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Authors: Dave Duncan

Irona 700

BOOK: Irona 700





Irona 700
Dave Duncan

The Year 700

'm not going,” she said. “It's a waste of time.”

Crammed in, shoulder to shoulder around the tiny table, her brothers fed like starving sharks and did not meet her eye. Her father continued to chew, staring at the gap in the wall above her where a rotten plank had fallen out. He kept promising to mend it.

“We'd just walk until our feet hurt and then have to walk all the way back again!” This time Irona glanced over to the bed, where her mother sat, nursing the latest baby and surrounded by Irona's sisters, all waiting their turn at the food. Her mother was glaring warnings at her, and the three girls old enough to understand defiance looked terrified. Her father took another crunchy bite out of the onion he was holding.

He hadn't exploded yet. He never normally tolerated back talk, and she was only risking it now because tomorrow mattered to her and she thought he was sober for once. If he knew he didn't have to get up early tomorrow to take her into Benign, he would be free to get drunk as usual. It was worth a try. Almost worth a backhander or two. And he wouldn't want the goddess to see his daughter with two black eyes.

Irona tried again. “Sklom says Caprice almost never chooses a woman and certainly never anyone from Brackish. Only rich boys or priests' sons.” Still no answer. “Besides, who would want to be Chosen anyway? The Seventy are a gang of thieves and tyrants. Making honest working people pay taxes so that they can own slaves and live in great palaces.” Everyone in Brackish knew that.

The Matrinko home was certainly no great palace, just one room and a small loft. The girls slept in the loft and the boys on the floor. Not that Akanagure Matrinko was a pauper; he was a respected sea hunter, master and part owner of
South Wind
. The flesh, hides, and tusks he brought back fetched good money in the markets of Benign, but he had to pay a crew of twenty and his share of the profits was one-fifteenth and a twelfth, a lean catch to feed a two-digit family.

Still he did not heed what Irona was saying.

“Sklom's going to take me to watch the regatta.” She had promised him he could kiss her after. She was looking forward to that even more.

At last her father turned to her. He was a huge man with an ugly, scarred face and broken teeth. “Stupid!” he roared. “You want to see your mother and me stripped naked and flogged at the whipping post in the market? You're stupid.”

Irona recoiled. Her brothers smirked. One of the toddlers on the bed began to cry.

“How would they ever know?” Irona protested. “There are hundreds of people my age in the city, thousands! How can even the Seventy keep count of them all?”

He leaned closer, breathing onion. His voice was slurred by the gaps in his teeth. “They don't, Stupid. Their spies do. Women like … Won't name names. Know a dozen snitches right here in Brackish, and wouldn't they just love to tattle that Irona Matrinko didn't go to the choosing? Now shut up or I'll take a switch to your backside. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid!”

Irona subsided into silence, and the regatta floated away on a tide of might-have-been.

Tomorrow would be Midsummer Day, the first full moon after the solstice. This would mark the festival of the blind goddess, the start of the year 700, and everybody's birthday. That day all children born in 684 were deemed to turn sixteen. They must go on pilgrimage to Caprice's temple, where they would swear to obey the laws and thus become citizens. Then they could marry, and the men might be called upon to fight for the Empire. That day, too, the goddess would choose one of them to serve her as a civic magistrate. But only rarely did she choose a woman, and never from an obscure hardscrabble outport like Brackish.

The day dawned clear and hot. From all around the city, crowds streamed inward to the center. None had farther to come than Akanagure Matrinko and his eldest, for Brackish lay far to the east, at the mouth of the bay. Although he expected to return almost every year for the next sixteen or more, this would be the first choosing Akanagure had ever attended. Back when he was a fingerling himself, Brackish had been just a fishing port. Since then, the city of Benign, bloated by the wealth of its empire, had grown and grown, spreading over much of the island of Benign, and a few years ago, the Seventy had recognized Brackish as part of the city. Taxes had gone up and thenceforth its children had been required to attend the choosing.

Before dawn, the candidates set out, girls mostly in groups with mothers, nervous, excited, whispering of possible betrothals. Irona's mother was still nursing a baby, and Akanagure wouldn't have trusted her to find the temple anyway. Boys fared mainly in gangs, loud, laughing, bragging what they would do tonight when they were men. The human tide surged and flowed, whispering and clattering like waves in shingle.

Regrettably, Akanagure had listened to Sklom Uroveg, his chief harpooner, who had advised him not to go by boat because the fares would be extortionate that day. Even if he got some of the lads to row him over in
South Wind
's dory, they would have to pay in blood for a berth. Also, Sklom had said not to start too early. Things dragged until the choosing. The goddess always made her choice by midmorning, and after that the current would run much faster, so they could save themselves a lot of standing around by delaying an hour or two. It did not take Akanagure long to realize that the young fool had been spouting like a whale, all froth and no sense.

Sklom had Irona following him around like a duckling, but Akanagure was of two minds about him as a son-in-law. Irona was tall and strong, already quite a beauty, likely to bear well and often. Akanagure could probably find a better match for her in Brackish—a deputy customs officer had a likely son needing a wife. There were also matchmakers in Benign who might do very much better, for a fee. On the other hand, no man on the island cast a harpoon harder or truer than young Sklom, and other sea-hunter captains were making him offers. Seals, whales, dolphins, dugongs, sea lions, otters, or walruses—Sklom was equally good with all of them. Marriage to Irona would tie him to the family.

Excited, frazzled, and dazzled, Irona had never been so far from home on land, although she had twice sailed on
South Wind
to help with the skinning. All her life the city had been the distant smear on the Mountain across the great circular harbor. As she and her father progressed around the shore, passing quays, jetties, beaches, and shipyards on their right, the buildings to their left grew steadily larger and grander. The smells of fish and weed waxed stronger, gulls grew noisier, and the wind died in the lee of the Mountain. But the buildings! The one with the gold dome was the Source of Chiala, Sklom had said, and the one with the white spires was the Source of Koupind. Dome, yes, but Irona couldn't see white spires anywhere.

She could see the temple, though, on the shore at the base of the Mountain. The temple was visible even from Brackish. There were many gods and goddesses, but only one temple. Caprice was patron of the city, goddess of the sea, of chance, and the only divinity ever shown in human form. Caprice was worshipped. Most of the others were feared: Maleficence, god of evil; Craver, god of lust, greed, and desire, who drove people mad; and Bane, the dreaded spirit of the death curse.

The day grew hotter. Irona's feet hurt already.

A wave sweeping in on the outside coast near Brackish would build higher and higher until it toppled down in mighty foam, but this human tide just filled the streets from wall to wall and then stopped. Her father began pushing his way through, dragging her by the wrist.

Standard dress in Benign was a smock. For the poor it was basically a sack with three holes cut in it, and Irona's was not much more than that. On the rich it morphed into a shapely, pleated tunic in bright colors and soft material. For the elderly and the priesthood it dropped its hem to the ground to become a robe. Hats were straw or cloth, brimmed or turbans or anything else; feet went bare or in sandals. One thing that never changed was that the Benesh left their arms uncovered. Possibly some ancient law had made sleeves illegal because felons were branded on their shoulders. Arms were admired or mocked. Poets rhapsodized about beautiful arms, male or female, hard or soft.

Sklom's harpooner arms were mythical, amazing. The way the muscle swelled when he lifted anything made Irona melt. He knew it too. He would bulge those muscles and watch her under those long eyelashes of his, devil that he was. Yes, marriage! Soon!

Being twenty, Sklom had attended the choosing four years ago and knew all about it. He had assured Irona that she had absolutely nothing to worry about. The goddess would take some rich trader's son from the Mountain; that was certain. And Sklom Uroveg would take her. Soon. Married or not. She had tried to slap him then and very nearly been kissed in the scuffle.

There were noises ahead, now, audible over the surflike rumbling of the crowd. Trumpets, drums. Ten at a time, Sklom had said. The new citizens were presented to the goddess ten at a time, and the bugle blew for each ten; the drum was for every ten tens. How many hundreds, Irona had asked, and he had laughed. At least two thousand, maybe twice that. If the blind goddess waited and took the last one, it would take all day, wouldn't it? This was the seven-hundredth choosing, and even in Brackish, people were excited about that, with much talk of great Chosen of the past whose numbers had been even hundreds, men like Eboga 500 and Eldborg 300, heroes who had helped build the Empire.

People, solid people, a chowder of angry fathers, frightened mothers, and the kids themselves, who—despite their common age—varied from bony girls and puny boys to bosomy young women and fuzzy faced young men, respectively. People grumbling, jostling, sweating, swatting at flies, complaining, scratching, pushing, swearing, sweating, spitting, shoving, muttering, breaking wind, sweating, scratching; all elbows and feet.

Irona was terrified she would lose a sandal and have to limp home in one. Her water bag was empty. Why hadn't they brought more water? Once in a while someone would faint and there would be cries to make room.

Then, at last,
at last
, there was an arch, a gate, and surely this was the entrance to Caprice's temple. Three streets converged there, and the crowd had set like cement, easing forward an eyelash at a time.

For another hour she watched that gate approach, while the bugles blew and the drums rumbled. Most of that time she was staring at the back of the same young man, watching his sweat-drenched blue-and-white tunic dry out because the sun was merciless and he was too parched to sweat any more. So was she. Her father was somewhere ahead of the man, still attached to her wrist, but they were too far apart to speak to each other.

Nothing lasts forever; one day the world itself would ebb. Noon came and went. As the shadows began to lengthen—but not lengthen enough to give her any shade—Irona reached the gate and found it constricted by bronze barricades to prevent people entering more than two at a time: adults on one side, adults-to-be on the other. Priests in dusty gray robes directed traffic. Their heads and faces were all shaven and sunburned; they looked weary and testy.

“Hat!” one of them shouted at her. “Take it off!”

Sklom had not warned her that heads must be uncovered in the holy place. Other candidates were passing their hats to their escorts, so Irona snatched off her turban, letting her hair fall loose over her shoulders. Her father took the turban, but let go of her wrist, and in the press they were pushed apart. And separated. Panic! They had not planned on that, had not agreed where they would meet later, and she had no idea how to make her own way back to Brackish. A storm surge of adolescents swept her forward into the temple and Father was gone.

Oh, Goddess, preserve me!

At least, for a moment, she was in blessed shade, a very narrow, high tunnel: dark, cool, and smelly. And then out into sunlight again. But now the pilgrims were walking in single file up a long, shallow ramp. On her right a sheer wall of white marble, scorching hot from the sun, on her left an open courtyard packed with people. Already she was looking down on them, frantically searching for her father.

Then, hearing exclamations behind her, she looked ahead and saw Caprice, sitting in a sort of alcove or niche. Naked and many times larger than man-size, the blind goddess was carved from white marble and wore nothing except a jade bandage over her eyes. She was very beautiful, very imposing. On her lap she held a shallow jade bowl, tipped forward, so that a frozen golden cataract spilled out between her knees to symbolize the wealth she poured into her city.

Platforms on either side of her, like the arms of a giant chair, were the flat roofs of other parts of the temple complex, and it was on one of those that the pilgrims were lined up in their sets of ten by supervising priests. But the way there was still long. The line stretched the full length of the courtyard, steadily rising. Then it doubled back. And reversed again, higher yet, so Irona still had to walk the length of the courtyard three times before she would reach the platform. But at least she now could watch the ceremony. A spindly bridge, probably temporary, connected the two sides. One by one, the pilgrims had to cross in front of the goddess, pausing halfway to bow to her. On reaching the far side they were adult citizens and free to go. Relieved that the long ordeal was over at last, they dropped any pretense of dignity, running to a stairway on the far side, then down into the crowd of waiting, waving, shouting parents. There was a scrimmage as families matched up, but eventually they would leave in pairs or threes by another gate.

So that was all right. That was where Irona would meet Father.

She could not possibly recognize him down there in that mob, but he must have picked her out by now and could follow her progress in the line. He might mark her by the boy in front of her, who was very tall and wore a stunning calf-length tunic of red and gold. He had two water bottles slung on his shoulder. Irona watched greedily as he drained another. She wondered if she might dare beg for a sip, just one. She had been brought up to despise beggars. But …

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