“This city belongs to your king,” he said. “And you belong to him. A corporation, you recall, protects a man from liability. You have no need for such protection—” at this, he smiled brightly, “—because your king protects you from liability.”
Lily’s uncle smiled brightly, chuckling.
“Oh,” I groaned. “I’ve never had that experience before.”
“You have probably lived a lifetime of the opposite experience, haven’t you?” Lily’s father asked.
I looked at the floor, then at the leg of the chair he was sitting on. “I suppose so,” I said. “The constant demands were a factor in the decision to sell my house and walk away from the city. I did not want to serve in his military, pay his taxes, or anything else of the kind. Even now, knowing the circumstances of travel beyond the city, I still find it more attractive than property ownership under the king.”
“If you whisper much louder,” said Lily’s uncle in low tones, “agents will appropriate your person to another venue, whence you will nevermore be perceived by man. But,” he continued in a brighter tone, “you will still be a servant to the king.”
“This is the language of assassination and insurrection you are speaking,” said Lily’s father.
“I don’t want to kill the King,” I responded.
“No, but you are using the language of an insurrectionary,” he said. Lily’s uncle looked at me with his half-grin. I didn’t know what to make of this turn in the conversation.
A discussion concerning the restrictions on property ownership devolves into a rock common to two property lines and then devolves further into this song of praise:
That night I imagined her body, in its full glory, without even trying to stop the image from coming into my consciousness. Hers was the body of a mother who had not yet given birth; every curve was designed for life, to receive life, to bear life, to feed life, to hold life upon her hip while life frolicked about her ankles. She was radiant, her body, without the burden or obfuscation of those clouds, those clothes, a shining light, a bursting dawn, a dawn and light which I always saw from her smile and in her eyes, but here, in the imagination of my mind, the source of light a sunshine not seen with the eyes of a man; it was seen by the eyes of God. I reached out to touch her body, but I did not know the touch of a woman, and my mind could not imagine what sensation light from heaven would give.
An army had broken through from the east two years ago. They did not destroy crops or buildings. They did murder people. They murdered brutally the leaders of the people. I had never heard this. Perhaps it was said to me, but I could not hear. Now I could hear because I was going into this country. Was it not the King’s country? Certainly! No?
An army returns through the same country, wounded. Both are wounded, both the country and the army. The people are wounded to the point of survival. They have no leaders. Ordered leadership, no. Natural leadership, perhaps. Natural leadership brings envy and unrest. Hordes follow natural leadership. The people are not merely a horde; they are a bloodthirsty horde. A natural leader gives them a sharp point. No, not a sharp point. A natural leader gives them a blunt weapon. No, not a blunt weapon. What is a weapon that tears with a powerful grip, tears flesh? Teeth. A people wounded to the point of survival sees their attacker with his back turned, unsuspecting. A natural leader gives the people a taste of blood, and they drink their own death. This is a people dead. This is a people which did not survive its wounding. For two years this people has torn at itself, tasting blood, having now an insatiable hunger for blood, and more than blood, for fire, for everything destructive. These people have become barbarians. They had ample property, treasuries of wealth, ample stores of food; crops and buildings had been spared by this king from the east, with a far smaller population to support. They had no need for ordered leadership to live easily. And so each to his own, without allegiance to anyone or any principles. Their wrath certainly had spread beyond the countryside beneath the mountains.
These people were the King’s own people; these people are my people. These people swarm the roads and passes of all the land between the city and the North country.
All the twelves saw their mighty enemy for the first time under the light of day without the distance of the heights of mountains intervening. They were a host, truly, a horde. They were like flies, swarming, without sense or order, but they were a swarm, indefatigable, with one man upon another man. Each man of the son of the King of the Mountain Kingdom looked and saw that this horde was of men who could be his brothers. Their faces were painted with the dust of the plains, and their war-clothes were sewn from cloth of the plains, but pigments and threads were not distinct under the probing eye of the spear. When they saw this to be true, a kind of fear came over the twelves, and the commanders were sore pressed to maintain the twelves in their ranks.
The prince, the true son of a man, a savior of men, perceived this trouble, as perceiving a storm rising up just before battle, drew his sword, and pointed it at the sky. He took his station before his men, and said these few words: “These men are your brothers, your cousins, your very own flesh and blood, but war is upon them because we must take the secret paths in and out of our land. They themselves offer their swords to our daughters in our land, sneaking through the passes into and out again. My father, the king, once offered them tribute to leave us in peace. Now he has given me a command to recover his tribute from the belly of my brother, Il-neth-ta, his very own son, the son of treachery!”
One of the main characters of The Primal Flowers describes, in brief, a lengthy journey he took in behalf of his brother.
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Bandits, highwaymen, and robbers are of a sort of man who is not terribly clever. The rare exception is not stationing himself and his crew in the empty parts of the world to rob the occasional wanderer, from whom he cannot prosper. Instead, the brutal and the lover of violence stations himself in these parts, setting a lookout in plain view. Whenever the lookout did manage to spot me first, birds and animals who do not exist suddenly began to call to each other, and the road-hardened traveler does his best not to buckle under the sheer comedy of the affair. Most of these were overgrown boys who had nothing better to do than prey on the stupid. Even the weak learn to travel in pairs or caravans. As for me, I had nothing better to do than play the idiot.
If I spotted the lookout or any obvious ambush before they spotted me, I generally wound my way back and up and around, using a landmark to guide myself through the wilderness until I was certain I had bypassed them. If they spotted me, I still wound my way back and up and around, looking for the more difficult terrain to pass by, in an effort to discourage these lazy numskulls. If they persisted, I sent a well-placed stone into the stupid maw of their lead scout before scurrying away into a hiding place. Fitness is its own advantage in this way.
The sun rose, burning away the night, giving me light by which to travel, then burning my skin, whereupon I sought meager shade among the scorched boulders and leafless brush, using my pack as a kind of tent, snoozing until the sun should make his way into the late afternoon, putting my shadow before me, whereupon I rose again to make tracks. When the sun set, I sat down and waited for the light of dawn, eating when I could, conserving water, refilling when I could. I tried to set aside one day a week to rest and worship God, but I kept losing count of the days. I did not trust myself to walk for six days before I rested for one, so I kept walking.
A caravan approached. I made the signs of peace, and when I was sure they would not kill me, I approached. Their ambassador came forward.
My bookie would lose his shirt giving odds on your survival.
In the first months, I was able to understand their language, though they came from east of the mountains. The Great Southern Route was not the thick edge of a net of roads, as in our lands, but it was a trunk, its branches reaching north into the flat plateaus of these people. They were bearing every sort of fine good: nuts, dried fruits, dried meats, spices, all exotic, their tapestries, their pottery, their armament surpluses. These last made for great conversation, and even an exchange of stories. They were innovating with copper and stone, just as we were, inlaying the copper into the stone, improving the strength of the copper and preserving the integrity of the stone, so that the weapon was more lethal more reliably. On occasion, if we were able to establish total trust, we held martial contests, which I lost consistently, causing them to laugh, punctuated by a variation of this joke: “My bookie would lose his shirt giving odds on your survival.” I laughed with them and winked at their wise men.
Just when I began to believe, as an article of faith, that the mountains would never end, I was ejected into a vast, steaming, sun-scorched swamp humming with biting flies. There I began to be unable to understand the language of the caravaners. There was no longer any exchange of information, no swapping of stories, and no conversation. The sound of their voices became mockery to my ears. I began to go mad.
My madness quickly dissipated into the stink of this country when the ululations of my adversary pierced my ears. His body was upon mine, and I was falling to the ground. He had leapt upon me from a rock in plain view. My head had been down, and my ears heard nothing but buzzing and the occasional slap of my hand upon my senseless neck. They heard plainly now the noise of the deep places, and my neck felt plainly now the grappling tentacles of death. His mates were rushing toward me, adding to the noise. Soon, they would strangle the life out of me.
It was easy enough to shake the boy off me: I pushed myself up and, with him entangled around me, rushed backwards against the rock from which he had leapt. Indeed, his arms came unloosed, and I was able to breathe, while his breath suddenly escaped in that wonderful guttural utterance: “Oof!” I wheeled on him, striking him on top of the head with the peen of my sword. When he reached for his head, I kicked him in the mouth. For an eye-blink I paused over him, searching eternity for whether I should spare his life. I thrust my sword through his throat, ending the debate and bringing me back into the actualities of the moment.
A renewed cry from his mates propelled me further. His hand let his dagger fall, which I quickly snatched. Wheeling again, I threw it at them. It was not lethal, but it was effective, slicing a piece of face off the one leading the way, so he fell to his knees, holding the blood close to his face with his hands. His mates paused. I pulled the sword out of the leaper’s throat, severing his carotid artery, which became a fountain of blood for several seconds, about two of which I witnessed. I ran.
I learned the first words of their language, which was quite musical. “We will find you.” They repeated it into the evening, making only half-hearted attempts at finding me. I relaxed, knowing they didn’t want to find me, for as stupid as they were, they wanted to live for another day of robbing and banditry. It was fun. When I closed my eyes, I heard him choke on my sword.
That night, I moved in the darkness, to get away from him, whose eyes opened even during those two seconds as a fountainhead.
“It is a place of great stench,” I was rehearsing my speech to Arret for when I finally set foot in his home, “but the people are of the cleanest kind. They wash constantly, and they know how to wash away the filth of their cities, individual by individual, pot by pot.” I passed through the city I had seen beneath my feet to the west when I passed by the King’s Spire. Most of it was gray, in ruins, its walls overthrown, its houses and palaces completely destroyed. Bits of mortar held together bricks and stones, but they were lying in the open, not even removed into piles for reuse. There was no inn, only the song of laments styled by wise men, whose words I understood clearly.