“What did you do with Petrouchka?” she asked, reinstating the cover.
“I put her to bed.”
"Was any of that true?"
He could not reply directly, and she waited without further insistence.
"If it's Helaine and Kala'amātya, you don't need to make it up." Sachiin sighed. "I never knew... but... I just can't, cloudcheeks... it's too much. Talk to me, about something else."
“She’s going to hate us even more when she finds out Fyodor's defected.” He lay with his eyes closed. "Are you alright?"
"Snow makes it better."
“I had no idea you were this attached to winter.”
"I am the white witch. It's always home."
“Do you ever miss it? Where you come from?"
“No... and yes... every day.”
“You haven’t told me why you left.”
His eyes slid open at the softly reproachful tone of the remark.
“Honestly, I’m not sure it’s something you want to hear after half a pint of mystery schnapps.”
“Is that what this stuff is?" Susan allowed herself to smile. "Remember the mystery jam? I was up late, and you came in and I made you help... I think that was when I fell in love with your shoulders. And your neck.” The intelligence restored something of his ease; he glanced along his nose at her.
“You with my what now?”
“You were looming, and I was thinking god, you’re such a giant shambolic monstrosity, then I saw that actually, you did have lovely shoulders, especially that bit there, that comes down from your neck..." She stroked her own in demonstration. "It made me think hmm, you’re quite fit really, even if you do eat buckets of pills and drink from the tap like a Bromley fox. Tell me, though.”
He sat up slowly.
“I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say.”
“Why you left where you came from...”
“It’s complicated.” he murmured.
“Oh well, cut it short then because I’ve got a hundred other fucking things to do, obviously.” she reminded him aridly.
“Oh Christabel... it’s not a happy story.”
“Yes it is. If you hadn’t left, you wouldn't be here with me.” He looked into the darkness overhead, then back at her, deeply thoughtful. "It's strange to tell me, isn't it? And don't say yes and no."
He brought his legs up into a lotus pose upon the sill so that he seemed like a panel from a Khmer frieze, strangely transposed.
"When I was young, we were taught to believe... and I did... that we were apart from all else for good reason. I believed the moon was the first of our mothers... I believed that we, like all righteous beasts, were her children, given to her sister earth because she had no means to raise us. But I didn't believe what they did to Kala'amātya was her judgement, that he had been born to it and I hadn't. When he was made bai'issātva, I never thought I'd hear from him again. I heard of him... rumours always came back with the baby priestesses every spring, when they went to give them instructions... they said he was in charge, and did as he pleased, but since what he pleased kept the i'ss'it from the mountains, no one interfered...
One day a message came to me... to meet him, through about a dozen people. I didn't think he'd really be there, but I waited the whole day at the edge of the hills just in case, and at the last minute... there he was." The dust thrown up by his brother's horse as it turned before him swept past his face again. "I didn't know it at the time, but the sthali'sātva... the priestesses... had tried to make him poison all the wells down on the plain." Susan scowled at such a measure, unable to encompass its vicious rationale. "He wouldn't do it, and he'd been exiled, so he must have thought it was the last time we would see each other. He said nothing for a while, and then he asked me... Sachiin, are you content?" Its haunting emphasis returned to him. "I had no idea what to say. It was like asking a cow if they liked grass. I couldn't answer, and then... avoir disparu... he disappeared. No one knew where he'd gone, or what had happened. After a while, they made it official, saying Kala'amātya had been exiled, which was the same as dead.”
“Did you believe it?”
“He wasn’t with us, and he wasn’t with the bai'issātva, and I didn't know that there was anywhere else you could be. About a year later they held the T'shibai’sailye... the Green Star Night, around a little lake, a thing that everybody came to and where the sthali'sātva dropped the dime about your future. If you were an eyeroller, a backchatter, a slightly imperfect, you were sent down... made bai'issātva. If you’d survived the apprenticeship, you made your sthali'sātva bones and became a priestess. Nyāti was getting her pointy hat that night. If you were just old enough, you got the ball and chain, shotgun Vegas styles, with whoever they’d picked out for you. Rana was hot and highborn and out of my league... I was a trashy twink, and Kala'amātya's brother, and I remember not believing they had chosen me, but... it made my mother happy... I suppose they thought Rana would keep me out of trouble. What was I supposed to do?”
“If you don't know by now, I can't help you." she sighed.
“There was no no. So yes, I was pencilled in as Rana’s bitch and was polishing my cherry, minding my own business with Bede down by the water, when everything went quiet. I remember it so well, and I knew even before I saw him that there was only one person who puckered that many arseholes at the same time.”
The expression on his face became so irradiant that she chuckled into the bottle.
“Kala'amātya was meant to be at the bottom of the ocean, and then he walked into the Green Star Night. Ana'siām'ilye was sending the new bai'issātva down... she stopped in the middle of it and looked at him. I could see them both from where I was, and I remember feeling as though the air had turned to stone and wouldn't let me breathe. Everybody waited for her to say something, but... what could she say? He was carrying a siitān, a sacred bird that came over the mountains with the rain. I had never seen one that close, and the thought that he could hold it in his hands was like... watching someone carry Al Buraq into the Al-Masjid al-Ḥarām. It was dead... I could smell the poison it had swallowed from where I stood. He lay the bird at Ana'siām'ilye's feet, and then took something, from here..." He lifted a hand from the folds of the remembered robe. "He had found her comb in one of the wells... at first I thought no, he wouldn’t... but he took it...” Sachiin performed the act that he narrated slowly, bringing his hand to the priestess's head. “And put it back, into her hair."
Ana'siām'ilye's face flickered, as black and white as she had seemed.
"The other sthali'sātva stepped away from her, as one. He was profane, and had profaned her, and now it was Ana'siām'ilye who had to go into the sea. She took off her robes and jewels... everything else that made her what she was, slowly, as though she couldn't believe what she was doing, turned from us and started walking... and that was the last anyone saw of her. I was too amazed to notice that Kala'amātya had gone too."
"I ran to the top of the hill and saw him following the stream, and then I ran until I caught him. ‘Go back, Sachiin’ he said. ‘They will forgive you.’ But I followed him down the valley, and he looked at me again and said ‘Go back, or I will use my knives on you.’ I didn’t know at the time that he meant it, but when he saw I was still there, he knocked me down, put me on my face and was just about to do it when Rana called out that if anyone was going to lame me, it was her.”
The soporific values in his voice had stilled her amid the sleeping bag, the bottle resting at a forgotten angle in her lap. Snow had banked on the sill beside him, softly bouffant, and settled on his shoulders. Susan shrugged the bag around her ears.
“What did she do?”
“Tried to drag me back... she almost pulled my arm off trying to get me across the river, but Kala'amātya saw I didn’t want to go, and wouldn’t let her take me." His brother's features spoke the words again, for the first time in two millennia. "He told me that if I went with him, I would never see my mother, my wife, or this place again... that it was no small thing to turn my back, and nothing I should do on his account. ‘Do not think me blameless, Sachiin.’ he said. ‘I am everything they say of me, and worse.’ I had three seconds to decide.
I could see it in his face... that moment he always gives you, but I didn't think him blameless... I thought him my brother." She smiled at the profession. "He took my arm and pulled me back over the river, and Rana really lost her shit. She came at him, but he got hold of her and threw her on the ground like a big sack of potatoes, then off we went. At first I didn’t realize, because I was too busy staring at the back of Kala'amātya's head, but she came after us again.
She couldn’t go back without losing face... we didn’t even really know each other. It was just pride. He took us past the poisoned wells. Kali’niah... that’s not something you ever want to see with your own eyes. We followed the river west, all the way to Paršvãb... Samarkand... and that was my first city. Before we came to the town, we saw a shepherd and his wife on the side of the road, eating curd, and they were the first people I had ever seen, close up. I just... could not believe it... they were so like us. We'd always been told the i’ss’it were... you know... hideous devil creatures...”
“Thanks very much.”
“I wish you could have seen Rana’s face. Kala'amātya asked her what she thought about the dogma now, and she said that if we had been born women we would know that the i’ss’it were created by witches, out of envy, and it was obvious that they hid their monstrous errors and deformities beneath their clothes. At that point Kala'amātya paid them both a good year’s wages to take their clothes off, which they did, and Rana got down from her horse and examined all their parts, and said nothing more about her superior knowledge of the world."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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