Jo Clayton: Drinker of Souls

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Jo Clayton Drinker of Souls
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    Drinker of Souls
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Jo Clayton

Drinker of Souls

1. A Thief and His Sister

Aituatea shifted the bend in his legs to ease his aching hip, careful as he moved to keep the bales piled under him from squeaking, the bales of raw unwashed fleeces that were a stench in his nostrils but sheltered him from noses and teeth of the patrollers’ rathounds. He raised his head a little and stared at the curls of mist drifting across the calm black water of the bay. A wandering breeze licked at his face, tugged at his slicked-back hair, carried past his ears just enough sound to underline the silence and peace of the night. “This is a bust,” he whispered to the one who stood at his shoulder. “She won’t come.”

“The man on the mountain said…” His sister’s voice was the crackling of ice crystals shattering. “Look there.” She pointed past the huddling godons beyond the wharves, their rambling forms lit from behind by torches burning before the all-night winestalls, the joyhouses, the cookshops of the water quarter. The Wounded Moon was rising at last, a broken round of curdled milk behind the spiky roof of the Temple. She swung round an arm colorless and transparent as glass, outlined with shimmers like crystal against black velvet and pointed across the harbor. “And there,” she said. She was all over crystal, even the rags she wore. “Out beyond the Woda-an. A blind ship from Phras, dropping anchor.”

He looked instead at the Woda livingboats shrouded in the thickening mist, their humped roofs like beetle shells catching bits of moonlight. A blind ship. The Woda-an hated them, those blind ships. There were torches flaring up here and there among the boats as the Woda-an grew aware of the visitor, clanking raffles starting up, growing louder, fading, sounding and fading in another place and another as they invoked the protection of the Godalau and her companion gods against the evil breathed out by the black ship that had no eyes to let her see her way across the seas. He sneered at them with Hina scorn for the superstitions of other races. They’ll be thick as fishlice at the Temple tomorrow. Where’s that curst patrol? I want to get out of this. She won’t come, not this late. He propped his chin on his fists and watched the ship. He drowsed, the Wounded Moon creeping higher and higher behind him. The guard patrol was late. Hanging round the winestalls. Let them stay there. “Let’s get out of this,” he whispered. “That ship’s settled for the night. Won’t no one be coming ashore.” He twisted his head around so he could see his sister. She took her stubbornness into the water with her, he thought. She stood at his left shoulder as she’d stood since the night she came swimming through water and air and terror to find him while her body rocked at the bottom of the bay. The black glitters that were her eyes stayed fixed on the Phras ship as if she hadn’t heard him. “The man on the mountain said she’d come,” she said.

“Doubletongue old fox.”

She turned on him, stamping her crystal foot down beside his shoulder, her crystal hair flying out from her head. “Be quiet, fool. He could curse you out of your body and where’d I be then?”

Aituatea rubbed oily fleeces between his palms, shivered at the memories her words invoked. Old man kneeling in his garden on the mountain, digging in the dirt. Clean old man with a skimpy white beard and wisps of white hair over his ears, tending rows of beans and cabbages. Old man in a sacking robe and no shoes, not even straw sandals, and eyes that saw into the soul. Aituatea, jerked his shoulders, trying to shake off a growing fear, went quiet as he heard the faint grate of bale shifting against bale. He stared unhappily at the blind ship; whispering to himself, “It’ll be over soon, has to be over soon.” Trying to convince himself that was true, that he’d be through dealing with things that horrified him. The Kadda witch dead and Hotea at rest, which she would be now but for that bloodsucker, and me rid of her scolding and complaining and always being there, no way to get free of those curst eyes. He wanted to climb down from the bales and get off Selt for the next dozen years but he couldn’t do that. If he did that, he’d never get rid of Hotea, she’d be with him the rest of his life and after. He suppressed a groan.

Out on the water the torches scattered about the Woda-an watercity were burning low and the rattles had gone quiet. Behind him on Selt Island’s single mountain where the Temple was, rocket after rocket arced into the darkness, hissing and spitting and exploding to drive off the enemies of the Godalau and her companion gods.

Part of a counting rhyme for a fete’s fireworks:

Blue glow for the Godalau

Sea’s Lady, sky’s Queen

Red shine for the Gadajine

Storm dragons spitting fire

Yellow flash for Jah’takash

Lady ladling out surprise

Green sheen for Isayana

Birthing mistress, seed and child

Purple spray for Geidranay

Gentle giant grooming stone

Moonwhite light for Tungjii-Luck

Male and female in one form

Luck, he thought. My luck’s gone sour these past six months. Aituatea repeated to himself (with some pleasure) fool, fool, fool woman. She never thinks before she does something. Going to the Temple the day after year-turn when she knew Temueng pressgangs would be swarming over the place, sucking up Hina girls for the new year’s bondmaids. She should’ve thought first, she should’ve thought…

What happened, he said, where you been all this time?

Thanks a bunch for worrying about me, she said. He heard her as a cricket chirp in his head, an itch behind his ears. I was working the Temple court, she said, reproach in her glittering glass eyes. You were off somewhere, brother, Joyhouse or gambling with those worthless hangabouts you call your friends, and the money was gone when I looked in the housepot and there wasn’t a smell of food or tea in the place. What’d you want me to do, starve? It being the day after year-turn, I knew every Hina with spare coin and unwed daughters would be burning incense by the fistfuls. I spotted a wool merchant with a fat purse dangling from his belt and started edging up to him. I get so busy checking out running room and easing through his herd of daughters, I forget to look out for pressgangs. Hadn’t been for those giggling geese I might’ve heard them and took off. I don’t hear them and they get us all.

They take us, me and the wool merchant’s daughters, across the causeway, me hoping to be put in some little havalar’s House where I can get away easy and take a thing or two with me for my trouble, but I see we are heading all the way up the high hill to the Tekora’s Palace. I am cursing you, brother, and thinking when I get home, I am going to peel your skin off a strip at a time.

She was much calmer at this point in the story, drifting about the room, touching familiar things with urgent strokes of her immaterial fingers as if she sought reassurance from them. She hovered a moment over the teapot, smiling as she absorbed its fragrance.

I know I can get loose again easy enough, but the Tekora’s a mean bastard with girls that run away. You wouldn’t know that, would you, brother? Only women you bother about are those no-good whores in the joyhouses.

Aituatea scowled; dying hadn’t changed his sister’s habits in the least as far as he could see. Shut up about that, he said. Get on with what happened.

Branded on the face, brother, branded runaway and thief, who’d let me get close enough to lift a thing? So when the Temueng Housemaster puts me to work in the Tekora’s nursery, I am ready to act humble before those Temueng bitches when I’d rather slit their skinny throats! She grimaced in disgust. You know what they do to me? Hauling slops, picking up after those Temueng nits, not lifting a finger to help themselves, running my feet to the bone fetching things they could just as easily get for themselves.

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