Xenolith, Page 47A. Sparrow
Chapter 39: The Initiate
Doctor Frank’s posture sagged, his mouth dropped open when Tezhay left his side to answer the summons of the man in blue. His reaction amused Tezhay in a bitter way. Why couldn’t the good doctor have expressed such separation anxiety before leaving a comfortable if not cushy custody and delivering himself directly to a Venep’o slave pit?
But this was no occasion for spite. The blue-robed cleric waiting for him at the gate of the holding pen could prove serendipitous for both of them. Tezhay felt better about his chances of exploiting an educated Initiate’s capacity for mercy than influencing the brutal exigencies of a Crasac foreman with a whip, a trench that needed digging and a renewable supply of forced laborers.
Though, mingling with the military attaches of Venen’s theocracy was not without its perils. Hilorus and their Initiates were known to enjoy spilling blood in their rituals. But at least, the calmly intelligent eyes that met his as he approached the gate promised Tezhay a place where reason might account for something.
Tezhay bowed to the Initiate. “Mercy of Cra! May the Three Brothers be just,” he said, greeting the young man with fluent Venep’o, in the traditional, if archaic, manner.
“You speak well,” said the Initiate, his violet eyes perusing Tezhay carefully. “Tell me, who is this face that adorns your chest?”
Tezhay pulled at his T-shirt. “This? Just a painting of some man. I liked how he looked.”
The Initiate squinted slightly. “But this is not a man who lives in Sesei, no?”
“I don’t know where he lives, or even if he is a real man,” said Tezhay. The Initiate gave him a knowing look that made him nervous.
“Perhaps this man lives in Ur, yes?” said the Initiate.
It jarred Tezhay to hear that particular place name uttered by a junior cleric from Venen. The secret of Ur was closely protected. Until recently, even the militia who traveled through Ur were never told its name.
“Your clothing. Those shoes. You acquired them in Ur, didn’t you?”
Tezhay weighed the value of deceit. Protocol advised: ‘Never provide an enemy the truth unless to guide him towards a greater untruth.’ But to deny everything would either invite torture or make him less interesting to the Initiate who would then leave them to rot in the pen.
“You don’t have to pretend,” said the Initiate. “Our people have gone to Ur, too.”
Tezhay’s face flushed. His claim seemed impossible. As far as he know, there were no unaccounted xenoliths. As a keeper of stones, Tezhay had been directly involved in their inventory. All that has ever risked falling into enemy hands had been retrieved or destroyed.
“Have you traveled to Ur?” pressed the Initiate.
“Yes … I have,” said Tezhay, resisting the inclination to lie.
“So you might understand the principles of navigation?”
Tezhay nodded, even though that was an odd and ignorant way to describe travel by xenolith.
The Initiate smiled. “I do believe my mentor would be very interested in speaking with you,” he said. He turned to the one-armed guard. “Bind and fetter him, then deliver him to the Hilorus’ chambers.”
“You should bring this man too.” Tezhay pointed at Doctor Frank, who had wandered closer to the gate.
“Him?” The Initiate looked askance at Doctor Frank with obvious distaste.
“He is a doctor,” said Tezhay.
“A doctor?” The Initiate laughed. “But he looks so sickly. What kind of doctor can he be?” He squinted. “What’s wrong with his face?”
“Nothing is wrong with it,” said Tezhay. “That’s how he looks. He was born … in Ur.”
“Ah,” said the Initiate, recognition dawning. He turned to the guard. “Take that one as well.”
Tezhay beckoned to Doctor Frank, who meandered across the pitted and befouled mud, his face a mixture of trepidation and excitement.
“What’s going on?” said Doctor Frank.
“You come too,” said Tezhay, in English.
“We see. Maybe someplace better,” said Tezhay, hoping it would be true. Though, he knew they could still end up being tortured, which in the hands of Venep’o clerics often strayed beyond information gathering to arcane religious rituals involving vivisection and body fusion. Tezhay thought it best not to mention the harsher possibilities just yet.
The guard bound them with surprising dexterity for a one-armed man, and led them out of the gate. They followed the Initiate’s flowing blue robes up a rutted path, away from the mesa brim to the central mound that held the unfinished temple. A group of Crasacs pointed and jeered as they passed, but an officer promptly silenced them.
Maneuvering between piles of stone and brick, they entered a garden fronting a squat building with squared columns and walls of cut limestone; one of the few structures on the mesa that seemed to be built with an eye towards permanence.
Four guards flanked the columned portico, each a monumental specimen at least twice Tezhay’s weight. They wore gleaming breastplates of layered leather, wood and steel, etched with the three-clawed Talons of Cra. Their heavy swords, weapons suited more for ceremony than war, were similarly engraved with writhing, hooded snakes.
They were Cuerti, the elite guard of the Sinkor Natadi faith, selected from among the most devout and elite soldiers of the Crasac and Cuasar corps. With extremists in control of the theocracy, Tezhay heard that they now recruited children, nurtured in faith-centered military academies from their time of weaning.
The Initiate slid open a panel within the portico and led them into a large room, empty but for a simple bench and a low table surrounded by cushions. The guard seated them on the bench and secured their fetters to a post. The Initiate passed into the next room, leaving them alone with their escort from the holding pen and two Cuerti, who took positions flanking the table.
Tezhay’s eyes wandered to the image on a brilliant tapestry behind the table: powerful talons grasping through clouds at a coiled serpent – the newly dominant symbol of Cra supremacy as the Sinkor faith emerged from the throes of the revolution that transformed it from a faith of many gods to a single, dominant deity. To Sesei’s detriment, that upheaval had produced an appetite for military adventurism that began with interventions supporting their expatriate communities in coastal Diomet and led to a full-blown invasion and the near collapse of Sesei’s Ubabaor-based government after a lengthy siege.
Quaintly, a frayed and faded tapestry on a side wall displayed the Sinkor faith in its traditional form: the Three Brothers in balance; the Talons of Cra, the god of conquest; the Paw of Pasemani, the god of nurture; and the Hooves of Fanhalahun, the god of commerce; with Cra central but equal to his brothers. That such a relic could coexist with a supremacist icon gave Tezhay pause, and gave him hope that the high priest in command of this outpost might be a Traditionalist.
“What is this place?” whispered Doctor Frank. “I thought they were taking us to haul stone or something.”
“This a … priest house,” said Tezhay. “I tell him you a doctor. Maybe they use your help.”
“Sure,” said Doctor Frank, voice rising in pleasant realization. “I could handle that.” His eyes widened. “Do you suppose these people use that bolovo stuff?”
“I don’t know,” said Tezhay. “But I would be careful about what you steal. These people can be very, very cool.”
Tezhay shuddered and shook his head. “I misspeak. I mean … cruel.”
The Initiate returned with a much older man. His long hair was tousled and he came out adjusting his breeches under dark robes askew, as if he had just been rousted from bed. Tezhay gathered from the intricacy of the robe’s brocade, that he was an Eldest Brother, a Hiloru of higher status. That such a cleric would be so far forward in Sesei surprised him. He must be visiting from more secure positions along the coast.
The Eldest’s rheumy eyes seemed puzzled at first by
their presence. He came over and inspected them as if they were new additions to his private menagerie, scuffing Frank’s muddy beard with the back of his knuckles, studying the face on Tezhay’s shirt.
He went back and sat back down at the low table and held a subdued conversation with the Initiate while servants brought in breakfast. He ate with great pleasure, slopping thick porridge from a bowl, sampling sliced fruits and morsels of preserved meat from a platter, oblivious to the hunger of his prisoners.
“The least that asshole could do is toss us a crust. I’ve seen stray dogs treated better.”
“Quiet,” said Tezhay. “Give some respect. This one is dangerous.”
The Eldest Brother looked up at them from his bowl, eyes scolding. “It is the Mercy of Cra that brings you to us at this critical time,” he said, speaking fluent, un-inflected Sesep’o. “Be it known that the Spirits of the Three Brothers reside with us in this house, as we build our new temple. Let their presence be your guide as you respond to my inquiries.”
“What did he say?” said Doctor Frank.
“No talk!” whispered Tezhay. He saw the Eldest’s face stiffen at the interruption. “I tell you later.”
“Dembon tells me that you were discovered in the labor pool,” said the Eldest. “Most of our trespassers are farmers … or spies.” The old man sucked at his teeth. “You two don’t seem to be farmers.”
The implication chilled Tezhay. He had once recovered the corpse of a captured spy, nailed to the bole of a dismembered tree.
“How is it that you find yourselves in our custody?” said the Eldest.
“We meant no harm,” said Tezhay. “I was showing my new friend the place where my family once had a farm.”
“So far beyond your defenses? So close to our lines?”
“There is a truce,” said Tezhay. “Is there not?”
The old man picked up a stylus and dipped it in something dark and red that Tehay hoped was ink.
“What are your names?” said the Eldest.
“I am Tezhay,” he said. “My friend’s name is … Doctor.”
“Doctor? What kind of name is that?”
“He is a foreigner,” said Tezhay.
“I see that,” said the Eldest. “He is from Ur, isn’t he?”
Tezhay nodded, wincing slightly. Hearing this man speak the name of a place long held secret to all Venep’o galled him.
“And your clothes … so exotic. You are dressed for travel, are you not?”
Tezhay gave him the barest of nods.
“Tell me, how does one travel to Ur these days, on foot or by wagon?” The Eldest Brother smirked, toying with him like a cat with a vole.
“Both,” said Tezhay.
His smile vanished. “Or maybe you use a special type of stone?”
Tezhay took a breath, finding his worst fears realized.
“There is no need to be coy or clever. We know all about your stones. In fact, we possess one.” The Elder’s eyes were cool and knowing, obscenely so to Tezhay. He studied Tezhay closely and carefully, sucking at his composure like a leech.
“I see you’re skeptical. Fetch it, please, Dembon.”
The Initiate stepped into the next room. Tezhay heard him unlock a cabinet and pull open a creaking drawer. He came back carrying a lacquered box, the color of dried blood, inlaid with bits of opalescent shell. He placed it on the table before the Eldest Brother, who removed the top and lifted the velvety blue cloth covering its contents.
“What is that?” said Doctor Frank, craning his neck to see.
Tezhay gazed downward. He felt sickened by what the box likely contained, and didn’t want to give the Eldest Brother the pleasure of watching his despair.
“Come now. Don’t be shy. Look and see what we have.”