany is.”

“So you are brown and red and green.”

“You see why I use the word mahogany? It sounds much more elegant.”

“But don’t red and green cancel out?” Fix asked. “Wouldn’t that make you brown and white? Or do you see yourself more like a Bonean stripehorse, but with three colors? Or spotted, like a leopard?”

“My complexion is a rich brown.” Indrajit felt he should be losing his patience. Instead, perversely, he was enjoying the banter. “When viewed at different angles and under different lights, it may appear to contain shades of a dark red and a dark green.”

“Ah.” Fix nodded. “You are complex.”

“All Blaatshi are. And in the second place, none of the thousand races of man is descended from fish. We are all descended from the original men. Naturally, the Epic suggests that the original men looked like contemporary Blaatshi do, but I am willing to entertain the possibility that that is an embellishment of one of my predecessors. In any case, my eyes are set farther apart than yours, but that doesn’t make me the child of a trout. Does your large nose make you the child of a hawk, or an elephant?”

“My nose isn’t large. It’s prominent.”

Prominent is such an excellent word. It’s almost as good as fascicle.”

“I’m glad you appreciate my vocabulary. It’s so hard to find peers who are men of letters.”

“Oh, I’m not literate,” Indrajit said. “Reading makes you weak.”

“Weak?” Fix smiled faintly.

“But instead of fascicle, couldn’t you have said book?”

“It’s not a book. Too small.”

“What about pamphlet?” Indrajit suggested.

“Wouldn’t that rather imply that someone published the papers, with, for instance, a political or an informative objective?”

“You are indeed full of large words, Fix. And by the way, isn’t that name rather…inadequate…for such a literary man?”

“What do you mean?”

The stink of camels and goats briefly choked Indrajit as they crossed the Crooked Mile again. Shouted sounds of haggling suggested the presence of an impromptu livestock market, the sellers likely being nomads from the Endless Plain. Beneath the beasts’ reek lurked a dark stench of blood and offal that oozed from the butchers’ shops on this stretch of the street.

Better the butchers than the tanners, anyway.

“Men who read and write have long and ridiculous names, don’t they?”

“Like Indrajit?”

Indrajit is a proud and ancient name, a name for poets. Inder is a name given to the storm-god Hort in the oldest parts of the Epic.”

“And jit?”

“It’s a grammatical termination of unknown origination.” Indrajit sniffed. “It may be a diminutive.”

“You’re telling me that you’re Little Hort?”

“As I was saying, literate men have long names, and also strange titles. Like Lucius Stratographos Kallipygian, Keeper of the Fourth Decan.”

“You made that one up.”

“True. But you know what I mean.”

“Well, I learned to read in a discreet fashion. Probably the other readers just haven’t heard of me yet, or haven’t gotten around to giving me my longer name.”

“I expect it will be Fiximon Nasoprominentus Fascicular.”

The gate connecting the Spill and the Crown was narrow and guarded. Indrajit and Fix fell quiet. Indrajit adopted a facial expression that communicated that he was minding his own business, and wouldn’t everyone else like to mind theirs? He noted with pleasure that Fix wore a similar mask.

He didn’t recognize the jobbers minding the gate. They were lavender-skinned Zalaptings and slate-blue Luzzazza, tall and with down-turned ears, and they wore the hammer and sword device of House Miltric; the Lord Farrier had the contract for the city’s gates.

Having passed through, he nodded back in the jobbers’ direction. “Those guys don’t have to waste any time today thinking about the insane and unwholesome details of risk-merchant arrangements.”

Fix nodded. “On the other hand, if a riot breaks out, they’ll have to put their bodies between the rock-throwers and the rich.”

“You don’t look like a man scared to skin his knuckles.”

“I’m not.”

“Maybe, if this thing with Ilsa works out, you and I could look for a gig like that.”

“What? Become jobbers?”

“Well, we are jobbers, aren’t we? Only as individuals there aren’t many things we can do, so you and I alone are never going to be contracted to dig out a well, or collect taxes, or lead a sacred procession at midwinter from the Sun Seat to the Stone of Winter.”

“Priests aren’t jobbers.”

Guard a procession, then.”

“You’re suggesting we form a jobber team. A squad.”

Indrajit hadn’t really intended to suggest that, but as Fix said the words, it struck him as an interesting idea. He paused for a moment…but this was, after all, just talk, and if something came of it, he could use the money. “If this works out. I wouldn’t mind working for myself a bit. Be hired by someone more important than Holy-Pot Diaphernes.”

“Would we have to form a joint-stock company? Or a registered partnership?”

“What? Surely not.”

“Put up a bond?” Fix pressed. “Enter a risk-merchantry contract to cover damages we might cause?”

“Ugh. You say risk-merchantry, and I lose all my enthusiasm.” Indrajit turned onto Bank Street, Fix close on his heels. Above them rose high minarets, crenellated walkways, and arches that reached over the streets below to join building to building. They passed the Imperial Library, with its virtual palisade wall of statues of sages and teachers, their history stretching back centuries, into the years of Imperial Kish and beyond.

The scholars probably all had long names. And titles.

“And I assume you’re imagining that you would be captain,” Fix added.

“Forget it,” Indrajit said. “It was a terrible idea.”

“I’m not saying no. I’m just thinking out loud. You’d want to talk to a notary first, at the very least.”

“This sounds worse the more you say. I guess I’ll just keep working alone, at the crummy little jobs.”

“This job doesn’t seem so crummy.” Fix shrugged. “We’re backup bodyguards for an actress. The hard part will be figuring out how to get close to her without making her nervous. Probably, nothing will happen, and we’ll get paid. And if anything does happen, probably Gannon’s Handlers will take care of it. We’re being paid to be there, out of sight, just in case.”

“I’ll congratulate myself afterward, when the week has gone by uneventfully. Maybe I’ll ask you to write the congratulations in a fascicle.”

Bank Street was not cluttered with shops like the Crooked Mile, but merchants’ carts did rattle slowly along it, or stood with their windows open to display wares. Trees were planted at regular intervals here, banyan and pipal and sweet-smelling ketaka. Indrajit stopped at the sight of a tailor’s wagon, his eye lighting on a red cloak with elaborate patterns embroidered into the shoulders.

They would need some way to get close to Ilsa. He fingered the cloak, and when the tailor, a man with a trunk like an elephant’s and no chin whatsoever, told him the price, he opened Holy-Pot’s purse.

Delighted to find that he had enough money for the cloak and to spare, he bought it. Fix watched the entire exchange with narrowed eyes, but said nothing.

They continued.

“That’s the Palace at the end of the block.” Fix pointed with his square chin. “We should find a discreet place to observe it for a few minutes.”

“There’s a coffeehouse across the street. They charge way too much for something they call Burning Sea Blend, so I’d never ordinarily buy it. But if we pay for a couple of cups, they’ll let us sit for a while and we can watch the opera house.”

“I suppose if their beans come all the way from the Burning Sea, they’d naturally be expensive. You’d have to factor the costs of the caravan merchant who brought them, including his reasonable profit, into every cup.”

Indrajit led them toward the coffee house, an elegant, two-story building with a fountain in front. “They grow the beans about thirty miles from here. And they taste like mud.”

“Why would anyone buy their coffee, then?” Fix scratched his chin.

“They don’t really sell coffee. They sell the illusion of being the kind of person who buys expensive coffee and a place to sit and drink it. Mostly aspiring poets, is my understanding. And, in our case, they sell a good view of the Palace of Joy and Shadow.”

“Shadow and Joy.”

“There’s only the one opera house, anyway. You knew what I meant.”

They bought two coffees in two wooden cups and then climbed to the second story. They sat at a round table on a balcony looking across at the Palace, which was four or five stories tall, though it was hard to tell exactly, since the front was occupied by a single pillared facade that made the Palace look like a temple. Over the top of the building rose an immense dome shaped like an onion and gleaming like copper. Through three open doors, a desultory stream of theatergoers trickled into the Palace. They wore the impractical togas and gowns of the great families and their near allies.

To the immediate left of the Palace, almost out of Indrajit’s sight, stood the nearly featureless stone block that was the Auction House. At a mere two stories tall, with zero decoration, it might be the smallest building in the Crown, and it sat in the center of a plaza with no statue or other monument to mark the building or its importance.

“I guess we’ll have to buy a ticket,” Fix said. “What if they’re sold out?”

“We can always bribe a doorman to be allowed to stand in back. We don’t need to sit, anyway. After the show it will get more complicated.”

“We could introduce ourselves.”

Indrajit shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t think she knows we exist. I don’t think she even knows about the whole…about the underlying…about all the risk-merchanting going on over her.”

“In that case, we’ll have to tail Ilsa back to her apartment and watch her there.”

Indrajit nodded. “Sit across the street and watch through the windows. Take shifts.”

Fix sipped his coffee. “So, do your people have fish gods?”

A fish god. Goddess, actually.”

“Named Blotto or Bluto or something similar, I imagine.”

“Blaat.” Indrajit’s eyes narrowed. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, you know. Sometimes in the old stories, gods…and goddesses…mate with some of their followers, and so you get the blood of gods flowing in the veins of men.”

“I’m not a fish, Fix. I’m not even a little bit fish.”

Fix shrugged. “So there are no stories among your people about…weddings with the goddess? Or rituals of marrying the sea?”

“As it happens, I know all the stories of my people. They are contained in the roughly thirty thousand lines of the Blaatshi Epic, which I can perform in its entirety at any moment. I learned it from my master, I perform it, and one day I will pass it to my apprentice, who will be the four hundred twenty-eighth Recital Thane of the Epic.”

“Recital Thane? Isn’t a thane a kind of warrior?”

“It’s a warrior of high status. Or in my case, a person with the status of a high-status warrior, though my role is to perform and pass on the Epic, rather than to fight. I am a warrior of poetry.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to write the Epic down?”

“Then it would be susceptible to wrong performance. Wrong intonation, wrong emphasis. Many of the scenes are incomprehensible except in the light of the accompanying gestures, which I have also committed to memory and perform.”

“I think I would still write it down.”

“That would also be impious.”

“And no marriages with the goddess?”

“The goddess does not marry her children. She blesses them with fish, and favorable weather, and good health.”

“Her children?”

“That is figurative.”

“Huh.” Fix sipped his coffee. “So you swam to town to find people to hear your epic.”

“I walked. I am here to recite, as I am sworn to do, to any willing audience. And also to gain experience of life, which shall inform the additional narrative that I must one day add to the Epic, and also to make a living.”

“Your mother-goddess couldn’t just send you fish?”

“I grew bored of fishing, as it happens, and I don’t particularly like the taste. What about you?”

“I like fish.”

“Indeed, I would say you’re obsessed with them. But where are you from? How does such a well-armed man come to be a reader? Where did you get your fascicle?”

“Nothing to say about me. I was born in Kish, and unless I catch a lucky break, I’ll probably die here.”

“Xiba’albi? Free Cities? Bonean?”

Fix shrugged. “I don’t know. Just a man, I guess. I never knew my parents, and I was raised in an ashrama of Salish-Bozar the White.”

“Wait, I know this one. His followers are called the Useless.”

“His initiates are called Trivials. His priests are called Selfless.”

“I was close.”

“To qualify as a Selfless, an adept must demonstrate that she retains in her memory ten thousand pieces of information that are completely useless. That is the great commandment of Salish-Bozar, that no knowledge shall perish, no matter how impractical, and his adepts seek to fulfill the commandment.”

“And with your feeble memory, weakened by the pernicious habit of reading fascicles, you were unable to remember the necessary number of things.”

“No, I have a pretty good memory. But I could never be persuaded to waste my time on anything that was genuinely without practical application. I would spend all my money on scrolls, borrow codices, and even stand for hours to read the pamphlets being sold by street sellers; they couldn’t stop me from reading, but I wanted to know things that mattered.”

“Like what?” Indrajit pointed at Fix’s spear and then his falchion. “Fighting skills?”

“Of course. And crafts.”

“Ah ha, so you can fix things!”

Fix ignored him. “And trades, and geography, and politics, and history.”

Indrajit finished his coffee, pleased that the last sips were still warm. “Really, what kind of knowledge is totally useless?”

Fix raised his eyebrows and cocked his head to one side. “Well, if I’d known of the existence of the Blaatshi Epic, I might have memorized that.”

“I am immune to your japes. The Epic contains history, politics, and geography, as well as liturgy, leadership advice, meditative techniques, tools for consoling the bereft, and, some say, hints to the location of a great treasure, buried in the earth in the days when we fled our first homeland.”

“You don’t look like a man in possession of a great treasure.”

“It would be impious to dig it up.”

“The Selfless at whose feet I served had memorized the entire contents of ten large codices.”

“Yes, but of what? That’s the question.”

Fix shrugged. “No one knows. The codices are written in a script no one can decipher. My master could reproduce it perfectly, every line, scoop, and dot on every page, and could order all the pages correctly if shuffled, and could point out recurring patterns and correspondences not only across multiple pages, but across all ten volumes.”

“But he had no idea what any of it meant.”

“Not a clue.”

Indrajit Twang laughed. “That’s genius. So they threw you out, for not wanting to memorize patterns of blots and squiggles. That’s what you get for learning how to read.”

“They asked me to stay. They said that I should give up other hopes, that I’d grow accustomed to the idea in time, and that I would one day do great work, preserving the heritage of the thousand races of man. But I couldn’t do it, so I left.”

“Admit it,” Indrajit said. “This is all about women.”

Fix blinked. “The Selfless of Salish-Bozar are not required to be celibate,” he said slowly.

“No, but what woman worth having says, ‘Hey, that guy over there who can vomit up ten volumes of writing no one can read, not even him, that’s the guy for me’?”

“Not very many say that.”

“None. None is the answer.”

“I take your point. But are you saying you learned the Blaatshi Epic to impress women?”

“I’m not saying it’s the only reason.” Indrajit grinned. “But it doesn’t hurt.”

Fix finished his coffee and looked at the sun, a hand’s span over the western horizon. “Time for us to go buy tickets.”

Back | Next