The corridor's hexagonal walls pulsated with interstellar marvels: cepheids, nebulae, the skies over Aurena Green, Hiuron's forests…even the devastation of Sargica and Lagash. Councilor Archbaroness Durgaun thought it crude to include these displays of imperial excess in a facility frequented by vassal ambassadors, but she had lost that vote, and the reminder that she wasn't all powerful rankled her now.
She turned to her companion.
"The greatest perk of being an Incudean Councilor is the freedom to do as you please."
"Like children, milady."
"Yes, except they have no idea what to do with their freedom, and that makes all the difference."
The gaze of so many folk, Incula and alien, made the new councilor nervous. For her part, Durgaun was used to being stared at even when fully clothed, so she merely smiled. When two attendants approached with baskets, however, she added with a grimace:
"But even children have to dress in the pilgrims' white robes when visiting the great oracle at Lodonye."
The two councilors could at least skip the dreadful walk to the cavern and take a direct carrier instead. Durgaun focused on the positive. Here she was, taking the latest inductee to Lodonye for the customary courtesy call. Archbaroness Durgaun the goddess-ignorer, the tradition-destroyer, volunteering herself for a ceremony even the most pious politicians were known to bribe their way out of. And none had questioned the request, none had even blinked. True, tongues were probably flaying her all over the Floodhome, but the gossip suited her fine. Nothing better than the foul fumes of whispered accusations, of sense fever, lustful loins and what have you, to throw people off the scent when you intend to accomplish great things.
Parsion, the new councilor, expressed regret at missing the pilgrims' path.
"Not to worry," responded Durgaun, "you'll walk it someday. It's a good place to shop, actually. I am convinced that Lodonye welcomes all that, uhmm, commercial activity, not out of greed – though, mind you, they do make a pretty penny – but because the priestesses are always scrambling to contain and stem the onslaught they call the Descent of the Pilgrims, and the shops are as good a way as any to accomplish just that. I cannot blame them."
Before Parsion could respond, Durgaun opened her console and projected it on the carrier wall.
"Did you hear about this?"
"Yes, I have. It's fascinating. The first Zeburaja murder of another Zeburaja in two centuries."
"What do you make of it?"
Parsion took a deep breath before responding.
"I suspect a case of unrequited love. Clan Bos assures I.G. the fugitive isn't one of them, and yet virtually every incident since the Broken Battle has occurred within clans. My guess is that.."
"Stop. Tell me first what makes you think the murderer was female. The injuries on the corpse were consistent with black rays. "
"They were, yes. I mean…the fugitive must be the male. The deceased…"
"Was male. Interclan Zeburaja violence is rare, but not unheard of. Intragender Zeburaja love, that would be a first, I think."
"…is usually a female name, but not always. I trust you've heard of Gerron of Milkind, for example."
"I apologize for babbling. I did not read the report closely enough and rushed to stupid assumptions."
Durgaun wondered what the inductee would make of the bit that did not make it into the report: that the corpse's six stomachs were filled with a substance unknown to the empire. His last meal had literally been out of this world.
When they arrived, the archbaroness squeezed her left palm to release a fluid inside her glove. As a Carnatic, her body behaved in the opposite way from a typical Incula's: usually her ears were long and slanted, and only became "normal-sized" when exposed to moisture. The robe covered her distinctively pink skin well enough, but the prominent ears would push against the hood, and she'd rather not draw the pilgrims' attentions at the entrance. The oracle forbid even the tiniest and most temporary transformations, unfortunately. One was to enter as one truly was.
The councilors were quickly ushered inside the gate. Parsion ascended the stalagmite first. Durgaun knew the six priestesses weren't interested in most pilgrims. Old Tirsian was obsessed with sorceries, but Parsion had shown no hint of being a practitioner of those arts. As for the other five priestesses, they mostly took turns sleeping. Durgaun had known them all for a century now. Today, she suspected they would much prefer to banter with the veteran councilor than play their tired tricks on a new one.
The inductee returned four minutes later. She was blushing. Durgaun did not even acknowledge but immediately began to climb herself. She would have flown up there except for the pesky ban. Then again, no magic, no threat of mind-reading, and that was a definite plus.
Eerie reds, oranges and yellows lighted the cavern, the stuff that dazzled children on Empire Day was apparently good enough for pilgrims too. The spectacle was familiar to Durgaun, but she still wondered why Lodonye portrayed Goddess Tarte as a lover of black, uncomfortable outfits: if in society the powerful were privileged to forego such burdens, why would She suffer to bury herself in so much cloth? The paradox was more brazen of late, as the imposing figure looked exactly like a Targan, a member of the very race that had rebelled and cost them so many lives a mere hundred years ago. The Goddess as a goddamned rebel? Nice paradox.
"Greetings, Durgaun Mafa Ransain, what, or who, brings you to Lodonye?"
"Greetings." Durgaun's eyes wandered beyond the figure. "The stars are beautiful today."
"Tarte's hair bells are beautiful because they cling to the order assigned to them. Everyone remembers the word order, but the word they is equally integral to the lesson. Order makes sense where there is a multiplicity. Only She can afford to stand alone. We priestesses are one, the people are one. The Council…"
"…is together as one, and I believe in good order."
"Thanks in good part to you, we trust."
The figure's horns lighted up and the sky was overlaid by a beautiful starmap. At this point pilgrims would fall to the ground and praise, perhaps ask for forgiveness, in truth Durgaun didn't know. Her eyes remained riveted on her reason for coming.
"I am escorting a newcomer to our ranks so she can pay her respects. A promising Salbakionite."
"Would you be blessed?"
Twenty years earlier, a Naxian councilor had crossed House Karhalaun and, seeking insurance, had hired Durgaun to monitor the ducal lands, Lodonye included. The Naxian soon panicked and abandoned the project, but for Durgaun it was riskier to retrieve the surveillance glotomon than to let them be, so she had had a window to that cavern ever since.
"Standing here is blessing enough. The hues, the stars, that…map."
With the mention, Durgaun felt free to survey it with impunity.
Taking the distance of the first planet to the star as the unit, the second is close to two.
Deciphering it had become a hobby. On the surface it looked like constellations linking the holographic stars beneath. But one quickly realized the figures didn't fit any existing or plausible scheme.
"Your eyes are full of stars today."
Third, two and a half. Four for the fourth.
They were mostly spirals and crosses. Archbaroness Durgaun didn't remember which one she had cracked first, but the rest followed easily. These figures did not connect stars to each other; they tied planets to their stars. The starting point of a spiral represented a star. The spiral contained points whose distances from the center were in the same proportion as the average orbital distances of the star's planets. The crosses disclosed the relevant points. One simply drew a line from the spiral's center to the nearest end of the nearest cross. The design was both ingenious and useless for navigation, since the location of each system relative to the others was unmarked. But throughout the years the mapper added new figures to address this issue, starting with curls that expressed whether a given spiral represented a Near, Exotic or Storm System.
"Councilor, a word of warning. Rumors swirl about you. Some say you intend to be a latter-day Benefactress. That you would rule above the others and encourage new wars."
Fifth, thirteen or fourteen. Sixth, twenty-five.
"There is nobody out there left to fight us."
The map suggested a fantastic artist, a competent mathematician with zero access to classified information. There were gaps in this individual's knowledge that any commander or high priestess could have filled, if they understood the mechanism well enough to read the map.
"That is what worries some the most."
Seventh planet, about fifty.
"I would never bend my bow against Incudea."
Three days earlier, while ruminating on the curious murder in Oxytania, Durgaun had noticed that the mapper had placed a new spiral with strange proportions. She had come to see the map in person and confirm there wasn't a glotomon glitch. Now she calculated with her bare eyes that the eighth and last planet was close to eighty times as far from the star as the first, with no curls in sight. The system was new! Either beyond the storms or…
"I will be more mindful from now on. May I ask something?"
"The Goddess grants all boons."
"Who makes your starmaps?"
The oracle went silent. Durgaun fingered the knots on her staff. There wasn't much she could give these ladies in exchange for their cooperation.
"Does she fancy it?"
Durgaun had to repress a smile as soon as she understood. They were referring to Parsion.
"She came down all agog at it. It would make for a nice gift."
"The supreme commander of backstabbers and spies hides flesh beneath the shadows after all."
Why don't you go analyze yourselves, Durgaun thought, behind your lights and holograms.
"This shall not be revealed."
"I thought Tarte granted all boons."
"Lodonye does not cherish the thought of Council halls bedecked with our starry skies. Even less the notion of them adorning a councilor's bedchamber."
She was wrong. There was something she could give them: the exquisite pleasure of denying her what she wanted. She regretted coming.
Durgaun turned around and began walking down the stalagmite. Then she changed her mind.
"Councilor Parsion, come!"
Durgaun unhooded herself, then did the same for Parsion when she arrived. She put both hands to the inductee's temples and kissed her. Hard. The trembling stopped, and when Durgaun noticed Parsion's ears beginning to sprout, she pulled back.
"Go now," she said as she turned to face the oracle.
"What are you trying to do, offering us this show? We would never blackmail you!"
"I know," replied Durgaun. "I just wished to convey to you the depth of my interest."
Again the oracle grew silent. Durgaun imagined the priestesses conferring. In the meantime, she was glad not to hear any thumping down below. It would very embarrassing if Parsion fell and injured herself now.
Finally, the oracle spoke: "You shall have the information."
"But we fear you will be disappointed."
The veteran councilor squeezed her brows and looked intently at the figure.
"Lompren Rolmain has her shop in the Tetrad. She is well known for her timekeepers, and only maps stars in her spare time."
"Alas, Rolmain has just announced she will not make them any longer. Her best friend is ill, and she is in a bad state herself."
"When was this? The Council knows of no new contagion!"
"Only yesterday, as chance would have it, but worry not. It is not a contagion, Mafa Ransain. Her friend is not an Incula, but a Zeburaja! The thought of losing him overwhelms Rolmain. Affection is a powerful feeling even when misplaced, as you probably know."
"Pity." Archbaroness Durgaun puffed her cheeks. "Who knows? Perhaps the Zeburaja was the mapper all along."
"A tetrapod? Your humor is opaque."
Durgaun hooded herself, raised the staff and said: "Oracle, clearly my luck is not what it used to be. I ask for a blessing."
(This is the image that inspired the story, so please visit the artist's page to see "The Summoning" in all its glory here.)
The figure opened its mouth and a plume of white smoke drifted toward the stalagmite. It was a nice trick, mused Durgaun, as a symbol coalesced above her head.
"You will obtain what you seek. Do not be discouraged."
Durgaun bid farewell and walked down the stalagmite. They lied. One bar left of the center curve meant the future, but that symbol had two bars, signifying the past. In other words, she already had what she wanted.
As soon as they cleared the throng of pilgrims, Durgaun cast off her robe and ordered a transport to the Tetrad. Parsion, following closed behind, was startled to see Durgaun turn around quickly and catch her in the act of smiling.
"Two things you need to remember, Councilor. Are you ready?"
Parsion nodded, caught off guard.
"You must learn to forget, and forget well."
"And that's the other one. At the level of words, fine, politeness can be very useful. But keep in mind that you are nobody's lady, and no one here belongs to you, not now, not ever. That lesson's best not forgotten."