Authors: Geoff Ryman
“I’ll tell you! None of you have! Not one. There has been no killing here since the fall of Gara han Gara, and that was only the gutting of a sick old man and the stoning of his sons—who you were pledged to protect. If you had ever seen anything like a battle, you could not sing so lightly of murder. You could not say it was beautiful!”
Cara thought of her father, and it seemed suddenly that she would choke. She was weeping, and she stood up, desperate to get out of the room, and stumbling over the bench, strode quickly out of the chamber.
Stefile remained behind. She sat erect, and raked each of the Angels and their women in turn with her eyes. Conversation gradually resumed, light chatter as if nothing had happened, but none of them could meet Stefile’s gaze. “Music! More music!” called Haliki, but the next, uncertain song was a long song.
Outside, in the courtyard flooded by moonlight, Cara wept with rage and disgust and remembrance. It was some time before someone, a mere moving shadow in the ice-blue light, came silently towards her. It was Galad, the trainer.
“What you said was the truth,” he whispered to Cara. “They will not forgive that.”
“I know,” replied Cara, drawing in a shaky breath. “I will never be an Angel now, and I tell you I don’t want to be.”
“You are here for a reason, aren’t you?” Galad said.
Cara poised, hovering, and then answered him. “Yes.”
“You won’t have time to learn any of the Angel techniques. But you have a sword and armour. I can teach you how to use those.”
“Thank you,” replied Cara. “But how? When?”
“It will have to be done at night, when the others are done. I think you will learn quickly.”
“I have not much time.”
“A word,” said Galad, glancing about him. “If it is Galo gro Galu you wish to . . . meet.” The trainer was in an agony of embarrassment. “Then only wear your loincloth.”
Cara looked at him puzzled for a moment, and then understood.
“That is why he comes to watch,” said Galad, and shrugged as if to cast something off. “We begin now?”
“We begin now,” said Cara.
The days passed in a pattern. Cara limbered and stretched, and found that this gave her more strength. It made her more at home in her body. Galad made a show of teaching her the basic lessons of the School. At night, under the clear sky of This Country, he taught Cara sword and shield play. “No, no, don’t think,” he hissed at her in exasperation. “The moment you think, I can see you go uncertain. Somehow your body knows all the tricks.” But it was good to be reminded: never sit with your back to a door, keep your sword on your left side, remember the aim is not to parry but to strike.
Strangely enough, Haliki did not interfere with these nighttime sessions. “Country Boy knows he will not be here long, and he has the wit to see he cannot fight. Broken Nose teaches him ugly warfare, which is all he is good for.”
It was Stefile who Haliki pressed mercilessly, calling her Dirty One Dress and Chin Dribble. “Her hands are so rough from work that they draw blood. It is a mystery to me how the two ruffians make love;” and then, “Poor little thing. What a shame you do not have a man to defend you.” It was done out of malice, human and inexplicable. During the day, Haliki practised fighting men with swords. “Do not fight him,” murmured Galad. All the time she was there, Cara held her temper, nursing her secret revenge.
Every day at sunset, Galo gro Galu came to look at her.
“When it happens,” Cara told Galad, “tell Stefile. Tell her to leave, then, quickly. If she asked where the Galu has taken me, don’t tell her. She must get away. We have arranged a place to meet outside the City. Make sure she leaves for there, gets out of the House. Tell her also,” Cara added, “that I think of her as my wife.”
It was in the third week of Cara’s month that the Galu came at night, instead of sunset. He wore only his purple wrapping and his coiled necklace, and he sat on the edge of the wall, an almost luminous white in the night, casting a long moonshadow across the courtyard. He applauded Cara and called out, “Oh brave, brave, well struck!” and laughed. Cara stepped forward, in her loincloth with her sword. “Good evening, Master,” she said.
“Good evening, warrior!” He swung his pale legs back and forth like a child. “Come up and talk to me.”
“I am too humble, Master. I must train,” replied Cara. “And besides, how am I to reach you?”
The Son of the Family laughed again, a high musical laugh. He stood up and unwound the cloth from around his middle until he was naked, and lowered it over the edge of the wall. “Climb up,” he said, challenging, insinuating, ordering.
“Can you hold me, Master?” Cara asked, lowering her eyes from his nakedness, which sickened her.
“I am stronger than you think,” the Galu said, with a voice like ice.
Cara could not look around at Galad, out of shame and fear that the Galu would see something between them.
We all live only by hope
, she thought to herself. Without looking back she walked to the wall, and with a gathering of sweaty stillness realised that her time had come, that she might not see Stefile again, that she herself would probably die. The Galu certainly would. She grabbed hold of the purple and scrambled up the wall, her sword, sheathed, hanging from her waist. The armour and shield, leaning against the wall, were told by her mind to follow.
“There you are,” said the Galu, lifting her with arms like straggly bands of steel. “And here you are.” The smile was fixed and the eyes unblinking, as Cara remembered, the Galu hugged her, pressed himself against her and whispered, “Have you ever loved a man, my warrior?”
Cara told the truth. “Yes, Master.”
The Galu chuckled, a low ugly sound from somewhere deep in his throat. “Let’s walk,” said the Galu, slinging his purple over one shoulder. He put an arm around Cara’s waist and padded along the broken walls next to her. His skin was cold, even clammy.
I cannot bear this
, thought Cara, and longed for it to be over, longed to be hidden from sight, safe from eyes, so that she could do it quickly and escape.
“I love night,” said the Galu. “It is so cool and quiet and still. Day is too bright and scorching. You like the night too don’t you? Isn’t it beautiful.” He stopped to look across at the temple, the ancient ziggurat, looming up in layers over the even, broken walls. “Look at my house.”
“It is decaying,” said Cara.
“That is why it is beautiful,” replied the Galu, and picked up a piece of broken brick with his bare and supple foot, and dropped it over the edge. “I like ruin. Listen. You can hear air move in the grass that is growing out of the walls. I like that too.” The Galu brushed the grass with his foot and then stepped back to let Cara admire his nakedness. Cara looked away, but glimpsed despite herself the blue-white, deformed, bald organs of his sex. The Galu chuckled again, that deep awful sound. “Oh! But he is embarrassed. He is modest. Well then, I must cover myself.” The Galu did so by pressing himself against Cara again. “He is so warm. It must be the sun.” The Galu smiled with his lifeless teeth and kissed Cara—she thought she would gag and she pulled her head away.
“Not here,” she blurted, and glanced about them.
“Oh, my Prince is embarrassed,” hissed the Galu, taking hold of Cara’s ears so that she could not turn away again. “Where would my Prince like to go?”
“It is said that I will not be selected. I will not be here long. I would like to see the palace?”
“He wants to see The Most Important House. Then of course he will.” The Galu took Cara’s hand, and his fingers were like chilly claws, and he led her back and forth across the top of the maze of stone, and Cara began to dread that she would not be able to find her way out again. The honeycomb of stone seemed to cover all the world out to the horizon. She glanced back and saw her helmet and shield peering over the top of a wall as though they had eyes.
Finally the Galu led her down a single staircase from the walls into the shadows of the inner House, kerigs around courtyards, like the Schools.
The Palace was lit inside only by low guttering torches, and the corridors were stark. There was hardly any furniture, a carved stool, perhaps, against a wall, an old tapestry fallen and crammed dusty into a corner. The friezes had dropped in sections from the walls. Reliefs of armies of marching men were interrupted by breakage, their faces mottled by flaking paint. In one vast, dim, empty chamber were carvings of Asu Kweetar, the Most Noble Beast, winged, god-given. The gouges across the images seemed to Cara to be deliberate defacement. What kind of sacrilege was it to deface the most beautiful creature? The legends called it The Beast that Talks to God, and every child yearned to see it in the sky. What kind of sacrilege was it to reduce the Most Important House to this state? As they walked, Cara heard the fluttering of wings and the scuttling of delicate little claws. There was the hooting of an owl, and the sudden, heart-stopping swoop of bats towards and then away from Cara’s face.
In front of the door to Galo gro Galu’s chamber an Angel stood on guard. The Angel was Haliki.
Haliki began to laugh. “So little Dirty One Dress has something new to learn,” he said, grinning.
“Haliki will not mock my Prince,” said the Galu, stroking the hair on the nape of Cara’s neck. “Haliki will not laugh too long, either.”
Haliki mastered himself. “Yes Master,” he murmured, but his eyes followed Cara, glistening with amused delight.
It does not matter about me
, Cara thought, feeling the presence of the Angel Warrior behind her.
If I have to die to kill the Galu, it will be worth it
. She followed Galo into his bedchamber, and the door was closed behind her.
The room smelled like an abattoir, and was dark, no windows. A single candle burned on the floor amid encrustations of wax. This room too was bare, only pillows and cloth on the floor. The Galu stood, expectant. Before she would have to do, or see more, her mind benumbed and determined, Cara drove her sword straight into the chest of Galo gro Galu, where she hoped his heart would be.
The Galu groaned, and rolled his head, and looked at Cara with eyes that seemed to shiver.
“Oh not so
my love,” he cooed. “You will ruin it. Slice slowly.”
Cara could not understand; she thought she had misheard; she thought the Galu did not yet realise he had been struck. Then the Galu stepped towards her on the sword, eyes full of yearning. Stepped forward, and then stepped back. Forward and back, forward and back. Blood welled up into his mouth, and down his chin, and he licked and swallowed it.
“Ah! Ah!” squawked Cara, in horror, and tried to wrench the sword out of him. The Galu smiled and reached up, and took hold of the hilt, and passed it to her. Then, like a yielding virgin, he settled down onto the pillows, and licked his fingers, and smeared the blood down his belly. He fingered the edge of the wound, gently, in delight. Cara struck at him clumsily, to make him stop, to wipe away what she was seeing. She cut him across the shoulders and face.
“That’s it. That’s better,” said the Galu, and smiled. This time the teeth were red. “I know who you are,” he said, and gasped. “Dear, dear Daughter. I know who you are.” Darkness was spreading out evenly all around him, seeping across the cloth. “Look,” said the Galu, with a voice like the dying wind.
There was a sudden crackling noise and the Galu groaned again—merely groaned—and writhed on his bed, and with a sound like the splitting of logs the wound in his chest broke wide open from the base of his throat to the bottom of his belly.
Great petals of flesh, thick, black, like a flower, erupted out of him. Cara watched, uncomprehending, as stems rose out of the midst of the petals, rustling, bearing on their ends three clear, crystalline globes like jelly with spiralling of gold flakes within them. The Galu was still alive. “The Secret Rose,” he whispered. A bubble of blood burst in his mouth, and he looked up at the thing with love. “Beautiful. The Secret Rose.” His eyes went staring, and then glazed.
“No,” said Cara, rejecting. “No. No. No. No. No,” and she began to beat the sword against the stone, not knowing why, only knowing that what had happened was monstrous and wrong, only knowing from the Galu’s face that this and nothing else was what he had wanted, knowing who she was. The great black petals sifted and sighed, and bestirred themselves, reaching out, settling over him, quivering, alive, inhuman, inhuman as the Galu were inhuman, whatever they were.
Cara backed away from it, eyes gaping, and felt her way out, opening the door.
“Finished?” a voice asked behind her. “Was it a surprise?”
Haliki stood behind her, grinning. Cara could not answer him. “There’s blood on your sword, Country Boy. I’m going to have to kill you.”
Wake, Cara, wake
, she told herself, and she lifted up her sword with what seemed like nightmarish slowness. Haliki laughed at her, and with a malicious grin spun his arms completely around from the elbow, like blades, in the air. Then, without a twitch of movement in his legs, he casually flung himself at her, hands outstretched, and Cara felt a flutter about her head, and she was enveloped. There was a sound like ringing metal, and crumpling pain across her chest. But she was alive.
“Ouch!” yelped the Angel, nursing the edge of his hand. Cara’s armour hugged and protected her. The Angel’s eyes were fierce, and hard. “Magic. I would have thought you had seen Magic enough tonight.”
And suddenly he was spinning through the air towards her, a whirligig, arms and legs moving with mindless speed and Cara danced backwards away from him, trying to follow the rolling and ducking and weaving with her sword to strike him, and suddenly there was a hard line of pain across her arm. Her own sword was buried deep within it. The Angel’s face was suddenly right against her own, with a smile like a box full of teeth, and there was suddenly a smashing and rending in the centre of her body and she felt her heart judder, and stop, and clench, and begin again. She couldn’t breathe. She thought of her sword—lift it up out of the arm, swing with it. But the sword was gone. Where was the sword? The Angel’s grinning face returned. The tips of his fingers flicked at her solar plexus.