Authors: Geoff Ryman
As if it had been a signal, everyone else at the table began to pass everything that was on it to Cara, in contempt: flowers, spoons, bowls, the salt keeper, pitchers of water. They pushed the heap forward until some of the pottery spilled on the floor and broke.
“Is that enough?” the woman asked, with cold amusement.
“Yes,” replied Cara, and began, out of anger, to eat directly out of the serving bowl with her fingers. The man across from her groaned.
“We shall simply have to break that too when it is finished,” said the woman, airily.
“Tell me,” said the man. “What sort of creature eats like that?”
“The kind that has to sit with its consort at table, because it knows it is out of place.”
Stefile felt her uncut black hair, stringy with water in front, dry and caked with dust behind, and pulled on it. Very gently, Cara reached up and took her hand, and lowered it again to the table. With exaggerated ceremony, she poured Stefile some water.
A question seemed to hover in the air between the Angels, and then receive an answer. As one, they stood up, gathering their robes about them, making inconsequential conversation as they moved to other tables. Stefile and Cara ate alone at the long table.
The Warriors resumed training in the late afternoon when it was cooler, and half the courtyard was in shadow. They rinsed their mouths with mint in milk, and removed their robes and dressed in loose clean garments. They went out into the yard carrying parasols to preserve their complexions. The women hid away from the light, in their rooms. No one spoke to Cara or Stefile, so they sat together under the mulberry, the lowering sun in the eyes.
“They are pigs! Pigs!” said Stefile, murderously, near tears. “I will kill them!”
Cara tried to take her arm, but Stefile pulled it away in anger. “No one has ever spoken to me in that way. I tell you I may be a bondwoman who has always lived among bonded people, but I have never seen the lowest of us forget hospitality and true good manners like these people. We always give strangers food if we can. It is a good duty, and if their ways are different from ours, we look at the person beneath them.”
“We will go,” said Cara, and stood up. “Come on. We cannot stay.”
“No,” said Stefile giving her head little shakes. “What about what you have to do?”
“We will find another way.”
“We will stay and kill their prince, eh?” Stefile’s gaze was intent and fierce. “That will push their beauty back down their gullets. May the Family kill them all in revenge.” Her feelings got the better of her. Her voice began to waver, and she stood up, abruptly, and swept her dress about herself, like the highest lady of the highest house.
“Thank you, Lady,” Cara said, and Stefile quickly walked away, shoulders hunched, back towards Cara. Tears, Stefile had been taught, were part of your naked soul escaping; it was bad to let anyone see them. Cara understood that, and did not call after her. She walked back into the kerig. The Angels sat straight-legged, hands resting on their knees, backs arched.
“They will break you if they can,” said a voice, and Cara turned.
Behind her stood a middle-aged man with a broken nose and a pot belly. He did not wear clean white robes, but a brown loincloth. He did not carry a parasol; his skin was dark from the sun. “And if they break you,” he continued, “they will send you home, for you are not strong enough. And if they do not break you, they may simply dislike you.”
“Who are you?” Cara asked.
“I am Galad. I am the trainer. Am I not wrong in thinking you are a new candidate?”
“No, you are not,” Cara replied, and asked with a nod at the Angel Warriors, “Do they call that fighting?”
The Angels had begun what looked to Cara merely like a very spectacular dance, with high leaps and spins in mid-air, and dives towards the ground that turned into somersaults. They grabbed each other by the arms and threw each other in circles.
“It is fighting of the most deadly kind,” replied Galad. “You will see later.”
“Are there so few of them?” Cara asked having counted roughly sixty of them.
“Most of them are in the great house. They guard there three days, and spend one in training.”
“And how long, Master, does it take to become a fighter of this School?”
“Three years,” replied Galad, “before you know the basic positions.”
“And how likely is it that new candidates are accepted?”
“Of every fifty, one.”
Cara nodded. “Then we’d best begin.” She unbuckled her armour and leant it against the tub of the mulberry, feeling a certain sense of relief: she need not worry about being accepted by the School; she need not accept its customs or its manners; she did not have time to learn its techniques. She would have her month in the Most Important House, and that would have to be enough.
“The first thing you must master,” said Galad, “is the positions. Without accomplishing the positions, you will not be able to perform the movements. This is the first.” Galad sat on the white stone, cross-legged, and bent down, and despite his paunch, put his chin on his lap and his forehead on his feet. “And the second,” he said without strain in his voice, and arched backwards until his forehead touched the pavement behind him.
“Try,” said Galad, and Cara did, and of course failed.
“Don’t move in sharp jabs,” said the trainer. “Move slowly, as far as you can, and then hold it.”
The Angel Warriors began to gather around her.
“He has a back like an iron rod. He is a cripple!”
“These country men do too much coarse labour. It ruins them for anything precise. He’d be of more use as a pack horse.”
“Or a Carrier for the Family.”
“Would you like that, country man? To be a Carrier?” Haliki teased Cara.
“He does not even know what it is!” chuckled one of them.
“Harado, my friend,” said Haliki, sounding pained. “For appearance’s sake, get rid of this boy’s armour, will you. It offends me.”
“I should not touch it if I were you,” said Cara, and succeeded in putting her head on her knees.
“A threat?” said Haliki, amused. He squatted behind Cara and placed the edge of his hand along her back. “A blow. Right there. You would open up.”
Cara sat upright, and looked around at him. “I merely made a statement of fact. That armour has a mind of its own. I should not touch it.”
of it,” said Haliki, wearily.
One of the Angels tried to pick up the sword. It leapt away from him.
“Ah,” said Haliki. “Magic. We have someone from a travelling show. What other tricks do you have to amuse the peasants?”
“Are you a peasant, to be amused?” Cara asked. She looked at Haliki as steadily as she could. “I know what you are doing, Sir Hero. Go away and let me learn my positions. As you had to.”
“He has heart,” said one of the Angels, simply.
“Only because he does not know what he is facing. Watch, magician, and learn who we are.” Haliki patted Cara on the back, and stood up. The others followed him, filing out of the courtyard through one of the gates.
“Rest,” said Galad, sitting beside Cara. “And watch.”
The Angels, returning, carried three huge rocks among them. The boulders seemed to float in the air, the Angels using only one finger each to support them. They were lowered gently; the Angels stood back.
Haliki blew at the stone. “Wawawa,” he said, and thrust his hands towards it, palm first. His hands stopped, and vibrated, as if with reverberations. Then, with one movement, he dived for the rock, like a swimmer, hands flattened against each other into a head like a spear. He plunged into the stone, breaking it into thirds. Each third stood poised for a moment, as if in surprise, before rolling apart with a rumble on the pavement. Haliki stood, to light applause.
“They sense the faults in the stone,” said Galad. “They sense the faults within the human body. They find the faults in the mind, the hairline cracks in the soul that weaken. Men who attack them with swords end up cutting themselves in confusion. To fight them is to fight air that suddenly becomes a fist. Never fight them. In a fight, you absolutely could not win. Please, country soldier. Remember that!”
Cara tried the first ten positions, as the afternoon faded. In the last red light of sunset, people approached along the top of the broken walls, with a beating of gongs and drums and thin reedy wailings from flutes, and with the swaying of great umbrellas over them.
“Galu,” said the trainer in a flat, guarded voice.
Cara saw how they approached and she knew then that she faced a very great evil indeed. She saw what the Angels had called Carriers.
The Galu rode men, as though they were horses. The first Carrier was a giant, with great heavy arms, and bulky legs and buttocks and sure broad feet. The top of his head had been cut away, to make him stupid and docile. His eyes were blinkered either side of his head, and he champed a bit inside his mouth. The Galu, astride his back, was completely covered in black. Even his face was covered by a lustrous black leather mask, without a mouth. On the feet were spurs.
“Are they women, to hide their faces so completely?” Cara wondered aloud.
Galad shook his head. “Those? They are the Sons.” Cara’s heart caught, with hope and hatred. “They are only ever seen at night, or just at sunset, covered like that.”
“Galo gro Galu?” Cara asked, her voice rising.
“Sometimes it is him.”
Behind the first was a second Carrier, who had been born an idiot, with no brain. His forehead stopped just above the eyebrows, and his hair, as though confused by the lack of its allotted space was clotted and thick and crowded in swirls. The empty eyes were not blinkered, but looked around the world in delight. One of the Galu held up a hand, and the parade stopped, on the wall above the School of Angels. The orchestra, in single file, stopped sawing and bashing and whining. The Galu who rode the mutilated giant dismounted and strode to the edge of the wall and looked down. The Angels paused, and genuflected, and then went on with their practice with renewed vigour.
Cara realised that the Galu was looking at her. Cara bowed, hand on chest. It was a gesture of purest hatred. The Galu, hidden in folds of cloth, seemed to swagger with amusement. Then with deliberation, he plucked away his mask, and smiled down. It was a chilling smile, full of knowledge, and Cara had the sudden, unreasoning fear that the creature knew who she was. She strained to recognise the hateful face. In the light of day it was as white as a frog’s belly, and the fringe of hair was not silver but uncoloured, like a cobweb, or the hair of an albino or someone who has recovered from fever. The face was squinting with pain at the light, but with a swelling of certainty and purpose and relief Cara saw that it was indeed Galo gro Galu, the Worm in the Flower, the destroyer of her family. She would have her chance, her magic year would not be wasted or forlorn. Her joy was fierce beyond disguise. She grinned and bowed, and grinned and bowed, and the Galu gave her a mocking salute. Galad looked away from her, pondering.
The evening meal was held in the same chamber, with even more ceremony. Flutes played, and at the entrance there were bowls of lemon water which the Angels and their women patted on their foreheads and wrists. There were new flowers on the table and new flowers in the hair, and sheaths of gold cloth over the white robes. As the Angels marched into the chamber, fresh from bathing, Cara heard the distant sound of raucous laughter from the other Schools, and loud rough singing and cheers—the loutish awkward joy of soldiers released like gawping boys from discipline. She looked at the faces around her that were tense and bitter, and she understood that here was no release from discipline, no relenting control, no revealing of any weakness.
“You looked slow today,” one of them said to another.
“Speed is not strength,” was the reply. “But I understand that difference is difficult for you to appreciate.”
“Hello, dear friend,” said an Angel, perhaps too loudly, clasping the back of his companion’s neck. “Surely, you could not have said the things about Haliki that Bovik tells me you have said?”
The returning smile was as sharp as a knife. “I do not know what Bovik told you. But I do know that one often hears what one wished to say oneself, rather than what has actually been said.”
This is a dreadful place
, thought Cara. How like the respectable grandmothers of the village they were, pretending to confide and comfort, while all the time trying to establish their higher rank. She found herself a place at table, and people moved away, further down the bench. Cara looked around anxiously for Stefile. Would she come at all?
The bondwoman came from the interior entrance, from the rooms where the Angel wives had hidden away from the sun. At first Cara did not recognise her. Stefile strode in, holding herself tall, carrying her pride as if it were an egg that could drop and break. Somehow she had beaten her road weary dress until it looked new—the dirt between the thick wool threads was gone—and she had flattened it somehow so that there was not a ruck in it. Her hair, by some peasant trick, had been braided and then woven into a perfect sculpture of a flower, a land lily, a graceful horn of glossy black. Tenderly, Cara arranged food near them so that they would not have to ask for any. Back erect, like a princess, Stefile scornfully lowered herself beside Cara, her glaring eyes daring anyone in the room to comment.
“Some bread, Lady?”
“Thank you, Sir.”
It was a frugal meal. Crusty bread and water and bean paste and a clove of garlic. As they began to eat, one of the warriors rose, with a lyre, and said, “A Song.” There was light applause. He began to sing in a high, pure voice, songs of death and murder and all manner of defacement and maiming. “We hung their guts like garlands about the trees. We made their voices wail. All the riches of their bodies spilled like treasure to the ground.” Cara pushed her plate away from her. The song went on and on.
“How many of you!” Cara suddenly shouted. “How many of you have ever even seen a battle?”
The singer faltered, and lapsed into silence. There was a horrified pause, because that question had only one answer.