Authors: Sylvia Kelso
Tags: #Science Fiction
The Moving Water
The Red Country
For my parents
With thanks to Lillian Stewart Carl for more than ordinary editing.
The title of this book comes from Robert Payne's translation of a famous Li Po poem, variously titled “Conversation among the Mountains,” “Green Mountain,” “Question and Answer,” etc. The translation first appeared in Payne's anthology of Chinese poetry,
The White Pony,
in 1947, and the third line reads, “The peach blossom follows the moving water”: an allusion to TaoYuan Ming's even more famous prose tale of the peach blossom fountain whose waters led wanderers out of their world and time. I have been unable to get permission from Mr. Payne's estate to quote the entire poem.
A Note about the map: Some ebook formats allow a “full width” display. Choosing this option will enlarge the display of the map.
It is a long road to Eskan Helken here in the wastes of Hethria, and longer still when you do not know you are traveling it. As I did not. The day my journey began, I had never heard of Eskan Helken, and only vaguely of Hethria. All I knew was that, after morning inspection, the Lady Moriana wanted words with me.
Hardly momentous? But no one who served the Lady Moriana answered such a summons without a degree of sweat in the palms and tallying of his own and others' recent sins. Certainly not the Captain of her Guard. Certainly not the newly promoted Captain of her Guard.
That was in my second's manner when I said, “Hear defaulters for me, Evis. I'm going up there,” and he nodded without meeting my eye. It spoke from the rigid stance of the two sentries I had just posted, as I clanked between them up Ker Morrya's green marble entry steps. From the schooled face of the steward with moontrees on the back and breast of his black silk surcoat, when I said, “The Lady asked for me,” and he replied, “This way, sir.” It persisted in the fit of my helmet, which was too tight, in the slip of my boots, which were too loose. In the chill of the first long colonnade whose tiles were scalloped moss-green, jade-green, by each archful of morning sun, in the piercing sweetness of a black-beaked eygnor's song, and the suddenly lovely curve of each water-fern's drooping frond. Such things grow precious when you may be seeing them for the very last time.
Ker Morrya is a huge pile of a place. The Lady would add or subtract from it as fancy took her, so some part was always rebuilding, another being torn down, and the intact pieces fitted with no rhyme or reason clear to a soldier's mind. From the first colonnade we entered a circular gallery with pillars leafed in gold, branching capitals entwined above elegant white marble bas-reliefs: the Lady in profile to the left, to the right. Contemplating a mirror, a serpent, a pomegranate. On the crimson carpet beneath stood a Gjerven swamp-tribe's gargoyle, six feet of garishly painted red-and-blue wood.
Left turning, we emerged in a garden of pools and pergolas, geometric as a phalanx between hedges ruler-clipped. It was scented by herbs, pungent, unruly, sweetly dangerous. Under the central pergola little black Morryan bees had built a head-sized clot of a nest. Beyond rose a mezzanine hall, a wreathing maze inlaid on its russet-and-mahogany parquet work. From its central pit grew the ferny leaves and gold and scarlet florets of a dwarf delryr tree. A langu, one of the great northern pythons, slept like a round bale of tapestry against the trunk.
Two steps led out and down to a tapestry loggia, its solid wall masked by a myriad tiny bejeweled figures, dancing, reclining, beneath trees in smoky-lavender flower. A staircase turned in and up to a complete guest suite, white plaster walls inset with delicate powder-blue medallions under molded cornices: the Lady burning incense, playing with a dove, tying her girdle, discarding a shoe. The bedroom's rear wall was torn out, the table of gold and crystal tiring ware and the four-poster's dove-blue silk hangings open to the bricks and ladders strewn outside.
We crossed the trampled mud, wiped our feet on a Tasmarn silk rug's gray-and-crimson damascene, some southern weaver's masterpiece, dodged the spikes of a helymfet that had gone to sleep on its meal of ants, and entered a vestibule composed in green: malachite floor, jade-inset ceiling, green marble fretwork walls that latticed Ker Morrya's living drapery. Beyond rose a flight of open, rough-hewn steps.
The steward stopped, lowering his voice. “The Lady is . . . by the fountain, sir.”
He vanished. I looked at the stairs and found my mouth was dry. The Lady received as she built, in kitchen, boudoir, hall or buttery. But it was rarely anyone met her by the fountain, and more rarely that those who went to such an interview came back.
It was chilly in the vestibule. The mountain beyond was already breathing back the sun. I could see facets of black, glassy rock, pockets of moss and fern and palm, glitters of silver water amid the green and black. A vague roar rose from the streets of Zyphryr Coryan, sprawled busy and populous far below. Clearly, through and over it, I heard water, a crystal, fluent tinkle, swift, unfaltering, bubbling out into air and the mountain's emptiness.
The sun met me halfway up. I could not help a glance back, and then a halt, for the view would distract you from the Lady Moriana herself. I was on the very shoulder of the Morhyrne, the huge lopsided triangle of mountain visible a day's sail east of Zyphryr Coryan and three days' march to the west. Its bare black cone loomed over me. At my feet a vista of the city's crowded roofs fell in red and white and fallow-gold patchwork to the lands of Assharral, spreading south and west and north to the horizon. On the other side, the city's huge, peacock-blue-and-green-tinted harbor coiled away to the breadth of the eastern sea.
I lingered a moment. The air was brisk. The green things near me were tingling with it. It did not seem a fitting day to die.
The stairway ended at a living arch, the blended foliage of two tall trees that drooped sweet-scented speckled brown-and-gold sprays of flower. I knew they were the legendary rivannons, which few Assharrans have ever seen.
Beyond them a semi-circular terrace had been scooped in the mountainside, its diameter the cone's black native rock, its arc a low parapet of lustrous dark-red porphyry. Inside was a tangle of fragrant shrubs and flowering trees. At its center the sun played black and silver on the fountain of Los Morryan, an endless dance of scintillant bubbles and sweet-tongued sound whose spray showered down over the glittering black rim, fanning moss over pavement where ancient symbols had been blurred by feet and time.
The bower was dappled by shade and water, fragrant, remote as paradise. It was also empty. Of the Lady Moriana I could see no sign.
It would be correct to say I was at a loss. You would not summon the Lady like a serving maid. Nor would you charge bull fashion into the bower of Los Morryan. Nor, as I very much wished, could you summarily retreat.
I tucked my helmet under an arm. The crisp air breathed on my skull. Then, beyond the fountain, I saw a shoe.
A frivolous, high-heeled golden sandal, encasing a high-arched, blue-veined foot. Its owner sat under the broad silver spearhead leaves and golden fluff-lance flowers of the perridel tree beyond the spring. Now I looked, I could distinguish, through the falling water, a hem of white flowing silk.
I advanced, silently cursing my unsilent boots. The Lady Moriana leant sidelong in the onyx seat, elbow on the parapet, fingers adroop. On the curve of her wrist, motionless as the Lady, rested a great gold-and-purple butterfly.
At first sight of the Lady Moriana you would think, A girl. A girl in girlhood's crowning flower. The simple white dress, the ebony hair fallen from a center part to a loose coil in the nape of the neck, the pensive downbent profile, slightly parted, unpainted lips, smooth round chin, swannish concave stem of throat, high rounded brow. It would all seem a sculptor's idealized innocence.
Then you would see the bracelet of nut-sized thillians coruscating on the slender wrist, the huge eclipsed-moon gold signet on the right thumb, the quiet, cruel arch of bridge and nostril from the lids drooped over the slumbrous coal-black eyes, and you would know without instruction that she is neither innocent nor a girl, and that a goaded coffin-snake is less dangerous.
Neither lady nor butterfly paid the slightest heed to me. I stood at uneasy ease, feeling my breath stop. I also knew I had begun to sweat. Fine symptoms for a man who looked unmoved on a
The fountain tinkled, the shadows stirred. At last, the Lady drew a breath.
“Fly, then,” she murmured. Los Morryan's music had broken into syllables. “Fly.”
The butterfly opened its wings, beat them once, an imperial trumpet blast, and looped away. The Lady gazed after it, chin on the back of her hand.
“Tell me, Alkir”âthat muted music was half somnolentâ“was I a butterfly dreaming it was Moriana, or Moriana dreaming she was a butterfly?”
Never was I so thankful for formality. It let me respond with correct and perfect blankness, “Ma'am.”
Her lips curved. The pull of a tightened bow. Her eyelids rose. Black depths I saw, powdered with golden galaxies, and looked carefully an inch above. Her brows were black and fine, her forehead had a glow of youth, just tinted by the sun. Every time I saw the Lady Moriana I had to remind myself that she was ten, twenty times my age.
She turned full face, the edge of my vision caught her eyes' waking, and I am not ashamed to admit my backbone chilled.
“Never mind, Captain.” Now the music too was lazily mocking me. “You were not meant to understand. It was for something else that I wanted you.”
I came to attention, thinking, You can at least die soldierly. But she reached into a corner of the seat, and the sun blew up in dazzling, transparent fire.
The dazzle passed. A sheet of colorless light flared in her cupped hands. A dewdrop big as a fist, it looked, but retaining its orb shape, its thillian-gem brilliance, in her grasp.
“Ker Morrya's spyglass,” she said.
I could not help the questioning note as I repeated, “Ma'am?”
“Even the Lady Moriana”âthe music kept its drowsy threatâ“sometimes needs to help her eyes.”
Finally, I nerved myself. “And, ma'am. . . . What do you see?”
Her gaze moved past me, out over Zyphryr Coryan, over Assharral, into blue's infinity. Her voice was flute song, just audible.