VIII. And the Prophet Hikmat said, Did not the Lord give us Sunscreen?"
– The Second Book of the Lord, Annotated with Educational Footnotes for Your Enjoyment by Mas'ud the Thoughtful and Perhaps Too Thorough, C.D.
It was not raining. This was not unusual but it was unfortunate, because drought had been king for some time now and its subjects were getting restless and considering a rebellion. And of course the number one thing anyone who has ever taken a history class knows about peasants' revolts is that they invariably end in a lot of dead peasants.
Amirah the Righteous and Occasionally Judgmental, C.D., gave her snake Tariq a light tickle on the head before hailing a taxi. Tariq was getting restless; something about the air, maybe. So dry it sucked all the patience out of you.
"Where to, Rev?" said the cab driver as she clambered in and fumbled Tariq into the snakerest. He slid in under protest.
"Ghufran & Ghadir, sinner," she said.
"The law firm?"
"Right," said the driver. "Huda, directions to Ghufran & Ghadir, Attorneys at Law, please."
"Go straight for 1.2 kilometers," intoned the navigation app with stiff cheer. Huda had always reminded Amirah of her aunt, whose mouth froze into a skeletal grin at family gatherings and stayed that way no matter what horrors befell her until the event was over. Her aunt's brand of forced cheerfulness could survive a nuclear bomb, and the radiation afterwards.
Tariq was still grumbling — how'd you like it if I put you in a humanrest huh — and Amirah stroked his head lightly to get him to quiet down. The driver couldn't hear him. Only preachers seemed to be able to. Tariq said it wasn't that other people couldn't hear, it was that they didn't listen.
"So," said the driver after a few minutes of silence that was not really uncomfortable but had not quite managed to achieve pleasant either, "do you need a lawyer or do the lawyers need you?"
"Turn left," said Huda.
"All lawyers need me, sinner," said Amirah. "But, funny thing, they never seem to ask."
The cab driver laughed. Lawyer jokes worked on everyone.
"But actually I am visiting one of their clients," she went on.
"Ah," said the cab driver, nodding knowingly. It was the sort of knowing nod people gave when they didn't know anything at all.
"Proceed down the Street of Kings for 2.3 kilometers," said Huda helpfully.
They descended into silence again, but the silence was more comfortable this time now that both of them had relieved their feelings of obligation to talk to one another. Tariq yawned. Amirah glanced at him suspiciously in case he tried to wiggle out of the snakerest again. He had problems with authority. Amirah suspected he had had a rough egghood.
On an impulse the cab driver turned on the radio. This turned out to be a mistake, because the radio was on Station 206.7 – the Greatest Hits of Your Parents' Childhoods. Right now Shihab and the Lightning Bolts were plucking out "What About Your Goats?", a jaunty yet nostalgic little tune about moving to the city and leaving your goats behind.
And the bright lights, oh the bright lights
They just make your day
But what about your goats, but what about your goats
You'll never see them again
Yeah, you'll never hear them bleat
And you'll never drink their milk
But you're in the city, the big ol' city
And there ain't no turning back now
"Ugh, not this song," muttered the cab driver, and turned the radio back off. Amirah had to agree, although the lyrics were probably quite metaphorical if you thought about it.
Soon they came to the entrance of Ghufran & Ghadir, and Huda's bright monotone informed them they had Arrived at their Destination.
"How much, sinner?" said Amirah, lifting Tariq out of the snakerest. He wrapped himself around her arm like a child clutching a teddy bear in a storm.
"Ten thirty eight," said the driver. Amirah punched the number 11 into her currency card and slid it through the payslot in the door.
"Most generous, Rev," said the driver.
Amirah's expression did not change. "As the Lord commands, sinner. Good day to you."
She climbed out, blinking in the sunlight. Tariq looked around with mild interest, then apparently decided nothing nearby was worth said interest and promptly went to sleep.
The main doors of Ghufran & Ghadir, Attorneys at Law, slid open with what should have been a whoosh, but the sluggishness of the day had gotten to them too and instead it was just a soft, tired shhh. Amirah stepped in, suppressing a shiver at the too-conditioned air. The lobby gleamed white like a manufactured snowstorm, the glint of the walls brighter than the dusty light outside.
She took the stairs up to the third floor. The path of the righteous had never been walked on an escalator, and anyway she didn't trust anything that could suck you right into the floor.
Her feet hit the top stair. Tariq adjusted his position lazily. Amirah blinked.
And the world shifted.
It was not a flash of blinding light, nor a roar of sound, nor a gust of wind. It was simply a change, from one millisecond to the next, and a feeling of vague disorientation.
Amirah looked around. So did Tariq, with renewed interest. This wasn't the third floor of Ghufran & Ghadir anymore, unless the building had undergone serious renovations very quickly. The building looked – not old, not exactly, it still looked new, but it didn't look quite modern. Like a museum come to life. But it was still the same basic shape as Ghufran & Ghadir. Just – not filled in the same way.
She took an experimental step down onto the first stair. Nothing happened.
She went the rest of the way down. Still nothing. But she noticed that there was no escalator anymore.
Tariq's eyes were wide open now. That was another difference. In the Ghufran & Ghadir lobby he would've had to shutter them. This building wasn't nearly as bright. There were paintings on the walls, too, mostly of trees. They were green, which was suspicious. There hadn't been any green around the city for some time now.
Amirah pushed open one of the doors. They were heavy and wooden, not the sleek glass automatic guillotines that Ghufran & Ghadir normally employed. The light outside was brighter, too, and if her eyes were honest then the sky was actually blue. Well, blue-ish, but it was still impressive.
There were people around. That was good, or so she hoped. They looked different, though, like the rest of the world. Still the same shape, still definitely people, but in a different sort of clothing, and walking in a slightly different way.
Across the street was a bar. That was – new. If new were the right word. She went in, if only because she had nothing much better to do.
The bartender nodded at her in greeting. "What can I get for you?"
"Nothing, sinner," said Amirah. "Just information."
The bartender blinked. "Sinner? Did you just call me a sinner?"
Amirah stared. What in the Lord's name was wrong? Couldn't she show an honest worker a little respect? But she glanced down at Tariq, and he shook his head meaningfully. Now was not the time to be indignant, no matter how justified it was.
"My apologies," she said. "I am occasionally judgmental." Well, according to the Deacon, anyway, she thought. According to me too, grumbled Tariq, who could not actually read her thoughts but was rather good at predicting them.
The bartender gave her a wary once-over and peered closely at Tariq. "Is that a snake?"
What do you think, buddy? said Tariq.
Amirah took a deep breath. This was not going well. Why was she being scrutinized like this? All preachers carried snakes. It was normal.
"Yes," she said, stopping the word 'sinner' as it tried to escape her mouth. "His name is Tariq."
The bartender stared at her. "No snakes in the bar."
Amirah paused. "What?"
What? Tariq said.
"No snakes in the bar."
That's anti-snake rhetoric! Hit this bigot!
"No." That was directed at both of them. Amirah held the bartender's gaze. Out of the corner of her eye she saw others in the bar glancing over at her, but she did not turn. The Deacon had taught her that part of being a preacher was knowing when to turn and when to face straight ahead. The trick, he had said, was that you should always face straight ahead. Make them turn towards you, he'd said. And then you can turn. You can turn the world.
Doesn't the world already turn on its own? Amirah had asked.
Okay, yes, this is a metaphor, he had said.
"No," she said again. "This is my snake. I will carry him if I wish. And you will tell me what is going on here, please."
"What do you mean, what's going on?" snapped the bartender. "You walked in here with a snake, that's what's going on."
"What is this place? The city, I mean."
The bartender stared at her. "You don't know?" She didn't answer. Preacher's prerogative, the Deacon had always said. You can extract more confessions with silence than with an angry sermon.
The bartender gave up. "It's Hala City."
So this was Hala City. Just – different. A tiny little flame of suspicion that had sparked on the flint of evidence some time ago was now growing in her mind into a worrying fire. "What year is it?" she asked.
The bartender blinked. "What year – it's 135 years since the Ascension of the Ox. What year do you think it is?"
1553, she thought. 1553 years since the death of the Prophet Hikmat. But no one could've used that calendar before the Prophet Hikmat died...
What's an ox? whined Tariq.
"The Ascension of the Ox," said Amirah. The bartender nodded. "Which is a cow-like mammal. Yes. And it is called an ox." She glared pointedly at Tariq, then gave the bartender a vague smile. "Excuse me. The Ascension of the Ox – would this be the Golden Ox, symbol of the agricultural god Harith?"
"Yes," said the bartender slowly.
The what? Who's Harith? I've never heard of any Harith.
"Ah," said Amirah, hearing her voice falter a little. "Good."
Who's Harith? demanded Tariq.
"Thank you," she told the bartender. Then she turned away. "Harith is a pagan god," she hissed to Tariq. "The Ascension of his Golden Ox was a political regime shift disguised as a holy apotheosis that happened 135 years before the death of the Prophet Hikmat."
"So," she said, "we're 1553 years in the past."
Oh, said Tariq.