As Harmony's Oversoul grows weaker, a great warrior has arisen to challenge its bans. His name is Moozh, and he has won control of an army using forbidden technology. Now he is aiming his soldiers at the city of Basilica, that strong fortress above the Plain.
Basilica remains in turmoil. Wetchik and his sons are not strong enough to stop a army. Can Rasa and her allies defeat him through intrigue, or will Moozh take the city and all who are in it?
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Tor Science Fiction
January 01, 1994
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Excerpt from The Call of Earth by Orson Scott Card
THE DREAM OF THE GENERAL
General Vozmuzhalnoy Vozmozhno awoke from his dream, sweating, moaning. He opened his eyes, reached out with his hand, clutching. A hand caught his own, held it.
A man's hand. It was General Plodorodnuy. His most trusted lieutenant. His dearest friend. His inmost heart.
"You were dreaming, Moozh." It was the nickname that only Plod dared to use to his face.
"Yes, I was." Vozmuzhalnoy--Moozh--shuddered at the memory. "Such a dream."
"Was it portentous?"
"Tell me. I have a way with dreams."
"Yes, I know, like you have a way with women. When you're through with them, they say whatever you want them to say!"
Plod laughed, but then he waited. Moozh did not know why he was reluctant to tell this dream to Plod. He had told him so many others. "All right, then, here is my dream. I saw a man standing in a clearing, and all around him, terrible flying creatures--not birds, they had fur, but much larger than bats--they kept circling, swooping down, touching him. He stood there and did nothing. And when at last they all had touched him, they flew away, except one, who perched on his shoulder."
"Ah," said Plod.
"I'm not finished. Immediately there came giant rats, swarming out of burrows in the Earth. At least a meter long--half as tall as the man. And again, they kept coming until all of them had touched him--"
"With what? Their teeth? Their paws?"
"And their noses. Touched him, that's all I knew. Don't distract me."
"When they'd all touched him, they went away."
"Yes. It clung to his leg. You see the pattern."
"What came next?"
Moozh shuddered. It had been the most terrible thing of all, and yet now as the words came to his lips, he couldn't understand why. "People."
"People? Coming to touch him?"
"To...to kiss him. His hands, his feet. To worship him. Thousands of them. Only they didn't kiss just the man. They kissed the--flying thing, too. And the giant rat clinging to his leg. Kissed them all."
"Ah," said Plod. He looked worried.
"So? What is it? What does it portend?"
"Obviously the man you saw is the Imperator."
Sometimes Plod's interpretations sounded like truth, but this time Moozh's heart rebelled at the idea of linking the Imperator with the man in the dream. "Why is that obvious? He looked nothing like the Imperator."
"Because all of nature and humankind worshipped him, of course."
Moozh shrugged. This was not one of Plod's most subtle interpretations. And he had never heard of animals loving the Imperator, who fancied himself a great hunter. Of course, he only hunted in one of his parks, where all the animals had been tamed to lose their fear of men, and all the predators trained to act ferocious but never strike. The Imperator got to act his part in a great show of the contest between man and beast, but he was never in danger as the animal innocently exposed itself to his quick dart, his straight javelin, his merciless blade. If this was worship, if this was nature, then yes, one could say that all of nature and humankind worshipped the Imperator....
Plod, of course, knew nothing of Moozh's thoughts in this vein; if one was so unfortunate as to have caustic thoughts about the Imperator, one took care not to burden one's friends with the knowledge of them.
So Plod continued in his interpretation of Moozh's dream. "What does it portend, this worship of the Imperator? Nothing in itself. But the fact that it revolted you, the fact that you recoiled in
"They were kissing a rat, Plod! They were kissing that disgusting flying creature..."
But Plod said nothing as his voice trailed off. Said nothing, and watched him.
"I am not horrified at the thought of people worshipping the Imperator. I have knelt at the Invisible Throne myself, and felt the awe of his presence. It wasn't horrible, it was...ennobling."
"So you say," said Plod. "But dreams don't lie. Perhaps you need to purge yourself of some evil in your heart."
"Look, you're the one who said my dream was about the Imperator. Why couldn't the man have been-I don't know--the ruler of Basilica."
"Because the miserable city of Basilica is ruled by women."
"Not Basilica, then. Still, I think the dream was about..."
"How should I know? I will purge myself, just in case you're right. I'm not an interpreter of dreams." That would mean wasting several hours today at the tent of the intercessor. It was so tedious, but it was also politically necessary to spend a certain amount of time there every month, or reports of one's impiety soon made their way back to Gollod, where the Imperator decided from time to time who was worthy of command and who was worthy of debasement or death. Moozh was about due for a visit to the intercessor's tabernacle anyway, but he hated it the way a boy hates a bath. "Leave me alone, Plod. You've made me very unhappy."
Plod knelt before him and held Moozh's right hand between his own. "Ah, forgive me."
Moozh forgave him at once, of course, because they were friends. Later that morning he went out and killed the headmen of a dozen Khlami villages. All the villagers immediately swore their eternal love and devotion to the Imperator, and when General Vozmuzhalnoy Vozmozhno went that evening to purge himself in the holy tabernacle, the intercessor forgave him right readily, for he had much increased the honor and majesty of the Imperator that day.
* * *
IN BASILICA, AND NOT IN A DREAM
They came to hear Kokor sing, came from all over the city of Basilica, and she loved to see how their faces brightened when--finally--she came out onto the stage and the musicians began gently plucking their strings or letting breath pass through their instruments in the soft undercurrent of sound that was always her accompaniment. Kokor will sing to us at last, their faces said. She liked that expression on their faces better than any other she ever saw, better even than the look of a man being overwhelmed with lust in the last moments before satisfaction. For she well knew that a man cared little who gave him the pleasures of love, while the audience cared very much that it was Kokor who stood before them on the stage and opened her mouth in the high, soaring notes of her unbelievably sweet lyric voice that floated over the music like petals on a stream.
Or at least that was how she wanted it to be. How she imagined it to be, until she actually walked onstage and saw them looking at her. The audience tonight was mostly men. Men with their eyes going up and down her body. I should refuse to sing in the comedies, she told herself again. I should insist on being taken as seriously as they take my beloved sister Sevet with her mannishly low, froggishly mannered voice. Oh, they look at her with faces of aesthetic ecstasy. Audiences of men and women together. They don't look her body up and down to see how it moves under the fabric. Of course, that could be partly because her body is so over-fleshed that it isn't really a pleasure to watch, it moves so much like gravel under her costume, poor thing. Of course they close their eyes and listen to her voice--it's so much better than watching her.
What a lie. What a liar I am, even when I'm talking only to myself!
I mustn't be so impatient. It's only a matter of time. Sevet is older-I'm still barely eighteen. She had to do the comedies, too, for a time, till she was known.
Kokar remembered her sister talking in those early days--more than two years ago, when Sevet was almost seventeen--about constantly having to dampen the ardor of her admirers, who had a penchant for entering her dressing room quite primed for immediate love, until she had to hire a bodyguard to discourage the more passionate ones. "It's all about sex," said Sevet then. "The songs, the shows, they're all about sex, and that's all the audience dreams of. Just be careful you don't make them dream too well--or too specifically!"
Good advice? Hardly. The more they dream of you, the greater the cash value of your name on the handbills advertising the play. Until finally, if you're lucky, if you're good enough, the handbill doesn't have to say the name of a show at all. Only your name, and the place, and the day, and the time ... and when you show up they're all there, hundreds of them, and when the music starts they don't look at you like the last hope of a starving man, they look at you like the highest dream of an elevated soul.
Kokor strode to her place on the stage--and there was applause when she entered. She turned to the audience and let out a thrilling high note.
"What was that?" demanded Gulya, the actor who played the old lecher. "Are you screaming already? I haven't even touched you yet."
The audience laughed--but not enough. This play was in trouble. This play had had its weaknesses from the start, she well knew, but with a mere smattering of laughter like that, it was doomed. So in a few more days she'd have to start rehearsing all over again. Another show. Another set of stupid lyrics and stupid melodies to memorize.
Sevet got to decide her own songs. Songwriters came to her and begged her to sing what they had composed. Sevet didn't have to misuse her voice just to make people laugh.
"I wasn't screaming," Kokor sang.
"You're screaming now," sang Gulya as he sidled close and started to fondle her. His gravelly bass was always good for a laugh when he used it like that, and the audience was with him. Maybe they could pull this show out of the mud after all.
"But now you're touching me!" And her voice rose to its highest pitch and hung there in the air--
Like a bird, like a bird soaring, if only they were listening for beauty.
Gulya made a terrible face and withdrew his hand from her breast. Immediately she dropped her note two octaves. She got the laugh. The best laugh of the scene so far. But she knew that half the audience was laughing because Gulya did such a fine comic turn when he removed his hand from her bosom. He was a master, he really was. Sad that his sort of clowning had fallen a bit out of fashion lately. He was only getting better as he got older, and yet the audience was slipping away. Looking for the more bitter, nasty comedy of the young physical satirists. The brutal, violent comedy that always gave at least the illusion of hurting somebody.
The scene went on. The laughs came. The scene ended. Applause. Kokor scurried off the stage in relief--and disappointment. No one in the audience was chanting her name; no one had even shouted it once like a catcall. How long would she have to wait?
"Too pretty," said Tumannu, the stagekeeper, her face sour. "That note's supposed to sound like you're reaching sexual climax. Not like a bird."
"Yes yes," said Kokor, "I'm so sorry." She always agreed with everybody and then did what she wanted. This comedy wasn't worth doing if she couldn't show her voice to best advantage at least now and then. And it got the laugh when she did it her way, didn't it? So nobody could very well say that her way was wrong. Tumannu just wanted her to be obedient, and Kokor didn't intend to be obedient. Obedience was for children and husbands and household pets.
"Not like a bird," said Tumannu again.
"How about like a bird reaching sexual climax?" asked Gulya, who had come offstage right after her.
Kokor giggled, and even Tumannu smiled her tight sour little smile.
"There's someone waiting for you, Kyoka," said Tumannu.
It was a man. But not an aficionado of her work, or he'd have been out front, watching her perform. She had seen him before. Ah, yes--he showed up now and then when Mother's permanent husband, Wetchik, came to visit. He was Wetchik's chief servant, wasn't he? Manager of the exotic flower business when Wetchik was away on caravan. What was his name?
"I am Rashgallivak," he said. He looked very grave.
"Oh?" she said.
"I am deeply sorry to inform you that your father has met with brutal violence."
What an extraordinary thing to tell her. She could hardly make sense of if for a moment. "Someone has injured him?"
"Oh,"She said. There was meaning to this, and she would find it. "Oh, then that would mean that he's...dead?"
"Accosted on the street and murdered in cold blood," said Rashgallivak.
It wasn't even a surprise, really, when you thought about it. Father had been making such a bully of himself lately, putting all those masked soldiers on the streets. Terrifying everybody. But Father was so strong and intense that it was hard to imagine anything actually thwarting him for long. Certainly not permanently. "There's no hope of...recovery?"
Gulya had been standing near enough that now he easily inserted himself into the conversation. "It seems to be a normal case of death, madam, which means the prognosis isn't good." He giggled.
Rashgallivak gave him quite a vicious shove and sent him staggering. "That wasn't funny," he said.
"They're letting critics backstage now?" said Gulya. "During the performance?"
"Go away, Gulya," said Kokor. It had been a mistake to sleep with the old man. Ever since then he had thought he had some claim to intimacy with her.
"Naturally it would be best if you came with me," said Rashgallivak.
"But no," said Kokor. "No, that wouldn't be best." Who was he? He wasn't any kin to her at all, not that she knew of. She would have to go to Mother. Did Mother know yet? "Does Mother..."
"Naturally I told her first, and she told me where to find you. This is a very dangerous time, and I promised her that I would protect you."
Kokor knew he was lying, of course. Why should she need this stranger to protect her? From what? Men always got this way, though, insisting that a woman who hadn't a fear in the world needed watching out for. Ownership, that's what men always meant when they spoke of protection. If she wanted a man to own her, she had a husband, such as he was. She hardly needed this old pizdook to look out for her.
"She hasn't been found yet. I must insist that you come with me."
Now Tumannu had to get into the scene. "She's going nowhere. She has three more scenes, including the climax."
Rashgallivak turned on her, and now there was some hint of majesty about him, instead of mere vague befuddlement. "Her father has been killed," he said. "And you suppose she will stay to finish a play?" Or had the majesty been there all along, and she simply hadn't noticed it until now?
"Sevet ought to know about Father," said Kokor.
"She'll be told as soon as we can find her."
Who is we? Never mind, thought Kokor. I know where to find her. I know all her rendezvous, where she takes her lovers to avoid giving affront to her poor husband Vas. Sevet and Vas, like Kokor and Obring, had a flexible marriage, but Vas seemed less comfortable with it than Obring was. Some men were so...territorial. Probably it was because Vas was a scientist, not an artist at all. Obring, on the other hand, understood the artistic life. He would never dream of holding Kokor to the letter of their marriage contract. He sometimes joked quite cheerfully about the men she was seeing.
Though, of course, Kokor would never actually insult Obring by mentioning them herself. If he heard a rumor about a lover, that was one thing. When he mentioned it, she would simply toss her head and say, "You silly. You're the only man I love."
And in an odd sort of way it was true. Obring was such a dear, even if he had no acting talent at all. He always brought her presents and told her the most wonderful gossip. No wonder she had stayed married to him through two renewals already--people often remarked on how faithful she was, to still be married to her first husband for a third year, when she was young and beautiful and could marry anyone. True, marrying him in the first place was simply to please his mother, old Dhel, who had served as her auntie and who was Mother's dearest friend. But she had grown to like Obring, genuinely like him. Being married to him was very comfortable and sweet. As long as she could sleep with whomever she liked.
It would be fun to find Sevet and walk in on her and see whom she was sleeping with tonight. Kokor hadn't pounced on her that way in years. Find her with some naked, sweating man, tell her that Father was dead, and then watch that poor man's face as he gradually realized that he was all done with love for the night!
"I'll tell Sevet," said Kokor.
"You'll come with me," insisted Rashgallivak.
"You'll stay and finish the show," said Tumannu.
"The show is nothing but a...an otsoss," said Kokor, using the crudest term she could think of.
Tumannu gasped and Rashgallivak reddened and Gulya chuckled his little low chuckle."Now that's an idea," he said.
Kokor patted Tumannu on the arm. "It's all right," she said. "I'm fired."
"Yes, you are!" cried Tumannu. "And if you leave here tonight your career is finished!"
Rashgallivak sneered at her. "With her share of her father's inheritance she'll buy your little stage and your mother, too."
Tumannu looked defiant. "Oh, really? Who was her father, Gaballufix?"
Rashgallivak looked genuinely surprised. "Didn't you know?"
Clearly Tumannu had not known. Kokor pondered this for a moment and realized it meant that she must not ever have mentioned it to Tumannu. And that meant that Kokor had not traded on her father's name and prestige, which meant that she had got this part on her own. How wonderful!
"I knew she was the great Sevet's sister," said Tumannu. "Why else do you think I hired her? But I never dreamed they had the same father."
For a moment Kokor felt a flash of rage, hot as a furnace. But she contained it instantly, controlled it perfectly. It would never do to let such a flame burn freely. No telling what she would do or say if she ever let herself go at such a time as this.
"I must find Sevet," said Kokor.
"No," said Rashgallivak. He might have intended to say more, but at that moment he laid a hand on Kokor's arm to restrain her, and so of course she brought her knee sharply up into his groin, as all the comedy actresses were taught to do when an unwelcome admirer became too importunate. It was a reflex. She really hadn't even meant to do it. Nor had she meant to do it with such force. He wasn't a very heavy man, and it rather lifted him off the ground.
"I must find Sevet," Kokor said, by way of explanation. He probably didn't hear her. He was groaning too loudly as he lay there on the wooden floor backstage.
"Where's the understudy?" Tumannu was saying. "Not even three minutes' warning, the poor little bizdoon."
"Does it hurt?" Gulya was asking Rashgallivak. "I mean, what is pain, when you really think about it?"
Kokor wandered off into the darkness, heading for Dauberville. Her thigh throbbed, just above the knee, where she had pushed it so forcefully into Rashgallivak's crotch. She'd probably end up with a bruise there, and then she'd have to use an opaque sheen on her legs. Such a bother.
Father's dead. I must be the one to tell Sevet. Please don't let anyone else find her first. And murdered. People will talk about this for years. I will look rather fine in the white of mourning. Poor Sevet--her skin always looks red as a beet when she wears white. But she won't dare stop wearing mourning until I do. I may mourn for poor Papa for years and years and years.
Kokor laughed and laughed to herself as she walked along.
And then she realized she wasn't laughing at all, she was crying. Why am I crying? she wondered. Because Father is dead. That must be it, that must be what all this commotion is about. Father, poor Father. I must have loved him, because I'm crying now without having decided to, without anybody even watching. Who ever would have guessed that I loved him?
* * *
"Wake up." It was an urgent whisper. "Aunt Rasa wants us. "Wake up!"
Luet could not understand why Hushidh was saying this."I wasn't even asleep," she mumbled.
"Oh, you were sleeping, all right," said her sister Hushidh. "You were snoring."
Luet sat up. "Honking like a goose, I'm sure.'
"Braying like a donkey," said Hushidh, "but my love for you turns it into music."
"That's why I do it," said Lucet. "To give you music in the night." She reached for her housedress, pulled it over her head.
"Aunt Rasa wants us," Hushidh urged. "Come quickly." She glided out of the room, moving in a kind of dance, her gown floating behind her. In shoes or sandals Hushidh always clumped along, but barefoot she moved like a woman in a dream, like a bit of cottonwood fluff in a breeze.
Luet followed her sister out into the hall, still buttoning the front of her housedress. What could it be, that Rasa would want to speak to her and Hushidh? With all the troubles that had come lately, Luet feared the worst. Was it possible that Rasa's son Nafai had not escaped from the city after all? Only yesterday, Luet had led him along forbidden paths, down into the lake that only women could see. For the Oversoul had told her that Nafai must see it, must float on it like a woman, like a waterseer--like Luet herself. So she took him there, and he was not slain for his blasphemy. She led him out the Private Gate then, and through the Trackless Wood. She had thought he was safe. But of course he was not safe. Because Nafai wouldn't simply have gone back out into the desert, back to his father's tent--not without the thing that his father had sent him to get.
Aunt Rasa was waiting in her room, but she was not alone. There was a soldier with her. Not one of Gaballufix's men--his mercenaries, his thugs, pretending to be Palwashantu militia. No, this soldier was one of the city guards, a gatekeeper.
She could hardly notice him, though, beyond recognizing his insignia, because Rasa herself looked so...no, not frightened, really. It was no emotion Luet had ever seen in her before. Her eyes wide and glazed with tears, her face not firmly set, but slack, exhausted, as if things were happening in her heart that her face could not express.
"Gaballufix is dead," said Rasa.