Sugar and Iron

“What was that?” asked Saint Gishuyu.

“Um, my hand…” said Cemaela.

“No,” said Gishuyu, disentangling herself, “Not that. I heard footsteps on the roof.”

“Probably just-” began Cemaela, but even the criminal mastermind couldn’t think of an innocent reason for someone running along the roof of a train, and even had she been able to Gishuyu was already strapping on her Templar’s sword and unfastening the window.

“I’m probably just going to go and do some crime then,” Cemaela called after the departing sword-saint.

The roof of the Infinite Kindness was black with old smoke, and Gishuyu was filthy by the time she pulled herself up. It was just past dusk, and the train was still rattling across the seemingly endless desert. The smoky air still held a trace of the days heat, and a stray ember stung against the saint’s bare shoulder. Squinting up the train towards the locomotive, Gishuyu caught a glimpse of a robed figure leaping between carriages; she set off at a run.

The smoke thickened as she made her way along the train, her quarry little more than a shadow ahead of her. She shouted an instruction to halt.

A tiny eddy in the smoke gave her a moment’s warning as a throwing knife curved out of the darkness. She twisted aside and the knife flickered past her face. Gishuyu drew her sword in time to knock away the second blade. Angry now, she redoubled her speed, gaining on her would be assassin.

As she jumped the gap between carriages, the robed figure span around, flourishing two curved swords. Forced to turn mid-flight, she parried awkwardly, landing heavily, hooves clanging on the metal roof. Her assailant pressed his advantage, slashing at her with the razor sharp blades.

But Saint Gishuyu had been trained in the Temple Sword Forms developed by Saint Kuwixa himself, and she turned the strikes aside, adopting the Dancing Willow Stance as she did so.

Her opponent was also well trained, wielding the dual blades with lethal confidence. His attacks were rapid and flamboyant, whirling and slashing. Gishuyu had to summon all her focus to parry the attacks, but Kuwixa’s sword forms were made for this sort of combat; they were smooth and unshowy, deliberate and defensive. He must tire soon, thought Saint Gishuyu, and then she could disarm him. She did not recognise the forms that he was using; they had something of the flashiness of the Desert Clans sword schools: sweeping and extravagant. But these were killing strikes, whereas the Clan forms were all purely ritual; impressive looking but not intended to cause actual harm. Could her opponent be one of the legendary Accursed Tribe; a clan of murderers and assassins?

With a start, Saint Gishuyu realised that she had let her mind wander. This realisation did not come quickly enough to prevent the assailant from sweeping her feet out from under her, but –as she hit the train roof – it did allow her to knock askance the heartwards thrust which followed. A second strike threatened to decapitate her; she rolled aside, avoiding the blow but tumbling off the train.

For a moment she scrabbled at thin air, until the fingers of her left hand caught the lip of the roof and she slammed hard against the carriage window, her sword spinning away into the night. She waited for the a follow-up strike that would sever her fingers but none came; her opponent had chosen instead to make good his escape.

Catching the lip of the roof with her other hand, Gishuyu took a moment to regain her breath and take in the situation. This was clearly the dining carriage; she could tell by the way it was full of people who had stopped eating their dinner in order to look at the saintly body that had thudded against the window. An elderly priestess had overturned a samovar in shock, and a richly dressed merchant now had a lap full of noodles. Across the carriage, Knight-Captain Navispa arched an eyebrow, sighed elaborately and put down her glass of tov. Gishuyu imagined that Knight-Captain Navispa probably knew at least sixteen regulations that specifically forbade dangling outside of dining cars, but at least she could be relied upon to investigate the cause of the disturbance.

Bracing her hooved toes against the side of the carriage, Saint Gishuyu levered herself back onto the roof of the train. As she’d expected, the robed attacker was long gone, but she was reasonably sure that he would have continued towards the front of the train.

She followed scuff marks and sooty hoof prints until she found what she was looking for; a roof hatch that had been recently opened. Wishing that her sword was not now buried in desert sand some miles back, she opened the hatch and dropped through, landing in a defensive stance.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, although the light in here was soft and golden. Prayer flags and fluttering scripture adorned the walls, and somewhere a prayer drum beat slowly. Several sets of eyes watched her from within orange hooded robes, the watchers sitting upright on long passenger benches. She had landed on a discarded set of robes; dark and smelling of smoke.

“Which way did he go?” Gishuyu asked the watchers.

There was, of course, no reply. They could not reply, Saint Gishuyu realised; they were Copper Pilgrims, making their way to honour the Virtuous Founders, and bound by a strict vow of silence. Her assailant probably hid among them, but she would get no answers from them.

At that moment, Knight-Captain Navispa burst through the door of the carriage.

“Lady Iamathu has been murdered!” she exclaimed, “And you are in violation of several important regulations.”

- from book V of the interminable and inexplicably popular novel series Boz Uoshape Aeda-Puw Oodoewe Thuth Ueputha (“Adventuresome Exploits in the Service of the High Priestess”).

If you were, for some bizarre reason, to ask a non xeno-linguist what the difficult part of translating an alien text into English was, they’d probably say something like “the words”. Idiots. A lot of people think that translating is basically a matter of search and replace, swapping alien words for English ones. That’s why they get hung up on the whole “X has no word for Y!” thing: yes, the Tebokoe have no word for sarcasm. Big whoop – doesn’t stop the sarky bastards from using it all the bloody time!

If you read my last little essay, you’ll know that idioms, poetry and expletives are some of the things xeno-linguists hate. Here’s another one: common knowledge. The stuff that ‘everyone knows’ is a pain to translate because stuff that’s obvious to antelope-descended people living in an matriarchal semi-theocracy is bafflingly unobvious to ape-descended people living in, well, whatever it is we live in.

Take, for example, the “copper pilgrims” mentioned above. Every giftee knows that, at least once in their lifetime, most believers make a pilgrimage to the Great And Secondary Temple Of The Silent Goddess, Her Saints, The Four Ineffable Virtues, And All in the Holy City to pay their respects to the statues of The Four Virtuous Founders. Everyone knows that nowadays this ‘pilgrimage’ might just be an extra stop on a holiday, but –everyone knows–  that in the olden days people took it very seriously, wearing special orange robes, abstaining from certain oddly specific sexual acts and most importantly, taking an absolute vow of silence. As you’ve seen, this is a big plot point in Book V of Adventuresome Exploits – set in the reign of the 2nd Priestess of the 3rd Temple era, despite the anachronistic steam train –  the pilgrims cannot tell our hero who the murderer is! (And for some reason absolutely no-one asks them to just write it down).

Leaving aside the issue of explaining the above to human readers without introducing a boring paragraph of exposition (see above) the bigger problem is that it’s all bollocks. There’s no evidence that the pilgrimage – which didn’t start until the reign of the 4th Priestess 3TE anyway – was ever done in the sort of rigid way that popular opinion believes. If nothing else, that sort of prescriptive observance was much more part of the 2nd Temple era; it’s exactly the sort of thing that Saint Josutha’s Great Uprising swept away. Besides, the giftees are a practical people at heart – it’s hard to imagine even the most devout of them protecting a murderer with their silence.

So what am I supposed to do? Add a footnote that says “FYI: don’t believe any of this crap?”

That idea was vetoed, but I am apparently allowed to write a little more about the pilgrimage, or more specifically the first of the statues that form its subject.

In fact, the four statues at the heart of the pilgrimage were almost never made at all. The Church of the Silent Goddess has always been pretty keen on icons and representative art, its temples stuffed to their domes with colourful pictures, statues, frescos, wall-hangings and carvings. But during the reign of the Uthedi emperors only one statue stood in the courtyard of the Great Temple – a huge iron statue of Uthedi I, proudly guarding the temple with his massive halberd. Uthedi I may well have had some issues. Uthedi III had the statue covered in gold leaf, so he may not have been entirely issue free either.

Come the Great Uprising the rebels, naturally, wanted to pull down the statue. Saint Aytha (who was not yet a saint, of course) managed to stop them, and instead Saint Orun, always the most politically savvy of the founders, made a big deal of properly removing the statue of Uthedi. It was a massive engineering undertaking, with the gleaming statue being lifted over the courtyard wall and lowered down into the sea. Noble families –former Uthedi loyalists– competed to provide muscle power as a sign of their (definitely not motivated by mere expediency) loyalty to the new order.

The statue still stands, by the way, a barnacle encrusted emperor facing out to sea. You can take a boat out and stand on his head, but that’s considered a bit touristy.

One of the throngs of people who watched the statue being removed was a young man named Tur Zevad, who would go on to be the greatest sculptor of the age; for now he was just an extra pair of hands rebuilding the temple. Orun put him to work restoring damaged artwork, but he soon began to get a reputation for creating original pieces. Five years into the 3rd Temple era, he floated the idea of making statues of the founders. They unanimously refused, decreeing that no further statues would be raised in the courtyard.

It took a death to change that view.

Saint Aytha’s statue sits on a stone bench in the temple courtyard, just outside the grand entrance. It’s formed of copper alloy, now green with age. She’s dressed in the simple robes of an ordinary priestess, her true status only indicated by the Antler Coronet embroidered on one sleeve. Resting on her shoulder is a divinatory parasol (remind me to explain that latter) and several metal finches perch on the bench. Volunteers daub white paint on her cranial ridges (vestigial horns); a signifier of sainthood. Gazing across the courtyard, she has a subtle nose wrinkle, a giftee grin, on her face.

It’s deliberately the opposite of Uthedi’s monument to ego; an informal life-sized portrait. She may have been the Mother-of-the-Uprising, and the first High Priestess of the Third Temple Era, but Saint Aytha the Kind looks like someone you could laugh and chat with.

Actually, it’s easy to underestimate Aytha. She, after all, was the Second Sister of the Smoke Quarter Chapterhouse during the highly politicised late 2nd Temple Era – that doesn’t happen if you’re the sort of kind-hearted naïf that some other depictions of Aytha show.

I’m going to have to digress here, and briefly talk about gender politics in run up to the Great Uprising. I know, I know – please try and contain your excitement.

Everyone knows that the giftees used to be a matriarchal society. Again, it’s a bit more nuanced that that really. The ancient desert clans had fairly strict gender roles: women were leaders, generals, artisans and priestesses; men were shepherds, foot-soldiers, artists and shamans. In theory, the sexes were equal but different, but when one side believe they are natural leaders, that equality can be somewhat elusive in practice. Exceptions were uncommon but not unheard of: the desert tribes had to be pragmatic, so if a tribal leader was highly competent but unfortunately male, the tribespeople just started calling them ‘her’ instead of ‘him’ and considered it close enough for government work.

Uthedi I was one such leader. He was originally apprenticed to the clan shaman but his intelligence (and possibly his famous handsomeness) brought him to the attention of the Ushaalok (Clan Chief) Ishulan, becoming her fourth husband. Ishulan and Uthedi began expanding the clan lands, and when Ishulan died (of causes unknown) the clan iron-speakers voted for him as the new Ushaalok.

The young Uthedi was arrogant but brilliant – the clan continued to grow, subsuming other tribes, even those that were larger. As I discussed in my previous essay, the ‘warfare’ of the desert tribes was mostly ritualistic rather than properly violent, but Uthedi waged war by other means. He spread rumours and misinformation, deployed spies and saboteurs, and used bribery and blackmail to get his way.

In fairness, as tyrants go Uthedi the First was far from the worst. He was vain and ambitious, but not unreasonable. His laws were just and his taxes fair, and his talent for organisation brought stability to the chaotic economies of the desert lands.

He christened himself Ue-ushaalok, chief of chiefs, the word I am translating as Emperor. His clan lands covered half of the northern deserts and no small number of riverside towns and mountain settlements.

The south, however, remained out of reach. The long-settled town and cities on the southern peninsular were very different from the semi-nomadic desert lands. The clan traditions were much weaker here, and the keepers of such traditions, the Shaman caste, had by and large been supplanted by the priestesses of the Church of the Silent Goddess and a loose network of small temples and chapterhouses.

When Uthedi marched his warriors up to these towns they did not resist. When he deposed the towns elders and put his lieutenants in charge, they still did not resist. But as soon as the armies went away, they turfed out his lieutenants and went about their business. Uthedi found that to keep these towns he would have to leave a sizeable garrison in each, something that his remaining enemies in the north would have happily taken advantage of.

So Uthedi marched on the Great Temple.

At the tip of the southern peninsula was a city called Maph Riniquo-cuh, the Mouth of Four Currents, though even then most people just called it the Holy City. Rich soil and good fishing had made it one of the oldest settlements on the continent, and it’s strong walls protected it from raiders and wild beasts. Then, early in the Second Temple era, the itinerant Cult of the Silent Goddess put down roots, and raised the Great And Secondary Temple Of The Silent Goddess, Her Saints, The Four Ineffable Virtues, And All

Uthedi marched his armies to the temple door, and requested an audience with the High Priestess. This being granted, he went to her and surrendered everything, ceding control of his empire and armies to the foremost emissary of the Silent Goddess.

Of course, High Priestess Biyori had no idea what to do with an army, still less an empire. While the church had become a sort of de facto government for many of the southern towns, that was more or less accidental. The High Priestess saw her role as purely spiritual.

Fortunately, Uthedi was there to offer support, consenting to continue day-to-day management of the army, clan lands and other trivial concerns, allowing the High Priestess to concentrate on spiritual concerns without tedious distractions.

And thus was born The Imperium of the Silent Goddess under her Protector Saint Uthedi. In time, many of the desert lands broke away, but the imperium grew stronger.

Protector Uthedi remained nominally subordinate to the High Priestess, but in practice her authority was relegated to the spiritual while Uthedi commanded profane matters like law, taxation and general governance.

In many ways, the role of women in the Imperium mirrored that transition. Women were increasingly held to be divine conduits to the Goddess and thereby too important and too sacred to be troubled by practical matters. And when it comes down to it, it turns out that quite a lot of important things are actually practical in nature.

So by the end of the 2nd Temple Era, while the priestesses were still women, they were ‘assisted’ by a stratum of –mostly male– administrators who had no spiritual authority but who wielded the real power. Unsurprisingly, the edicts of the Imperial Protector’s Administration were often at odds with what rank and file priestesses considered to be the duty of the Church.

So as Second Sister of a chapterhouse, Aytha was an experienced political battler, although possibly she didn’t see herself that way. In the chapterhouse records that she only talks about trying to properly interpret the administrator’s commands, but in practice she seems to have usually found ways to subvert them.

One famous example: at the command of the Imperial Protector, the traditional temple offering of a copper coin was made mandatory and raised to eight coins. Although many priestesses argued that the church should be open to all, the administrators decreed that financial considerations were clearly their remit and besides people don’t value things which they get for free, plus many of the churches wealthier clients were already donating many times that amount anyway.

At the Smoke Quarter chapterhouse, however, Aytha had an idea. Where previously a rich adherent might have made a thirty-two coin donation at the Upper Fouthday service, she encouraged them to pay the mandatory eight coins but to spread the remaining to those who we too poor to make a donation. In this way, revenues remained high, but those in poverty still had a good chance of attending the service. In point of fact, revenues went up, as one of the benefactors was the industrialist Oran who made a point of competing with the other merchants regarding how many of the needy he would sponsor at each service. And, of course, one of the needy was the orphan Josutha.

Because of such acts, Saint Aytha is traditionally associated with the Greater Virtue of Kindness, though perhaps Wisdom would have been even more fitting. Or perhaps not: the word I am translating as Kindness (‘Obili’) is far more expansive in the original Giftee. The English term is a somewhat insipid, a close cousin to ‘nice’ and similar barely complimentary words. For the giftees, kindness is a fierce thing; compassion with the stress on passion. It’s not purely about generosity but about fearlessly taking on board the needs of other people, about thinking outside of your own bubble. It also contains an element of reciprocity. In giftee tradition, it is virtuous both to give and to receive, and people who have mastered only one side of this do not fully embody the virtue of Obili. Selflessness alone is not automatically virtuous; rather one should seek shared solutions where everyone’s needs get met.

So maybe this was the right virtue to assign to Saint Aytha, as her abilities as a negotiator were remarkable. This is what her husband had to say:

“I am often accounted a clever man. I shall not deny it. My mind is like a machine: it advances by the turn of infinitesimal gears, spinning away until—given sufficient time—it will find a solution. It is as if a strong man climbed a steep mountain; a cautious matter of handholds and pitons, a punishingly slow ascent with many false starts.

Such was not the cleverness of my dear Aytha.

Her mind flowed like water; it flowed effortlessly towards solutions, driven solely by the gravity of her compassion. It would find ways where I would swear there was none, finding the smallest crack and rushing through. It could not be held back.

Many times I would debate with our opponents in government. Skilled debates full of fine arguments, subtle rhetoric and nuanced strategy. And I would consider myself fortunate if I eked out a victory; many times the best that I could do was to deny them their victory.

Then Aytha would chat with them over tov [think tea] and announce that ‘they’ had found what all were happy to call a compromise. Call a compromise, that is, despite the fact that any concessions that Aytha made were nugatory.”

- From “Some Thoughts On The Uprising”, St. Orun Ebo

Even her political enemies seemed to agree with this analysis. For example, Imperial stalwart Lady Oakiboe said of her:

“The damned woman could not be argued with. Infuriatingly she would assume that you were basically on the same side, and that any minor quibbles would soon be ironed out. And if you didn’t watch yourself you’d find yourself agreeing her.”

- From “Iron and Sugar Diaries”, Lady Rax Oakiboe

So, although it’s Saint Josutha’s Uprising, the success of the reconstruction that followed was down to her mentor Saint Aytha.

Her term as High Priestess was one of reconciliation – and maybe only Aytha could have managed that. She and Kuwixa were the two founders that had some link to the old order, and Kuwixa was avowedly apolitical. She steered a path between the radicalism of Orun and Josutha and the more traditionalist views still held by the majority of the people. Even those loyal to the old order had to concede that she seemed born to the role of High Priestess.

Twelve years later she died in the role, succumbing to a cancer of the blood.

Saint Orun was beyond distraught, of course. As soon as the state funeral was complete, her ashes carried in sombre procession to the edge of the great desert and mixed in the sand, he left on the traditional grieving journey, disappearing off the face of the Gift for three months. When he finally returned to the Holy City, he sought a audience with the newly installed High Priestess Josutha, intending to resign his chancellorship. In his own words:

We fell to discussing Aytha, of course. I spoke of the things I missed: her laugh, her meditative smile, sleepy looks. I had forgotten, somehow, Josutha’s amazing memory. Even though it was practically the first thing I learned about her, even though it was the thing that allowed her to free scripture from the Emperor’s Iron Book, I had forgotten. Now she pulled out paper and ink and she drew Aytha. Perfectly from memory. I would name an expression, and she would draw it. By the morning we had decided two things: one, I would stay on as chancellor, and two, there would be a statue of Aytha.”

- From “Systems of Kindness: Aytha’s Revolution”, St. Orun Ebo

The was no doubt that the sculptor would be Zevad, of course, working from Josutha’s drawings. Orun chose a copper alloy as the material; gold was far too imperial, and iron too martial. Copper reminded him of how they had met over temple donations, but also had positive associations within the traditions of the nomadic desert clans. In the old days, the shaman cadre known as wayfinders carried copper staves into the desert, leaving them in likely seeming stopping places. When they returned months later, if they found the copper had turned green then that was considered a sign that the place would make a good stopping point. So verdigris became associated with safety and fertility – and perhaps bringing that desert tradition into the heart of the temple courtyard was Saint Aytha’s final win-win compromise.

In time, of course, as they went to the Goddess, statues of the other founders – Orun, Kuwixe, Josutha – joined Aytha’s, and the tradition of the copper pilgrimage began. She’s still the first that statue that every pilgrim visits, even if in real life they’re more than happy to talk about it on the way.

* * *

Still wondering about the divinatory parasol?

Well birds, particularly finches and songbirds are considered sacred to the Goddess – because they are light enough to fly across the sorcerous ocean that seals her away from her people. There are no angels – if the Goddess needs to send you a message and the normal methods (dreams, divination) won’t cut it, she sends birds, or, in extreme cases, a saint with a body made up of thousands of tiny birds (which is cool, unless you have a ceiling fan).

So even a small temple will probably have an aviary, and the Great Temple has a great one: a vast domed glass-house, strung with prayer flags, and lushly planted, and full of birds of all sizes.

At the entrance you pick up a paper parasol; it’s marked with arcs and quadrants labelled with portentous titles: The House Of The Forest, The Moon Marsh, A Slow River, The Place Where The Wind Shines. You walk through the aviary, twirling your parasol, and the birds – messengers of the Silent Goddess – leave their little gifts. When you exit the aviary you probably have a shitty parasol that a priestess or independent diviner can interpret for you.

When I did it, I got two poos in She Instructs the Reeds which is apparently auspicious but singularly failed to predict that I’d spend the next five year’s translating terrible giftee pulp novels.

Speaking of which, in case you’re wondering what happened on the Infinite Kindness; well, it plays out like Murder on the Orient Express would have if Hercule Poirot had been a sex-positive sword-saint.

Knight-Captain Navispa arrests Cemaela, basically because she’s bound to be guilty of something. Saint Gishuyu barely prevents another murder, this time losing Navispa’s sword in the process, which is against regulations. Since the murderer is clearly still at large, they go to free Cemaela, but she’s already escaped via some unexplained criminal excellence. Gishuyu finds some reasonably obvious clues, and finally works out that she’s not dealing with just one member of the mythical (and non-existent) Accursed Tribe, but several. They almost kill her, but Cemaela heroically sacrifices herself instead. There’s a tearful farewell scene, only somewhat undermined by the fact that Cemaela returns in book VII none the worse for being dead. Oh, Navispa gets to be a badass, fighting alongside Gishuyu for the climatic battle. The book ends with them resolving their unresolved sexual tension.

Oh, spoilers, I guess – don’t read the above if for some bizarre reason you’re going to read the actual book.

Fig.1 - the crest of the High Priestess
Fig.1 - the crest of the High Priestess.