Azula Ria is a quiet land shrouded in perpetual fog. Here and there a beam of sunlight might penetrate the heavy sod-footed clouds for a few telling moments and illuminate the end of a quest for a seeker, make golden the air about the heads of two young people at the moment of wedding or, most often, make the fog grow bright for reasons that remain mysterious. But by and large, river boats scull silently out of shadowy mist, plash quietly across the slow but powerful waters, and disappear once again into swirling gray murk.
Azula Ria is a world of rivers, and the foremost of these rivers is the Azula Ria. It is also a world of marshes, many boggy tussock-like islands, a few low rocky islands, and heavy vegetation.
A shape in the grayness gathers darkness, turns black, and a figure emerges; a being, humanoid, seated in a barc — a canoe of porque rib and ironleaf. The boatman’s name is Pilankee.
Pilankee sculls languidly. He sees four river cows rise together just to port, turn their heads slowly to watch his progress, then sink in slow simultaneity. Pilankee nods a greeting, more in mind than in muscle, and continues his musing rhythm with the scull.
Gafnor, his childhood friend, has sent him a formal Come-Hither to meet with the Council. Pilankee wondered why Gafnor should ask to see him so soon, for less than 10 days ago Gafnor, the acting Prow of the Council, had come to Baysho, Pilankee’s home village, and had performed a rite -- a Ford, the voluntary rite-of-passage, for Yalto -- then had dedicated two days to enjoying Pilankee’s company.
It will be good to see him, Pilankee smiled to himself, and good to see the Council. But so soon? Is this a thing of bad water?
During his visit Gafnor had cautioned Pilankee about the growing influence of Leleek. Leleek, Gafnor and Pilankee agreed, was a young and ambitious schemer, a very poor choice for the Council, but all who win recognition as a Source are granted position on the Council, and Leleek did show many signs of being Chosen by the River. Gafnor had shaken his noble head in doubt, saying that he had never seen any of these signs, but another young man, known to be honest, had reported seeing Leleek speaking with a Blue, one of the people from the river, and three young women, also honest, had told Gafnor of seeing an ouwa, a sleek water mammal, standing in the shallows, upright, like a man, conversing with Leleek. The ouwa are very shy river beasts, big as a man, with a short but powerful, vertically broad tail and ears that could unfold to be humorously large, or fold and retract to leave the long, intelligent and graceful head smooth. That one of these would converse with an Azulan was an honor indeed and implied knowledge and power.
Doubts about Leleek will resolve in time. Perhaps.
Much more pleasant to remember is sitting with Gafnor; two days of laughing and talking once again about the exploits of their youth, which youth had often sorely rankled those Azulans who were of a stuffy, officious nature: peacekeepers, parents of young women, parents of easily influenced sons, owners of poorly guarded edible fowl, owners of setlines who did not check their catch promptly, exhausted ‘feasters’ who had left their wineskins or otherweed at their feet when they fell asleep on the riverbank, and, well … others.
Eight days ago, as the aging Pilankee and Gafnor entertained themselves and an ever-changing circle of adoring children or admiring adolescents — and now, far fewer peers — Pilankee’s first wife, Walkon, would often join them in the circle, harpooning with hilarious accuracy any deviation from objective truth — as she knew it — and sharing trenchant comments in familiar intimacy with the two younger wives, both in their mid-fifties, which exposed the foibles of their husband and his heartfriend.
Gafnor had finished up a tale, “Ha! Two days shivering, Pilankee sat on that sandbar. ‘Huh,’ he thought, ‘that porque will be waiting.’ Our hero.”
The porque, everyone knew, is no easily dismissed adversary. The porque can grow to four times the size of a man. This fish has a huge mouth that it opens suddenly, creating a voluminous cavern that fills with water so fast it sucks prey in easily. Teeth, very sharp and very hard. When the giant mouth is closed water filters mightily out between those teeth or through the gills and the unfortunate captive is fishfood. The porque is not satisfied merely with food it finds in the river, but can cross a canoe-length or two of beach in a flash, grab a morsel, and return to the water.
“Yes, I remember. The porque did wait. It chased him,” one of the younger wives recalled the story as she had heard it.
“Like that he tells it. From Three-Rivers-Meet to Baysho he rowed that little boat, as fast as a porque swims.”
“That lazy man? Not that fast does he row.”
“I truth. Younger, he had more juice. An angry porque at the sternpiece makes rowing easy.”
Walkon had spoken with a certain good-natured authority with other later-middle-aged women who might pass in and out of the circle taking care of business. These women also mocked Pilankee and Gafnor, playfully seeking to deflate their story-telling.
The younger women did not tease the men, but wondered if their husbands or lovers might some day be so loved and honored as these.
Gafnor had fallen asleep, and Pilankee had closed his eyes and feigned sleep as well. The circle had broken up as young people ran off to busy themselves.
When Gafnor woke, slightly stirring, Pilankee spoke low without lifting his head, “I have given my blessing and outfitted an expedition to go downriver.”
Gafnor gave no clue he was awake, and breathed, “My friend has grown foolish with age. The Council desires to wait.”
“Yes. They will wait until all have died of old age. The young man, Sirrap, he has been told by the Blue ones that soon he must go down the river. He has chosen good men. If he does not have permission he will go despite the Council. Because I am so wise …”
“Huh. Your wife is right about you.”
“… I have kept these hot young men within the community of law.”
“Barely. Perhaps you have done the right thing. The Council will think not. They will say we should wait until next the rivers run clean.”
“That is too long. It is a young man’s journey. Young men do not wait well.”
“Leleek argues that an expedition could be blessed at the midsummer celebration.”
“Leleek. Huh. Some other thought urges that greedy man. Our thought should not follow his.”
Pilankee knew that Leleek, if he discovered Pilankee’s act, would complain loudly at the next council and perhaps win followers — Pilankee could hardly imagine how — while the older men, including Gafnor, although he had served the River well for a life-time, might lose influence.
Returning to the present from his memories, Pilankee realized that Leleek had come to mind once again. He nodded to himself, Leleek is cloaked in the bad mist.
Slumping a bit, Pilankee closed his eyes, relaxed his breathing, and rested. He listened. The lap against the bow, the quiet gurgle of the scull, in these he heard no sound of foreboding. Out of sight to starboard he heard a sound, walla, as a mostly sunken snag, stood up in a momentary lapse in the current, then a sheesh as the current reclaimed it and it sink again. To aft he heard the prolonged belch of a porque. Into his mind came the smell and look of these large, flat amphibian-like fish of many teeth, whiskers and barbed spines, tiny whitewall eyes, pudgy arms and webbed fingers. To port he heard the answering belch, slightly higher in pitch — a young female; either offspring or new mate of the big one, somewhere slightly aft. He heard the ping ping ping of the fish-that-no-one-catches: the ting.
Then, almost as if he had been listening deliberately for this, he heard several swimmers break surface. People. Swimming toward his little canoe.
Pilankee pushed back his greenish-white hair. He blinked up his lids, now nearly transparent, to reveal black eyes ringed with thin, milky circles of white — all signs of his years. He scanned the black water and shadowy silver mist. He quietly unwrapped thin hard leather from around a porque barb and slipped the barb into the flinger. He loosed his knife at the top of his boot and began to hyperventilate as silently as possible in case he would have to leave his boat.
Yes, Azula Ria has its dangers; Azula Ria has its trouble-makers. The man grows old who is prepared for a sudden strike.
One swimmer drew nigh; small, light and quick. It might have been an adolescent. No. The swimmer was much too efficient.
He saw her as she caught up: one of the Blue.
Pilankee knew the Blue well. Direct agents of the River. Spirit-people.
Her eyes were large, larger even than his, and had a nictitating membrane. She smiled and he saw her small sharp teeth. Her skin was chalky blue, like the Milk River to the south; it looked thick, smooth, and hinted at a thin layer of fatty tissue underneath. Otherwise she looked lean and in excellent tone.
He didn’t know for certain that she was female until she sat facing him on the low seat. She waited, nude, wearing only a small bag on a strap around her neck. The female Blue’s breasts were only slightly larger than the male’s, and the circle of muscle around her yoni was mildly peach colored against her blue skin. Her feet and hands were quite large, webbed up to the second joint.
Once she was seated, she made no move to communicate. In the stillness Pilankee tried unobtrusively to disarm the flinger, but she watched his every move keenly. He rewrapped the porque barb.
He didn’t strap his knife — there had been several swimmers at first. He didn’t consciously decide about the knife — the Blues were much revered and little known; they were telepathic to some degree.
She moved then, using her hands to strip the water out of her short, curiously thick hair without taking her eyes from his.
Pilankee grew up knowing of the Blues. He had seen these river dwellers a number of times in his life, and he remembered every occasion. The first time was as an adolescent. In hiding he had watched four of them. Two were doing something to the bark of a magnoleem tree. A third had climbed the tree and, out on a limb, had collected a little net full of the large lavender flowers. He was sure there was another of the blue ones under water at the roots of the tree; there had been the indicative swell.
Dreamlike, his second memory: at his Ford -- his initiation into manhood. The Elders had fed him icol, a hallucinogenic plant, until his world had become transparent, then tied him to a upright post in a backwater, where he waited with only his head out of the water. The Blues came, he knew that, and had carved, as near as he remembered, the symbol of the River just below his sternum, and had spoken some instructions which he repeated again and again in his delirium. To this day he could not accurately remember those instructions.
The third time was at the Ford of Itzie, which Pilankee had conducted. Pilankee had stood watch at the opening in the river bar to be certain that no large predator entered the little bay while the young man was icol and temporarily helpless. Pilankee had been hidden in the river brush when a very fat bodad had blundered through eating the jointed grass. She had stopped three feet from his position, smiled at him — if that’s possible — and gently bunted him through the light brush into the river. When he climbed out a short distance downstream, he had inadvertently looked directly upon the Ford and had seen two blue ones holding Itzie’s head and chest out of the water. Two other Blues had opened the young man’s chest and were placing something inside. Pilankee had been piously embarrassed for his inadvertent breech of taboo, but abashed by what he saw: the Blue were performing an operation.
Although he deeply respected the Blue, he had learned from that experience to watch them closely indeed. They had asked action of him during his life, and he had done as they suggested and he had found that the actions were wise. But the Blue did not tell all.
Now one sat before him on the wortwood.
Looking deeply into her eyes, he began to empathize. She was feeling cultured sorrow, as one might feel watching a ritualized euthanasia.
She made the universal gesture for death; the hand held flat, palm down, then slipping side to side as it is lowered: a body formally sinking.
So, thought Pilankee, my time is come. My time is come. At first he felt resignation, It has been a good life. A long life.
But a small voice inside him thought further, Might be a refreshing slap of ice water for Azula Ria if I fought like a porque; struggle beyond their wise expectation. I might not go. I must be taken. Maybe, his calf muscle tightened momentarily against the hidden knife nearly free at the top of his waterboot, I will take some of these river people with me, for the Law says a man can defend his own life and the lives of those he loves. He drew a deep breath and regarded the girl in front of him.
She had no fear.
“We know you, Pil-an-kee,” she said with a whisper like the river.
His thoughts froze. He heeded the voice of these blue ones. Soft. Quiet. Compelling. Their voices are described thusly in the Eventales. From her lips his name sounded like the name of a hero, a mysterious one who could hear the great River and do what must be done for the People.
She knows my mind. He lowered his eyes. Then his head.
Momentarily he looked up again. She sat serene, with a just perceptible lift at the corners of her mouth.
“Leleek,” she said. Again the gesture of formally sinking.
His jaws unclenched. He understood.
She opened the bag at her neck of which he had thought little until this moment. She emptied a tiny bivalve into her palm. She gingerly pried it open with her thumbnail and carefully picked out a silver scale. Her extreme caution inspired the same in him as she handed it over.
His eyes had grown stiff with the years, so he had to hold it half an arm’s length away and squint to study it. Apparently a fish scale, with a waterproof contact cement of chewed scale underneath. On the top edge forward, a tiny splinter … he squinted … the sting of a sib. Absolutely poisonous.
He looked at the Blue incredulously, thinking his distressed question, Leleek. You want me, Pilankee, to kill Leleek? Very delicately and slowly she took the scale from him. She placed it on his little fingernail and carefully, and with surprising strength, pressed the rear of the scale. The glue spread forward as she rolled her thumb up to the bottom of the sting.
She sat back.
Then she took Pilankee’s hand, avoiding the sting, and emptied seven more tiny clams into his cupped hand. Then she took the largest and opened it.
This scale was the same as the one he wore, except for the small bladder behind the sting. He studied it.
The girl gestured, watch. She mimed gluing the scale to her forefinger. Then she mimed scratching her cheek. Playfully she rolled her eyes back, let her mouth go slack, and made the gesture for formally sinking.
Humor stretched Pilankee’s face into a smile and he laughed aloud. He had not heard of humor among the Blue.
She sparkled but did not laugh.
She pointed to the outside corner of her eye, watch, indicated the scale with the bladder, mimed gluing that particular scale to her forefinger, and then pointed the finger at his chest with all the intensity of a trident in the hands of a hunter. She then pinched hard upon the moon of the fingernail covered with the make-believe scale.
“Tooo!” She made an explosive sound with her mouth and before the old man could jump, she was down the length of the little boat and pierced his shirt with her forenail.
Has she poisoned me? He sat still. One. Two seconds. He’d know it by now. He was unharmed.
He opened his shirt and saw a little blood swelling.
He looked again to her. She was sitting calmly on the wortwood. She signed, the length of the boat times two. So-so three...
She helped Pilankee remove the glued scale from his fingernail and to rebag all of them. She put the strap over Pilankee’s neck. Then she held her hand out flat like a cleaver and gestured scull as a command.
Pilankee began to scull. The girl — perhaps she was a woman, it was difficult to say — sat quietly, enjoying the ride. Pilankee came abreast of the sunken tree, forever standing against the current and falling back. In a short time he had regained his farthest point against the slow current.
She arose and moved with exquisite balance to him. She knelt between his legs and reached up and took his hoary head between her hands. She looked him in the eye a moment and then kissed him.
He was surprised she was warm.
She slipped over the gunwale without rocking the small craft.
Her hand caught his left on the gunwale. She looked up at him surprised him by spoking aloud, “Soon you shall join the Elders. Soon you shall go down the River. Die well.”
She released him, drifted, sank.
Pilankee sat a moment. So. I shall die this time, doing the will of these Blue ones. He drew a deep breath and resumed sculling and reconsidered the communication. An unusually direct message.
Assassination. In the temple. Weapons are very bad in the temple. His eyelids closed halfway, the sign of distaste.
Soon he would know.
Later, floating towards him just under the surface of the blue water he saw the first of many large lavender flowers. He knew this was a day to die. They were the flowers of the magnoleem: the Tree of the Source.
An hour later he found the wondrous magnoleem, not standing regally half in and over the water, but lying in it, it’s glorious lavender flowers crushed by the press of the current. Leaves, petals, flowers still coming loose. He knew this particular tree.
A very bad sign. This is the spirit-tree of Gafnor, his sign and totem. Something has happened to him.
Instead of sculling the short distance to the landing, he brought his craft to land comfortably above the fallen magnoleem and walked back to investigate.
Something is amiss. This tree stood in its vigor, strong and well-rooted. The water calm. Is this murder?
Near the base of the tree he found nothing unusual except, perhaps, the soil itself. Waterfilled soil is soft, but this soil squished like saturated sphagnum. For a considerable time he found no clue, then, out in the water, struggling between the mighty branches and the relentless current, his toes, protruding from his waterboots, felt holes - drill holes. Many of them.
Climbing out of the river he searched two longoar lengths back from the pit the falling tree had torn from the earth. Ah yes, many more such holes.
Tree murder. He knew the tree had deliberately been sabotaged in order to weaken its agent, Gafnor. Someone unwise in the spirit would not know the death of this great tree would not weaken Gafnor unless he himself killed it.
He lifted his head as though looking into the mists. And my childhood friend, Gafnor? Does he still live?
And with this painful insight came relief — he was to be an agent of justice, not of assassination.
He kicked off his clothes, except for loincloth, waterboots, belt and pouch. Hunting garb.
He tied his things together in the shirt and laid it on a nearby overgrown trail with which he was familiar. Then he sat on a large root of the magnoleem and glued the rest of the loaded fish scales to certain of his fingernails.
Pilankee sat a moment and regarded his feet. Waterboots are open at the end, exposing some of the toes. This is done so the water will empty quickly and the toes can be used to manipulate tools and find extra purchase in the water. He glued a sting to each of his great toes.
He stood. His skin had grown looser over the years. Once it had been taut over hard, flat muscle. Was he a little shaky from exhaustion? He had merely gone upriver a halfday.
A doubt nibbled. He was, after all, not so much a man as he had been.
Yet, he sipped a bit of clarity, I have been armed by River. I am the agent of River. I am the avenger of Magnoleem. I am a Protector of the People. It is right I do this.
With utter conviction he ascended the low island to the temple.