Tuesday 7 June 2016

The Prince of Exiles, 14

Only the sound of the rain, the distant mechanical heartbeat. Above, the clouds and city smoke merge into glowering black; the rain sets in now, rivulets running down the market stall awnings, rivers in the gutters, flowing from the pediment roofs. 

My hair is plastered to my skull, my coat sodden, heavy on my shoulders. The falling rain like bullets, hammering on the stones.

"They could just not come out," Svaathe says, having to shout to be heard. "I wouldn't."

As quickly as the rain peaked, it eases off, and through the lightening water a figure approaches us, coming down the steps at the far end of the city forum.

The figure, a priest, third-gender, holds a pyramidal umbrella, ornately painted with gold-accented pictorial designs of intertwined dancing figures, gold tassels at its corners. It doesn't look like the sort of thing a priest would carry. A voice, musical, calm, somewhere between tenor and alto, says, "I am here. I am Parent Xipil of the Children of Akhantuih. I am licensed by this city as its advocate."

Makara had raised her gun; she lowers it now, steps forwards. Alone of us, she looks the least affected by the downpour. Water is her element, I suppose. "We need somewhere to stay."

"I don't think the city would permit that." Xipil is apologetic, their free hand held palm up in a gesture of supplication. A trickle of rainwater runs down their hairless scalp and across a serene face with no eyebrows to offer cues. Dark spots of water sit on the shoulders of their pale blue robe, belying hurried preparations and changed minds. I imagine a panicked scramble to find an umbrella. "We ask you to leave."

"You know what we want," says Makara. "And you know what we can do."

The priest nods. "If we were to do what you asked, it would destroy our city. Tear it apart."

"It's gone soon enough anyway."

"You can't prove that."

"I know it. Do what we ask."

"We can't."

"Free the slaves. Let them go."

"You would pauper us all." Xipil's black eyes are harder now, full lips pressed tightly together. The hand holding the umbrella rearranges its fingers. I get the distinct impression that the priest would really rather not be holding it.

Makara raises her gun again.

"If I were afraid of dying," replies Xipil, "Would I have agreed to speak to you in the first place?"

The priest's chin is raised now, as if to say, do it, I don't care, do it. They are shaking, just a little, the slightest tremor amplified by the awkwardness of the umbrella.

Svaathe speaks now. "What about the rest of you? What about your children, your old?"

"You wouldn't harm our children."

I wouldn't kill a child. I open my mouth to say something. Svaathe interrupts. 

"We'd leave them all without a parent between them." Svaathe is indignant, ostentatiously bloodthirsty, as if relishing the prospect.

"You would." The bald-headed priest admits it, is in thought for a moment. "You already have, to some extent." We are at an impasse. Long fingers, all heavy rings and long gold fingernails, touch a widely stretched earlobe for a moment, an unconscious gesture at odds with the priest's apparent self-possession. "Pledge that you will not kill. While you are in the city."

"All right," Makara says. "If you'll not assault us, we'll not use violence."

"Come then." Xipil turns away and begins to walk, chains and charms swishing, careless of whether we follow them or not.

[Collected Writings Index]