The village was called The Place of Ham’s People, though no one knew any more who Ham had been. In stories for the children he was an ancient hero, one of the leaders of the first colonisation of Teyro 4,000 cycles ago when they drove out the old people. His figure was painted above the temple door, holding a staff and gesturing to a village house perched out of perspective behind him. Years of weathering had given him a surprised expression, as if he hadn’t expected this to be where his success would bring him. Vinal, the priest, gave him his usual salute as he went down the temple steps. He hadn’t meant to be here either.
The Gargarin raid hadn’t been as bad as it had sounded last night from his refuge under the bed. Vinal followed the trail of trampled ferns. Here was where they must have stood to kick the panels in, snapping the fronds beneath their boots, and there was the trail where they’d rolled back to their shuttle, the branches still reared back as if from an echo of alien laughter. On the back wall of the temple, Gargarin graffiti marched in illegible squares across the story of the village. The villagers in the scenes were drawn in the old style, all long faces and strange, mournful eyes, and they regarded Vinal solemnly. He swallowed, feeling the dryness in his throat from last night’s herb beer.
The damage should have been unimportant – once his new temple in the village was finished, the old one would be abandoned anyway – but the villagers would expect him to have it repaired, would wonder how he had let it happen in the first place. The morning light was making his head ache. He hoped he hadn’t finished the beer cask, but suspected that he probably had. What should he have done, charged out to die in the temple’s defence? The villagers didn’t fight the raiders, so why should he? He kicked the broken panel pieces into the ferns. He should be making his report now, as well. They were always sarcastic in the great temple when he was late. The painted eyes followed him as he trudged back round to the front door. Despite himself, he felt they knew all about the great temple, and the herb beer.
The old temple stood on a rise outside the village, high enough to have been above the water line when the flood tides came, in the days before the new Chi!me governor had put the climate stabilisers in. The front porch looked out over the path down the slope, to where a clump of trees marked the village green. Above the leaves, the rafters of Vinal’s new temple rose like bones waiting for skin, unharmed but hazed with smoke from where some of the houses were still smouldering. Beyond the green, fishing boats dotted the channel between this and the next island, and over the quay a mob of skeemas flapped and screamed. The Gargarin must have broken the fish cache again.
Vinal pushed open the temple door and winced at the morning smell of bedding and spilt beer that coiled out to greet him. He waved the lights on low, shuffling through the main room to his sleeping cell at the back. He kept a screen on the wall by the door for the villagers to use, although they seldom did, but what was good enough for them was hardly sufficient to be his line back to the world. He set up the newer screen on his bed and pressed the combination for the great temple. It took a long time for them to answer, and the swirls of the holding pattern were beginning to make him feel sick by the time they resolved themselves at last into a face.
It was a long, smooth face, gathered around a sharp nose, and it managed to combine disdain and ennui into one, economical expression.
‘Yes?’ it said.
It was always worse when it was someone he recognised. This one had been two years behind him, all through training, one of those boys that Vinal and his friends had looked down on, as not likely to amount to much. He tried not to let it show in his voice.
‘Vinal, from Ham’s Village, Teina Cluster’ he said, firmly. ‘We had a raid last night. I have to make a report to Brother Lintud.’
‘Ah, I see.’ The scorn was overlaid now with condescension: our village priests, so worthy. ‘He’s here somewhere. I’ll tell him you’re waiting.’
The face disappeared, leaving Vinal with a view of the corridor. At this time of the morning it was full of priests, striding from one meeting to another, or gathered in small groups to plot and gossip. It was one of the approaches to the third garden, he thought; he remembered the wall frieze, green leaves curling on gold, and the sky-blue floor. On the shore side, beyond the screen, would be a niche with a fountain in the shape of a winged serpent, while to the land, a door led to an outer courtyard, where if you listened hard you used to be able to hear the mumble of Olbe’Se city beyond the walls.
As always when he saw it, the memory was so clear to Vinal that he could almost still be there; as if somewhere among all those weaving figures was another Vinal, a Vinal who had not misjudged, who had kept silent, who had not been banished, but who had glided through the temple politics so smoothly that nothing had touched him, like walking on the sky. Vinal thought his double looked a little taller than he did; that under his scarlet robe, Alternative Vinal carried his shoulders straighter. He watched Alternative Vinal hold court, laughing and successful amongst the crowd of his acolytes, until Brother Lintud arrived.
Lintud, he remembered, valued brevity in his charges, so he kept it succinct.
‘We had twenty Gargarin, last night. Seized supplies, burnt a few houses, the usual.’
Lintud nodded, as if he knew all about it. He always had to pretend omniscience. Vinal remembered that as well.
‘That’s three raids this season, it’s getting so there’ll be nothing left to steal. Can the fleet really not give us any protection? Just a couple of shuttles on patrol? That’s what the villagers want.’
‘You know the fleet can’t protect the outer planets, not if they’re going to hold the line against the Gargarin. If your villagers don’t like being raided, they could try fighting back. I assume they didn’t, again? What happened to those hydro-rifles we sent?’
Stashed under his bed, so close he could kick them, Vinal thought. He had tried to offer them to the villagers; had called the clan heads up to the temple and laid them out for them. He remembered the look that had gone round the semi-circle, before Teris, who was the nearest the village had to a headman, had answered for them.
‘Thanking you for the offer, Ser Priest, but we won’t be taking ‘em.’
He’d even argued with them. With weapons like these they could resist the raids, they could fight the Gargarin without the deaths they feared. They wouldn’t be powerless, they could do their bit in the great war effort against the Gargarin. He remembered Teris’ expression, heavy with patience, as if Vinal were a child who had not understood.
‘We don’t have no use for ‘em, see. They baint no good for hunting.’
Fortunately, Lintud had gone on without waiting for Vinal’s answer.
‘Look, we know it’s difficult. Some of these villages, it’s as if Chi!me didn’t exist, as if we’d never been re-contacted or given a governor. They’re simple, peaceful people, that’s the problem. They don’t believe in fighting, not even in their own interests. So we know you have a difficult job to do, but it’s also a vital one. Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. There’re some new dramas out, very good, some of the best I’ve seen. They should help you win your people round. I’ll flick them over to you now. I’ll send you some banners as well, if I can find a carrier going out your way.
‘But you can tell your villagers, every time they don’t resist a raid, they’ll find themselves with an extra tax assessment.’
Vinal tried to imagine explaining to Teris that he would be taxed for not fighting the Gargarin. ‘They won’t like that.’
Lintud waved an airy hand. ‘It doesn’t matter whether they like it or not. What can they do about it? They’ll pay it, or fight. Just keep a record of any troublemakers. And, Vinal?’
‘It’s been, what, almost a cycle since you left us? You’ve haven’t been forgotten, you know. Quite a few people think it would be nice to see you back here, where you belong.’ Whether or not he was one of those people, it was impossible to tell. ‘The strait from the village to the capital might be a narrow one, but it’s not unknown for a village priest to be called here. In cases of distinguished service, of course. So you should remember, what your people do reflects on you. Either way.’
He waved his hand again, and Vinal was left staring at a blank screen.
He showed one of the new dramas to the children when they came up for their afternoon lessons. Lintud’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, there was nothing new about it. It started, as all the dramas did, with the Teyroans’ duty to join with the other Chi!me peoples to defeat the Gargarin menace. The Gargarin were the enemies of all peace-loving people, the commentary explained, over familiar shots of dead Chi!me, from when the Gargarin had taken one of their planets, early in the war. The Chi!me stand was for the benefit of the entire galaxy, even peoples who had never gone to the stars would one day thank them. Here, the picture changed to show one of the Chi!me’s capital ships, hanging on their line in space with a flock of smaller craft around it. Despite its size, it managed to look plucky and determined. In the bottom corner, Teyro was a tiny, blue dot, barely visible against the black.
‘For the Gargarin, war is everything’ the presentation concluded. ‘To them, engines and fighters are pre-eminent, so that they don’t even leave sufficient space in their capital ships for supplies. This is why Teyro and the other outer worlds are so important. If their brave peoples can stop the Gargarin raids from re-supplying their ships they will have to pull back, and victory will be in our grasp. It is already in your hands.’
The picture zoomed in on the Chi!me ship, to the accompaniment of stirring music, and Vinal switched the viewer off.
‘Well, wasn’t that illuminating?’ The children looked up at him blankly. He had never felt his sarcasm mattered, since they didn’t understand it. ‘Now, I think, if someone would hand round the writing tablets…’
Vinal suppressed a smile. Jorges was the brightest pupil, the one most likely to ask awkward questions, to challenge what he said; like Vinal had been back in his village, in the days before he’d learnt that compliance was the way to success.
‘The Chi!me raid Gargarin worlds as well, don’t they?’
‘Yes, that’s right, they…I mean, we do. It’s all part of the war effort.’
Jorges nodded, as if this confirmed something he had long suspected.
‘So when us get rid of ‘em Chi!me, they Gargarin won’t attack we.’
It was so surprising, Vinal was for a moment speechless. He stared at Jorges. Around him, the rest of the class rustled and whispered like the night-time sea.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked at last. He tried to keep his voice calm. He mustn’t scare him, mustn’t make him think he’d said something he shouldn’t. ‘Is this something someone’s told you?’ He thought of Lintud’s list of troublemakers. Was there talk in the village? Could he get a name? If he could report something, maybe it would…Jorges looked at him, his wide, black eyes unreadable, like all the villagers’, unknowable. A guileless expression broke across his face.
‘No’ he said. ‘I think I must’ve got confused. Shall us get ‘em tablets, then?’
At the end of the lesson, Vinal followed the class down the path to the village. It was warm in the sun and insects sang sleepily in the ferns beside the path. He strolled, ignoring the children’s chatter. It was pleasant to be out of the still-stuffy air of the temple, and if the Gargarin hadn’t got it all, he might even be able to pick up some more herb beer. He could tell from the sound of hammering that the repairs had started, and when they came round the last bend he saw that most of the roof of the first house had been cleared out onto the road. Outside it, protected from the flying peat by the overhanging balcony, Jorges’ mother was talking to a stranger.
Vinal hardly ever saw a stranger, beyond the occasional fisherman from a neighbouring island. This one didn’t look like a fisherman. There was something different about him, niggling but out of reach, like a bone in a back tooth. Something in the way he leaned towards the woman as they spoke, something conspiratorial. Something…A piece of peat rolled under his foot, making him stumble. He saw the stranger’s head jerk up. With a final word, he slipped off between the houses, leaving Jorges’ mother where she was, shading her eyes against the sun.
‘Afternoon, Ser Priest. I hope the children baint been giving you too much trouble.’
She smiled at him. She wasn’t a young woman, Jorges’ mother. He couldn’t remember her name. She was in Teris’ household, he knew that, her husband was that brother of Teris’ who’d died last season. He’d brought her from somewhere out beyond the next cluster; he’d heard the other children teasing Jorges for his accent. A woman in her middle years, short and squat in the long skirt all the village women wore, her hair bound up on top of her head with a scarf the green of fern fronds against a stormy sky. Vinal found himself smiling back.
‘No trouble at all. Jorges is always…?’ Should he speak to her about what Jorges had said? She’d say it was a boy’s nonsense, she’d dismiss it, think him foolish. ‘…lively’ he finished.
‘That bad, eh?’
‘No, not at all, I didn’t mean…’
‘It’s all right, Ser Priest, I were joking.’ The smile still hung about her eyes, amusement overlaying something like patience. ‘You’ll’ve come to check on your temple’ she went on. ‘You’ll be pleased, it’s not been damaged. Course’ her tone sharpened, ‘quality of that stone, Gargarin could land right on top of it, and it’d still be standing.’
The stone came from the quarry on the next island, paid for from the village taxes. Vinal knew it wasn’t entirely popular with the villagers, but he’d had the argument too many times to rise to it.
‘It will be worth it, when the temple’s finished and right in the middle of the village, among you all’ he said.
She regarded him seriously, her head on one side. He couldn’t quite read her expression. ‘You shouldn’t say ‘when’ about the temple, Ser Priest. It’s bad luck.’
Disconcerted, he fell back on his temple training. ‘There’s no luck, good or bad, only the universe.’ It sounded pompous in his own ears. There was definitely pity in her face now, pearling on her features like mist, making her look almost young.
‘I can’t tell you that, Ser Priest. I can only tell you to mind it’.
She turned away, calling to Jorges. He watched her as she threaded her way back through the debris: a middle-aged widow, a woman in a bright green scarf; holding her head up, sweeping her skirt over the charred and sodden peat like it was studded with gems.
Syet. That was her name.
Syet went along the side of the kitchen garden, past the bakehouse and the blafin sheds, and in at the yard door. Andara, Teris’ wife, was settled into her usual seat, nearest the hearth on the women’s side, spinning a skein of blafin wool with the virtuous air that had irritated Syet since the day she met her. Behind her, Syet’s daughter Elit was staring into the glow of the heater, a bowl of half-ground herb paste tipping over in her lap. As the door swung to, Andara looked up, dropped the distaff, and scowled.
‘Baint no need of Gargarin, way you slam that door.’
When Syet first came, she would have snapped back at her, but over the long cycles of her marriage she had learned different. She kept her voice level.
‘We’ve had word.’
There was a clatter as Elit dropped the pestle on the floor. It would usually have been enough for a rebuke, but only a slight wince showed that Andara had heard it at all. Her lips thinned, and spread into what on someone else would have been a smile.
‘I’d best fetch Teris, then’ she said.
The house of Teris’ folk had been the biggest in the village even before the extension when Teris’ eldest son Padrig married Isil, but when all Teris’ sons and his brothers’ children where there, the household could still crowd the hearthroom. Teris settled himself on the men’s side of the hearth, in the great carved chair that one of his ancestors, generations ago, had built from wood saved from the sea. He stretched his boots towards the heater, seemingly oblivious to the eyes of the household watching him. A whisp of steam curled from one toe. In Isil’s arms, the baby whimpered, once, and was still.
‘So, Brother’s Wife’ Teris said, at last. He had called his brother’s first wife ‘Sister’, but he had never given the more honourable title to Syet. ‘Tell us all again.’
Syet nodded. ‘Targil from over Gensta cluster was here. He said they had word from a trader from right over beyond Raset, he said, and he said they’d had it from a woman who’d had it right from the Secret Ones theyselves. They say…’
Syet had already told Targil’s message twice, but now, round the crowded hearth she found herself slipping into a chanting rhythm, like the beginning of a song. The Song of the Words of the Secret Ones, organising revolt from half a world away.
‘They say that the tide be rising. The tide be rising, like it rose in our fathers’ day and in their fathers’ before ‘em. The tide be rising, and on eighth day it will break on Olbe’Se with all the waters of the seas and no dyke will hold it back.’
‘Eighth day’ Teris repeated. Behind him, the young men rumbled their approval. ‘They take our seas, tax us, spy on us, turn our priests into theirs, to make us work how they tell us, then they want us to fight for them, like the debt were ours to pay. But on eighth day, on eighth day we show they bastards they’re wrong. Brother’s Wife, did Targil say where he were going next?’
Syet spread her hands ‘no’. ‘He were going home, I think. He said it’s for us to raise the rest of the cluster.’
‘So.’ Teris stood up, shooting his chair back into Syet’s eldest son’s legs. He ignored his yelp of protest. ‘Feros, get down to Jarvin’s, tell him to get across to Yana, tonight, and tell them to get word onto Chandra and Issich. If you need, you can remind him he’s two catches behind with his sail debt and I’ll have that boat back from him in the morning if he don’t. Padrig, you and Handar take the small boat over to Selte, the same.’
‘Yes, father. What’ll we tell ‘em?’
‘Eighth day’ Teris said again. He rolled the words around his mouth, tasting them, and it seemed to Syet that he was taller than usual, his shoulders rising above the circle of the light as if they could burst the ceiling. ‘Eighth day in Olbe’Se, so that means from this cluster we leave in two days time. Tell ‘em midnight, in two days time. Felin’ he looked round for Syet’s stepson, ‘you and Elit go round everyone here, make sure they know to muster here, two hours before midnight.’
‘Two hours before? Why?’
‘There’s they guns to get from the priest, for one thing, and there’s that new temple. Seems to me, it would make a fine brazier to warm the sailing, and there’s plenty like to see it burn.’ His face split into a rare grin, ‘I know I do!’ and they laughed with him.
The young men were jostling off on their errands now; Feros boasting about what he was going to do to Jarvin, Padrig teasing Handar about a girl on Selte he was supposed to have his eye on, Felin, full of importance at his own mission, pretending not to notice his adoring half-sister following him out. Andara already had the door of the store cupboard open. Syet took her place beside her, sorting through the packets in the shifting glow of the heater, red and yellow like the new temple in flames. Andara started to lecture her on dried fish and she found her thoughts wandering, out of the house and up the path to the old temple. The priest would be probably opening his beer cask about now. She could see him pouring himself a mug; carrying it to his cell; sitting, holding it in his hands, content. Oblivious.
There was a look he had sometimes, when he thought no one was watching him; a gentle expression, behind the temple-trained mask of his face. It wasn’t that she would do anything to stop it, nor that she would regret any of it, but in the midst of the preparations and the gladness, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for the priest.
The first that Vinal knew about the revolt was the pounding on the door. He hadn’t been back to the village since he’d talked to Syet, though he’d kept meaning to mention the stranger and Jorges’ comment in his next report. That evening, he’d only had two mugs of the herb beer, and it was the weaker brew that was all that was left after the raid. Well, maybe three. But he hadn’t been drunk. He’d been trying to read from a cube he’d got from the carrier last season, a treatise on the materiality of the universe. Lintud had told him it was very good; the author, a priest a little younger than Vinal, an up-and-coming man. He had meant to read it – if he was ever going to get back to the temple, he had to keep up with the theological debates – but his eyes bounced off the screen, as if there were a clear wall between him and the sense. He’d been letting the text scroll down, repeating snatches to himself like they meant something, when he heard them outside.
He heard boots, heavy on the front steps, and a voice:
A rumbling murmur behind it, like the flood tides the old men talked about, rising far out at sea. In his village, when he was a child, they said every wave knew your name, and when they called you, there was nowhere you could run. You couldn’t hide from the flood.
‘Come out, Ser Priest!’
He opened the door.
Teris was standing on the temple porch. At his side were two of the other clan heads and a younger man Vinal thought was one of his sons. At the bottom of the steps a crowd of villagers shifted and muttered, a dark mass swaying beneath a red sky. There was a strong smell of burning.
‘We come for they weapons, Ser Priest.’
He had his hand out, as if he thought the priest could summon them out of the air for him. Vinal stared at him. Could he bar the door, get to the weapons first, fight them off? Kill them? He’d never fired a rifle in his life. He caught a phantom movement out of the corner of his eye: Alternative Vinal appearing beside him, swathed in scarlet, waiting for him to speak. He could have dealt with this.
‘What do you want them for?’ His voice, absurdly high, quavered on the last word. There was a snigger, and someone shouted,
‘We be going to Olbe’Se, Ser Priest. What did you think?’
‘I can’t…’ He couldn’t get it out, could speak only so quietly surely they couldn’t hear him. ‘I can’t let you do that.’
Alternative Vinal shook his head in disgust. The crowd cheered, derisive. Teris took a step forward.
‘You be going to give us they weapons, Ser Priest’ he said. ‘You’re not a fool, so this be what you be going to do.’
Vinal licked his lips. Alternative Vinal loomed at him from behind Teris’ shoulder, scorn lapping across his face like waves. He saw himself defying them, refusing them, barring the door and daring them to do their worst. He saw himself on his knees, bleeding, pleading, while they kicked him aside.
He pushed the door open, banging it back so hard the handle gouged a cut down the stone wall. ‘Be my guests’ he said.
He watched from the temple porch as they handed the weapons out. There were more villagers there now, older women and young people as well as the older men, and there was laughter, and singing, and shouts about who was going in whose boat; villagers dancing and skirling in swirls of colour as bright as the pictures on the temple walls. Vinal stood alone on the porch and tasted the ash of his new temple on his tongue.
They were beginning to drift away when he saw Syet approach in a knot of village wives heading up the path away from the village. As she reached the bottom of the steps, she hesitated, stopped for a moment looking up at him. ‘Why don’t you come too? Baint no harm in watching.’
Alternative Vinal glowered at her, flicking his robe to show what he thought of that suggestion. She stood with her head on one side, half-smiling, as if she could see him and didn’t care. Threads of triumphant song drifted up from the path to the village and swirled around the porch. Vinal meant to turn away, retreat alone into his ravished temple and close the door. He was imagining himself doing that when he heard his voice agreeing, and saw his feet start down the steps towards her.
The path wound round behind the temple precinct and up through the trees. Syet went on ahead of him, followed the lights carried by the other women where they bobbed in and out of the leaves. His feet were slipping on the crushed ferns of the path, tree branches and fronds slapping in his face. He could turn back, he thought, go back to the temple and pretend he had never left it. Even without the lights it was not so dark he couldn’t get back. It was a clear night and the stars were visible, and the brighter rings of light that were the warships, far out in space. He kept walking.
At the top of the slope, the trees gave way to a field of short ferns, overlooking the sea. The women spread out along the cliff edge. They held their lights up. Out on the sky, above the dark on dark masses of the islands, more lines of lights appeared, as if the whole cluster were edged in stars. Vinal stood beside Syet, a little apart from the others. It was ridiculous, his being here. What was it, some peasant ritual? Some superstitious good luck charm, as if the universe was a god to whom you could appeal? His feet were getting wet. Any moment now, they would all turn round and laugh at him.
‘You know there’s no point, don’t you?’ he said to Syet. He meant it to be a dispassionate assessment, but he couldn’t keep sullenness out of his tone. ‘This rebellion, uprising, whatever you call it. You’ll go to Olbe’Se, some of you will be hurt, maybe killed, some of you may be punished, later, and for what? You think the governor will recall ships to protect us, that the Chi!me will leave just because you ask them to? You all know they won’t. So why fight, when you know you can’t win?’
He stopped. The sea whispered against the base of the cliff. Syet was staring seawards, up the channel between them and the next island, and when he followed her gaze he saw a white glow along the horizon, studded with black dots. One of the women started to sing, a song in a dialect so old he could hardly understand it, and the others joined in. As they sang, the dots grew larger and larger; they were boats, now, coming steadily down the channel with the song drawing them on. Fishing boats, transport boats, coracles unstrapped from the roof beams where they were kept for the floods, they filled the channel, flotilla after flotilla stretching back to the horizon and beyond. The women’s song surrounded the islands and the people on the boats were cheering, waving stolen weapons, laughing. The women were laughing too now, dancing, skirling round arm in arm as the rebels went on by beneath them; sailing to Olbe’Se in white light. Syet turned to Vinal, the torches shining in her eyes.
‘You see? You see, now?’
She grabbed his hand. He wanted to say no, he didn’t; but then she was kissing him, falling with him onto the ferns, and he couldn’t say anything at all.
No one said anything to Syet about her and the priest on the sailing night. She caught Andara watching her speculatively from time to time, but that was all. She thought of him; when she was mending the nets with the other women on the quay; hearing how the rebels had fired the governor’s office and papers in their thousands had fluttered down like burning rain; scanning the horizon for the boats coming home. She didn’t see him. They all knew he was still up there, in the old temple, but he didn’t try to come down and no one was going to go up. She wondered what he was doing, if his provisions were low, if he had reported back to his head temple and named them all. If he was lonely.
The boats came back in ones and twos: the Secret Ones’ instructions had been for them to scatter once they left the capital. Teris got the biggest boat home with its sail hanging in tatters from the broken mast, and his son Handar and Syet’s stepson Felin bailing out seawater all the way from the next cluster because of the holes in the side. They’d mislaid Syet’s son Feros in Olbe’Se harbour, but they were sure he was fine. When he turned up two days later, filthy, exhausted and cheerful, he clearly had no idea how convinced she’d been that he was dead. All told, the village had ten injured, two boats sunk and a line in the longest song of the rebellion, calling them ‘Valiant sons of Ham’, which pleased everyone very much.
The day after Feros got back, Teris, stretched out in his chair after dinner, passed judgement.
‘It were a good rebellion, good as the ones my father talked about.’
The boys, behind him, cheered. ‘We showed them!’ Feros, Syet noted with an inward sigh, still had grimy streaks over his face where he hadn’t washed properly. ‘We showed those bastards!’
Andara grimaced at the volume. ‘Not at the hearth, thank you. Husband, have you had any word on what they governor be going to do? Have they come for anyone yet?’
Teris spread his hands. ‘Not save them as were taken in Olbe’Se. Not to say they won’t try, mind, but we’ll be ready for ‘em. Don’t you be worrying about it.’
‘I’ll suppose they’ll have the priest send ‘em our names?’
‘Aye, I expect so.’ Teris eyed his wife warily. ‘What be you thinking? If it’s violence against that fool priest, I won’t have it. We’ll face ‘em down if they come here, we don’t need to add priest killing to the tally.’
‘No, of course not, Husband.’ Her expression was demure. ‘And I don’t call for priest killing any more than you. But still, wouldn’t it be better if we could stop ‘em coming at all? We could.’
‘That priest will be sending our names to the temple, won’t he? So all we have to do is persuade him not to.’
‘Aye, right. But how? He’s not likely to anger his bosses just because we ask him, not after we burnt his temple an’all.’
‘No, indeed, Husband.’ Andara’s voice became silky with malice. She smiled. ‘But he might if Syet asks him. She’s got very close to the priest.’
Handar sniggered, ‘Yeah, very close’, then stopped as Feros and Felin protested. ‘That’s our mother you’re talking of!’ Ignoring the argument boiling behind him, Teris regarded Syet. His expression reminded her of the fisherman in the story, who was about to throw back a small, useless fish when it spat up a gem into his hand.
‘Well? Will you speak to the priest?’
Syet knew it wasn’t really a question.
Teris’ gaze relaxed into benevolence. ‘Thank you, Sister.’
Vinal sat on a block in the ruins of the new temple. Rain dripped steadily from the unroofed walls, soaking the piles of charred rafters and spreading in puddles over the floor. On the ledge above the doorway, a skeema was building a nest. He watched Alternative Vinal as he stalked insubstantial in front of him, kicking at stones and sneering. It had been peaceful, in the revolt. He hadn’t had to think.
He had tried both screens when he’d got back from the headland and there had been nothing but static on both of them. Before, when the communications network had been down, it had maddened him. Without his line to the temple, to the real world, the Chi!me and the stars, he had not been able to ignore how he felt in the village, like he was sewn into a coat too small for him ever to fit. This time, though, whenever his eyes had drifted to the screens all he’d seem there was Syet.
He’d managed to eke out his food supplies, the first time since he’d come that he’d fasted, and at the proper time he’d danced the New Star Dance on the headland in the rain from beginning to end. When he’d stepped the circle out and thrown his arms up, the chant had spun out into the wet night like a net, catching him and the universe together, and he’d felt like a priest from the old days, before the great temple was even thought of; living wild on a hilltop, dancing his mind among the stars, free.
The temple had finally been in touch that morning. Not a personal communication, no encouraging talk with Lintud to raise his spirits, make him feel that he could win his recall to Olbe’Se if he tried. Presumably they were too busy for that. It was just a written command, to every village temple, to every priest the same. He’d thought as he woke up that morning that the light was different, something was different. He’d seen the screen was shining purple instead of grey static, and there it was, waiting for him.
The revolt, it said, had been put down. They had tried to disrupt the war effort, to overthrow the government by force of arms, and they had failed, as such attempts would always fail. The damage to the great temple had only been slight, and would be swiftly repaired. In the meantime, all priests were to prepare and submit lists of those who participated in the revolt from their areas, particularly the ringleaders, so that at some future date, when the necessary resources could be diverted from the war, they could be dealt with appropriately.
Appropriately. He could draw up the list, he’d seen that night who was going and it would be easy enough to check. He could tell them about the stranger he’d seen in the village, the comment Jorges had made when he’d shown his pupils the drama; they could work out how it had been organised, stop it from happening again. It would go on his record, somewhere in the temple archives. A little star, perhaps, beside his name: a useful man, a man who has repented his mistake. A man who could find himself in the great temple once again. Alternative Vinal stopped in front of him. He could do it. They had burnt his temple, humiliated him, laughed at him. He could do it. He should. But…appropriately. Such a calm word for such a multitude of deaths.
Alternative Vinal shrugged. They were just peasants, what did he care? Why should Vinal think their lives mattered more than his? But then Vinal had been a peasant too, once, hadn’t he? Did he think he could be one again? Here? He could try that, if that was what he wanted. Alternative Vinal spread his hands wide, scarlet sleeves flowing over the rain. He could have all this, if he wanted. He could join the defeated, if they would have him. He could sit alone in his ruined temple, while they laughed at him. He, Alternative Vinal, thought he was worth better. But if that was what he wanted…
‘Oh, stop it!’ Vinal shouted. ‘Stop it!’
The sound echoed off the stone. The skeema flapped off with an affronted squawk. Alternative Vinal shrugged again and turned to inspect one of the window arches. Vinal buried his head in his hands. He wanted a beer.
Footsteps splashed on the wet floor. He raised his head and saw Syet picking her way through the puddles towards him.
‘I were going up to the temple, but I thought I heard you’ she said. ‘What be you doing in here?’
Vinal snorted, bitterly. ‘Communing. Ha, yes, that’s what I’m doing here. It’s the only place I have in this village, so I’m communing with it. Even if you did burn it down.’ He tipped his chin up, trying to sound dignified. ‘It’s best done alone, so you can go, now.’
Syet took a seat on a broken column.
‘So what do your communing tell you?’
‘That I’m shunned. That I can’t stay here, but the channel back to Olbe’Se’s not an easy one. If I sail it, I’ll look down and find I’m sailing on blood. Others’ blood…’ He stopped himself. Syet must have heard the panic cracking in his voice, but she gave no sign of it.
‘Aye. Well. Sometimes there don’t seem a good choice, do there? Keep your place in the household, help your children, if only you’ll seduce someone into something they shouldn’t do. Seems like if they be the only answers, you have to ask the question again.’
‘It’s not as if I have a choice’ Vinal went on. ‘There’s no free priests any more, no songs, no dancing on the headland. The only place for me is Olbe’Se, and if I have to swim through blood to get back there, then that’s what I’ll have to do. Anything else is an illusion. Just…’ He remembered the touch of the night air, the smell of the ferns in the rain. From his place by the window, Alternative Vinal spread his hands. ‘Just an illusion.’
Syet arched her eyes, quizzically. ‘I remember dancing on the headland. I remember dancing with you.’
He felt himself blushing. ‘That was different. That was…’
‘That were a dream, ‘cause if it were real, you’d have to fight for it, and it be easier not to, baint it? It be simpler to give up, go back to your temple, give ‘em our names so you can give ‘em yourself. Some of us think there has to be a better way. Some of us fight.’
‘But you lose!’ It was almost a howl. ‘You fight and you lose, so how does that change anything except make it worse? What good is that to me?’
‘Be that what you think? That we lose?’ She got up, splashed across the floor to the block beside him. ‘You saw us on the sailing night. Do you think that be losing? It baint some game, Vinal.’
She’d never called him by his name before; not even on the headland, where she hadn’t called him anything at all. Alternative Vinal was standing in front of him now, waving his arms, grimacing. When Vinal spoke, it sounded muffled to himself, as if it was coming from underwater.
‘It doesn’t matter. I still can’t be here. You don’t want me here.’
‘In the old days, before the Chi!me or the great temple, there were always a priest in a village. Who d’you think did the dances, kept the stars in their place? You can be here if you want to be. If you don’t send the names, what can they do to you? There’s nothing stopping you being here, except you. You just have to use the power you have. And stay.’
She held out her hand. Alternative Vinal leaned across the block between them, filling Vinal’s vision so that everything he saw was curtained in an apparition of scarlet. Her hand where it lay palm upwards was rough and seamed, with one half-healed scar across the middle where a fish knife must have slipped. Her fingers curled up like flower petals. She smiled at him.
No, cried Alternative Vinal. No. You need to be in the great temple. Don’t throw it away. Don’t…
‘So’ said Vinal. He reached out through the fading red and took her hand.
The Chi!me Travellers’ Gazeteer, (section 5: Teyro and Betasarna, 44th version, cycle 1852) advises the would-be traveller that Teyro is now largely free from Gargarin raids, since the success of the Chi!me fleet’s ‘Shuttle Defence Strategy’. Teina Cluster, it says, holds much of interest for visitors interested in primitive cultures and has some excellent examples of traditional architecture. The village called The Place of Ham’s People is without great distinction, since so many of the village houses have been rebuilt recently in rather fire-stained stone, but its temple, outside the village in the traditional way, has some ancient paintings worth viewing.
The illustration accompanying it is of one of the rear panels, showing a picture of a channel between two islands, filled with hundreds of boats. It’s night – the islands are dark in an indigo sea – and the only illumination comes from the torches on the boats and the smaller points of light along the cliffs. There isn’t anything to explain what it means, or when it happened. The gazetteer says that such traditional pictures are often folklore, and never happened at all. But on the wall of the temple the boats go on sailing; sailing to Olbe’Se in white light.
Published online at Bewildering Stories.