Karesh Ni, Chapter 6

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Chapter 6

As I descended, I thought about Whitefire. After leaving the Baroness’s office I’d asked about them because I’m super curious and definitely not just nosy.

Whitefire followed Starlight, one of several Celestial elements (Alyssa knew another, Lightning). They were lead by a Hierophant and four Eparchs, Kyria having been Hierophant before and Amon Tim being the Hierophant now. Hierophant Mal Set had built this fortress up among the stars, their source of power, after they fled in exile. It was called Karesh Ni, the Silver City.

When asked why the Ashirai empire ordered broad sanction against Whitefire, the Kagerani had generally agreed that nearly a century ago, Ashirai Emperor Thullus had married a young woman, Aryce, who’d already been engaged to Maurius, a Whitefire initiate. Royal Ashirai weddings are three-day affairs where the couple don’t sleep together until the third day, the first day of celibacy representing a sacrifice to their gods and the second a sacrifice for the people. By tradition the groom stays awake partying while the bride gets some sleep so the whole world can attest to their celibacy before heaven. Thullus had caught Aryce and Maurius breaking celibacy during God’s Night.

Before dawn he’d dragged them to the Gold River that runs through Ashirak, and before being cast in, Maurius had cursed him and all his people. Thullus had heaved him into the rapids himself, and within those waters, Maurius had been drowned or beaten to death on rocks. Aryce had begged for mercy, but when Thullus lifted her as he had her lover, she cursed him as well. She followed Maurius.

The romantic ending of the story is the lovers found each other down there. I don’t know.

But that didn’t cause the Maurite Prohibition. That came later. During the somewhat subdued feast of the People’s Night, Thullus had a bit too much to drink and went to the Gold River’s canyon wall to taunt their ghosts. The canyon wall gave way, and Thullus fell to his death.

The Empire left without an emperor, the Baron of Dylath-Leen, the Saffron Prince of Tyr, and Duke Larange, a cousin of Thullus’s, all went to war for the throne. The legions stayed out of it, and the Prince of Tyr won. However the oaths the Red Guard swore were to the ‘Emperors of Ashirak, born sons of Jermaine, Kings of Kings,’ and a matter of bloodlines precluded the Saffron Prince from taking the seat. When he tried, the legions threatened mutiny.

Prince Eigen of Tyr, the Saffron Prince, apparently told the Reds to kick rocks. Two legions marched on Tyr, and on the morning of the battle when the Prince realized that he was going to have to fight the Red Guard, the Swordsmen of Ashirai, he suddenly discovered a willingness to negotiate.

In the play Birthright of Gods the Red legions send their lowliest foot solder, Ve Therrin, to challenge the entire Tyrian military to a series of single combats. After seeing his forces ruined by one man, the Prince sued for peace. Pretty much everyone agrees that didn’t actually happen.

Anyway, without the bloodline to take the throne, the Prince Eigen ordained himself king, demoted everyone else to less-than-kings, a custom which continued to Alyssa’s ‘royal baronacy,’ and the legions declared obedience to the king of Tyr. End of that, right?

Of course not. Perhaps you see the loophole? If not, let me give you a hint. Duke Larange had a daughter, Hnoss, who at this point was eight. The Prince Eigen of Tyr was fifty three and married.

The Emperors of Ashirak were ‘sons of Jermaine’ and drew their birthright from direct descent from one of the gods of old. He couldn’t take the throne of Ashirak, but he could give it to a son, provided the mother of his son was Larange’s daughter.

His wife Tamora did not agree. She murdered him and Hnoss (the eight-year old!), the legions murdered her, and the Baron of Dylath-Leen took the throne, swearing the same oaths to respect the line. The throne was ‘given back to Jermaine’ since no one lived of his lineage to take it.

The Baron blamed the whole thing on Maurius and Aryce, because clearly their curses led to this affair. Rumor escaped that followers of Whitefire were to be rounded up and beheaded, their mouths stuffed up or tongues pulled out, and none of them stayed around to find out if the rumors were true. On pain of death, the followers of Whitefire were exiled from the lands of Asharai for the evil power of their curses.

The killing of Hnoss is the part that really got me. It was a hundred years ago, so I suppose it’s just history, but there was no reason for that! She was eight!

Kageran had joined the Ashirai Empire about twenty years back. Queen Alyssa had become Baroness Alyssa. Citi Kageran had accepted the Maurite Prohibition. Many Whitefire refugees who had lived in Kageran at the time disappeared. The people I’d asked hadn’t known where they’d gone, nor about this place. Alyssa and Satre had but seemed to have kept their mouths closed. The feeling of having secret knowledge, that I was one of the elect, pleased me. In spite of the cold, I hurried down the stairs.

Several hours later, that feeling of being special was really struggling to keep up with the desire to feel my toes.

I decided to give up. At the time, I was several hours into the murderously cold descent and had stopped to huddle on the stairs and eat another flat. I’d been walking in a trance, concentrating on keeping my footing on the wide, flat, and smooth stairs. Since I couldn’t feel my feet, every step had an element of hazard to it. I wouldn’t know I was slipping until too late. A low balustrade ringed the stairway, intricately working in white marble, and I sat by one of the balusters. For a while I looked out at the world, the skies undimmed by clouds, and wondered why I wasn’t overwhelmed.

I was too cold to be overwhelmed.

That was it. If you’re too cold to appreciate the vastness of space, the world laid out like a painting, and mythical architecture, you are too cold for anything. I ate my flat. I gave up. I slouched over to tie my shoes and happened to look down, past the stairway.

The island that hung below was a brown island about a deep cone. From an outer triangle, it rose to a vaguely circular ridge, and inside the ridge a deep pit sank into more white stone. Houses, buildings, roads, and clustered on the ridge like white crows sitting on rooftops, and two greater palaces stood on either side. One of the white stairways descended to each of them. The gold rope sank into the very center of the central pit.

The mountainsides were grim and dull, covered in the naked trunks of brown trees. Yet between them grew a few evergreens, dark enough to look brown or black themselves. At the center of the pit bubbled a white froth, and mist flowed through cracks in the right to fall down the slope. Cloud rivers fell off the sides of the island like smoke rises from a candle yet in reverse, descending smoothly in straight lines until they began to fold and curl up before catching the winds and spreading. They blew east, the direction Pallas passed far below. A wide band of milky white light flowed underneath the island.

I ate another flat.

Okay, fine, I thought, and I un-gave up. It was right there. I had to be almost done. This was one of those darkest-before-the-dawn moments.

It wasn’t. I wasn’t even close. I had to go twice as far as I’d come before. It turned so cold my eyes hurt. My eyelids froze shut, and I couldn’t see. I had to thaw them with my fingers, which made my fingers freeze, and then I had to thaw my fingers with my breath.

I got stubborn, kept going, did an awful lot of whining, said some very, very unfriendly things about Alyssa, Satre, people in general, and used a bunch of language that would not make Prince Aehr swoon with desire.

Did elves swoon?

They’d better. Someone was swooning after all this, and it wasn’t going to be me.

Honestly, I was getting pretty tired and felt like I could go for a swoon.

I couldn’t swoon now. I’d fall over the railing.

I kept walking.


The bottom of the stairs flattened out on a wide landing. On either side, the landing looked like it ended in cliffs, but that was because the landing was perched on one of the high points of that central ring-like ridge. There were paths and lower buildings below on both sides. Forward and behind more buildings rose from the crest, some of them geometric with windows and doors, some botanical like alabaster flowers, and some oddly shaped like spirals or points, all made of that same white marble.

Two stood out. One, a huge white orchid, stood by itself, and the body of the building resembled a closed flower, just in the act of unfurling. Between the petals, a red and gold light escaped. The other resembled a dragon’s skull and was the only animal-looking thing around. It perched on the crest of the ridge some distance behind me. It was a little bigger than a house.

I squinted at the dragon skull when the stairs passed overhead. It could be real. Dragons did get that big, and the skull was grayer than marble. The eyes, nostrils, and mouth had been blocked up with stone, making the difference obvious. But a skull that big would need a body even bigger, and I didn’t see any half-mile dragon carcasses lying on the island.

I didn’t see many people, and those I did see moved quickly. They usually had white cloaks with pointed hoods, ornamented with stars or silver bands. Many of their clothes looked quilted, with plenty of white designs sewn into white jackets, coats, and pants.

I don’t think they had much dye. That catches me by surprise sometimes, even as long as I’ve been here. People generally work with whatever color thread comes off the sheep or plant. Kageran is so unusual in its colors. Here, I spotted embroidery, but it was all the same white thread as the basic garment.

They didn’t look prepared for the cold. Most had little white shoes with turned-down cuffs no higher than the ankles and no gloves. They hustled, outdoors and walking quickly down a street, to return indoors again with a slammed door behind them.

I also spotted stair guards, and they looked miserable.

Sitting in a little hut facing the stairway were three people. Each one wore two or three of those white cloaks, but the same tiny shoes. Two had their arms folded with hands inside their armpits, but one’s sleeves hung floppily empty. I saw little pink fingers poking up through her collar as she breathed on her hands. The man on her left was frowning so hard his wrinkles looked like creases, and another man had his head down against his chest.

I was about two circuits up when one bumped another and pointed at me. They spoke among themselves, and someone ran off. I couldn’t very well turn around now, so I kept going. Before long several more guards arrived with one among them who seemed in charge, a dark-skinned Malician woman with her hair done up like two cacti. They stood informally at the bottom of the stairs, waiting.

Half a circuit up, I paused, tried to shake off the cold, and decided what I wanted to say. I adjusted my clothing and gear into the most comfortable manner. Then I walked down with fingertips on the railing.

The waiting party said nothing as they stood at attention, watching.

On a hunch, I stuck my both hands into my pockets as I stepped down onto the wide marble landing, and the lady in charge said, “On bound law, do not move.”

“Okay.” I did not move my hands out of my pockets.

“I am Eparch Tel Viv. Who are you?”

“Astrologamage Elegy.”

Official people tend to like following their own rhythm, so I let her go.

“Astrologamage Elegy, you have entered Karesh Ni. Do you have a mark of passage?”


“Then you are detained and shall come with me for questioning. Do you have any remarks?”

“I’m here to see Hierophant Amon Tim,” I said.

She gave me side-eye while the guards stared straight ahead or turned their necks to stare at me.

“We’ll see about that. Hospitaller Ain Var, bind her hands and feed.”

The original lady guard, there were three there now not including Tel Viv, said, “Ma’am,” and took some white ribbons from her pocket. She looked like she’d been holding them while she waited.

Detaining seemed much like being arrested. They searched me and found the knives in my sleeves, belts, and boots. They missed two. We didn’t talk. The guards in the hut rotated, and Tel Viv lead the rest away.

We passed rows of sterile white houses with dead lawns out and empty gardens. Frozen watercourses, dry fountains, pristine white pathways swept of old leaves branched off the roads we followed, looking like they’d been carved of ice. The whole city, glorious, elegant, and polished, looked like some abominable dream in crystal. I was so tired.

People had told me about this. I didn’t listen. Mountaineers, Malicians, the incomprehensible people who voluntarily live even further north than Malice: they talk about how the cold wakes you up at first but then puts you to sleep, confuses your brain, and makes you stupid. I’m not stupid, so I’d just ignored them when they said the cold does it. But I was suffering the cold now, and it wasn’t some brutal, anguish of suffering. I wasn’t being cut by blades or burned with irons. I was just cold, miserable, dumb, and I hated it. The only way I could fight back against the cold was not complaining, so I walked along as silent as everyone else, as silent as the ghost-shaped people who watched from the rowhouses, as silent as the houses themselves. We entered the white lotus palace, veined with glittering quartz, and shaped like a blossom opening to the moon. It was, I would learn, the Sunset Basilica, and it had been made by humans imitating elves.

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