It was Deepwinter Eve, closing on midnight, and the valley below me was silent. The moon was half full, and gave a grey-green cast to the cloud and to the snow. I sat on a fallen tree close to the top of the eastern ridge, dark forest behind me. It was cold, a murderous cold; if I had wanted to be out for longer than a night, I would have had to bring a cloak. Still, in this coldest part of the year, there is a span of nine days or so when it hardly ever snows. This is Deepwinter, the turning of the year, the breaking of the season of ice.
Tomorrow the people of the valley would celebrate by walking the boundaries and exchanging gifts of food or memories, but on this eve my particular sect took to the high and quiet points for our own rituals. Humble spells, taking stock, wardings, divinations and meditations. Secrets, of course, for sacredness attaches to silence and mystery.
Tomorrow, I would join the rest; we would walk, in small groups, the boundaries of the valley, the ring of beacons that mark the edge of the village. Some would walk the entire boundary, others just to one or two beacons, maybe carrying cubs who had promised they were old enough for the journey but now found themselves overtired. People would bring bags of small treats to share, and a warm fire would burn at each beacon. In the afternoon, we would gather on the common and share a small ritual meal together; this was the least enjoyable part of the day, for who does not find it uncomfortable to eat with people you might hardly know? Yet this is the origin of Deepwinter, indeed, of our whole society; the sharing of food stores in the hard winter. This was the first wisdom of the Great Grey Mother; a harsh land demands a gentle people. We were not born to gentleness, but adopted it with a convert’s zeal.
In the evening, people would return to their homes and eat a more comfortable meal with family or friendship groups, before returning to the common for stories, dancing and music. The adepts of the Clay lodge would tell stories of the the Great Mother, while those of the lodge of Masks would drum and dance and call forth dreams. These are their duties, but we who honour the-one-who-sees-all-paths can rest; our secret duties have already been discharged.
I had finished my rituals a while ago, but sat still in contemplation. I watched the village; warm lights in scattered earthworks, huts and caves amongst the dark forest. I watched the clouds for gaps that would show me distant stars. I tasted my future then, the future I had trained for, on different worlds, among the Myriad People. The taste was beautiful and sad, as it had always been. Maybe there are those that apprehend their future and do not find it melancholy, but I do not think so. “I do not flinch from it,” our ritual says.
I was roused from these thoughts by the sound of people coming up the south path. Two travellers from off-world; I knew and liked them, but the noise they made walking would have shamed any Tebokoe.
Uhysa was the loudest of the two, stomping determinedly up the path in her big snowshoes and voluminous heated coat. She was an Loepebo, from the planet called Gift, and this was not her natural climate - but she was more or less unstoppable.
Murel was much quieter; their spindly legs cutting through the snow like knives. They were a construct, an embodied AI, with the chassis of an old Nidari medical robot; insectile, black ceramic now brightly painted with dots, lines and chevrons.
Murel was a painter; a good one, too. They painted animals, mostly, and travelled the Myriad worlds to do so. You could probably track their route across the galaxy by spotting their pictures hanging in embassies, transit stations, and guest halls. It was a strange life, that of the itinerant artist, but it suited Murel perfectly. They explored, painted, made friends, conducted inscrutable romances. Some people have found their place in life, and fit into it so perfectly that you cannot imagine them out of it.
Uhysa was a warrior-priestess, which was not that uncommon a vocation for a Giftee. She was on sabbatical, visiting some of the planets of the Myriad People, indulging the endless curiosity of her species. Normally, a visitor like that wouldn’t make it as far as an outlying village like mine; she was only here thanks to Murel. They had met in the capital city, and became fast friends, so when Murel wanted to see an active wolfbear population, Uhysa had accompanied them.
Uhysa was visibly flagging by the time they reached the top of the rise; she plonked herself down on the fallen tree, sitting way too close to me. After a few seconds she realised what she’d done, and made to move away, but I stopped her.
“If I intend to live among other species, I shall have to get used to such things,” I said.
That was true, but nonetheless was misleading. The truth was that Uhysa did not trigger the proximity-anxiety that is universal among my people. I knew what that meant; normally, with friends and loved ones, that anxiety attenuates over the course of a decade or so, as our mind gradually accepts that they are not a threat. But for those of us who “sleep beneath the wing of the third totem” and thus have minds which are slightly adrift in time, sometimes we jump to the end state. I did not know then that when Uhysa and I met again in eight years’ time, on planet Gift, we would become lovers and more. I did not know, but I caught the faint scent of prophecy.
Murel, who had been watching over the valley, turned and made their greetings.
“Did you see any good animals on the way up?” I asked.
“Just a burrowing wolf”, said Murel.
“Shitting,” said Uhysa, who had pulled out a flask of hot tov, and was pushing her snow-veil aside to drink it.
“Yes,” agreed Murel. “Shitting. I may still paint it.”
Uhysa offered me the flask, but I waved it away. I would eventually acquire a taste for tov, but that at least seemed bound by linear time.
“I was thinking,” said Murel, who had turned again to the horizon, “that I might run to the next valley. I hear they found some wolfbear tracks.”
“If one is abroad at this time of year, rather than asleep, they’ll be hungry,” I said. “But you do not resemble food. If one charges you, charge back, waving your arms. They will not risk injury during winter.”
“Your advice is to charge an angry carnivore the size of a small hut?” said Uhysa. “Waving your arms?”
“If needs be,” I said. “And Murel has twice as many arms as you or I, so it should be twice as effective”.
Uhysa chuckled, and would have nudged me, but remembered in time.
“Well then,” said Murel, “I think I shall. I can make good time on my own”. They looked at Uhysa, seeking permission to abandon her here. She indicated agreement, and Murel glanced at me to make sure I understood that it was now my responsibility to make sure Uhysa was not eaten by wolves or knife-cats. That acknowledgement given, Murel whisked themselves away on spindly legs.
“That burrowing wolf,” said Uhysa after a while, “would their burrow have been nearby? I mean … I wonder if their burrow was nearby”.
She was still getting used to framing her enquires correctly for a species, like mine, that felt questions to be uncivil. She needn’t have worried; I knew that many cultures considered questions not inherently rude, somehow, and I had largely trained myself out of taking offense. And, of course, there are those from whom we will tolerate a certain amount of inappropriateness.
“Not too close,” I replied, “They usually travel away from the burrow to defecate; no point leading a larger carnivore to their slumbering pack.”
“And is it true … I heard that you teach your children to crawl into one of those burrows, with the wolves, if they get lost in the woods.”
“At night, in the winter, with no comms, yes,” I clarified, “In winter burrowing wolves are so focussed on saving energy that they become very tolerant of interference, so a cub could snuggle into the pack, and they’d hardly notice.”
“For such a cautious species, a lot of your advice around carnivores seems a bit reckless”.
“Well, you only need caution when things are safe; when you’re actually in danger, quick and efficient action is called for. Reluctantly and regrettably.” I said.
“You people,” she said, “You’re such scary fuckers, but you go to such lengths to avoid adventure. Sometimes you must risk a little danger, a little pain, a little heartbreak.”
“Yes,” I said. “Sadly sometimes it is unavoidable, and you must simply rush towards it waving however many arms you happen to have.”
She smiled beneath the snow-veil. I did not, as the bittersweet scent of prophecy was fully upon me.II. Gift
I have always enjoyed travelling by train. The trains here on Gift are lower tech than the ones back home, but then back home they had to travel through glaciers and across frozen seas. Gift was more forgiving than that.
I’d boarded at Saint Bekela’s Refrain, in the Tebokoe quarter, and the train had been rattling through the Holy City for twenty minutes. The Holy City, the Mouth of Four Currents, Maph Riniquo-cuh, was a pretty city, but you don’t get to see much of it from the train. The tracks are often underground, or recessed into steep sided corridors, so most of the view was of the backside of grand buildings, or weird inaccessible spaces.
Not that one had much time for contemplation; the city is busy, and the Loepebo love to be out and about. The carriage would swell and flow with people; going or returning from parks, or museums, or from the temple or chapterhouses, or from getting laid or getting food. Children ran through the crowds, often unsupervised; like my people, the Loepebo believe childcare to be a communal responsibility.
I had gotten a seat in the corner of the carriage, and most people knew Tebokoe manners well enough to give me some personal space. This was probably helped by the chill mist that formed around my cooling cloak. The noise and density of people would have hurt an untrained member of my species, but I had both trained and adapted. I held the map-charm that hung around my neck, and muttered mantras that largely quelled the panic.
Still, I was glad enough when we left the city proper, and the crowds began to ebb. And here in the surrounding foothills, there was a view. The rails here ran on raised banks of earth, and curved inland. Behind me was the old city on its promontory, bright roofs glittering in the sun, but none brighter than the great temple at the top of the city, white flags bearing the antler coronet of the High Priestess snapping in the wind.
In these sprawling low-lands the architecture was perhaps more humble, but still had plenty of beauty. The Loepebo, particularly ‘city’ Loepebo, like to live in groups, so their dwellings are often built to accommodate several families, centred around a shaded courtyard or garden. Loepebo architecture is varied, but in general favours screens and fretwork, bright tiles and glazes, frescos and mosaics. Flags, banners and bunting are ubiquitous, often bearing the glyphs of the four Great Virtues. I thought of my home village; simple half-buried dwellings in a living forest, the dips and rises of the forest floor accentuated so that no house was visible from another. Of course, I missed it, but I also saw the joy here.
Now the sprawl gave way to farmland; fields of yellowgrain, dark mellowroot and fragrant mistpea, criss-crossed with irrigation ditches. As our route swung closer to the Adcas estuary, there were flooded pans of sweetstalk, and shallow pools for raising crunchy saltbugs.
As the train stopped at smaller and smaller stations, it emptied further; the only passenger’s left from the town were a group of copper pilgrims returning from visiting the statues of the founders. Released from their pilgrimage strictures they chatted and laughed, passing bottles and spicy saltbug buns.
Locals got on and off, travelling only a few stops. I tried to guess their vocations; farmers, musicians, medics, temple-knights, builders? I didn’t know really. Outside the city, people didn’t see Tebokoe every day, so I got some curious –but friendly– glances. A country priestess joined at one stop, and we talked about Myriad affairs for a while; the fascinatingly awful new hell-world the probes had found in a spinwise sector. She asked about the tall paper-wrapped present at my side.
“It’s a painting,” I said. “Of one of the great carnivores of the Hailstone”.
I used the Loepebo name for my world, which doesn’t have an actual name. The picture was a housewarming gift from Murel, left for me at the consulate; I hadn’t actually seen it yet, but I already knew what it looked like. I would clearly look at it a lot in the future. I did not know then that moving it from the house to Uhysa’s old office at the academy would be one of the last things I did before leaving Gift.
The priestess and the pilgrims disembarked at Oakiboe’s Retreat, a largish town at the edge of the savannah, and then we left the influence of the city behind.
Now the train followed the river Adcas. Or rather, of course, the train followed the villages, which followed the river.
These savannah villages were often built around bends in the river, surrounded by scrubby grasslands. Their buildings were a mix of the peninsula style structures, and the lower shell-like structures that mirrored the ancient tents of the wandering clans. Many villages had a statue of Adcas in or near her eponymous river; although the church called her Saint Adcas, a saint-celestial and the sister of the Goddess, originally she was a water spirit in the older animist tradition. Out here, it was not uncommon to see decorated spirit posts alongside –or in the courtyards of– temples to the Goddess.
By now it was mid-afternoon, and I had the carriage to myself. The savannah yielded to desert, though a narrow green band ran alongside the Adcas. The train driver came back and spoke to me for a while; she told me all about her train. I found it interesting enough, but not one tenth as interesting as she did. She reminded me of Murel, someone who had found their place in life completely. She only ran this route; Adcas Spring to Four Currents, and back – a small life in some ways, but she loved every minute of it.
The desert rolled on. Once I thought I saw tents and sandskims in the distance; a few people clung to the nomadic life of the ten-thousand clans.
Finally, as the sun lingered over the horizon, we reached the outskirts of Adcas Spring. It was a mid-sized city in the rain-shadow of the Green Knife mountain range.
I should have been happy, excited, seeing the city springing up around the train, seeing Saint Kuwixa’s Academy, next to the city’s great temple. I would spend many happy days in its cloisters and quadrangles, but prophecy was upon me again. Instead of a wedding, I saw a funeral. A bright affair, of course, music and banners, dancing and feasting, flower petals and prayer slips, the traditional funeral pyre, a large portrait of Uhysa looking uncharacteristically serious. More or less unstoppable.
I composed myself. She would be waiting at the station. All journeys must end. I do not flinch from it.III. Littoral
For all that it was walked every day, the path to the Place of Oracles was narrow and treacherous. The rocks here were sharp and geometric; some geological process had formed them into cubes and rhombi, tumbled together. Some had worn into blade-like shards. Grey-green waves slapped at –and sometimes over– their sides.
Of course, this was less of a concern for the Oomlusk, whose nature was semi-aquatic. A dip into those waters would be a mere inconvenience for them. Oomlusk means ‘people of the littoral’; they were air-breathers, but perfectly at ease in the water. Visiting the Place of the Oracles had been recommended by the Lesser Princess with whom I had spent yesterday in conversation. Still, she didn’t know that I could not swim. No-one swam in the freezing oceans of home. No person at least; there were many monsters that swam there. But there were monsters here too.
I stopped at a wider part of the path, and turned back to look at the Exalted Palace. Certainly, it was a handsome building. It was built into the towering cliff face, recessed somewhat into the greenish rock. Massive statues of former rulers supported balconies and parapets. Decorated gutters and sweeps of stone, narrow and exposed bridges and stairways. Arched windows of stained glass; narrow at the base of the palace, but wider and ornate at the top. Gilding and enamelling, heraldic emblems. I found it a little disturbing in a way that the Great Temple in the Holy City on Gift was not; even though the two buildings were alike in grandeur. But all may walk in the halls of the Great Temple.
For a society to have some verticality, some hierarchy, is not uncommon. The High Priestess of Gift is not so-called just because she lives atop a hill, after all. And even among my people, in matters of lodge business, the opinions of those who sleep in the lodge are given more weight than those of people who merely walk in the lodge. The difference, of course, is no-one is born a high priestess, or born to mastery of a totem’s lodge. These are things attained by service, expertise and forbearance. Not so on Oom.
I continued down the path, picking my way with care. The Place of the Oracles was at the end of a natural jetty, reaching out into the sea. The Servitors of the Oracles lounged with not entirely unconscious languor among the rocks. Servants (for these servants had servants, which is the way with hierarchies) served hot voro from silver carafes. A small squat building provided some shelter for supplicants, and a pennant bearing the sigil of their order snapped in the salt breeze. As I approached, another servitor rose from the water, draped in seaweed. Some of the others gathered around her, bringing her robes, and recording her prophesies on their pads.
Another servitor approached me. “Do you seek the wisdom of the Oracles, far traveller?”, she asked. Her robes were slightly more elaborate than the others; I assumed this was a signifier of status or seniority.
“No,” I said, “But I would know more about the Oracles.”
“No?” she said, surprised. “You have no need for prophecy?”
“No, I am something of an oracle myself, and little good has it done me.”
She gave me an appraising look, and glanced back at the palace, “The Highnesses find it very enlightening.”
“Oh, it is useful to others, certainly,” I agreed. I was being deceptively honest; one of my best strategies.
That look again. “Ah, I think my Oracle told me about you,” she said. “What would you know of them?”
“How does it work? You dive under the water, and the Oracles … speak to you?” I asked. The question came out a little awkwardly. It would never seem entirely proper to me to just ask something directly, rather than obliquely indicating your curiosity.
“Speak?” she said. “Not really. Have you seen an Oracle?”
She gestured at the squat building. On its side was a mosaic of sorts, formed from fragments of shell, tiny pebbles and sea glass. It depicted an Oracle; something like a whale it was, but long like an eel. Its fins were spiny, and a further mane of spines –or maybe horns– sprouted from behind its head. Six eyes were arrayed above massive jaws. It’s sides were scaled, and covered in what I took to be scars. The tiny figure of a servitor, made from five tiny white shells, hung before a head the size of a house.
“Are you not scared to share the water with them?” I asked. I was thinking of the sea monsters of my world; gigantic scorpions and the like.
“Oh, of course,” she laughed, “It is meant to be scary. The Oracles are gods; one is supposed to be afraid in the presence of gods, isn’t one?”
That in itself was an interesting assumption; no-one was afraid of the Goddess, she would be very hurt if you were. The totem that I honoured was fearsome enough, I supposed, but you weren’t meant to fear it. But hierarchical structures need something to keep the unnatural order in place; and that something was often fear.
That was why I was here, of course. A ‘cultural analyst’ for the Myriad, looking for the structures that kept this mildly dysfunctional society the way that it was, in case the moral calculus of the Myriad swung in favour of knocking out those props.
Naturally, such an intervention would be some way off. This was not a just society, but it’s injustice was not so extreme as to demand immediate action. There was a democratic government, and the nobles did not often overrule it. No-one starved, though some were hungry. The state did not kill anyone, though many lives were wasted; brilliant minds without money for education, splendid artists without the time to create, talented administrators who did not have the right ancestry for government. It all seemed rather terrible to me at the time, though one day I would see a truly evil society – this was just practise. Training, or maybe a vaccination.
The servitor had continued speaking, “… so we sink into the water. If we have performed the rituals aright, our Oracle will approach us. It will open its jaws, and the current created will carry us into its mouth.
“It is … terrifying. But also exhilarating. In that dark space you can hear the slow heartbeat of the Oracle, and see the faint luminescence of its eyes and brain through its translucent flesh.
“As our breath grows short, our minds grow wild, and we begin to hear the prophecy of the Oracles, to see visions in the darkness.
“Then the Oracle releases us, and we swim back to the mundane world.”
Ecstatic revelation, I thought, proximity to death. The stuff of my totem, in many ways, but raw. They were a young species, after all.
“I’m glad that my tradition is less dramatic,” I said. “Do the Oracles ever eat a Servitor?”
“No,” she laughed. “They cannot. They are sieve feeders, they only eat tiny creatures. Some say that if a Servitor has been … impure … their Oracle will drown them, but I’m still here!”
I liked this servitor. In fact, I liked many of the people here. That is something that perhaps the stay-at-home members of the Myriad Peoples do not appreciate: these broken cultures are yet filled with honourable people. Bad systems; good people. And not just the common folk – many of the nobles were not evil, per se. Take the Lesser Princess that had become not quite a friend; she was kind, and concerned, and curious. And yet, she was still a product of a damaged system; she was quick to judge, and slow to revise those judgements. She felt her status was her due; and though she had genuine concern for others, she felt she could ennoble them through her counsel or her mere presence. She had compassion, but other people’s failings enraged her. But I fear I’m being similarly harsh. As I say, I liked her a lot; she laughed well, took joy in many things, and her forthright manner reminded me of my Uhysa.
The servitor was watching me, and now she gestured again at the mosaic. “The Oracles are long-lived; they say that your species is as well. But their scars never completely heal, so over a long life they just build up, scars on top of scars.”
I tipped my head in acknowledgement of her point.
“I like serving the Oracles,” she said, “But if I did not, there is little else I could do, and my family has no standing. But I hear that your people do not need to work.”
I paused before replying. The ocean crashed against the rocks.
“We have a saying, I suppose, a form of ritual words,” I said, “A translation would be: I see all paths, and I see also that all paths must eventually falter. I see that all routes travelled together in friendship at some point divide. I see that most victories are transient, and most triumphs come undone. Prophecy is a hard thing; it brings the seer neither advantage nor joy. But if this foreknowledge can help others, I do not flinch from it.”
She did not reply. We both looked out to sea. Somewhere out there, great monsters moved silently through the deep.