Consequence – Book 3 of the Eye of the Ocean series (excerpt)
Under her bare feet was a puzzle of grasses, ribbons of dark green velvet, spiky feathers of bronze that tickled her ankles, grasses like sea foam, the white seed heads hanging with the weight of the dew. Borders of tall grasses constrained the choice of pathway, forcing a decision of this way or that, but all ending against a cedar hedge.
The last time Possaltic had been here, this had been a formal garden of boxwood squares, the centers filled with roses, the brick pathways between them leading to terraced fields on the downslope and a view of the ocean.
As she pushed through the brown center of the cedar hedge, her robe caught on a branch, and she sat suddenly in a shower of dead leaves. Tucking her hands in was instinctive. Even hidden in the folds of the wide sleeves, they felt like weights pulling her down.
She was in a small enclosure framed by the hedge and a fence of woven willow canes, and at the far end, a hut of the same willow but an intricate weave where the fence was simply hand-width bundles of the twigs wrapped around sturdy supports.
A pavilion? A gardener’s shed, she decided. Shallow orange clay pots lined the fence, three deep, spiky shoots of bulbs, still yellow, showing just above the rims. A pile of leaves beside the pots, browned by snow and frost.
The Watic who came out of the shed wore a leather apron, pruning shears tucked into a loop on the belt.
“Priest, your attendants?” it said, a light tic-tic sound accenting the Ri. A haze of yellow lightened the dark brown of its chitin. Pincers scared with age were already tracing the torn silk of her robe to the branch where the hem was caught.
She blocked its attempt to reach for the net. “My people in their beds asleep. I had a desire to see the ocean.
It showed no resistance to the net block. “The way to South Bay, by the springs, by the bath house. A different path.”
She laughed as she stood, then twirled around and around in her new freedom. “I like this one.” And sat again, dizzy. Her hair had come loose, a shower of crimped gold over her shoulders. She had bruised her elbow. No, grazed it. There were spots of blood on the cream silk of her sleeve.
The gardener watched a moment, then turned and started working. What did it think of this, she wondered, but wasn’t curious enough to break through the barriers she had set. Both of them with a singular lack of curiosity.
Drawing her knees up, she completed the nest she had made for her arms. She had lost her sleeping mittens somewhere. “Do you ever dream?” she asked.
The rhythmic clicking of the pruners stopped as age-frosted eyes sought hers. “Dream?”
Dreams. Had the gardener been making a pathway back for her? Bits of cut cedar had fallen on the gravel path, vibrant green mixing with the dull brown of the old.
She hid her face against her knees, away from the Watic. There were too many of her in those multifaceted eyes.
When she looked up, the Watic was back to snipping the hedge. “What’s your name?”
“Cami’ti, Priest.” It used the male inflection on its name, a fiction, but common with the Watic on Ri. And at Palace. If the emperor were male, they would ask to be spoken of as female.
The pruners were still again but raised as though it was judging how long this interruption would take.
Possaltic got to her feet. “Would you show me the way to the ocean?” She raised her hands to politely sign indulgence, the overlong sleeves falling back slightly. Blood showed deep in the braiding that extended to her fingertips.
Cami’ti saw it too. “Priest, please. Your people must come.” A spotted forearm rubbed rapidly across its eyes, and the tic-tic had turned into a chorus of chittering. “Guards, an aide, someone. Please.”
The Watic was speaking the words as they surfaced out of its fear; she could tell they were most of the words it knew in Ri.
“Cami’ti, do you dream?” she asked again, but in the soft form of Watic, all she could manage without accessing the net. “I’ve had the strangest dreams lately.
Cami’ti’s eyes darkened to bronze in a brief shadow of sight, a Watic blink. “I dream,” it said in the same language. “I dream of my garden.”
She sighed. Spoken in the familial possessive, the time scale left ambiguous.
Opening to pattern, her senses expanded in time and place. A cedar hedge, much older than the Watic who trimmed it, bordered by a wattle fence woven from yellow willow canes, the trees grown for the purpose and cut to the ground each year.
The sunrise was broken into arrows of light by the weave of the fence. Tollupi vines grew on the other side, tendrils gripping the bark of the willow, their leaves a swollen promise beneath brown scales. The vines wouldn’t bloom until late summer, but for a moment, the potent scent of the large hanging flowers filled her mouth, honey sweet and heavy. Pink tubes fading to white in the hot sun, the whir of the tollupiana beetles at the nectar. Then that scent was gone, and she could smell the ocean in the breeze.
“I had the dreams long ago,” she said, her voice reduced to a whisper and shorn of the tic-tic sounds. “Then the same ones again now, and new ones. Camerat, a reed garden on Camerat, overlooking dark water. Do you know it? Is it the garden you dream of?”
Cami’ti was silent. She had included herself in the dream, using the phrasing that made the speaker part of what they spoke about, part of his garden.
“Your garden would have a different ocean, I think,” she added in Ri-tongue. He had the scent of the cedar hedge on him. She would have liked to touch him. Cedar and oil of lemon, a moldy lemon scent, a blue-green mold. He came to her waist. She was part of Cami’ti’s dream, and it would know she had changed languages to make the lie easier. Not a different ocean at all.
“Would you show me the way?” she asked.
Cami’ti bowed deeply, eyes darkening again. No words, only the noise of mouthparts clicking. The garden pruners were on the ground, the pincers of four arms making a shape that would earn the Watic dismissal from temple service if anyone saw it. Or understood it sufficiently to request a net translation. A Spann prayer.
Footsteps behind her. Kascin, her tassaltin. He had one of her mittens in his hand. “When our bed got cold enough, I woke up. Do you mind some company on your walk?”
Kascin’s thick brown hair looked slept in, flattened on one side, but he had managed boots. She sighed as she held one leg out to show a wet and soiled foot. “Only if you brought shoes for me.”
He tried for the net and kept pushing until she relented. Needlessly stubborn, she thought, and accused him of it.
“At least I don’t go around terrorizing people.”
“Where’s A’in?” she asked.
Kascin had separated Cami’ti’s pincers, unmaking the prayer shape, then tapped his nails sharply on the chitin of the Watic’s thorax. Cami’ti shuddered, then backed away and disappeared through the doorway of the shed.
He watched the old gardener leave before answering. “How would I know where he is if you don’t?”
The fields she remembered were lying fallow now, grass stretching in terraced layers to the start of the dunes near the shore. Possaltic knelt in the wild grasses on the side of the path they had followed from the bathhouse. The sun hadn’t warmed her after all, or the wind was colder here without the shelter of the buildings and trees.
Kascin brought a wool cloak and let the thick cloth fall by her side without offering it. As stubborn in that as he was in everything else. She ignored the cloak as she had the tea and doughnuts. He turned to look at where Raswini and Cayse watched, but didn’t go back to join them.
He had thought she was beautiful. When he had first come to her, he would watch her every movement as though spellbound. He had quickly grown calluses on his innocence.
She looked at him. He was worse than the cold she usually didn’t notice. “You’re very distracting.”
He laughed as though she had made a joke. His round face was soft, puffy with fluid. Her tassalt was right. She should send him away.
She made a motion of allowance, and he joined her. And took that as encouragement to wrap the cloak around her shoulders. Dark green, the wool was brushed on both sides like a blanket, too soft to scratch.
She motioned to the tea, and he poured a bowl for her. The fingers that supported the tea bowl to her lips tasted of the sugar doughnuts he liked so much.
“I never thought of changes happening here,” she said after a sip. Barely warm. “I expected South Bay Temple to remain the same, waiting for me.”
“What’s changed?” he said as he sat back on his heels.
The same as the other about A’in, nothing she couldn’t have found out by simply asking. Except, this one she did, taking her memory of the pathway to the ocean view and holding it open to the temple net records.
In a leisurely stroll through the net that Kascin would find comfortable, the years peeled back, one at a time. Nothing matched. Kascin frowned as he took a sip of her tea. “It must be an old memory.”
The years flipped backwards like the pages of a book against an impatient thumb. He pulled out.
The years went backwards in a flow like a strong wind. And stopped. Possaltic saw two young women walking on a brick pathway. Late summer, not spring. The bordering hedges were taller and trimmed lavender, not boxwood. In the centers were sprays of tiny yellow flowers, a cultivator of w’tin, the flowers that grew wild in the mountain meadows. A willow fence where the cedar hedge was now, backed a deep planting of perennials, with tollupi vines along the top of the fence, a few of the blooms hanging to the shadow side. There was no pathway.
Kascin hung his head in a laugh, then looked sideways at her through a scruff of wind-tangled hair. “Nothing’s changed. You look the same. Who is that with you?”
The record hummed the date of its transcription from across the last nexus change, and the reference, why it had been kept. All the records they had of her had been kept.
“Tissa, my aide.” She wanted to push his hair into place. Could he smell the tollupi flowers? “That was just before my initiation.” Her own memories. She would have thought them gone by now, buried by the years or pushed out from the sheer volume of events. Thousands of years had passed since she had walked at South Bay Temple with Tissa by her side.
“The peaking of nexus change forced the timing of my initiation. It was act then or let me die.” When she had stabilized, nexus change was over, and the old emperor and the other overpriests on the Council were dead. “South Bay Temple supported my challenge for the vacant Office of Forms. I was empress the same day.”
She stood, letting the cloak fall. Kascin caught it, held it bunched in his hands as he looked at her, a puzzled expression on his face. A waiting expression.
Possaltic turned back to face the way they had come. The rooftops of the temple buildings showed through the bare branches, and the temple itself further to one side. Only the smaller trees and the brush had leaves as yet. By high summer, the buildings would be hidden. Behind was the mountain, Ri-altar at the summit. She couldn’t see Palace from this angle, the mountain hid it.
To get here, they had taken the path from the bathhouse, white clouds of steam from the hot springs rising in the cold air. There had been chanting, a deep bass voice, slow and practiced. Only that one voice had been an adult, the rest were higher pitched and held shivers of cold and excitement. The children from the temple crèche. Purification rites for the Spring Blessing ceremonies.
She had envied the young temple dancers, she remembered. The first time she had come to South Bay with her father for the Winter Turning. The farm had been left cold and silent far behind them, a week’s journey on foot, but the trickle of farmers and village people had formed a parade over the distance. Town people and visitors, they had all crowded into the town center to watch the dancers arrive. Her father had held her hand as though afraid to lose her for all she had stood quietly, mouth open, watching. Near the end, the younger children from the temple crèche had come dancing, and she’d pulled away, wanting to be with them, her feet trying the steps as they passed. Their banners whipped above their heads, and they sang with clear, high voices, sounding like birds in the frozen air.
“Not our kind,” her father had said, both hands gripping her arms as she struggled. His breath puffed white in her face as though he had been working hard. “What would you want to go do that for?” Large work-coarsened hands. A farmer’s hands. The town children hadn’t been their kind either, or the fishers. Or the few who were obviously from off world. There hadn’t been meanness in his words, or if there had, it was from a limit in feeling, not from wanting to hurt. He hadn’t understood and saw no reason to try. Much later, he found the will in himself to think her different, and the pride that she was his blood.
“You would have liked my father,” she said to Kascin. “He had wanted a son.”
His frown deepened. “Possi,” he started, but let the rest go, along with the cloak. And again, he looked back to where Raswini and Cayse waited.
She had her mittens on now and touched his arm through quilted silk. “I dreamt of a garden,” she said as he turned back to her with a quick smile. It died. Fear was like an explosion on his face as he stepped away. All four of them stood close on a square of blindingly white marble.
Raswini grabbed his arm before he stepped off into the black water. “Take it slow,” she said into his ear. “Deep breaths.” Then with an appraising look to her, the faded blue eyes steady. “Have you set limits on this?”
She looked around. They were on a raft of intact marble, the rest broken, floor and ceiling both, eaten with black that flipped to white if she stared. Pools of water were around them, hemmed by purple reeds and hills of sand littered with ash and blasted stone. Smoke clouded the air.
Limits. “Just us,” she said. “I haven’t looped it. You could walk out in a couple of minutes, like tearing through a soap bubble.”
Raswini nodded slowly, not taking eyes off her. Cayse had Kascin’s other arm, the two of them supporting him. Then she let her breath out and nodded once more. “Okay. Now how about where?”
“Possi…” Cayse pushed at the back of Kascin’s knees to get him down, coughed and spat into the water before continuing. “If we’re going to be here long, you should let him out.”
Brother to A’in, but without the tassalt’s roving eye. He’d never had a lover outside of her household that she had heard of. Cayse took after Raswini, the same classic Ri-bred look. But A’in was more his father, at least in appearance, if not manner. Dark haired and sallow in complexion, the deep shadows in his skin greenish even away from Ri. Their father had been a fisher out of Haltinport, the alien blood forgotten only to show up in the dark hair and heavier build every few generations. A’in’s wife lived in the same house he had been born in; he had known her since they were children.
Possaltic had first seen him in a pattern pull, a newborn, only days old. Through long acquaintance, she was able to put a name to her feelings as she watched Raswini, standing arm in arm with a young man on a dock in a light rain, sheltering the baby with their bodies. He left her there when his crew had assembled, and the boat ready. Each man and woman had nodded respectfully as they passed and there were kind words and some jokes, ribald and good-natured.
Raswini had been wearing clothes such that a fisher might wear and the shawl she had over her hair and pulled around the child was plain-weave wool in the Haltinport plaid, but she walked back home alone with her child. If they hadn’t known Raswini served the empress, the townspeople had known she was a stranger to them.
Possaltic had been able to feel what Raswini had, the complex shifting that had included love, but also anger and pain, and a refining of the pride she had taken for granted. And her own feelings? Had they lasted the day? The hour? Was spying on her wayward servant an indulgence or a test that she was still human? Except that she still remembered the feeling, but not when it was that Raswini’s husband had died, or how Raswini had become so old. She just was, it seemed, all at once.
“Where is this?” Raswini asked again.
She forced herself to see the live woman through the layers of memory. A single lifetime, a long time to someone who expects to live only one. “A construct from my dream, that’s all. I can’t even find this place in overpattern. A lack in me, or…”
“Found some other limits, have you?” The wrinkles around Raswini’s mouth deepened in what was a private smile between them. “Fancy that.” She looked to the boy, and the lines deepened to a scowl. “If none of us are here, then he can be less here. Unless you want…”
“I’m okay,” Kascin said.
“This is what I want,” Possaltic said to them both. Unless I want him dead sooner rather than later, Raswini had been thinking. She’d gotten worse, mothering Kascin at every chance, defending him from A’in, keeping them apart as much as possible.
Kascin squinted into the dim light, avoiding her. Had he thought Raswini would have talked about his death where he could hear?
“Why are we here?” he asked.
“A path to the ocean, I think.” She spoke in trade-Zimmer and the words shared intent, if not form, with the prayer the Watic had shaped with its pincers. He understood what she said, as he had the Spann prayer. He was Altasimic and where there were Altasimic, there were freeborn Zimmer. “Stay here with me, Kascin. Raswini, Cayse, look around.”
They called her a few minutes later. “Keep the boy back there,” Cayse said. “He doesn’t need to see this.” Kascin followed, regardless.
Possaltic waded through dirty water, the hem of her robe soaked. Raswini stood to block her, storm-battered reeds on either side hid the rest. “He should go back,” she insisted.
He didn’t. “It’s you,” he said, his tone empty of either horror or wonder.
“There’s another body,” Cayse said. “An older Poultat male with oath tattoos on his wrist.”
Raswini held her from behind, watching her younger son from over Possaltic’s shoulder. “That one of you died hard. You said you dreamed this?”
Kascin stood by a clump of lavender-colored reeds, a broken stem in one hand. He had glanced up at Raswini’s words, but his eyes still didn’t meet hers.
“Some of it,” she said.
Cayse ran a crystal over the body, the braids next. Overpattern mark over Simic and Ri, not as extensive as her own, but come on faster, she thought, the cycling cuts barely healed. The rest of Cayse’s examination was as clinical and thorough. He tossed the crystal to his mother when he was finished and washed his hands in the water. Purple specks caught in the fine, almost colorless hair of his arm. Pemt’ka algae, she remembered. Camerat, but she had known that from the dreams. And the bodies.
“Shall I do the man?” he asked. She nodded, and he took another crystal from the pouch on his girdle.