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The House of Silence
IN THE DEEP WILDS of the north, there is a Shrine cut into the mountainside. The forest covers these hills like a shroud. This is a quiet country, but the Shrine of the Unspoken One is quieter still. Birds and insects keep away from the place.
In the valley below the Shrine is a temple known as the House of Silence. Its acolytes leave offerings at the foot of the steps that lead up to the Shrine, but they do not come any closer.
Every fourteen years, in spring, when the streams in the hills begin to thaw, a procession leaves the House of Silence. The Prioress rides in a palanquin with six bearers. Despite the cold these bearers are naked from the waist up. Every other day of every other year they are farmers and woodsmen, but on this day they have an ancient purpose to serve. They walk the road of white stones that leads into the hills.
Going before them all is a girl of fourteen, wreathed with flowers and veiled in white. At her side she leads a spotless bull calf on a gilded chain.
The procession halts at the foot of the steps to the Shrine. Here is a stone altar, in which a channel is carved. Here is a vessel set at the lowest point of the channel. Here is a bright, sharp knife.
The girl leads the calf to the altar and they cut its throat. The blood runs black in the dim spring light. It splashes on the frozen stone and flows into the vessel.
She takes the bowl of blood. She climbs the steps to the Shrine. She is never seen again.
* * *
One month before the day of Csorwe’s death, a stranger came to the House of Silence. Csorwe did not see him arrive. She was down in the crypt, listening to the dead.
In the underbelly of the House there were many cellars, hollowed out in the grey strata of the sacred mountain. Deepest of all were the crypts, where the eminent dead among the Followers of the Unspoken Name were sealed to strive for rest. Rest was not something that came easily here, so close to the Shrine of the god. The dead scratched at the walls and cooed in sad imitation of living song.
Csorwe was sitting in the antechamber trying to pick out the words, as she did from time to time, when she heard someone coming down the passage. She drew her feet up into the alcove, hoping she might not be noticed. A bubble of candlelight approached and opened. It was Angwennad, one of the lay-sisters.
“Csorwe, dear, come out from there, you’re wanted upstairs,” said Angwennad. The other lay-sisters called Csorwe miss or, unbearably, ma’am, but Angwennad had been Csorwe’s nurse, and there were certain liberties permitted to her.
Csorwe slipped down from her perch. She didn’t think she was late for afternoon prayers, but it was easy to lose your place in time—even, as she knew, when you only had so much time to lose.
“There’s a pilgrim here for you,” said Angwennad. “Very foreign. Shabby looking, although I can’t say I’m surprised about that. They’re saying he came through the hills on foot.”
Pilgrims visited the House of Silence every now and then. Most of them wanted nothing more from Csorwe than a blessing, but Angwennad was looking at her with a soft anxiety that suggested this visitor needed something more demanding.
Upstairs, Angwennad took her place at the back of the hall. The priestesses were already kneeling in rows down either side. Prioress Sangrai took Csorwe aside and explained that the pilgrim required a prophecy, as was his right.
The acolytes set out lacquered trays and tapers, and the Keeper of Black Lotus went from tray to tray, tipping out dried leaves and stems of lotus from her censer.
When it was time, Csorwe set off alone down the centre of the hall, toward the dais at the far end. The hall was lit only by candles, and by the dim glow of the lotus as it began to smoulder. The faces of the others were like pale thumbprints in the haze.
At the dais, the Prioress and the librarian stood to one side with the stranger. Csorwe got a brief look at him as she approached, but she kept her eyes down and her pace stately. On the dais was a high-backed chair. Csorwe took her place here, holding her head high, looking straight ahead. The rows of priestesses and acolytes, the Prioress, the librarian, and the stranger, all blurred and faded at the periphery of her vision. All she could see was the darkness and the empty air occupying the great vault of the hall.
The fumes of the lotus rose among the pillars, sweet and elusive. Once the Keeper of Black Lotus had completed her round, she came to Csorwe with a porcelain cup, in which the seeds and petals of lotus gleamed in resin. It gave off a fine, black, coiling smoke.
The Followers of the Unspoken Name bowed their heads all at once, repeating in one murmuring voice:
“Unspoken and Unspeakable One, Knight of Abyss, Overseer of the Eaten Worlds, praise and reverence unto your Chosen Bride. May she intercede for us.”
Csorwe raised the cup and took a breath. Cedar, pepper, incense, and underneath it all the irresistible perfume of the lotus. Her sight darkened, and a pleasant ache crept up her limbs, followed by a numbness. The lights in the hall were very far away, and they shimmered as though underwater. With each breath, they dimmed a little more.
In waking life, Csorwe had walked every one of the crypts and cellars beneath the House of Silence. She knew them by sight and by experience, by touch and by heart. Under the sway of the lotus, she felt the shape of them as though she had them in her mouth. The whole mountain was riddled with hollows, and at the heart of the mountain was the greater void.
She plummeted through the dark, and felt the eyes of the void upon her.
The presence of the Unspoken One crept in slowly at first, like the first reaching wavelets of the tide, rising gently, prying into the burrows of sand-creeping things. And then all at once it was impossible to ignore: a vast invisible pressure, a single focused curiosity that weighed her with impersonal hunger.
Then, a voice, and a face. Back in the hall of the House of Silence, the stranger was kneeling before her, making the salute of sealed lips in respect. His face rippled and gleamed, swimming as though reflected on the surface of a pool. Although he must have been at least forty years old, he had no tusks at all. He was the only foreigner Csorwe had ever seen, and she wished she could see him more clearly.
“Chosen Bride, I most humbly ask a boon of the Unspoken One,” said the stranger. He spoke Oshaaru with a curious accent.
“What is it that you desire?” It was Csorwe’s own voice, but, of course, she did not feel her lips move. The Unspoken One held her in its grip.
“Knowledge,” said the stranger.
“Knowledge of that which has passed away, or that which is to come?” said the Unspoken One. Its attention flickered over Csorwe’s thoughts, testing. It found no resistance. She had been schooled for this. She was a clean vessel for the voice of the god.
“Knowledge of that which lives in the present moment,” said the stranger.
This was unorthodox. Disrespectful, even. Csorwe braced herself for the anger of the Unspoken One. It seemed to notice her attention, and she felt a kind of reassuring caress, like the chill that rises from an open tomb.
“Speak, then,” it said, still using Csorwe’s voice.
“Unspoken and Unspeakable One, where is the Reliquary of Pentravesse?”
Csorwe had the same familiar feeling of plunging uncontrollably through nothingness. Bright objects flickered and passed out of sight. And then she felt the touch of the Unspoken One again, turning her attention.
She saw a rosewood box. It was eight-sided, inlaid with gold, about the size of a man’s clenched fist. It seemed close enough to touch, but this wasn’t Csorwe’s first time prophesying and even through the fog of lotus she knew it was only a vision.
A close, thick darkness gathered around the box, like a velvet bag drawn tight, and then the box itself disappeared from view. The vision ended, as though deliberately snatched away. She reached for it again, fumbling into the dark, but couldn’t reach it.
“It is hidden from my sight,” said the Unspoken One.
Disgust and disbelief were emotions unbecoming of a god, but the Unspoken was certainly capable of displeasure.
“But it does still exist?” said the stranger. He did his best to keep his voice level. Csorwe did not miss the note of satisfaction.
“It is intact,” said the Unspoken One. That was as much as the stranger was going to get, it seemed. The Unspoken One drew back from her, like a wave falling back down the shore, leaving only a sheen of brightness where it had touched, and then nothing.
She was herself again, on the dais, in the House of Silence, with the bitter aftertaste of lotus in her mouth. Her head swam, the cup fell from her fingers, and she fainted.
* * *
Csorwe slept through afternoon prayers, woke in her own cell, and stumbled down to the refectory for dinner. The black lotus was not known for its gentleness after the fact. Her head felt both thick and fragile, like a hard-boiled egg, and her throat burnt as though she had been screaming.
A group of novices—Csorwe’s agemates—were clustered around a single table. Some of them looked round when she entered, but most paid no attention.
Until Csorwe’s thirteenth birthday she had lived and studied with the novices. Still, she had no friends among them. The Chosen Bride of the Unspoken One was set apart by protocol, but also by pragmatism. There was no point cultivating the friendship of a Chosen Bride. Most of the novices came from farming families; they understood that it was no good getting fond of the pig before the season of butchery.
Csorwe took a bowl of cabbage soup and sat at another table. The others were all talking about the stranger. He was a wizard, it seemed, from a far-off city that none of them could pronounce. They got quieter and quieter until the whole group was gathered around Ushmai, who was whispering that she thought the stranger-wizard was good-looking.
Csorwe sat and ate her soup, thinking it through. In thirty days it would be the time. That meant twenty-nine more dinners after this. She tried to pay more attention to the soup, to take her time with each bite and savour it properly, but the lotus made everything taste like rust.
Her thoughts kept wandering back to the stranger. If he was a wizard, why was he so shabby? Where were his servants? What was it he wanted so badly that he had come all this way alone? The box she had seen in her vision must be very valuable, or very sacred, or both.
The novices fell silent in unison, and Csorwe looked round to see what had startled them. The stranger was standing in the door to the refectory. He had to stoop to enter.
Csorwe peeped up at him, pretending to eat her soup. He had dark brown skin, a huge amount of hair bound up in a clasp, long pointed ears, and a full beard. She had never seen anyone like this before. Oshaaru such as Csorwe were grey-skinned and golden-eyed, and the few men she had ever seen were clean-shaven.
He wore a long, ragged, outlandish coat, patched all over so that it was impossible to tell what the original cloth had been. There were traces of embroidery in among the patches, threads of gold and silver that glittered when he moved. It was possible he had been a rich man many years ago, but only if he had been a beggar since then.
Still, he didn’t look like a poor man, at least not like the poor country men who lived near the House of Silence. Stooping was not a habit for him.
He looked around the refectory for a while, and then, to Csorwe’s horror, he sat down opposite her.
“My name is Belthandros Sethennai,” he said. “I believe we’ve met, though I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself at the time.”
She said nothing, looking down at the half-eaten bowl of soup.
“There’s no need to worry. I did check with the Prioress. She finds it theologically permissible for you to speak to me.”
It wasn’t the theology that had been bothering her so much as the watching eyes of the novices, but she looked up at him. It was very odd to see an adult without visible tusks. His face looked so innocent and unguarded without them that it was difficult to gauge his expressions.
“I wanted to thank you for your indulgence of my curiosity, earlier on,” he said.
Csorwe stared at him. It was both absurd and improper to accept thanks for prophecy. She imagined him pouring a glass of wine and thanking the bottle.
“I hope the experience was not too draining for you,” he said. She shook her head. “I wish I could express how much the information means. I spent so many years investigating the history of the Reliquary without even beginning to imagine it might still exist in fragments, let alone intact—but I won’t bore you with ancient history. I always manage to believe people are interested in my research, despite all evidence to the contrary.” He smiled. “If you can spare me a little more of your time, the Prioress tells me you might take me to visit the library?”
In the library of the House of Silence, there was a book bound in the skin of a murdered king, or so it was said. There were books in cipher, books in obsidian, books in whale hide. There were atlases of ruined cities and blighted worlds. There were useless maps to every treasure ever lost to time, and lexicons of every forgotten language. The library of the House of Silence was a monument to entropy.
It was also beautifully warm, because the librarian had bullied Angwennad into bringing her twice the usual allotment of firewood.
The librarian was sitting at her desk when Csorwe came in with Belthandros Sethennai. Her name was Oranna. She was young enough that Csorwe remembered her initiation from acolyte to priestess. Her eyes were the colour of beeswax, and she wore silver caps on her tusks. She didn’t look up as they came in, but knew exactly who was there; she had perfected this trick as an acolyte and it served her well as librarian.
“So,” said Oranna. “The Reliquary of Pentravesse. If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said you’d come to the right place.”
“But today…?” said Sethennai.
“Today, it transpires, though contrary to all logic, that the Reliquary still exists. That which lives in the present has no place here. Here you will find the truth only about those who are dead, and that which is dust.”
“That’s a pity,” said Sethennai, wandering down a row of shelves. His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his awful coat, as if he had to restrain them from touching the books. “Still, I’d like to see what you have on the Reliquary. Even if it’s nothing but lies.”
Oranna’s brow twisted with suppressed aggravation. “Csorwe,” she said. “Stop hovering by the door, will you, and come and sit by the fire.”
Csorwe did as she was told, and settled down to watch a phalanx of sparks creep up the side of a log. When Csorwe was little, Angwennad had told her about imps who lived in the hearth and warred over the ashes. It was painful to remember that now. She should have put those things behind her.
She sat and half listened to Oranna and Sethennai. The librarian was never eager to take down one of the books, and her distaste for the stranger was palpable, but she had opened a heavy folio and was looking for her place.
“The Reliquary of Pentravesse is said to mark its passage through the world, in the sense that a scythe marks its passage through the grass,” she read. “Seek patiently. Listen for strange accidents, disastrous coincidences, events that slip their reins. You may chart the progress of Pentravesse’s final work through an unsuspecting world. This is the nature of the curse upon the Reliquary.”
“Greed and ambition pursue it,” said Sethennai, as if he too were reading aloud. “Bad luck, ill judgment, and unintended consequences follow in its wake.” He smiled at her. “But the idea is irresistible.”
Csorwe happened to look up just as Oranna did, and saw the look that passed between the librarian and the wizard. Imagine two spies who pass in the street and recognise one another, before each disappears into a different crowd. Ordinary wariness is replaced with shock, delight, terror—and then the moment passes.
Copyright © 2020 by A. K. Larkwood