M. A. R. Barker

The Man of Gold

Chapter One

For upwards of half an hour now they had watched the runner on the road below the single watchtower of the monastery. Nothing at first but a tiny fleck of azure on the heat-shimmering horizon, he became a species of insect, all coppery brown legs beneath a carapace of brilliant blue, then a tiny mannikin moving with jerky puppet strides along the dusty, empty roadway. The younger of the two watchers on the parapet made the Pe Choi gesture-language symbol for “half” to his comrade.

The other man shook his shaven head and applied a box-like device to his eye. “Not so, Harsan, not this time. I make no more wagers. I still think he will take another Kiren to reach our gates, but I’ll not bet upon it. You have impoverished me already.”

The younger man hitched up his grey priestly kilt and carefully clambered back down from the dizzy height of the embrasured wall. “Let me look again through your invention, Zaren. I cannot imagine what an Imperial messenger desires here.”

The older priest handed over his device, a square box in which several small mirrors and lenses had been inserted and held in place with bits of wax, wood, and fibre. Harsan held it to his eye, squinted, and fiddled with the adjustment.

“By our Lord Thumis, Patron of Savants, this fellow springs up at me like a beast from its lair! Without your box all I can see is a pen-flick of blue and a splotch of skin. With it, I can even make out the golden cord that binds his headdress! You must submit this to the Adepts as one of your Labours of Reverence, Zaren. Surely you will make Fifth Circle-or even Sixth.”

Zaren smiled lopsidedly. “Not so. The principles underlying my box are all laid down in the ‘Book of the Visitations of Glory,’ written some four thousand years ago. All I did was to take them, cook them together, and putter until I got to a logical result. I am nothing but a tinkerer, Harsan. My skull is a pot in which other men’s ideas may be boiled. Our Lord Prior will pat me on the head, but that will be all.”

The younger priest pushed wavy shoulder-length black hair away from his face and raised the instrument to focus upon the horizon. Behind the toiling messenger the stone causeway wound down across sere, dusty fields, a brown-grey rivulet, to join with its parent, the Sakbe road on the eastern horizon. This mighty highway marked the visible presence of the Imperium of Tsolyanu; its three levels of roadway, crenellated and parapeted like some citadel wall, marched away south to the little city of Paya Gupa, and thence on to Tumissa and the southern provinces of the Empire.

Turning to the north, Harsan inspected the chalky peaks of the Chaka Range, upon the easternmost spur of which the Monastery of the Sapient Eye of Thumis stood. Eleven hundred Tsan to the north these fastnesses would descend through crumpled foothills and valleys into the alluvial plains bordering the northern sea, the lands of the hostile lords of Pijena and Yan Kor. To the south, beyond Paya Gupa, the green coverlet of jungle ran another thirteen hundred Tsan to the southern ocean, of which most of the priests of the monastery had heard no more than travellers’ tales.

Yet it was not there that the young priest’s eyes lingered but on the hazy blue-green ranges behind the monastery to the west where slender ropes of smoke upon the sky marked the places of villages beneath the jungle roof.

Zaren followed his gaze. “Not even my invention can pierce the forest, Harsan. The Pe Choi villages lie beyond its reach. Leave off looking, my friend. Why do you always turn to thinking of your Pe Choi foster parents- great insects and no kin of ours-when you are now amongst your own kind?”

The younger man did not turn. “It was they who found and raised me, Zaren. My heart wishes me once more amongst them, though they have six limbs to our four.”

Zaren would have said something, but Harsan went on. “Had it not been for those ‘insects,’ my life were ended before it had begun. How shall I think of the Pe Choi? My own human parents, my clan, my origins-I know none of them. Nor do I love those who left me there to die in the forest. La, man, shall I not yearn for T’kek who raised me, and for Ch’be who taught me, and for Lket who hunted with me? In my dreams shall I not return to Htiq-kku, the only clan-village I knew until T’kek brought me to this monastery when I was thirteen? I was used better by those ‘insects’ than by my own kind.” He lapsed into moody silence, stroking his lower lip with a gesture that struck Zaren as more characteristic of a Pe Choi than of one of humankind.

Zaren sighed and shuffled his plump bulk around to the narrow stair leading down from the eyrie. “Come, we have been over these matters as often as a peasant ploughs his field. -An accident, a babe lost from a merchant’s caravan, an unwed maid fleeing the vengeance of her clan-Thumis knows what brought you to the Pe Choi, and He alone may reveal it to you if it is so written in your Skein of Destiny. In the meantime you had best dash down and inform Prior Haringgashte of the arrival of our guest. Go now, speed! Otherwise our noble Prior will count his rosaries upon your backside with his knotted thong.”

Harsan pulled himself up for one last look over the parapet. The runner was now almost directly below, long legs pumping rhythmically, arms outflung, flanks gleaming with perspiration, blue cloth headdress bobbing with the final effort of the steep incline just below the monastery gates. In his right hand, clearly visible, was the tassled blue and white baton of an Imperii courier. This was indeed a visitor of significance.

The narrow stair circled down within the monastery’s prowlike eastern wall and emerged in the Hall of Instruction. Here, high up under the roof, lighted by tall recessed windows glazed with cloudy-grey glass, several dozen aspiring priests, a scattering of female acolytes, and a few scions of the local Chakan nobility sat struggling with the intricacies of Tsolyani calligraphy. Harsan’s old preceptor Chareshmu sat upon the dais, meticulously dissecting one of the Seventy-Seven Specimens of Dirresa the Copyist, traditional in priestly schools for the past thousand years. Harsan grinned. Chareshmu had all of the enthusiasm for his art of an addict for his drug, yet all of the lecturing talent of a stone idol. Heads lifted at the intrusion; pens stopped in mid squiggle. Harsan bowed perfunctorily in the old teacher’s direction, sketched the symbol of Thumis in the air, and ducked out, feeling Chareshmu’s baneful glare all the way across the room like a fire upon his back. Someone would suffer now- probably poor Kru’om, whose earnest pothooks resembled tangled tree branches more than they did the graceful Tsolyani script.

Harsan entered a pillared arcade, thence down a staircase painted with murals of Thumis bestowing the Orb of Eternal Light upon Hrugga, the hero of the Epics. Here the deity held out many-rayed hands towards the kneeling warrior king; there Thumis in his Aspect of the Jewelled Serpent strode at Hrugga’s back, protecting him from the Demon Qu’u. Farther on, the god’s many-faced, many-armed figure overspread marching columns of Classical Tsolyani script which related Hrugga’s victory over Missum, Lord of the Dead, on Dormoron Plain. Harsan gave these patched and peeling paintings only a bare glance. He had spent many hours here as a boy, copying each glyph under the shadow of Chareshmu’s quizzical eye and all too active rod.

The staircase debouched into the colonnade surrounding the outer precincts of the Hall of Divine Supplication. Here scribes swarmed, drawing up documents, copying devotional texts for sale to the pious, and tending to the myriad tasks of temple administration.

The monastery was charged with more than just religious obligations, of course: the district capital, Paya Gupa, lay some two hundred Tsan to the south. This place thus served as both shrine and local administrative centre. The Prior and his officers were empowered to settle land disputes, register claims, maintain records, license merchants, regulate trade, and even deal with criminal cases of a minor sort.

Harsan picked his way between low tables piled with scrolls, inkpots, and pencases, dodged perspiring copyists squatting crosslegged over their dry grass-smelling sheets of fibrous paper, and narrowly avoided collisions with young acolytes buried beneath armloads of record scrolls: The great bronze gates of the Hall of Divine Supplication stood ajar, and Harsan slipped into its shadowy gloom, fragrant with incense but deserted until the ceremony of Purifying the Lips of Thumis at sunset. From this chamber a half-hidden door of worn, black Tiu — wood opened onto a covered balcony overlooking the temple’s Hall of Enactments. Here Prior Haringgashte was

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