Po had offended the Princess of Ilysies. Selene Tadamos, naked and indignant, stood in the copper tub in the center of her chamber in the Libyrinth, every bit as regal as her mother, Queen Thela, at a full state function. Water dripped from her long black hair and ran in tiny streams down her tall, lean form. She glared at him and pointed one elegant finger at the door. “Get out!”
Po dropped the hem of his robe and cringed back against the doorway, forcing his gaze away from her angry splendor. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, still unsure of what he’d done wrong but certain that he’d gotten something wrong. Again.
Po ducked his head and fled the room. He shut the door behind him, then leaned against it, his labored breath echoing off the stone walls of the small landing at the top of the seventh tower. He was sweating, but not from the steam of the bath. Humiliation and anxiety made his palms damp and his face red.
He didn’t understand her anger. She was Ilysian. She’d told him that her neck was sore and that she was taking a bath to relax. When an Ilysian woman spoke of relaxing and baths to an unclaimed Ilysian male, there could be no other interpretation: she expected him to come to her, to massage her sore neck and help her relax by offering himself to her.
Only that wasn’t what she’d intended at all. What had he been thinking? She was a princess. She could have any male she wanted. Why would she bother with a scrawny young calf like him—just fifteen years old and still untried? But if she didn’t want him, why in the Mother’s name had she lingered after their workgroup’s shift in the fields, helping him put away the farming equipment and telling him about her sore neck and the bath?
Slow realization curdled his stomach. She’d told him for the simple reason that her neck was sore and she wanted a bath. There’d been no “message” in those words, just a statement of fact. And as for “lingering,” he had a tendency to wait on her when they were working. He would bring her water and sometimes abandon his own work to try to do hers. More than once she’d told him not to do that. So, by helping him with the equipment, she was probably just trying to impress upon him the notion that they were equals. Goddess, he was so stupid.
And she wasn’t Princess Selene, either—not here. This was the Redeemed Community of the Libyrinth and she was Libyrarian Selene and she hadn’t lived as an Ilysian for years and she probably had no notion of the effect her words had on him.
The now-familiar feelings of bafflement and shame rose up inside him—and beneath them, loneliness. Since the Redemption, everyone at the Libyrinth was working hard to leave behind their various cultural expectations and forge a new community, but Po was the only Ilysian male here. Nobody else had the same kinds of problems he had, and no one could really help him. He tilted his head back and rubbed at his eyes. His face felt hot. He wanted to cry, but that, too, was something males didn’t do around here.
In fact, pretty much everything Po knew about how he was supposed to behave was wrong. And he so wanted to get it right. He’d been so relieved when Selene had invited him up here—when he’d thought she had. It had meant more than just a chance to finally fulfill his function as a consort. It meant having the opportunity to do something right for a change. Instead, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
Po fought against the closing of his throat and the burning of his eyes, but it was no use—tears came. He wiped his face on the sleeve of his shapeless brown robe and ran down the stairs before someone could see him.
The stairs of the Seventh Tower opened out onto the large, circular hallway that was the main thoroughfare of the Libyrinth proper. The inner curve of the hallway bordered the Great Hall, with its massive dome, central console, and walls lined with books. Along the other side lay the towers, the dining hall, the kitchen, and the stables.
Po headed left at the base of the stairs, just so he could avoid the main gate. At this time of day—late afternoon—most people were finished with their work and gathered either outside in the open area surrounding the well, or in the Great Hall. The double arches of the main gate led to both. The area would be bustling with people.
Keeping his head down, he ran the long way around to the stables. He unlatched the large wooden door and slipped inside, shutting it again behind him. He turned to face a wide space dimly lit by the late afternoon sun. The air was thick with dust and the earthy aromas of straw and feed and dung. Here, at least, there was one creature he had something in common with.
He walked down the wide central aisle and unlatched the door of a large stall. With practiced ease he clambered up onto the broad back of Zam, the elephant who had borne their Redeemer to the Libyrinth. Like Po, she was here by accident. And like him, she was the only one of her kind.
Zam did not complain as Po sprawled on her back and succumbed to the torrent of feelings inside him. She was accustomed to him, and as Po pressed his face into Zam’s thick, hairy hide, the elephant clumsily patted his back with her trunk and gave a low rumble of recognition.
Po soaked in the comfort she offered even as he rebuked himself. Unlike Zam, he could have gone home. When Adept Ykobos returned to Ilysies he could have gone with her, but he had chosen to stay. Why?
All he ever really wanted was to be a good consort and father. Back in Ilysies, when he was Adept Ykobos’s assistant in the palace, he’d known how rare it was for a boy to study the art of kinesiology, how much rarer still to be given a post in the palace. And yet, even then, he had longed to be like other boys. So what on earth had possessed him to remain here, where all the rules were different?
He sighed and rubbed his cheek against Zam’s scratchy back. It was because of the Redemption. For as long as Po lived, he would never forget what it had been like to be trapped inside the wing, tumbled about and terrified and then, out of nowhere, seized by a feeling unlike any he’d ever known before.
For a space of time—perhaps no more than an afternoon, yet it seemed to hold eternity in its span—he had known he was one with all things, and he had heard the Name of the Ocean and felt its harmonies in his own body and knew that this was the source from which all things arose. And he had known that he was no worse than a woman, that even the wise adept was no more than a variation on himself, and that there could be no difference that did not stem from common ground and therefore be part of the indivisible whole.
It was an experience that, they all learned, was both indelible and transient. When it was over they were no longer in that state, and yet none of them would ever forget that such a thing was possible, was, in fact, the greater reality. Every moment of their lives from that time forward was imbued with that awareness, even if they often fell into fragmentation and dispute.
So when Adept Ykobos chose to return to Ilysies, Po remembered the Redemption and he decided to stay here, where people were trying to live by what they had learned that day. But he’d made a mistake. This was too hard. He couldn’t do it.
But oh, how he wished he could. Fresh grief seized him as he remembered what it had been like, who he’d thought he could be. This was worse than never being Redeemed at all. Now, when he failed he knew what he lost.
At last the storm subsided and Po allowed himself a few moments of lying there, empty. He remembered an afternoon when he was small. Somehow, over all the years, it came back to him in every detail—the smell of hot earth and the feel of it in his hands, the buzzing of the bees, the distant voices of his family and the nearer voice of Kip, his mother’s old sire.
Though Po’s grandmother was dead, the old man had fathered three daughters all in the same landed family. He was well provided for and content, with granddaughters to tease him and dote on him and a vegetable garden to tend now that he was too old to plow the fields.
Po must have been very young, because he was helping Kip weed the tomatoes, and not out with the others doing the hard work of getting the summer grain planted.
“Did you know that a woman’s tears come from the ocean, but a man’s tears come from the earth?” Kip asked. When Po didn’t answer, he continued, “So it is only natural that a man’s tears should return to the earth.”
Po was crying because his cousin Appolonia had knocked him down and taken his cinnamon cracker at lunch.
Po wiped his face and stared at the old man. He’d always been fascinated by Kip’s face, the myriad lines intersecting and curving, always following the immaculate structure of his classic Ilysian features. Kip could be a bit haughty about his rank as a stud but he was a kindly old goat and fond of his grandson.
“It’s true,” said Kip. “Because long ago, long before Queen Belrea united Ilysies, there were no men.”
Po gaped at this. There would never be as many males as women, it was true, but none at all? The old man was lying. “Then how did the women get babies?”
“The women made themselves pregnant, the way the ringtails do. Yes, yes, it’s true.” Kip could see that Po was skeptical. “At that time, all the women knew the tale of the lizard and they could all reproduce parthenogenetically like the ringtail lizard does. Not just special people. And the land everywhere was green. Not just here east of the Lian Mountains, not just in a few scattered river valleys, but all over the land, yes, the whole land—the plain of Ayor, and even Shenash across the sea. All of it was as green as a lowland barley farm in spring.”
“Even up in the hills?”
Kip laughed, and looking back now, Po realized that it was at his naiveté, which could not imagine a world beyond his own dusty mountain town. “Yes, even here in the hills. And the reason that the land was green everywhere was that a certain flower grew that was called the Lion’s Bloom. The Lion’s Bloom put out a pollen that was a powerful fertilizer and everywhere it fell, it made things grow.
“Life was good in those days, and everyone danced and sang all day long. But one day, the blooms forgot that they were plants and fell in love with the women. Indeed, the beauty of a woman living in contented abundance is so powerful that it caused the blooms to grow arms and legs, and they dug themselves out of the ground and turned into men, and when they stood before the women, the beauty which had formed them made them continue to grow, their bodies taking the form that will please women most.
“The women were delighted with their new companions and life continued quite happily for all until the next harvest. With no more blooms, the plants did not grow in the same abundance as before. In fact, they were in danger of dying off entirely.
“When the women saw this they were most dismayed, and this made their men unhappy. Everyone cried. The women’s salty tears only made the land more barren. But where the men’s tears fell, things began to grow again. One man loved his consort so much that he begged her to sacrifice him, to cut him down like a stalk of grain, and his blood flowed across the land and became the Lian River, where the land is most fertile of all.
“And that is why a man must give his tears and sometimes his life to the soil, so that some of that fertilizing property he still possesses is returned to the earth for the generation of plant life, and that is why other parts of the world that do not practice this are more barren than ours.
“So when you cry, hang your head, so that your tears drip down onto the earth.”
Po sat up on Zam’s back and wiped his eyes. For a moment he chided himself for wasting his tears, when he could have let them fertilize the land. But that was childish. Men’s tears did not make things grow. It was an old goat’s beard—a tale spun by old men to comfort little boys, nothing more.
Finally, Po patted Zam’s neck and slid down her flank to the ground. It would be dinnertime soon and he wanted to wash his face before going into the dining hall. The last thing he wanted was to attract more attention. He was already in enough trouble. Would Pri—Libyrarian Selene tell others what he’d done? Would she tell the Redeemer?
He latched Zam’s stall door behind him and paused to brush straw from his robe. How he hated this garment. A boy his age should be going about in a short tunic and hose, both cut to display his masculine features to their best advantage. In these robes, everybody looked the same, which he supposed was the point, but how on earth could he be expected to attract a consort dressed like this?
Suddenly he heard the door to the stables opening and voices talking. He considered ducking back into the stall, but it was too late.
“She wants me but I’m holding out for something better,” said Baris as he and another Singer boy, Rossiter, entered the stable. They paused in the doorway, staring at Po. Baris smiled. It wasn’t a friendly smile.
Po hated Singer boys in general and Baris in particular. For one thing, Baris was fat. It was disgusting. And he fancied himself attractive to women, which was a travesty, given the way he let himself go. He had short blond hair, a snub nose, pale blue eyes, and two chins. But what was most infuriating of all was his attitude, difficult for Po to put into words. He acted as if his sexual attentions were somehow both a gift and a debasement to any woman who might receive them. Po could not understand this, and yet it enraged him. Baris made males look very, very bad. Furthermore, he’d bet anything that Baris was still a virgin, and therefore a liar on top of everything else.
Po walked toward Baris and Rossiter, his bearing straight and tall, his gaze fixed on Baris, staring him in the eyes, openly provoking him. It felt good. Po’s blood sang in his ears as his adrenaline spiked. A fight—that’s what he needed.
He was about to ask Baris who he was talking about. Clearly he was disrespecting a woman, and Po was not about to let him shame males that way, but before he could speak, Baris said, “Crying again?”
Oh, right. Po had forgotten about his tears. Or rather, forgotten that he was supposed to hide them. Singer boys thought tears were a sign of weakness. The Libyrarians less so, but still, everyone thought he was too emotional for a male. But he was a male! It was his nature to be emotional. He couldn’t help it. His hormones made him irrational, impulsive, aggressive, and desperately dependent on female approval and gratification.
“Still a virgin?” said Po, because he knew Baris was, and hated it enough to lie about it, despite the fact that he took no measure either with his appearance or his personality to make himself alluring to women.
“I get enough,” said Baris.
It took Po a second to figure out what he was talking about. He meant sex. As if it were barley to be gathered in bales and stored. “You lie. What woman would have a fatso like you?”
“Hey, both of you, what are you doing?” said Rossiter, who had hung back as Po and Baris approached each other. His gaze flicked from Po to Baris and back again.
Rossiter was tall and thin, with dark, shoulder-length hair and blue eyes. He could almost pass for Ilysian, except for his olive skin tone and his small nose. Rossiter wasn’t bad for a Singer. He’d been the very first to accept the written word. It had happened while he was being tortured by Libyrarians, prior to the Redemption, but oddly he didn’t use that fact to lord his status over other males. He was a healer and Po worked with him in the infirmary tent sometimes. As long as Rossiter didn’t blatantly challenge him with questions or suggestions, Po could tolerate him.
But Baris was another matter and as far as Po was concerned, there was no need for more words. With less than four feet left between them, Po ended the preamble to their fight by stepping in and faking a punch with his right. Baris fell for it and Po was ready with a left punch to Baris’s jaw. The sting in his knuckles was as satisfying as the smacking sound his fist made as it connected with the hard bone beneath Baris’s pudgy flesh.
Baris let out a grunt and grabbed Po by the hair. “You fucking he-girl,” he said. One of his insults, though it never made any sense to Po.
“Hey, both of you, stop it!” yelled Rossiter. “This isn’t how we’re supposed to act.”
Baris swung Po by the hair and released him and Po staggered back a few steps before regaining his balance. When he did, he wasted no time. He rushed Baris, tackling him around the waist, hurling them both down onto the straw-covered ground.
Baris wheezed at the impact, and before he could move Po straddled his chest, pinning Baris’s arms beneath his knees.
“Stop it,” said Rossiter. “It’s yourself you’re hitting. Remember? We’re all one!”
Yeah. Po did remember that. But only with his mind. It was not in his heart at the moment. One of the things he’d learned since coming here was how easy it was to lose big truths amid little ones. There was a difference between understanding something with your mind, and feeling it inside. At the moment, his anger crowded out the profound interconnectedness he’d felt at the Redemption. Peace and compassion were concepts. If they had a home in his heart, it was hidden by Baris’s provocation. Po punched him in the nose.
Blood poured from Baris’s nose, bright red and gratifying. “Augh! Get off me!” he yelled. The coward.
Po stood. “Limp dick,” he said, loading the words with all the disdain they could hold. He started to walk away. Rossiter watched him warily, a crease between his brows. Only then did Po realize that there would be repercussions from this. Rossiter was going to tell. Unless he could stop him.
He stopped in front of Rossiter, looming close. They were of a height, but Po was stronger. “Don’t tell anybody about this,” he said. It wasn’t a request.
Rossiter gave him a strange look. Pity? Why would Rossiter pity him? He glanced to where Baris was getting up, holding a hand to his bleeding nose. A clear-cut victory—why—
“And what if I do, Po, will you beat me up, too?”
Well, yeah, that was the idea. But still Rossiter gave him that sad look and Po had the feeling he was missing something, again. The Redemption. Oh yeah…Sudden shame came upon him and that just made him more angry.
“What are you going to do when you run out of people to hit?” Rossiter asked him.
Po tried to formulate an answer but he couldn’t. He really did want to hit Rossiter now, and that was completely wrong. And it had been wrong to hit Baris, even though it felt so utterly right. But why? How could it be okay not to punish Baris for his insufferable attitude? This was impossible. He couldn’t do this. He was just about to give up and shove Rossiter and see where that went when a terrific wind blew through the stables, stirring up hay and dust and making them all blink.
Through the wide archway that led into the stableyard came the Wing of Tarsus. Twelve feet from wing tip to wing tip, its graceful form gleaming gold, the Ancient flying machine eased through the doorway and settled in the triple-wide stall nearest the door. They’d had to knock down two walls to make room for it, but everyone agreed that the stable was the proper place for the wing, which like most Ancient technology was not quite just a machine.
All the same, the wing looked incongruous in the rustic setting. Its surface was engraved with waving, spiraling lines—songlines, the Singers called them, but Po knew them as the Name of the Ocean, so called because they were a reminder of the source of all life. On the underside of the flying machine was a face—a large, golden face in the center—where the vessel widened out between the two backward-curving wings.
And of course they all knew who flew it. Clauda of Ayor, the second Redeemer, the hero of the Libyrinth.
Po looked at Baris wiping the blood from his nose and trying to brush the straw off his robes. It was hard for Po to think of himself as one and the same with someone like Baris, but they did have one thing in common: neither of them wanted Clauda to know they’d been fighting. Even though Baris could say with all truthfulness that Po had started it, and Rossiter would back him up, Baris still wouldn’t want the kind of attention the incident would bring him. He’d be counseled about the “assault.” And he wouldn’t want that because the more people like Clauda or Haly talked to him, the more likely they’d discover just how little of the Singer attitude of male-superiority he had set aside. Not to mention, it would be a lot of fuss over a fistfight. “I won’t tell if you don’t,” Po told Baris.
Baris started. “Okay.”
“But what about him?” asked Po, nodding toward Rossiter.
Baris turned to Rossiter. “Look—keep this to yourself and I’ll tell Jaen you saved Monat’s life in the infirmary. She’ll be impressed.”
Rossiter frowned, weighing it. “I shouldn’t…” He turned to Po. “You fight too much.”
“You let him get away with talking about women as if they were…” Men. Po didn’t finish.
Rossiter swallowed. He looked uncomfortable now. “Okay, I won’t say anything. This time. But don’t compound things by lying about me, Baris. Just—”
A portal in the gleaming hide of the wing opened and Clauda stepped out onto the wing of the wing. The simplicity of her robe suited her broad, tan face and copper brown hair. Her blue eyes stood out like beacons.
Clauda was brave and kind and crafty, and Po had been fascinated with her since she’d first come to the Ilysian Palace. He had taken every chance he could to be around Adept Ykobos’s workshop when it was time to visit the Ayorite. He thought it was exotic how she had no last name. People in the palace called her Clauda of Ayor. But it wasn’t just that she was an Ayorite. It was her matter-of-fact regard for him, as if she had no doubt that he could contribute something of use. He’d never really gotten over it.
All quarrels forgotten, the three boys ran to the stall, but he was there before either of the other two, and he knelt in the straw and offered his back to her as a step. He heard Baris snicker, and then there was a whoosh of air beside him and he saw Clauda’s sandal-shod feet hit the ground. His face burning, Po stood. Clauda was already walking away, fast. Of course, how stupid of him. She was embarrassed by his gesture. She didn’t want to be his superior. She was an Ayorite. She wanted him to be an equal.
Baris stared at him with barely suppressed glee and Rossiter looked quietly horrified. But neither of them pursued Clauda. Po hurried after her. “How was your flight, Clauda?” he asked her, being sure to use her name in the familiar way everyone did around here.
She paused in the doorway to the Libyrinth and turned. Not for the first time, Po wished that instead of returning to the Libyrinth, Clauda had flown the wing to some deserted island somewhere far away where no one would ever find them. Of course that was wrong and of course Adept Ykobos was always conveniently written out of these fantasies of his, but when her gaze fell upon him he could not help but long for it just the same. “Hey guys,” she said, by way of greeting, and Po became aware of Baris and Rossiter behind him. “Po, look, I can’t chat right now. I’m sorry. I have to give my report to Haly.”
For the first time he noticed the scroll in her hands. It had a red seal on it. Was that the bull of Ilysies?
As Clauda trotted away down the hallway, Po heard Baris snicker behind him and then Rossiter’s urgent “Shhh!”
He thought about starting another fight with Baris, or Rossiter, or both, but it was nearly suppertime. He took a deep breath and left the stables.
THE BOY FROM ILYSIES Copyright © 2010 by Pearl North