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The Burning Land
Victoria Strauss
excerpt courtesy of HarperCollins Eos
The Burning Land
Victoria Strauss
Victoria Strauss was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. Throughout her life, she has traveled extensively, living in several U.S. states, as well as Ireland, England and Germany. She graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Comparative Religion. Her novels include The Lady of Rhuddesmere, Worldstone, Guardian of the Hills, The Arm of the Stone and its sequel, The Garden of the Stone. The Burning Land is the first half of a duology. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband Rob.

Victoria Strauss Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Garden of the Stone
SF Site Review: The Arm of the Stone

Chapter 1

    The rush of water caught Gyalo full in the chest. It felt completely real; he gasped and leaped aside before he could stop himself, brushing at his face and clothes. Even as he did, he understood the trick, and straightened up again, angry at himself for being taken in.
    He thought he could see the one who had done it: a skinny postulant with the yellow headband of a trainee Shaper, leaning over the back of a passing parade cart and grinning in Gyalo's direction. Packed in around him, other trainees tossed blessings to the crowd: a shower of spangles, streamers of transparent gauze, a burst of rainbow brilliance. These were not true shapings, which changed and shifted matter and properly could be performed only in the context of Âratist ceremony, but illusions, substanceless manipulations of light and air: a symbolic reminder of the sacred power bestowed by the god on humankind before time began. They vanished even as the spectators laughed and snatched at them.
    The water had not been entirely illusory, though. Gyalo could feel dampness on his cheeks, and the fine golden silk of his Shaper stole was spotted with wet. Under other circumstances he might have seen the humor in it--the people nearby clearly did, though in deference to his Shaperhood they hid their smiles behind their hands--but he had spent time and care dressing himself, and so he was not amused.
    "Here, Brother." One of the bystanders, a young Arsacian woman, offered him her stole. "For your face."
    She spoke shyly, but laughter twitched the corners of her mouth. Well, Gyalo thought, it was funny. Ruefully, he smiled at her and took the stole.
    "Thanks for your charity, lady," he said, giving it back to her. "Hopefully I can manage to keep dry the rest of the way."
    She giggled. "Great is Ârata," she said, making the god's sign. "Great is his Way."
    "Go in light."
    Gyalo moved on. To his left the spectators were a mass of packed bodies and laughing faces; to his right the procession trundled along, an exuberant juggernaut of color, noise, and smell: ox-drawn parade carts festooned with ribbons dyed in the god's colors; groups of Forceless monks on foot, beating drums and blowing kanshas, great trumpets that curved over the shoulder and made a sound like a mythic beast dying in agony; drays bearing huge wood-and-gilt statues of Ârata in his four guises of World-Creator, Primal Warrior, Eon-Sleeper, and Risen Judge; litters with smaller images of some of Ârata's more powerful Aspects--Dâdarshi, Patron of luck, Skambys, Patron of war and weather, Hatâspa, Patron of fire and weaponry, Tane, Patron of crops and the moon--carried by hymn-singing devotee-priests. Between these groups walked postulants with rods of burning incense, and more monks shouting out rhythmically: "Wake, O Ârata, wake. Wake and deliver your children from exile."
    Like the blessings, the cacophony was symbolic: no one imagined that all this noise could actually rouse the god. It was meant for the human spectators, to remind them of the waiting that was their lot, that had been the lot of every living creature since Ârata first lay down to sleep. It echoed deafeningly back from the high blood granite walls that enclosed the avenue; Gyalo's ears rang from it, and his eyes burned from incense smoke. Another day he might have ducked through one of the archways that gave access to the tangled side streets, in search of a less crowded way to go. But though he had long known Baushpar's plan by heart, he had never actually set foot in the holy city until six months earlier, and the map in his head did not always guide him properly. He could not risk, today of all days, getting lost.
    Which reminded him, with unwelcome sharpness, that he was nervous.
    The avenue terminated upon a vast walled square paved in russet ironstone, at whose center rose the monumental bulk of the First Temple of Ârata. The Temple's original core had been erected more than eleven centuries before, but it had been expanded many times since then, in a score or more of different styles and motifs lent harmony by the yellow honey granite of which the whole was made. Images and carvings covered every inch of the huge façade, worn to varying degrees of featurelessness by time and weather, but here and there, where the construction was newer or there was protection from the elements, showing sharper and more perfect. Above it all a dozen domes reached toward the sky, like fat lotus buds about to open. Recently re-gilded, they reflected light even on this overcast day; when the sun shone, they were blinding.
    Gyalo had been raised on tales of the First Temple's magnificence, and it justified the stories in every respect, even marred by decades of neglect and the more substantial depredations of the Caryaxists, who had helped themselves to floor tiles and wall inlays and anything made of metal, and scraped all the gold leaf off the image of Ârata Eon-Sleeper that reclined at the Temple's circular core. Still, the Temple was too huge, and--even for the Caryaxists--too sacred to be razed or ruined, as other temples and shrines and monasteries all over Arsace had been. It rested on the ironstone paving, a golden island atop a russet sea, as colossal and serene as the dreaming god himself.
    Gyalo and the procession parted company--the procession moving left, preparing to round the Temple, Gyalo turning right, toward the square's western side. The spectators made way for him, dipping their heads respectfully and making the sign of Ârata as he passed. Elsewhere the square was thickly populated by food vendors and offerings-sellers, but there were none here. The western wall marked the boundary of the Evening City, a labyrinth of courts and offices and suites that, from the first days of the church, had been the seat of the Âratist leadership. For the past eighty years it had stood empty, for the Caryaxist rebellion had sent the Brethren into exile. But the Caryaxists were gone now, and the Sons and Daughters had taken back their home.
    The red gate at the wall's midpoint was unlocked--meant not to bar entry but to remind those who passed through it of the separateness of the men and women who lived on its other side. It gave onto a long courtyard paved in the same ironstone as the square. At the court's far end, a pavilion with a yellow-tiled roof marked the entrance to the Evening City.
    Four guards stood duty inside, clad in the white stoles of the Forceless and displaying on their arms and cheeks the sinuous tattoos of ordinates from the kingdom of Kanu-Tapa, where Skambys, Patron of war, was the most important of the Aspects, and martial arts were part of Âratist training. Behind them rose two great sets of vermilion-painted doors. Those on the left, which gave access to the offices where administrative work was done, were open. Those on the right were closed. Beyond them lay the living quarters of the Brethren, where no one went without permission.
    Gyalo approached the guards' leader. He came here daily, in his capacity as aide to the Son Utamnos; the guards all knew him, a fact they acknowledged now by ignoring him completely. This time, though, his purpose was different.
    "I have a summons." By custom, he spoke Arsacian, the common language of the church. "From the Bearer."
    The leader's bored, superior expression did not change. He took the message cylinder Gyalo offered and scanned the paper inside. Turning, he nodded to one of his subordinates, who disappeared through the right-hand doors. The leader handed the summons back to Gyalo and withdrew his attention again, as thoroughly as if Gyalo had ceased to exist.
    Under other circumstances Gyalo might have been annoyed at this display of Tapati arrogance, but today he was too distracted. His apprehension flowed through him like water. It was unexpected, this anxiety--not the feeling itself, for given the identity of his summoner some degree of nervousness was to be expected, but its acuteness. Had not Utamnos, warning him to expect the summons, told him that its purpose would honor him? Yet Utamnos either could not or would not reveal what the purpose was, giving him instead a list of documents to read in preparation: accounts of the Caryaxist occupation, descriptions of Thuxra City, the small body of writings on the Burning Land. Over the past four days the mystery had become more and more oppressive. Now, waiting in the pavilion with only the disdainful guards for company, Gyalo felt nearly ill with accumulated stress.
    The guard returned, another Forceless monk behind him. The monk scrutinized Gyalo's summons and tucked it into a pocket of his gown.
    "Come," he said.
    He led the way through the doors on the right, into rooms and corridors familiar to Gyalo from his visits to Utamnos's private suite, and then into regions Gyalo did not know. Everywhere was magnificence, both intact--astonishing floor-mosaics, intricately carved columns and door-frames, gorgeously stenciled ceilings, majestic galleries flanked by graveled courts--and marred--defaced murals, derelict gardens, ruined atriums, shattered carvings. The Caryaxists had been great graffitists, and the returning Âratist leadership had found much of the Evening City decorated with revolutionary slogans and lewd cartoons. Despite the priority given to the removal of these, a few still remained, ugly scrawlings in red paint like blood, yellow paint like bile: Ârata's colors, used to mock him.
    Gyalo's guide delivered him at last into a large chamber with a coffered ceiling and a floor of red tile. "Wait here," he directed, and departed.
    Gyalo paced the length of the room, halting before the windows. They faced onto a small garden--not overgrown, like many of those he had just passed, but exquisitely restored, with clipped shrubs and carefully raked gravel paths. The warm air smelled of roses. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, seeking calm. He was aware of the beating of his heart, the ebb and flow of his apprehension.
    There were footsteps behind him. He turned. A man in white and crimson clothes was passing through the doorway, followed by two Tapati guards and a teenage boy. The man towered above all three of his companions; he moved with the swift forceful stride of someone who assumed without considering it that he would be made way for. Gyalo had seen this man many times--had heard him speak many times, too, in rich tones that made all words beautiful--but always from a distance, always surrounded by scores, even hundreds, of others. He had never, at this point in his career, thought to stand solitary before the Blood Bearer, incarnate Son of Ârata's First Messenger and elected leader of the Âratist church.
    He came forward and sank to his knees on the cool tiles. He bowed his head, crossing his hands before his face, and said, in a voice that shook only a little:
    "Great is Ârata. Great is his Way."
    "Go in light," the Bearer replied. "Get up."
    Gyalo obeyed. The Bearer was about forty years of age, with broad handsome features and heavy-lidded eyes. An intricate image of the sun, Ârata's symbol, was tattooed in red upon his forehead. He had the tawny skin and heavy bone structure common in the kingdom of Haruko, where he had been born in this incarnation; the great weight of muscle he carried was apparent in his corded neck and wide shoulders and the round hard sinews of his right arm, left bare by the traditional draping of his white stole. Like all vowed Âratists he kept his chin and skull clean-shaven, and wore the monk's uniform of loose trousers and knee-length sleeveless gown--though his were made of lustrous red silk, rather than Gyalo's plain linen or the coarse cotton worn by the Forceless.
    On the Bearer's chest rested the badge of his office, a thick gold chain with a pendant cage of gold wire, inside which gleamed a honey-colored jewel as large as a man's clenched fist: the Blood of Ârata. The Blood was round in shape and naturally faceted; a core of living flame seemed to dance at its heart. All vowed Âratists wore a smaller simulacrum of this necklace, hidden beneath their clothing, but the most cleverly crafted of these could only suggest the splendor of the original. If Gyalo had not known what the jewel was, he would still have sensed its sacredness, in that shuddering brilliance that was unlike anything else in the world--so much more beautiful, and so much stranger, than was apparent from a distance.
    "Your master told you to expect this summons, yes?"
    With difficulty, Gyalo wrenched his attention away from the jewel. "Yes, Old One."
    "Your master holds you in high esteem." The Bearer's eyes moved across Gyalo's face, as if measuring him against that assessment. "He tells me that he relies on you beyond any of his other aides."
    Gyalo bowed his head. "His confidence honors me, Old One."
    "Come." The Bearer turned and strode toward the chair his guards had brought forward and placed at the center of the room. Gyalo followed, halting a little distance away and arranging himself in a posture of respect, his eyes cast down and his hands clasped before him. He was conscious of the guards at the Bearer's back, and of the boy, kneeling quietly on the floor at the Bearer's feet. The boy was also Haruko-born, paler of skin than the Bearer, but with the same strong bones and heavy-lidded almond eyes. His black hair hung loose, and he wore the plain white tunic and trousers of a postulant. But the sun tattoo on his forehead, and of course his presence, marked him for what he truly was: another incarnate Son, too young yet to take up the burdens of leadership, but old enough to observe his elders in the performance of their duties. Infant Sons and Daughters were given to the adult Brethren to raise as their own: this boy, Vimata, was both the Bearer's spirit-brother and his foster child.
    "Tell me about yourself," the Bearer said. "Where were you born?"
    "In Rimpang, Old One." Rimpang, capital of the kingdom of Chonggye, was home to the largest Âratist center in Galea after Baushpar; the Brethren had taken refuge there upon their flight from the Caryaxist rebellion. "My mother was a cook in one of the convents. She died when I was seven. The nuns gave me to the monks to raise."
    "Had you no other family?"
    "My father. But he was a soldier, and stationed elsewhere. There were only the monks to take me in."
    The Bearer shifted in his chair, crossing one leg over the other. His broad face was attentive, as if he were hearing these things for the first time. Gyalo had no doubt, however, that the Bearer already knew everything that was to be known about him. This recital was, in some way, a test.
    "Did your father ever return?"
    "Yes, Old One, about a year after my mother died. He wanted me to have a military career, not a religious one. He demanded that I be taken from the monastery and given to him. The monks told me I could choose, and that if I wanted to stay they would honor my wishes. I decided to stay. My father was angry--he tried to get the courts to intervene, he even petitioned the overlord of Rimpang province. But then he was called away. He never came back. I heard later that he died in the Jingya epidemics."
    "Why did you decide to stay? You didn't yet know you were a Shaper. And you were very young--too young, surely, to know what you desired for the rest of your life."
    "From the time I can remember, Old One, Ârata has called me. One of the earliest memories I have is of the Rimpang temple core--the image of Ârata Creator, the incense and the candles, the offerings and the silence. I loved the silence--I thought I could feel the god within it. I think I always wanted to vow the Way, though I never truly understood that until my father tried to make me a soldier."
    "You would have come to the Way in any case, being what you are."
    "Yes, Old One. But most Shapers never choose their service--they are chosen, by their ability. But I did choose, before ever I knew what I was. I feel blessed to have been granted that chance."
    The Bearer studied Gyalo; at his feet, Vimata gravely echoed his spirit-brother's attention. The Bearer's heavy-lidded gaze was extraordinarily direct, and also extraordinarily opaque. Gyalo could feel the force of the powerful personality behind it; he could see the ancient intelligence that lived in those eyes. But he could not begin to guess what the Bearer might be thinking.
    "Go on," the Bearer said. "You became a postulant, then."
    "Yes, Old One. I completed my training, and swore the Sixfold Vow. I was assigned to work in Rimpang library while I studied for my Shaper ordination. After I was ordained, I took the administrative examinations. The Son Utamnos selected me from the position lists. I served him for five years in Rimpang, and for the past six months here in Baushpar."
    "You give a very brief account of yourself. I understand your exam scores were extraordinary."
    "I was told so, Old One."
    "Come now, no false modesty." The Bearer smiled a little. "My Brother Utamnos informs me that you have an acute grasp of your own abilities."
    Gyalo felt himself flush. "I do know my strengths, Old One. I try to know my weaknesses also."
    "Ah." The Bearer picked up the jewel on his chest, his blunt fingers caressing the wire of its cage in an absent, habitual gesture. "It is quite a skill, to understand one's weaknesses. Most people have some notion of their talents, but few know their failings half so well. And often it is an ignorance deliberately cultivated."
    Gyalo could not take his eyes off the Bearer's fingers, probing gently at the golden lattice. What was it like to touch the Blood of Ârata? Did it radiate warmth like the blood it had been, or chill like the crystal it had become? Did the god's divinity resonate in it, as his immanence did in the silence of his temples? Or had its nearness grown so familiar that the Bearer no longer noticed such things? There was an offhand quality to his gesture that suggested this.
    The Bearer's brows were raised again. Gyalo struggled to rein in his thoughts.
    "I agree, Old One," he said. "I strive to avoid self-deception."
    "According to Utamnos, you are unusually diligent in that regard. He says you turn toward the truth even when it is painful for you to do so." The Bearer paused. "He also tells me that your manita dose is unusually high."
    This time Gyalo felt his face go scarlet. "Then he must have told you, Old One," he said carefully, "that my dose is stable, and has been for some time now."
    "Indeed. And that, prior to its stabilization, you never attempted to abuse your shaping, unlike some who require frequent dosage adjustment. That you yourself approached him, in fact, when you sensed your tether had become inadequate."
    "Yes, Old One. As any Shaper should."
    "And yet other Shapers have fallen into apostasy that way. Those with naturally strong abilities especially find it difficult to accept the limitation of the drug. Haven't you been tempted?"
    The room seemed to have grown very still. The Bearer's eyes gleamed, unblinking as a hawk's; the jewel, with which he no longer toyed, shone on his broad chest like a tiny sun. Beside him, his spirit-brother was an attentive shadow. Gyalo understood, with sure instinct, that this was not just another question; a turning point of some sort had been reached.
    "When I started my Shaper training, Old One," he began, carefully, "I did resent manita's grip upon my shaping. Because of that, and also out of curiosity, I did things I shouldn't have done, experimented with my ability in ways I knew were forbidden. I won't excuse myself by saying I was only a boy, or that I hadn't yet taken the Shaper vow, or that most trainee Shapers do the same. I knew the Doctrine of Baushpar, I knew the words of my teachers, and so I knew it was wrong. That should have been enough."
    He drew a breath. Images of that time stirred uncomfortably in memory. If he tried, he could still recapture the ghost of the desire that had driven him, the breathless mix of shame and guilt and excitement his secret explorations had produced. It was not easy to talk of this. His preceptor in Rimpang had known, and he had confessed to Utamnos early in their association. But to no one else.
    "As I grew older, and my understanding of the Way of Ârata deepened, it did become enough. But I cannot lie--I was still curious, and it wasn't always faith that kept me pure, but only will. Then I was put to work in Rimpang library. I have an interest in the past, in the history of the church. I came upon the first-hand accounts of the Shaper War. I'd never seen such documents--all I knew of the War was the texts that are given in the postulant classes. I read them all, every account I could find. And I came to understand--not just to accept through my training or to hold through my vows, but to truly understand--the need for limitation. Shaping freed to human will, to human desire, is a terrible anarchy. Those who follow it in that way don't care for what it is, but only for what it can do. They may begin by acknowledging its sacredness, but always they grow corrupt, and end by pursuing greed and gain. And down that road lies catastrophe.
    "So my answer to your question, Old One, is this: the cure for desire is knowledge. I see that road too clearly now ever to set my feet upon it. Since that time, I have not been tempted."
    The Bearer's eyes held his. For a moment there was silence. Then the Bearer smiled--fully this time, though his eyes remained hooded. Beside him Vimata smiled also, a graceful mirror.
    "Your master promised you would impress me," he said. "He was correct."
    Gyalo bowed his head. He felt as if he had stood in the path of a whirlwind, and been passed over.

Copyright © 2004 by Victoria Strauss

All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. This excerpt has been provided by HarperCollins Eos and posted with their permission.

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