The red moon was setting in the west as Julyeis clambered from the old tunnel, but the glow of the white moon, still high in the part-clouded sky, was enough to see by. Dusting the detritus of her journey from her pants, she drew her rough goat-wool blouse tight around her shoulders and stepped down the hill towards the telling circle.
Tonight's meeting place was no more than a clearing in the jungle, reached by following a goat-track that wound in meandering sweeps across the northern face of Bassam Hill; at several points dark, sharp-thorned undergrowth covered the track. Julyeis was careful to avoid scratches as she pushed past the barriers and followed the familiar route to its destination.
A score of people clustered in small groups about the glade, listening. As she hurried towards them a large man approached her; she recognised him quickly from the set of his broad shoulders gathered beneath his tight, rough-cut shift and the surprisingly light tread of his gait; he carried a heavy branch easily in his broad hand.
'Julyeis, you are welcome here, though possibly a little late.'
Her lips tightened at the greeting. 'Business is brisk, Akambue; I was tempted not to come. It looks like a thin crowd tonight: maybe others felt the same way - unless some people have left already?'
'No, your feelings are good,' he said, looking around. 'It seems that fewer of us feel the need to hear the old stories - though it makes the guarding work easier.'
She shook her head in agreement. 'Times have changed, old friend. Who needs the stories when there's so many other things to be enjoyed on a moonlit evening, yes?'
His smile was broad, the large, uneven step of his teeth glinting through his beard. 'The Story Keeper knew you were coming. She says she needs to talk to you.'
The news bemused her for a moment. 'Did she give any reason?'
'Of course not; you know how she is.'
'Yes,' agreed Julyeis. 'I know how she is.'
Julyeis settled at the back of the small crowd, careful to keep clear of the sharp undergrowth enclosing the glade. Beyond the fringe of branches and leaves the unseen denizens of the jungle continued their songs of threat and allure, careless of the invaders clustered within the clearing. The long, low hoots of giant barby rats were barely audible, which gave her a little comfort.
She had missed the main story telling; people were now testing the Story Keeper with questions. Julyeis did not mind: she always preferred this part of the evening - without questions, how could a person make sense of the world and their place within it? A good question could supply a banquet of thoughts for many hours after.
A young man was talking. He stood a little clear of the others, giving himself space to sign his question with his hands as he spoke the words aloud. His hand-speech was clumsy, as if only recently learned; Julyeis didn't recognise him.
'In your last tale you spoke of fish: "bullets of flesh that shot through the seas and rivers, glorying in their rainbows of colours," you said. What are these 'fish'; are they some sort of worm? Can you tell us more about them, what happened to them?'
The question was aimed at a figure sat on the lowest bough of a lutestran tree that grew to one side of the glade. There was not enough moonlight to make out the Story Keeper's features, except that she was a tiny person - a doll of a woman with wiry limbs.
'You are named Tazhos, yes? You came to this city not long ago to work on the vedegga harvest and to make the dye?' The woman's voice was high, yet even in tone.
The youth nodded. 'This is my second time here.' Then, feeling the need to explain further: 'My friend Akambue brought me.'
'You have the knack of finding good friends,' said the tiny woman, 'you wave your hands with Akambue's accent, I see. Do you know why we are here?'
He answered quickly. 'We are here to learn who we are, what we were. This is what Akambue told me.'
The Story Keeper giggled. 'I like your answer! It crept into my ears unawares. But it is not the answer my ears yearned for. They are callous lovers to unexpected answers. They want my mouth to try a better question: do you know why people are here? Why this tree grows here for me to sit on? Why the jungle murmurs and the river chuckles and the sky cries rain in the afternoon?'
'I don't understand,' said the young man, more slowly this time. 'Is there a story to answer such big questions?'
Julyeis sensed the woman smile. She seemed to hunch her head into her shoulders whenever she was really pleased.
'There is always a story, Akambue's good friend,' she said. 'But this telling is the greatest of all stories, for it is the first tale; the story from which all other stories grow. And for you I shall recall its words again, now, so all of us can leave this story-telling circle tonight with great knowledge in our heads!'
As the tiny woman set out her story Julyeis relaxed, let her mind wander as the cadences of the narrative lapped around the glade. The Story Keeper was easily the best that Julyeis had ever heard; she had a knack of bringing visions to the eyes of her listeners as she spoke, making her voice and tone - even her hand gestures - work as hard as the words themselves to make the ancient fable feel real, alive.
'And in an instant, He set about casting together the rules of life - weaving together ash and water, air and fire, until a heap of seeds lay at His feet. Then He took each seed in His hand and whispered a secret word into its core, and threw it across the curve of the world to land and unfold in the form of its own true nature.'
Around the glade, the jungle seemed to have quietened, as if the children of that first creation wanted to hear the story too. Not that there was much jungle left on this side of the hill. Varoul had once shown Julyeis a map of the city - a gift from a satisfied client, he told her. Central was Bassam Hill, she remembered, its two long spurs jagging to the great river as it bent east away from its southern course - the lines on the paper had reminded her of a hammock, with the city nestled into its shallow bend and the arms of the hill reaching out to comfort it.
The bulk of the hill, though, ran northwards - a bulwark of jungle festooned rock separating the terraced cultivations that fed the city. She could feel the weight of the hill looming above her, a black mass occluding the purple-black sky and its heavy veil of stars. Only the broad summit of the hill was bare of vegetation, kept that way by the barby rats who made the hill their home.
Remembering about the barby rats, that they might hear voices and decide to investigate the glade, tightened her stomach. She listened out for their deep whistles, felt her body relax as she located the tell-tale songs some distance away, high on the hill's brow. Akambue might be carrying a big branch in his hands, but it would offer little defence against one of those terrifying queens.
'From the fires that roared from the depths of the globe He grasped some dust, whispering to each mote a harsh word and releasing them all into the hurricanes of His anger. Disease came to the world, and decay, and unmaking - for those motes were in truth the Councils of the Imps!'
The Story Keeper's half-caught words turned Julyeis's thoughts in new directions. It was easy to feel safe in Bassakesh, the city buried so deeply in the jungle that the only passage in or out was by water, travelling along the wide roads of the Taete river. No other city in the Empire was like this place, she knew - or at least she had been told by others who came to settle here.
She felt the first tingle of a cramp slide across her thigh. Shifting her weight to her other leg, she concentrated once more on the form of the Story Keeper sat on her low bough. What could the woman possibly want from her, she wondered.
She shrugged the question away. The story was reaching its close. Ahead of her the lad whose question had prompted this telling stood with his mouth half-open, as if he had never heard of the two creations before, nor of the Councils of the Imps whose domain was death and decay.
'And where the seed landed, a great tree grew, and from that tree came forth a great fruit. When the fruit fell, it split in two: from one half strode Sama-Lovare, Prince of Men, while from the other rose Mara-Gaye, first of all women and Queen of Princes.
'And our creation was complete!
'Believe the truth of my story, a story that has passed from the lips of only the greatest Story Keepers. And keep this truth close as you depart: never let Tipi-sasane, that tiny, wily guardian of our crops and our histories, steal this telling from your heads or your bellies. For this is your story, my story: our story. The story of why we are here.'
Maybe we're too comfortable here, Julyeis thought, if we're letting the young ones grow up without knowing our stories, our history.
Julyeis walked forward to the tree as the small crowd broke and dispersed from the clearing. As she came closer she could make out the Story Keeper's deformed face, now illuminated by the slant light of the white moon. The disc in the sky seemed to be holding her attention; Julyeis felt the rats of impatience growing in her as she waited.
'Sometimes,' said the woman, finally, 'the telling leaves a hollow taste in my mouth. The one who taught me said this would be so, that the stories can overwhelm the body and all you can do is endure until the day moves on.' She looked down at Julyeis, as if noticing her for the first time. 'I do not enjoy the taste of hollowness.'
'It's like a yearning for the past, the future; for what might have been, yet cannot be. When the stories become more than words, when I see Mara-Gaye and Sama-Lovare, and the Corn Bird flapping her mesmer-dance just out of my reach, then I can taste the hollowness. It leaves me - sad.'
'It's a new thought to me.' Julyeis considered this for a moment. 'But now you mention it, it does sound familiar.' Choosing not to dwell on this uncomfortable feeling, she changed the subject.
'Akambue mentioned that you wanted to talk to me?'
'Ah, yes,' said Maeduul, her demeanour transformed in an instant. 'News for the brothel keeper's woman! Help me down from this log and we can chat as we walk.'
Julyeis did as she was asked. She was not shocked by the Story Keeper's abrupt change in manner - the woman was known for her eccentricities - and she was interested in what news Maeduul may have for her.
As they walked away from the clearing the Story Keeper began talking, her voice a low, conspiratorial whisper which Julyeis had to lean down to hear properly.
'Luetsa-ten is worried. She frets in the evening. She talks long with the Governor when she thinks no-one can hear them.'
'But you hear?'
'I like to watch the stars dance to the Creator's whistles and hums. You need to be high up to appreciate the sweep of their curtsies and bows.'
Julyeis nodded. She had heard whispers that the little woman liked to sit on rooftops after dark.
'Luetsa-ten worries that her history is coming to visit her again. She hated the Old City, you know? But the Old City is coming to court her kittens. He may sit comfortably on his golden cushions in the Old City, but he is not as strong as he once was.'
'You're talking in riddles, Maeduul.'
'Did you know that I was once his ornament?'
Julyeis nodded, spreading the middle fingers of her right hand wide to acknowledge the question. The Story Keeper was steeped in rumours: the fact that she had once been the Emperor's ornamental Servant had become common gossip within days of her arrival in Bassakesh.
'I am his parting gift to luetsa-ten. We came together through the jungles and down the Taete river. He was old when he gave me to her, you know, and now he is much older still. The Courtesans and Clans and Temple-men do not fear him as they used to. Some of them want what he has.'
'Courtesans and Clans and … Maeduul, I have no time for the games played by Tall Ones!' Still, parts of the tiny woman's riddles were beginning to fall into place for Julyeis.
'Your talking of plots, yes? Something to do with the marriage of the Governor's eldest daughter?'
The Story Keeper smiled, hunching her plate-crowned head into her shoulders as her cheeks pulled into a grin.
'They say you are quick! Yes, they want luetsa-ten's kittens, and she is not happy. She's protected them for so long - she fears that they will not survive the passions and poisons of the Old City.'
They had reached the entrance to the old service tunnel that passed under the brow of the hill and its barby rat guardians back to the city. Rather than step through, Julyeis turned and crouched before Maeduul.
'It's interesting gossip, Story Keeper, for which I thank you. But why should I care about the affairs of the Tall Ones?'
'Like it or not, they matter to us.'
The woman paused for a moment, as if inviting Julyeis a chance to protest, then continued. 'We serve all of creation, yes? Even those whose memories of the Creator have been stolen, corrupted?'
Julyeis nodded, her face still echoing her question.
'This is a good place,' said Maeduul. 'Here we are safe within our jungles and our walls. Servants and Clansfolk and common-folk, we get along, yes? Yet this city is perhaps too sweet, too tempting a fruit for the plucking.'
Julyeis's question was simple. 'Who would dare pluck it?'
Maeduul turned away, pulled herself onto the old tunnel's crumbling lip. Once she was in the bole of the channel she turned back to look at Julyeis, her shoulders again pressed against her ears.
'I've heard rumours, too. They waft over the roofs like smoke from the pyres. Rumours can burn as hot as the flesh, if given the right tinder. People are coming, I think: some to take things away; some to take people, their bodies, their minds … I'm worried for us.'
'You want me to do something?'
'A little thing, yes? I want you to watch someone for me. A woman. She will come from the jungle, I think, with nothing except a shawl over her shoulders and words in her hands. Strong words. Dangerous words. She'll be needing a place to stay - you can do this thing for me?'
Before Julyeis could nod her assent, the tiny woman had turned and disappeared into the labyrinth delved within the hill's rock.
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